29 May, 2016

A Brief Exposition of Canons, Head II, Article 5

Prof. Homer C. Hoeksema

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 (Canons of Dordt, II, 5)

THIS IS UNDOUBTEDLY one of the better known articles of the Canons. It is also an article that has frequently been misrepresented and misused. An instance of such misuse of it occurred when the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 cited this article as supposed confessional support for the first point of common grace, which teaches that the gospel is a general offer of salvation that is gracious on the part of God. Later, during the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches in the early 1950s, those who taught a general, conditional promise used this article for support.

That this is one of the well-known articles of the Canons does not imply that it is as well-understood as it is well-known. In fact, already on the surface the contrary seems to be true. It would indeed be strange if those who are so well-knownalmost notorious—for their maintenance of the truths of sovereign election and reprobation and of irresistible grace would find opposition in the Canons of Dordrecht. It would be stranger still to find the doctrine of general grace maintained in any form, shape, or manner in a confession of the Reformed churches, which is pre-eminently particularistic and is concerned with refuting Arminianism.

The historical occasion was the Arminians’ claim that the Reformed, with their doctrine of sovereign predestination and particular atonement, have no basis for a general preaching of the gospel. In fact, the Arminians claim that a Reformed man cannot preach the gospel at all. The Arminians also charge that the Reformed view leaves no room for the preaching of faith and repentance. Both charges are aimed at the Reformed view of sovereign election. The Arminians charge that since the Reformed limit Christ’s atoning work to the elect, the preacher can proclaim only to the elect, but since he does not know who the elect are, he cannot preach at all. He does not know whom he must approach with his message of limited atonement since only God knows who are elect and who are non-elect. The Arminians also charge that since salvation, according to the Reformed view, is only for those who are sovereignly chosen, and surely for them, so that their salvation is not dependent on any act of their faith and repentance, it is unnecessary and impossible to call upon men to believe and repent. Reference to the official record of the synod to show that this is the background of the article is unnecessary, for all who know the Canons concede this, even those who speak of a well-meant, general offer of the gospel and of a well-meant invitation to faith and repentance on the part of God to all.

The objection of the Arminians is the same objection often raised in one form or another against the Protestant Reformed position, which puts the Protestant Reformed Churches in the good company of the fathers of Dordrecht.

While this charge was leveled against the father of Dordrecht and will be leveled against any genuine Calvinist (including Calvin himself), it is striking that it will not be brought against anyone who teaches a general, well-meant offer of salvation to all who hear the preaching or who teach a general, conditional promise. If the fathers of Dordrecht had taught a general, well-meant offer, they would never have had to face and to answer this Arminian charge.

This historical background is significant because it gives an indication of what to expect in this article. The accusation of the Arminians concerns the preaching of the gospel and the command to believe and repent. They charge that the Reformed cannot engage in such preaching. The charge is based on the fundamental position of the Reformed faith regarding sovereign election and limited atonement.

What would you expect as an answer to such a charge? Would you expect the fathers to desert their fundamental position, to compromise, and to say that after all God wills and intends the salvation of all who hear the preaching? This is not an answer to the accusation, but removal of the occasion for the accusation. It is expected that the fathers will say something about the preaching, and this is exactly what they do, for their main proposition is “this promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations.”

Notice that the fathers do not appeal to paradox or mystery to explain an apparent contradiction between this proposition and their preceding teaching of sovereign election and particular atonement. Nothing of this is found in the Canons. Why not? A Reformed man has no need of such subterfuge. He does not involve himself in such obvious contradictions any more than Scripture does.

Does this article say something about the preaching of the gospel? Does it in any way teach that the scope of the preaching is general? What does it say about the content of the preaching?

According to the fifth article the preaching of the gospel follows the path determined for it by God’s good pleasure. God sends the gospel. He sends it according to his good pleasure, or in behalf of his good pleasure (pro suo beneplacito). When the gospel comes to certain nations and persons through the preaching, it does so strictly according to divine determination. When it does not come to certain nations and persons, this is also according to the same divine good pleasure, for it is not God’s good pleasure to send the gospel unto them.

