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Posts Tagged ‘definite atonement’


With the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt, there have been a number of books about this important 17th century document of the Dutch Reformed Church (though there were a few members from other nations present).

Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God Kevin DeYoung cover imageAt the recent RTS alumni and friends lunch at General Assembly, I was given a free copy of Kevin DeYoung’s book Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400 Year-old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God. This was fortuitous since I had considered buying a copy but didn’t get around to it. I actually cut back on my book buying for the first part of this year. I didn’t just get free books at General Assembly, but did actually buy some.

Over the last two afternoons in upstate NY, I read the book. This means that it is not a very big book, and it was very interesting. At least to me.

Since I am a Presbyterian as opposed to Continental Reformed, I’m much more familiar with the Westminster Standards than the Canons of Dordt. I’ve referred to it at points but haven’t spent much time studying it. I thought this was a great opportunity to begin wading into this important document.

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Day 1 view

DeYoung’s book is an excellent place to start. He is succinct in his approach so it is quite accessible to lay people but interesting to pastors. DeYoung is generally not overly-wordy. I would rather be left wanting a bit more than finding a book tedious (I have to remember this as I edit my own manuscript). As I noted above, it does not require a huge time investment. Over the course of those afternoons I enjoyed two cigars, so it will take about 3 hours.

The book has 4 chapters and 4 appendices. The text of the articles of the Canons of Dordt are in the text of the 4 chapters. He lays out a few articles and then comments on them, majoring on the majors. The appendices include the Rejection of the Errors By Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed, which summarizes the errors they believe the Remonstrance (Arminians) had fallen into; the Rejection of False Accusations; the Opinions of the Remonstrance given in response to the initial presentation of the Articles; and the Scripture Proofs of the Canons of Dordt (DeYoung uses the alternate spelling of Dort throughout the book, but I’m used to Dordt and will use it with apologies to Kevin). He makes these original sources readily available for ease of use and to provide a proper context. He states a few times that you can’t always understand what they are arguing against apart from the Rejections and the Opinions. We can sometimes misinterpret them. One example is the use of “common grace” which in this context refers to the “light of nature”.

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Day 2

His introduction is called In Praise of Precision. He refers to the common notion that all opinions are equal. Due to changes in culture including the internet, we can think we know more than those who have studied a subject for years or decades. We often prefer passion over precision. Theological debate should not simply generate heat, but also light (all thanks to Jonathan Edwards). The shedding of theological light requires precision. I have been frustrated in recent debates in our denomination over the lack of precision. I should have asked more people for clarification when I thought precision was lacking.

Often we refer to the acronym TULIP as shorthand for Reformed Theology. While we embrace TULIP, Reformed Theology is more expansive than these views on salvation. The Canons of Dordt are therefore more precise than an often misunderstood acronym.

He very briefly outlines the history of the debate in the universities, churches and nation. It was more than a theological argument, but not less than one. Other forces were at work as well. The liberation of the Netherlands from Spain is in the background. Some saw the Remonstrance as favorable toward a friendly relationship with Spain (many of the merchants concerned about trade). The political class, clergy and lower classes tended to be critical of the Remonstrance as a result. This doesn’t mean there weren’t real and important theological issues at play, but just some non-theological reasons people may have had to embrace or reject theological positions. We are not always logical or driven by truth.

Arminius was a “Calvinist” and studied under Theodore Beza who was asked to refute the divergent theology of Dirk Volkertszoon Coornhert. He ended up embracing his theology and was so popular in articulating them that these views were named after him instead (Arminianism is easier to say than Coornhertism).

After he became a professor at the University of Leiden, his colleague Gomarus opposed his views. While both espoused a doctrine of predestination, they differed greatly in what they meant by it. After Arminius’ death, a number of his followers met in Gouda and produced a document called the Remonstrance, outlining their protest against the official doctrine of the Reformed Church. This was in 1610, and they expressed these in the Five Arminian Articles. The distinctions were often vague, but would become more clear as time went on.

After some political controversy, a national synod was called by Prince Maurice. Some might think the government should not be involved but this was a state church and they had a vested interest in the debate being resolved. As noted above, not all the members were Dutch. 26 were from Britain, Switzerland and Germany. The synod met in 1618 and 1619. This means that the controversy was nearly 20 years old- far longer than many of the tempests in teapots that I’ve seen in the last 30 years of ministry.

The Arminians were given an opportunity to respond to “first drafts”. The canons were adopted on April 22, 1619. They responded to the 5 points of Arminianism, with 5 points of their own (subsequently expressed in TULIP by English speaking people).

The first chapter concerns the first main point of doctrine, God’s Purpose and Good Pleasure in Predestination. The heart of the controversy revolves around the question of whether God chose the elect so they would believe or because they believed (foreseen faith). The Reformed held to the former, and the Arminians the latter. The Reformed began with the reality of original sin. Our fallen condition required God’s election of some to salvation, the sending of the Son to live, die and be raised for sinners, and the sending of messengers with the gospel message.

