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The Canons of Dort, Second Head of Doctrine, Rejection of Errors, Article One (part one)

Having set forth the orthodox teaching, the Synod rejects the errors of those

I. Who teach that God the Father appointed his Son to death on the cross without a fixed and definite plan to save anyone by name, so that the necessity, usefulness, and worth of what Christ's death obtained could have stood intact and altogether perfect, complete and whole, even if the redemption that was obtained had never in actual fact been applied to any individual.

For this assertion is an insult to the wisdom of God the Father and to the merit of Jesus Christ, and it is contrary to Scripture. For the Savior speaks as follows: I lay down my life for the sheep, and I know them (John 10:15, 27). And Isaiah the prophet says concerning the Savior: When he shall make himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days, and the will of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand (Isa. 53:10). Finally, this undermines the article of the creed in which we confess what we believe concerning the Church.


In rejecting the Arminian errors regarding the death of Christ, the authors of the Canons now turn to the weakest point in the so-called “universal atonement” position. In the Arminian scheme of redemption, the death of Christ does not actually save any of those for whom Christ is said to have died. What many regard as the strength of the Arminian view–its univeralism and emphasis upon the assertion that “Christ died for all” without exception–is seen by the Reformed not as a strength, but as a serious departure from biblical teaching.  Yes, the Scriptures teach that Christ died for all those given him by the father.  The Scriptures do not teach that Jesus' death makes the entire world potentially "saveable."

Exposing this error is what the authors of the Canons are getting at when they state the error in view is the Arminian notion that God supposedly appointed Christ to die for sinners, yet without any fixed or definite plan to save any one particular sinner by name. Under the Arminian conception of salvation, the death of Christ said to be “for all,” because the atonement only makes the entire world “savable” upon the condition of faith in Christ.  But notice that the death of Christ does not actually save anyone. In this scheme, the atonement is said to be “for all” because it can potentially save all. In fact, as the Arminian understands fallen human nature and prevenient grace (to be discused in part two), all can potentially believe, despite the fall of Adam.

Let it be noted that under this conception, the death of Christ actually saves no one, nor does it secure anything for our salvation, until such time as it is “appropriated” or “applied” by the sinner to themselves through the means of faith. This is a very important point.  This gets to the heart of what many Reformed theologians have pointed out as the most distinguishing characteristic of the Reformed understanding of the plan of redemption, and that which sets the Reformed conception of salvation apart from all other branches of the Christian family. According to B. B. Warfield, “the saving operations of God are directed in every case immediately to the individuals who are being saved. Particularism in the process of salvation becomes the mark of Calvinism” [Warfield, Plan of Salvation, 87].

The Reformed Christian does not believe that the death of Jesus makes the whole world “savable.”  Rather, the Reformed Christian believes that God actually saves his elect through the death of Christ, and that God’s grace is directed to the specific individuals whom God intends to save. In other words, those whom God has chosen are the particular individuals for whom Christ is said to have died.

This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to the universalism of the Arminian system, which argues that Christ dies for no one in particular, but for everyone in general. This distinction colors everything that we as Christians believe about sin and grace. Does God direct his saving activity to the specific individuals he intends to save? Or does God direct his saving operations to no one in particular, and only to the world in general (impersonally)?

At the end of the day, this is the fundamental difference between the Reformed Christian and the Arminian. This is the particular atonement of the Reformed, versus the universal, non-specific view of salvation of the Arminian. The Reformed see the death of Christ as effectual, securing the salvation of the elect (and particular elect individuals). The Arminians, on the other hand, see the death of Christ as merely provisional. Christ’s death makes salvation possible for the whole world, but it saves no one specifically.

Before we get to the specifics of the Arminian error in regards to the death of Christ, we need to back up for a moment and identify the underlying presuppositions of the Arminian scheme of redemption. There are several we must keep in mind.

First, the Arminian begins with the assumption that human freedom is the starting point for any truly biblical theology. As Methodist theologian John Miley once put it: “Freedom is fundamental in Arminianism.” And because human freedom is the Arminian fundamentum, the entire Arminian system of thought is developed accordingly.

With human freedom assuming a central role for the Arminian, Miley goes on to note that the logical consequence of building upon this starting point is that Arminian must hold “accordingly the universality and provisional nature of the atonement, and the conditionality of salvation. In this matter,” says Miley, Arminianism “is thoroughly synergistic” [John Miley, Systematic Theology, II.275].

If we begin with the notion that human freedom is central to our system of theology, we must necessarily conclude that the death of Christ is not effectual and actually accomplishes God’s eternal purpose, which is the salvation of God’s elect. Instead, we must conclude that the death of Christ is merely provisory. The atonement makes a universal provision for the salvation of those who exercise their freedom, and who use the freedom given then come to faith in Christ. This means that it is not the death of Christ which saves, but it is the sinner who saves himself by coming to Christ in faith.

Thankfully, Dr. Miley is crystal clear here—Arminianism, of necessity, requires a salvation conditioned upon a co-operative act of the human will in conjunction with the grace of God. Therefore, Arminianism is necessarily synergistic.

In the strictest sense then, consistent Arminianism denies what is known as sola gratia [grace alone] since we are not saved by God’s gracious act in this view, but we are saved by human co-operation with the grace of God, which is only provisional and ineffectual until we act upon it. This is why Arminianism at best is semi-Augustinian, and much more likely semi-Pelagian.

[Part two to follow]

Reader Comments (3)

Christ's death and resurrection is the effectual cause of our faith in Him.
The Remonstrant's view is we've got to come up with it, and the misconstruing of the atone ment and of necessity faith, leaves the sinner to sway between legalism and antinomianism.

Deadly...thoroughly deadly!
October 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDurell
Good stuff, Kim.

When Reformed talk of "Christ dying for all" we don't mean he died for all without exception, but rather that he died for all without distinction, which is to say, he died for particular and named sinners who come out of out every tribe, tongue and nation.
October 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterZrim
You wrote:

". . . the Reformed Christian believes that God actually saves his elect through the death of Christ, and that God’s grace is directed to the specific individuals whom God intends to save."

It seems to me the more prevalent view among Reformed Christians is that God's grace, specifically as expressed in the plan of salvation, which, we are told, is directed toward all universally as God's desire (admittedly forever partially unfulfilled) is that all *might* be saved. The idea is that God has a benign benevolence toward all and this is exemplified in the gospel offer. Should this be considered a defacto surrender to the Arminian position? It certainly seems to me to be a major concession to universalism even aside from any incoherence this view might entail.

I found a very recent example of this idea in C.J. Mahaney's "The Cross Centered Life." In it he affirms God's universal desire for the salvation of all men and not just for those for whom Christ died in particular and cites 1 Tim 2:4 in support (to the exclusion of the verses immediately prior I might add). Am I wrong to think this is the essentially the same universalism soundly refuted by Dort in "Reformed" garb?

Anyway, new to your blog and just wondering what your thoughts were on this? Thanks.
October 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSean Gerety

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