Five Main Points of Doctrine

The Canons of Dort, affirmed five main points of doctrine in response to the errors of the Arminians.

This article will follow the sequence of the canons. Though it is often forgotten, this sequence was already established by the time the Synod of Dort convened in 1618. Before the meeting of the synod, the Arminians had presented their teaching in the form of five opinions. The five points of the Canons of Dort were written, therefore, as a direct reply to the errors of Arminius and his followers. They were written not to offer a complete statement of the Reformed faith but to settle the controversy regarding Calvinist soteriology provoked by the teaching of Arminius.

 

The year of our Lord 2018–19 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the meeting of the Synod of Dort in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. The synod was convened in order to settle the ongoing controversy in the Dutch churches regarding the teaching of Jacobus Arminius and his followers on the topic of election. The document produced by the synod, the Canons of Dort, affirmed five main points of doctrine in response to the errors of the Arminians. These five points are often described today as the “doctrines of grace.” They are also frequently associated with the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints), even though this acronym alters the sequence of the points adopted and in some cases may offer a misleading impression of the canons’ teaching.

This article will follow the sequence of the canons. Though it is often forgotten, this sequence was already established by the time the Synod of Dort convened in 1618. Before the meeting of the synod, the Arminians had presented their teaching in the form of five opinions. The five points of the Canons of Dort were written, therefore, as a direct reply to the errors of Arminius and his followers. They were written not to offer a complete statement of the Reformed faith but to settle the controversy regarding Calvinist soteriology provoked by the teaching of Arminius.

In the course of its deliberations, the Synod of Dort judged the five Arminian articles to be contrary to the Word of God. Against the Arminian teachings of divine election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, resistible or ineffectual grace, and the possibility of a fall from grace, the canons set forth the biblical doctrines of unconditional election, definite atonement or particular redemption, radical depravity, effectual grace, and the perseverance of the saints. On each of these points, the canons first present a positive statement of the Scriptural teaching and then conclude with a rejection of the corresponding Arminian errors.

First Point: Unconditional Election

In the opening articles of the first main point of doctrine, the canons summarize the most important aspects of the biblical gospel. These include the fact that “all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death” (article 1), that God has manifested His love in the sending of His only begotten Son (article 2), and that God’s anger continues to rest upon those who do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (article 3). Within the framework of these truths, the canons address the fundamental question to which the biblical doctrine of election is addressed: Why do some believe and repent at the preaching of the gospel but others remain in their sins and under the just condemnation of God? The answer to this question at its deepest level is God’s unconditional election in Christ of some persons to salvation:

The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from [God’s] eternal decision. For all His works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision He graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of His chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by His just judgment He leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us His act—unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just—of distinguishing between people equally lost. (article 6)

Because God’s sovereign and gracious purpose of election is the source of faith, the canons go on to assert that it cannot therefore be based on faith. God does not elect to save anyone “on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen” (article 8). Faith is not a meritorious work but is itself a gracious gift that God grants to those whom He calls according to His purpose (Acts 13:48Eph. 2:8–9Phil. 1:29).

After articulating the scriptural teaching of unconditional election, the canons further affirm that this sovereign and gracious election of a particular number of people to salvation means that some sinners have been “passed by” and “left” in their sins (article 15). Those whom God does not elect to save in Christ belong to the company of all fallen sinners who “by their own fault” have willfully plunged themselves into a “common misery.” In the case of the elect, God mercifully and graciously elects to grant them salvation in and through the work of Christ (Eph. 1:3–7). In the case of the reprobate, God demonstrates His justice by choosing to withhold His grace and to finally condemn them for their sins and unbelief (Rom. 9:22–24).

Second Point: Definite Atonement

Of the five points of doctrine summarized in the canons, the second is given the briefest treatment. In the opening articles of this second point, the canons affirm that the only possible way for sinful human beings to escape the condemnation and death that their sins deserve lies in the atoning work of Jesus Christ on their behalf (article 2). Christ’s substitutionary work of atonement is the only way God’s justice can be satisfied and fallen sinners can be restored to favor with Him. After emphasizing the need for Christ’s atoning work on the cross, the canons affirm the infinite value and worth of Christ’s satisfaction. Christ’s atoning sacrifice “is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins” and “is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” Therefore, the church must proclaim the gospel of salvation through Christ to “all nations and peoples, to whom God in His good pleasure sends the gospel.” The church is called to proclaim “indiscriminately” that all who believe in Christ crucified and turn from their sins shall not perish but have eternal life.

After establishing the need for Christ’s atoning work and affirming its infinite value and sufficiency, the authors of the canons set forth the central thesis of the second point of doctrine. The atoning work of Christ was by God’s design and intention provided for the elect in particular:

For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of His Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that He might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, He acquired for them by His death); that He should cleanse them by His blood from all their sins, both original and actual. (article 8)

Read More