Book: The Five Points of Calvinism

Chapter 3 - Limited Atonement


Nowadays when you hear the expression "Limited Atonement" you immediately think of the debate and, to an extent, controversy that is going on in the Reformed community exactly about this subject. And if you expect that in this chapter I will have something to say about matters connected with what generally has come to be called the "Dekker Case," you are correct.

But I wish to make the following crystal clear in this connection.

In the first place, I have absolutely no interest in and no intention of engaging in personalities or in tearing down or railing against anyone's church, whatever the name of that church may be, or in gloating about anyone's ecclesiastical difficulties. I want no part of that. The matter of the church and the matter of the truth of our Reformed heritage are far too serious for that. Let this, therefore, be understood.

In the second place, the other side of the previous statement is that I am interested solely in the truth of the gospel and its advance; and I approach you, my readers, on that same basis. I expect that you are interested in the same thing. And let me add immediately that for me the truth of the gospel and the Reformed faith are synonymous.

In the third place the question is, therefore, solely this: what do our Reformed confessions say about this doctrine, and what does Scripture, on which our Reformed confessions are based, say about it? That is the only issue. The issue is not one of theological opinions. Nor is it a question of what is popular, --because certainly the Reformed truth is not very popular today. Nor is it a question of what is apparently useful or what may apparently be harmful in the preaching or on the mission field. Nor is it a question of what we would like to think. But the issue, first of all, for Reformed believers is this: what do our confessions, which we agree are binding and to which Reformed officebearers must subscribe, -- what do these confessions say? To this, if we are Reformed, we must agree. If we do not, then we should be honest enough to say, "I don't want to be Reformed." And ultimately, of course, the issue is one of Scripture. Before Scripture, whatever it says, you and I have no choice but to bow.

In the fourth place, I do not intend to develop this subject negatively: I do not like to be negative. I wish to develop, -- as much as possible in the course of this one chapter, -- the Reformed and Scriptural truth concerning the atonement positively, in order then to point out the negative implications with respect to various departures from that truth.

In the fifth place, I hope you will understand that I must needs limit myself to trying to sketch the main lines and the main implications of this very rich truth. Undoubtedly several chapters could easily be devoted to this one subject; and this would also be worthwhile. But that is not our purpose now; it is not our purpose to go into all the details of this subject. We are rather interested in the main lines of this so-called Third Point of Calvinism. These main lines I wish to sketch, taking for granted that you have followed the exposition already made by my colleague, Professor Hanko, in the two previous chapters, as well as in the expectation that you will follow the further implications of this doctrine of the atonement as they shall be expounded by Pastor Van Baren in the fourth and fifth chapters of this booklet,

Finally, - by way of introduction, - I had intended to devote one entire point of this lecture to the subject of the relative importance of this truth of Limited Atonement in the whole of the Five Points of Calvinism and in the whole of the truth of salvation by grace. This, however, would unduly lengthen this chapter. But I want to point out by way of introduction, first of all, that it is in this truth of limited atonement that the doctrine of sovereign election (and, in fact, sovereign predestination with its two aspects of election and reprobation) comes into focus. The cross is the objective realization and revelation of God's predestinating purpose. That revelation of God's sovereign predestination in the cross is painted upon the background of the reality of man's total depravity, of man's totally, hopelessly lost estate by nature. On the other hand, there is in the cross the focal point of the whole of the truth of salvation by grace as far as the irresistible calling and the preservation and the glorification of the saints are concerned, - from this point of view, that it is in the cross and the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ, that centrally and objectively all of the salvation of God's people, as it is actually realized in their hearts and lives, is concentrated. It is in the atonement that we have the guarantee, the absolutely certain guarantee, of the calling and of the preservation and of the final glorification of God's people. Salvation by sovereign grace is a closed system, - closed to any work and any boasting of man. It is from beginning to end the work of God alone. It is the realization of that which is set forth in Romans 8:29, 30 in the well-known words: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." What according to God's counsel was fixed and finished from all eternity, from before the foundation of the world, is realized and revealed in time.

After these introductory remarks, we turn to our subject proper: LIMITED ATONEMENT. I ask your attention for three aspects of this subject: 1) The Atonement; 2) The Limited Nature of the Atonement; 3) The Importance of Maintaining this Doctrine.



Let me say from the outset that I intend to follow the order and the instruction of the Second Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dordrecht. It will be helpful to consult those articles.

In the first place, let me clarify the exact subject.

