The Traditional Reformed Formula
Like every other doctrine central to the Christian Faith, the Atonement of Jesus Christ has been the subject of endless controversy and unnecessary confusion. Questions about its nature, as well as its design, abound in every circle. Even among the Reformed, while there is certainly a strong, common, and confessional consensus on the main points of the doctrine, there remains a diversity of opinion on matters intimately related.
One such matter is the validity of the Traditional Reformed Formula, used in reference to the question of those for whom Christ died. Did Jesus die for the elect alone? Or is there some sense in which it can be said that he died for all? Historically, the Reformed have answered this question by saying that Christ died “sufficiently for all, but efficiently for the elect.” And again, while not everybody agrees that this formula adequately represents the biblical doctrine, others of us have nonetheless come to embrace it as the only reasonable and satisfactory expression which can account for the whole of the biblical data.
Therefore, with this in mind, I plan to take several blog posts, to present the doctrine of the Atonement from a distinctly Reformed perspective. And while the Reformed doctrine is not limited to the question of the Traditional Reformed Formula, it certainly cannot escape it. As indicated above, when the time comes, I will seek to make the case for the total sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all men. To lay the ground work for that discussion, I want to begin here by defining the proper categories.
Distinguishing Things Which Differ
With the apostle Paul I desire that men everywhere “may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” But why? “So that ye may approve things that are excellent [lit. distinguish things that differ, (δοκιμαζειν, διαφεροντα)]; that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Jesus Christ” (Php. 1:10). This applies to doctrine as well as ethics. For how can we prove our teaching to be more “excellent” than other presentations of the facts if we fail to draw our lines straight and in the appropriate places?
I would argue that the single most common cause of misunderstanding concerning the doctrine of the Atonement, is the inadvertent conflation of two distinct categories of consideration, namely, its nature and its design. The failure in recent times to thoroughly differentiate these two points has not only contributed to the confusion of Reformed Christians – it has justified the misrepresentations of our non-Reformed constituency.
R.B. Kuiper writes,
There is, I fear, an additional reason of quite another kind for the unpopularity of the doctrine of the particular atonement. It lies not in Calvinism, but in Calvinists, not in the Reformed Faith, but in some of its teachers; and it is not complimentary to them. Seldom does one hear from a Reformed pulpit an accurate statement of this doctrine. It is not at all unusual for Reformed preachers, in attempting to state it, to content themselves with saying that Christ died only for the elect. But that presentation requires both explanation and amplification. By itself it falls short of doing justice either to the Scriptural data bearing on the matter, to its historic formulation in the creeds of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, or to the writings of the ablest Reformed theologians. In consequence, serious-minded hearers who have at least a superficial acquaintance with those passages of Scripture which bear on the scope of the atonement and who are not completely ignorant of the teaching on this subject by the church’s confessions and theologians, are left dissatisfied and confused.1
The Nature of the Atonement
When the Reformed speak about the nature of the atonement, we generally have no less than three things in mind. First, we must affirm that the atonement is objective, meaning that it is primarily intended to influence the offended, rather than the offender. In other words, the satisfaction rendered is never directed toward the sinner, but toward God Himself, in order that He might be propitiated, and reconciled to man. Biblically, this can be seen from the descriptions which mark the sacrificial duties of the priesthood.
For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Heb. 5:1)
So while it is true that high priests are always taken from men, to make atonement for men, they are never said to offer their sacrifices to men. In this same connection the Hebrew writer goes on to show that in the atonement of Jesus Christ, he who is both our High Priest and Final Sacrifice, likewise “offered himself without spot, to God” (Heb. 9:14).
The second thing we must affirm is that by nature, biblical atonement is a satisfaction to divine justice. This means that the death of Jesus Christ was more than a loving example. It was a legal requirement without which no man could be saved. Because the moral law is the transcript of the divine Nature, every violation of it contains absolute intrinsic demerit, not merely capable but altogether worthy of condemnation. In other words, the penal demands of the law cannot be set aside without compromising God’s own character, and its several relations, established by the divine will.
This is why the Bible says that death is the “wages” of sin (Rom. 6:23), and that they which commit such things are “worthy” of death (Rom. 1:32). It is not only God’s will that accounts for His determination to punish sin. Rather, His essential attribute of Justice makes it a “righteous thing” for God to recompense tribulation (2 Thes. 1:6) for sin. Simply put, God’s holy, and immutable character prevents Him from offering a mere pardon of sin. Without the righteous punishment of sin, there would remain an outstanding violation of God’s Justice.
For this reason, Scripture describes the crucifixion of Jesus as a public vindication of God’s righteousness. The point is that for God to pardon sinners (whether in the old or new testaments) their sin had to be punished according to the law. In Romans 3:24 Paul states that we are justified “freely by God’s grace” but only “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
In verses 25, 26 we read,
Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Finally, when speaking of its nature, we also must affirm that the atonement is vicarious, meaning that Jesus Christ suffered, in his function as sacrifice, as the substitute for sinners. Because we all sinned, fell, and were made subject to the curse and wrath of the law, Jesus was likewise “made under the law” (Gal. 4:4) for the purpose of being “made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). The curse and condemnation our sins deserve, was legally redirected to the Son of God, who stood in our place. The Scripture is replete with statements to this effect, so that this truth can be seen from at least two considerations.
First, we might point to the string of passages which depict our Savior as “bearing our iniquities,” the guilt of our sins having been “laid upon him” by “imputation” (Isa. 53:6, 12; 1 Pet. 2:24; 2 Cor. 5:20, 21). Second, we might also mention certain prepositional indications, found in the original language. For instance, the preposition υπερ (for), when it is used with the genitive, normally points to the idea of substitution, as in John 11:50, where Caiaphas declares, “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for (υπερ) the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” The meaning there is that if Christ dies, the nation would not have to. The life of Jesus would be substituted for the lives of others. Likewise in 1 Peter 3:18, we read that “Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for (υπερ) the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” Here again, the meaning is equally clear.
While υπερ can, and often does, contain vicarious overtones, there can be no doubt that the term αντι (for), perhaps more than any other word in the Greek language, expresses the idea of strict substitution. This can be seen in phrases like, “an eye for (αντι) an eye, and a tooth for (αντι) a tooth” (Mat. 5:38), as well as statements like, “Archelaus did reign in Judea in the room of (αντι) his father Herod” (Mat. 2:22). Therefore we read in Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many (λυτρον αντι πολλων).
In the next installment (here) we will consider how Reformed theologians customarily differentiate the nature of the atonement from its redemptive design. In doing so, we will move on to consider two important subcategories of its nature; namely, its value and its applicability. In addition, I will also show that such model is not only assumed, but expressly stated in the Confessional documents of the Reformed Church.
1. R.B. Kuiper, For Whom Did Christ Die, pg 6