In regard to the atonement of Christ our Reformed theology, in distinction from all others, maintains that it is particular. This doctrine of Particular Atonement as being thoroughly Scriptural is beautifully enunciated in one of our Reformed Standards, n.l., the Canons of Dordt, over against the teachings of Arminianism. The latter teaches, as is well known, that Christ’s death is intended for all men without exception, that is, that Christ died for all individuals. Hence, the name of this doctrine, General Atonement (in the Dutch, Algemeene Verzoening). This doctrine not only belittles the righteousness of God but also ultimately denies it. The trouble was, of course, that the Arminians had a very superficial and umscriptural view of the satisfaction of Christ. Since it is a fact that many die in their sins (a fact which the Arminians can and do not deny) how can one maintain that God is righteous in punishing those? For Christ died for all, also for them. Moreover, the suffering and death of Christ, according to such a doctrine, was largely in vain. It did not have the desired effect of salvation upon the vast multitude who perish in their sins. The Arminian, in his zeal to commonize God’s grace in Christ and thereby (so he thinks) to ascribe great worth to the death of Christ, in reality and in point of fact belittles and ascribes little worth to Christ’s satisfaction. Bavinck describes the Arminian conception of the death of Christ as “[DUTCH REMOVED].” (Dog. III, 379, 380).
Over against the heresy of Arminianism our Reformed Fathers defended the Scriptural doctrine of Particular Atonement, that is, that the death of Christ was the substitutionary atonement for the sins of His people, the elect, those given Him of the Father before the foundation of the world. That atoning death is efficacious, i.e., has the quality of being effective, produces the intended effect. For that death is of infinite value, making complete and perfect satisfaction for sin, since it was the death of the eternal, only begotten Son of God in our human nature. The doctrine of the particular atonement is therefore of central significance. For that atonement roots in the sovereign, eternal counsel, and gracious will and purpose of God. It extends to all the elect of all tribes, kindreds and nations of all ages, whereby they receive the benefits of the atonement and are led to final, complete salvation. It reaches out to the consummation of all things, to the new heavens and the new earth where the redeemed, washed in the blood of the Lamb, will receive the inheritance and reign with Him forever to the eternal praise of the Triune God.
This doctrine of Particular Atonement having been established on the basis of the infallible Word of God, it remained for our Reformed fathers to say something, or rather, to confess what they believed, with regard to the proclamation of the Gospel. The Arminians, of course, were quick to accuse the Reformed of having such a narrow conception of things that the latter, holding to their doctrine of particular Atonement as they did, could not earnestly and sincerely preach the Gospel in general, but, to be consistent, would have to limit their preaching to the elect. The Arminians always try to make the position of the Reformed appear absurd. Always have and always will. But there is more. Is not the general preaching of the Gospel to all, also to those who do not obtain the pardon of sins and eternal life, proof that the grace of God in Christ is offered to all without exception? Well, on the basis of the Arminian doctrine of general atonement, it would not be difficult to answer in the affirmative. In fact it would be easy. If God intended to save all, it follows that He causes the Gospel to be preached, to offer salvation to all who hear the same. Of course, nothing is now said about the many who never heard and never will hear the Gospel preached. We are now limiting ourselves to the preaching or proclamation of the Gospel, which preaching implies hearers. Now it must be said that this view of the matter cheapens the whole idea of salvation, and similarly of the preaching of the Gospel of salvation. Some years ago I heard a sermon (in a church of Reformed persuasion) in which salvation was presented as a free offer to all. It was presented this way: If a rich man offered a gold watch to a poor man, the latter would gladly accept it. Now salvation is infinitely more precious than a gold watch. But in the same way as the rich man would offer the watch, the Lord offers His salvation to you all, to all those in the audience. Now we know that salvation, that Christ and all His benefits, is not to be compared with an article. What poor man would not take a gold watch? But how many wretched sinners despise, ridicule, and scorn salvation as revealed in Scripture and proclaimed in the preaching thereof! But salvation is a gift, it is given, not offered. It is given to all those and only those to whom God eternally purposed to give it, to those whom He has sovereignly chosen from eternity in the Beloved. As to the preaching of the Gospel, it is not some good advice concerning which we can say: take it or leave it. It accomplishes all that which God purposes. Therefore the preaching of the Gospel is and can never be in vain. It is evident that if it were an offer it would largely be in vain.
Our Reformed fathers were not led to the denial of the general preaching of the Gospel of particular atonement. Following upon their confession of the doctrine of particular atonement, we have the confession of the general preaching of the Gospel (Canons II, 5). Here it is: “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.” This confession concerning the general preaching of the Gospel is made here in connection with the confession concerning the Limited or Particular Atonement. The Canons also speak of the preaching of the Gospel in chapters III, IV, 8, 9, but in another connection. Now in this article, our Reformed fathers showed that they had no difficulty with regard to the general preaching of the Gospel in view of the doctrine of Particular Atonement. It does not at all follow that the latter precludes the former, as the Arminians would have it. The promise of the Gospel is always the same, n.l., that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. That promise is true, is God’s truth, and will never fail. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, must be proclaimed to all persons without distinction. Now in this article there is no trace of a general offer of salvation, nor is it implied in the general preaching of the Gospel. Coming to all without exception the Gospel has a twofold effect. Art. 6 explains that many who are called by the Gospel do not repent but perish in unbelief. That is one result. This fact of unrepentance and unbelief is not to be ascribed to any defect in the sacrifice of Christ, but it is to be imputed to themselves. On the other hand those who believe, and are saved through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit of salvation solely to the grace of God, given (I underscore) them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own (Art. 6). Here the idea of a general offer or any other kind of offer of grace is not at all to be found. It is expressly stated that the grace of God is given to them. And that in Christ from everlasting. That grace from everlasting is realized in the believers in time. In time and eternity the chosen ones are the objects of God’s grace. In connection with these articles we must read the Rejection of Errors at the end of this second head of doctrine, n.l., VI. Here the Reformed fathers reject the error of those who teach the following: “that God, as far as He is concerned, has been minded of applying to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ: but that while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life, and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception, and that it is not dependent on the special gift of mercy, which powerfully works in them, that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace. . . .” Such is the teaching that the Reformed fathers rejected as the destructive poison of Pelagian errors.
Here we notice the Pelagian error, in reference to the outcome of general preaching, is that those who believe do so as a result of the joining of the free-will to the grace that is offered without exception. These two concepts are found in the teaching branded as Pelagian error.
There are those who would still have us believe that the general preaching of the Gospel means that there is a general offer of salvation, that God through the preaching offers salvation to all individuals that hear it. It is claimed that Calvin teaches such. In a footnote on page 12 of his brochure, The Three Points of Common Grace, the Rev. H. J. Kuiper writes, among other things: “Calvin teaches it, notwithstanding his strong emphasis on election.” He then quotes: “For there is a universal call, by which God, in the external preaching of the Word, invites all indiscriminately to come to him, even those to whom he intends it as a savor of death, and an occasion of heavier condemnation.” The reference is Institutes Bk. III, 24, 8. When we look in this reference to Calvin, we find that he is speaking about the calling (roeping). We quote some of this from the Dutch translations (Baum, Cunitz, Reus): “[DUTCH REMOVED].” (pp. 546, 547).
Here we are taught by Calvin that the calling of the Gospel is twofold, n.l., inward and outward. The external call comes to all that hear. But Calvin certainly says nothing here about a general offer of salvation. There is a twofold aspect of the calling of the Gospel. With this in mind we have no difficulty in preaching to all in general the Gospel of Particular Atonement.