"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE DEATH OF CHRIST
AND THE REDEMPTION OF MAN BY IT
WHY SOME DO NOT BELIEVE
This article is not the first time that the matter of how one responds to the preaching is raised in the Canons of Dort. Chapter I, Articles 4 & 5 confessed the twofold response to the preaching from the point of view of God's sovereignty; the Lord sends His messengers to whomever He wills, and works a response of faith in the hearts of those chosen to life. In Chapter II, Articles 6 & 7 the matter of response to the preaching comes up in the context of Christ's work: did Christ die for all men or not?
THE REALITY OF UNBELIEF
That "the promise of the gospel ... ought to be proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples" was the focus of Article 5. However, the preaching of the gospel has a twofold response: faith or unbelief. Article 6 confesses that not all who hear the preaching respond with faith. It confesses also why it is that some do not believe.
The fact that the preaching meets from time to time with unbelief is nothing new. One finds examples of this reaction in Scripture. For example, in John 3:16 Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus, said, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.". Jesus went on to say in verse 19, "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light .…" It already happened in the days of Jesus that people rejected the gospel. In Mark 6:6 we read that Jesus "... marvelled because of their unbelief." Three years after Jesus began His public ministry Pilate asked of the Jews who had gathered to witness Jesus' trial, "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" The response of the Jews was, "Let him be crucified! ... His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:22-25). Jesus had preached the gospel for three years, showing in word and in deed that He was indeed the Messiah. Yet the people's response to Jesus' preaching was one of unbelief.
How we'd love to see that the preaching of the gospel results only in faith! However, that does not happen and though this may disappoint us, it should not surprise us. Experience with mission work amongst the Aborigines or amongst the people of Port Moresby, for example, has taught us that despite great investments of time and money, the fruits of our labours may be minimal. It's disheartening, but we shouldn't be surprised because unbelief is a reaction to the preaching of the gospel.
Those who respond to the gospel with unbelief are sentenced to eternal condemnation. As one reads in John 3:36, "... he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." And in John 8:24, "Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins."
THE REASON FOR UNBELIEF: CHRIST'S FAULT OR THE SINNER'S FAULT?
This raises the question of why it is that people respond to the gospel with unbelief. This question has its setting in the context of Arminian thinking at the time of the Synod of Dort. The Arminians suggested two possible explanations, namely:
1) sinners don't want Christ, or,
2) Christ didn't die for all people.
The Arminians accused the Reformed of teaching the second of these two, namely, that Christ didn't die for all people. Now, it's true that Christ did not die for all people (see below). However, when the Arminians accused the Reformed of this teaching, they meant to portray the Reformed as teaching that Christ's death was for some only and therefore the others had no chance to be saved; after all, Christ didn't die for them. So: the Arminians sought to portray the Reformed of teaching a cruel doctrine: some may want to be saved but cannot be because Christ did not die for them. So it's Christ's fault that these poor people end up in hell.
This accusation of the Arminians, however, was a caricature of what the Reformed believed and taught. This is NOT Reformed teaching but a deliberate and cruel misrepresentation. Therefore, in the face of this caricature, the fathers at the Synod of Dort felt obliged to set forth what the Reformed do believe, namely, that unbelief is due to the sinner not wanting Christ. The fathers said, as we read in Article 6, "That ... many who have been called by the gospel neither repent nor believe in Christ but perish in unbelief does not happen because of any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross .…" The fathers were insistent: that sacrifice was perfect. See what the fathers wrote in Article 3 concerning Christ's death: it is "the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sins, of infinite value and worth, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world." If a sinner does not believe, and so perishes in unbelief, one can never blame Christ's sacrifice, as if Christ's death were in some way not adequate to pay for the sins of any or all people. Sinners perish in unbelief "through their own fault".
In explaining the Reformed position in such a way, the fathers also accented that those who hear the preaching are responsible for the way in which they respond to it. The preaching to mankind is a genuine call to all who hear, irrespective of what era one lives, what race or nationality or gender one is. All who hear must repent and believe. All are responsible for their response. No-one can say, "I wanted to believe, but I couldn't".
