THE CANONS OF DORT
THE DEATH OF CHRIST
AND THE REDEMPTION OF MAN BY IT
ARTICLES 1 - 5
Chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort focuses on a new facet of doctrine: the death of Christ and our resulting redemption. In order to appreciate why the fathers at the Synod of Dort saw a need to include a chapter on the death of Christ, we need to go back to the teachings of the Arminians. The Arminians do believe that Christ died for sin, but by their teaching they hollowed out what Christ's death really accomplished. By analysing the Arminian teaching concerning the death of Christ, it becomes evident that Christ's death does not have the same value for the Arminian person as it does for the Reformed person.
ARMINIAN TEACHING CONCERNING THE DEATH OF CHRIST
According to the Arminians, the Lord God after the fall into sin established a set of conditions that man had to fulfil in order to be saved. These conditions, they said, were obedience to the laws of the Old Testament. Only through obedience to God's laws could one receive eternal life. But, said the Arminians, the Lord realised that this condition was too demanding of man; God realised He had set a threshold out of man's reach. So God found Himself 'in a corner', so to speak, for God demands justice. Man fell into sin, and God would not let man go unpunished. Since God insists on justice, justice had to be obtained. Yet man could not obtain it. So, not only was man stuck, but God also.
So God sent His only Son to earth for sin. That is: Christ came not to pay for sins, but came rather to satisfy the justice of God so that God could start again with man. If Christ could satisfy the demands of the old conditions (obey the law), then God's justice would be satisfied, and God could set new conditions for man to meet in order to be saved. Christ was successful in satisfying the justice of God, Christ's death made it possible for God to do away with the Old Testament set of conditions, and so God was free to start afresh with a set of conditions. The new condition God chose was faith. So we today need faith in order to be saved. Faith is not an unmanageable threshold for us, for fallen man is not dead in sin, but sick (see Chapter 3). Sick people are still able to believe.
According to the Arminians, then, Christ's death was not a payment for our sins. Christ's death only made it possible for God to lower considerably the threshold of His demands on man. Now that God has set a manageable threshold (faith), it is for us to do the rest if we wish salvation: we need to believe. It will be evident that with this structure, the God of the New Testament shows considerably more mercy than the God of the Old Testament.
The fathers summarised this teaching of the Arminians in Chapter 2 under the heading 'Rejection of Errors,' as can be found in the Book of Praise, p. 548. There we read that according to the Arminians the purpose of Christ's death was "that He should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish once more with man such a covenant as He might please ..." (Rejection of Errors, no. 2). In other words, Christ died so that the Father may have opportunity to set up a new set of conditions for man. Again, Christ "acquired for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire" (Rejection of Errors, no. 3). Here again one finds the same thought that Christ satisfied the old set of conditions so that God, no longer bound by them, could set up a new set of conditions. This new set of conditions "consists in the fact that God has revoked the demand of perfect obedience of the law and regards faith as such and the obedience of faith, though imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law" (Rejection of Errors, no. 4).
During the early decades of the 1600s, the Arminian teaching concerning the death of Christ was being taught from the pulpit of the churches. We can appreciate that this teaching caused much unrest among the faithful. The fathers at the Synod of Dort, therefore, concerned as they were about what the people were hearing in the pew about the purpose of Christ's death, saw a need to set straight the heresy of the Arminians. Chapter two of the Canons of Dort is therefore the result of the efforts of the fathers to put in writing the scriptural truths concerning the death of Christ and the redemption of man.
THE JUSTICE OF GOD REQUIRES PUNISHMENT
The fathers commenced their rebuttal of the Arminian teaching by first writing an article concerning God's justice. Scripture teaches that God is not only merciful, but also just. To appreciate this justice of God, we need to go back in our thinking to Paradise.
In Genesis 2 we read that God created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden with the command to tend it and keep it. With His gift of the garden and man's place in it, God straightaway made His covenant with man, including both a promise and a demand. "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:16,17). The promise was that if man would eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil he would die, but if he would not eat from it he would live. God's demand of man was therefore not to eat of that one tree.
