The Atonement of Christ According to Dordrecht


What did Christ accomplish in dying on the cross, and for whom?


The rather obvious reason for a treatment of this subject at this time is that through Professor Harold Dekker's writings in the Reformed Journal it has become a pertinent issue. Prof. Dekker holds to the proposition that God loves all men. He maintains, further, that there is only one love of God, and that this one love of God is redemptive, though, strange to say, he does not maintain that it is redeeming. In this connection, it naturally follows that he must say something about the atoning death of Christ. And his position on this score is that the atonement of Christ is unlimited, universal, for all men. At this point Dekker makes a four-fold distinction. He teaches that the atone­ment is unlimited in three senses, namely, in respect to its sufficiency, in respect to its availability, and in respect to the divine desire. In one respect the atonement is limited to the elect, namely, as to its saving efficacy.

My second reason for treating this particular subject is that Prof. Dekker has maintained that his position on the atonement is the position of the Canons of Dordrecht. He has appealed especially to Canons II, 8, claiming that this article proves that Dordt dealt only with the question of the 'efficacious application of saving grace,' and in no other sense dealt with the question of the design of the atonement (cf. The Reformed Journal, December 1962, pp. 6-7). This, of course, is only a very limited aspect of Dekker's whole position. But for more than one reason it is also a very integral aspect of his stand. It concerns the question whether Prof. Dekker's explanation of the atonement is confessionally Reformed or not. To this specific question we will devote our attention in the present essay.

For clarity's sake, I will immediately set forth my own position in regard to this fundamental issue, a position which I hope to prove in this essay. My position is that the only atonement of which Dordt knows and for which it leaves room is an efficacious one, both as far as its redemptive (and redeeming) character is concerned, and as far as its application and appropriation is concerned. This was precisely the issue in the conflict with the Arminians which was decided at Dordrecht. The question was: is the atonement of Christ effectual both objectively (as far as its merit goes) and subjectively (as far as its application goes), or is it ineffectual—in which case it is not atonement or redemption at all? The former is the Reformed position; the latter was the Arminian. Dordt knew only of a limited and effectual atonement, for the elect alone. If the Arminian position of a real atonement for all men is correct, then the Arminian must be a thorough-going universalist and must maintain too that all men are actually saved. The only way out of this dilemma is to deny the objective reality of atonement in the death of Christ, to empty that death of Christ of its real atoning significance. The latter is precisely what the Arminians did, or tried to do, in several ways while they continued to speak of Christ's death and Christ's atonement in the usual terms. And I maintain, and hope to show, that this is precisely what Prof. Dekker's position compels him to do in his four-fold distinction of sufficiency, availability, desire, and efficacy. The Canons condemn any such atonement in any universal sense; and they allow no room for Dekker's theory.

With the above in mind, I propose to treat three questions:

1) What do the Canons themselves say of the atonement?

2) What light, if any, do the opinions of the various delegates to the Synod of Dordrecht (both Dutch and foreign) shed on Dordt's understanding of the atonement?

3) Can Prof. Dekker's three-fold universal atonement stand in the light of Dordt?

The Canons on the Atonement

If we want to understand the Canons correctly, we must view them in the light of what the Arminians taught. The Canons are specifically an answer to the teaching of the Five Articles of the Remonstrants, adopted at Gouda in 1610, as well as to various writings of the Arminians. The Arminian doctrine of Christ's death is contained in their second article, which reads as follows:

'That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all by his death on the cross, reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this for­giveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16: 'God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: 'And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world ...’”

Here, therefore, the Arminians teach: 1) That the atone­ment of Christ is for every individual, so that Christ obtained reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for them all. 2) Yet that this atonement is effectual only in the believers. And the Arminians would even say that it is effectual only in the elect, although they did not like to use that term too much. In Article 3 of the Remonstrance they even say that man does not have saving faith of himself, though they add in Article 4 that the grace that bestows saving faith is not irresistible. Later on, of course, the Arminians were forced to develop their position, because they could not explain ultimately why all men were not reconciled and forgiven if Christ actually obtained reconciliation and forgiveness for all. The result was that in various ways—some of which are described and condemned in Canons II, Rejection of Errors—they began to deny the real atoning character of the death of Christ and to get rid of such elements as satisfaction, substitution, redemption, etc. One of the most notorious attempts at this was Hugo de Groot's [Grotius’] governmental theory, which made of the death of Christ a divine demonstration of what God could justly do to all men on account of their sins, a demonstration designed to make men acknowledge God's righteousness and repent, and thus be saved.

