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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Synod of Dort. Previous post. Next Post.

The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing. When we deal with the death of Jesus Christ, this is very important. Having introduced the topic we call limited or definite atonement, we now note the main thing in our discussion: What did Jesus do, and for whom did He do it? As I have shown elsewhere with the doctrine of predestination, the Canons of Dort are tremendously helpful when considering matters related to salvation. They get to the heart of this issue by first expressing basic biblical truths about God’s justice, humanity’s sin, the need for God’s justice to be satisfied either by punishing us or punishing another, and the fact that God showed His mercy by sending His Son.1

The Necessity of Satisfaction

The canons’ second point of doctrine on the issue of Christ’s death begins with the doctrine of God:

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 (2.1).

So often we hear that “God is love,” which has been turned into a one-sided slogan. This article brings us back to the full-orbed truth: God is both infinitely merciful and infinitely just. Because of His simplicity—He cannot be divided up into various parts with various passions2—He is a God of both infinite mercy and infinite justice. The Lord is not only “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” but He is also the One “who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:6–7).

Because God cannot cease to be either merciful or just, His justice requires that each and every one of our sins we have committed against His infinite majesty be punished with temporal and eternal punishments of soul and body. We hear that threat in the garden: “In the day that you eat of [the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil] you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). We hear that threat in the New Testament: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

In fact, the only way we can escape God’s infinitely just punishment for sin is through the satisfaction of His justice. And by means of satisfaction of justice, mercy is poured out on us. What is satisfaction? It means “making amends or reparation; specifically, the making amends for sin required by God for forgiveness to take place.”3 Going back to my previous article, the specific issue according to the canons is satisfaction, not a generic, undefined “atonement.”4 The necessity of satisfying the justice of God is implied and expressed in several ways in 2 Corinthians 5. Notice verse 18: Paul says it was “God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.” Reconciliation means to bring two opposing, warring sides together in peace. On the one side, there is us. As verse 19 says, we have many “trespasses.” We have gone beyond the bounds of God’s law. We have seen the sign He has put up but we have disregarded Him and kept going beyond it. On the other side, there is God. Because of our trespasses, we have violated His laws; therefore, we have come under His judgment and punishment.

Another way that we see the necessity of satisfying the justice of God is in verse 21, where Paul says we have become “the righteousness of God.” God’s righteousness is His uprightness in relation to His own law. He is a judge who takes no bribes. He is a judge who cannot be fooled. He is a judge who does not make mistakes. He is a judge who never lets sentiment or public opinion sway Him. But the wonder of the gospel is that we have this righteousness because of Jesus Christ.

The Nature of Satisfaction

How can an infinitely just God be reconciled to a people who deserve an infinite punishment? The Roman Catholic Church says satisfaction comes through faith and obedience as well as participation in the sacraments and suffering in purgatory. Johann Tetzel, the notorious indulgence peddler, said, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” But can sinners like us really make satisfaction? The Eastern Orthodox Church says we grow more and more like the divine in this life through mystical union through the liturgy and sacraments until one day we are united to the divine. But how can this happen, since God is perfectly righteous? Canons of Dort 2.2 says,

Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God’s anger, God in his 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.

Since we cannot contribute to satisfaction and thereby deliver ourselves from God’s just anger, what hope is there for us? It is found here in the very nature of what satisfaction is.

First, the nature of satisfaction is that it is God who initiates and accomplishes it. Look at who is doing the action in 2 Corinthians 5. In verse 14, we read of “the love of Christ” (emphasis added), that is, not merely Paul’s love for Christ but Christ’s own love for sinners. In verse 18, Paul says “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (emphasis added), and then again in verse 19, “That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself . . . and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (emphasis added). Verse 20 amazingly says that it isGod” who is “making his appeal through us.” What a God! What good news! Article 2.2 of the Canons of Dort is one of the most succinct summaries of the gospel in all the confessional literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: “God in his 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.”

His only begotten Son 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.

Second, the nature of satisfaction is that God has provided His Son as a vicarious or substitutionary sacrifice. God is infinitely just. He must punish with an infinite punishment all our sins. We cannot escape because we cannot make satisfaction to that kind of justice. Therefore, Christ stands in our place and takes upon Himself the infinite justice of God for us. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:14, where Paul says of “the love of Christ” that “one has died for all” and again in verse 15 that “he died for all” and “for their sake died and was raised” (emphases added).

Third, the nature of satisfaction is that God has provided this vicarious sacrifice in a great exchange. Is there any gospel promise more beautiful in all the Scriptures than 2 Corinthians 5:21? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That means: “For our sake” the righteous God “made” His Son Jesus Christ “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in” Jesus Christ “we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul says that God Himself has provided for us a vicarious sacrifice, a great exchange between His judgment on our sins and Christ’s righteousness to our benefit. This is why canon 2.2 says Jesus “was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place.” When people say that Christ did not actually satisfy the justice of God and merit salvation for anyone in particular5, they take away the glory of Christ’s substitution. The Remonstrant error is that “for our sake” means “for our (potential) sake” but not “in our place.” It also takes away the comfort of our salvation, expressed in some of our great hymnody. P.P. Bliss celebrated this substitutionary satisfaction like this:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,

In my place condemned he stood,

Sealed my pardon with his blood;

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Guilty, helpless, lost were we;

Blameless Lamb of God was he,

Sacrificed to set us free:

Hallelujah, what a Savior!6

Horatius Bonar expressed it like this:

On merit not my own I stand;

On doings which I have not done,

Merit beyond what I can claim,

Doings more perfect than my own.

Upon a life I have not lived,

Upon a death I did not die;

Another’s life, another’s death,

I stake my whole eternity.

Jesus, O Son of God, I build

On what Thy cross has done for me;

There both my death and life I read,

My guilt, my pardon there I see.7

In our exploration of Jesus Christ’s death and its relation to our redemption, let’s keep the main thing the main thing by emphasizing that God is just, that we and all people are sinful and need God’s justice to be satisfied through punishment, and that God has showed His mercy by sending His Son to do this very thing.8

 

  1. On this “catholic” approach of the canons, see W. Robert Godfrey, “Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dordt,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 243–60. ↩︎
  2. Thirty-Nine Articles, article 1; Westminster Confession of Faith 2.1 ↩︎
  3. “Satisfactio,” in Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985). ↩︎
  4. See “satisfactio vicaria,” in Muller, Dictionary. ↩︎
  5. See the canons’ “rejection of errors” 1, 3. ↩︎
  6. From the hymn “‘Man of Sorrows,’ What a Name,” in Psalter Hymnal, 381:2. ↩︎
  7. Horatius Bonar, “Christ for Us,” in Communion Hymns (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1881), 73. ↩︎
  8. On this “catholic” approach of the canons, see W. Robert Godfrey, “Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dordt,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 243–60. ↩︎

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