The Canons of Dordrecht, Part Two, Exposition of the Canons, Second Head of Doctrine, Of Divine Predestination

Of the Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby 

Introduction: 

As the title of this Second Head of Doctrine indicates, This chapter deals not only with the death of Christ as such, but especially with the nature, or character, of the death of Christ: His death was a redemptive death. And this is indeed the fundamental truth of this chapter, as we shall see. And the basic issue at stake in the controversy with the Remonstrants was exactly the maintenance or the denial of this redemptive death of Christ. In the opinion of the fathers the Arminians really so construed the death of Christ and the scope of the death of Christ as to deny its redemptive value, even though they continued to speak of “redemption” and a “redeemer.”

Historically, of course, this second chapter of the Canons stands opposite the second point of theRemonstrance, in which the Arminians maintained that “Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained, for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer . . .” And that in this proposition, even though they speak of redemption, the Arminians poured another than the Scriptural meaning into this term became very evident when they actually developed another theory of the atonement, the so-called “governmental theory,” propounded by one of their eminent scholars, Hugo De Groot (Grotius). In this new theory of the atonement they, denied the substitutionary character of Christ’s death and denied that it constituted a satisfaction for sin, a satisfaction of divine justice with respect to the sins of the elect. According to this theory, God, the governor of the universe, cannot forgive sin without in some way demonstrating His righteousness and His displeasure over against sin and His determination to punish the, sinner. Hence, God gives an exhibition of His righteousness and justice in the death of Christ: by delivering up His own Son He clearly reveals to the sinner what He might righteously do to every sinner. The well-known comparison is here made with the general who, instead of sentencing every soldier in a mutinous regiment to death, rather singles out one man, possibly the ringleader, in order to demonstrate his justice to all the rebels, and in order to teach them a lesson. Thus God demonstrates His justice in Christ, in order to let the rebel sinner go free. And the sinner who, looking by faith at that demonstration of divine righteousness in the cross, confesses his sins, acknowledges God’s righteousness, and pleads for forgiveness, is allowed to go free, is saved,—not on the basis of the satisfaction of justice, but on the basis of his repentance and confession and acknowledgement of divine justice, and all the other conditions of salvation which we have previously noted. (For an exposition and a criticism of this theory of the atonement, confer, “The Triple Knowledge, Volume III, The Death of the Son of God,” pp. 94 ff.). Now it may be true that all the Arminians did not follow Grotius and his governmental theory of the atonement; but they all agreed in this, that they denied that the death of Christ was a vicarious satisfaction of justice, and that He bore the sins of all His people on the accursed tree. God did not have to exact complete payment for sin, but might consider anything He pleased as the condition of forgiveness and salvation. And it is this view which the father opposed as basically consisting in a denial of the redemptive character of Christ’s death. 

As to the relation between the present chapter and that on divine predestination, we may be brief. It must be quite obvious that since the fathers conceive of sovereign election as the foundation of every saving good (Canons I, A, 9), the doctrine of predestination is determinative for the doctrine of the redemptive death of Christ. The latter is one of the “saving goods” flowing from the fountain of election. Election determines the scope of redemption. Touch the former and you invariably touch the latter. But also: touch the latter and you cannot avoid saying something of the former. Accordingly, it is quite obvious also that the present chapter, as well as those following, do not stand coordinately with the chapter on predestination, but rather in a position of subordination.


Article 1. God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And his justice requires (as he hath revealed himself in his Word), that our sins committed against his infinite majesty should be punishment, both in body and soul; which we cannot escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God. 

In this article a fundamental theological principle is laid down, which may not be ignored or denied when speaking of any of God’s dealings with men, and especially with sinful men. And in the present, discussion the fathers emphasize particularly that this principle may not be contradicted when speaking of God’s redemptive dealings. The reason is, of course, that God Himself does not ignore this principle, or rather, that God never acts contrary to His own being. Moreover, the fathers here do not merely lay down a fundamental principle, but they delineate the consequences of that principle as far as the sinner is concerned. The principle, positively speaking, is: God is supremely just. The consequences are: 1) Our sins committed against his infinite majesty must be punished with temporal and eternal punishment, both in body and soul. 2) This punishment can be escaped only if satisfaction is made to this supreme justice of God. 