But we must keep the two main elements of Article 2 of the Arminians in mind. This is the view which our Canons condemn; and they condemn it on both counts. If Prof. Dekker's explanation of Canons II is correct, the Arminians and the Reformed would have been in agreement as far as the atonement was concerned: a death of Christ for all, but efficacious only in the believers, that is, the elect. And notice also the striking similarity between Dekker's and the Remonstrants' citing of passages like John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2.

Now what do the Canons teach over against this? Space will not permit to quote all the articles of Canons II as we discuss them; and I ask the reader to look these up as I refer to them. In the Second Head of Doctrine we learn:

1) That atonement is a matter of strictest divine justice (Art. 1). That justice means that God blesses and gives life to the righteous, i.e., to those who are one hundred per cent in harmony with the standard of His own righteousness, His law, 'Thou shalt love me.' He curses and punishes those who break that law with temporal and eternal punishment, both in body and soul. Sin, therefore, is guilt. It is debt, liability to punishment.

2) The punishment demanded by God's justice cannot be escaped, and man cannot be restored to God's favor, un­less satisfaction is made. Here we have a key word in the understanding of atonement: satisfaction. It means to do enough, to make payment of a certain debt or obligation, according to the demand of justice. (The Dutch is: voldoening, genoegdoening.) The reader should keep this term in mind because it denotes a very exact relationship. If satisfaction of a debt of one thousand dollars is made for a man, that debt is no more! If satisfaction of the debt of sin is made in any real sense for all men, that debt is no more! And remember: if Christ died His atoning death for all men, then He satisfied for all men!

3) This satisfaction of the justice of God consists in payment by a free and loving and obedient bearing of the wrath and curse due to us for sin (Art. 4). Concerning this:

a) This satisfaction, payment of debt, we are unable to make in our own persons, and therefore we are unable to deliver ourselves (Art. 2).

b) God's only begotten Son made this satisfaction for us and in our stead. He was made sin and became a curse. This death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, for it is of infinite value and worth (Art. 2 and 3).

c) This satisfaction is, therefore, a matter of substitution. It is for us, in our behalf, for our benefit, in the sense that is in our stead. Here you have a second key idea: substitution. Our Lord Jesus Christ represented men legally, took their place, before the bar of God's justice. Whether that was all men or only the elect is not now the question; but He represented men, substituted for them. He was their Head. This is a very exact relationship. If one man substitutes and satisfies for the debt of one thousand men, the debt of those one thousand (not of five thousand others) is paid and cannot be held against them. If Christ died, substituted and satisfied, for the elect only, then their debt (not the debt of all the others) is paid: it cannot be held against them. If, on the other hand, He died for an, then the debt of all is paid: it cannot be held against them, they are forgiven and saved.

4) This vicarious atonement (satisfactory and sub­stitutionary) was possible (has infinite value and dignity) because Christ was both, real, holy man, but also the only begotten Son of God. This explains both the possibility of His perfect sacrifice and His substitution as the One for the many (Art. 4). (Note: to the last clause of Article 3, 'abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world,' we shall return presently.)

5) Article 5 does not even speak of the atonement, but of the preaching of the atonement. But even this preaching is not for all men, is not universal. It is indeed promiscuous, i.e., to all nations and to all persons without distinction, reprobate as well as elect, Jew and Gentile. But it is limited to all 'to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel.'

6) Article 6 does not even by implication speak of a sufficiency of Christ's death for all. It speaks rather of the guilt, blame, of unbelief. That men go lost is not to be blamed to Christ's sacrifice being defective, but it is to be blamed to men themselves. We should remember, by the way, that the Arminians accused the Reformed of teaching that Christ's sacrifice was defective, i.e., it wasn't big enough to save all men, and that this was proved by some going lost because they were not covered by it. The Reformed answered: 'No, that men go lost is to be blamed on their own unbelief, not on Christ.' But the Arminians, even with their universal atonement, really taught that Christ's sacrifice was defective: for they taught that the sacrifice of Christ covered all the sin of all men except the sin of unbelief and impenitence.

