The original Remonstrance of 1610 transitioned from eternal predestination to the historical work of Jesus Christ in its second article: “Jesus Christ the Savior of the world died for all men and for every man.” The elderly and respected Heidelberg theologian, David Paraeus (1548–1622), told the Synod of Dort this was “ambiguous.”1 In other words, we shouldn’t be disagreeable toward it as it’s non-controversial apart from explanation. Jesus is called “the Savior of the world,” which comes from the Samaritans’ confession of Jesus in John 4:42 (cf. 1 John 4:14). Even the language of “died for all men and for every man” is not controversial. Arminius himself said concerning universal texts of Scripture, “All the controversy therefore lies in the interpretation.”2 The Heidelberg Catechism in question and answer 37 on the meaning of “suffered” in the Apostles’ Creed, said Christ “bore” in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.” The proof texts it offered included Isaiah 53:12, “he bore the sin of many,” and 1 John 2:2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
The issue with Remonstrant article two was twofold. First, connecting these biblical affirmations with the clause “so that he merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all through the death of the cross.” This is where Paraeus said the Remonstrant began to be “equivocall and false.”3 Why? That word merited (promeritus) meant Christ accomplished and acquired reconciliation and forgiveness.4 If “for all” merely meant that “the greatness of the merit of Christ’s death [was] sufficient to all men for reconciliation,” it would be fine.5 But this leads to the second problem with the Remonstrant article: “yet so that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer.” In other words, the Remonstrance says Jesus accomplished reconciliation for everyone but he did not accomplish its application for anyone; that was up to the sinner.6 This issue still exists among evangelicals who reject the Reformed understanding.7 In other words, Jesus did everything except, that is, making it your own.
The Most Difficult Doctrine of Dort
The second point of doctrine was and still is the most controversial and difficult doctrinal point of Dort. One difficulty is what’s really being debated. Popularly, we speak of “limited atonement.” The problem is that except for consistent universalists, who believe everyone enters heaven, even the Remonstrants limited the saving efficacy of Christ’s death. We saw that in their second point above: “Jesus Christ the Savior of the world died for all . . . so that he merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all.” Sounds unlimited, right? Not so fast: “yet so that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer.”8 What of the word atonement? What does this mean? It was William Tyndale’s attempt to popularize the language of “propitiation” and “satisfaction,” which is really what was being debated at Dort.9 When the synod wrote its canons, their 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 Jesus’ death to purchasing (“redeeming”) those in slavery to sin? “Limited atonement” has limited usefulness.
This doctrine is difficult because the Remonstrants’ doctrine was difficult and complex. Seventeenth-century “Arminianism” wasn’t as simple as it’s been made out to be today: “Christ died for everyone.” The general contour of Remonstrant thinking in 1610 was stated in more detail in at the 1611 conference in The Hague (Collatio Hagiensis): Jesus “impetrated reconciliation and forgiveness of sin for all human beings.”10 They used a common distinction between “impetration” and “application,” or as we now speak, redemption accomplished and applied. But since impetration could mean acquire, merit, obtain, procure, or even confer,11 this distinction was blurred. In the years leading to the synod, Remonstrant theologians developed their system further. We get a glimpse in the “rejection of errors” of the second point of doctrine.
Another difficulty is that among Reformed thinkers at Dort, there were strong disagreements over how to express the relation between Christ’s death and our redemption. In the lead-up to the synod “there was a general Reformed consensus on the death of Christ. There were differences and ambiguities of expression to be sure, but the issue was not a matter of controversy with the Reformed community.”12
After Dort Voetius would write that as to the question of “whether Christ died for all and every man”—that was the Remonstrant phrase we saw above—“that is, did he merit anything as the surety for all and every man by his satisfaction and obedience . . . the orthodox . . . do not speak in one manner.”13 Notice that. There were many opinions about how Jesus’ death related to the “all” passages of Scripture and these were within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. There were three basic positions represented revolving around whether and/or how to appropriate the ancient distinction between the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ’s death.
First, some spoke of Christ’s death and merit as simply efficient on behalf of the elect; the sufficiency/efficiency distinction was unhelpful.