This is as true for those who sit under the preaching in church Sunday by Sunday as it is for those who hear the gospel for the first time from the mouth of a missionary. Though we are so used to the gospel, we must respond to the preaching; the responsibility to do so is ours. In Hebrews 3:7-11 the apostle quotes the following words from Psalm 95:
"Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, proved Me, and saw my works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, "They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways." So I swore in my wrath, "They shall not enter my rest."
Paul then continues in the verses 12 & 13, "Beware brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin." Note here how Paul emphasises the word 'today'. Note too that Paul was writing to Hebrew Christians, i.e. people who had come to faith in Christ and who sat under the preaching in Church. What was true for the Hebrews is also true for us today, namely, that we are responsible for responding to the preaching. If we do not respond to the preaching which we hear Sunday by Sunday, the fault is entirely our own.
WHY OTHERS DO BELIEVE
FAITH: BY THE FREE WILL OF MAN OR BY GOD'S GRACE?
It is by grace alone that a person responds to the preaching with faith. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God." Likewise, in Philippians 1:29 Paul writes concerning the faith of the gospel, "For to you it has been granted ..."; i.e. it was not earned, nor was it the choice of the Philippians, but it was given to them. In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul writes to the Corinthians, "For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you glory as if you had not received it?" And: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God ..." (2 Corinthians 5:17,18). It all leads Paul to say, "... he who glories, let him glory in the Lord" (2 Corinthians 10:17).
If our response to the preaching of the gospel is unbelief, this is our fault; if our response is belief, it is God's grace. That God by His grace is pleased to make me respond to His Word with faith makes me respond by praising Him, for this work of His points up what a wonderfully gracious God He is.
The Arminians will readily agree that man is saved by grace alone. The Arminians, though, give quite a different loading to the word 'grace' than do the Reformed. According to the Arminians, when man fell into sin and landed himself on Satan's side the only way back to God's side was by satisfying the condition which God placed between Himself and man, namely, obedience to His law. (The reader is referred to the Introduction to Chapter II, on page 34.) Realising that this was an insurmountable hurdle for man, God gave Christ to remove this hurdle by paying for sin by His death on the cross. In so doing Christ satisfied God's justice. Since God's justice was satisfied, the way was open for God to place between Himself and man a new, more manageable hurdle, namely, faith. Therefore, say the Arminians, people who want to get back to God's side make the decision themselves to believe, and by so doing, God reckons it to man as obedience to His law. 'Grace', said the Arminians, is that God gave Christ to remove the impossible hurdle between God and man. Man cannot save himself by obeying God's law, as one can read in Ephesians 2:8; in His grace God gave Christ to do so. But now that God in 'grace' has given Christ and so established a lower threshold, it is now man's responsibility to meet the lesser condition set by God, namely, to believe. This is a condition, a responsibility, which man can handle because man has the free will to decide whether or not he will believe. To the Arminians, then, the phrase 'by grace alone' means nothing more than that God has set a new condition. Now that God in grace has set the new condition, it is totally and completely up to man whether or not he will be saved.
However, the confession of Article 7 loads the word 'grace' with quite a different content than the Arminians taught. With the words of this article we confess, "... those who truly believe and are by the death of Christ freed from their sins and saved from perdition, this benefit comes only through God's grace, given to them from eternity in Christ. God owes this grace to no one." Whereas the Arminians say that grace refers to a deed of God in the past, the Reformed say that grace is God's work in man's heart today.
In the "Rejection of Errors" No 6 - Error, (Book of Praise, p. 548), the fathers quoted the Arminian heresy concerning the above. The Arminians taught, "As far as God is concerned, He has been minded to apply to all men equally the benefits acquired by the death of Christ; however, some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life and others do not. This difference depends on their own free will, which applies itself to the grace that is offered without distinction, and not on the special gift of mercy which so powerfully works in them that they rather than others apply this grace to themselves." In other words, grace is offered by God without distinction to all people, say the Arminians. However, man gets to decide if he appreciates God's grace or not. This totally contradicts LD 23, Q&A 60, where we confess that we are "righteous before God only by true faith in Jesus Christ.... God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin." In other words, it is God who freely gives, grants, imputes to us the benefits acquired by the death of Christ. As Romans 3:24 puts it, we are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus".
As far as the differences between the Arminians and the Reformed are concerned, these all hinge on the pivot of man's free will; is salvation a choice made by man or not?