First of all, we should note that our subject concerns the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. This probably sounds like a truism. But it has this two-fold importance. In the first place, this means that in all that we say about the atonement we are dealing with an historic fact, something that is objectively real. We are not discussing something that remains to be accomplished or that remains to be completed, but something that has been accomplished nineteen hundred years ago. Whatever belongs to that atonement is finished! It belongs to the past! It is an accomplished fact! We must distinguish here between the work of Christ for us, as it was accomplished in the cross, and the work of Christ in us, as it is concerned with the realization, in the hearts and lives of God's people, of what was objectively finished at the cross. This realization and application of the benefits of salvation in the experience of God's people does not belong to our subject in this chapter. In the second place, this point is important because the question is not merely whether Christ suffered and died. But the question is: what is the meaning, the significance, of that death of Christ? That Christ died is a fact; and all Christendom recognizes that fact of Christ's death, regardless of what they say about the meaning of it. But there have been various answers given, in the course of church history, to the question what was accomplished by that suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some say that it was merely an example. Others say, - this is the governmental theory, that it was a demonstration of God's just government of the universe, designed to bring men to repentance and thus to save them. We say, on the basis of Scripture: the death of Christ was atonement,that is, payment for sin and purchase of righteousness and eternal life. Still more: we say that it was vicarious atonement. It was substitution. Christ atoned not for Himself, but as a substitute for others (whoever those others may be). Christ was a substitute for others. Still more: the Reformed faith maintains, on the basis of Scripture, that the death of Christ was limited vicarious atonement. That is, Christ atoned as a substitute not for all and every man, but for His elect people alone.

In the second place, let me clarify the terms.

Neither of these terms, limited or atonement, is found in our confessions. Nor will you find these terms in Scripture. The term atonement occurs sometimes in our King James Version where it could better be translated either by "reconciliation" or by "propitiation, covering." The terms limited and atonement are simply dogmatic terms which have grown up in the church's vocabulary and which are used to describe briefly a thoroughly Scriptural and confessional concept. The term atonement covers such confessional terms as redemption, redeem, purchase, satisfy, propitiatory sacrifice, etc. And it covers such Scriptural terms as reconciliation, propitiation, ransom, purchase, etc. It simply looks at all these various Scriptural and confessional terms from a very basic point of view, a point of view which as far as the term is concerned is closely related to the idea of reconciliation. Atonement is really in its root idea at-one-ment. It refers to the fact that through the death of Christ God wrought reconciliation.

Also the term limited is used dogmatically to describe briefly a thoroughly Scriptural and confessional truth. The term has been criticized because the term seems to imply a defect, a shortage, a limitation in the death of Christ. Substitutes have been suggested which perhaps are better: substitutes like definite or particular. From a practical point of view this does not mean much. For our purposes the term is very clear. It means, - and it means this to everyone who hears the term, - it means this, that Christ died and atoned for the elect, and for them only.

In the third place, let me clarify the subject historically.

The doctrine of limited atonement is the Reformed doctrine concerning the death of Christ and the redemption of men thereby (as Canons II puts it in its title) as it was officially set forth over against the Arminian heresy of general, or universal, atonement. The Arminians' second article, the Second Article of the Remonstrance, teaches this:

That, agreeably thereto (that is, in harmony with the Arminian doctrine of election set forth in their first article, HCH), Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." And in the First Epistle of John, 2:2: "And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."

Hence, the Arminians teach: 1) That the atonement of Christ is for every individual man, so that Christ obtained reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all men. 2) Yet this atonement is effectual only in the believers. Though Christ obtained reconciliation and forgiveness for all, not all enjoy this reconciliation and forgiveness, but only the believers. The Arminians, therefore, teach a general atonement of which the benefit and the effect is dependent upon faith. They teach a universal atonement, but not a universal salvation. And they really deny the whole idea of the atonement, as we shall see. It is also very significant to notice the texts which they quote. By their quotation of these texts they give expression to the common Arminian error of making the Scriptural term "world" equivalent to every individual man.

Over against this Arminian doctrine stands the Reformed doctrine in Canons II.

If you remember this, it really makes the whole issue of the atonement as it is currently being debated a very simple one. It is simply literally Arminian to teach that Christ died for all men. That is the literal teaching of the Arminians. And that is the literal teaching that is explicitly opposed by the positive truth in Canons II, the first part, and rejected outright in Canons II, the second part, or the Rejection of Errors. It is important that we keep our bearings in this regard and that we do not begin to imagine that it is possible at all to impose that Arminian idea on our Reformed confessions. This attempt has been made. It has been attempted to appeal to the confessions, and especially to the Canons, for support of the doctrine of universal atonement. Now that is simply flying in the face of the confessions. Canons II would never have been written if it had not been for the rise of the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement. It would not have been necessary. It is utterly fallacious, therefore, to try to maintain the doctrine of universal atonement in the name of the Reformed faith!

The contents of the Canons, Second Head, bear out what I have just said about the historical background and about the fundamental position of the Reformed faith over against the Arminian heresy.

Let us note the specific elements of the atonement as set forth by our confessions.

In the first place, I call your attention to the key element of satisfaction. This is a key term in all our confessions. That is especially the case with the Canons. But this term is emphasized repeatedly in our Heidelberg Catechism too. The Canons, however, start out with this idea of satisfaction. In the last part of Article I they already mention it: "...which we cannot escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God."