What did Adam do - and in him, we all (see Chapter I, Article 1)? We failed to meet God's demand and we ate of the forbidden tree. Given the promise God had made -if you eat you die- this transgression was not something which God could overlook. We transgressed His covenant, and so He did not and could not 'let us off the hook' to give us a second chance. IF God had responded by disregarding His promise in Genesis 2:17, what kind of a God would He be? Wouldn't that make Him a God who changes according to the circumstances; a whimsical God? But the Bible insists that God is an unchanging God. "God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He not said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?" (Numbers 23:19). "... the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent" (1 Samuel 15:29). "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). In Paradise we became faithless, but God, who does not change, remained faithful. So man had to die, because God had said so. "God's justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting , punishment of body and soul" (LD 4, Q&A 11). If God does not change, then all that is left for man to expect is death and God's curse. God does not change, and so the punishment God promised (death) must be meted out on man. That is: His justice must be satisfied.
We are all familiar with death. We generally understand that a person dies physically when his heart stops beating. However, when God speaks of death He means not only physical death but also spiritual death. Spiritual death, the deeper element of what death really is, means to be cast away from God. Jesus, hanging on the Cross in the dark, knowing that God had left Him, cried out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46). That was death: to be forsaken by God. That is what God's justice required. Afterwards Christ "yielded up His spirit", i.e. He died a physical death (Matthew 27:50).
It is with this material that the fathers began in Article 1. Man fell into sin, and God's justice required that man either had to pay or perish. Man was either to satisfy God's justice and make good his sin, or he had to die. It was either the one or the other. Hence the concluding words of Article 1, "We cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is made to the justice of God".
We perceive justice to be something awful, daunting, dark; and so it is. Yet God's justice also speaks of comfort and gives hope to the penitent, for God said by the mouth of His prophet Isaiah, "Zion will be redeemed with justice ..." (Isaiah 1:27). God links His justice to the redemption of the sinner; His justice is also the way of salvation.
THE SATISFACTION MADE BY CHRIST
Having established in Article 1 that God's justice required that we either pay for our sins or perish on account of them, Article 2 goes on to say that we cannot make this payment. "We ourselves, however, cannot make this satisfaction and cannot free ourselves from God's wrath." Our article does not elaborate on why we cannot make this payment. Chapter Three of the Canons of Dort will deal further with this aspect. Here the confession of LD 5, Q&A 13 will suffice, which reads, "Can we ourselves make this payment? Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt". We are too sinful to make payment to God for the debt we incurred with Him.
However, God did not leave man stuck with this debt. Instead, God Himself gave His Son to die in order to remove man's debt. Consider the marvel of this act of God! He had made His Covenant with us in Paradise. However, we chose against God, choosing instead for Satan. We fell into sin and landed ourselves on Satan's side. There God's justice hung over us. There were no other options open to us but to pay for our sins or perish on account of them. Pay for them we could not and so hell was the destiny we deserved. But God was merciful. He gave up His only Son to death for us so we might live. Christ had to be our Surety. As our Surety (or 'Guarantor' in today's English), Christ became liable for our debt, undertaking to answer for the payment of our debt.
THE GOSPEL OF SUBSTITUTION
A 'surety' or 'guarantor' is the person who under writes a debt for us, so that a bank can claim payment from him in the event we renege on a borrowed loan. The concept of a 'surety' before God is taught us in the Bible. Job prayed to God to "put me in a surety with Thee" (Job 17:3, KJV). David likewise prayed to the Lord, "Be surety for Your servant for good; do not let the proud oppress me" (Psalm 119:122). That God did promise a surety was pointed up by the sacrifices of the Old Testament. If the people of Israel had sinned, they had to go to the tabernacle with an animal they would sacrifice in payment for their sins. However, before they sacrificed the animal they had to lay their hands on the animal's head, an action which symbolised the transfer of their sins to the animal. The blood of the sacrificial animal served as a pledge of the payment of their sins by the blood of THE LAMB on the cross. This we read in Hebrews 7:22, "Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant." The Old Testament sacrifices prophesied of Jesus' sacrifice. In Matthew 20:28 the word 'ransom' is used, Christ having bought our freedom or redemption with His life: "just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
This is the Gospel of Substitution: Christ serving in the place of man. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, "For (God) made (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him". The Arminians preached that Christ died in order to satisfy God's first set of conditions so that God would have the opportunity to start anew with man. The fathers on the other hand, concerned about the confusion such instruction could instil in the minds of the people in the pew, said, "That is not what the Bible teaches. In the Bible one reads that Christ was sent into the world to die in order to satisfy God's justice. Christ came to pay for man's sin so that man might go free". As we read in Article 2, "For us or in our place He was made sin and a curse on the cross so that He might make satisfaction on our behalf".
