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.
A second presupposition we must consider is the Arminian conception of the fall of Adam and the doctrine of prevenient grace. For the Arminian, the fall of Adam introduced sin into the world, in terms of Adam’s bad example (in the more crass Pelagian versions) and in the universal human tendency toward sinfulness. The problem is that this seriously underestimates and depreciates what the Scriptures actually teach about human sinfulness.
The fall of Adam does not merely leave us with the bad example of Adam for all of his children to follow. Nor does the fall introduce a universal tendency toward sin. When Adam fell into sin, he plunged the entire world into guilt and condemnation. Furthermore, Adam's act of disobedience was imputed, or reckoned, to all of his descendants, since Adam acted for us and in our place as our federal head (cf. Romans 5:12-19). This means were are guilty for Adam’s act of sin (by imputation). We are all born with something much worse than a mere tendency to sin. We are guilty before God since Adam acted on our behalf as our representative. In fact, according to the Scriptures, if left to ourselves we can do nothing but sin. As we have seen, the Canons have already set forth this point in some detail.
With these two presuppositions in place, the Arminian necessarily begins the discussion of sin and redemption with an overly optimistic assessment of human nature. According to Arminians, the fall is real and serious. The fall does indeed create in human nature a tendency toward evil, but the fall does not leave us totally enslaved to sin, and therefore unable to do any good at all, as the Reformed believe (and as Scripture teaches).
Directly connected to this conception of the fall is the Arminian teaching regarding what is commonly called “prevenient grace.” As the Arminian sees it, Adam’s descendants are born with the tendency toward sin, and by acting upon this tendency, we incur God’s wrath because of our actual sins. But since God is gracious, God grants to all men and women a measure of grace which enables them to believe in Christ despite this tendency to sin. In the words of one Methodist theologian, prevenient grace is necessarily connected to the death of Christ. “Human will, because of the Fall is not free, but through Christ’s atoning work there is a universal grace which restores human freedom” (Thomas Langford, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition, 33).
Through the death of Christ, God is able to provide a measure of grace for all, which enables men and women (if only they will) to overcome their tendency toward sin, and to come to faith in Christ. This supposedly gives the Arminian the ability to argue for both universal human sinfulness (because of the fall) and universal grace which is secured through the cross of Christ.
But as B. B. Warfield once pointed out, when you look at this closely, the Arminian’s assertion of grace alone is strictly theoretical. When “push comes to shove” we are still left with the teaching that those who are saved, are saved not because God saved them when they were dead in sin, but because they used their free will to take advantage of God’s “provisional” grace so as save themselves with God’s help! There is simply no way around the fact that in the Arminian system if anyone is to be saved, it is because they used their free will to co-operate with God’s provision in Christ, no matter how loudly they may declare that they believe in “grace alone.”
The Reformed Christian is correct to remind the Arminian that they will have a very difficult time finding even a single biblical text which remotely hints at an ineffectual, provisional and prevenient grace, which enables us to save ourselves. As we have seen, the Arminian will look in vain for a single biblical text which attributes to the fallen human will the ability to come to Christ apart from a prior act of God upon the sinner. For Paul it is as simple as “but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13).
The Reformed distinctive that God’s redemptive acts are directed to the specific individuals whom he intends to save, is found throughout the Scriptures. As we have seen in Ephesians 1, Paul is clearly speaking of specific individuals who have been chosen “in Christ” from before the foundation of the world. As Paul puts it here, God chose us before the world began in Christ to be holy and blameless. In love, we are told, God predestined us and in Jesus Christ we have redemption from our sins through the shedding of his blood. Paul goes on to say that those same ones chosen in Christ, and redeemed by his blood, are the same ones sealed by the Holy Spirit until the day of redemption. Not only does this passage point out the Trinitarian nature of salvation—the Father decrees to save his elect, the Son accomplishes redemption for those who the Father chooses, and the Spirit applies Christ’s benefits to those who the Father has chosen and for whom the Son has died—it also clearly teaches that there is a specific group in view who are chosen, redeemed and sealed.
In this passage we clearly see that redemption is on behalf of those chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless. These are specific individuals in view—those chosen by the Father—not the “world” generically. We see nothing of the Arminian scheme here which would have us to believe that the Father wants to save all, but can only save those who exercise their free will. The Son dies for all, effectually saves none, and who’s death can only be of avail for those who use their free will to come to him in faith. The Spirit calls all, but the only ones who come are those who are willing and who let the Holy Spirit have his way with them. This is, of course, patently absurd, but is what the Arminian believes.
The same emphasis upon the salvation of specific individuals is found in Romans 8:28-30 in what is often called the “golden chain” of salvation. As Paul declares: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Here again we see a group of specific individuals that God has foreknown (i.e., “foreloved”), which corresponds perfectly to the same group described by Paul in Ephesians 1 as those “chosen in Christ.” These same individuals are also said to be predestined, called, justified and glorified. The same people who are foreknown by God, are the same people whom he brings safely to glorification. Again, there is nothing approaching the Arminian scheme in the passage here in which God foreknows those who will use their free-will to believe, and only then are they said to be predestined. There is nothing here of a calling which is ineffectual or dependent upon the will of a fallen rebel in Adam. Paul knows nothing of a verdict of not-guilty, which can subsequently be reversed if the justified sinner commits certain sins or else ceases to believe. For Paul, all those foreknown by God, will end up being glorified. It is clear, then, that God directs his grace specifically to the individuals he intends to save.
