God’s Unlimited Power Shown in the Cross (Digging into Dort, Point 2, Part 1)
The Second Main Point of the Canons of Dort deals with how Christ’s death leads to the redemption of sinful humans. When people discuss the points of the Canons of Dort using the acronym TULIP (note that this acronym does not reflect the order of the points of Dort), this point is often labeled as “Limited Atonement.” To be honest, this label is one that I have never particularly liked, and I am not alone. Theologians have often given it a different title with “Particular Redemption” being perhaps the most popular. While the word “Limited” helps to make a memorable acronym (and one that is culturally fitting as tulips are found in the Netherlands where the Canons of Dort was written), it can also be unhelpful because it sounds as if God is limited or unable to do things. When given the choice between something limited or unlimited, we typically prefer unlimited things! In addition, the term “Limited Atonement” does not seem to highlight the thrust and focus of the Second Main Point of the Canons of Dort as it does not stress limits of God’s work as much as the effectiveness of God’s plan to bring salvation to sinners; it is not about the extent but the intent of Christ’s death.
Overview of Point 2
The Second Main Point of the Canons of Dort has nine articles (followed by seven sections in which errors are rejected). The first two articles highlight the fact that God requires justice and must punish sin (Article 1) and that we are unable to satisfy God’s wrath in our own strength (Article 2). While we cannot do anything to overcome our sin outside of our own death, Jesus Christ can overcome our sin, as his death has infinite value because he is the eternal Son of God (Articles 3 and 4), with Article 3 noting, “This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” Christ saves all those who believe in his death and God calls for this message and the command to repent and believe to be preached to all people (Article 5), with humans responsible for unbelief (Article 6) but God giving the gift of faith to those who respond in faith (Article 7). Finally, Articles 8 and 9 state that God has a plan to save people through Jesus Christ’s death and that this plan will be carried out; Christ’s death secures the salvation of those whom God has chosen to save and these individuals will come to faith and will continue in faith.
What is Being Rejected
The Rejection of Errors that follows Dort’s explanation of biblical teaching on the subject also gives us some insight into the focus of this section. The Canons reject the teaching “that God the Father appointed his Son to death on the cross without a fixed and definite plan to save anyone by name” (Rejection of Errors 2.1). That idea is rejected because it would mean that there was a possibility that no one would have been saved by Christ’s death, and it contradicts the words of Scripture in places like John 10:15, 27 and Isaiah 53:10 that indicate that Jesus died for specific people (also see Galatians 2:20 and John 15:12-13). The Canons also reject the idea that Christ’s death has made people savable, that God’s wrath on people has been removed so that God counts faith as the required work of individuals (see Rejection of Errors 2.4), and that the death of Christ now allows God to relate to people in a new way (Rejection of Errors 2.3). This Point highlights that Christ’s death was the punishment for sin and that in dying for people, Jesus not only made people savable, but he has accomplished their salvation; the intent was not to make a way to save sinners but rather to save sinners. These statements counter the views of the Remonstrants, who stated in their 1610 document that Christ “merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all” (Matthew Barrett, The Grace of Godliness, p. 144). The Remonstrants believed that Christ died for all but did not believe that all are saved through his death. A logical problem with this view is “double punishment,” as Christ died for their sins but people will still die for their sins. The way around this problem is saying that the death of Christ makes people savable but does not actually save them – it gives them the chance—but Dort rejects this view as misconstruing the intent of the atonement.
Thoughts as We Move Forward
Over the next few posts, I will dig deeply into these articles within the Second Main Point, but this brief overview indicates that this Main Point does not focus on how many people Christ saves or the extent of the atonement, but rather on how God is able to save people and the intent of the atonement. It does not talk about limits of God’s work but rather how God is able to do the impossible -- save sinners. In fact, the Canons of Dort highlight God’s power in a way that the Remonstrants did not, as the Remonstrants said that God made it possible for people to be saved, but the Canons of Dort highlight that God saved people in the cross. It is not a second chance for people to be saved, but rather that God executed His plan to save people after they had fallen into sin and did not deserve to be saved.
Thus, the primary question is not whether there are limits to Christ’s death for sinners but whether it is effective. Perhaps instead of discussing “limited” or “unlimited” atonement, the view of the Remonstrants could be labeled “conditional atonement” and the view of Dort be stated as “definitive” or “effective atonement,” as they do not focus on a number as much as the purpose and plan.
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