Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Synod of Dort. Previous Post. Next Post.
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This is one of those pure gospel sayings that we all need to have emblazoned on our minds and on our hearts. It contains the sweet honey, the inner marrow, and the rich fatness of the gospel. It brings peace to our consciences, joy to our hearts, and praise to our lips. After more than one thousand years of the Day of Atonement, Passover, daily morning and evening sacrifices, and freely offered sacrifices, the final Old Testament prophet (Matt. 11:13), John the Baptist, proclaimed that what the shadow of all those sacrificial lambs pointed forward to had come. Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice for the sin that this world has committed against its Creator (Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). He is the Lamb of God.
Such a statement is also a classic place to consider the sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. Some claim that the mere mention of texts such as John 1:29 or John 3:16 defeat Reformed theology, as if to say, “You see, Jesus died for everyone.” One book even has an image of a balance, with “John Calvin” on the high side and “John 3:16” weighing down the other.1 But as we’ve seen already, this is overly simplistic. Unless one believes in universally effectual salvation, everyone limits the effectiveness of Jesus’ death. We have to ask, in what sense does Jesus take away the sins of the world? Texts such as John 1:29 have been understood throughout the history of the church to express the sufficiency of Jesus’ satisfaction of God’s infinite justice on the cross.
The Infinite Value of Jesus’ Satisfaction
When John said, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” he proclaimed the infinite value of Jesus’ death. This value or worth is expressed in the phrase “the sin of the world.” Notably, in this phrase, John speaks of “sin” in the singular. Why? He’s speaking of the collective sin and guilt of “the world” of humanity that stands opposed to its Creator beginning with Adam’s original sin. He’s not speaking here of just the Jews’ sins, just the Greeks’ sins, or just the Romans’ sins. He’s speaking of “the sin,” meaning that guilty state under which our entire race finds itself. Because he’s speaking of the collective state of sin, this helps us understand that he’s speaking of the infinite value of Christ’s satisfaction of the justice of God toward that sinful state. The Canons of Dort state it like this: “This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction [satisfactio] for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone [“expiate”; expianda] for the sins of the whole world” (2.3).
“Infinite value.” “Infinite worth.” “More than sufficient,” or better, “Abundantly sufficient” (abunde sufficiens). “The whole world.” What wonderful statements to sinners like you and me who wonder, “Can His satisfaction reach all the way down to me? Can His satisfaction reach all the way over here to me?” This is why the worth of this sufficiency has been expressed quantitatively with language like “millions” or “worlds.” Thomas Aquinas said the death of Christ “is sufficient to redeem and save all as well as if there were infinite worlds.”2 Even those Reformed theologians whom we saw in my first article affirmed that Jesus’ death was for the elect and considered the sufficiency/efficiency distinction unhelpful at best still spoke this way. William Perkins said, “The price is in itself sufficient to redeem everyone without exception from his sins, albeit there were a thousand worlds of men.”3 John Owen said, “If there were a thousand worlds, the gospel of Christ might, upon this ground, be preached to them all, there being enough in Christ for the salvation of them all, if so be they will derive virtue from him by touching him in faith.”4 No matter how many worlds there might have been, Jesus’ death is sufficient for them all.
The Infinite Value of Jesus’ Person
What made Jesus’ satisfaction of infinite value? John said the “Lamb of God” offered Himself. And He is of infinite value. Listen again to the Canons of Dort:
This death is of such great value and worth for the reason that the person who suffered it is—as was necessary to be our Savior—not only a true and perfectly holy man, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit. (2.4)
The Lamb of John 1:29 is the same person described earlier as the eternal Word, who is both God and in relation to God (John 1:1–2, 18), the One through whom all things came to be in the beginning (1:3, 10), and the one full of glory, grace, and truth (1:14, 17). The infinite value of Jesus’ satisfaction is rooted in His infinite divinity. It’s also rooted in His being truly human, like you and me, except for His sinlessness (John 1:14). He was “made like his brothers in every respect” (Heb. 2:17), “shar[ing] in flesh and blood” with us (2:14), yet He was not merely human, but perfectly human: “in every respect . . . tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). As the book of Hebrews says, He is the kind of perfect priest we need: “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (7:26).
The person of the divine Son who took to Himself a true and perfect human nature in the incarnation offered Himself up as an infinitely valuable sacrifice and satisfaction. Because He, through whom all things were made, hung helpless on the cross, we, finite sinners, have hope for acceptance with Almighty God, singing:
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.5
The Infinite Value of Jesus’ Suffering
Because God’s justice is infinite, the suffering of this divine-human Lamb of God was also of infinite value: “Another reason [this death is of infinite value] is that this death was accompanied by the experience of God’s anger and curse, which we by our sins had fully deserved” (Canons of Dort 2.4). To “[take] away the sin of the world,” this Lamb had to experience God’s anger and curse on the cross. Jesus didn’t just die. Jesus suffered the wrath of God against sin and experienced the curse of God upon that sin. He even cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46). In his poem “La Corona” (the crown), the Puritan poet John Donne spoke of the suffering of the God-man in these terms:
Measuring self-life’s infinity to span,
Nay to an inch. Lo! where condemned He
Bears His own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears him, He must bear more and die.
The cross bore Christ, but Christ bore the curse, the judgment, the punishment, and wrath of God (Rom. 5:16; Gal. 3:10). As we sing on Good Friday:
O noblest Brow and dearest,
In other days, the world
All feared when Thou appearedst;
What shame is on Thee hurled!
How art Thou pale with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish,
Which once was bright as morn!6
God’s punishment was not partial, but entire. There was nothing more the Son had to suffer; there still is nothing more He has to suffer. Back to canon 2.3, Christ’s death is “more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” English translators get stuck using the language of “atonement,” which is not specific. The writers of the canons, though, used the specific word expianda, “expiate.” Satisfaction is a payment of debts; expiation is the purgation of those debts.7
Let me give an illustration. If a fire captain enters a burning building, he experiences the full danger and heat of that fire, whether he rescues one person or one hundred people. Jesus suffered all there is to suffer on the cross when He came to rescue us. There was no limit to that suffering. And if He came to save one person in our world or every person on a million worlds, what He suffered was sufficient.
What does this doctrine mean for you? It means that there is no special kind of sinner that is outside the sufficiency of His suffering. What have you done? It doesn’t matter. Jesus suffered the infinite wrath of God. No particular sin can exclude you if you repent and believe. Behold the Lamb. And for the child of God, this means that Jesus’ sufficient suffering of the infinite justice and wrath of God continues to flow out to you. The Lamb’s blood is the ever-flowing, life-giving stream to our souls. We can never get enough of Christ. We can never outlive His infinite sacrifice. We can never out-sin His infinite sacrifice. We can never outrun His infinite sacrifice. It is sufficient.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on May 2, 2018.
- George Bryson, The Five Points of Calvinism: Weighed and Found Wanting, http://evangelicalarminians.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Bryson.-THE-FIVE-POINTS-OF-CALVINISM_-WEIGHED-AND-FOUND-WANTING.pdf, accessed August 18, 2017. ↩︎
- Thomas Aquinas, Opera Omnia (Paris: Ludovicus Vives, 1871), 32:168. ↩︎
- William Perkins, “A Christian and Plain Treatise of the Manner and Order of Predestination, and of the Largeness of God’s Grace,” trans. Francis Cacot and Thomas Tuke, in The Workes of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge M. William Perkins (London: John Kegatt, 1631), 2:609 col. 1. ↩︎
- The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1993), 10:297. ↩︎
- From the hymn “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed.” ↩︎
- From the hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” ↩︎
- “Expiatio,” in Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 111. ↩︎