This blog post continues our mini-series on the atonement. Even though I firmly hold to the idea of limited atonement or rather definite atonement, I maintain that we should think simply of 'the atonement' because there is only one atonement. It is that which was made and purchased by the Lord Jesus Christ. In this post I would like us to consider the settled wisdom on the matter of the intent and extent of the atonement as laid down by the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19). This Synod met in The Netherlands (for about 6 months to discuss these matters) as a result of the false teaching being spread by the dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (he had already died in 1609) and his followers. Arminianism in its various forms argues for the freedom of man's will and that our Lord Jesus made salvation available to all by his death, but that man or indeed woman, must choose Christ if they are to obtain eternal life. These ideas which are dominant in the Western church today, were seen to be a contradiction to the work of reformation, a step back towards popish works-based righteousness and a perversion of the Apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42).
This Synod according to S. M. Hoghton (Sketches from Church History, Banner of Truth, 2001) states that there were delegates from The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland ... and in 93 canons the chief points of the doctrine of the Reformed Churches were made clear (143)'. Therefore we should never neglect church history by arrogantly thinking that we are the first to wrestle with a particular doctrinal or pastoral problem. Woe to the church that rejects a thoroughgoing appreciation of church history. So, what did they conclude on the atonement of our Lord? Below are pasted the articles on the atonement made by this Synod.
The Synod of Dordt: Second Head of Doctrine –The Death of Christ and the Redemption of Man by It
ARTICLE 1—THE JUSTICE OF GOD REQUIRES PUNISHMENT
God is not only supremely merciful but also supremely just. And as He Himself has revealed in His Word, His justice requires that our sins, committed against His infinite majesty, should be punished not only in this age but also in the age to come, both in body and soul. We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is made to the justice of God.
ARTICLE 2—THE SATISFACTION MADE BY CHRIST
We ourselves, however, cannot make this satisfaction and cannot free ourselves from God’s wrath. God, therefore, in His infinite mercy has given His only Son as our Surety. For us or in our place He was made sin and a curse on the cross so that He might make satisfaction on our behalf.
ARTICLE 3—THE INFINITE VALUE OF THE DEATH OF CHRIST
This death of the Son of God 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.
ARTICLE 4—WHY HIS DEATH HAS INFINITE VALUE
This death is of such great value and worth because the person who submitted to it is not only a true and perfectly holy man, but also the only-begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for these qualifications were necessary for our Saviour. Further, this death is of such great value and worth because it was accompanied by a sense of the wrath and curse of God which we by our sins had deserved.
ARTICLE 5—THE UNIVERSAL PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL
The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men to whom God in His good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe.
ARTICLE 6—WHY SOME DO NOT BELIEVE
That, however, 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, but through their own fault.
ARTICLE 7—WHY OTHERS DO BELIEVE
But to 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.
ARTICLE 8—THE EFFICACY OF THE DEATH OF CHRIST
For 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. It was His most gracious will and intent to give them alone justifying faith and thereby to bring them unfailingly to salvation. This means: God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father. God further willed that Christ should give to them faith, which, together with other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He acquired for them by His death; that He should cleanse them by His blood from all sins, both original and actual, both those committed after faith and before faith; and that He should guard them faithfully to the end and at last present them to Himself in splendour without any spot or wrinkle.
ARTICLE 9—THE FULFILMENT OF GOD’S COUNSEL
This 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 bridegroom for his bride laid down His life for her on the cross) and celebrate His praises here and through all eternity.
The link to the complete Canons of Dordt is: http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/canons_of_dordt.html
Summary by Kevin Bidwell
There are three points I would like to draw in conclusion. Notice that under Article 3 it is asserted that the 'death of Christ has infinite value' The value of the atonement is not limited in any sense, it is of infinite value and worth. In Article 5, the conclusion is therefore, that the gospel should be proclaimed 'universally and without discrimination'. Thirdly, in Article 8, it is made very clear that the atonement is efficacious to extend to all the elect.
While I value the English reformed view of the five points of Calvinism (known as TULIP), I think we need to be aware that this acronym probably misses out some vital points of doctrine made by the Synod of Dordt and a fresh return to these historic canons could invigorate the whole churches worship, evangelism and preaching!