John 17 is also replete with multiple references in which Jesus speaks of a certain and definite number of people given him by the Father before the world began. Indeed, Jesus says that he has revealed himself not to the world, “provisionally,” but effectually to those “whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word” (John 17:6). There is clearly a certain and specific number of individuals involved—those given him by the Father. As Jesus himself goes on to say in his prayer, “I pray for them,” that is for those given to him by the Father, but “I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.” It is clear from our Lord’s great high-priestly prayer that from eternity past the Father has given a definite and certain number of sinners to Jesus Christ (the elect) and that our Lord’s redemptive work is to accomplish what is necessary for them to be saved. Jesus is quite clear here. I am not praying for the world but for those given me by the Father. At least in our Lord’s mind, his redemptive work was to be performed not for the world generically or impersonally, but specifically for those given him by his Father.
This conception also helps explain that a text such as 1 John 2:2, which is often considered by Arminians to be the death knell of Calvinism, is in fact, additional evidence that the Reformed understanding of the death of Christ is indeed the biblical one. As John says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Here John says, Jesus’ death is for the sins of the whole world. How, then, can the Reformed understanding of the atonement be true? Christ dies for all. Right?
But consider the passage more closely. John is describing our Lord’s priestly office and he specifically says that Jesus is the paracletos, the “defense attorney” or “counselor” who speaks to the Father in our defense. Several things are in view here. First, John says that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. A propitiation is an offering made to appease the wrath of an angry god. In this case, the death of Jesus is said to turn aside God’s wrath towards sinners. There is not even the slightest hint here that Jesus makes some kind of “provision” for sinners, since John says that his death actually and effectually turns aside God’s wrath toward those for whom he is dying. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins.
So what is the result if the Arminian position that Christ dies for all without exception is indeed the correct interpretation of 1 John 2:2? First of all it means that Jesus dies to turn aside God’s wrath toward all sinners, but that all sinners are not saved. This means that either Jesus’ death cannot cover certain sins such as unbelief, when John says that Jesus died for “all of our sins” which seems to admit of no exception, including the sin of unbelief, or else, we must conclude that Christ turns aside God’s wrath toward sinners who then perish eternally after God’s wrath toward them has been turned away.
Think about this carefully for a minute. For the Arminian, Jesus dies for people he does not actually save. If Jesus dies for someone’s sins but they die in unbelief and are lost, then either Christ’s death is not sufficient to remove all sin, or else the person is punished for their own sins after Christ has supposedly paid for them on the cross. If this is true, we cannot at all say that it is Christ’s death which saves us. The Arminian scheme necessarily moves the ground of our salvation away from the death of Christ to our act of faith which appropriates the death of Christ. This obviously creates tremendous problems!
Second, as the high priest, Jesus not only lays down his life as a propitiation, but he also is the advocate or defense attorney for all those for whom he dies. John clearly indicates that Jesus intercedes for those for whom he dies. If he dies for all without exception he intercedes for all without exception. But consider the following dilemma raised by the Arminian notion of a conditional and provisory salvation. Can Jesus’ prayers go answered by the Father? Can Jesus pray for someone, and not have the Father answer the prayer of his own dear Son? Indeed, let us not forget that John has already noted that our Lord does not pray for the world generically, but only for those given to him by the Father.
In fact, in the very same Epistle of First John, John says, using the exact same phrase, that “the whole world” is under the control of the evil one (John 5:19). Now we must ask, “can the phrase `the whole world,’ as used in this verse actually mean each and every person who has ever lived in each and every age?” Is each and every person who has ever lived in each and every age under the control of the evil one? Of course not. John uses the term rhetorically in 1 John 5:19 to mean a “great many” or a “vast amount.” This then, is how we must view the phrase the “whole world,” in 1 John 2:2. Jesus died for our sins, and not only for ours, but for those of a great many scattered throughout the world. And for these, his propitiatory death and high priestly intercession are indeed effectual.
Consider the Arminian alternative. Jesus dies for people he does not save. His death does not save. Even worse, our Lord intercedes for those for whom he dies but his prayer for them is not answered and they perish anyway. Thus, what may appear at first glance to be text which supports the Arminian understanding of the gospel, actually exposes the weakness of the entire Arminian scheme.
This is why the authors of the Canons insist that we declare that Jesus died for a fixed number of people that he knew by name from before the foundation of the world, namely the elect. If not, the very work of Christ is called into question and the ground of salvation is moved from the cross to our faith. This is injurious to the character of the gospel itself. As the authors put it, “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).”
Either God alone saves, or else God requires our help. And this is where Arminianism inevitably leads us.