Contrary to many accusations I have heard, the Canons are clear that we are chosen in Christ, our redemption is through Christ and we trust in Christ. This is a Christ-centered document for a Christ-centered theology.

They also upheld a single decree of election, while the Arminians held to two. For Arminians, the first is unconditional, that God wills the salvation of all sinners. The second is conditional, that only those who believe receive that salvation. We see the beginnings of neo-nomianism in Arminianism. Not only did they have a different view of predestination, but a different view of justification. They held that faith is righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe.

DeYoung also quickly discusses the issue of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. The Canons assume an infralapsarian position, that God elects to save sinners from destruction. It is not election apart from our sinful condition. People aren’t condemned because they are “reprobate” but because they are sinners who have sinned and refused to believe in Christ (another sin).

In many places DeYoung notes the pastoral concerns raised in the Canons. They sought to help struggling Christians. This is not intended to be dry theology, but also to meet pastoral needs. This is a good example for denominational study committees. This was one of my complaints about the Nashville Statement. As one of my preaching professors would say, “Where’s the gospel?”. Part of this is the articles regarding how to properly teach and respond to these doctrines. Another aspect was the salvation of the infants of believers. The Arminian opinions connect that to the age of reason, such that children are innocent. The Canons connect it to the gracious covenant and promises of God. This is because people are fallen, even infants.

The second chapter moves to the 2nd point of doctrine, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This is the doctrine of limited or particular or definite atonement. Commonly this is conceived of as the extent of the atonement. It is that, and the nature of the atonement. DeYoung notes that the emphasis in the Canons of Dordt is “about how God’s justice can be satisfied.” Scripture connects the cross with both God’s love and justice. If we are sinners, and we are, justice must be satisfied.

His atonement is of infinite value. It could sufficiently atone for the sins of the whole world. But Dordt argues that this was not God’s eternal intention. They did not believe a universal atonement  was necessary for universal gospel proclamation. To understand Dordt’s position, he backs up to explain the Arminian position. The Arminian view is rooted in God’s “will of intent” to save all, and neo-nomianism. They hold that Jesus made people saveable. The Reformed view is that Jesus actually saved people. God’s will, not man’s, is what makes the atonement efficient or efficacious.

DeYoung then moves in to a (too) brief discussion of the meaning of “world”. It can mean “the world as the sum total of all created things”, “the dwelling place of man, earth” and “fallen creation in subjection to the evil one.” Jesus died for all kinds of people, not every single person.

“Most often, world refer to badness instead of bigness, and when it refers to bigness, world means everyone without distinction, not everyone without exception.”

These distinctions were taken seriously. Gomarus challenged another delegate to a duel for expressing a divergent view. That would make presbytery meetings a little too interesting.

Also entering his discussion was Davenport’s “hypothetical  or conditional universalism”, an attempt to find an acceptable middle ground between Lutheranism and Anglicanism. The particular atonement of Dordt is meant to magnify Christ as the Savior of sinners.

DeYoung addresses the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine in his 3rd chapter, Human Corruption, Divine Conversion. The reality of our corruption necessitates divine conversion. They reject any Pelagian notions of imitation. We inherit corruption from our first parents. We have “an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity.”  We need more than a little help and assistance. We need God to convert us.

Dordt distinguishes between the general earnest call of the gospel, and a saving effectual call. The preaching of the gospel is not restricted, but it is not effective apart from the sovereign, irresistible, call by the Spirit. This despite the frequent drumbeat of human responsibility by Dordt. We are to blame for rejecting the gospel. The Spirit does more than persuade us. Regeneration precedes and produces faith rather than following faith. Arminian loses sight of this because they lose sight of the distinction between union and communion. They lean on the passages speaking of communion to “prove” faith precedes regeneration as a result.

The last point of doctrine is found in the 4th chapter which covers the perseverance of the saints. It affirms that the saints struggle with sin in this life. They can fall into serious sin, being “carried away by the flesh, the world and Satan.” We are in need of God’s help to stand firm in the faith.

“The doctrine of perseverance does not negate repentance; it leads to repentance.”

DeYoung and Dordt goes into the doctrine of assurance. We can truly be saved but not be assured of our salvation because while we are positionally holy (having Christ’s righteousness) we are not personally holy yet. A holy life helps assurance. Some of the means for salvation and assurance are Word and sacraments.

“We need a God who does the unconditional electing, a God who does the effectual dying, a God who does the supernatural resurrecting, a God who does the unilateral gifting, and a God who does the unbreakable preserving.”

DeYoung has produced a great little and helpful book. It is worth the investment of time to understand the controversy and how the Reformed Church responded to it. It is well-worth reading.

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Scottish pastor-theologian Eric Alexander has said this about Our Sovereign Saviour: The Essence of the Reformed Faith by Roger Nicole: “I could not speak too highly of this book.”  That is an apt summary of my sentiments as well.

All the more reason for me to wonder why this delightful little book is so unavailable.  It seems downright difficult to find in the places it should be easy to find.  Dr. Nicole is one of the pre-eminent theologians of the 20th century.  In the words of ‘King Arthur’, “You make me sad.”  But to the book!

