In the debate between the Remonstrants (Arminians) and the Reformed, who is it who limits the value and extent of the atonement? According to the critics of Reformed theology, it is ostensibly the Reformed who limit the value of the atonement. After all, do not the Reformed affirm that Christ died only for the elect whereas the Remonstrants affirm that Christ died for all men and every man?
We need to stop and consider, however, how the Remonstrants limited the value and efficacy of the atonement since in their doctrine that Christ died for all men and every man, what do they say that he accomplished by that death?
In their Opinions (2.2) the Remonstrants confessed:
Christ has, by the merit of his death, so reconciled God the Father to the whole human race that the Father, on account of that merit, without giving up His righteousness and truth, has been able and has willed to make and confirm a new covenant of grace with sinners and men liable to damnation.
The reader should read the entire article carefully. The Remonstrants affirm that Christ’s death “reconciled” the Father to ”the whole human race…”. They qualify what that reconciliation is, however. Reconciliation, however, has not actually been accomplished. It has been made possible. Christ has made what they call a “new covenant of grace with sinners” and those “liable to damnation.” What are the terms of that “new covenant”? Is it truly a gracious covenant?
In Opinions 2.3 they explained:
Though Christ has merited reconciliation with God and remission of sins for all men and for every man, yet no one, according to the pact of the new and gracious covenant, becomes a true partaker of the benefits obtained by the death of Christ in any other way than by faith; nor are sins forgiven to sinning men before they actually and truly believe in Christ.
Note that the first word of article 2.3 is a concessive, although. A concessive signals that “though x is true, y qualifies it.” In this case x is Opinions 2.2. Their although tells us that the fine print is coming. The qualification is that Christ merited reconciliation for all yet, according to the terms of the “new and gracious covenant” one comes into possession of the benefits of Christ by faith. Remember, however, what the Remonstrants mean by “faith.” We may not simply assume that the Remonstrants have suddenly embraced Luther’s definition of faith nor that of Heidelberg 21. Rather, under the first head (election and reprobation), they have already made clear that when they say “faith” they mean faith and faithfulness, including perseverance. The Remonstrants were dissatisfied with the degree of sanctification they saw in the orthodox churches and sough to revise Reformed theology to put the whip to Christians in order to get them shaped up.
According to the Remonstrants, Christ has not actually accomplished anything for anyone in particular. He has made redemption possible for those who meet the terms of the covenant. In their own way, the Remonstrants limited the value of the atonement, even as they accused the Reformed of limiting the value and dignity of the atonement.
Thus, under the 2nd Head of Doctrine, the Reformed Churches confessed:
Art. III. The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.
The death of bulls, goats, and lambs was of value only insofar as it was ordained by God and insofar as believers under the system of types and shadows of the Old Testament, through them, apprehended Christ by faith. They were anticipations of the reality, of the fulfillment in Christ. He is the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29; Rev 5:6; 7:17). He was the perfect sacrifice. He satisified the just wrath of God against sin and sinners.