7) Article 7 stresses that those who are saved through the death of Christ are indebted for this benefit solely to God's grace, not to any merit of their own. Hence, those who are lost go lost through their own fault; those who are saved are not saved through their own merit.

8) And now we come to Article 8, which Prof. Dekker cited in claimed support of his view. Let us analyze this article carefully.

a) In the first place, the main proposition of Article 8 is that the whole of salvation, grounded in the precious death of Christ, is efficacious and for the elect alone:

'For this was the sovereign counsel … that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing on them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation.'

b) This main proposition the article distinguishes into two aspects.

(1) The article speaks of effectual redemption, as follows:

'that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross … should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to him by the Father.'

This is the objective redemption, purchase, justification of all the elect in the cross. Christ represented all the elect, those dead, those living, those yet to be born, at the cross. From the moment that He died for them all their debt was very really paid and removed before God. They are from that moment righteous. God, according to His justice, can never demand payment for their sins any more; but He must and does hold them righteous, and account them worthy of eternal life.

(2) The article then speaks of the effectual application of the merited benefits:

'that he should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin both original and actual, whether committed before or after believ­ing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.'

This is the subjective side of salvation. It speaks of the work of Christ in us. And it is explained in detail in the rest of the Canons (III/IV, and V). By this we come into actual, conscious possession of all the blessings of salvation. Moreover, this is grounded in the work of Christ for us, objective redemption, by which Christ 'purchased' these benefits for us. Also this effectual application is for the elect alone. In conclusion, therefore, Article 8 insists that the atonement (objective redemption, substitutionary satisfaction) is effectual and for the elect alone. It actually purchases something for the elect, so that they have the right to it. And the application of the benefits of the atonement is effectual and for the elect alone, so that the latter actually come into possession of all the purchased benefits. The two aspects are co-extensive: they both extend to the elect alone.

In the light of all this we ask the question: does Canons II allow any room for any other atonement than an efficacious atonement for the elect alone? The answer has to be NO! As soon as you understand that atonement is satisfaction and is vicarious, substitutionary satisfaction, you are shut up to the view that the atonement is strictly limited to the elect, or you must maintain that if Christ died for all men, then all men are surely saved. The former is the position of Canons II, 8; the latter is the position of Arminianism, except that it denies that atonement is effectual.

We may also ask: does Canons II at all condemn any other view of the atonement, any view which attempts to make atonement general? Yes, they do, in the Rejection of Errors. In Article 1 they expressly condemn the view of an ineffectual redemption, when they condemn the idea that the merit of Christ's death was general and indefinite, while it might never have been applied to anyone at all. In Article 3 they reject the view that Christ satisfied, but did not merit either salvation or faith for anyone. And in Article 6 they condemn a view that sounds like Prof. Dekker's teaching concerning the divine desire in the death of Christ, namely, that “God, as far as he is concerned, has been minded of applying to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ.' The reader should look up these articles.

But, finally, do not the Canons make a kind of general statement concerning Christ's death? Indeed they do, in II, 3 they state that Christ's death is “of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.' But we should note the following in this connection: 1) The Canons carefully use the word 'sufficient,' not 'satisfying.' The Dutch here is “genoegzaam;' and the Latin, “sufficiens.' 2) The Canons nowhere state that Christ actually died for all, or substituted for all, or satisfied for all, or redeemed all. In fact, this is the very error against which the Canons militate. 3) In this article and this expression the Canons are not concerned with the question for whom Christ died, but with the Arminian argument that the Reformed view of limited atonement presupposes that the sacrifice of Christ was too poor and of limited value. From this point of view they, as it were, answer: “Oh, no; apart from the fact that Christ did not die for all, that death of Christ in itself is so worthy and valuable that if God had so willed, it would have very well covered the sins of the whole world. From that point of view it was abundantly sufficient.' 4) The Canons never say: 'for all men and every man.' 5) We gladly concede that this approach of the Canons is abstract and philosophically speculative. The approach of Article 4 is much sounder and is scriptural, when it comes to the value and worth of Christ's sacrifice. 6) This interpretation of Article 3 is supported by the official opinions of the delegations to the Synod, as we shall see.

Our conclusion, therefore, is that the views of Professor Dekker concerning Christ's atonement are confessionally condemned and excluded by our Canons. Under the flag of Dordrecht you may not say to all and every man, 'Christ died for you.'

