Friday, October 1, 2010

The "Free Offer" and Christ's Atonement (44)

Dear forum members,

In the previous installment I mentioned that a particularly persuasive ground for the well-meant gospel offer is the universal sufficiency of the atonement of Christ. A telling objection to the well-meant gospel offer has been the need for universalizing the extent of the atonement so that it may serve as the judicial basis for God’s desire to save all men: What God offers has to be available. If salvation in Christ is offered to all, salvation in Christ has to be available. If one likes to retain his Calvinistic credentials, then he speaks of a universal sufficiency to the atonement but an efficacy limited only to the elect.

I found an interesting quote concerning this matter. It is found in Eugene Heideman, The Theology of the Midwestern Reformed Church in America, 1866-1966 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eedrmans Publishing Company, 2009) 141, 142 footnote. The comment came in the context of a discussion of the influence of Kuyperian common grace on the RCA. One RCA, a professor in Western Theological Seminary, wrote: “There is a sense in which it is true that the whole world shares in the sacrifice of Christ. It is the basis of common grace as it is of saving grace. God is longsuffering with the wicked, causes rain to fall on the unjust, holds in check the destructive forces in nature and humanity, brings to fullest development the hidden possibilities in both man and beast, through his Spirit and for the sake of the mediatorial work of Christ.” Although this was written in connection with Kuyperian common grace, the same applies to the well-meant gospel offer, for, as the author of the quote says, “. . . the whole world shares in the sacrifice of Christ. It is the basis of common grace as it is of saving grace.”

Those who appreciated the force of the argument that somehow the grace offered in the gospel had to be earned by Christ, but were hesitant to widen the scope of the atonement fell back on the doctrine of the sufficiency of the atonement, while holding to the doctrine of the limited efficacy of the atonement (that is, that the atonement is efficacious only for the elect, though sufficient for all.) Thus the defenders of a well-meant gospel offer fell back on what is basically an Amyraldian position. (Amyraldianism is the heresy of a hypothetical universalism with respect to the atonement of Christ, and is used to support a well-meant gospel offer. It was developed shortly after Dordt in France and spread to the United Kingdom where it was widely accepted.)

The strength of an appeal to the universal sufficiency of the atonement lies in its confessional basis. I quoted from the Canons of Dordt in this connection, where the sufficiency of the atonement is explicitly stated. The trouble is that those who appeal to the universal sufficiency of the atonement as taught in the Canons of Dordrecht do so without understanding the Canons, and, in fact, twisting their meaning and purpose. They cling to this one article in the Canons (2.A.3), as a drowning man clings to what appears to him to be a life raft.

Let us look closely at the article a moment.

Historically, the reason for inserting this article in the Canons was the wicked charge of the Arminians that the Reformed with their doctrine of particular redemption did serious injustice to the atonement by limiting its power or efficacy to only a relatively small number of people. The Reformed denied that and insisted rather that the suffering and death of Christ is “of infinite worth and value.”

The meaning of the fathers is clear. First of all, one must not measure the value and worth of Christ’s suffering and death in terms of kilograms, meters or liters. Christ’s suffering is not something of quantitative importance. If, and I speak as a fool speaks, there had been one more elect than there actually is, Christ would not have had to suffer a bit more than he did. Christ’s suffering is not a matter of “so much” for this sin, so much for that sin, so much for this sinner, so much for that sinner. To speak of the atonement in such a fashion is to mock it.

Secondly, the value and worth of the atonement is to be found in the person who submitted to it. The article emphatically states that “the death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin,” and it is therefore, “of infinite worth and value.”

The next article develops that idea further: “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 the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute Him a Savior for us; and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin” (2.A.4).

The Canons do not say that the atonement of Christ was sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world because God wanted to offer salvation to all; or because salvation is then available to all; or even because the great Synod of Dordt wanted to open the door a crack for the Amyraldian position that God is gracious to all. Nothing could have been farther from the minds of the fathers at Dordt. Their sole purpose is to extol the dignity and greatness of Christ who as both truly God and man paid the price for our sins.

There is something sinister about such careless re-writing of history and such blatant attempt to make the great theologians of Dordt say something that was so far from their minds. The Canons themselves compel us to abandon all efforts to find the judicial basis for common grace in the cross. It isn’t there. It cannot be found there. To appeal to the cross as providing blessings for others than the elect is pulling ideas out of the mind of man. Apart from the cross, common grace hangs there in the air, a mockery of God’s justice. In his work of showing grace to all God is content to set his justice aside and let his grace push his justice out of the way. In common grace God acts as one devoid of justice.

With warm regards,

Prof Hanko

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