We were discussing what Prof. Dekker calls the design of the atonement or the question whether the atonement is limited or unlimited.
Before I continue this discussion, I must call attention to part of a second article written by Prof. Dekker in the Reformed Journal of March, 1963, under the caption, “God’s Love to Sinners—One or Two?” He writes as follows:
“The Three Points on Common Grace enunciated by the Christian Reformed Church (Synod of 1924) have left us a heritage of ambiguity regarding the nature of divine grace. Although the three points do not teach it, they permit the view that the general offer of the gospel belongs to common grace, for they use the general offer of the gospel as an evidence for ‘a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general.’ If one holds that the general offer of the gospel is an expression of common grace, and if one also holds that common grace is generically different from special grace, then the general offer of the gospel is rooted in and expressive of non-redemptive divine love. Can non-redemptive love offer redemption? Is this not a sheer anomaly? Is it not, moreover, destructive of the very character of the gospel offer as sincere and well-meant to all?”
I said before and I repeat it here, that Prof. Dekker in his writing on the proposition that God loves all men, even though he also criticizes the “First Point,” as he does here in the above paragraph, stands principally on the basis of the “Three Points” of 1924.
Do not forget that the Synod of 1924 meant to support the common grace theory as it was proposed by Dr. Abraham Kuyper Sr. But the leaders of that Synod also wanted to condemn the Rev. H. Danhof and myself. In order to do so, however, they needed proof from the Confessions. And because the Confessions do not even mention common grace as commonly understood, but always speak of saving grace and condemn Arminian common grace, therefore, the Synod of 1924 adopted, especially in the “First Point,” the Arminian view by declaring that God, in preaching of the gospel is gracious to all that hear this preaching.
But now I must return to what Dekker writes on the question of limited or unlimited atonement.
We already discussed what he wrote on the sufficiency and availability of the atonement for all. And now we come to the question whether God desires the salvation of all men. On this Prof. Dekker writes the following:
“Third, does God desire the salvation of all? This we have already shown. Can God’s desire for the salvation of all men be dissociated from His design in the atonement? Not according to logic or, more decisively, Biblical teaching. I Tim. 2:4-6 says about the design of God’s desire: ‘Who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all.'”
As far as the text quoted by Dekker is concerned, on this I have already made my comments, and I will not repeat. Cf. Standard Bearer, March 15, p. 269.
I must, however, briefly comment on the question which Dekker asks and also answers not only by logic but also from Scripture. The question is this: “Can God’s desire for the salvation of all men be dissociated from His design in the atonement?” My answer is the following:
1. Not if you first establish that God desires the salvation of all men. But this must first be proved, and this is not proved, not by Prof. Dekker in his article on “God So Loves All Men,” neither by the text he quotes from I Tim. 2:4-6. Besides, all Scripture militates against the proposition that God desires the salvation of all men, and, therefore, I deny it.
2. Hence, I also deny that the design or purpose of God in the atonement is to save all men. If that were God’s purpose or design in the atonement, then all men would surely be saved, or we must conclude that salvation depends on the free will of man and that man is stronger than God.
It is a striking fact that in the course of the history of the Church and its doctrine there were but very few periods in which the doctrine of sovereign grace and predestination was maintained. Augustine taught and maintained it over against Pelagius and the Semi-pelagians, but before very long Semi-Pelagianism gained the upper hand. And the Semi-pelagians taught:
1. That God desires the salvation of all men as far as He is concerned.
2. That for this reason God causes His call to salvation to be issued unto all men. According to the Semi-Pelagians, this is true, not only of those that live under the preaching of the gospel, but also of those that have never heard the gospel, because even through the law of nature all that will can be saved.
3. However, while God in His unmerited grace offers salvation to all men, they will not all accept it. They only, therefore, are saved that believe, that accept the offer, who accept the help of grace through faith and thus make themselves worthy of salvation. God’s grace and the will of man unto the obedience of faith co-operate unto salvation. For man has a free will; he can accept salvation, but he can also reject it.
4. Predestination, therefore, is based on the foreknowledge of God. It means that God chose those unto salvation whom He foresaw or foreknew as those who would believe in Christ.
Thus it was already at the time of Augustine.
