The Doctrines of Grace, Part Two: The Saving Work of Christ
The Second Head of the Canons of Dort cover the saving work of Christ, which He performed to satisfy God’s justice so that we would be reconciled to Him. Christ’s atonement is the means by which the elect of God have their sins removed and the perfect righteousness of Christ applied to them. So, the First Head dealt with the identification of God’s chosen people; this Second Head deals with how these people are saved from their sins.
“God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just,” begins the Second Head. Therefore all sin, no matter how small or minor, because it offends an infinitely holy and perfect God, must be punished with eternal torment. That is a deplorable, miserable, and horrible situation to be in, especially since none of us can please Him by our good works due to the utter sinfulness of our nature. Yet, God is also supremely loving - and because of this love, He determined that He would send His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay this supreme penalty for the sins of His elect whom he chose out of the mass of sinful humanity (Canons of Dort 2:2).
Article 3 states: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” That is, since Christ is both God and man, He alone can perfectly satisfy the Father’s justice because He alone can endure an infinite punishment and come out victorious in the end because of His perfect righteousness (CD 2:4; Rom. 3:24, 25). In fact, if God had intended to save the whole world, Christ’s sacrifice would have been sufficient for that. Yet, as I explained in Part 1 of this series, God also intended for His justice to be displayed in the eternal punishment of those who are reprobate, and so He does not intend all to be saved (please remember that God did not owe anybody salvation in the first place since we all sinned in Adam, so this is not “unfair”).
This great sacrifice of Christ on the behalf of the elect needs to be proclaimed to the whole world. Everybody of all ranks, classes, distinctions, and nations needs to hear the Good News of a Savior who died and rose on behalf of sinners (CD 2:5). It is not our business to figure out who is elect or reprobate before giving the gospel to them, but we are to give this gospel to all people - this is sometimes referred to as the “general call” of God. As we proclaim this general call through the public preaching in our churches, through our missionaries, and in the midst of our everyday activities among our neighbors, God then works to save His elect through His “special call” by providing the gift of faith to them so that they trust Christ alone for their salvation.
Revelation 5:9 says that the Lamb (Christ) has ransomed by His blood people from “every tribe and tongue and nation.” This is the beauty of Christ’s atonement and its true universality (1 John 2:2). It is not that He died for everybody who ever lived but only believers enjoy the benefits of His sacrifice (as the Remonstrant opponents of the Synod of Dort believed), but that He died to save His people from their sins, across the whole wide world. Christ’s sacrifice did not make all people savable, but it actually saved all those whom God lovingly called to be His children. This is called “particular redemption,” or perhaps more commonly, “limited atonement.” It is unfortunate that this particular Doctrine of Grace has received a negative connotation due to its supposed “marginalization” of Christ’s sacrifice. The truth is, the atonement must be “limited” in some way. Those who say Christ died for everyone but only saved some upon condition of their faith limit the sufficiency of His atonement; those who said He died only for His people limit its extent. Yet the amazing assurance of particular redemption is that Christ completely saves all whom He died for; within its boundaries, it is 100% sufficient. There is no question about it (CD 2:8; John 10:15; Rom. 8:33, 34). Particular redemption is consistent with the way in which God works, and fits perfectly into the framework of soteriology.
This brings us to the true beauty of this doctrine - the Son of God, by His love, has perfectly satisfied for all, each and every one, of our sins: past, present and future. Not one of the elect of God will ever be found wanting in worthiness to enter the kingdom of heaven, because all of his sins are washed away and removed, as far as the east is from the west, and he is clothed in the perfect and spotless righteousness of Christ. Our Bridegroom has laid down His life for us and rescued us from eternal damnation, and we shall in grateful acknowledgement of His salvation celebrate His praises for all eternity (CD 2:9). What wonder and love that is, indeed!
For the Second Head of the Canons of Dort, see http://www.oceansideurc.org/canons-of-dordt/#p2. A most excellent and definitive work on Christ’s atonement is John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Another alternative, which is perhaps more accessible, is the recently published From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.
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