Even though the same truth is set forth in Canons 1:3, it is significant in Canons 2:5, because it shows the absurdity of the Arminian error of general atonement. If the Arminians teach that Christ died for all men, they must also teach that Christ thus died according to the divine good pleasure. Such is literally their teaching. “In agreement with this [the “eternal and immutable decree” of God] Jesus Christ the Savior of the world died for all men and for every men.”11

Yet as also the Arminians must admit, the gospel of the death of Christ has not and is not preached to all men and to every man. Millions upon millions of individuals and many nations in the old dispensation never heard the preaching of the gospel. In the new dispensation the same is true. Is this an accident? Is it due to the vagaries of human conduct or to gross failure and neglect of men and churches? Must the church hasten to fulfil its mission mandate before more poor sinners for whom Christ died go lost? Is God powerless to see to it that the gospel of Christ crucified for all men is preached to everyone? The answer must be in the negative. The preaching of the gospel has always gone, and always goes, in the course determined by God. His good pleasure never was that the gospel should be proclaimed to all men and to every man. How absurd then to teach that according to the same divine good pleasure Christ died for all men and for every man. Was it truly God’s good pleasure to waste the precious merits of Jesus Christ’s death? Did God intend the blood of his Son to be shed in vain? Such must be the conclusion on the basis of the Arminian position. Therefore not the Reformed truth, but the Arminian error makes gospel preaching impossible. The gospel of God goes on. It is preached not upon the basis that salvation is possible for all men in the blood of Christ, but it goes forth according to God’s good pleasure to those nations and those persons whom it is destined to reach.

How is the course of the gospel determined? The gospel is not arbitrary. Not only is it true that the preaching of the gospel has always followed an easily discerned and clearly traced course in history, but it is also true that the gospel preaching has always been directed where God has his elect. Not one of them can perish. They must all be brought into living contact with Christ crucified. Since that contact is wrought through the preaching of the gospel, that proclamation must surely reach all God’s elect. Therefore, according to God’s good pleasure the preaching of the gospel surely reaches those nations and persons among whom God has his elect people. The preaching of the gospel also comes to the reprobate. This is not arbitrary either, for God has a purpose in having the gospel proclaimed to the reprobate. But the positive purpose of the preaching of the gospel is always to bring the elect to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Article 5 recognizes that according to God’s good pleasure the preaching of the gospel is not general and universal; it does not come to every individual human being. The preaching of the gospel is limited and follows a well-defined course throughout history.

Does this article teach or deny any further limitation of the gospel? Is the gospel general? Is it intended as to its contents, its good news, for all to whom it is proclaimed? Or is the gospel limited and particular? Is it intended for elect and reprobate alike? Or is it meant only for the elect? Is it an offer or a promise of God to all to whom it is proclaimed, conditioned by the demand of faith and repentance? Or is it an unconditional promise to the elect alone?

Other questions are connected. If the gospel is general, why does it reach some reprobate and not all of them? What is the basis of a general gospel?

If God makes a general offer or a general, conditional promise, does he offer or promise something that he actually has and can supply in case the condition should be fulfilled? Arminians are consistent enough to answer this question in the affirmative, for they teach that Christ died for all and for every man. Their solution, though erroneous, is therefore reasonable and understandable.

The double-track theologians of the Reformed family, although Arminian in their conception of the gospel offer, are restrained by their Reformed sense from the sin of teaching general atonement. For this reason they can furnish no answer to this question, and they involve themselves in the greater foolishness of accusing God of pretense or fraud when he offers or promises salvation to all who hear the preaching. Their entire position is absurd because of its impossible double track. I suppose that under their view, if a reprobate should ever appear before the Almighty with the condition of faith and repentance fulfilled, God would be compelled to admit to such a person, “Sorry, I fooled you, I cannot fulfil my divine part of the contract. I offered something I did not really have for you. My beloved Son died only for the elect.” You reply that such is both unthinkable and blasphemous regarding Jehovah? I agree.

If the gospel is limited and particular, for the elect alone, why is it proclaimed to reprobate as well as to elect? Why must the reprobate hear the preaching of the gospel? Why must the gospel be preached “together with the command to repent and believe”? Upon what basis does that command come to elect and reprobate alike?

“The promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” This promise with the command to repent and believe ought to be declared and published promiscuously and without distinction. Nothing in this statement or in the entire fifth article even hints at a condition. “Repent and believe” is not a condition, but a command. A command has nothing in common with a condition. The words “condition of faith and repentance” cannot be substituted for “command to repent and believe” and retain the same meaning. This would change the article radically. Characteristic of a command—especially of a command of God—is that it is unconditional and absolute. It must be obeyed without any question. A command is authoritative; a condition is a bargain or a contract. A command must be obeyed regardless if there is punishment connected with disobedience and reward connected with obedience. It must be obeyed not out of ulterior motives, but out of complete and unreserved respect for authority and justice.

Some have claimed that the promise as stated in this article is conditional. But this is untrue. Even grammatically the promise is unconditional. “Whosoever believeth in Christ crucified” is not a clause that states a condition or prerequisite for salvation. It is a general relative clause that identifies those who will be saved.