Atonement, in this connection, is a matter of strictest justice. There is no grace, there is no mercy, there is no blessing, except in the way of God's righteousness. God blesses the righteous, and He curses and punishes the wicked temporally and eternally. That is the first principle in this idea of satisfaction. That is Article 1:

God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And his justice requires (as he hath revealed himself in his Word), that our sins committed against his infinite majesty should be punished, not only with temporal, but with eternal punishment, both in body and soul; which we cannot escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God.

Sin, therefore, in relation to the justice of God, is guilt. It is debt. It is liability to punishment. And that punishment, according to God's justice, cannot be escaped, and man cannot be restored to God's favor, unless satisfaction is made not to the devil, but to God's justice. That satisfaction, very simply, means "to do enough, to make payment of a certain debt or obligation, according to the demand of justice." If, among men, such satisfaction is made, let us say, of a debt of $1000, then as soon as that satisfaction is made, that debt is gone. It has been removed. It is no more. That is satisfaction, and that is the effect of satisfaction. Thus, if satisfaction of the debt of sin is made for any man, then that man's debt of sin and guilt is gone! It is no more! From the moment that satisfaction has been made, that debt is forever removed. It is forever removed before the bar of God's justice, mind you! That means that God Himself for the sake of His own justice and righteousness cannot hold that debt against the man for whose debt satisfaction has been made. We are not yet up to the question for whom such satisfaction has been made: we will face that question later. But whoever the man may be for whom satisfaction has been made, his debt is gone before God! If that satisfaction embraces all men, then the debt of all men is removed. But whoever are included in that satisfaction, their debt is forever gone! Such is the idea of satisfaction. This key element of the atonement cannot be emphasized too strongly. It is safe to say that the whole Scriptural and confessional concept of the atonement stands or falls with this fundamental element.

In this connection, in the third place, we must remember that we ourselves cannot make this satisfaction. I need not go into detail on this score. That is simply the implication of the hopelessly lost state of the sinner as he is by nature. It is the implication of the doctrine of total depravity. We cannot make that satisfaction. On the contrary, we can only increase our debt. Such satisfaction can be made only by the free, loving, obedient bearing of the punishment of sin, bearing of death, bearing of all the agonies of everlasting hell, to the very end. When that burden of the wrath of God has been borne, when all the vials of God's wrath have been poured out over a man, and he has borne them freely, out of love, for the sake of the love of God and the righteousness of God, - then satisfaction has been made. And when atonement is made, that is what is accomplished. To make such atonement-by-way-of-satisfaction for men who could not make that satisfaction by themselves God sent His only begotten Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.

Such is satisfaction.

That is the teaching of our Canons. In the first few articles of the Second Head of Doctrine that idea of satisfaction occurs again and again. Moreover, anyone who is familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism will recall how much emphasis the Catechism places upon this idea of satisfaction. The Confession of Faith likewise stresses this idea (Articles 20 and 21).

This teaching of our confessions is the teaching of Scripture too. The term satisfaction itself is not a Scriptural term. But it is the key idea in all the Scriptural terms that set forth the meaning of the death of Christ. That is true of a term like propitiation, as in Romans 3:25: "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past...." The fundamental idea in that propitiation is this satisfaction. The same is true of a Scriptural term like ransom. Satisfaction is the basic idea of ransom. When the Scriptures say in Matthew 20:28 that the "Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many," the idea is that He makes satisfaction. He satisfies the just demand of the One Who sets that ransom-price. The same is true of reconciliation. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them." II Cor. 5:19. How is that possible? How is it possible that God can reconcile the world unto Himself and not reckon their trespasses unto them? How is it possible in the light of God's righteousness? Only on this basis, that that demand of God's righteousness and justice is totally met. Satisfaction! And so all the other Scriptural terms referring to the atonement have this same idea of satisfaction at their core.

The second main element in the atonement is that of substitution. The necessity of that substitution lies in the fact that we are unable to make satisfaction of ourselves. It lies in our total depravity. That is the historical reason for the necessity of the atonement. We are hopelessly lost! We can never deliver ourselves! Therefore a proper substitute was necessary. This idea is set forth very plainly in Article 2 of Canons II:

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.

This is the doctrine of vicarious, or substitutionary, atonement. You cannot state it any more plainly than the Canons state it. You cannot improve on that language. It is very plain. Our Lord Jesus Christ stood in the stead, in the place, of those for whom He died. Before the bar of God's justice He represented men. He was their substitute in a legal sense.

Notice again that this is a very exact relationship. Put these two ideas, that of satisfaction and that of substitution, together now. What is the result? That result is very exact. If one man of one thousand other men, - let us say, at the Old Kent Bank he pays off the mortgages for one thousand men, then that relationship is such that the debt of those one thousand is paid, and not the debt of every mortgage-holder at Old Kent Bank. That's the exactitude here. It is the same way with the cross, with Christ's atonement. Whoever are in Christ, whoever are represented by Him on the cross, in whosoever place he stood before the bar of God's justice and satisfied, --their debt is paid. If all men were in Him, then the debt of all men is forever gone. Whoever are represented by Him, their debt is absolutely gone. God cannot and does not hold that debt against them any more in His judgment.