And thus it is always in the history of the church. Calvin, as is well known, taught the truth of divine predestination. Soon Arminianism arose and denied this fundamental truth. The result was that at the Synod of Dordt the Canons were composed and adopted. But Arminianism continued to be taught in the churches. The Westminster Confession was the last official document that maintained the doctrine of predestination and related doctrines. After this, the Church seemed to have no more or very little interest in this doctrine until in the nineteenth century, in the “Afscheiding,” 1834, and in the Doleantie,” 1886, it was emphasized once more. In the Christian Reformed Church in our own country it was also maintained officially, because they stood on the basis of The Three Forms of Unity. But in 1924 the Synod of Kalamazoo adopted the notorious “Three Points” which are Arminian. And Prof. Dekker draws the final conclusion of the “Three Points” or, at least of the first of them, by teaching that God loves all men.
Will the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches demand that he retract this heresy or depose him? I do not believe it. They cannot do this as long as the “Three Points” still stand as the official doctrine of the Church.
But let us now return to what Prof. Dekker further writes under the theme: “God So Loved—All Men!” To do him justice I quote him literally and extensively to the end of the article for the reason that not many of our readers receive “The Reformed Journal.” Here, then is the quotation:
“There are, therefore, three senses in which we may legitimately speak of the atonement as being universal in its design, i.e., the sufficiency and availability of the salvation for all men and the divine desire that all will receive it. The only point at which Scripture and the Reformed confession point to a limited design in the atonement is at the point of efficacy. Only there can a doctrine of limited atonement be formulated which does not do clear violence to Biblical teaching concerning the universal love of God.
“Seemingly, Berkhof did not recognize adequately the complexities of the concept of design with respect to the atonement. But he has faithfully and cogently set forth the essence of the historic Calvinistic view that as far as the actual salvation of men is concerned there is a limitation of numbers which is embraced in the eternal purpose of God and in the design of the atonement. When it comes to the efficacy of the atonement there can be no doubt that its existential limitation is to be explained ultimately in terms of the sovereign disposition of divine grace. On this score the Scriptures, explicated by the Canons of Dordt, are decisive and convincing.
“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. There is no warrant in Scripture or in the Reformed confessions for disallowing such expressions when they are used in any one of the first three meanings explained above. If the Church is unwilling to say in any sense that Christ died for all men and refuses to say to unbelievers, in addition to ‘God loves you,’ ‘Christ died for you,’ it places the infinite love of God under an illegitimate restriction.
“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.”
This is the end of the quotation and, at the same time, the end of the first article of Prof. Dekker.
Now, what shall we say about this?
I do not want to repeat what I have already written about the question of limited or unlimited atonement. Nevertheless, I must make the following remarks:
1. In the first paragraph quoted above, Prof. Dekker reiterates what he has written before about the three senses “in which we may legitimately speak of the atonement as being universal in design.” I will not repeat the criticism I have already offered in regard to these “three senses.”
2. But then Dekker apparently admits that there is one sense in which Scripture and the Reformed confessions speak of the atonement as being limited in its design. I say intentionally that he admits thisapparently. For, in the first place, the language he uses is such that he leaves the impression that, after all, the atonement in unlimited in spite of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. Notice that he writes that Scripture and the Confessions “point to” a limited design in the atonement. I would never express myself thus, nor would any truly Reformed theologian. I would say that Scripture and the Reformed Confessions emphatically teach that Christ shed His lifeblood on the cross and died, not for all men, but only for the elect. Notice, in the second place, that the limited atonement of Prof. Dekker is such that it “does not do clear violence to the Biblical teaching concerning the universal love of God.” Now, if we understand limited atonement in the biblical and Reformed sense of the term, this universal love of God is an impossibility. What is the meaning of limited atonement? It is simply this: Christ did not die for all men, but only for the elect. And why did He not die for all men? Why did He not die for the reprobate but for the elect only? The answer is plain: God’s love is not universal. His eternal love is limited to the elect. It is evident, that, when you believe in limited atonement, you can no longer speak of the universal love of God.
This, and nothing else, is the plain teaching of the Canons of Dordt. For in II, 8, to which we have called attention before, but which can bear repetition in this connection, we read:
“For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen unto salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death, should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.”
This is the language of the confessions throughout.
This is Scripture.
And this is solid comfort for the people of God, while there is no comfort at all in a vague so-called universal love of God.
Besides, this is the only basis on which the missionary can preach the gospel to Jew and Gentile. Why should the missionary approach his audience in the mission field with a lie in his right hand. For that so-called universal love of God is nothing but a lie.
But we have more to say about that “efficacy” of which Prof. Dekker speaks.
The question naturally arises: how can Dekker speak of “unlimited atonement” and of “the universal love of God” and at the same time maintain the saving efficacy of the death of Christ?
This, however, must wait for the next issue of our magazine, D.V.