The Applicability of the Atonement
In our previous post (found here) we saw that the design of the atonement should always be distinguished from the question of its inherent value. Following the Hodges, moreover, we find that the same thing is true concerning its applicability. But what exactly does the term “applicability” mean, and more importantly, what is the biblical basis for such an unfamiliar affirmation?
To begin with, the applicability of the atonement is an objective concept not to be confused with the subjective application of the atonement. While the latter is particular, and therefore limited to the elect, the former is unlimited and therefore universal. It may be helpful to point out that “applicability” simply means that the righteousness of Jesus Christ is able to be applied to every member of the human race. It does not mean that it is, or ever will be so applied. To conclude such would be to collapse the very categories we have labored so hard to distinguish.
The fact of the matter is that, regardless of its redemptive design, there is nevertheless a certain “suitableness” which marks the work of the Savior, in that whatever was needed for the salvation of the elect was also the precise thing needed for the salvation of the non-elect.
A.A. Hodge supplies the theological framework,
When we say that Christ our Substitute assumed our law-place, the specific thing we mean is, that he became the federal head of the elect under the Covenant of Redemption, which provided for his assuming in relation to them all the conditions of the violated Covenant of Works.¹
This is an important statement. The point here is that if any man would be saved, his substitute must fulfill all the conditions of the Covenant of Works, both prescriptive and penal. And since the Word of God assures us that Jesus Christ did just that, it follows that he rendered the obedience required of all, and suffered the penalty all had incurred. This being the case, the question remains: What more would he have needed to accomplish had he willed to redeem the entire human race? Insofar as a satisfaction to divine justice is concerned the answer is, Absolutely nothing. The work of Jesus Christ is equally suited and objectively applicable to every man, woman and child, who stands under the condemnation of Adam’s fall.
Charles Hodge reinforces the point,
All mankind were placed under the same constitution or covenant. What was demanded for the salvation of one was demanded for the salvation of all. Every man is required to satisfy the demands of the law. No man is required to do either more or less. If those demands are satisfied by a representative or substitute, his work is equally available for all. The secret purpose of God in providing such a substitute for man, has nothing to do with the nature of his work, or with its appropriateness. The righteousness of Christ being of infinite value or merit, and being in its nature precisely what all men need, may be offered to all men.²
According to Scripture
In Hebrews 2:10, we learn that it was God’s purpose to “bring many sons unto glory.” We know that this is a reference to the elect, because in verse 12 Christ refers to them as “my brethren,” and in verse 13 he calls them, “the children which God hath given me.” The important thing to see, however, is that in order for God to accomplish His specific purpose He had to provide for his “sons” a suitable Savior; one that could lawfully represent them, and ultimately suffer in their place, that is, “to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (v. 17).
But again, if this work of redemption will be accomplished for man, it must needs be accomplished by man. This is the contextual argument of Hebrews 2; the need for Christ to become Man.
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same. (v 14).
I believe a strong case can be made from Hebrews 2, that the redemption of Jesus Christ was accomplished, objectively speaking, on a generic (nonspecific) level. This might be seen from the generic categories of nature the writer sets up in contrast form, between Angel and Man. In verses 5-8 the writer quotes Psalm 8:4-6, which speaks of Man in the singular, as a whole genus (i.e. Mankind).
What is Man that thou art mindful of him?
Moreover, in verse 11 of Hebrews 2 we read,
For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren.
Since the unity spoken of here between Christ and his people is the very reason he is not ashamed to call them brethren, there’s no reason why it cannot be a reference to the common human genus when it says that “they are all of one.”
After all, because the overall emphasis of the text is not that we are “made like unto the Son of God,” but rather that it behooved Christ, “to be made like unto his brethren in all things,” it seems very unlikely that the phrase “all of one” should refer to the consequent unity that we enter into through Christ as a result of redemption (adoption). Rather it seems more likely that this oneness refers to that generic unity which Christ himself entered into with us at the point of his incarnation.
Furthermore, the context is so patently centered upon the need for Christ to become Man, that even the translators of the KJV implied this thematic category of genus identification as they supplied nonspecific terms for the sense of verse 16.
For verily he took not on him – the nature of – angels.
According to the Heidelberg
And finally, the Heidelberg Catechism consistently employs generic terms to describe the nature of Christ’s satisfaction for sin. First, no other creature can make satisfaction for the sin of man.
Q14. Can any mere creature make satisfaction for us?
None; for first, God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man committed; and further, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin, and redeem others from it.
Second, there are two distinct natures necessary for the full satisfaction for sin; the nature of man and the nature of God. How so? Because Christ has two natures but is not two persons.
Q15. What kind of mediator and redeemer, then, must we seek?
One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is also true God.
Third, God’s justice requires that satisfaction be rendered from within the violating genus of humanity. Since human nature sinned human nature must satisfy.
Q16. Why must He be a true and righteous man?
Because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should make satisfaction for sin; but one who is himself a sinner cannot satisfy for others.
Finally, we see generic categories employed to describe the work of satisfaction itself. The divine nature is necessary to sustain human nature as it bears the wrath of God.
Q17. Why must He also be true God?
That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath, and so obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life.
As we can see, the Catechism’s use of such terms as “man” (singular) in Q&A 14, “human nature” (nonspecific) in Q&A 16, and “manhood” (generic) in Q&A 17 unarguably lends itself to the conclusion that the satisfaction of Jesus Christ was accomplished on a generic level, and therefore it must be universally applicable to every human being.
Apparently then, it is this kind of objective, nonspecific, generic category of redemption that serves as the basis and justification for the universal language of Q&A 37.
Q37. What do you understand by the word “suffered?”
That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.
Now here is the point once more. Because the chosen sons of God are human, their enjoyment of eternal life is dependent upon the provision of a perfect human righteousness. That righteousness was provided by Christ. Incidentally therefore, this means that the satisfaction of Jesus Christ, consisting in his complete obedience to the Law of God as man necessarily answers the need of all men, not individually, but at the generic (nonspecific) level.
Or to quote Charles Hodge,
God in effecting the salvation of his own people, did whatever was necessary for the salvation of all men.
In our next installment (here) we will look at the heart of the Reformed distinctive. However, we will do so in a way that does not contradict all that we have seen so far.
1. A.A. Hodge, The Atonement, Ch VI, pg 77
2. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Ch. VII, found here
3. Hodge, Ibid