Canons Of Dort (17): The Offer Of The Gospel Is Genuine But So Is Unbelief

In their second head of doctrine, the Remonstrants confessed, in 1610:

ART. II. That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only. but also for the sins of the whole world.”

According to the Arminian construction of the gospel, the good news is that Christ died for all and one can benefit from his death if one believes, obeys, and perseveres (see also their 1st head and their 5th). In short, for the Remonstrants, the gospel is that Christ’s death created the possibility, the potential of salvation but by it he did not actually save anyone. For the Remonstrants, the gospel is not “Christ has saved you” but rather, “Christ has made it possible for you to be saved.” This was the predominant medieval message which the Protestants rejected.

Consider the paradigmatic biblical salvation event: the Red Sea. According to the Remonstrants, it is as if Yahweh said to the Israelites, “I have created the potential of deliverance from the Pharaoh and his armies but you must do your part.” Of course Yahweh never said any such thing. What he did say is “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Ex 14:13–14; ESV). The Psalmist says, “Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belong deliverances from death” (Ps 68:20; ESV). Salvation does not belong to us. It is not ours to actuate, if only we will. It is ours to receive with an empty, open hand, which the Spirit of God freely gives to his elect (Eph 2:8–10). “And this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Salvation does not belong to the Lord and to us. It belongs to him. He accomplished it. He administers it. It is a free gift from beginning to end.

Under this head, in their Opinions Remonstrants confessed:

Only those are obliged to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has died. The reprobates, however, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to such faith, nor can they be justly condemned on account of the contrary refusal to believe this. In fact, if there should be such reprobates, they would be obliged to believe that Christ has not died for them.

In their view, the only way that their gospel of the possibility of salvation to those who do their part can be announced is on the basis of a universal atonement. Short of that God could not justly oblige anyone to believe in Christ, obey him, and persevere for salvation. This is, as I have been arguing, a form of rationalism. It sets up a standard of justice to which both God and man are obligated. Rather than bowing the neck before God’s Word and the mystery of election and reprobation, it privileges (as people say now) reason over special revelation. Here we see that the line between the Remonstrants and the Socinians was thin. Indeed, more than a few of the Remonstrants crossed this line into a flat denial of the atonement at all, of the deity of Christ, and of the Trinity.

Another implicit assumption of the Remonstrants was their denial of the distinction between the substance of the covenant of grace and its outward administration. In effect, the external administration is abrogated since, according to the Remonstrants, Christ has already accomplished salvation for “all men and every man” and all men and every man may, if he will, actuate that salvation by believing, obeying, and persevering. In their scheme, the Holy Spirit is not using what the Reformed call the “due use of ordinary means” to bring his elect to new life and to true faith.

This is how the Synod of Dort put it in their Rejection of Errors under this head:

We Reject the Error of Those Who use the difference between meriting and appropriating, to the end that they may instill into the minds of the careless and inexperienced this teaching that God, as far as He is concerned, has willed to apply to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ; and that, while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life, and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception, and that it is not dependent on the special gift of mercy, which powerfully works in them, that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace. For these, while they pretend that they present this distinction in a sound sense, seek to instill into the people the destructive poison of Pelagianism (CD, RE 2.6).

In response to the Remonstrant reconstruction of the faith, the Reformed confessed:

Art. VI. And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves (CD 2.6).

Why is that some believe and others do not? This is a great mystery hidden from us. Either one accepts this reality or one seeks to plumb the depths of the divine intellect and will. Scripture teaches us which course we ought to choose. Deuteronomy 29:29 specifically tells us to content ourselves with the revealed things, which are for us and for our children and to leave the hidden things to God. In Isaiah God says:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa 55:8–9); ESV.

Ours is not to do as the Remonstrants did, i.e., effectively to make everyone elect conditioned upon their faith, obedience, and perseverance. Ours is to leave election and reprobation in God’s hands. Ours is to administer the good news faithfully by announcing, in the words our Lord, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Ours is to announce, to call, to invite, to offer Christ freely, seriously, and sincerely to all.

We do so as stewards of divine mysteries, in the confidence that God the Spirit is using the “foolishness” (according to some of Paul’s Corinthian critics) of the gospel preached to bring his elect to new life and to true faith. There is no defect in the gospel that Christ died for sinners, that he has saved all those whom the Father gave to him (John 17:1), that he laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:15–17). The message is perfect even if the messengers are not and even if the message is not always conveyed perfectly. One of the mysteries of the faith is the Lord’s decision, as it were, to use clay jars (2 Cor 4:7) to carry and convey his message to sinners but then again, God the Son became incarnate and suffered the indignities of life among sinners (even though he himself was sinless) and suffered the consequences of the fall with and for us.

Christ’s death was perfect. He said so: “It is finished” (John 19:30). He did not say, “I have done my part, now you do yours.” That was Rome’s message. That was the Remonstrant message. It was Richard Baxter’s message but it was not Christ’s. Our Savior’s work was perfect and his good news is perfect. He accomplished salvation for all his people and the Spirit uses the preached gospel to bring his elect to new life and to true faith in the Savior.

As we saw under the first head of doctrine, election is unconditional but reprobation is not. Those who are left in their sins are so abandoned (reprobated) in view of their sin and unbelief. So too, here, under the Second Head of Doctrine, we blame unbelief, not God, for the reprobate refusal to turn to Christ. The gospel is perfect but unbelief is genuine too. People really do love darkness rather than light (John 3:19). We freel chose to sin. Those who are unregenerate freely choose, without coercion, to reject Christ.

Only the Spirit grants new life and true faith. This is why our Lord said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). The words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus were a complete mystery until the Spirit opened his eyes and granted him new life and true faith.

Thus, for the Reformed churches, salvation is not possibility to be actuated by us. Rather:

Art. VII. But as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own.

Ultimately, the contest at the Synod of Dort came down to this: was the Reformation correct about Christ and his gospel or did Rome have a point? Do we need to incorporate bits of Romanist theology, piety, and practice into our theology? The Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles, with one voice, said no. We will stand on the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ’s obedience and death for his elect, on the grace of the Spirit in renewing his elect and uniting them to Christ, and on faith alone as the sole instrument of salvation.

Here is the entire series on the Canons of Dort so far.

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