Second, a minority such as the English theologians John Davenant and Samuel Ward, along with the Bremen theologian, Matthias Martinius, agreed with the first group that the death of Christ was savingly efficient for the elect alone. They also said more about sufficiency: Jesus’ death was not merely sufficient in a potential way for all the sins of every human; it was ordained by God to be sufficient so that any who believed would actually be redeemed. This is the view known as hypothetical universalism (not to be confused with later Amyraldianism). Yet the Genevan delegates to the synod, examples of the first group, “did not perceive that hypothetical universalism, as the British had formulated it . . . represented a grave threat to the unity of the church.”14
The third view is more of a hermeneutical lens to bring both sides together, using the distinction. The Canons of Dort are therefore a consensus—dare I say, compromise—document. By using a modified form of the sufficiency/efficiency distinction it set up two boundary markers for the Reformed: 1) Christ’s death has infinite and intrinsic value and therefore is sufficient to save the whole world (Canon 2.3) and 2) Christ’s death is efficacious for the elect alone (Canon 2.8). Within these boundaries is much room for orthodoxy to exist. This allows for more “Genevan” types who wholeheartedly affirm #2 and, ironically, could hypothetically affirm #1 since if God had willed Christ’s death for all, it would be sufficient. This allows for more “British” types who affirm #2 and include the “mere sufficiency” of #1 in their system. They also affirm an “ordained sufficiency” that the canons do not condemn or even speak to.
“‘All’ means all and that’s all ‘all’ means.” It’s become a truism for so many of our evangelical brothers and sisters as they talk about Jesus’ death. It makes them sound so biblical and so compassionate while the Calvinists cold-heartedly cling to their confessions like Charlton Heston to his guns: “with these cold, dead hands.”
“Limited atonement” is not used by the Canons of Dort and is of limited help because when we think in crass quantitative terms we make it sound like Jesus’ death gathered as many sinners as possible with the available blood he spilled but then he ran out. In point of fact, all evangelical Christians limit the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice in some way, whether you say his death is effectual for those whom God elected and whom the Holy Spirit actually brings to salvation or whether you say Christ died for all sins of all people but only those who believe benefit from it. In reading the canons closely, the issue is that we Reformed people see Christ’s death as acquiring both reconciliation and its application for a definite number of people while Remonstrant/Arminian people see Christ’s death acquiring reconciliation only and not also its application, instead leaving that to us to do. Both limit the extent of Christ’s death; we limit it according to God’s will while Arminians limit it according to man’s.
What Did the Father Intend on the Cross?
This brings us to the real issue about what Christ’s death accomplished and to whom it is applied. Louis Berkhof stated it like this: “Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that is the only question.”15 In one sense, yes, this is the issue contra Arminianism. Yet we’ve seen it’s more complex than our more modern way of turning everything into an either/or choice. The issue is really the efficacy (effectiveness) of the death of Jesus. What did God the Father intend his Son to do on the cross? Did he intend that Jesus would make salvation possible, or did he intend it to actually satisfy the justice of God for the elect who will come to share in this sacrifice by faith? In other words, was Jesus’ death intended effectually for some or was it intended for all? This is what Canons of Dort 2.8 focuses on.
God Has a Will
This article is a nuanced version of the sufficiency/efficiency distinction as it puts an emphasis on the counsel, will, andpurpose of God and not merely on the sufficiency of Jesus’ death. This means that when we speak about what God intended we’re speaking about his will. The Triune God has a plan and purpose for all things. He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Focusing on John 6 for a moment, Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me”(John 6:38). As the Son of God in human flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ voluntarily humbled himself to do not his own will but the Father’s (vv. 39, 40).
Why is this so important? Think about the last time you spoke with a believer who kept talking about Jesus making salvation possible for everyone by his death. This view comes off as believing that what Jesus did had no plan behind it from God. Yes, Jesus was sent down, but once he got here he died, but his death was not for anyone in particular but for everyone in general. Because of that, everyone has a chance to believe, everyone has a chance to make Jesus their own, and everyone can use their own will to make salvation a reality in their lives. The point is that Jesus says God has a will—a definite, determined, well-thought-out plan not only for the world as a whole but also for each and every sinner whom he brings into his kingdom.
The Father Communicated This Will to the Son
Jesus says in John 6 that the Father communicated this will to the Son. Not only does Jesus say the Father has a plan now, but that this plan was planned out in eternity and then passed on to Jesus. “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (v. 37). As article 8 says, “It was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross . . . should effectually redeem . . . all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father.” To use Jesus’ words, “I have come down from heaven” to do “the will of him who sent me” (v. 38). Then he says, “the will of him who sent me” was that he “should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (v. 39).
What’s going on here that’s so important for us? First, that in “eternity past”—if we can even speak that way—there was a deliberate and personal plan between the persons of the Holy Trinity to organize and orchestrate redemption. There was not one will of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit for redemption, with each doing what they wanted. Second, that plan was about persons. The article repeatedly speaks of the elect, them, andthose. That’s the wonder of all our doctrines of grace. That God—God!—thought of me, loved me, and planned human history to rescue me!