The Fathers of Dordrecht and the Atonement

That the above is indeed the position of our Canons and that the propositions of Prof. Dekker are contrary to the whole spirit of Dordt can be abundantly proved from the writings of the very fathers who composed the Canons. Fortunately, these writings are preserved in the Acts of the Synod of Dordrecht. The Acts contain not only the official decisions of the Synod, but also the written opinions of each delegation to the Synod, both of the delegations from foreign countries and of the delegations from the various Dutch provinces. These lengthy reports contain a detailed treatment of each of the Five Articles of the Arminians. In my Dutch version of the Acts of the Synod of Dordrecht the opinions on the subject of the atoning death of Christ alone cover more than a hundred large pages of small print. If space permitted, I could make lengthy quotations of these opinions. But let it suffice to translate here a few choice quotations on pertinent aspects of the question under discussion. For the rest, I will tabulate and summarize these opinions.

1) On the question of a sufficiency for all.

With the exception of the opinion of Martinius, of Bremen, all those who speak of sufficiency make it plain that they are abstractly considering the worth, value, price of Christ's sacrifice. They use the latter terms. They also carefully specify that they are speaking of the death of Christ considered 'in itself.' And they use such expressions as 'would be sufficient' or 'would have been sufficient,' but do not say that it was sufficient in the sense that Christ actually died for all men. Besides, several of the opinions which speak of this sufficiency at the same time argue at length that terms like 'all' and 'world' never mean all men and every individual in Scripture. Here is an example from the Synod of South Holland:

'That God, as He from eternity decided, unto the praise of the glory of his grace to save not all men, but some definite men, elected out of the human race, thus also at once decided that the satisfaction and merit of the obedience and death of Christ, which in itself indeed would be sufficient to save all and every man, should be a definite and ordained and proper means through which would be blotted out the sins of those who were given Him of the Father, and whereby power­fully and infallibly those who were elect would be brought unto eternal life as to the end absolutely intended of God.'

They then cite texts such as Isaiah 53:11, John 10:15, Matthew 1:21, Romans 8:32, John 17:6, 19, 24 and John 10:28. The theologians of Hesse say the following:

'… the sense of which manner of speaking we consider to be this: that the death and suffering of Christ is of such great worth, power, price, that is abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of all and every man who has ever lived, lives, and hereafter shall live,'

They then go on to explain that this refers to the 'endless worth' of Christ’s sacrifice, based on His being not only man, but God, 'so that all men, if only they belong to Christ by a true faith … would be received in the favour and grace of God …' Later they state that the worth of Christ's death is so great … that it is sufficient for all and every man, even if there were more than a thousand worlds, to reconcile with God and expiate their sins.' But they add:

“… nevertheless in no sense by the same [death of Christ] is salvation, reconciliation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life actually obtained or merited … but Christ by His suffering and death has obtained and merited all these benefits for his sheep alone, or for the elect which the Father gave Him to save and to make eternally blessed, and these benefits really pertain to them and not the others.'

With this idea all the delegates who speak of sufficiency agree, with the exception of Martinius of Bremen. He did not want any abstract sufficiency. He was at heart Arminian, insisted that Christ died for all, and even conspired with the Arminian Poppius. And he says:

'And here it will not be enough to propose a kind of sufficiency of the redemption which could be sufficient; but which is en­tirely of such a kind that it is sufficient, and which God and Christ willed that it should be sufficient. For otherwise the command and the promise of the Gospel would be pulled down [Dutch: zullen omvergerukt worden].'

This same Martinius, by the way, maintained two proposi­tions in his opinion, that Christ died for all men, and that Christ died for the elect only. And he said:

“… it in no sense conflicts with itself to say that Christ died for all, with the purpose of saving them, and has not thus died.'

Martinius and Dekker would be in substantial agreement, I fear.

2) On the question for whom Christ died.

The theologians of Emden state flatly: 'Christ has laid down His life only for the sheep, that is, for the elect, in no wise for the goats (bokken). John 10:15 . . .' Again: 'Christ, according to the intention, counsel, and decree of the Father, has died for the elect alone.'

The Swiss theologians: “We deny that Christ thus endured death for the benefit of or in the place of and in the name of men who would never be converted that He' should be their sacrifice …' Again: 'That Christ, according to the determination and counsel of the Father died for those whom He never saves is so strange to the truth as that those would be saved for whom Christ, according to the counsel of the Father, did not die …'

The Palatinate theologians: 'Christ both died and is risen and intercedes with the Father in heaven for the elect and the believers alone, that is, partly in their stead, and partly for their benefit.'

