The Nature of the Atonement: Limited or General?


(Note: In the last issue I began to discuss the second main element in the nature of the atonement, namely, that It is vicarious. At present the aim is to show that this element of substitution is the current teaching of our confessions.)

In Lord’s Day VI the Heidelberg Catechism continues to discuss the requirements of the mediator substitute. And while it does not directly concern itself with the truth of substitution, yet it should be noted that also here the Catechism proceeds on the assumption that the necessity of such a substitute has been established (Lord’s Day V). Hence, in Question and Answer 16, in treating the question why the mediator must be very man and also perfectly righteous, the Catechism lays down the principle that only man can substitute for man and speaks of the inability of one who is himself a sinner satisfying “for others.” The same idea is indirectly taught in the seventeenth answer in the expression “and might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life.”

There are many such references in the Heidelberg Catechism in a similar vein, which either directly teach or presuppose the doctrine of substitution as established in Lord’s Day V. True faith, according to Question and Answer 21, has as one of its elements an assured confidence “that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given of God, merely of grace,only for the sake of Christ’s merits” Lord’s Day XII speaks of Christ as “our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body, has redeemed us. . . .” In speaking of the profit of Christ’s holy conception and nativity, the Catechism emphasizes that as our Mediator, He “with His innocence and perfect holiness, covers in the sight of God, my sins. . .”(Ques. and Ans. 36) In explaining the confession “He suffered” the Catechism instructs us that Christ “sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind;” and in this same connection speaks of “the only propitiatory sacrifice” whereby He redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation and obtained for us the favor of God, righteousness and eternal life. (Lord’s Day XV) Again, in Question and Answer 39, in discussing the meaning of the crucifixion, the Catechism instructs us “that he took on him the curse which lay upon me; for the death of the cross was accursed of God.” Question and Answer 40 speaks not only of satisfaction, but of satisfaction “for our sins,” through the death of the Son of God. Question and Answer 42 also proceeds from this truth of substitution: “Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?” And, in answer, it is very plain that this death of Christ was so fully substitutionary that “Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins. . . .” This could never be, except on the basis that Christ satisfied in our stead, vicariously. The hope of Christ’s return to judge the quick and the dead is of this comfort: “That. . . . .I look for the very same person,who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven. . . . .” (Question and Answer 52) The faith of the forgiveness of sins is “That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins. . . . .but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ. . . . .” (Question and Answer 56) 

In the chapter on justification by faith (Lord’s Day XXIII) the truth of substitution and of complete satisfaction through substitution is very plainly spelled out in the following language: “. . . . .God, without any merit of mine’ but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me. . . .” Christ, therefore, is so completely our substitute that it is just as if we had ourselves accomplished what He accomplished in our stead. This is the plain teaching of Question and Answer 60. This same truth of substitution is at the basis of the following expression in Question and Answer 61: “. . . .but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God. . . .” And, mark well, this does not become true by faith, but it is received and applied “to myself” by faith. This must always be remembered. Christ is in the objectivesense of the word the substitute, before God, for those for whom He died. This fact as such has nothing to do with our faith. Subjectively, of course, it is received and applied by faith; but the very possibility of this personal appropriation and application lies in the objective fact of Christ’s being our substitute. He is not our substitute because we acknowledge Him and accept Him as such, but we can and do acknowledge Him and receive His benefits by faith only because He was our substitute nineteen hundred years ago at the cross. 

As might, be expected, this truth finds repeated expression in the Catechism’s exposition of the sacraments. 

In discussing the meaning and significance of the sacraments in general, the Catechism already maintains the truth of the vicarious character of Christ’s atonement twice. In Question and Answer 66 this truth is taught indirectly when we are instructed that through the sacraments God more fully declares and seals to us the promise of the gospel, namely, “that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.” But this truth is directly taught in Question and Answer 67, which reads as follows:

Q. 67. Are both word and sacraments, then ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation? 

A. Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.

Let me remind you again that this “for us” can never be understood in any other way than in the sense of objective substitution. It indeed means “for our benefit,” but it can mean this only because it means “in our stead” or “as our substitute.” This must be maintained in the light of Lord’s Day V, where we are first taught that we must make satisfaction either by ourselves or by another, and then taught that we cannot make satisfaction by ourselves and therefore need another, the Mediator-substitute. 

In harmony with the above, the Catechism in its explanation of the sacrament of baptism speaks of “the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which he shed for us by his sacrifice upon the cross.” (Question and Answer 70) Likewise, in the Catechism’s discussion of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we find similar expressions which point to this truth of substitution. One of the promises connected with the Lord’s Supper is: “that his body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and his blood shed for me . . . . . .” (Ques. and A. 75) And in the seventy-ninth answer we find this expression: “and that all his sufferings and obedience are as certainly ours, as if we had in our own persons suffered and made satisfaction for our sins to God.” 