Such is the idea of substitutionary atonement.

Also this is not merely the doctrine of our confessions, but it is the teaching of Scripture itself. Scripture teaches this idea of substitution in more than one way. But there are especially two terms in the New Testament which express this idea of substitution. These terms are usually translated by the word "for" in our English Bible. One of these terms means literally "in the stead of." You find this term in Matthew 20:28: "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for (instead of, in the place of) many." The other term has fundamentally the same meaning. It is the expression "in behalf of, for the sake of." But that idea, ''in behalf of," is possible only because Christ makes satisfaction instead of, in the place of, those for whom He dies. Notice how beautifully that is stated in the last part of Canons II, 2: "....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." The second term you find, for example, in II Corinthians 5:21: "For he hath made him to be sin for (in behalf of) us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." These are only two examples of many passages of Scripture in which this idea of substitution occurs.

The third element of the atonement is that of its infinite value. Let me warn from the outset that this infinite value must not be conceived of in terms of finite numbers. It is not a question of quantity, but of quality, of intrinsic worth.

That truth of the infinite value of the atonement answers these questions: how could the death of one cover many sinners? How is it that when Christ atoned, He did not simply atone one for one, but one for many? Or again: how could sin, which is against the infinite majesty of God and which calls down infinite divine wrath and which requires everlasting punishment, - how could that sin be atoned for in a moment in the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ? All the infinite wrath of God was concentrated finally in that moment when the cry was pressed out of Jesus' soul, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And that infinite value answers the question: how could we be raised out of our totally lost estate, not simply back to the state of Adam in paradise, but so that we were provided with an everlasting righteousness, which we could never lose? How could we be provided with the right to eternal life?

The answer is: it was the Son of God, the eternal and infinite God Himself, in the likeness of sinful flesh, but as a real and perfectly righteous and holy man, Who brought that satisfaction.

That is the basic idea also in that sometimes-debated expression in Article 3 of Canons II: "...abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world." That cannot mean, you know, that Christ intended to die for the whole world conceived of as all men. That would be the Arminian doctrine. That is just exactly what the fathers were fighting against in Canons II. It does not mean that at all. The article does not say either that Christ made satisfaction for the whole world. The idea is that in itself that death of Christ is so precious that in itself it is sufficient for the whole world. If God had wanted to save the entire world, head for head and soul for soul, He would not have needed another sacrifice. As one of the theologians of Dordrecht put it in his written opinion for the Synod of Dordrecht, the death of Christ was in itself sufficient for the whole world and for a thousand more worlds like it! The death of the Son of God is of infinite value: there is no end to its intrinsic worth!

Finally, there is the element of the efficacy of the atonement. The atonement is efficacious. Actually this is not a separate element of the atonement. The term efficacious simply emphasizes the reality, the actuality, the accomplished factuality of the preceding elements. This is spoken of in Article 8 of Canons II. Let me quote that article right here:

For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of that most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.

The main subject in this article is not efficacious grace or efficacious calling; that is the subject in Canons III, IV, which teaches the doctrine of irresistible, or efficacious grace. But the main subject here is the efficacy, the power to accomplish something, that is in that death of Christ itself. Such efficacy is implied in the atonement. Really, as far as the meaning is concerned, when you include in the atonement the elements of satisfaction and substitution and infinite value, you do not have to say "efficacious" in addition. Those three elements spell efficacy. But because the Arminians also talked about atonement and about satisfaction and substitution and meant by their teaching something that was not efficacious, that did not really accomplish something, it became necessary for the Reformed fathers to say, "Yes, but the death of Christ is efficacious." It is with this expression much as it is with the expression "total depravity." Depravity is always total. There is no such thing as a half rotten man. But because of the fact that some have tried to speak of a partial depravity, it has become necessary for Reformed people to add that word "total." Thus it is with "efficacious atonement." You cannot really conceive of a non-efficacious atonement. That is a contradiction in terms. A non-efficacious atonement would be an atonement that did not atone. It did not accomplish anything. The atonement, - such is the idea of efficacious atonement, - really atoned! It really satisfied for all who were in Christ, for all for whom Christ substituted! Mark you well, efficacious atonement does not mean that Christ's death really atoned for all who get into Christ, - now, consciously, by faith. But Christ died and atoned for all who were in Him, - nineteen hundred years ago, when He died. It accomplished something for all of them. Their guilt is forever gone. Righteousness and eternal life can never be denied them. Their right to all the blessings of salvation was forever established there, at the cross.

Notice, in connection with this doctrine of efficacious atonement, how in Article 8 of Canons II our fathers emphasized the crucial element in the efficacious death of Christ (the efficacy, the power of the death of Christ). They emphasize it twice. It is this, that Christ purchased for His people faith. Faith! The atonement does not mean that Christ purchased righteousness and eternal life and all the other blessings of salvation and that now He says in the gospel, "Here is salvation, but it is up to you to believe." It does not mean that. Christ purchased faith. He guaranteed by that purchase of faith that all for whom He died will also believe and will also lay hold personally and consciously on all the benefits of salvation that are in that death of Christ.