The Son Executed This Will
Finally, Jesus says here that as the Son he executed this will of God. All that was planned from eternity past concerning the Son of God becoming man and going to the cross and all that was planned to redeem sinners Jesus actually did. God didn’t plan one thing and Jesus executed another. He did what was planned. Jesus came to do the will of God in that eternal conversation (John 6:38); and he did it on the cross! Call this “limited atonement” if you must; I will call it Jesus doing exactly what God planned. What really matters is not the quantity of the saved but what God in his sovereign purpose intended for Christ on the cross.
Think of a light without any kind of cover or shade that’s turned on. What happens to the light? It’s dispersed everywhere. So we’ve seen with Jesus’ death on the cross. It is infinitely sufficient to satisfy the infinite justice of God for a million worlds. All that Jesus needed to do, he did; there is no more he would need to do to save even one more sinner. Now, back to that light. Once you put on some sort of a cap or cover you can focus all that light in a particular direction, like a flashlight. Jesus’ death is that ever-spreading light that is then intentionally pointed toward certain people.
The Father intended that on the cross, his Son, your Lord Jesus Christ, would actually suffer the infinite punishment of God’s justice for a definite number of sinners, whom the Bible calls “the elect.” This redemption accomplished for particular persons is also applied to those same particular persons: “the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation.”
Whereas earlier articles in the canons dealt with the sufficiency of Christ’s death, now the connection is made between “the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father” and the efficiency of Christ’s death: “that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation.” The death Jesus is not only about impetration but also application of redemption. As the article says,Jesus “purchased for [his elect] by His death”all the gifts of the Holy Spirit from faith to perseverance.
The Biblical Benefits
Why does all this matter? Let me conclude with three biblical benefits in affirming the intentional and effectual satisfaction of God’s justice by Jesus Christ. First, it gives us assurance and confidence that our Savior has been for us from eternity, on the cross, and into eternity. With assurance and confidence we can say, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain”for me, “and by your blood you ransomed”me“for God from”this“tribe and”this“language and”this“people and”this“nation, and you have made”me“a kingdom and”a “priest to our God, and I shall reign on the earth.” Second, it gives us reason to worship. He actually and personally died for me to actually and powerfully accomplish my redemption from the slavery of sin and the kingdom of Satan. Third, it gives us reason to preach, evangelize, and bear witness in the world. If Jesus Christ actually, personally, and powerfully died for some “out of every tribe and out of every language and out of every people and out of every nation” then that means there are particular people in every tribe, every language, every people, and every nation who must come to repentance and faith. The tribes, languages, peoples, and nations are right outside on our doorstep. What are we waiting for? Jesus’ death is sufficient for an infinite number of worlds of sinners; tell them! God will effectually apply it.
1. Paraeus, “Epitome of Arminianisme,” 826.
2. “The Apology of Defence Against Thirty-One Theological Articles,” in The Works of James Arminius: Volume 2, 10.
3. Paraeus, “Epitome of Arminianisme,” 826.
4. “Promeritum,” in Thomas Holyoak, A Large Dictionary: In Three Parts (London: Printed by W. Rawlins for G. Sawbridge et al., 1677), n.p.
5. Paraeus, “Epitome of Arminianisme,” 826.
6. As cited in “Appendix C: The Remonstrance of 1610,” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches, 208.
7. For example, see popular anti-Calvinist George Bryson on the “all” language in 1 Timothy 2: The Five Points of Calvinism: Weighed and Found Wanting (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 1996), 92.
8. “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: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 1968), 208.
9. Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation, 14.
10. Petrus Bertius, Scripta Adversaria Collationis Hagiensis (Lugduni Batavorum, 1615), 123.
11. David Pareus said impetrare (“impetrate”) could be substituted for seven different words. Acta Synodi Nationalis . . . Dordrechti (Lugduni Batavorum, 1620), 215; Paraeus, “Epitome of Arminianisme,” 828.
12. Godfrey, “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618.” 150.
13. See Gijsbertus Voetius, Selectae Disputationes Theologicae, 5 vols. (Utrecht: Johannes à Waesberge, 1648–1669), 2:238–55.
14. Fornerod, “‘The Canons of the Synod Had Shot Off the Advocate’s Head,’” 211.
15. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1941; fourth ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 394.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA. He is the author of Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort (Davenant Institute, forthcoming 2019).