Finally, we may point to the fact that, according to the Catechism, this truth of substitution lies at the basis of the prayer for forgiveness in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (cf. Question and Answer 126): “. . . .be pleased for the sake of Christ’s blood, not to impute to us poor sinners, our transgressions, nor that depravity, which always cleaves to us.” This is plainly an appeal to the vicarious atonement of Christ, therefore. 

When we turn to the Belgic Confession, we find the same truth expressed. This is true of Article XX, which speaks of the fact that God “sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death,” and then speaks of the fact that God manifested His justice against His Son, “when he laid our iniquities upon him.” And Article XXI, which speaks of Christ’s satisfaction as our only High Priest is full of references to the fact that this satisfaction was made by way of substitution:

We believe that Jesus Christ is ordained with an oath to be an everlasting High Priest, after the order of Melchisedec; and that he hath presented himself in our behalf before the Father, to appease his wrath by his full satisfaction, by offering himself on the tree of the cross, and pouring out his precious blood to purge away our sins; as the prophets had foretold. For it is written: He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and numbered with the transgressors. . . .and suffered, the just for the unjust, as well in his body as in his soul, feeling the terrible punishment which our sins had merited; insomuch that his sweat became like unto drops of blood falling on the ground. He called out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me:? and hath suffered all this for the remission of our sins. . . . . .

The Canons of Dordrecht very explicitly teach this vicarious nature of the atonement in Article 2:

Since therefore we are unable to make that satisfaction in our own persons, or to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God, he hath been pleased in his infinite mercy to give his only begotten Son, for our surety, who was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our stead, that he might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf.

One could not very well be more explicit than this. Notice that the Canons are not satisfied with the phrase “for us” and the phrase “on our behalf.” They emphasize that “for us” means “in our stead” and that “on our behalf” can only be possible on the basis of this “in our stead.” This explicitness of the Canons was necessitated by the deviousness of the Arminians. They had to be “pinned down,” so to speak, to a doctrine of the atonement which included very plainly the elements of satisfaction and substitution, so that it might become plain that they really denied the Scriptural doctrine of atonement and so that it might be clear that they had no place in the Reformed communion. Here, therefore, we have one of the most precise expressions of the element of substitution to be found in our Reformed confessions. 

Finally, I must call your attention to the repeated expressions in the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper which point to this same element of the vicariousness of the atonement. Already in the first part of self-examination the Form speaks as follows: “considering that the wrath of God against sin is so great, that (rather than it should go unpunished) he hath punished the same in his beloved Son Jesus Christ, with the bitter and shameful death of the cross.” Do not forget that this clearly implies substitution: for the clear implication here is that God, so to speak, had the choice, instead of punishing sin in us, either to let it go unpunished or to punish it in His beloved Son. The former (letting it go unpunished) was impossible for His justice sake; the latter (punishing it in His Son) means that Jesus Christ took our place under the wrath of God. 

This same truth is implied in the second part of true self-examination, which speaks of the believer’s faith “that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and that the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed and freely given him as his own, yea, so perfectly, as if he had satisfied in his own person for all his sins, and fulfilled all righteousness.” We must certainly not imagine that this is just an empty expression used to emphasize very strongly the perfectness of the imputation of righteousness. Then it could only constitute preposterous injustice. This imputation that is so perfect that it is as if I had satisfied in my own person for all my sins takes place in full harmony with the strict justice of God, which means that Christ took my placeunder the wrath of God. 

Thirdly, this element of vicariousness is directly taught in the first paragraph concerning the meaning of the Lord’s Supper:

First. That we are confidently persuaded in our hearts, that our Lord Jesus Christ (according to the promises made to our forefathers in the Old Testament) was sent of the Father into the world; that he assumed our flesh and blood; that he bore for us the wrath of God (under which we should have perished everlastingly) from the beginning of his incarnation, to the end of his life upon earth; that he hath fulfilled, for us, all obedience to the divine law, and righteousness; especially, when the weight of our sins and the wrath of God pressed out of him the bloody sweat in the garden, where he was bound that we might be freed from our sins; that he afterwards suffered innumerable reproaches, that we might never be confounded; that he was innocently condemned to death, that we might be acquitted at the judgment seat of God; yea, that he suffered his blessed body to be nailed on the cross—that he might fix thereon the handwriting of our sins; and hath also taken upon himself the curse due to us. . . . . . . . . (italics mine, H.C.H.)

In all of the italicized expressions above the truth of substitution is clearly taught.

Hence, the conclusion, as far as our confessions are concerned, is this, that the truth of substitution, like that of satisfaction, is the current teaching of all our Reformed confessions. In fact, it is inseparable from the doctrine of satisfaction.