It is to be noted, first of all, that the Canons do not yet speak of the death of Christ and the redemption of men thereby. The fathers are laying a foundation for the Reformed doctrine of redemption. And that foundation is not merely the mercy of God, but also His infinitely perfect justice. The method which the fathers follow is undoubtedly correct. The foundation determines the size and shape and soundness of the whole structure, to be sure. But historically the reason for this method of the fathers lies in the fact that the Remonstrants struck at the very foundation of the truth of redemption, and attempted to destroy it. As it were, they wanted to remove one of the piers of the foundation that is fastened in the bed-rock of the divine being, and wanted the truth of redemption to rest only on one pillar, that of the mercy of God. The trouble is that when you remove one stone of foundation, you are not left with a partial foundation, but you have no foundation left whatsoever: the foundation is one. And therefore our Reformed fathers insist first of all on the fundamentals, on the foundation stones, before they rear up the structure of the truth of redemption. In close connection herewith, we must note, secondly, that the fathers follow a method which is only too often despised and condemned in our day, namely, thetheological method: they begin with the truth concerning God Himself. The presupposition of this first article is that you cannot say anything about redemption without saying something about the Redeemer-God, and that your conception of the latter determines your conception of the former. Or, to put it in general form, all doctrine is principally theology, doctrine of God. Also this had its historical reason. The Arminians themselves adopted a certain theological starting-point. They loved to emphasize God’s love and God’s mercy to the exclusion of His righteousness and justice. And accordingly, they enjoyed accusing Reformed men of having a hard and cold conception of God as an inexorably severe and just God, a judge who knew no mercy. To this accusation concerning their God the defenders of the faith must first give answer. Both the Reformed and the Arminians concede that one’s Theology determines his Christology, and that consequently if they disagree on Theology they will also be at odds in their Christology. 

The Arminians posited a conflict in God between His justice and His mercy, a conflict in which divine mercy was victorious and overcame divine justice. According to His mercy, so they teach, God yearns for the happiness of the sinner and cannot cause suffering and misery to him. And though His justice requires that the sinner be stricken with the curse and be killed, God cannot exercise His justice without doing violence to His mercy. And hence, His mercy prevails. He denies His justice, and without the satisfaction of His justice bestows upon the sinner forgiveness and eternal life. 

The fundamental error in this conception lies in the fact that it denies the unity and simplicity of God, and denies the essential unity of His attributes. It makes a separation between God’s attributes. It posits a schism in God. And now we must not imagine that the fathers of Dordt go to the opposite extreme, and maintain God’s justice in preference to His mercy. Not at all; but they maintain both divine justice and divine mercy, not, however, in irreconcilable conflict with one another, but in essential unity. Briefly stated, God’s justice is that attribute of His goodness according to which He maintains Himself as the only good, the infinitely perfect God, and according to which, with reference to His moral creatures, He rewards the good with good and the evil with evil. And God’s mercy is that attribute of God’s goodness according to which He is in Himself blessed as the infinitely good God, and according to which, with reference to the creature, He is the sole fount of all blessing, and therefore delivers the creature from all misery and fills him with life and joy. And as God is one, so His mercy and His justice are one in Him. God is His attributes. His justice, and His justice is His mercy. Never is there in God a mercy which is not just, nor a justice which is not essentially merciful. And therefore His justice never functions without His mercy, and His mercy never operates apart from His justice. There is no conflict in God! Such is the fundamental truth of this article. And the fathers mean to say: “If you would speak of God’s mercy, well; but when you do so, do not forget and deny that infinitely perfect divine justice that characterizes also the divine mercy!” 

The conclusion, therefore, is as follows: 1) divine justice requires the punishment of sin, a requirement which divine mercy can never overlook. 2) Divine justice requires exact punishment of sin, that is, a punishment which is equal in measure to the sin. Hence, sin against the infinite majesty of God requires infinite punishment, that is, not only temporal, but eternal punishment, both in body and soul. 3) Divine mercy cannot operate toward the sinner, except on the basis of the complete payment of this debt of sin. God’s justice must be satisfied! Upon no other basis can the sinner ever taste the mercy of God. God, who is really God, cannot deny Himself. 

This is the plain teaching of Scripture in many places, even though the Canons do not furnish Scriptural citations. After all, this is the position of the Heidelberg Catechism also. And already at the time of the Great Synod, it was considered sufficient in Reformed circles to cite the Catechism as the norm of Reformed doctrine. The Arminians also knew that this was the instruction of Lord’s Day IV, Question and Answer 11; and they knew too, in fact, they had accepted this position of the Heidelberger as Scriptural. But now they would overthrow it. Hence, the fathers considered it unnecessary to quote Scripture on this count. 

And this is the foundation of the Scriptural and Reformed doctrine of redemption in Christ. 

H.C.H.