Written by Cornelis P. Venema |
Monday, December 18, 2023
Of the five points of doctrine summarized in the canons, the second is given the briefest treatment. In the opening articles of this second point, the canons affirm that the only possible way for sinful human beings to escape the condemnation and death that their sins deserve lies in the atoning work of Jesus Christ on their behalf (article 2). Christ’s substitutionary work of atonement is the only way that God’s justice can be satisfied and fallen sinners can be restored to favor with Him. After emphasizing the need for Christ’s atoning work on the cross, the canons affirm the infinite value and worth of Christ’s satisfaction.
The year of our Lord 2023–24 marks the 405th anniversary of the meeting of the Synod of Dort in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. The synod was convened to settle the ongoing controversy in the Dutch churches regarding the teaching of Jacobus Arminius and his followers on the topic of election. The document produced by the synod, the Canons of Dort, affirmed five main points of doctrine in response to the errors of the Arminians. These five points are often described today as the “doctrines of grace.” They are also frequently associated with the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints), even though this acronym alters the sequence of the points adopted and in some cases may offer a misleading impression of the canons’ teaching.
This article will follow the sequence of the canons. Though it is often forgotten, this sequence was already established by the time the Synod of Dort convened in 1618. Before the meeting of the synod, the Arminians had presented their teaching in the form of five opinions. The five points of the Canons of Dort were written, therefore, as a direct reply to the errors of Arminius and his followers. They were written not to offer a complete statement of the Reformed faith but to settle the controversy regarding Calvinist soteriology provoked by the teaching of Arminius.
In the course of its deliberations, the Synod of Dort judged the five Arminian articles to be contrary to the Word of God. Against the Arminian teachings of divine election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, resistible or ineffectual grace, and the possibility of a fall from grace, the canons set forth the biblical doctrines of unconditional election, definite atonement (or particular redemption), radical depravity, effectual grace, and the perseverance of the saints. On each of these points, the canons first present a positive statement of the scriptural teaching and then conclude with a rejection of the corresponding Arminian errors.
First Point: Unconditional Election
In the opening articles of the first main point of doctrine, the canons summarize the most important aspects of the biblical gospel. These include the fact that “all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death” (article 1), that God has manifested His love in the sending of His only begotten Son (article 2), and that God’s anger continues to rest on those who do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (article 3). Within the framework of these truths, the canons address the fundamental question to which the biblical doctrine of election is addressed: Why do some believe and repent at the preaching of the gospel but others remain in their sins and under the just condemnation of God? The answer to this question at its deepest level is found in God’s unconditional election in Christ of some persons to salvation:
The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from [God’s] eternal decision. For all His works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision He graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of His chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by His just judgment He leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us His act—unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just—of distinguishing between people equally lost. (Article 6)
Because God’s sovereign and gracious purpose of election is the source of faith, the canons go on to assert that it cannot therefore be based on faith. God does not elect to save anyone “on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen” (article 8). Faith is not a meritorious work but is itself a gracious gift that God grants to those whom He calls according to His purpose (Acts 13:48; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 1:29).