Q. 37 What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
A. 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; in order that by His passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
In an attempt at brevity, I would like to quickly outline here the meaning of “the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race,” as intended in the Heidelberg Catechism answer above. It seems pretty plain to me that “the sin of the whole human race” means unequivocally the sin of the whole human race. If one were trying to come up with a way to say all the sins of all people, I cannot think of a clearer way to say it. But many continue to suggest otherwise. Even in the Study Guide that all four of my children have either worked through, or are currently working through, we read the following:
“The whole human race” means all kinds of people in every age. (Norman Jones, Study Helps on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 83)
If I remember correctly, G. I. Williamson says much the same in his popular study on the Catechism (though it is among the many casualties of my book-loaning zeal, so I cannot quote it here).
The motivation for the limited interpretation seems to be the John Owen inspired insistence that if Christ died for the sins of all, then all would (or should) be saved. Zacharias Ursinus, the primary (or sole) author of the Catechism, responds to this objection (and similar) no less than three times in his commentary on his own Catechism.
Obj. 2. All those ought to be received into favor for whose offences a sufficient satisfaction has been made. Christ has made a sufficient satisfaction for the offences of all men. Therefore all ought to be received into favor; and if this is not done, God is either unjust to men, or else there is something detracted from the merit of Christ. Ans. The major is true, unless some condition is added to the satisfaction; as, that only those are saved through it, who apply it unto themselves by faith. But this condition is expressly added, where it is said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 213)
Obj. 4. If Christ made satisfaction for all, then all ought to be saved. But all are not saved. Therefore, he did not make a perfect satisfaction. Ans. Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof; for he fulfilled the law in a two-fold respect. First, by his own righteousness; and secondly, by making satisfaction for our sins, each of which is most perfect. But the satisfaction is made ours by an application, which is also two-fold; the former of which is made by God, when he justifies us on account of the merit of his Son, and brings it to pass that we cease from sin; the latter is accomplished by us through faith. For we apply unto ourselves, the merit of Christ, when by a true faith, we are fully persuaded that God for the sake of the satisfaction of his Son, remits unto us our sins. Without this application, the satisfaction of Christ is of no benefit to us. (p. 400)
Obj. 3. It is proper and just that he who has received a ransom sufficient for the sins of all, should admit all into his favor. God has received in his Son a ransom sufficient for the sins of the whole world. Therefore he is bound to receive all into his favor. Ans. It is just that he should admit all into his favor, who has received a ransom sufficient for all, and which is to be applied to all. But there is no application of this to all, because it is said, “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.” But a ransom, say our opponents, that is sufficient for all, ought to be applied to all; because it belongs to infinite mercy to do good to all. But we deny that infinite mercy consists in the number, that are saved. It consists rather in the manner in which they are saved. God, moreover, will not bestow this blessing upon all, because he is most wise and just. He can, and will exercise his mercy and justice at the same time. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” He that believes not is condemned already,” &c. (John 3 : 15, 18.) It is still further objected: He who receives a ransom that is sufficient for all, and yet does not save all, is unjust ; because he receives more than he bestows. But God is not unjust. Therefore he receives all into his favor. Ans. He, who thus acts, is unjust unless he himself gave the ransom. But God gave it. Therefore he receives of his own, and not of that which belongs to us. Again: it is not the sufficiency, but the application of this ransom which binds God to receive all into his favor. But he has not obligated himself to apply this ransom to all. (p. 535)
Ursinus maintains in answer to each objection that “Christ has made a sufficient satisfaction for the offences of all men,” that “Christ has satisfied for all,” and that “God has received in his Son a ransom sufficient for the sins of the whole world.” (We see this throughout his Commentary: Christ “died for the sins of the whole world” [p. 181]; “endured…the wrath of God against the sins of the whole world” [p. 182]; “satisfying for the sins of the human race” ; “the atonement of Christ is for the sins of the whole world” [p. 213]; “to offer himself a sacrifice for the sins of the world” [p. 331]; “he felt and endured the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind” [p. 396]; “making a satisfaction for the sins of the whole world” [p. 404]; “die such a death as would be a sufficient ransom for the sins of the world” [p. 409].)
So why does Ursinus not come to the same conclusion as do his objectors both modern and ancient? Fundamentally, the mechanism of the Atonement as taught in the Heidelberg Catechism is different than that of many post-Reformed Scholastic theologians, and is in closer agreement to the ancient Fathers of the Church, the Medieval Scholastics, and the First and Second Generation Reformers, with respect to extent. For Ursinus, there was not a quantity of wrath received for a quantity of sins for a specific quantity of individuals. Rather, the teaching of the Catechism is that Christ bore the full and infinite wrath of God; that is, in His very Person, Christ received the whole of the wrath of God toward sin. This is why the satisfier had to be not only true and righteous man, but also true God:
Q. 17 Why must He be at the same time true God?
A. 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.
Ursinus comments on this Q & A,
It was necessary that the ransom which the Redeemer paid should be of infinite value, that it might possess a dignity and merit sufficient for the redemption of our souls, and that it might avail in the judgment of God, for the purpose of expiating our sins, and restoring in us that righteousness and life which we had lost. Hence it became the person who would make this satisfaction for us, to be possessed of infinite dignity, that is, to be God; for the dignity of this satisfaction, on account of which it might be acceptable to God and of infinite worth, although temporal, consists in two things–in the dignity of the person, and in the greatness of the punishment.
