Monday, November 16, 2009

The Synod of Dort

In a previous post (here) we looked at the life and teaching of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). When he died the system of theology that bears his name did not perish with him. In 1610 forty Dutch theologians who championed Arminius’ views gathered at Gouda for a conference under the leadership of Simon Episcopus (1583-1643). They set forth their views in a five point Remonstrance:

1. Predestination is conditional on God foreknowing who would believe.
2. Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved.
3. Human beings are sinners and cannot believe apart from the grace of God.
4. Saving grace may be resisted.
5. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints needs further investigation.

There was much heated discussion over the Remonstrant Articles. It was perceived that the proposed five points constituted a direct threat to the Calvinistic basis of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1618 a Synod was convened in Dordtrecht to decide whether the position of the Remonstrants was in accordance with the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions. At stake was nothing less than the glory of God in the salvation of lost sinners by free and sovereign grace alone.

Although occasioned by theological controversy in Holland, the Synod had an international flavour with delegates from Reformed Churches in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland meeting alongside their Dutch brethren. Simon Episcopus and a group of his supporters were invited to represent the Arminian agitants.

From the deliberations of the Synod of Dort emerged what are popularly called the “Five Points of Calvinism”, usually set out under the mnemonic TULIP. These points do not represent a complete account of Calvinistic theology. They were simply intended to be a blow by blow rebuttal of the five point Remonstrance. The original order of the points has to be reworked for TULIP to fit.

Total Depravity

On the face of it, the Arminians agreed with the orthodox Calvinists that all human beings are sinners and that we are saved by grace. But they redefined grace to mean that God gives all people the ability to be saved if they so wished. We must cooperate with the grace of God and decide to accept his offer of salvation. Thus man is only partially depraved by sin. He is able to exercise a choice to believe and be saved. The Synod of Dort rightly smelled a rat. According to Scripture, man in sin is totally depraved. That does not mean that we are all as bad as could be, but that every human faculty has been radically affected by sin. The mind is incapable of receiving God’s truth (Romans 8:7), the heart is deceitful and wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), the will is enslaved by sin (John 8:34). Scripture teaches that man in his fallen state is not damaged, but dead (Ephesians 2:1-4). There is no possibility that a sinner in such a state could ever choose to be saved (Jeremiah 13:23). We don’t need “grace” that will simply facilitate our choice to believe but a gracious act of God that will bring us back from the dead.

Unconditional Election

Jacob Arminius taught that election is rooted on God foreseeing who would believe and be saved. In that sense election is conditional on the sinner’s response to the gospel. However, if human beings are in fact totally depraved and incapable of choosing to be saved, then conditional election is an impossibility. The Cannons of Dort insist that God chose to save certain sinners from condemnation, not because of anything in themselves, but because of his sheer love and free grace (Ephesians 1:4, 2 Timothy 1:9). The elect were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, redeemed by Christ in the fullness of time and are called to saving faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Repentance and faith are the fruit of election, not its cause (Acts 13:48).

Regrettably, the doctrine of predestination has often been a cause of angry discussion and unhelpful speculation in the church. We should guard against such an attitude, “this teaching must be set forth with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God's most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people.” (First Main Point of Doctrine, Article 14).

Reflection on unconditional election should cause the believer to cry out, “Why, O Lord such love to me? Glory to God in the highest!”

Limited Atonement

This is probably the most difficult and controversial of all the “Five Points of Calvinism”. I’m not sure that “limited atonement” is the best way of describing the Reformed view of the cross. “Definite atonement” is probably more appropriate. The Arminians claimed that Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved. However, if Christ died for all, but not all are saved, then his death was limited in its effectiveness. Some for whom he died will nevertheless go to hell if they perish in unbelief.

Arminians seem to have Scripture on their side when they say that Christ died for the “world” or for “all men” (1 Timothy 2:5 & 6, 1 John 2:2). True Calvinists should have no problem with such texts. Christ did die for a world of guilty sinners. He laid down his life for all kinds of human beings. But we should also bear in mind another strand of biblical teaching that reveals that Christ laid down his life for his “sheep” (John 10:11). Sheep who will most certainly be saved (John 10:27-30). Consider also that Jesus gave himself for the “church” (Acts 20:28, Ephesians 5:25-27).

Christ’s atoning death did not make salvation a possibility should anyone choose to be saved. Rather he actually saved us by his blood (Ephesians 1:7). The Canons are careful to point out that Christ’s death was of infinite value because he who died for sinners was the eternal Son of God in the flesh (Second Main Point, Articles 3&4). He died as a substitute, bearing the penalty of sin specifically for those whom the Father had given him in eternity. Those for whom he died will most certainly be saved by the power of the Spirit. With definite atonement we see all three Persons of the godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit united in a single purpose, to redeem a great multitude that no man can number. The definiteness of the atonement is no bar to the free offer of the gospel,

“Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.” (The Second Main Point of Doctrine, Article 5).

Are you trusting in finished work of Christ to put you right with God?

Irresistible Grace

Again, while TULIP may be a handy aid to memory, “irresistible grace” may not be the best way of putting it; “effective grace” is more accurate. As Stephen pointed out, the offer of grace may certainly be resisted, Acts 7:51. But the Father effectively calls all those whom he has given to Christ for salvation (John 6:37, Romans 8:29).

In the Arminian scheme, saving grace is synergistic. Man must co-operate with God in order to be saved. But this is contradicted by the Bible’s teaching on regeneration or the new birth. This is a monergistic act of divine grace. God alone can breathe new life into those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:4&5). Grace is effective because it is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit by whom sinners are born again (John 3:8).

Effective grace does not mean that God does violence to the human will when he savingly unites a sinner to Christ. Rather, he liberates the enslaved will from the shackles of sin to enable his people freely to repent and believe the gospel. As Jesus said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7). And only the Spirit of God can give you new life in Christ.

Perseverance of the Saints

Initially the Remonstrants suggested that this doctrine needed further investigation. They did not reject it outright. But by the time of the Synod of Dort their position had hardened. Now they argued that it is possible for a genuine Christian to loose his or her salvation. This not only flies in the face of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, it is also detrimental to the believer’s assurance. The Canons acknowledged that even the best Christians fall into sin, but God will not allow any of his lovingly chosen, blood-bought people to perish. We are kept by the power of God unto salvation. None can pluck us from the mighty hands of the good shepherd. But the assurance of divine preservation should not induce spiritual carelessness. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. It is the saints, God’s holy people who will persevere to the end. We can be certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).


Arminianism represented a serious challenge to the Reformed Churches and the subtle arguments of the Remonstrants had to be met with clear scriptural answers. It is often the case that controversy helps to clarify the teaching of the church. We see this with regard to the Trinity and the Person of Christ at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. The Synod of Dort delivered the definitive Reformed response to Arminian error (see the complete Canons here). The biblical Calvinism of the Synod offers a coherent and compelling vision of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. To him alone be the glory!

* An edited version of this article was published in November's Evangelical Times.


Evangelical books said...

Hi Guy,

Please can you recommend a book which gives the history of the work of the Synod of Dort?

Thanks in advance.


Exiled Preacher said...

"The Articles of the Synod of Dort" by Thomas Scott. You can get it for free on Google Books:

See also "But for the grace of God" by Cornelis Venema. Reviewed here: