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The Need for Atonement (Digging into Dort, Point 2, Part 2)

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Why was Jesus’s death a part of God’s plan to bring salvation to sinful humans who had rebelled and rejected God’s Word? The Second Main Point of the Canons of Dort addresses this question in its opening articles. It begins by noting that alongside of God’s mercy is His justice and explaining what justice means and requires: “God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. This justice requires (as God has revealed in the Word) that the sins we have committed against his infinite majesty be punished with both temporal and eternal punishments, of soul as well as body.” (2.1)

These opening words thus highlight the fundamental problem that humans face, which is that God is just and the sins we have committed against Him deserve punishment. Because He is an infinite God, the standard for punishment is high. Just as the punishment differs between stealing from a person versus stealing from government, so the punishment for rejecting an infinite God is higher than the punishment would be for rejecting or hurting some mortal.  Therefore, we await punishment both now and later, in both body and soul. As the Canons continue, “We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God’s justice.” (2.1). The first part of the first sentence of the next article clarifies that this satisfaction is not something we can achieve or accomplish in our own efforts, as it states “we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God’s wrath…” (2.2). We stand under God’s wrath, but God makes a way, as “God in boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us” (2.2). The purpose of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was to give satisfaction to God, to bear the wrath of God that we deserve. This means that his death was not just a sign or symbol of God’s love or a wake-up call to us to live better, but rather that he came as a substitute to take our place.

Why Christ Can Be the Solution

But how can he stand as a sufficient substitute for us? Article 4 of this Main Point addresses this question. “This death is of such great value and worth for the reason that the person who suffered it is—as was necessary to be our Savior—not only a true and perfectly holy human, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Another reason is that this death was accompanied by the experience of God’s wrath and curse, which we by our sins had fully deserved” (2.4). There are two elements of this discussion. First, it notes that Jesus is both human and God, so that he is like us in his humanity but also different in that he is the only human to live perfectly and was also God Himself in the flesh. Secondly, it notes that Jesus’s death was one in which he experienced God’s wrath and curse – one sees this in the idea that God turns His back on Jesus and Jesus is separated from God. The Heidelberg Catechism also highlights the fact that Jesus did not die at the hands of an angry mob (though they called for his death), but that he was executed by the government as a criminal – thus he receives punishment as a criminal, which is what we should have faced (see Heidelberg Catechism Q and A 38).

We need to satisfy God’s wrath and pay the penalty for our sins, but we cannot do it. The only way that atonement can be made is through Jesus, and this is why he died. He died to save sinners, to take their punishment and thus secure their salvation. The Canons note that his death has infinite worth and would be sufficient to save every single sinner (thus his atonement is not “limited”): “This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” (2.3). It is sufficient for all, but yet not all are saved, as not all believe; it is sufficient for all, but efficient for those whom God saves. To borrow a phrase from Michael’s Horton’s Putting Amazing Back into Grace that keeps the rhyming going, “Christ’s death is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect but is in no way deficient in what it does.”

Questions Still To Think About

Does this mean that we should seek to determine whom Jesus came to save and only preach the gospel to them? Or does it mean that God prevents some people from believing and that He is the cause of their punishment? While the First Main Point of the Canons of Dort dealt with that question in part, the next few articles in this Second Main Point also deal with it, which we will look at in the next post. In the meantime, it seems wise to reflect on the wonderful truth that when we were powerless, when there seemed to be no way for us to be saved, God, in His mercy, sent His Son to take our place. We see His limitless love and limitless power, as well as His great wisdom and purpose in doing what needed to be done to bring people back into relationship with Himself. Let debates about details concerning the atonement never take away our awe at this wonderful truth.

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