Article 6. And, whereas many who are called by the gospel, do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.
Our English translation is not all that could be desired. I refer especially to the last clause, which is correct if the word “imputed” be properly understood, but which is verbose and far from literal, and for that reason not clear. The ‘Latin is simply: “sed propria ipsorum culpa.” And the Dutch renders it more correctly: “maar door hunne eigene schuld.” A correct and literal English translation; retaining the Latin construction and literal meaning of the word culpawould be: “but is exclusively through their own blame (guilt).”
And this little reference to the translation brings to our attention immediately and sharply the main subject of this article, namely, the guilt, blame, fault, of the unbelief of many who are called by the gospel. Moreover, it is of the utmost importance that we clearly understand that this is indeed the subject of this article. The subject is not: the sovereign reason of this unbelief of many. It is not: the relation between the fault of unbelieving men and the sovereign counsel of reprobation. These, although they are important questions and are without doubt involved in the present question, are not mentioned in the article. As a matter of fact, the article itself traces the unbelief of many no farther than the “guilt” which it mentions. That guilt of unbelief is the subject, and that too, in contradistinction from any possible defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross and proclaimed in the gospel.
Once again we must bear in mind that this article was written against the Arminians and with the purpose of setting forth the true Reformed position over against the caricature of that Reformed position which the Arminians ascribed to the Reformed. We have referred to this characteristic of our Canons more than once. But it is well to remind ourselves of this continually in our discussion of the Canons. In the positive section of the Canons you do not find an expose and condemnation of the Arminian errors as such: that you find in the Rejection of Errors appended to each chapter. But in the positive section of each chapter you find the setting forth of the Reformed position as such. Only it must be remembered that also this declaration of the Reformed position is slanted against the Arminians. Each article is occasioned not merely by some aspect of the Arminian error, but by a false presentation, a caricature, of the Reformed view presented by the Arminians. That use of caricatures, of so-called “straw men,” is characteristic of heresy and heretics. They do not come against the truth as such. That would be open folly. But they twist and contort the truth, deliberately eliminating some aspect or drawing false conclusions or setting up false contrasts; and then they attribute their own twisted caricature of the truth as being the correct presentation of that truth, in order to hold it up to scorn and ridicule and contempt as a wicked and horrible and impossible position. And, let it be added, they do this, of course, out of the desire to cover up at the same time their own false view. Such a contortion of the truth is implied in the well-known objection against predestination found in Romans 9: “Why doth he yet find fault? for who hath resisted his will?” And another is involved in the false conclusion that since salvation is of grace only, “let us continue in sin that grace may abound.” A current example is found in the attempt to present our Protestant Reformed view as consisting in a false contrast between faith as a means unto salvation and faith as a fruit of salvation, while the true issue was whether faith is a condition of salvation or a means unto salvation. Such deliberate, slanderous, intellectually dishonest attempts are characteristic of heresy and heretics. And in effect many of the Canons expose these “straw men” as being truly made of “straw,” and they at the same time reveal what the real Reformed stuff consists in. And, as it were, the fathers say in the Canons: “The Arminians do not present our view correctly; they change it. And it is against their own misconception and misrepresentation of our view that they shoot their arrows, claiming that they demonstrate the absurdity and untenableness of the Reformed position. But they have not demolished our position at all; they have merely destroyed a straw man of their own making. If they would destroy our position, here it is. Let them truly aim at it and show its absurdity, if they can. But let them not claim that our own position is absurd and untenable while they have never in reality aimed at it.”
Now if it be asked, “What is the straw man the Arminians set up in connection with this sixth article?” the answer is: the Arminians came with the age-old and over-used argument essentially that the Reformed position denies the responsibility of man,—here particularly the responsibility of the unbeliever. And they charged that the Reformed position really implied an insufficiency and a defect in the sacrifice of Christ. Their argument ran that since the Reformed position is that Christ did not die for all and every man, but only for the elect, and since, therefore, there was no possibility for all men to be saved, but only the possibility that the elect could be saved, therefore those who are lost, i.e., the unbelievers and unrepentant, cannot be blamed for their unbelief and impenitence: they never had a chance to be saved anyway. And therefore, the Arminians claimed, the Reformed position ends rationally with denying the guilt of unbelief, and must also end with charging this blame instead to the sacrifice of Christ. That fact, recognized by both Arminian and Reformed, that many do not believe and that many go lost forever, must be explained somehow. The Reformed, according to the Arminian charge, must logically explain it not by charging the unbeliever with guilt, but by ascribing a defect and insufficiency to the sacrifice of Christ. If Christ had only died for all men, then they would all be saved; but He did not, and so the fault is in His sacrifice.
What is to be said of this accusation? First of all, let it be noted that it is a very serious charge, so serious that with it stands or falls the entire Reformed position. It is indeed true that the accusation as such concerns only the subject of the sufficiency of Christ’s death. But if we trace the implications of this charge, we will soon discover that it strikes at the fundamental basis of the Reformed position, namely, sovereign predestination. Once the charge is granted, one must give up also that last-named truth. For remember that Christ’s sacrificial death is limited and particular in character because of sovereign election. And if, therefore, the death of Christ is insufficient and defective because it is limited, then in last instance that defect is not due to Christ’s death as such, but to God’s predestination. And so the blame must be laid upon God: He must be the fault, the blame, of the unbelief of man. Ergo: God is the Author of sin. And if that charge can be successfully maintained, the Reformed truth is proved false.
Secondly, and in close connection therewith, let it be noted that this is a very horrible accusation. If it is true, then the Reformed faith is an awful thing. That Christ’s death is insufficient and defective? That the blame, the guilt, of unbelief must be laid upon Christ and upon God? To maintain a view, which really teaches such horrible lies would be terrible. Then our “Christ” is an unholy Christ, and our “God” is a religious monstrosity, and our religion is blasphemous. We must then at once, and without any hesitation, forsake such a monstrously blasphemous view. All this I say, IF . . . the Arminian charge is true.
But, thanks be to God, it is not true!
The Reformed Churches maintain without any hesitation that the guilt of unbelief is exclusively man’s, and that the fact that many perish in impenitence and unbelief is exclusively through their own fault, propia ipsorum culpa. Unbelief is never this, that man earnestly desires to be saved, sincerely yearns after the righteousness of Christ, and would indeed believe if only he could, but that the sacrifice of Christ is defective, that it is not valuable enough to cover him too, and that therefore he must go lost forever despite his good will and intentions. Never does it occur that a man sincerely believes and repents, or would believe and repent, and really says: “Oh, how I wish to be a child of God, how I long for salvation,” and that he receives the answer from God, “I’m sorry, but Christ didn’t die for you.” Never will any man be able to appear in the day of judgment before God, and say: “I wanted to believe in Christ and be saved, but the sacrifice of Thy Son was defective, was not good enough; Thy salvation was not great enough for me.” The truth of sovereign predestination and limited atonement is not at all in conflict with the truth that he that cometh to Christ will never be cast out, while he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him. No, the guilt, the terrible guilt of unbelief, of despising the goodness and forbearance and longsuffering of God, is ever sinful man’s, not Christ’s, and not God’s.
But how is this fact to be explained?
Is it to be explained by making the death of Christ general and unlimited? Then we give up the Reformed position for that of the Arminian. Is it to be explained by making the gospel a general, well-meant offer of salvation on the part of God to all who hear the preaching? Then we must choose between coming to the Arminian position of unlimited atonement as the basis for such an offer, or charging God with lying in that general offer, offering something which He has not.
No, the explanation of the fact that a man is guilty of unbelief while there is not and never was a possibility of salvation for him lies in the Reformed maintenance, first of all, of the general proclamation of a particulargospel. That preaching comes to elect and reprobate alike. And in that preaching Christ is set forth evidently before the eyes of elect and reprobate alike. And that Christ who is set forth in the preaching the unbeliever knowingly and willingly despises and scorns and rejects. And that is his sin. In the second place, the explanation of this guilt lies in the corollary truth that it is not necessary at all to have anything or to have an objective right to anything in order to despise and scorn it and to reject it in my soul. I must know the thing, must have some conception of it; but I need not have it or have the right to it. I need not possess a million dollars in order to despise it; I need only have some conception of a million dollars in order to scorn it. So it is also with unbelief. The unbeliever has no right to Christ or any of His blessings. Christ never died for him. Christ has no salvation for him. But that Christ is plainly set before him in the preaching, so that he beholds Him, His cross, His atonement, His righteousness, His life, His glory. And that Christ of the preached Word the unbeliever despises and rejects. The guilt is therefore a matter of his own wicked heart and will. He, the unbeliever, according to a morally free act of his own will despises God’s Christ.
All this is not to say that such an unbeliever is sovereignly free. The Canons do not here go further into the subject. But you have the deeper explanation, even though in infralapsarian language, in Article 6 of Canons I: “That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree.” And, in the light of Scripture, we may say still more. We may say that according to that general decree, God also hardens whom He will. Also the reprobate come into contact with the living Word of God. And this living Word of God is to them a savor of death unto death. Rom. 9:18; John 12:39, 40.