Isolating the Question
For the most part it has been customary for Reformed theologians to isolate the design of the atonement from all other related considerations, including its nature. This can be seen in the way Charles Hodge introduces the question in his Systematic Theology. Speaking of its design he writes, “The question therefore, does not, in the first place, concern the nature of Christ’s work.”1
In similar terms Louis Berkhof affirms that there is a real sense in which the atonement can be objectively considered in itself apart from the redemptive purpose for which God provided it. “The question with which we are concerned at this point is not whether the satisfaction rendered by Christ was in itself sufficient for the salvation of all men, since this is admitted by all.”2 In other words, there are two distinct categories of truth in the Atonement, and these categories should never be conflated.
In this second installment (you can find the first one here) we will consider the first of two important points regarding the nature of the atonement.
Its Meritorious Value
When we speak about the value of Christ’s atonement, we are referring to the infinite, intrinsic worth of its redemptive merit. To quote A.A. Hodge, “there was no need for him to obey or to suffer an iota more nor a moment longer in order to secure, if God so willed, the salvation of every man, woman, and child that ever lived.”3 In other words the value of the atonement is unlimited. As such, its saving capacity does not correspond to the number of sinners it actually saves. On this point, the Reformed Confessions are clear.
In the Canons of Dort we read,
This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.4
Unpacking this statement, Charles Hodge points out that it would be a gross misrepresentation of the Reformed doctrine to say that Christ only suffered “so much for so many” so that he would have needed to suffer more than he did, if there were more sinners included in the purpose of salvation.
This is not the doctrine of any Church on earth, and never has been. What was sufficient for one was sufficient for all. All that Christ did and suffered would have been necessary had only one human soul been the object of redemption; and nothing different and nothing more would have been required, had every child of Adam been saved through his blood.5
What Hodge is saying is that the redemptive merit of the atonement is not subject to numeric estimation or division, since the whole righteousness and satisfaction of Jesus Christ needs to be imputed to each and every person that ever believes. The appropriate words here are indivisible and therefore inexhaustible.
R.L. Dabney writes,
We must absolutely get rid of the mistake that expiation is an aggregate of gifts to be divided and distributed out, one piece to each receiver, like pieces of money out of a bag to a multitude of paupers. Were the crowd of paupers greater, the bottom of the bag would be reached before every pauper got his alms, and more money would have to be provided. I repeat, this notion is utterly false as applied to Christ’s expiation, because it is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth.6
Furthermore, when we speak about the value of Christ’s satisfaction in quantitative terms we make it sound as if redemption is pecuniary (commercial) in nature rather than penal (judicial). But this is wrong for at least three reasons:
First, the Bible teaches that the true nature of sin is crime and not debt. This is why the sentence for sin is capital punishment rather than indentured servitude. So when the Bible describes our salvation as having been “bought” or “purchased” it is speaking metaphorically. According to Peter, we were “not redeemed with silver or gold… but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Second, if the satisfaction of Christ was pecuniary, our liberation ceases to be a matter of grace, and redemption loses the element of personal forgiveness. Why? Because in pecuniary violations the claim is always upon the price and not the person, the debt and not the debtor. For this reason every creditor is bound to accept the payment of a debt – regardless of who provides it. On the other hand, criminal cases are inherently personal (Ezk. 18:4) so that the judge is neither required to allow, nor bound to accept, a substitutionary satisfaction (Ezk. 18:20). If He chooses to do so however (Isa. 53:4-6; 1 Pet. 3:18) it is a matter of sovereign grace (Isa. 53:10; Rom. 8:32) and personal forgiveness obtains.
Third, in pecuniary transactions the liberation of the debtor is not only expected, but immediately effected upon satisfaction. Charles Hodge explains,
Another important difference between pecuniary and penal satisfaction is that the one “ipso facto” liberates. The moment the debt is paid the debtor is free, and that completely. No delay can be admitted, and no conditions can be attached to his deliverance. But in the case of a criminal, as he has no claim to have a substitute take his place, if one be provided, the terms on which the benefits of that substitution shall accrue [to him], are matters of agreement, or covenant between the substitute and the magistrate who represents justice.7
The point here is that if the death of Christ was a pecuniary transaction, then sinners were saved at the cross and all of God’s elect are born regenerate, and in a justified state. But this is false. Ephesians 2:3 clearly teaches that at birth God’s elect are “by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”
In other words, the merits of Jesus Christ do not avail to the benefit of his people immediately. To the contrary, the rights and benefits acquired by his death all accrue to Jesus Christ himself (Acts 2:33). These benefits only accrue to the designed beneficiaries at such times (Lk. 24:49; 1 Pet. 1:3-5) and on such conditions (Eph. 1:13) as have been determined by the will of the Judge (John 3:16).
It is not true that, when Christ rendered full satisfaction to the Father for all His people, their guilt naturally terminated. A penal debt is not like a pecuniary debt in this respect. Even after the payment of a ransom, the removal of guilt may depend on certain conditions, and does not follow as a matter of course. The elect are not personally justified in the Scriptural sense until they accept Christ by faith and thus appropriate His merits.8
Summarizing the Points
In conclusion I want to summarize the several points affirmed in this post, and show how they are related to one another. To begin with, the Reformed doctrine of the atonement teaches that by nature, the satisfaction of Christ is of “infinite value and worth.” That being true, the value of the atonement cannot be numerically estimated or divided. Sin is an infinite offense which requires an infinite satisfaction. Sinners are many, but each one needs the whole, infinite, and undivided satisfaction of Christ imputed to him separately if he is to be justified. This means that speaking of the atonement in quantitative terms is not only unhelpful, it is misleading. In addition to being inconsistent with its infinite value and indivisible nature, quantitative language lends itself to pecuniary concepts, which when taken literally, militate against the scriptural facts.
In our next installment (here) we will move on to consider the applicability of the atonement. What does it mean for the atonement to be applicable? Also, what is the extent of its applicability, and why is that so important? My goal is to answer these questions in light of Scripture and (as usual) the Reformed Confessions.
1 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Ch. VII, found here
2 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Pt.III, Ch.VI, found here
3 A.A. Hodge, The Atonement, Pt. II, Ch. II, pg. 356
4 Canons of Dordt, Second Head, Art. III.
5 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Ch. VII, found here
6 R.L. Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism, found here
7 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Ch. VII, found here
8 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Pt.IV, Ch.IX, found here