The little word 'for' is of critical importance here. That Christ died for me means that He died in my place, or instead of me. I deserved hell, but Christ received hell instead. God's wrath hung over man on account of his sin and therefore I too deserve to have God's wrath come down on me. Did Christ now die so that God could start again with me? No! Christ put Himself between me and God's wrath so that He received God's wrath in my place, for me, instead of me, so that I could go free. Christ is my Substitute! Said Paul in Romans 5:6-9, "For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly... God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him". Ungodly we were whilst on Satan's side, with God's wrath hanging over us. Yet here God reveals to us the heart of His Gospel to sinners, that Christ died for the ungodly, in their place. As a result of Christ's dying for me, I am justified. That means that God will not pour out His wrath on me because God mercifully put Christ in between me and His wrath. Christ bore the full load of God's wrath on my behalf.
THE INFINITE VALUE OF THE DEATH OF CHRIST
The Arminians said that Christ died so that God could start again in stipulating a set of conditions that man must satisfy in order to be saved. Over against their teaching, the fathers were insistent: "this death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sins". By means of this article the fathers wished to go one step further than saying that Christ's death was for the satisfaction of God's wrath, i.e. to pay for man's sin. Christ's death paid for sin, more, His sacrifice is the only possible sacrifice and satisfaction for sins. Here the fathers used absolute language, based on what they read in the Bible. Jesus also used absolute language when He said to Thomas in John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me". There isn't a Buddhist in the world, no matter how pious he may be in his religion, who can come to the Father, unless he embraces Christ as his Saviour - and then he is a Buddhist no longer. Peter spoke in equally absolute language when he addressed the Sanhedrin, saying, "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). In other words, "Do you want salvation?" asked Peter. "Do you want your debt with God to be payed? Do you want to satisfy God's justice? If so, there is only one way!"
Such absolute language was anathema to the Arminians 400 years ago and still is anathema to many people today. Today we are to be tolerant of each other, including each other's beliefs, for don't we all get 'there' in due time? But that is not what the Lord or our confessions say. In Scripture and in our confessions we read that Christ, and only Christ made satisfaction for sins. We also find this in LD 11, Q&A 29, namely, "Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is Saviour? Because He saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else". Neither Buddhism, my ancestry, my race, my Church attendance or my status in life can settle my debt with God; Christ alone can do this.
Article 3 says more than that Christ's sacrifice is the only sacrifice and satisfaction for sins. The fathers confessed Scripture to teach also that Christ's sacrifice is the "most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sins". The fathers could confidently say this on the basis of what Hebrews 9:12 says, namely, "Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption". Christ's work doesn't have to be finished off yet, or be done over again. No, it is complete and it was completed most perfectly. "... we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God" (Hebrews 10:10-12). A most perfect sacrifice requires no repetition, and no addition. Christ's task was done, and so He could sit down.
The death of Christ was of such "infinite value and worth" that it was "abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world". Christ's work was not just good enough to save only the Jews or just a limited number of persons, but it was sufficient to save everybody, "the whole world". Every sinner deserves to have God's wrath directed at him still. However, with Christ having satisfied the justice and wrath of God, all sinners would go free if they all received what Christ obtained. Christ's work is of adequate value to be able to benefit all. Said Jesus in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life". The same we read in 1 John 2:2, "And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world", and in 2 Corinthians 5:15, "and He died for all..." Although these texts are not to be understood to say that all will be saved, they do all underline the fact that Christ's sacrifice is of such value that all are able to benefit. See further Article 8.
This confession contains immense comfort for the believer. No matter how bad my sins are, Christ has paid for all of them. Christ has suffered sufficiently for even my worst sins. Christ's death on the cross is of such value that all sin can be taken away by that work. As the Lord also says in Isaiah 1:18, "Come now, and let us reason together," says the LORD, "though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool". No matter what sins are on my record, Christ has washed my record clean. Here is warm comfort for the people in the pew - certainly when they in the preaching had heard so much of the Arminian teaching!
WHY HIS DEATH HAS INFINITE VALUE
Whereas Article 3 confessed the fact and the extent of the value of Christ's death, Article 4 gives two reasons why Christ's death has infinite value. The two reasons given concern:
1) the Person of Christ, and
2) the wrath of God on account of sin.