THE EFFICACY OF THE DEATH OF CHRIST
Article 8 brings us to the heart of what Chapter II is all about namely, "The death of Christ and the redemption of man by it". Article 8 makes confession of the fact that the death of Christ is effective: it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
THE ARMINIAN POSITION
In refuting the Arminian position concerning the efficacy (=effectiveness) of Christ's death, the fathers pointed out that the Arminians taught a wrong distinction between the "acquisition of salvation" and the "application of salvation". Said the fathers: those who teach that it is man's free will which determines who shall believe or not "misuse the difference between acquisition and application of salvation ..." (Rejection of Errors, No 6 - Refutation, Book of Praise, p. 550). Article 8 confesses that Christ's work is effective. The Arminians on the other hand said, No, it is not necessarily effective. According to the Arminians, Christ died for all people. That is: by His death Christ removed the hurdle between God and man and so acquired (obtained) for all people the possibility of salvation. Man however, by his free will, can decide if he likes what God has prepared; this is the application of salvation. The Arminians separated the acquisition of salvation from the application of it.
It is true that the 'acquisition' and the 'application' of salvation need to be distinguished. For example, acquiring (=obtaining) sorbelene cream is something different from applying the cream. Acquisition and application are certainly two different things. But: how does one distinguish between the acquisition of salvation and the application of salvation? The Arminians said that the acquisition of salvation was the work of Christ, whereas the application of salvation is the work of man (see Figure 2). But here they go wrong. It is true that the acquisition of salvation is the work of Christ; Christ acquired salvation on the cross long ago. But the application of salvation is also the work of Christ. It is not man who applies to himself the redemption that Christ has acquired; it is rather Christ who both obtained salvation and applies it to sinners (see Figure 3). The way the Arminians differentiated between the two concepts meant that whereas Christ died for all, it is up to each individual whether he wants what God has prepared. Therefore, it was theoretically possible that God could end up with an empty heaven; i.e although Christ had acquired salvation for all, it was possible that no-one applied it.
THE REFORMED POSITION
On the basis of what they knew from Scripture, the fathers said that this could not be so. Man's salvation does not hinge on man's free will. The Bible says that those for whom Christ acquired salvation shall also receive salvation. The fathers said this on the authority of texts as the following:
- Romans 8:29,30
"For whom He foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified."
Here the apostle says very emphatically that God is all the time working with the very same number of people. The number in each group remains constant. Those whom God predestined are all called, justified and also glorified. All whom God predestined are also brought to faith and receive eternal life.
- Matthew 1:21
Said the angel to Joseph, "And (Mary) will bring forth a son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins."
Who did the angel say Jesus would save? For whom did Jesus acquire salvation? Not for all people, but for His people. This is a group of definite size, is the people whom the Father has given to the Son. For these (and no more) Jesus would die, for these He would acquired salvation. And these people shall also receive salvation, for this set number is "His" people.
- John 10:11; 27,28
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep .... My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand".
Christ gave His life, not for everyone, but for the sheep; those of His flock. All these sheep therefore have life. The acquisition and the application of salvation are for the very same people.
CHRIST EFFECTIVELY REDEEMS ALL WHO ARE CHOSEN TO SALVATION
"God the Father has ordained His Son to the death of the cross without a specific and definite decree to save any," said the Arminians (See Rejection of Errors, No 1 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 548). Although Christ died to acquire salvation, they said, it would be possible that no one benefit from it. "What Christ obtained (i.e. acquisition) by His death might have been necessary, profitable and valuable, and might remain in all its parts complete, perfect, and intact, even though the redemption He acquired had actually never been applied to any person (i.e application)." Note here how the Arminians have separated the acquisition and the application. But, says Article 8, "This was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect." The efficacy of Christ's death applied to all the elect. "It was His most gracious will and intent to give them alone justifying faith and thereby to bring them unfailingly to salvation." Christ effectively redeems all who are chosen to salvation. Christ's death accomplishes what it is supposed to accomplish. All who are given to the Son are given life eternal. In prayer Christ said to the Father, "Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him (i.e. the elect)" (John 17:1,2). See Figure 5.