Hence, according to Article 8, the present, subjective application of the blessings of salvation (which was God's purpose, His sovereign purpose), whereby I and all God's people come into the actual, conscious possession of salvation, - that application proceeds from, is based upon, is guaranteed by the atonement. All those blessings were once and for all time actually purchased, merited, obtained on the cross; and they belong to Christ and to all who were in Christ at the cross. All the saints that had gone before, the saints of the old dispensation, - they were in Christ at the cross. All the elect who lived at the time of Christ's earthly sojourn, whether they were conscious children of God or whether they still had to be converted, - they were in Christ at the cross. And all the people of God who were still to be born at that time and who are still to be born today, - they were in Christ at the cross. He was in their place. He was their representative. And for them all He purchased, once for all, all the blessings of salvation. That is the teaching of Article 8. Notice: "This was the sovereign counsel (that's beautiful, you know: it proceeds from God, from His eternal decree, HCH), and most gracious will and purpose (in the original that is: "and intention") of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross (that's the atonement, HCH), whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem (that's what Christ did when He died, HCH) out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing: and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever." (emphasis mine, HCH)

Such is the beautiful truth of efficacious atonement, set forth here by our fathers in its relation to the actual application and realization of salvation all the way to final glory!



It is not surprising, therefore, that this article of the Canons at the same time teaches limited atonement. This is obviously what the article teaches: teaches: "....all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation...."

That the atonement is limited is inseparable from the truth that the atonement is efficacious.

This question is very simple in the light of what we have already said about the atonement. If the atonement is satisfaction in the true, factual sense of the word, and if the atonement is substitutionary satisfaction in the real sense of that term, and if therefore the atonement is efficacious, so that those included in it have their debt removed and have eternal righteousness and life merited for them, so that, having been objectively redeemed, ransomed, reconciled, they will surely be saved and become the actual possessors of salvation, --then, I say, the matter of limited atonement is very simple. Those included in the atonement are surely saved. But all men are not saved. Hence, not all men were included in the atonement.

Who were included in the atonement?

The answer is that Christ died only for the elect, that is, for those whom God has chosen from eternity and sovereignly and whom He gave to Christ. God elected an entire church and all the individual members of that church; and He gave that entire church, with all its individual members, to Christ. Christ is their representative-head. In the judgment of God He represents them, takes the place of them, and of them only, at the cross.

This is the truth of limited, (or call it, if you will, definite, particular) atonement. It is a very simple doctrine. There is atonement, and therefore removal of guilt and forgiveness of sins and righteousness and all the benefits of salvation and eternal life, for the elect only in the cross. For all the rest, for the reprobate, there is nothing positive, there is no benefit, in that cross. Christ did not die for them; He did not represent them and take their place.

Moreover, and this is a beautiful truth which we should never overlook, - that definite atonement is personal. Christ did not die indefinitely. And Christ did not die merely for a number of men, so that He provided salvation indefinitely for a certain total number of men, whoever they might turn out to be. But Christ died for all the elect and for each of them personally. God chose them. He chose them individually. From eternity He called them by name. And all of the elect personally God gave to Christ. Christ knew them all, even as they had been given to Him by the Father from all eternity. And He laid down His life for them, for all of them, for each of them, and for them only. All the elect, and they only, were therefore very really in Christ at the cross nineteen hundred years ago.

Thus the cross is the revelation of God's sovereign love: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." I John 4:10

Such is the doctrine of the confessions. It is very explicitly the doctrine of Canons II, 8. The same truth is already taught in connection with the doctrine of election in Canons I, 7. But this truth is also taught throughout our confessions. When you find the term "us" in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Confession of Faith in connection with the atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ, do not forget that this "us" is from the objective viewpoint not all men, but the elect. In no other way can this expression be understood. And what occurs in the Catechism and the Confession of Faith in that subjective form is set forth in our Canons objectively as the elect exclusively.

There are many, many passages of Scripture which teach this truth, either directly or by clear implication in the context.

Let me concentrate for a moment on just one beautiful passage: John 10:14, 15. The correct rendering of this text is found in the American Revised Version: "I am the good shepherd; and I know mine own, and mine own know me, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep."

Who are the sheep that are mentioned in this passage as those for whom Christ lays down His life? They are those whom the Father gave to Christ, that is, the elect. This is the plain teaching of the context. In verse 29 you also read of these sheep; and there Jesus says, "My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all..." (italics mine, HCH) And this is enforced by way of contrast in verse 26, where Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews who opposed Him at that occasion: "But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you." Notice that! Do not change that around as though it reads, "Ye are not of my sheep because ye believe not." That is not the text. The text is: "Ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep." They were reprobate.

