Canons Of Dort (18): It Was God’s Sovereign Will To Accomplish Complete Salvation For All The Elect

There are those, who one suspects, have spent little time investigating the actual differences between the Reformed Churches and their Remonstrant critics, who have attempted to position themselves between the Reformed and the Remonstrants. Some of these call themselves “tweeners.” There are others who call themselves “Four Point Calvinists,” by which they mean to say that they agree with four of the five points of the Synod of Dort but who reject the Second Head of Doctrine on the atonement.

As we have surveyed the decisions (Canons) of the Synod of Dort in their historical (social, political) and theological contexts, reading the Canons in light of the Remonstrance in 1610 and the Opinions of the Remonstrance given to Synod in 1618, it has become increasingly clear that there is no tenable position between the Remonstrants and the Reformed. Neither is the so-called “Four Point” or Hypothetical Universalist position compatible with the Synod of Dort.

The reader who is aware of the some of the more famous delegates to the Synod will know that a few of the foreign delegates harbored sympathies for forms of what Richard Muller calls non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism. The delegates to Dort were a diverse body geographically, ecclesiastically, and theologically. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Synod itself did not embrace hypothetical universalism, i.e., the doctrine that Christ died potentially for all. Nowhere, however, is the incompatibility of such a view with the Canons clearer than in 2.8:

Art. VIII. For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.

Synod turned to the “most free counsel” (liberriumum consilium) and the “most gracious will” (gratioissima voluntas) will of God and intent (intentio) of God that (ut) the “ lifegiving” and “saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect…”. Synod settled on the will and intent of God to define the extent of the atonement. The potential Of the atonement, i.e., its inherent power or sufficiency of the atonement was not in question. For Synod, considered in itself, the atonement was inherently sufficient to satisfy for the sins of “all men and every man,” as the Arminians liked to say.

Much to the consternation of the Remonstrants and to the discomfort of the hypothetical universalists of various sorts (and certainly to Moises Amyraut in the coming decades) Synod did not theorize about what might have been accomplished by the atonement. Rather, the churches confessed what God intended and what Christ accomplished for and what the Spirit applies to the elect.

His death was intended to be efficient for all the elect. In context, Synod’s choice of language here (in omnibus electis) seems telling. We are not “limiting” the atonement. We are recognizing and confessing what God intended: that Christ would accomplish salvation for “all of his elect and everyone one of his elect,” to modify the slogan of the Remonstrants.

The eternal, unconditional, immutable intention of God was that the Son would accomplish the complete redemption of the elect and that the Spirit would apply that redemption to those for whom Christ died. The Spirit “gives” (donandos) to the elect alone (ad eos solos) justifying faith, “leading them infallibly” (not contingent upon their exercise of free will) to salvation. Our redemption is not a hypothesis. It is not a conditional state of affairs that might or might not come about. It God’s sovereign will to redeem his people completely and irrevocably.

It is not as if the extent of the atonement is limited geographically, linguistically, or culturally. By the “blood of the cross” God willed to redeem his elect out of every people group (omni populo), tribe (tribu), nation (gente), and language group (lingua). God willed to save all of them and only them (eos omnes et solos) by the blood which ratified (confirmavit) the new covenant.

Contra the Remonstrants, the new covenant is not a new covenant of works whereby those who have sufficient faith, obedience, and perseverance might be saved. It is a guarantee that those whom God willed from all eternity to save, in Christ, shall actually be saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide).

We were elected “from eternity” and we were “given to [Christ]” by the Father. This is, implicitly, the doctrine of the covenant of redemption, which would be more fully developed later but which was latent in some early orthodox Reformed theologians since the 1560s. E.g., Caspar Olevianus implied an eternal covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son in his 1567 Firm Foundation. It has been plausibly argued that the early Reformed theologian Johannes Oecolampadius implied an eternal covenant of redemption in the early 1520s in his OT biblical commentaries.

All men were not given to the Son. Every man was not given to the Son. An uncertain number that might be hypothetically redeemed were not given to the Son. A foreknown, elect number were given to him and it was those for whom he obeyed vicariously and it was for them he died as their substitute.

This is why some come to faith and others do not. To those whom the Father gave to the Son, for whom he obeyed and died, to whom the Spirit sovereignly and freely gives new life (regenerates). It is to them he gives the gift of faith and all the other gives he “acquired” (acquisivit). It is for their sins and all their sins, both original and those committed after we come to faith, that are purged. We are no longer under law. We are no longer under the covenant of works. We are no longer under condemnation. We have been delivered through the Red Sea, as it were, in Christ.

He preserves and shall preserve all those for whom Christ died, all those to whom he gives new life and true faith. At the last our Saviour Jesus shall present us spotless and blameless to the Father and there we shall enjoy the favor and presence of God in Christ forever.

Despite the apparent varieties in the doctrine of salvation there are essentially two: Either Christ came and died to make salvation possible for those who meet some condition or he died to ratify the New Covenant and to accomplish the complete redemption of all his elect. The former, in one way or another, introduces uncertainty and contingency to our salvation. The latter reasserts the Reformation message of free salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, which Arminius and the Remonstrants had brought into question since the early 1590s.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido

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

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