The opinion of the Netherlands professors (Gomarus, Polyander, Thysius and Wallaeus) is interesting because it treats the very passages of which Prof. Dekker states: 'In none of them (John 10:11, 15; Acts 20:28; Matt. 1:21, etc.) is the predication regarding those for whom Christ died stated exhaustively or exclusively.' The Netherlands professors state:

'Though it is true that in these passages together the word 'alone' is not expressed, nevertheless it is included in those things which are set forth in the above quotations, or else all power of reasoning to a conclusion and drawing consequences out of any words is at once taken away. For if Christ is a Saviour equally of all people, then the angel [in Matt. 1:21] added 'his people' vainly. If Christ laid down His life equally for all, then Christ said in vain, 'for my own sheep.' If Christ purchased all and every man with his blood, then it is of no power that Paul adds, 'which he purchased with his own blood.'”

The Gelderland delegates state flatly, “… never is Christ said to have died for every man; and this we cannot countenance, seeing that we judge it to be false and to conflict with the divine righteousness, and to be not only useless and of no service for the edifying and comforting of burdened Christians, but also dangerous.' This is followed by an elaborate and careful explanation that terms like 'all' and 'world' do not mean every in­dividual in Scripture.

North Holland and Friesland also pay close attention to these terms, and argue that they refer only to the elect. Besides, several of the opinions connect the death of Christ with the love of God and of Christ and limit that love of God and of Christ to the elect only.

3) On the co-extensiveness of merit and application.

Almost without exception (Bremen and the British are not­able exceptions) the opinions insist that the merit of Christ's death and the application of those merits stand in unbreakable connection and are limited to the elect only.

The Swiss state, among other things: 'Also the application [appropriation] must follow the meriting, seeing that it is the end of the same, because they also are both ordained from before the foundation of the world for the same men, and belong inseparably together. Or who would [tell us once], willingly and knowingly, pay a ransom for a captive when he knew for sure that the poor captive would not take the benefit?'

The Swiss also state: “… the election of those who are saved, the obedience and sacrifice of the Son, and also the saving operation of the Holy Ghost … extend equally far, and concern the same persons …”

And therefore: 'We may indeed not, through a wrong mildness toward the Apostle, yea, toward Christ Himself ascribe the salvation merited by Christ to anyone who is placed outside the fellowship of those whom the Father loved and elected and draws; outside the Church, which the Son loved, and for whom He gave Himself; outside of that body of which Christ is the Saviour and the head; outside of the heirs in whose heart the Holy Ghost is an earnest, and seals the same believers.'

With the above the entire spirit of Dordt agrees. There were only two who might sustain Dekker. They were Martinius of Bremen and, to an extent, the British theologians, one of whom, Dr. Thomas Goad, later became an avowed Arminian.

Conclusion: Dekker and Dordt

Is then Professor Dekker at all supported by Dordrecht? On the contrary, he is condemned. Dordt would have placed him in the category of the Arminians, sad to say.

Remember that Professor Dekker has an atonement that is universal in sufficiency, in availability, and in the desire of God. In these three respects he wants to say that Christ died for all men, and can say, he claims, to every man, 'Christ died for you.” In only one respect will he limit the atonement, i.e., in its efficacy.

But notice that by his own definition Dekker's atone­ment may be divided into a two-fold classification, namely, an ineffectual atonement and an ineffectual atonement. His first three aspects (of universal atonement), as over against the fourth (limited, effectual atonement) would have to be classed as ineffectual. Now what is an ineffectual atonement? It is an atonement that does not really atone, a redemptive love that does not redeem, a satisfaction that does not satisfy, a substitution that does not substitute, a divine desire that does not reach its end.

And all these are contrary to Dordt, contrary to Dordt’s understanding of the Scriptures, and, according to Dordt, unworthy of a sovereign God.

May this doctrine of absolutely limited atonement, and of truly effectual atonement, permeate the life and witness of the Church in full power!

Last modified on 21 February 2013
Hoeksema, Herman

Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.

"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.  He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924.  He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."

Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.

For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer

Notes: You may also find many sermons of "H.H." at the RFPA website. And you may find copies in print of an entire set of "H.H.'s" catechism sermons here.

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