The Synod of Dort
Last month, we looked at the life and teaching of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). When he died the system of theology that bears his name did not perish with him.
In 1610, forty Dutch theologians who championed his ideas gathered at Gouda for a conference, under the leadership of Simon Episcopius (1583-1643). They set forth their views in a five point Remonstrance. This stated that:
1. Predestination is conditional on God foreknowing who would believe.
2. Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved.
3. Human beings are sinners and cannot believe apart from the grace of God.
4. Saving grace may be resisted.
5. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints needs further investigation.
There was much heated discussion over these Remonstrant articles; it was perceived that the proposed five points constituted a direct threat to the Calvinistic basis of the Dutch Reformed Church.
In 1618 a synod was convened in Dordtrecht to decide whether the position of the Remonstrants was in accordance with the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. At stake was nothing less than the glory of God in the salvation of lost sinners, by free and sovereign grace alone.
Although occasioned by theological controversy in Holland, the synod had an international flavour, with delegates from Reformed churches in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland meeting alongside their Dutch brethren. Simon Episcopus and a group of his supporters were invited to represent the Arminian agitants.
From the synod emerged what are popularly called the ‘Five points of Calvinism’ - usually set out under the mnemonic TULIP. These do not represent a complete account of Calvinistic theology, but were simply intended as a blow-by-blow rebuttal of the five point Remonstrance.
On the face of it, the Arminians agreed with orthodox Calvinists that all human beings are sinners and we are saved by grace. But they redefined grace to mean that God gives all people the ability to be saved if they so wished - in other words, we must cooperate with the grace of God and decide to accept his offer of salvation.
Thus man is only partially depraved by sin; he is able to exercise a choice to believe and be saved. The Synod of Dort rightly smelled a rat here. According to Scripture, man in sin is totally depraved.
That does not mean that we are all as bad as could be, but that every human faculty has been radically affected by sin. The mind is incapable of receiving God’s truth (Romans 8:7), the heart is deceitful and wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), and the will is enslaved by sin (John 8:34).
Scripture teaches that man in his fallen state is not damaged, but dead (Ephesians 2:1-4). There is no possibility that a sinner in such a state could ever choose to be saved (Jeremiah 13:23). We don’t need ‘grace’ that will simply facilitate our choice to believe, but a gracious act of God that will bring us back from the dead.
Jacob Arminius taught that election is rooted in God foreseeing who would believe and be saved. In that sense, election is conditional on the sinner’s response to the gospel. However, if human beings are totally depraved and incapable of choosing to be saved, then conditional election is an impossibility.
The Canons of Dort insist that God chose to save certain sinners from condemnation, not because of anything in themselves, but because of his sheer love and free grace (Ephesians 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9).
The elect are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, redeemed by Christ in the - of time, and called to saving faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Repentance and faith are the fruit of election, not its cause (Acts 13:48).
Regrettably, the doctrine of predestination has often been a cause of angry discussion and unhelpful speculation. We should guard against such an attitude. ‘This teaching must be set forth with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people’ (‘First main point of doctrine’, Article 14).
This is probably the most difficult and controversial of all the ‘Five points of Calvinism’. I’m not sure that ‘limited atonement’ is the best way of describing the Reformed view of the cross. ‘Definite atonement’ is probably more appropriate.
The Arminians claimed that Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved. However, if Christ died for all, but not all are saved, then his death was limited in its effectiveness. Some for whom he died will nevertheless go to hell if they perish in unbelief.
Arminians seem to have Scripture on their side when they say that Christ died for the ‘world’ or for ‘all men’ (1 Timothy 2:5-6, 1 John 2:2). But Calvinists should have no problem with such texts.
Christ did die for a world of guilty sinners. He laid down his life for all kinds of human beings. And he laid down his life for his ‘sheep’ (John 10:11) - who will most certainly be saved (John 10:27-30; cf. Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27). He died as a substitute, bearing the penalty of sin specifically for those whom the Father had given him in eternity.
Christ’s atoning death did not make salvation a possibility, should anyone choose to be saved. Rather he actually saves us by his blood (Ephesians 1:7). The Canons are careful to point out that Christ’s death was of infinite value, because he who died for sinners was the eternal Son of God in the flesh (‘Second main point’, Articles 3 & 4).
The definiteness of the atonement is no bar to the free offer of the gospel. ‘Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel’ (‘Second main point of doctrine’, Article 5).
Again, while TULIP may be a handy aid to memory, ‘irresistible grace’ may not be the best way of putting it; ‘effective grace’ is more accurate.
As Stephen pointed out in Acts 7:51, the offer of grace may certainly be resisted. But the Father effectively calls all those whom he has given to Christ for salvation (John 6:37; Romans 8:29).
In the Arminian scheme, saving grace is synergistic. Man must co-operate with God in order to be saved. But this is contradicted by the Bible’s teaching on the new birth; this is a monergistic act of divine grace.
God alone can breathe new life into those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:4-5). Grace is effective because it is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, by whom sinners are born again (John 3:8).
Effective grace does not mean that God does violence to the human will when he savingly unites a sinner to Christ. Rather, he liberates the enslaved will from the shackles of sin to enable his people freely to repent and believe the gospel.
As Jesus said, ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:7). And only the Spirit of God can give you new life in Christ.
Perseverance of the saints
Initially the Remonstrants suggested that this doctrine needed further investigation. They did not reject it outright. But by the time of the Synod of Dort their position had hardened.
Now they argued that it is possible for a genuine Christian to lose his or her salvation. This not only flies in the face of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, it is also highly detrimental to the believer’s assurance.
The Canons acknowledged that even the best Christians fall into sin, but God will not allow any of his lovingly chosen, blood-bought people to perish. We are kept by the power of God unto salvation. None can pluck us from the mighty hands of the Good Shepherd.
But the assurance of divine preservation should not induce spiritual carelessness. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. It is the saints, God’s holy people, who will persevere to the end.
Arminianism represented a serious challenge to the Reformed churches and the subtle arguments of the Remonstrants had to be met with clear scriptural answers.
It is often the case that controversy helps to clarify the teaching of the church. The Synod of Dort delivered the definitive Reformed response to Arminian error. The biblical Calvinism of the Synod offers a coherent and compelling vision of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. Guy Davies