In 184 pages Dr. Nicole summarizes and explains the distinctives of the Reformed Faith, and its implications on other doctrines.  Here is a chapter outline:

  1. The Meaning of the Trinity.  He establishes the 3 truths we hold in balance, and how the various heresies exalt one truth at the expense of the others.
  2. Soli Deo Gloria– or to God Alone be the glory.  This is a chapter on the glorious extent of God’s sovereignty, including individuals and the Church.
  3. Predestination and the Divine Decrees.  He explores what is meant, and not meant, by God’s sovereignty.  It does not mean we are puppets, for as the Westminster Confession notes, “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures (III, 1).”  God ordains all things in keeping with our nature/character and how he plans to work to change our character.  He also briefly explains & critiques supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.
  4. Calvinism: the Five Points.  He briefly explains the 5 main ideas of Calvinism, and dispells some common misunderstandings based on poor terminology.
  5. Particular Redemption.  He explains and defends the doctine of definite atonement, summarizing John Owen’s arguments from The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
  6. The Doctrines of Grace in the Teachings of Jesus.  He shows that these are not doctrines of John Calvin, or Paul but taught by Jesus Himself, particularly in the Gospel According to John.
  7. Reconciliation and Propitiation.  He explores the use of these terms in Scripture and how they fit best with an understanding of definite atonement.
  8. Justification: Standing by God’s Grace.  He explores the 3 main illustrations of justification in Scripture to understand it fully.  In this chapter he mentions students who ‘made a virtue of being poorly attired’ hoping they learned to dress better before candidating for a position.  Sadly, I was one of these immature slobs who thought so little of themselves.
  9. Sanctification: Growing unto God.  He explains what it means negatively (mortification) and positively (vivefication).  Whereas justification is something done for us, sanctification is something done in us.
  10. Predestination and the Great Commission.  He shows, primarily through the example of William Carey, that election and evangelism are not at odds with one another if properly understood.  He defends the free offer of the gospel from misunderstandings.
  11. When God Calls.  Shows from God’s call of Paul and Barnabas that God is mission-minded in a way that ought to challenge us all to become engaged.  Without using the term, he builds a quick case for missional living.
  12. Freedom and Law.  He addresses the issue of what freedom really is, against some silly misconceptions, and how the Law fits into freedom.
  13. Prayer: the Prelude to Revival.  He addresses prayer as an established means for revival.  He also talks about some fundamentals of prayer in relation to sovereignty.
  14. The Final Judgment.  He defends the doctrine of the final judgment.

In these chapters you find typical Dr. Nicole.  Though humble and irenic, you find him quite knowledgable and more than capable of dispelling any misunderstandings or strawmen opposed against the truth.  He is brief, not laboring his points.  He uses illustrations from everyday life, and history.  I’m not sure if he’s ever seen a movie.  But this means that the book is not bound in time unnecessarily.  How I wish he wrote more!  This is a book that often moved me to prayer- gratitude and petition.  That is what good theology does.  This is a book that can encourage those who understand the distinctives of the Reformed Faith.  It is also a great, winsome book for those who do not yet understand and embrace them. 

Here are a few choice quotes:

“Thus, the sovereignty of God immediately crushes man as sinner into the very just of the ground, for he is unable to rise in God’s presence but must be the object of his fearful condemnation. … When we talk about the sovereignty of God we emphasize the sovereignty of God the Holy Spirit who works in the lives of men and does not await some consent that would be coming fron unregenerate sinners but who himself transforms at the very depths of their personality lives that are disrupted, distorted and destroyed by sin.”

“There is no circumstance of life that should be totally disconcerting, because God has ordained it and is at the back of it.  His loving and gracious purpose is fulfilled even in the events which may appear quite contrary to our wishes.”

“The grace of God does not function against our wills but is rather a grace which subdues the resistance of our wills.  God the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish this.”

“Authentic Calvinism has always confessed particular redemption and at the same time insisted on the universal offer of the gospel.”

“God cannot punish a sin twice.  He cannot punish it once in the person of the Redeemer and then punish it again later in the person of the perpetrator.”

“The Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He is not going to allow his sheep to wander away.  That, in fact, is expressly stated.  He gives them eternal life.  They shall never perish.”

“It is only when we consider how grievous a thing sin is and how greatly displeased God is with it, that we are in a position to understand what it means to be reconciled to him.”

“The very fact that you know this person- the very fact that you are in contact with this person, the very fact that there is a burden upon your heart for this person- ought to be an indication that quite possibly, even probably, he or she has been picked by God.”

“There is no Christian who can say, ‘I am not a missionary.’  There are places that you can reach that nobody else can reach.  There  are people for whom you can work that nobody else can invite in the same way in God’s name.  We have a task to accomplish.”

“What people fail to understand is that the spiritual laws that God has established are equally binding. … They think they can violate the moral laws that God has established at the root of the universe and not bear the consequences. … To disregard the laws of God is not to achieve freedom; it is to sink into futility.  It is to break oneself against the structure of the world in which we live.”

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