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.1

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.2 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.”3 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.”4 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,”5 this doctrinal distinction between redemption accomplished and redemption applied was blurred.

What is the relation of what Jesus did in His death to the purchase of those in slavery to sin?

In the years leading up to the synod, Remonstrant theologians developed their system of doctrine further. We get a glimpse in the “rejection of errors” after each positive doctrinal point in the canons where the Remonstrant writings are quoted. Here is a summary of those errors:

  • Jesus died for no particular individual; therefore, it is possible that redemption accomplished is not applied to anyone. (Rem. 1)6
  • Jesus’ death did not establish a new covenant of grace but only the mere right for the Father to enter into a covenant with humanity. (Rem. 2)
  • Jesus did not merit for anyone the faith by which His satisfaction is effectively applied to salvation, but only acquired for the Father the authority to impose conditions that depend on the free choice of humanity. (Rem. 3)
  • The new covenant of grace is not that we are justified through faith that accepts Christ’s merit, but that God no longer demands perfect obedience to the law and instead counts faith and imperfect obedience as if it were perfect obedience. (Rem. 4)
  • All people have been received into a status of reconciliation and therefore no one is condemned on account of original sin. (Rem. 5)7
  • While God wanted to bestow equally on all people the benefits of redemption accomplished, its application does not depend on His gift of faith but on their own free choice to apply grace to themselves. (Rem. 6)
  • Jesus did not die for those God loved and elected since such people do not need His death, being already elect. (Rem. 7)

As you can see from these summary points, the debate between Reformed and Remonstrant was not as simple as “limited” versus “unlimited” atonement. This debate involves many complex and difficult points and sub-points. Saying all this, I want to welcome you to the most difficult doctrine of Dort that we’ll explore in the following posts.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Synod of Dort and was first published on March 14, 2018. Next post.

  1. I would like to thank my friend Michael Lynch, whose PhD studies on John Davenant and issues related to this paper have greatly enriched my understanding. ↩︎
  2. The so-called TULIP acronym has been traced to a 1905 address by a Dr. McAfee of Brooklyn, N.Y., before the Presbyterian Union of Newark, N.J. The Outlook (June 21, 1913), 394–395. See also Richard A. Muller, “Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the ‘TULIP’”? As found at (Accessed August 13, 2017). ↩︎
  3. “Appendix C: The Remonstrance of 1610,” cited in Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the great Synod of Dort, 1618–1619, ed. Peter Y. De Jong (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformed Fellowship, 1968), 208. ↩︎
  4. Petrus Bertius, Scripta Adversaria Collationis Hagiensis (Lugduni Batavorum, 1615), 123. ↩︎
  5. David Pareus said impetrare (“impetrate”) could be substituted for seven different words. Acta Synodi Nationalis . . . Dordrechti (Lugduni Batavorum, 1620), 215. ↩︎
  6. Nicholaas Grevinchovius said, “I acknowledge in God indeed a constant and perpetual desire of applying to all men individually the good obtained; but I deny that the application itself was destined by the certain counsel and will of God for any man but him that believeth.” Therefore he could go on to say, “That there was not any absolute promise or will of God concerning the effectual redemption of any individual persons, but that God willed or did not will the application of the death of Christ to all men individually not absolutely but conditionally; He will it to all if they had faith; he did not will it if they disbelieved and therefore, although Christ laid down his life, it was possible nevertheless that his death might not be applied to any that is, it was possible that he might be defrauded of his promised seed, on account of the unbelief of all men intervening.” Quoted in John Davenant, A Dissertation on the Death of Christ, as to its Extent and Special Benefits, in An Exposition of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, 2 vols., trans. Josiah Allport (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1832), 2:516, 524–525. ↩︎
  7. We find this in Arminius himself, who said Christ obtained for every man reconciliation and redemption. Examen Libelli Perkinsiani de Praedestionationis Ordine et Modo, in Opera Theologicia (Leiden, Netherlands: Godefridus Basson, 1629), 745. He also said no one is condemned by original sin, “because God has assumed the whole human race into the grace of reconciliation, and has entered into a covenant of grace with Adam and his whole posterity in him.” Apologia . . . Arminii adversus Articulos, in Opera Theologica, 153, 154. ↩︎

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