Election and Atonement

This is our first special issue of the current volume-year. It is a follow-up on the special issue of May 15, which was devoted to the truth of divine predestination; and it is the second in a projected series on the so-called Five Points of Calvinism, or, as some refer to them, the “doctrines of grace.” 

You probably have already noted that this issue is devoted to the truth of Limited, or Definite, Atonement. 

Perhaps this occasioned a question in your mind—a question which might also have arisen in connection with the special issue on Predestination—as to the order we are following in this series. The question concerns the order we are following in our treatment of the Five Points of Calvinism. Most of us are probably acquainted with the pons assinorum, o r “asses’ bridge”—more prosaically called a mnemonic, or memory aid—involving the letters of the word T-U-L-I-P. This word is used to help one remember the Five Points of Calvinism, with each letter standing for one of the points, as follows: 

T = Total Depravity 

U = Unconditional Election 

L = Limited Atonement 

I = Irresistible Grace 

P = Perseverance of the Saints 

Although the tulip is well-known as a Dutch flower, and although this mnemonic has, I suppose, a certain practical value, nevertheless the order of the five Points represented in T-U-L-I-P is not that represented in our (Dutch) Reformed Creed, the Canons of Dordrecht. And whatever may have been the origin of this mnemonic, it does not have its roots in our Reformed tradition as such. Anyone acquainted with the Canons of Dordrecht will recall that their order is: 

Divine Predestination 

Limited (or Definite) Atonement 

Total Depravity 

Irresistible Grace 

Perseverance of the Saints 

Upon first consideration, it might seem as though the order followed in our Canons of Dordrecht, as compared with the order followed in T-U-L-I-P, is of no great importance. After all, if one maintains the truths of the Five Points, what difference does it make if he follows one order or another? It might even be argued with some validity that the order followed by the Canons of Dordrecht is nothing more than an accident of history. For the order of the Canons of Dordrecht was determined by the order of the Five Points of the Remonstrance, due to the fact that the Canons were a judgment of and a reply to those five Arminian points. Hence, even as the Arminians began by teaching conditional election, so our Reformed fathers began by maintaining sovereign and double predestination; and even as the Arminians in their second point taught universal atonement, so our Reformed fathers continued by setting forth the truth of definite atonement in the chapter on “The Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby,” and so on. And so, as I said, one could argue with some validity that the order followed in our Canons is merely what is called an accident of history. 

Yet, upon more careful consideration one may discover that there is a deeper reason for this order, both in the history itself and in the intrinsic relationships of these doctrines.

As far as the origin of T-U-L-I-P is concerned, and, in fact, as far as the name “The Five Points of Calvinism” is concerned, I have no historical information at hand. Frankly, I am fond of neither. With regard to the former, I think there is a lack of regard for the proper relationship of the doctrines. And with regard to the latter—though I am well aware that it would be virtually impossible to rid our doctrinal vocabulary of the expression—I am not fond of having true doctrines referred to as an “ism” nor of having them named after a man. But not having at hand the information regarding their origins, I am not in a position to criticize from this viewpoint. 

However, with regard to the order in our Canons of Dordrecht, I am certain that it is more than a mere accident of history. There is an intrinsic relationship between the various doctrines. That intrinsic relationship is such that the five points, or Five Heads of Doctrine, are not five coordinate points, all standing on the same level. Nor is their order a matter of indifference. These points cannot be shuffled for the sake of fitting a certain memory aid. No, the First Head of Doctrine, Of Divine Predestination, is indeed first. And it is first, too, in the sense that it stands at the head of all the others. It is determinative with respect to all the others. 

The Arminians saw this very clearly. They saw it more clearly than many Reformed people see it—or at least admit that they see it—today. 

That the Arminians saw this relationship and saw the key position of the doctrine of divine predestination in relation to the other doctrines of grace is plain from many things. In the first place, it is plain from the very fact that they themselves made their first article in the Remonstrance the article which set forth their doctrine of conditional election, election on the basis of foreseen faith. In the second place, it is plain from the fact that in all the controversy and the conferences preceding the Synod of Dordrecht the Arminians always made the doctrine of predestination their very first line of attack. This is a very striking fact. They understood very well that if they succeeded in destroying the Reformed position on predestination, they would also have succeeded in destroying theentire Reformed position on the particularity and sovereignty of grace. In this connection, it is also a striking fact that their attacks against the Reformed doctrine of predestination were invariably directed against the doctrine of reprobation, first of all. Why was this? It was not because the doctrine of reprobation was the weak spot, the so-called Achilles’ heel, of the doctrine of predestination. It was because the doctrine of sovereign reprobation is, more than anything else, offensive to proud, sinful man, hateful to the flesh. And the Arminians saw that they could by craft and subtlety make this doctrine repulsive to men, make it stinking. At the same time, they saw clearly what many fail to see or do not want to admit today, namely, that the doctrine of sovereign election stands or falls with the doctrine of sovereign reprobation. For this reason they never ceased to attack reprobation, thinking thereby to undermine the entire doctrine of predestination, and thinking that thus they would destroy the entire Reformed position on the doctrines of grace. 

This becomes very clear from the Arminians’ own words. 

First of all, already in 1610, when they drew up their Five Articles, the Arminians made it explicitly clear that their second article, on universal atonement, followed from their first, on conditional election. For, having laid down the heresy of conditional election in Article 1, they went on to introduce their second article with these words: “That, AGREEABLY THEREUNTO, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man. . . .” (emphasis added) 

In the second place, this becomes very plain in the written opinions which the Arminian defendants were required to submit to the Synod of Dordrecht. Already in their written opinions on the first point (predestination) we find the following significant statement about the atonement:

5. God has ordained that Christ should be the atonement for the sins of the whole world, and by virtue of this decree He has decided to justify and to save those who believe in Him, and to provide men with the means necessary and sufficient unto faith, in such a way as He knows to be befitting of His wisdom and righteousness. But He has in no wise determined, by virtue of an absolute decree, to give Christ, the Mediator, to the elect alone, and through an effectual calling to bestow faith upon, to justify, to preserve in the faith, and to glorify them alone.

But this becomes more clear from the opinions of the Arminians regarding the atonement. In language which leaves no doubt whether the Arminians see the connection between predestination and atonement, they write in their first proposition:

The price of salvation, which Christ offered to God, His Father, is not only in and by itself sufficient for the redemption of the whole human race, but was also paid for all and every man, according to the decree, the will, and the grace of God the Father; and therefore no one is definitely excluded from the communion of the benefits of the death of Christ by an absolute and antecedent decree of God. (emphasis added)

And in their fourth proposition concerning the doctrine of the atonement this becomes even more clear, when the Arminians return to their favorite tactic of misrepresenting and vilifying the doctrine of reprobation in order to destroy the doctrine of predestination. They write as follows:

Only those are obligated to believe that Christ has died for them for whom Christ has indeed died. But the reprobate, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to this faith, and can, by reason of their contrary unbelief, not be justly condemned; in fact, if there were such reprobates, they would be obligated to believe that Christ has not died for them.

Accordingly, the fathers at Dordrecht—not blindly and naively following the order set by the Arminians, but fully aware of this relationship—set forth the doctrine of the atonement in the Second Head of Doctrine. Election and the atonement are inseparable. There is an intrinsic relationship between the two. The atonement (not: atonement, in general; but: theatonement) is definite, particular, in its very nature. The heartbeat of sovereign election pulsates in the atonement. This is the truth that is expressed in that classic expression of the doctrine of the atonement, Article 8 of Canons II, which begins in the words, “For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father. . . .”