THE FULFILMENT OF GOD'S COUNSEL
In their refutation of the Arminian error that those for whom Christ acquired salvation does not equate with the number of those who receive this salvation, the fathers said, "this error contradicts the article of faith concerning the Church" (Rejection of Errors, No 1 - Refutation, Book of Praise, p. 548). In other words, if it is true that Christ has died for all (acquiring salvation for all) but that people can themselves choose whether or not they want the salvation Christ obtained (and so theoretically only a few or even none choose to receive it), then there would be a time when there may not be a church on earth.
However, with a view to the fulfilment of God's counsel, this cannot be so - said the fathers. God, according to His eternal plan, determined that some shall be saved and what He has determined will definitely come to pass. The fathers said this on the authority of Scripture, for they read in Ephesians 1:11: "In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of His will." And Isaiah 46:9-11: "…I am God, and there is none like Me…, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure,' calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes my counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it". Therefore, if God has determined to save a certain number of people, then this shall happen, no matter how much Satan may rage at this.
In Article 27, Belgic Confession, we confess that the "one catholic or universal Church ... has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects. This holy Church is preserved by God against the fury of the whole world, although for a while it may look very small and as extinct in the eyes of man. Thus during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord kept for Himself seven thousand persons who had not bowed their knees to Baal." The Church will always be there because the counsel of God stands firm, irrespective of the attacks of hell. There will always be the faithful "7000": possibly an actual number in the days of Ahab but which today symbolises the number of fullness. "Concerning the holy catholic church of Christ I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life" (LD 21, Q&A 54). The Church of God, of which Christ is King, shall stand. In the face of the Arminian error, the fathers clung to the promises of God about His church.
Scripture warns us of the hellish attacks which the Church must endure. "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8). "Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time" (Revelation 12:12). But Satan's attacks do not necessarily come with loud shouting. Paul warns the Corinthians that Satan "transforms himself into an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). The attacks of hell are certainly felt by the Church. In the days of the Arminius, Satan dressed himself as a minister of light, ascending the pulpits to preach not the gospel of salvation by God's grace, but the Arminian doctrine of salvation by man's free will. However, even though Satan attacks the Church from the pulpit, God's counsel shall stand; God's faithful were preserved in those days too.
Therefore the fathers wrote in Article 9, "(God's) counsel, proceeding from eternal love for the elect, has from the beginning of the world to the present time been powerfully fulfilled, and will also continue to be fulfilled, though the gates of hell vainly try to frustrate it. In due time the elect will be gathered together into one, and there will always be a Church of believers, founded on the blood of Christ. This Church shall steadfastly love and faithfully serve Him as her Saviour (who as a bridegroom for his bride laid down His life for her on the cross) and celebrate His praises here and through all eternity."
Here the fathers are echoing the confident confession of Paul in Romans 8:31-39. Having just established that God brings to faith and salvation the full number of His elect in verse 30, Paul goes on to say to the Church at Rome, "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies." Even though the Church and the saints shall be hated by the devil, the world and their own flesh, "who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?" Certainly, hellish hatred is the lot of the Christian. "As it is written (in Psalm 44): 'For your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.' Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities (i.e. which Ephesians 6:12 describes as the host of demons) nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." If God has loved us so much, already from eternity, that He gave up His own Son to death in order that we might be saved from eternal death, then who can make God discontinue His love for us?? Scripture tells us that no-one can. With God we are safe, no matter how great and intense the rage of the gates of hell. God's counsel shall stand.
In Revelation 7:9-17 we read of John's vision concerning a "a great multitude ... standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes..." In his vision John was told that "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb .… The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters." The Lord sees to it that on the last day all His saints shall be gathered around His throne. Said the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd, concerning His elect, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand." The Father gave all the elect to His Son, and with Him they are eternally safe. As to the number of this multitude, we read in Revelation 14:1 that John saw "one hundred and forty- four thousand." This is a special number: 144 representing the 12 tribes of Israel who were the foundation of the Church in the Old Testament, multiplied by the 12 apostles who were the foundation of the Church in the New Testament; 1000 = 10 x 10 x 10: God's number. On the last day, no less than God's chosen number of elect shall be gathered around God's throne; not one shall be missing. What more reason do we need to "celebrate His praises here and through all eternity!"