1924, 1967 (Dekker Case), and the Atonement


The first point of the well-known Three Points adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 in defense of the doctrine of Common Grace reads as follows:

Relative to the first point, which concerns the question of a favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, Synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession, that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5, and III, IV, 8, 9, that deal with the general offer of the Gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology that our Reformed fathers from ancient times favored this view.

There is an obvious element of inconsistency here. On the one hand, this first point speaks of “a favorable attitude of God toward humanity in general . . . apart from the saving grace of God shown only to the elect.” Yet, on the other hand, it also speaks of “the general offer of the Gospel,” which certainly refers to saving grace and not “common grace.” Dr. Abraham Kuyper, who developed the theory of “common grace,” would never have agreed with this, since he made a sharp distinction between what he called “gemeene gratie” (common favor) and particular or saving grace as revealed in the preaching of the gospel. Yet this “general offer of the gospel” has become the main issue in the entire common grace controversy. We are immediately confronted with the question, since all mankind has forfeited the right to God’s favor and grace through the sin of Adam, what is the juridical basis for this “common grace”? It was asked repeatedly, At what stage of the suffering of Christ on the cross was this “common grace” merited? The question becomes even more serious when one speaks of a “general offer of salvation.” Where is the meritorious basis for such an offer? Immediately the question arises, Is the atonement of the cross in some sense universal, that is, did Christ, according to God’s intent, in some sense merit the right to salvation for all men in general? Is there a universal atonement? 

Prof. Berkhof, who defended the three points of Common Grace in a pamphlet entitled, “De Drie Punten in Alle Deelen Gereformeerd” (The Three Points in Every Respect Reformed) insisted still on a limited atonement. He wrote (page 8):

Our Church stands as firm as ever in the conviction that Christ died with the intention to save only the elect, though she recognizes at the same time the infinite value of the sacrifice of Christ as being sufficient for the sins of the whole world. He who alleges that Synod here seeks to introduce covertly the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement becomes guilty of false representation.

The professor states that God’s love is limited to the elect, God’s intention to save is limited to the elect, and the atonement of the cross is limited to the elect. He brands the universal atonement, correctly so, as Arminian heresy. Yet notice the gross inconsistency when he writes in the same pamphlet:

The general and well-meaning offer of salvation is an evidence of Gods favor toward sinners, is a blessing of the Lord upon them. . . . In the prophecy of Ezekiel we may listen to the voice of the Lord in the words that bear testimony to His mercy, “Have I pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways and live?” And again, “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth (that is, of him that perisheth in his sins), saith the Lord God, wherefore turn yourselves and live ye”. These passages tell us as clearly as words can tell, that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; note that He does not say, “of the elect sinner”, but “of the sinner” entirely general; and the tender calling we hear therein witnesses of the great love for sinners and of His pleasure in the salvation of the ungodly (page 21).

The contradictions stare us in the face. God’s love is limited to the elect, yet God has also a “great love” for all sinners. Christ died with the intention of saving only the elect (to say anything else is the Arminian doctrine), yet that saving merit of the cross is offered to all men without exception. God’s intention is to save those for whom Christ died, yet His tender calling and well meaning offer come as a blessing to all who hear the gospel. By no stretch of the imagination can those contradictions be harmonized. 

This has often been referred to as the “two track” theology, the one track representing particular grace and the other representing common grace and the universal offer of salvation. Two tracks, mind you, one of which runs east and west, and the other north and south! Others have referred to this contradiction as a mystery, since God’s logic is supposed to be different from ours. Still others spoke of “the balance that is Calvinism,” maintaining on the one hand that God loves only the elect, and on the other that God loves all men; on the one hand, maintaining total depravity, on the other, the “good that sinners do”; on the one hand, particular atonement, on the other, universal atonement; on the one hand, efficacious grace, on the other, a free offer of salvation to all; and on the one hand, the preservation of saints, while on the other, a falling away of saints. Call it what you will, the contradictions are obvious. 

1967 (The Dekker Case). 

Prof. Dekker plainly saw these contradictions and therefore wrote that there can be but one love of God, and that this love of God must have its meritorious basis in the cross of Christ. In his article that appeared in the Reformed Journal, December, 1962, entitled, “God So Loved . . . All Men!” he wrote:

The doctrine of limited atonement as taught by Berkhof and others has commonly been used to place a taboo on the proposition that Christ died for all men and on any statement by a missionary to unbelievers such as, “Christ died for you”. Supposedly such language is Arminian. Actually it is not necessarily so. . . . The doctrine of limited atonement as commonly understood and observed in the Christian Reformed Church impairs the principle of the universal love of God and tends to inhibit missionary spirit and activity. God so loved all men that He gave His only begotten Son! May this great truth permeate the life and witness of the Church in full power!

Prof. Dekker insists that a universal love of God and a sincere offer of the gospel rest on the basis of a universal atonement, and that according to God’sdesign! He writes:

As far as the atonement is concerned, four factors may be distinguished, when we speak of design: sufficiency, availability, desire, and efficacy.

The professor wants to maintain, “The sufficiency andavailability of salvation for all men and the divinedesire that all will receive it.” Since all men are not saved he is forced to conclude that the atonement of Christ is limited in its efficacy. 

The reference of both Berkhof and Dekker to the “sufficiency” of the atonement of Christ is an obvious attempt to appeal to the statement found in the Canons of Dordt, II, 3, that the death of Christ is “of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate for the sins of the whole world.” From the strong opposition throughout the Canons to the Arminian teaching of a universal atonement it should be evident that the fathers meant nothing more than that Christ would not have had to suffer any more had He died for the sins of the whole world. Yet in spite of this obvious meaning of the statement, both Berkhof and Dekker appeal to it to teach universal atonement. 

Dekker even speaks of God’s design to save all men. This can only mean that God made Christ a substitute for all mankind. Moreover, it means that God intended that Christ should atone for the sins of all mankind by His obedient sacrifice on the cross. Thus it was God’s intention that the debt of sin and guilt be paid for every individual. It is on that basis of a universal atonement, that God now declares to all men, “God loves you”; “Christ died for you.” 

Salvation is available to all who hear the gospel. The death of Christ, the payment for the debt of sin, the right to eternal life is offered to all, for anyone to reach out and to accept. 

Yet all men are not saved. Why not? The answer Dekker gives is, because the atonement is not efficacious for all. One may well ask, Why? If according to God’s design Christ died for all men, why is the death of the cross not efficacious for all? Again, how can that one love of God, and that one universal sacrifice for sin be efficacious for some, and not for others? Obviously, if the debt is not paid for all men, as God had desired, then it is not paid for anyone. Dekker denies the efficacy of the cross. How, then, can anyone be saved? Still worse, this is a denial of the sovereignty of God, for God does not attain His eternal design and desire. 

What did the Synod of 1967 do about this? As far as the Dekker case is concerned, they did nothing. They were confronted with a dilemma. As became evident from the discussions at that Synod if they wanted to maintain the “general offer of the gospel” as adopted in 1924, they would also have to maintain Dekker’s conclusions drawn from that decision. To condemn Dekker was to condemn 1924. They maintained the stand of 1924 in regard to the general offer of the gospel, and they did nothing more than declare the statements of the professor to be ambiguous and warned the church against wrong conclusions. Dekker was neither condemned nor exonerated. 

What they did do was to declare to everyone a certain doctrinal freedom. Those who should desire to teach that Christ died only for the elect may do so. Those who would proclaim that Christ died for all men, and that God loves all men, are also free to do so. This bodes no good for the Reformed faith once delivered unto us from the fathers, the truth as revealed in the Scriptures.