Charles Hodge explains what we mean by expiation and propitiation:
Expiation and propitiation are correlative terms. The sinner, or his guilt is expiated; God, or justice, is propitiated. Guilt must, from the nature of God, be visited with punishment, which is the expression of God’s disapprobation of sin. Guilt is expiated, in the Scriptural representation, covered, by satisfaction, i.e., by vicarious punishment. God is thereby rendered propitious, i.e., it is now consistent with his nature to pardon and bless the sinner. Propitious and loving are not convertible terms. God is love. He loved us while sinners, and before satisfaction was rendered. Satisfaction or expiation does not awaken love in the divine mind. It only renders it consistent with his justice that God should exercise his love towards transgressors of his law. This is expressed by the Greek verb ἱλάσκομαι, propitium facio. “To reconcile oneself to any one by expiation.” That by which this reconciliation is effected is called ἱλασμός or ἱλαστήριον. The effect produced is that God is ἵλαος. God is good to all, full of pity and compassion to all, even to the chief of sinners. But he is ἵλαος only to those for whose sins an expiation has been made. That is, according to the Old Testament usage, “whose sins are covered.” “To cover sin,” כַּפֵּר, is never used to express the idea of moral purification, or sanctification, but always that of expiation. The means by which sin is said to be covered, is not reformation, or good works, but blood, vicarious satisfaction. This in Hebrew is כֹפֶר, that which covers. The combination of these two ideas led the LXX. to call the cover of the ark ἱλαστήριον, that which covered or shut out the testimony of the law against the sins of the people, and thus rendered God propitious. It was an ἱλαστήριον, however, only because sprinkled with blood. Men may philosophize about the nature of God, his relation to his creatures, and the terms on which He will forgive sin, and they may never arrive at a satisfactory conclusion; but when the question is simply, What do the Scriptures teach on this subject? the matter is comparatively easy. In the Old Testament and in the New, God is declared to be just, in the sense that his nature demands the punishment of sin; that therefore there can be no remission without such punishment, vicarious or personal; that the plan of salvation symbolically and typically exhibited in the Mosaic institution, expounded in the prophets, and clearly and variously taught in the New Testament, involves the substitution of the incarnate Son of God in the place of sinners, who assumed their obligation to satisfy divine justice, and that He did in fact make a full and perfect satisfaction for sin, bearing the penalty of the law in their stead; all this is so plain and undeniable that it has always been the faith of the Church and is admitted to be the doctrine of the Scriptures by the leading Rationalists of our day. It has been denied only by those who are outside of the Church, and therefore not Christians, or by those who, instead of submitting to the simple word of God, feel constrained to explain its teachings in accordance with their own subjective convictions (Systematic Theology, 2.78).
The doctrines of expiation and propitiation have fallen out of favor in Modernity and even evangelicals seem to be wavering on them but Scripture teaches that Christ satisfied the wrath of God. He undertook that work solemnly, freely, and for us. When God’s Word says, “For God so loved the world” we understand it against the background of sin and punishment and Christ’s substitutionary death for all his people, all those whom the Father gave to him (John 17:1).
This doctrine was not, as is sometimes alleged, invented by Anselm of Canterbury in the late 11th century. Not at all. This is not only a biblical doctrine but it is an ancient Christian doctrine implied by the some of the Fathers and taught explicitly by Irenaeus and by Athanasius among others. See this essay for more on the history of the doctrines.
To say, as the Remonstrants did (and do) that Christ merely made salvation possible (rather than actually accomplishing it) also fails to account adequately for the dignity of the person who accomplished our redemption.
Art. IV. This death derives its infinite value and dignity from these considerations; because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only-begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute him a Saviour for us; and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.
God does not merely make creation and providence possible. Remember, the Arminius and the Remonstrants had adopted the Molinist theory of Middle Knowledge, whereby God is said to know potential outcomes but not actual outcomes. Just as this doctrine limits divine omniscience so their doctrine of redemption is a corollary.
In contrast, with Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Anselm, we recognize that God the Son became incarnate not merely to make salvation possible for those who do their part but rather to accomplish salvation. Jesus is one person with two natures, divine and human. He is true God and true man. He is consubstantial with us humans, with a rational soul and true human nature and he is consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit, true God of true God. This, of course, is the language of the ancient, catholic and ecumenical creeds.
God the Son, through whom all things came into being and without whom nothing came into being that has come into being (John 1:3)) became incarnate for us, his people, obeyed for us, suffered for us, died for us, was raised for us, and intercedes for us now at the Father’s right hand. These words, for us are the gospel words for which Synod was contending.
Under the Remonstrant scheme, there is no “for us.” There is only “for all, if…”. Here we see that Synod was not limiting the atonement. It was defending the good news from the Remonstrant attempt to undermine our assurance and hope. The believer says, “Christ died for me.” God willed it so and nothing can change it.