This also makes it plain already that the concept "sheep" is exclusive. The argument has been raised that John 10:14, 15 does not teach that Jesus atoned only for His sheep. But that is a very poor argument. In the first place, as also the theologians of Dordrecht already pointed out in connection with this passage, the text would make no sense if it did not mean the sheep exclusively. Why should Jesus say that He lays down His life for the sheep, if after all He died equally for all men? And, in the second place, the context draws a sharp contrast between those who are His sheep and those who are not His sheep. And that contrast has its origin in God's predestinating purpose!

But notice that in this passage there is not merely a cold doctrine of election. The warm, throbbing, vibrant knowledge of divine love from eternity is involved here. "I know mine own...." Christ knew the whole church and every member of that church when He laid down His life! That is because those sheep are those whom the Father gave Him. He knew them all! Adam was in Him. Abel was in Him. Noah was in Him. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all God's people of the old dispensation, - they were in Him at the cross. He knew them. He knew them individually. He knew them in love. All His people of that time, His elect people, had been given Him, given Him individually, from eternity. He knew them! The apostle Paul was in Him. He had not been converted yet. But he was in Christ at the cross because God gave him to Christ from eternity. That is why later the apostle Paul can speak of the personal aspect of that definite atonement in the well-known words of Galatians 2:20: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." He is speaking here of something that took place at the cross in the year 33 A.D. Then Christ loved him and gave Himself for him! Even though the apostle Paul did not know Him yet, Christ loved him and gave Himself for him. The same is true of us as God's people today. That is why we can say in a personal confession of faith, "Christ died forme." That is based on an objective fact! That does not become true merely when I believe in Christ. It was so, - from eternity, according to God's counsel! And it has been so historically ever since Christ's death at the cross. And because of that objective reality, you and I, when we come to a conscious faith - union with Christ, can also confess, "Christ died for me!"

That, briefly, is the truth of limited, that is, definite and personal atonement.

There are, of course, many other passages of Scripture which plainly teach this same truth. In fact, this is the current teaching of Scripture. In this connection, let me enumerate a few passages which very clearly teach that Christ's atonement was definite, that is, for the elect only. Isaiah 53:10 speaks of a definite "seed" which Christ shall see when His soul shall be made an offering for sin. In John 17 we find Christ's high-priestly prayer, offered immediately before He laid down His life and brought the perfect sacrifice for sin. The whole tenor of this prayer is definite. As the High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ prays only for His own; as it were, laying down His life and going the way of the cross, He utters this prayer: "1 have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me...I pray for them; I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And all mine are thine...And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word.... Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world." John 17:6, 9, 10, 19, 20, 24. In Acts 20:28 it is the church of God "which he hath purchased with his own blood." In Romans 8:32, when we read that God "spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all," that "us all" is very plainly the elect, according to the context. For in the immediately following verses we read this: "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." And, finally, in Ephesians 1:7 we read this: "In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace." And what is the context of these words? It is a context which speaks most plainly of God's predestinating purpose as the source of all the blessings of salvation, including this "redemption through his blood." Eph. 1:3-12.

One more point must be made in this connection. When Scripture speaks of the "world" and of "all men" in connection with the atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ, it does not and it cannot possibly teach something contrary to the plain Scriptural teaching of definite atonement. To study all of the passages in which these terms occur would take us far afield. But there are two observations which I wish to make. In the first place, if these passages which speak of the "world" and of "all men" are explained as meaning every individual man, and if then the atonement is ascribed its full meaning of actual satisfaction for sin and actual substitution, then they prove too much. For then they necessarily lead to full-fledged universalism, that is, the doctrine that all men are saved. And if the latter consequence is not accepted, then one must needs accept the consequence of the denial of God's justice: for if Christ actually satisfied for the sins of all men, and if all men are not saved, then God does not deal justly. And let me add: neither consequence is acceptable in the light of Scripture. In the second place, the point must be made in the light of the truth of the unity of Scripture, that all such passages which speak of the "world" and of "all men" must needs be interpreted in harmony with the current teaching of Scripture that Christ atoned for the elect only. If this is not done, then the consequence that Scripture contradicts itself must be accepted; and this, of course, is an unacceptable consequence.

