In my last two letters, I wrote about the Synod of Dort and its response to the errors of James Arminius and his followers (known as the Remonstrants and also as the Arminians). The views of the Remonstrants were published in 1610 in a document known as the Five Articles of Remonstrance. The Synod of Dort met in 1618 to 1619.
In my last letter, I wrote about the first main point the Synod of Dort made to the Remonstrants. In this letter, I’d like to write about their second main point. This concerns the death of Christ. For whom did Christ die?
The Remonstrants were very clear about the death of Christ. They said: ‘Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for each man.’ They then went on to add: ‘Christ died in such a way that no one actually shares in this forgiveness of sins except those who believe.’ They then quote John 3:16 and 1 John 2:2: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ ‘[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.’
So, according to the Remonstrants, when Christ died, he died for everyone. However, not everyone benefits from his death, but only those who believe. That’s the view of the Remonstrants. It may seem to be biblical. But is it? The Synod of Dort did not think so. They set out their argument as follows.
First, God is infinitely just. His justice requires that our sins be punished in body and in soul, both in time and forever. We cannot escape these punishments unless the justice of God is satisfied. Second, we cannot satisfy the justice of God by ourselves. There’s nothing we can give to God to make up for our sins or to free ourselves from the demands of justice. However, God – who is infinitely merciful – gave his Son to die on the cross in order to make up for our sins and to free us from the demands of justice. Third and fourth, because of who he is – a perfectly holy human and also the Eternal Son of God – Christ’s death is of infinite worth and is therefore enough to make up for the sins of the whole world.
Fifth, the promise of the gospel is that whoever believes shall not perish, but shall have eternal life (John 3:16). This promise, along with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and proclaimed indiscriminately to all. Sixth, many who hear the gospel do not repent or believe, but perish in their sins. They perish, not because of any fault in Christ or in his death, but because of their own guilt. Seventh, all who truly believe are saved from their sins by the death of Christ. They receive this salvation by grace alone.
So far, what the Synod was saying did not differ very much from what the Remonstrants were saying. However, the Synod’s eighth point is the crucial one. The Synod said that God willed for Christ ‘to redeem (i.e. to save) … all those and only those who were elected to salvation from eternity’.
So, Christ did not die for ‘all men and for each man’ as the Remonstrants were saying. He died for the elect only. Furthermore, God willed for Christ to give his elect people the faith to believe along with other saving gifts and to preserve them faithfully to the end before bringing them finally into his presence.
So, all of us are guilty and deserve to be condemned by God. But God, who is rich in mercy, gave his Son to die for sinners so that whoever believes may have eternal life. However, it was always God’s intention that his Son would die only for those elected to eternal life; and they only would receive the gift of faith.
Why did the reformers disagree with the Remonstrants and argue that Christ died for the elect only? First of all, the view of the Remonstrants insults the wisdom of God. This is not a perfect analogy, but think about it like this. Imagine a millionaire who wants to help the needy. He hires an aeroplane and, while flying across the country, drops thousands and thousands of pounds out the window. While we may commend him for his generosity, we’d also regard him as foolish and wasteful, because while it’s possible that some may be helped by his money, it’s also possible that no one will receive the money and the wind will carry it away. A wiser approach would be to give the money into the hands of particular people.
Well, the view of the Remonstrants makes God out to be like the millionaire in the aeroplane: he makes our salvation possible, but it’s also possible that no one will receive it.
But the Lord is infinitely wise. From all eternity he had a plan to save his people. And in time, he sent his Son to die for his people. And then he sent his Spirit to enable his people to believe and to receive salvation. He planned their salvation and he will ensure that his plan for their salvation is carried out perfectly. Like the wise millionaire, who gives money into the hands of particular people, so the Lord gives salvation into the hands of particular people.
Furthermore, the view of the Remonstrants makes Christ an ineffective Saviour. If he died for ‘all men and for each man’, but not all men are saved, then Christ failed. To suggest such a thing is to dishonour the Lord our God.
But the reformers at Dort also disagreed with the Remonstrants because of what the Bible teaches. In John 10:14–15 the Lord said: ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep … and I lay down my life for the sheep.’ By saying this, the Lord made clear that he died for specific people (‘his sheep’). Instead of dying for no one in particular, he died for particular people.
So, if you’re a believer, then rejoice, because when Christ died on the cross, he died, not just for anyone, but for you in particular.
Furthermore, when you’re speaking about his death, be careful not to misrepresent the Lord. Don’t say that Christ died for everyone. Say that Christ died so that everyone who believes in him shall have eternal life.
Finally, if you’re not yet a believer, then don’t jump to the conclusion that Christ did not die for you and you can’t be saved. Instead make sure to come to church each Sunday to hear God’s word, because God uses the preaching of his word to convert sinners to a true faith in the Saviour. As you listen, God can use what you hear to awaken faith in your heart so that you will believe and be saved.