The idea that the gospel is a general offer or promise is absolutely inseparable from the idea that the gospel is a conditional offer or promise. If article 5 teaches that the gospel is a general offer or promise, it would also teach that the gospel is conditional. But not a word of the article teaches a conditional gospel. Hence the conclusion is that the fathers do not and do not intend to teach a general, well-meant offer of salvation or a general promise of salvation.

What is the content of the promise as stated in the fifth article? It was not the fathers’ intention to define completely the idea of the promise. But in accord with their purpose to answer the Arminian objection that Reformed people have no room for gospel preaching, the fathers say something about the preaching and its content. Thus they give a limited description of the promise as it is preached. This promise is not different from the promise of God, but is one of the many aspects of the same promise. For this reason, the promise is not presented in all its content, but from the viewpoint of its goal or end—salvation in its final realization—“everlasting life.” The promise of God also includes the means to reach that end, but this is left out of view.

The promise is presented as standing in close connection with “Christ crucified,” the content of all true gospel preaching, who is to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Cor. 18:18–24). Without Christ there is no everlasting life, but only condemnation. Therefore the promise of God in Christ crucified is everlasting life. From the same viewpoint the article speaks of the activity of faith: “Whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall … have everlasting life.” The force of this clause is that it identifies the elect for themselves and separates them out of the mixed multitude who hear the preaching. “Whosoever believeth” is equivalent to he who “shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” This article says nothing about faith as a condition of everlasting life, and the article says nothing about the relation between those who believe: they shall have everlasting life. All this is in harmony with what Scripture and the confessions say about the preaching as a means of grace. Because the preaching of the word must serve as a means whereby the Holy Spirit works true faith in the elect, preaching must always be addressed to faith, must single out the believers, and must proclaim that the promise of everlasting life is for all those, and for those only, who believe in Christ crucified. All of the above is in harmony with the main subject of the second head of doctrine, namely, the death of Christ and the redemption of men thereby.

Is the promise of the gospel general or particular? Emphatically the latter; the promise is for believers alone. The preaching of the promise must serve to realize the particular promise. The promiscuous proclamation of the promise must plainly assert that life everlasting is for those who believe in Christ crucified.

Is this the only aspect in which the promise is particular? Must we and do we end with faith? Can nothing more be said about the relationship between faith and life eternal? Do the Canons intend to say nothing more about faith and the promise? Of course not! In fact, the moment we begin to analyze the fifth article, we go deeper. Who is Christ crucified? Whence is Christ crucified? For whom did Christ atone? Who believe in him? How is it possible for them to believe? Why do they believe, while others do not believe? Whence is faith? But we need not argue only from the language of this article. Surely this article must be taken in its context, and that context is very clear as to the origin of this faith, both as to its merit and its application, as will become evident from Canons 2:7 and 2:8. Sound gospel preaching—the preaching of the promise—will not ignore these questions and neglect to emphasize that the promise of God includes all the necessary means to reach the goal of eternal life.

Why then must there be promiscuous proclamation of the command to repent and believe? From a positive viewpoint, the answer is simple. The elect, who are by nature members of the race fallen in Adam, must be brought to a true and living faith through the preaching. This is the divinely ordained way of bringing the elect to a conscious faith in Christ crucified. And since preachers do not and cannot know who the elect are, their preaching must be promiscuous. At the same time, the Lord has a negative purpose with the reprobate in the same preaching. Not to believe and not to repent is sin of the blackest kind when it is committed in flagrant disobedience to the preaching of the gospel. By this preaching, the sin of natural man is sharply revealed and aggravated, and God is justified when he judges the ungodly.

Must the promise be general in order to be a basis for a general command to repent and believe? Must the reprobate have a chance to have life eternal to despise it in unbelief and impenitence? Not at all; they only need to be acquainted with life eternal and its way, only need to know the Christ of the cross and that there is life everlasting in him, to react against him and his precious promise—stumbling and rejecting him in their natural foolishness and darkness and perversity, aggravating their sin—and to go down to destruction according to the purpose of God.

The conclusion is that the Canons teach a particular promise for the elect alone. This promise must be proclaimed and set forth promiscuously and without distinction to all to whom God directs the preaching. To maintain such a general proclamation of a sovereignly particular promise is Reformed. Anything else is Arminianism.


11. Peter Y. de Jong, ed., “Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618–1619” (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 1968), 208.

[Source: The Voice of Our Fathers: An Exposition of the Canons of Dordrecht, (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2013) pp. 192–200]

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