Yet the attempt has always been made, and is made today, to find something and to say something positive about salvation and about the love and favor of God with respect to those who were not in Christ at the cross, with respect to the reprobate. This usually does not happen, - at least, not in Reformed circles, - as long as you are talking only in the area of Canons II, that is, as long as the doctrine of the atonement as such is under discussion. This arises rather in the preaching. It arises in the practical area of the preaching of the gospel. There is a striving to say something positive, to present something positively good in that atonement of Christ in the preaching of the gospel to all men. This is the way the entire matter arose in Professor H. Dekker's writings. It arose out of the question concerning mission work, the question concerning what must be said in the preaching of the gospel on the mission field. In so far, from a Christian Reformed point of view, Prof. Dekker was consistent: he saw that if you wanted to be general in the preaching, you had to go back a step and be general as far as the death of Christ was concerned also. That is consistent; but it is consistently wrong! But there is the same striving on the part of others in various ways. To be sure, you expect that from all kinds of Arminian preachers. They believe in a general atonement; and they preach accordingly. But there is the same striving in the Reformed community. Some try to accomplish this goal of being general in the preaching by simply leaving the matter of Christ's death indefinite and vague in their preaching. They simply say: "Christ died for sinners." That is true, of course. But if that is all that is said, it is only a half-truth. And a half-truth is subterfuge! Others, - and that seems to be the striving of the committee that studied the issues of the Dekker Case, - others try to speak of "non-saving benefits of the death of Christ." And although they also claim to maintain definite atonement, they nevertheless claim that those non-saving benefits somehow come from the death of Christ Who died only for the elect. How that is possible I don't know. If Christ died for the elect only, then there are no possible benefits in that death of Christ for anyone else but those for whom He died. That is plain! Others speak, sometimes without even defining it very carefully at all, of a universal gospel offer. Others say, - and I read this in the column about the Canons in The Banner of February 24, 1967, - that we must say in the preaching that Christ desires the salvation of all men, and that God desires not the death of any but the salvation of all.

You understand, that is where the difficulty has arisen. It has arisen not in this doctrine of limited atonement as such. But when that atonement is projected into the preaching, then it suddenly becomes general in one way or another. And that is all rooted in the First Point of 1924 and its general, well-meant offer of the gospel as an evidence of so-called common grace. Everyone has recognized this, as is very plain from the fact that no one thus far has written or said anything about the issues of the Dekker Case without bringing in 1924. It is this that has led Prof. Dekker and others, - I say again: consistently, from their point of view, - to this idea of general atonement. But also those who have criticized Prof. Dekker's position have nevertheless not been willing to embrace wholeheartedly the doctrine of limited atonement and to follow it through consistently, but have insisted on somehow maintaining a universal and general element in the contents of the preaching.

If you look at this attempt from the basis of the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement, it is an impossible attempt. The gospel that must be preached is the gospel of the cross, the gospel of Christ crucified. Our Canons say that, and Scripture says that. The apostle Paul says, "We preach Christ crucified." He says, "I was determined to know nothing else among you but Jesus Christ, and him crucified." That means, in the light of all that we have said, that Christ crucified is Christ crucified for the elect, however you describe those elect in the preaching, whether you describe them historically as believers, as penitent, as hungry and thirsty, etc., Christ crucified is Christ crucified for the elect! I do not say the truth, I do not present Christ crucified, therefore, if I merely say, "Christ died for sinners." And I certainly do not present the gospel of Christ crucified when I say, "Christ died for all men." And in so far as that cross is the revelation of Cod's desire, God's purpose, God's will, I do not say the truth of the gospel of Christ crucified when say, "God desires the salvation of all men." He does not. He reveals very plainly in the cross that He purposed and desired and intended and counseled the salvation of the elect, and of them only.

Often this disjunction between Christ's death only for the elect and God's purported desire for the salvation of all men is presented as a mystery. But that is no mystery. If you say that Christ died for the elect, and for them only, and that God desires the salvation of all men, that is no mystery, but a flat contradiction. That is impossible. It is impossible because there is nothing positive, no benefit, no salvation, no love, no so-called non-saving benefit, - nothing positive whatsoever, - in that cross for anyone but the elect. And that cross is the revelation of God's purpose of salvation. To say otherwise, to make the scope of salvation wider in the preaching than it is in the cross is an implicit denial of particular atonement. The gospel is God's good news concerning the promise, to make known unto the heirs of the promise, that is, the elect, their salvation.

That is the positive side of the cross and of the atonement.

That is leaving out of the picture yet the fact that there was judgment at the cross, - judgment as well as salvation. Wrath as well as favor were revealed in the cross and are proclaimed in the gospel of Christ crucified. Indeed, there is nothing positive for the reprobate in the cross. But that does not mean that the cross is of no significance for them. The wrath of God is revealed in the cross as well as the love of God.

That is why our Lord Jesus Christ could say in John 12:31, for example, with a view to the death that He would die: "Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out." And not only does our Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly make plain that He has come into the world for judgment (cf. passages like John 9:39, Matthew 21:21-43, etc.), but we must remember that the first coming of our Lord belongs to "the great day of the Lord" of which the prophets speak so often and in connection with which they also always speak of God's judgment. In that same connection we may note that John the Baptist, the forerunner, preaches Christ under the aspect of judgment: the ax is laid to the root of the trees! And the apostle Paul refers to this same element of the judgment of the cross in Colossians 2;14, 15: "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.''

Let me briefly sketch this idea.