The dignity of the person who suffered appears in this, that it was God, the Creator himself, who died for the sins of the world; which is infinitely more than the destruction of all creatures, and avails more than the holiness of all the angels and men. […]
The greatness of the punishment which Christ endured appears in this, that he sustained the dreadful torments of hell, and the wrath of God against the sins of the whole world. (pp. 181-182)
By being both true and sinless man and also true God, Christ was able to bear the full wrath of God against the sins of the whole human race. The question of whether every member of the human race benefits from this all sufficient infinite sacrifice is addressed directly in Q/A 20:
Q. 20 Are all men, then, saved by Christ as they have perished in Adam?
A. No; only such as by true faith are engrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits
Again, Ursinus comments:
The reason why all are not saved through Christ, is not because of any insufficiency of merit and grace in him–for the atonement of Christ is for the sins of the whole world, as it respects the dignity and sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made–but it arises from unbelief; because men reject the benefits of Christ offered in the gospel, and so perish by their own fault, and not because of any insufficiency in the merits of Christ. The other part of the answer is also evident from the Scriptures. “As many as received him to them, gave he power to become the sons of God.” “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many.” (John 1: 12. Is. 53 : 11.) The reason why only those who believe are saved, is, because they alone lay hold of, and embrace the benefits of Christ; and because in them alone God secures the end for which he graciously delivered his Son to death; for only those that believe know the mercy and grace of God, and return suitable thanks to him.
The sum of this whole matter is therefore this: that although the satisfaction of Christ, the mediator for our sins, is perfect, yet all do not obtain deliverance through it, but only those who believe the gospel, and apply to themselves the merits of Christ by a true faith. (pp. 212-213)
The Atonement of Christ—being of infinite dignity, value, and sufficiency for the sins of the whole human race—only becomes effectual for anyone via union with He who has borne this infinite wrath in His Person. Though all of the benefits of redemption have been secured by Christ, only those who unite with Him by true faith receive Him with all His benefits. As we read before, “Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof. […] Without this application, the satisfaction of Christ is of no benefit to us” (p. 400). As I am wont to say, there is no action at a distance in the Atonement.
Finally, though the extent of the Atonement is unlimited in Q/A 37, the intent of the Atonement is nevertheless limited. Remember that the answer says that Christ suffered for the sins of the whole human race “in order that by His passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.” The purpose and intent of Christ bearing the infinite wrath of God was to redeem His elect, and only His elect. Ursinus comments on the Article of the Creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilot,” the following:
It is […] to believe, first, that Christ, from the very moment of his birth, endured, arid sustained miseries of every kind; and that he, especially at the closing period of his life, suffered under Pilate the most severe torments both of body and soul, and that he felt the dreadful wrath of God, in making a satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, and in appeasing the divine anger which had been excited by sin. It is also to believe, in the second place, that he endured all this in my behalf and has thus satisfied also for my sins by his passion, and merited for me remission of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. (p. 404)
And further, under the heading “Did Christ Die for All?” we read,
Christ died for all as it regards the merit and efficacy of the ransom which he paid; but only for those that believe as it respects the application and efficacy of his death; for seeing that the death of Christ is applied to such alone, and is profitable to them, it is correctly said to belong properly to them alone, as has been already shown. (p. 415)
Christ bore true Human Nature, united with His Godhead, in order to bear the infinite burden of God’s wrath against the sin of the whole human race. He did this that all elected by the Father and given to Him would receive the benefit of this Ransom by union with Him, effected by His Holy Spirit through the instrument of faith. The intent was always according to the Divine Decree to save a chosen communion. The means was by the Second Adam bearing the infinite wrath of God toward the whole of mankind’s sin, bearing up under it, coming out the other side through His resurrection, vindicated and containing within Him the benefits of Justification and Regeneration, that all who are united with Him by true faith would receive these benefits.
It seems to me that the plain and unquestionable teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism, as evidence by the Catechism itself and the express interpretation of its author, is that the extent of the Atonement includes the sins of the whole human race—not some sins of some people—but also that the intent of the Atonement is to apply this ransom only to the elect. At this point we can either assume that the Catechism is in error and that subsequent theologians have perfected that which was lacking; or alternatively, we can receive the teaching of the Catechism as the historic faith regarding extent, countenanced by the Fathers of the Church, the Medieval Scholastics, and the Reformation proper. I, of course, prefer the latter.
[I also would suggest thinking this through in light of Ursinus’ teaching on Union with Christ: “Union with Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism“]