This article first appeared in the special Reformation issue of the Standard Bearer published in October 15, 1997 (Vol.74, No.2) on the Synod of Dordt. It was the editorial written by Prof. David J. Engelsma.
The story is told of the delegate to the Synod of Dordt who, ever afterwards, when the synod was mentioned, doffed his hat and exclaimed, "Oh, most holy synod!"
This is not the attitude toward the synod that prevails in Reformed churches today.
But it should be.
It is ours.
For the Synod of Dordt (1618, 1619) defended the gospel of salvation by (sovereign) grace alone in an hour when the gospel was under attack by the subtlest form of the lie that had ever assailed it. That lie was the teaching that the salvation of the sinner depends upon the sinner's own will. But that false gospel was forced to adopt a deceptive form. For the Reformation that had begun some 100 years earlier had clearly exposed the doctrine of free will as the diseased heart of Roman Catholic heresy. In addition, the Belgic Confession in the 14th article explicitly rejects "all that is taught repugnant to this (doctrine of total depravity) concerning the free will of man." And the false gospelers were bound by the Belgic Confession.
They cast their heresy, therefore, in the form of the teaching that only the grace of God can enable the will of the sinner to believe. This grace, however, is universal, at least, to all who hear the gospel preached. Also, although it imparts the ability to believe in Christ, it does not infallibly bring about this believing. Grace, taught the Arminians, is resistible. "Grace, grace," they cried, to the deceiving of the undiscerning. But their grace was universal and ineffectual. It did not save. It merely enabled the sinner to save himself—by his own will. For all their talk of grace, salvation in the end was still "of him that willeth," to use the words in which Romans 9:16 repudiates this corruption of the gospel.
Basic to the subtle lie exposed and condemned at Dordt were the twin notions of universal grace and resistible grace.
Dordt's defense of the gospel—the one, true gospel—necessarily took the form of confessing that grace is particular and effectual, or irresistible. Like Jesus Himself, whose saving favor and power it is, grace saves His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). It does not merely enable all to save themselves, if they will. The source and foundation, for Dordt, of particular, effectual grace, that is, real grace, God's grace, are eternal predestination, election of some and reprobation of the others. Upon the rock of the decreeing God, and only on this rock, the subtle, deadly lie of Arminian self-salvation was dashed to pieces. Not man's will is decisive for salvation, but God's will.
In setting forth the truth of gracious salvation against the subtle error of the Arminians, the Synod of Dordt not only maintained the Reformation's teachings but also developed them. The Canons' treatment of predestination, depravity, conversion, and preservation is full and systematic, as was no prior treatment. The unambiguous declaration that Jesus Christ died for the elect church alone was a real advance. Before Dordt, limited atonement was often more implied than expressed by the theologians. Even the earlier Reformed creeds did not spell out the truth of the extent of the atonement in words that stopped the mouths of the heretics in the churches.
The Synod of Dordt confessed the gospel of salvation by particular, sovereign grace alone, and it confessed this gospel fully, clearly, and systematically. At the same time, it explicitly condemned the subtlest form of the false gospel of salvation by man himself.
The document in which this is done is a creed of the Reformed churches. It has standing. It has authority. It is binding upon Reformed churches and people. It decides what is truly Reformed. Because of the presence and participation of the foreign delegates, Dordt had an ecumenical character. The Christelijke Encyclopaedia voor het Nederlandsche Volk is right when it says, "In a certain sense, one had in Dordt a Reformed ecumenical council" (vol. 1, pp. 634-636). This means that Dordt has authority regarding the Reformed faith worldwide.
Herein lies the significance of the Synod of Dordt for today.
Dordt preserved the Reformation. It was wonderfully used by God the Holy Spirit to pass on to the coming generations, including us, the gospel of grace. It gave us the testimony to the gospel of grace in fully developed form, making plain exactly what the good news of grace in the Bible consists of: double predestination; particular, limited atonement; depravity that is total, not partial; grace that is particular—to and in the elect alone; and the preservation of the elect, regenerated saints. Merely to have said, "Salvation is by grace," would not have helped. The Arminian party gladly said this, as they worked at leading the Reformed churches in the Netherlands back to Rome.
Dordt dared to establish the message of the gospel by confessing reprobation—God's appointment of some specific humans to everlasting damnation as one decree with eternal election. It confessed reprobation in the face of the deliberate, crafty policy of the heretics to destroy the gospel of grace by concentrating their assault on the doctrine of reprobation. They knew, and appealed to, men's natural aversion to reprobation.
