Several years ago, I wrote a short series for Ligonier on the biblical doctrine of predestination. As an outline, I used the first point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort. These theological rules or “canons” were written at an international gathering or “synod” of Reformed professors, pastors, elders, and statesmen at the Dutch city of Dordrecht from 1618 to 1619. They were written in response to the struggle not only within the Dutch Reformed Church but throughout Europe over the influential teachings of pastor-turned-professor Jakob Hermanszoon (1560–1609), whom you might know better from his Latinized name: Jacobus (James) Arminius. After his death, his followers wrote a remonstrance, a protest, concerning five theological points and so came to be known as the Remonstrants. In turn, the Synod of Dort responded point-by-point in its canons.
In this series, I would like to lead you into the biblical doctrine called “limited” or “definite” atonement using the second point of the Synod of Dort as an outline. Let’s begin by exploring why this is the most difficult doctrine of Dort.
The Difficulty of Language
This doctrine is difficult because language can be difficult. Think about labels. What is a quick way to label an opponent, corner them, and ostracize them? Call them followers of a man: “Arminians.” In tit-for-tat, those like me are called followers of another man: “Calvinists.”
Modern terminology oversimplifies historical complexities. If I could travel back just before the synod to the Dutch city of Heusden and ask its new pastor and future delegate to the synod, Gijsbertus Voetius, “Domine Voetius, what does it mean to be Reformed?” he might say, “To believe the thirty-seven articles of the Belgic Confession and the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, of course.” (Authentic “Calvinism,” back then, was 166-point Calvinism!) After the synod, a “Form of Subscription” was adopted for ministers, professors, schoolteachers, elders, and deacons to swear before God that they believed the doctrine of the confession, catechism, and canons is biblical. The churches I serve still require this. What’s interesting is how this form describes the canons as “the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht.”
Another difficulty is, what’s really being debated? Popularly, we speak of “limited atonement.” The problem is that except for universalists, who believe everyone enters heaven, everyone limits the saving efficacy of Christ’s death, even the Remonstrants. In 1610, when the Remonstrants made their remonstrance, they wrote, “Jesus Christ the Savior of the world died for all men and for every man, so that he merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all through the death of the cross.” Sounds unlimited, right? But they went on to say, “Yet so that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer.” When the synod wrote its canons, the title for the second point was “Concerning the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Humanity through It.” In other words, what is the relation of what Jesus did in His death to the purchase of those in slavery to sin? Thus, the language of limited atonement has limited usefulness.
The Difficulty of Doctrine
According to the quote above, the general contour of Remonstrant thinking in 1610 was that Jesus “merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all,” yet “no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer.” After 1611, at a conference in the Hague, the Remonstrants were clearer in stating that Jesus “impetrated reconciliation and forgiveness of sin for all human beings.” They used a common distinction between “impetration” and “application,” or as we now say, redemption accomplished and redemption applied. But since impetration (accomplishment) could mean “acquire,” “merit,” “obtain,” “procure,” or even “confer,” this doctrinal distinction between redemption accomplished and redemption applied was blurred.