There was a trial at the cross. There was not merely a trial of Jesus by men. But there was a trial of the world by God. The world outside of Christ, the world of sinful men, the world in their state of sin and guilt, the world of men as they are in the present creation with all their means of subsistence and development, all their means of "culture," -that world was on trial. The whole world of men as they are in Adam, by nature, together with the prince of this world, the devil, and all the fallen angels, the principalities and powers, the whole world, our world (apart from Christ) as it is in alliance with and under the moral dominion of the prince of darkness - that whole world was on trial before God, the Judge. God summoned them there. He controlled the events surrounding the suffering and death of Christ. Christ went to the cross, remember, according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, though by wicked hands.

That world was well represented. It was represented in Judas, the apostle. It was represented religiously in the Sanhedrin. The world of men at large, of society, was represented in the multitude. The political world-power, the Graeco-Roman world of wisdom and justice, was represented. The world in all its aspects was put on trial.

That trial consisted in this. They were openly exposed. They were stripped naked, as the apostle Paul says in Colossians 2:15. They were cloaked in self-righteousness and wisdom and religion and jurisprudence. They were masked! And they could not go to hell with a mask on! They had to be exposed. God exposed them. He stripped them bare. He did that by standing before them in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ as a man, without power, and by confronting them with the question, "What will you do with God? What will you do with God if He stands before you as a mere man, a man without a sword, a man without an army, a man without any defense except the defense of righteousness, a man who will not fight back against you?"

They were compelled to give answer to that question. They tried to avoid it. Pilate, for example, especially tried in various ways to avoid answering that crucial question. But the Judge of heaven and earth insisted: "Give an answer!"

And they answered: "We will kill Him! We will nail Him to the cross!"

It was at the cross that the verdict of the Judge of heaven and earth was rendered and executed. When the trial was finished, God poured out the vials of His wrath. The word was proven worthy of the wrath of God; and the execution followed at Golgotha, -- in the cross, in the darkness, in that fearful revelation of God-forsakenness! And Christ was in the center of it all! Christ as representing His own, Christ representing the whole world of God's election, was in the center of that fearful outpouring of judgment and wrath. And all the vials of God's wrath were concentrated in one hour, the hour of judgment! And God was there, in behalf of the world of His election, bearing His own wrath in our flesh!

The result?

The world in itself, the world outside of Christ, was condemned! That is revealed at the cross too. The veil is rent: God leaves the temple, and Israel is forsaken. The earth quakes, and the rocks split, signifying that this world must pass away. That is even evident in the two thieves at the cross: only one of them was saved, covered by that cross of Christ.

And yet, in Christ the world, that is, the world of God's love and God's election, is justified.

The judgment is past! The last day, the day of the revelation of God's righteous judgment shall finally reveal the condemnation of the world in itself and the justification of the world in Christ.

To that end the church must preach the gospel, the gospel of absolutely sovereign grace, revealed in Christ crucified. To that end the church must preach the gospel of Christ crucified: Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness (that is, to the natural man, whether Jew or Greek, a power of God unto condemnation); but to them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

It is this negative aspect of the cross and this negative aspect of the gospel that is completely forgotten and denied nowadays for the most part. For the most part, the church no longer is willing to be obedient to its calling to preach the gospel negatively as well as positively. It is no longer willing to preach Christ crucified as the power of God, Who is really God. The church would much rather preach a Christ and a God Whose salvation are, after all, dependent upon the will and the choice of the fallen sinner.



This precious truth must be maintained. It must be maintained as far as the atonement is concerned, and it must be maintained as far as the negative aspect of the cross and concerned.

That is important for us, first of all, as individual believers.

For remember: a Christ for all is really a Christ for none! You must choose between a general atonement which is actually not atonement or vicarious and limited atonement which is real and efficacious. After all, if Christ actually atoned vicariously for all men, then all men must be saved. But even the Arminian, who holds to general atonement, must face the fact that all men are not saved. Hence, the Arminian presentation of the atonement comes down to this: Christ died for all men, but all men are not justified and saved. What follows from this? This: Christ's atonement was ineffectual. I cannot be sure that He atoned for any man, including myself. Thus the believer is deprived of the solid basis of assurance that there is in the atoning death of the cross.

In the second place, this is important for the church and its gospel-proclamation. I am well aware that this is a foreign note in our day. It sounds so sweet and so humane to proclaim a Christ for all and a love of God for all. And it has become very popular. It is claimed that it is impossible to preach and to do mission work without a general gospel and a general salvation. Basically, however, the trouble is that men do not want to put their confidence in a cross that is the power of God! Nor do they want to trust that God will surely use the general proclamation of a particular promise to gather and save His elect church.

But remember that the gospel cannot possibly be wider in scope than the objective satisfaction and justification of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you hold to a general, well-meaning offer, you must and you will, if you are consistent, ultimately embrace the doctrine of universal atonement also.

The proof, - I call you to witness, - is already here!

Hence, we must stand one hundred per cent in the truth of our Reformed confessions, both with respect to the atonement and the preaching. And if we have already departed from that, we must return and forsake what is false.

May God lay this upon your heart and mine.

Last modified on 29 March 2013

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