Canons Of Dort (16): Scripture Teaches Both Definite Atonement And The Free Offer Of The Gospel

Rationalism is a word that gets tossed around rather casually at times. It is used without careful definition. E.g., sometimes Lutherans accuse the Reformed of rationalism because we do not accept their Christology or doctrine of the Supper. They accuse us of putting reason above Scripture. Were that true, we would indeed be guilty of a form of rationalism but in fact the Reformed Churches confess a high, mysterious doctrine of Holy Communion, in which God the Spirit is said to feed believers on the true body and blood of Christ. The Reformed confession may be wrong but it cannot be called rationalist. Call this version R2. There is at least one other major form of rationalism in the Christian tradition, namely, that view that holds that the human intellect ascends to and intersects with the divine intellect. Under the influence of this form of rationalism people have argued that we know what God knows, the way he knows it, at some point. Call this version R1 In this essay, I am more concerned about R2.

Arminius and the Remonstrants, though they protested that they were merely following Scripture (as someone, somewhere said, “all heretics quote Scripture”) were, in the judgment of the Reformed churches, guilty of subtly placing reason above Scripture. It is not that there is no place for reason in Reformed theology. None of the magisterial Protestants (least of all Luther—see David Bagchi’s marvelous essay in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment) were committed to irrationality. Rather, they and the Reformed Churches with them sought to use reason as a servant rather than a master.

The Remonstrants, however, rejected the assumptions on which the Reformed proceeded and substituted for them a different set of assumptions. One of those assumptions they shared with the Pelagians, namely, that for God to hold humans responsible it must be the case that humans can meet a given test (e.g., obey the law, believe etc). This assumption caused them to change the Reformed doctrine of the atonement, which holds that the Father gave to the Son a people, and the Son incarnate obeyed and died on their behalf, as their substitute. His substitutionary (active and passive) obedience and death is imputed to them. God nevertheless justly holds accountable all for their relationship to Christ. The Remonstrants argued:

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, ore 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 other words, for the Remonstrants, unless we can say that unequivocally that Christ died for “all men” and “every man” it is unjust to require of any and all that they should repent and put their trust in Jesus. This is nothing but rationalism. The unstated assumption here gets us to what I call R1 or the notion that we know what God knows, the way he knows it. The Reformed taught a strong distinction between God the Creator and us his creatures. We are analogues of God, not his equal. By definition we cannot know what God knows and certainly not the way he knows it. The great Reformed theologian, Franciscus Junius (1530–95) argued that there are “two kinds of theology,” theology as God knows it and theology as we know it. Our theology is, when it is true theology, an analogue of God’s. Think of it this way. We are not God but we are image bearers (Gen 1:26). In the same way, our theology is not God’s but it is like his. There is no mystery for God but there is mystery for us.

Indeed, Junius, who was a professor in the theology faculty of the University of Leiden, corresponded with a cocky young Dutch theologian named Jacob Arminius. They went back and forth until Junius tired of Arminius. His colleague, Franciscus Gormarus, who became famous for opposing Arminius appointment to the theology faculty, said that Junius, on his deathbed, warned him not to appoint Arminius. The governors of the University ignored Gomarus, though one supposes they later might have wished that they had listened to him. Arminius and Junius were really arguing about what we can know.

The Remonstrant proposition that only those for whom Christ died are obliged to believe in him assumes that we know more than we do. What we should do, and what the Reformed Churches do, is to call upon all men and every man to repent and believe in Jesus because we do not know a priori for whom Christ died.

Ironically, the Remonstrants and that small, noisy minority among the Reformed who deny the free or well-meant offer of the gospel ultimately agree. Both reject the distinction between the way God knows theology and the way we do. On this see “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80. What we do know is that when a person is given new life and true faith, that person is one of those for whom Christ obeyed and died. We know it after the fact (a posteriori).

The Remonstrants set up a case where Christ died for all men and every man but for no one in particular. Thus, the Reformed Churches objected:

We Reject the Errors of Those Who Teach: That Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for any one, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error (CD, RE 2.3).

As we noted in the last essay, the Remonstrants theology of the new covenant turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. This is why Synod used such strong language about the Remonstrant views. This is why they accused them not of teaching semi-Pelagianism but of teaching Pelagianism, a doctrine condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431.

This is why the Reformed further objected:

We Reject the Errors of Those Who Teach: That the new covenant of grace, which God the Father, through the mediation of the death of Christ, made with man, does not herein consist that we by faith, in as much as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved, but in the fact that God, having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of faith, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace. For these contradict the Scriptures, “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith” (Rom 3:24-25). And these proclaim, as did the wicked Socinius, a new and strange justification of man before God, against the consensus of the whole church (CD, RE 2.4).

The Remonstrants brought back not only the doctrine of Pelagius but also the doctrine of William of Ockham (1285–1347) and of Gabriel Biel (1420–95), who taught that, in nature, God had endowed all humans with a sort of grace whereby all men have the ability, if they will to meet the terms of a sort of covenant. God Ockham argued, is prepared to “co-act” with us when we capitalize on what he called “antecedents.” These antecedents are universal, everyone has them. According to Ockham, after the fall we remain able to do our part. Biel formulated a Pelagian covenant theology: “To those who do what lies within them, God will not deny them grace.” The English Augustinian theologian Thomas Bradwardine (1300–49) called this theology Pelagianism and wrote a large volume condemning it as such. So did Luther and all the magisterial Protestants.

