The Second Main Point of Doctrine
Christ's Death and Human Redemption Through It
Article 1: The Punishment Which God's Justice Requires
God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. His justice requires (as he has revealed himself 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. We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God's justice.
Under the first head of doctrine, the authors of the Canons completed their treatment of human sinfulness (total depravity) and divine mercy (unconditional election), commonly known as the first two points of Calvinism.
In the first head, it was clearly established that all men and women have fallen in Adam, and are not only guilty because Adam acted as their divinely chosen representative so that the guilt of Adam's sin was imputed (or reckoned, or accounted) to them, but they are also guilty for all of their own sinful actions which spring forth from sinful human nature.
This is what we mean when we speak of “total depravity.” This does not mean that all of us are always as bad as we can possibly be, only that sin has infected us in our entire person, from head to toe, and that there is no part of human nature that is not tainted, stained, or corrupted by the consequences of the fall of our race into sin.
To use a biblical analogy, we are by nature not only children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), we are the kind of bad trees described by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (7:15 ff.) who can only bear bad fruit. This is, as our Lord tells us, the visible manifestation of our hidden wickedness and depravity.
On a practical level this means that we are born in sin, and apart from God's grace, our wills are in bondage to our sinful nature, and we can only use the good gifts which God has given to us for sinful (self-centered) purposes. Lacking faith, we cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6). We sin because we are sinners. We sin because we like to sin. And since the wages of sin is death, we are all subject to the curse. Left on our own, and to our own devices, we do not want Jesus as our Lord. Instead, we desire to be lord of our own lives, and so we go our own way. We are not overly concerned about God showing his mercy to us, since we do not think that we really need it, and since we believe that somehow God is obliged to give it to us any way.
Because of our sinful orientation, we do not want to believe what the Scriptures teach, namely that God has chosen us in Christ, despite what we are as fallen. Because he is gracious, God has sent to us a Savior upon whom we must believe if we are to be saved from the guilt of sins and our unbelief. We do not want to believe this to be true because our itching ears are all too eager to believe the wisdom of the age and the foolishness of men, which always tells us how good we are. We do not like the revelation of God found in the Holy Scriptures, because it always exposes our sin.
But this is what the Scriptures clearly teach (see the first head of doctrine, where the biblical passages are set forth). And, if any of us as sons and daughters of Adam are to be delivered from the guilt and consequences of our sin, it must because there is something good in God, namely his grace and mercy. Certainly, there is no good thing in us which could in any way motivate or cause God to act on our behalf.
Of course, this truth is what the doctrine of election is all about. In his wonderful grace and mercy, and from out of the mass of fallen humanity, God chooses to save a multitude so vast that no one can count them. Those chosen will be his glorious eternal possession, and become the bride of his own dearly beloved Son. This is where the meaning of divine election and predestination is located in the Scriptures. There is nothing good in us, but there is good only in God.
For reasons known only to himself, and in order to magnify his grace and mercy, God chooses a multitude of Adam’s fallen children, predestining them unto eternal life. And for equally mysterious reasons, God leaves the rest of humanity in their sin, so as to suffer its horrible consequences and eternal punishment so as to magnify his justice. We will never understand the meaning of grace if we do not clearly recognize that God is not under any obligation to save any of his rebellious creatures. The fact that he saves even one of us, demonstrates his great mercy and love for a lost and fallen world.
At this point, under the second head of doctrine, the authors now turn to what is the central theme in Reformed (and biblical) theology, the covenant and its mediator. At this point, it is important to recall two things.
First, historically speaking, following Calvin, Bullinger, Ursinus and others, the Reformed tended to speak of Christ as prophet, priest and king, and as the mediator of the covenant of grace that God had promised Adam, no sooner had sin entered the human race (Genesis 3:15). Jesus Christ, as the eternal son of God, was the one chosen by the father to be the redeemer of the world, and the savior of God’s elect. Jesus Christ then came to earth to seek and to save God’s elect, providing what was necessary so that God’s elect might be delivered from the guilt of their sin and its consequences (death). Under the terms of the covenant of grace, in Christ, God provides sinners with a perfect righteousness when Jesus fulfill's God’s law, is without sin, and then satisfies God’s holy justice, which demanded that there be payment for the guilt of the sin of Adam and his descendants. Thus Jesus Christ came to live a perfect life and to die upon the cross for the sins of the elect. It is this understanding of the particular structure and design of redemption, (in which God intends to save the individual persons whom he has chosen) which was rejected by the Arminians.
