Canons Of Dort (21): The Atonement Is Not Universal But The Offer Of The Gospel Is

The whole of salvation, deliverance from the wrath to come and reception of Christ and all his benefits, is God’s gift.

There is no fault in the gospel because it announces not merely the hypothetical possibility of salvation but rather its accomplishment. The good news is that Christ has done it all and further that he freely gives it to his people as a free gift. It is not conditioned upon their obedience and perseverance. It is received through faith trust in resting on, leaning on, and receiving Christ alone. Even that instrument, faith, is God’s free gift. 

 

At the heart of the debates with the Remonstrants, as Gomarus said, between the Reformed and the Remonstrants was the gospel and its efficacy. Does the gospel announce that Christ has made salvation possible for those who do their part or does the gospel announce that Christ accomplished salvation for all his people? These are two quite distinct, irreconcilable messages. The first was the essence of the medieval doctrine of salvation. Though the Western church did not pronounce officially on justification and Rome, at Trent, took her position in reaction to the Reformation, most medieval theologians prior to the Reformation taught some version of the view that Christ makes salvation possible for those who cooperate sufficiently with grace. Theologically then, the Reformation was a rejection of widely held medieval definitions of grace and faith. To be sure, there were high Augustinian theologians who preserved Augustine’s view of sin and unconditional election and divine sovereignty in salvation. Those doctrines were indispensable to the Protestant Reformation but the Reformation did not settle merely for recovering Augustine. The Protestants clarified the nature of grace. It is not a medicine. It is divine favor toward sinners. Faith is not a virtue—not even a divinely-wrought virtue—in justification. Faith, in justification is a divine gift but that gift is an empty hand, an instrument (Belgic Confession art. 22), which receives Christ and his righteousness accomplished for us and imputed to us. That last aspect, imputation, was another major revision of the late-medieval Augustinian revival. Justification is accomplished outside of it even if, as Calvin reminded us in book 3 of his Institutes, its consequences cannot remain outside of us. We are justified that we might be sanctified. By the mysterious operation of the Spirit we are given new life, true faith, and through faith mystically united to Christ. The Christian life is lived in union with Christ.

The Remonstrants, now working within the Dutch Reformed Church, dissented from the Reformation and sought, without admitting it, to turn the clock back in important ways to pre-Reformation ideas. Thus, it is not at all surprising that, under the 3/4 head of doctrine Synod re-asserted that other Protestant basic: the distinction between law and gospel. To this point, under this head, Synod was explaining what the law (both natural and revealed in Scripture) can and cannot do. In article 6, however, Synod contrasts the gospel with the law:

What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation. This is the gospel about the Messiah, through which it has pleased God to save believers, in both the Old and the New Testament (CD 3.6)

The distinction between law and gospel here is theological not historical (i.e., between Moses and Christ). There are two principles in Scripture: the law, which says “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) and the gospel which says, “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). These both come from God. They both promise eternal fellowship with God under certain conditions. The law requires perfect and personal obedience (Rom 2:13). The Gospel offers reconciliation with God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness accomplished for us (rather than wrought in us as the medievals and Rome said) and received through faith (trusting, resting, receiving) alone. We confess:

In the Old Testament, God revealed this secret of his will to a small number; in the New Testament (now without any distinction between peoples) he discloses it to a large number. The reason for this difference must not be ascribed to the greater worth of one nation over another, or to a better use of the light of nature, but to the free good pleasure and undeserved love of God. Therefore, those who receive so much grace, beyond and in spite of all they deserve, ought to acknowledge it with humble and thankful hearts; on the other hand, with the apostle they ought to adore (but certainly not inquisitively search into) the severity and justice of God’s judgments on the others, who do not receive this grace (CD 3.7).

This gospel has been revealed all throughout Scripture from Genesis 3:15 forward, through types and shadows and finally fulfilled by God’s well-beloved Son. This is the gospel that Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the Old Testament saints believed. They were all looking to Jesus, whom we have not merely in promise but in reality. We and they participate in the substance of one covenant of grace that was variously administered throughout redemptive history.

Notice too that Synod hastens to note that God’s mysterious operations in redemptive history are not due to any inherent worth in the Israelites (Deut 7) nor to foreseen faith, obedience, and perseverance. Rather, Synod cautions us not to try to guess at God’s purposes or to inquire beyond revelation. We are to settle for Scripture. The approach reflects the Reformed church’s opposition to rationalism, whether that which seeks to know what God knows, the way he knows it or that which places human reason above Scripture. We gratefully receive God’s grace and adore him for it.

Nevertheless, the outward administration of the covenant of grace is real. It is genuine. It is not play acting.

Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe (CD 3.8)

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