Canons Of Dort (21): The Atonement Is Not Universal But The Offer Of The Gospel Is

At the heart of the debates with the Remonstrants, as Gomarus said, between the Reformed and the Remonstrants was the gospel and its efficacy. Does the gospel announce that Christ has made salvation possible for those who do their part or does the gospel announce that Christ accomplished salvation for all his people? These are two quite distinct, irreconcilable messages. The first was the essence of the medieval doctrine of salvation. Though the Western church did not pronounce officially on justification and Rome, at Trent, took her position in reaction to the Reformation, most medieval theologians prior to the Reformation taught some version of the view that Christ makes salvation possible for those who cooperate sufficiently with grace. Theologically then, the Reformation was a rejection of widely held medieval definitions of grace and faith. To be sure, there were high Augustinian theologians who preserved Augustine’s view of sin and unconditional election and divine sovereignty in salvation. Those doctrines were indispensable to the Protestant Reformation but the Reformation did not settle merely for recovering Augustine. The Protestants clarified the nature of grace. It is not a medicine. It is divine favor toward sinners. Faith is not a virtue—not even a divinely-wrought virtue—in justification. Faith, in justification is a divine gift but that gift is an empty hand, an instrument (Belgic Confession art. 22), which receives Christ and his righteousness accomplished for us and imputed to us. That last aspect, imputation, was another major revision of the late-medieval Augustinian revival. Justification is accomplished outside of it even if, as Calvin reminded us in book 3 of his Institutes, its consequences cannot remain outside of us. We are justified that we might be sanctified. By the mysterious operation of the Spirit we are given new life, true faith, and through faith mystically united to Christ. The Christian life is lived in union with Christ.

The Remonstrants, now working within the Dutch Reformed Church, dissented from the Reformation and sought, without admitting it, to turn the clock back in important ways to pre-Reformation ideas. Thus, it is not at all surprising that, under the 3/4 head of doctrine Synod re-asserted that other Protestant basic: the distinction between law and gospel. To this point, under this head, Synod was explaining what the law (both natural and revealed in Scripture) can and cannot do. In article 6, however, Synod contrasts the gospel with the law:

What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation. This is the gospel about the Messiah, through which it has pleased God to save believers, in both the Old and the New Testament (CD 3.6)

The distinction between law and gospel here is theological not historical (i.e., between Moses and Christ). There are two principles in Scripture: the law, which says “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) and the gospel which says, “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). These both come from God. They both promise eternal fellowship with God under certain conditions. The law requires perfect and personal obedience (Rom 2:13). The Gospel offers reconciliation with God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness accomplished for us (rather than wrought in us as the medievals and Rome said) and received through faith (trusting, resting, receiving) alone. We confess:

In the Old Testament, God revealed this secret of his will to a small number; in the New Testament (now without any distinction between peoples) he discloses it to a large number. The reason for this difference must not be ascribed to the greater worth of one nation over another, or to a better use of the light of nature, but to the free good pleasure and undeserved love of God. Therefore, those who receive so much grace, beyond and in spite of all they deserve, ought to acknowledge it with humble and thankful hearts; on the other hand, with the apostle they ought to adore (but certainly not inquisitively search into) the severity and justice of God’s judgments on the others, who do not receive this grace (CD 3.7).

This gospel has been revealed all throughout Scripture from Genesis 3:15 forward, through types and shadows and finally fulfilled by God’s well-beloved Son. This is the gospel that Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the Old Testament saints believed. They were all looking to Jesus, whom we have not merely in promise but in reality. We and they participate in the substance of one covenant of grace that was variously administered throughout redemptive history.

Notice too that Synod hastens to note that God’s mysterious operations in redemptive history are not due to any inherent worth in the Israelites (Deut 7) nor to foreseen faith, obedience, and perseverance. Rather, Synod cautions us not to try to guess at God’s purposes or to inquire beyond revelation. We are to settle for Scripture. The approach reflects the Reformed church’s opposition to rationalism, whether that which seeks to know what God knows, the way he knows it or that which places human reason above Scripture. We gratefully receive God’s grace and adore him for it.

Nevertheless, the outward administration of the covenant of grace is real. It is genuine. It is not play acting.

Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe (CD 3.8)

Here, as in CD 2, Synod re-asserted the free, sincere or well-meant offer of the gospel. In so doing, Synod was responding to Arminius’ 1608 Declaration of Sentiments, where he had not only revised the gospel but denied its free, well-meant offer. For Arminius, the gospel may only be preached genuinely to all if Christ may be said to have died for all men and every man. For Synod, that is rationalism. Arminius had a principle of reason by which he was leveraging (moving or controlling) Scripture. Arminius was not willing to settle for the mystery of God’s operation in history. Essentially, he thought that he knew why God does what he does in saving some and not others. This was part of his plan to defend God against his critics (theodicy). Of course, such an approach to these questions never ends well.

Synod was also responding to the Opinions of the Remonstrants expressed at Synod. There they directly reacted the free, well-meant offer of the gospel as “dissimulation:”

8. Whomever God calls to salvation, he calls seriously, that is, with a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save; nor do we assent to the opinion of those who hold that God calls certain ones externally whom He does not will to call internally, that is, as truly converted, even before the grace of calling has been rejected.