Thus, the Reformed Churches at Dort saw, in the Remonstrants, a renewal of this rationalist, Pelagianizing theology. They saw in the Remonstrants a renewal of the Ockham/Biel doctrine of “congruent merit,” i.e., the doctrine that we can be right with God on the basis of our best efforts, that God will impute perfection to our imperfect efforts toward salvation. This was a direct assault on the finished work of Christ, which, of course, the Remonstrants intentionally and knowingly rejected and set out to undermine in the churches. Our imperfect obedience is neither the ground nor the instrument of our justification or our salvation. It is always and only the fruit of our justification and salvation. It is notable that it is the self-described Federal Visionistsand their supporters who have brought back this same doctrine of congruent merit, for the same reasons as the Remonstrants. This is why it is fundamentally Arminian to teach “final salvation through works.” Certainly the Reformed Churches do not speak this way.

We see more of the Remonstrant Pelagianism in the next objection by Synod against the Remonstrants:

We Reject the Errors of Those Who Teach: That all men have been accepted unto the state of reconciliation and unto the grace of the covenant, so that no one is worthy of condemnation on account of original sin, and that no one shall be condemned because of it, but that all are free from the guilt of original sin. For this opinion opposes Scripture which teaches that we are by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3) (CD, RE 2.5).

It is Pelagian to say that, by virtue of Christ’s death, no one is guilty of original sin. Until one is justified and saved by grace along, through faith alone, he is guilty of Adam’s sin and his own actual sins and justly subject to condemnation. Christ accomplished redemption and the Spirit applies it to the elect. No one is free from condemnation until the Spirit applies Christ’s work and one comes to new life and true faith.

All this does touch directly on the atonement and the free or well-meant offer of the gospel. Synod said:

We Reject the Errors of Those Who: 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.

What was at stake was the relation between reason and revelation and between the atonement and the free offer. Is the free offer to be premised only on a universal atonement (the Remonstrant view) or upon God’s revealed will? The Reformed followed God’s revealed will without trying to guess the “secret things” of God (Deut 29:29). It is not the case that Christ has merited pardon for all men and for every man. It is the case that Christ has actually accomplished the redemption of all those for whom he obeyed and died. It is the case that the Spirit efficaciously and powerfully awakens his elect from spiritual death to spiritual life, grants them true faith and through faith justifies them, unites them to Christ, adopts them etc. In short, it is to the elect alone that God grants Christ and his benefits and that by grace alone, through faith alone. It is because we chose freely (the Remonstrant view) but rather, because God graciously and mysteriously moved our renewed will that we believe and choose. He chose us. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Against this background we can see why Synod confessed what they did about the free offer and the atonement:

ART. V. Moreover the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel.

The promise of the gospel is not that whoever capitalizes on the “common grace” (in the Remonstrant sense of the word—there was an orthodox sense of the word used by many Reformed theologians. Like the Pelagians, the Remonstrants confused nature and grace) but rather. “whoever believes in me shall never perish bu have eternal life (John 3:16). The Reformed do not duck from John 3:16. Rather, we build our doctrine of the atonement upon it.

The gospel is to be offered freely, sincerely, to all. It is not ours to guess who is or is not elect. That is not our business. Ours is to offer Christ and free salvation to all in the confidence that God the Spirit sovereignly and mysteriously uses that offer to draw his elect to himself. We call “all men” and “every man” to repent (acknowledge the greatness of one’s sin and misery) and to believe, to trust in Christ and in his finished work. That good news is to be “published” to all nations “without distinction.” The gospel is not merely for some but for all. Christ must be offered freely and sincerely wherever God, “in his good pleasure” sends it.

We do not know why God sends the gospel to some and not to others. We do not know why Christ died for one and not for another. That is not our business. The believer does know, however, that God loved him and gave himself for him. It says with Paul in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (ESV). Our assurance is not that I have done my part or that God has imputed perfection to my best efforts (a doctrine that Luther called a “mortal sin”) but that Christ is my righteousness and that salvation is free.

Thus, we pray and work (ora et labora) for the planting of true churches and the spread of the gospel everywhere. The Lord is sovereign but he uses means. He uses the preaching of the gospel to call his elect (Romans 10). We need not choose between definite atonement and the free, well-meant offer of the gospel. We rejoice in both.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. This article does a great job of exposing the crucial difference between the Remonstrant and Reformed position. The pastors at the Synod of Dort were fighting for the survival of the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, against those who would return the churches to the Pelagian and Roman religion of salvation by grace and our own best efforts, to which God imputes perfection. This is a religion based on a covenant of works where the covenant of works is fulfilled by a lowered standard of obedience so that we can be accepted as doers of the law by our own imperfect obedience. That makes Christ’s perfect obedience imputed to us unnecessary! The Remonstrants were rejecting the need for the perfect, imputed righteousness of Christ on our behalf! They reduced Christ as our Savior to His death on the cross for our sin. They rejected Him as our Savior who kept the law perfectly for us, leaving us trusting in the filthy rags of our own righteousness. The Synod was fighting for the true gospel that saves by trusting, leaning and resting on Christ alone, against a false religion of moral self improvement, that cannot save.

  2. Does Universalism have its roots in Arminianism? Or vice-versa? Reading through this series of articles on the Canons of Dort have made me wonder if there is a connection between the two.

    • If you Google Universalism you will find that it accepts all human “wisdom” and any and all forms of religious beliefs. It rejects Christianity’s claim to be the only true faith and the bible as the only true Word of God. Most Universalists reject Christ as the God\man. It teaches that all men will go to heaven but that we should be concerned with loving one another by and working to make the world a better place as an expression of whatever form of enlightenment we choose to believe. What it has in common with Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, Liberalism, Federal Vision, and non Christian religions is that it is a false religion of moral improvement that cannot save because it rejects Christ’s claim that He is the only way, truth and life that can reconcile us with the Father.

    • Diane,

      You’re right see a connection. Several of the Remonstrants became Socinians, who were universalists. The Unitarian Universalists trace their roots to the Socinians and to the Remonstrants.

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