"This death is of such great value and worth because the person who submitted to it is not only a true and perfect holy man, but also the only Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for these qualifications were necessary for our Saviour".
On the one hand Christ is true and holy man and on the other hand Christ is true God. We recognise here the argumentation of LD 6. Concerning why Christ needed to be a true and righteous man we confess in Q&A 16, "He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others." The emphasis in our article lies on the fact that Christ is true God. Concerning the necessity of His Godhead we read in Q&A 17, "He must be true God so that by the power of His divine nature He might bear in His human nature the burden of God's wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life." For the very reason that our Saviour is true God, He is more of a 'somebody' than we are, and therefore His death has more impact. Our deaths do not do anything for us; Christ's death, because He is the Son of God, can do something for another.
"Further, this death is of such great value and worth because it was accompanied by a sense of the wrath and curse of God which we by ours sins had deserved".
The death of a person does not come accompanied with a sense of the wrath of God. Certainly, death itself is the wages of sin, and hence expression of God's curse, God's wrath on sin. However, when Christ died on the cross, God's wrath was loaded upon Him in full force. God's wrath was so intense that Christ suffered in terrible agony - far more than any person suffers, even in the face of death. So intense was His anguish in the face of the coming suffering that Jesus prayed to the Father to "take this cup away from me" (Luke 22:42). Similarly, "His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44). This acute expression of God's wrath became the more pronounced when Christ hung on the cross, for darkness settled on the land. God is light. Darkness is hell. In other words, God was gone, and that spells death: desertion by God. In response to suffering God's wrath, i.e. separation from God, spiritual death, Christ called out in agony, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46). Though the wrath of God was so enormous, Jesus, being true God, could handle God's wrath. After the three hours of darkness had passed Christ could triumphantly cry out with a loud voice, "Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit" (Luke 23:46) and "It is finished!" (John 19:30). After that He sovereignly "gave up His spirit" (John 19:30). Death did not overtake Christ, but Christ gave Himself to death. For that reason Christ's death has such great value. It was not just somebody who died, but it was Christ, true God. It is His death which is of great benefit to us and to so many.
THE UNIVERSAL PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL
The death of Christ has infinite value and consequently the only way of salvation is to be found in Christ. As Article 5 states, "The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life". For that reason, the fathers go on to confess that this promise must also be preached. "This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men to whom God in His good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe." The fathers had to make a separate mention of the preaching of this gospel because of the wrong conclusions the Arminians were drawing from the Reformed teaching that Christ's work is limited only to the elect. If that is so, argued the Arminians, why then preach the Gospel to all people. If Christ's work is not for all, then why tell all about His work?
In reaction to that caricature, the fathers simply echoed what the Lord Himself had said in John 3:16. God didn't send His Son for the Jews only, or for the first thousand who asked Him for salvation. Rather, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Therefore the Gospel of Christ's redeeming work should also be preached to all, in obedience to the command Christ Himself gave His disciples. Jesus said to them before His ascension, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19,20). We read a similar command of Christ in Acts 1:8, namely, "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." The Gospel was not only to be preached in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, but everywhere.
Here the Church has received a mandate from the Lord to spread the Gospel. Christ has come for all men, and therefore the Church may not keep this Gospel to itself, but must see to it that this Gospel goes out so that all men hear it. Cost ought not be a hindrance for the Church. The Lord has commanded to go and preach, and He will show the way. Mission work is something we ought to engage in more aggressively, seeking new areas where the good news of Christ's work on the cross may be proclaimed.
This preaching will have a twofold effect; some will believe and others will not (see Articles 6 & 7). However, the way in which people will respond to the Gospel is known to God alone. We don't know who are elect; this will only become evident from the way people respond to the preaching. We must simply obey the command of Matthew 28:19,20 and leave the fruits of this work to God.
All around us we see and hear the message, 'Jesus loves you'. However this is not a scriptural but an Arminian formula for salvation. It is simply not true that Jesus loves one and all. Within the circle of the saints we may say to each other that 'Jesus loves you', because we know of each other that God has made His covenant with us and our children. However, to those people whom we do not know we can only pass on the promises of God that He, in infinite mercy gave His Son to die for men. Together with this promise we must also pass on the demand and the challenge to repent and to believe the Gospel of Christ crucified. Only when one comes to faith can we say to them that Yes, Jesus loves you too.