Notice that they use the same adverb as the Reformed, “seriously” but they add “unhpocritically” because, in their view, the Reformed approach to the free offer was “hypocritical” because 1) the Reformed affirmed that God has elected his people from all eternity, that Christ has accomplished their salvation in history, and 3) the Spirit is applying that salvation only to the elect. This view, the Remonstrants argued, made God a “hypocrite” since he was offering to all what all could not have. Like Arminius they rejected the distinction between the internal and external call. They continued:

9. There is not in God a secret will which so contradicts the will of the same revealed in the Word that according to it (that is, the secret will) He does not will the conversion and salvation of the greatest part of those whom He seriously calls and invites by the Word of the Gospel and by His revealed will; and we do not here, as some say, acknowledge in God a holy simulation, or a double person.

This is at the heart of the issue. Do we know what God knows, the way he knows it (archetypal theology) or do we only know what he reveals? With Arminius the Remonstrants rejected the categorical distinction in favor of a rationalist approach to theology. They rejected the Reformed understanding of Deuteronomy 29:29.

In the quotation above we an expression of the caricature, that the Reformed are coldly indifferent to salvation of the lost. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are devoted to reaching the lost with the gospel but we do not go about it in the same way as the 18th or 19th century revivalists. For many, failure to follow their “methods” must signal indifference. It does not. It does mean that we operate on a different set of principles and within a different paradigm than the revivalists, especially relative to those indebted to the Second Great Awakening and their successors.

In fact, our theologians regularly articulated this doctrine of the free, well-meant offer of the gospel. The Latin terms, in which they wrote and often taught in the 16th and 17th centuries, signal roughly the same range of meaning as our word “offer.” They meant to signal that, as far as we know from Scripture, God’s revealed desire is not that any should perish (Ezek 18:23). We do not inquire into the hidden decree. That is none of our business. We offer Christ sincerely, seriously, promiscuously to all and to all sorts of persons. We invite all, we call them, we urge them to acknowledge the greatness of their sin and misery and to trust in Christ alone for salvation.

Synod quoted Romans 10:14–15 as justification for their doctrine of the free, well-meant offer and they grounded it not in a universal atonement, not even in a hypothetically universal atonement, but in God’s good pleasure: “God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom he will” and when he will. This is a correlation from John 3: The Spirit blows where he will. The number of the elect belongs to God. The number of those for whom Christ died belongs to God. The spread of the gospel and its effects belongs God.

Synod knew that crucial to Paul’s argument is his quotation of Psalm 19:4, “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, their words to the end of the world,” and Deuteronomy 32:21, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry,” and finally Isaiah 65:1 “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by my name.” In short, Synod was building on the distinction they all affirmed from Deuteronomy 29:29: the secret things belong to Yahweh our God but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever.” We do not know what is in God’s eternal eternal decree but we do know what is in God’s revealed Word: Go, announce the good news to all sorts of people everywhere, in the confidence that the God who sent his only begotten Son to accomplish the redemption of his elect is using the means of grace, the public, free, serious, promiscuous, well-meant offer of the gospel to bring his elect to new life and to true faith in Christ.

One part of the background to the Reformed doctrine of the free, well-meant offer is the twofold distinction between the external call, the public preaching of the gospel, and the internal call, i.e., the work of the Holy Spirit through the preached gospel to bring the elect to new life and true faith. In Heidelberg 65 we ask and answer:

65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith alone, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

We believe that God uses the external call to call efficaciously his elect. Arminius and the Remonstrants, however, rejected the distinction between the external and internal call. According to the Reformed theologian and critic of the Remonstrants, Pierre duMoulin (1568–1658),

…For they say, that the Word of God, whensoever and among whomsoever it is preached, is never destitute of its quickening power, neither is anyone outwardly called but [that] he is also inwardly drawn. And therefore the [Remonstrants] refuse the distinction of vocation or calling into outward and inward.

According to the Remonstrants, God has given to all men the potential of believing, but the act of believing is up them. The Reformed did not so embed the Word with the Spirit that it works automatically. Further, for the Reformed, Scripture teaches that we are, after the fall, dead in sins and trespasses and must be regenerated and brought to faith.

As with the mystery of original sin, the Reformed refuse to investigate beyond Scripture why some believe and others reject the free, well-meant offer of the gospel:

The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life’s cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13) (CD 3.9).

There is no fault in the gospel because it announces not merely the hypothetical possibility of salvation but rather its accomplishment. The good news is that Christ has done it all and further that he freely gives it to his people as a free gift. It is not conditioned upon their obedience and perseverance. It is received through faith trust in resting on, leaning on, and receiving Christ alone. Even that instrument, faith, is God’s free gift. The whole of salvation, deliverance from the wrath to come and reception of Christ and all his benefits, is God’s gift.

So, some hear the good news but do not believe. They may have “temporary” or “historical” faith, i.e., they may say that they believe. They may acknowledge that Christ came, died, and rose but they are not given new life, a sense of the greatness of their sin and misery, and they have not trusted in Christ. It is possible to participate outwardly in the covenant of grace but never to close with Christ. The seed falls on various kinds of soils but the outcome of the ministry of the gospel is not up to us. It is up our sovereign and gracious God, who uses the ministry to accomplish his purposes, to save his elect, and to glorify his holy name.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido


The translation of the Canons of Dort is taken from the edition published by the United Reformed Churches in North America in Forms and Prayers.

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

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