This leads to the second point, and that is the nature of the Arminian objection to the Reformed understanding of salvation that lead to the composition of the Remonstrance, and the eventual response by the Reformed at the Synod of Dort which is spelled out under this second head of doctrine. What upset the Arminians was the logical conclusion drawn by the Reformed about the extent of Christ’s mediatorial work—for if the Reformed are correct, Christ’s work was performed specifically for purpose of saving the elect (particular indviduals), and not providing the possibility of salvation for the world (i.e., humanity in general).
It is this concept of a “limited atonement” (better, a "particular redemption") which perhaps provoked the greatest anger towards the Reformed. As the Arminians saw it, “how on earth could the Reformed teach that Jesus did not die for all men and women?” “How could Calvinists teach that Jesus’ role as mediator and Savior was not intended to make salvation possible for all those who would believe and come to him as the Scriptures apparently teach?” “How could the Calvinists teach that the essence of Christ’s death upon the cross was to be found in the satisfaction of God’s justice, rather than in a display of God’s love for the world?” As the Arminian sees it, the Calvinist supposedly turns God in to a cruel deity who must exact his pound of flesh, and rejects the notion of the loving God of the Bible who accepts Christ’s act of love and self-sacrifice as an entreaty and plea for sinners to turn to the loving father.
This then, is what is at stake under the second head of doctrine— “why did Christ die upon the cross?” and “what does his death mean for sinners?” It is the nature of the death of Christ which defines the extent of our Lord's sacrificial work. This is why in order to respond to the Arminian complaint about the Reformed "limiting" the extent of Christ’s atonement, the Canons must begin by defining what it is exactly that the atonement of Christ does, so as to answer the question, “for whom is it intended?” In other words, the purpose of the cross defines the extent of Christ's saving work.
The Canons begin this discussion of Christ’s atonement with the presupposition that what is taught in the Scriptures about human sinfulness, and summarized under the first head of doctrine, is the context for any discussion of the death of Christ. Since all men and women are guilty before God and deserving of his wrath, any whom he elects must have the guilt of their sin taken away in order to be saved from eternal perdition. But since God is infinitely holy, any sin against him is an offense against his infinite majesty and thereby must be punished eternally. The real question here is, “if God graciously chooses to save any one of Adam’s fallen race, what is necessary for them to be saved?” This means that God’s decision to elect some to salvation, taken by itself, does nothing to provide what is necessary for the elect to be saved. Election is God’s decree to save, but election by itself does not remove the guilt of sin from the elect. That will take a bloody cross.
This means that election is necessarily tied to the person and work of Christ, because election is said to be “in Christ,” who is the mediator of the covenant, and who will do what is necessary for God to save his elect. This, then, is the context for the first article under this second head of doctrine, namely that God’s justice requires that all human sin be punished.
The authors begin this section, by making the point that “God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just.” In other words, as we have seen under the first article, God is merciful to save his elect who do not deserve to be saved, but that in his mercy, God does not and indeed cannot sacrifice his justice. In other words, if God is to save guilty sinners he must do so in such a way as to be both merciful and just. He cannot sacrifice mercy or justice, he must display both.
This is exactly what the Apostle Paul is getting at in Romans 3:22 and following when he speaks of "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."
Therefore, it is not the Calvinist who inserts language of satisfaction into the theological discussion, as the Arminian unjustly charges. It is the apostle Paul! Paul very clearly teaches that the death of Jesus Christ not only satisfies God’s anger towards sinners who trust in him through faith alone, but that it also demonstrates God’s justice to the watching world, because sin does not go unpunished even when God is being gracious to sinners. In the case of the elect—Jesus Christ himself bears their punishment in his own body upon the cross. In the case of those not chosen for eternal—the reprobate—God also demonstrates his justice to them by punishing them for their own sins eternally. God’s very nature as a just God demands this and that is why the authors of the Canons state: “His justice requires (as he has revealed himself 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.”
Because God’s justice demands that every infraction of his perfect will and infinite holiness be punished eternally, no one can “escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God's justice.” Though there are many aspects to the death of Christ taught in the Scriptures—reconciliation, redemption, substitution, etc., — this is why the death of Christ must be seen essentially as the means by which God’s justice is satisfied. This is why a number of theologians prefer to speak of the death of Christ in terms of Christ’s satisfaction, in the sense of a “satisfaction made by Christ,” rather than as an “atonement,” a word which loses some of the sense that the death of Christ is designed essentially to satisfy the justice of God on behalf of the elect sinners that he has chosen. Therefore, Jesus dies upon the cross so that the mercy of God is openly displayed, and so that divine justice is satisfied.
That God chose to save a multitude of sinners is the reason why the Savior came to suffer and die as the mediator of God's covenant.