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.
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 passions—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.” Going back to my previous article, the specific issue according to the canons is satisfaction, not a generic, undefined “atonement.” 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 is “God” 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.”