The Nature of the Atonement: Limited or General?

In this extended, and sometimes interrupted, series of articles we are confronting the question: is the atonement of Christ in its very nature limited, that is, for the elect alone; or is the atonement in its very nature general? This we have done in connection with the so-called Dekker Case, about which it is expected that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church will declare itself at its coming session in June. We have done this, too, in connection with the position taken by Dr. James Daane in the Reformed Journal. Daane maintains that it is altogether unreasonable and incorrect to conclude from the fact that only the elect are actually saved to the tenet that the atonement itself is limited, or particular. He maintains, on the contrary, that the atonement is in its very nature general, unlimited. 

I have repeatedly pointed out that Daane, who is very critical of the theological method of others and who particularly in connection with the Dekker Case has tried to emphasize that it is all a matter of method, is very shoddy in his own method. He furnishes no definition, and he makes virtually no attempt to prove his position from Scripture and the confessions. Instead, he follows essentially a rationalistic method of theologizing, which amounts to philosophizing. For my part, I simply cannot find myself in that brand of theologizing. This, incidentally, is one of my main objections to Dr. Daane’s recent articles (Reformed Journal, March, 1966) about election and grace as events. This subject seems to be somewhat of a hobbyhorse for Daane; and when he writes about these subjects, he has some very sharp jabs for the theology of others, and even for the Reformed confessions. But I wish that he would come across with a few clear and Scripturally oriented definitions of his own once, and tell people what he wants. It seems to me that, next to being exegetically and confessionally sound, a good theological method (I mean Reformedmethod) is characterized by the virtue of clarity and explicitness. But Daane’s writings, while being frequently very negatively critical, are, in my opinion, never characterized by the virtues I have just mentioned. 

For my part, I have purposed in these articles to discuss the nature of the atonement. We are considering the various elements of that nature of the atonement, and we are doing so in the light of the confessions and in the light of Scripture. The very first element which we considered was that of satisfaction. We found it to be, according to our confessions, of the very essence of the atonement; and we found this strong emphasis of our confessions to be founded on Scripture. We are at present still busy with the discussion of the second element, namely,substitution, or, the element of the vicariousness of Christ’s atonement. We have already consulted our confessions concerning this element, and at this point we must turn to Scripture to discover the harmony of the confessions with Scripture.


It must be kept in mind that the elements of satisfactionand of substitution in the atonement are in separable. Not only do they occur in conjunction with one another throughout Scripture; but the idea of substitution is always implied in the terms which Scripture employs to denote the atonement in its character of satisfaction of divine justice with respect to our sins. When satisfaction is not substitution, it assumes the character immediately of punishment, not of atonement. And in punishment, in the first place, the sinner does not make satisfaction, but God, the Judge,takes satisfaction: He satisfies His own justice upon the sinner. The voluntary element is missing. Besides, in the mere punishment of sin visited upon the sinner the process of the satisfaction of God’s justice is never finished: the punishment of sin is everlasting. There never comes a moment when it can be said of God’s justice with respect to the punished sinner: “It is enough.” However, in all the terms of Scripture which we mentioned in connection with the element of satisfaction the element of substitution, the element of the one instead of the other, was also present. Substantially, therefore, this element has already been proved from Scripture. (cf. the Standard Bearer, Feb. 15 and March 1, 1966)

There are, however, two terms in Scripture which explicitly point to the idea of substitution. These two terms are both rendered in English by the word “for,” which frequently, though not necessarily, conveys the notion of substitution. I refer to the New Testament terms anti, which very definitely means “instead of, in the place of,” and huper, which means generally “in behalf of, for the benefit of,” but very often with the implication of substitution. Both of these terms are used in connection with the atonement, and they are both rendered in the English by “for.” But almost any Greek lexicon will give the meanings which I have briefly mentioned above. 

And now let us turn to Scripture. 

The first passage to which I direct your attention isMatthew 20:28. There we read: “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The beauty of this passage is that in it both ideas, that of satisfaction and that of substitution, occur in such close connection. We have previously noted the very definite meaning of “ransom” in connection with the element of satisfaction. Now we may note that the word “for” in the phrase “for many” is the term which means “instead of, in the place of.” To be sure, even here the idea of “in behalf of, for the benefit of” is not missing. But the Son of Man gives His life a ransom for the benefit of and in behalf of many because He acts as their substitute, orvicar. This is the very definite meaning of this text. By voluntarily giving His life a ransom, the Lord Jesus makes perfect satisfaction of the justice of God with respect to sin in the place of “many.” At this particular point in the discussion we are not interested in who those “many” are; we will discuss that aspect later. I only want to emphasize the very definite concept here. Whoever the many are, there has been satisfaction of God’s justice made in their behalf, and that too, through the payment of the price demanded (ransom), and that too, through the substitution of the Son of Man. What could be more definite? What could be more objective? From the moment that this substitutionary ransom is paid there is, in the most objective sense of the word conceivable, nothing more to be paid. There is no more debt, no more guilt. And because there is no more guilt of the “many,” there can be no more condemnation and no more punishment. They are righteous. They are entitled to everlasting life. That everlasting life can never be denied them. They are surely saved. Mark you well, they were very really saved nineteen hundred years ago, when the Son of Man gave His life as a ransom for them. This is objective fact. Some of those “many” had died even many centuries before. Some of those “many” were living when the ransom was paid. Thousands of those “many” were yet to be born. But for all of them the ransom was paid; and it could never again be demanded or paid. 

From the above a very plain conclusion is to be drawn. It is this: 1) If the “many” of Matthew 20:28 is all men, head for head, that is, if Christ died, gave His life, for all men, then all are surely saved: not only possibly saved, but surely and actually saved. To deny this is to deny the validity of the atonement. 2) If the “many” are only some men,—whoever those may be,—then those “some,” and they only, are surely saved: again, not onlypossibly saved, but surely and actually saved. 

Hence, it is as clear as the sun in the heavens,—Dr. Daane to the contrary notwithstanding,—that it is perfectly valid to draw a further conclusion. It is this, that we may very properly reason from the fact that only the elect are actually saved to the truth that the atonement is in its very nature limited, particular. 

If these conclusions are not valid, then let the above exegesis be shown to be faulty. But I assure you that the latter cannot be done: it is the plain meaning of Scripture. In the light of a passage like Matthew 20:28, one must be either a full-blown universalist or a very stringent particularist. There is no half-way position exegetically possible. The strange thing is that there have been very few men in the history of the church who were willing to be full-blown universalists; and, at the same time, there have been relatively few who would hold consistently to a strict particularism. The First Point of 1924 was in a sense a compromise; and the Dekker-Daane views represent a further attempted compromise which has grown out of 1924, a compromise in the spirit of James Arminius.

This is nothing new, you understand. The battle for the Reformed faith has always been in this area of theology. But the fact that it is nothing new makes it neither less dangerous nor less sad! 

The same language of Matthew 20:28 we find in Mark 10:45

All the language of Scripture agrees with the above, also in those passages in which the word “for” is the rendering of the other Greek preposition, huper. To other passages, however, I will call your attention in my next installment.