Dordt never wavered. Denial of or silence about reprobation means the end of biblical election. And biblical election is the foundation and source of the message of grace. Dordt boldly confessed reprobation and demanded that it be preached, if always in connection with election, and wisely.
The impossibility of maintaining election apart from reprobation is evident today. Those in the Reformed churches who clamor for election without reprobation either proclaim an election that is universal or an election that is temporal. Both are the death of the gospel of grace.
The Synod of Dordt identified the doctrines that were assailed by the Arminians as the gospel. It exposed the lie of salvation by the will of man as the false gospel condemned by Paul in Romans 9:16 and in the book of Galatians. "Calvinism" is not a mere refinement of the gospel that Rome, Arminians, and Reformed have basically in common. Arminian "free willism" is not a minor, or even major, defect in a message that is otherwise the gospel. The doctrines of the Canons are the gospel by which the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ saves elect sinners. They are the power of God unto salvation to every believer. The system of doctrine controlled by free will is another gospel, which is no gospel. The preachers of this gospel are cursed by the apostle in Galatians 1:6-9. Those who believe and practice this false gospel perish.
If the fathers at Dordt did not have this conviction, they never would have contended for the faith. The result would have been the apostasy of the Dutch churches. If we do not have this conviction, we will not contend for the faith today, as we Reformed officebearers are sworn to do, positively and negatively, by our subscription to the Canons. Then God will take the faith away from us in His just judgment.
By its full, clear exposition of the gospel, accompanied by full exposure and ringing denunciation of the opposite errors, Dordt put Reformed churches in position to withstand the attacks, open and insidious, by the false gospel of salvation by human worth, works, and will. The churches can ward off the pressures and seductions from Rome and from the Arminian, "free-willist," so-called evangelical churches. The Reformed churches can detect and banish the deadly errors threatening grace that appear within the Reformed churches themselves in the present day.
These are especially three. One is universalism: God loves, elects, redeems, and, somehow in the end, saves every human. A second is the doctrine that God is gracious to every person who hears the gospel. This is the popular theory of the "well-meant offer of the gospel." The third is the teaching that God's grace in Christ is directed in baptism to all children of believing parents, so that God desires their salvation and even makes their salvation possible, if they will only fulfill the condition of believing.
All these doctrines deny the truth that God elects some in love and reprobates others in hatred. All three doctrines deny—obviously, explicitly, and undeniably deny—that the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the grace of the gospel, is particular and irresistible. All three doctrines oppose Dordt, and Dordt condemns all three doctrines.
It is important that Dordt presented the truth of the gospel as logical. All must recognize this who read the Canons, although many criticize Dordt for this. This is the meaning of the criticism of Dordt as "scholastic." Dordt showed its conviction that biblical truth is logical in its confession of reprobation. At a conference with the Arminians at the Hague in 1611, the orthodox Reformed party declared publicly that
indeed when they state the eternal decree concerning the election of individual persons, they at the same time state the eternal decree concerning the reprobation or rejection of certain individual persons; because it could not be, that there should be election, but moreover there must be, at the same time, a certain reprobation or dereliction (cited in Thomas Scott, Synod of Dort, Philadelphia, 1856, p. 117).
One powerful engine to destroy the fortress of Dordt in our day is the insistence that the gospel is illogical, paradoxical (that is, contradictory), and irrational. In this case, Reformed people may believe that God loves only some and loves all; that Christ died only for the elect and for all; that grace is irresistible and resistible; and that salvation is 100% by grace and 100% by man's will. A simpleton can see that the result is the teaching that salvation is by man's will, indeed 100% by man's will. Further, the effect of such a view of truth is that we can know nothing. Christianity is absurdity. There can be neither certainty nor comfort. To this nonsense, Dordt said no, as all the ecumenical and Reformation creeds said—and say!—no. God's yes is yes, not yes and no. His no is no, not no and yes. So are also the yes and the no of the true church.
Thus, through Dordt the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ guides us to know, preach, and believe the truth that alone comforts sinners and glorifies the triune God.
I sometimes regret that we no longer wear hats. We can no longer doff them when Dordt is mentioned and say, from the heart, "Oh, most holy synod!"
Engelsma, David J.
Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)
Ordained: September 1963
Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof_D._Engelsma
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