Definite Atonement and Preaching

The question, “How can one who holds to the doctrine of limited or definite atonement preach?” has been a vexing problem, not for the one holding to the truth of definite atonement, but for the opponents of that truth. Historic Calvinism, or the Reformed Faith, has always maintained the truth of definite atonement. This truth is zealously preached, taught, and defended by the Protestant Reformed Churches. Christ died in the place of and for the sake of all those whom the Father had chosen in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:3ff.) Christ by His suffering and death on the cross satisfied the justice of God for the elect. The forgiveness of sins, the right to be called the children of God, and everlasting life have been secured for the elect through the atonement brought by Jesus Christ. The debt has been paid, not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of the Lamb of God. This is the meaning of the victory cry from the Savior uttered just moments before He commended His Spirit to His Father: “It is finished.” 

This truth appears plainly on the pages of Holy Scripture. When Joseph was minded to put away privily his pregnant wife, an angel appeared to him in a dream to explain what had happened to Mary, the virgin. That angel also instructed Joseph as follows: “. . .thou shalt call His name JESUS: for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21b). All people is not the same as His people. Only the latter are saved from their sins by Jesus. When faced with a crowd of unbelievers Jesus said, “All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me; and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). Christ will not cast out those whom the Father gives to Him. He will surely save them. Those who are not given to Christ by God will not be saved. They will indeed be cast out! This is graphically illustrated in John 6:66: “Many of His disciples went back and walked no more with Him.” All three of our Reformed. Creeds: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic or Netherlands Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht clearly reflect this precious truth of the Word of God. 

Arminianism denies this truth. Arminianism teaches that Christ died for every individual of the human race. The atonement according to the Arminian is universal in scope, sufficient to cover the sins of all of mankind. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross is capable of washing away the sins of everyone. The Arminian teaches that the atonement is universal also in the sense that by the death of Christ salvation is made available to all of mankind. The obvious questions are: “why then are not all saved?” and “how does one obtain salvation?” The Arminian answers these questions with still another terrible error: man has a free will. (Our Reformed fathers rightly called the error of free will “the Pelagian error brought again out of hell”—Canons II, Rejection of Errors III) Through the preaching of the gospel, according to the Arminian, salvation in Christ is offered to all who hear. Those who “accept Christ” or “allow Jesus to come into their hearts” are saved. Those who refuse the offer of the gospel are damned. But, all people have the ability to accept or reject Christ. There are variations (several in fact) of the Arminian error, but it is not the purpose of this article to treat these. 

With its twin errors of universal atonement and the free will of man Arminianism has always been and still is in a frenzy to “win souls for Christ.” Evangelism and missions have top priority among Arminian or fundamentalist churches. Preachers and evangelists (many unordained and with no official connection to the institute of the church) barnstorm the world conducting crusades aimed at converting the whole world for Christ if possible. Others make extensive use of the media, especially radio and television, spending and taking in millions of dollars per year. Zeal for missions is mandated by Scripture and, therefore, laudable. It is a shame, at best, that the mission zeal of Arminianism is so misguided! 

At the same time the Arminians charge the Calvinists with having no gospel to preach. If Christ died only for the elect, then one can preach only to the elect. If the promise of the gospel is intended only for the elect, there can be no general proclamation of the gospel. Obviously, so argues the Arminian, there can be no mission work or evangelism done by the Reformed Churches. Really, claims the Arminian, there can be no preaching, even in the established church, since all in the church are not elect and no one knows who are and who are not. 

It was precisely this charge which prompted the fathers of Dordt to formulate this statement as a summary of the teaching of Scripture on this point:

Moreover the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure, sends the gospel. 

(Canons II, Article 5)

The Arminian charge has been and still is leveled at the Protestant Reformed Churches. Because our churches have taken a strong and consistent stand against the so-called offer of the gospel it is said that we have no gospel to preach. We cannot do mission work or evangelism since the gospel promise is only for the elect. We cannot, so we are told, proclaim the gospel to the nations. What must we think of this? Is it true? Are the mission efforts of our churches hamstrung by the fact that we maintain the truth of definite atonement and reject the error of the offer of the gospel? Nonsense! 

Oddly enough this charge against our churches has not come from theologians from the Arminian tradition but from within the Reformed tradition. Theologians and leaders within the Reformed camp accuse the Protestant Reformed position of the very thing of which the Arminians accused our Reformed fathers nearly four hundred years ago. What is even more strange is the fact that our accusers use the very article of the Canons formulated against the Arminian charge (II, 5, quoted above) to defend the Arminian error of a gospel offer! 

The Protestant Reformed Churches have had a great deal to do with Canons II, 5. In 1924 our mother church, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, cited this very article in support of its first point of common grace, more particularly “the little point of the first point.” That “little point” teaches the “offer of the gospel.” A little more than fifty years later, in the controversy which wracked our churches and resulted in the tragic split of 1953, this article was cited by those who taught a general, conditional promise of the gospel. These tried to defend the statement, “God promises every one of you that if you believe you will be saved,” on the basis of Canons II, 5. Let it be clearly understood that the Protestant Reformed Churches fully and without any reservation whatsoever subscribe to the statement of Canons II, 5. One cannot support the error of a “free offer” on the basis of this article. The article speaks of the promise of the gospel and the command of the gospel but not of an “offer of the gospel.” This promise and command must be preached promiscuously wherever God in His good pleasure sends the gospel. This our churches believe heartily. Because we believe this we strive by the grace of God to be faithful to the mandate of the King of the church: “Go ye into all the world. . . . .” 

This is Scripture. Jesus Himself did not hesitate to preach the doctrines of election and reprobation and definite atonement. For whom does Jesus lay down His life? Listen to the answer of the Savior: “I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Why is it that some do not believe? Again listen to Jesus: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of My sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand” (John 10:26-28). Where in all of this does one find anything that even hints of an “offer of the gospel?” At one point Jesus even thanked His Father for hiding the realities of the Kingdom from the “wise and prudent” and revealing them unto “babes” (Matthew 11:25). The Lord ascribes that hiding and revealing to the good-pleasure of God: “Even so Father; for so it seemed good in Thy sight” (Matt. 11:26). Matt 11:28 of this same chapter is a favorite of the Arminians: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Does Jesus present an offer? No, He speaks in the imperative: Come! This is a command, not an offer. Does Jesus call all people to Himself? Does He promise rest to all? No, He calls and He promises rest only to those who are laboring and heavy laden. 

Does this mean we cannot do missionary work? On the contrary, the precious truths of sovereign grace are an incentive and an encouragement to do mission work. The sheep, the elect, are in the nations. Preaching is the God-given means by which they must be gathered unto salvation. We may be sure that God will accomplish His purpose in the saving of His church in Christ. The church must send out its preachers with the imperative of the gospel: “be ye reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20). The church may rest assured that the preaching will be effective. To some it will be a savor of death unto death, but to others a savor of life unto life. In both God is well pleased. Thanks be to Him Who always causes us to triumph in every place! (II Corinthians 2:15-17)