The Canons of Dordrecht, Part Two, Exposition of the Canons, Second Head of Doctrine, Of the Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby

Article 9. This purpose proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has from the beginning of the world to this day been powerfully accomplished, and will henceforward still continue to be accomplished, notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell, so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one, and that there never may be wanting a church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ, which may steadfastly love, and faithfully serve him as their Savior, who as a bridegroom for his bride, laid down his life for them upon the cross, and which may celebrate his praises here and through all eternity. 

Except for the rather inaccurate "the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ," which might more Simply and correctly be translated by "founded in the blood of Christ," the above translation is correct, though we might also add the term "notwithstanding" is commentary rather than translation. The latter term might have been left out, and the phrase in which it appears simply translated: "the gates of hell vainly opposing."

This article immediately reminds one of that beautiful fifty-fourth answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, concerning the holy catholic church: "That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith . . ." And certainly, ever since the Synod of Dordrecht, that Answer of the Catechism, which, of course, was already the accepted creed of the Reformed Churches at the time of the Synod, must necessarily be viewed in the light of this further explanation of the Canons.

Before treating in detail the meaning of this article, let us briefly note some of its salient features. In the first place, remember that the article fails under the heading of "the death of Christ, and the redemption of men thereby." This may seem strange at first glance, but it is nevertheless true, and, we may add, quite proper. To be sure, it does not treat the death of Christ and the redemption of men thereby as such. It speaks of the gathering of the church, and that too, as the powerful accomplishment of the everlasting purpose of God's love. But, as becomes evident from a study of the Rejection of Errors in this chapter, it indeed deals with the subject of the death of Christ and redemption in so far as this doctrine was corrupted by the Arminians. The Arminian view of atonement,—in connection, let it be added, with their view of predestination,—left it an open question (speaking from their point of view, now) whether there would ever be a church at all, and whether at any given time in history there would be a gathering of believers. That all depended, in the Arminian view, on whether there were any men who would believe in Christ and actually appropriate the forgiveness of sins that was obtained by Christ for all men and every man. And it is in this connection that the fathers here state the necessary consequence of the Reformed and Scriptural view of particular atonement. In the second place, note once again that you find in this article the same organic view of the truth that pervaded the previous article. The truth is one. And though you can distinguish that one truth into various doctrines,—a doctrine of election, a doctrine of atonement and redemption, a doctrine of salvation, of the application of the benefits of Christ to His people, etc.,—you can nevertheless never separate these doctrines from each other and still maintain the unity of the truth. And so the fathers again trace the one line of the one purpose of God, conceived in eternity, and realized all through history, even to the day of its final consummation in the new creation. 

As to the contents of this article, let us note, first of all, that by "this purpose" we are referred to Article 8: the "purpose" is defined there. According to that article, "this purpose" is briefly "the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation. " Moreover, the article speaks of the fact that this purpose has from the beginning of the worldbeen powerfully accomplished. Hence, the article teaches that long before Christ actually died and atoned for the elect, God was powerfully accomplishing His purpose that the "quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, . . . . thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation." 

We may note, in the second place, that the article emphasizes that this purpose proceeds out of everlasting love towards the elect. Here the fathers clearly take the position, therefore, that the atoning death of Christ can only be explained out of God's everlasting love towards the elect. This is important. It is not thus, that God was filled with hatred toward us, but that Christ intervened and removed the cause of that hatred, and that only then did God become moved with love toward us. But it was ever thus, that in Christ Jesus God loved His elect from all eternity. And that love is therefore sovereign and free. It is not even thus, that God's purpose that the saving efficacy of the death of His Son should extend to all the elect is before that love. No, the purpose to save proceeds out of that love. And the realization of that purpose proceeds out of that love. The most precious death of His Son, together with all the saving benefits connected with that death, is a marvelous revelation of everlasting divine love. 

In the third place, notice that the article speaks of ineffectual, or vain, opposition against that purpose of God and its realization. This opposition it denotes by the scriptural expression "the gates of hell." The expression undoubtedly stands for all that proceeds through those gates, all that is of devilish, hellish origin. It includes the devil and his host, and their allies, the world, the children of their father the devil, and the very flesh of the elect. And their methods of opposition are many and manifold. In the battle against the purpose of God they' employ persecution and reproach, suffering and death and destruction, fire and sword and imprisonment, the temptation of false doctrine and the vain philosophy of men, all kinds of attempts falsify the preaching of the gospel. They make use of the dominion of sin and the power of the flesh. They employ the temptations of the treasures and pleasures of the world. And always their purpose is to destroy the church and to frustrate the realization of the purpose of God, namely, that the saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, and that thus they should be brought infallibly to salvation. 

That is history. 

From the beginning of the world God was powerfully accomplishing that purpose. And from the beginning of the world the gates of hell opposed that purpose. 

Thus it was in the old dispensation. Always the gates of hell tried to destroy the holy line, and, ultimately to present the appearance of the great seed of the woman. Before the flood already that is evident in the history of Cain and Abel, in the intermingling of the daughters of men with the sons of God, in the persecution that preceded the flood until only Noah and his eight were left. After the flood the same attempt is manifest at Babel, in the history of Israel in Egypt, in the wilderness, in Canaan, where that holy line was assaulted from within and without, in the history of the captivity, in the devilish attempt of Haman, in the dark period of the 400 years. 

Thus it was in the time of the Savior Himself, from His birth at Bethlehem until His death on the cross. Always they tried to destroy Him and to prevent Him from accomplishing His redeeming purpose. When the gates of hell could not succeed in keeping Him from His purpose to be obedient to the Father's purpose, they attempted finally to destroy Him on the cross. 

Thus it was all through the new dispensation until the present time. One need only think of the persecution of the apostles, of the persecution of the early church by the Roman emperors, of the many forces of opposition exercised through the Romish Church; or one need only study the history of the development of doctrine, including the very history of the Arminian controversy from Dordt to the present, with its repeated cycle of apostasy from the truth; or one need only open his eyes to all the temptations and allurements of this present world; and that consistent effort of the gates of hell to destroy the church and to prevent the realization of God's purpose becomes very evident. 

But always God accomplished His purpose, and the opposition of the gates of hell was vain. Vain was that opposition, in the first place, because no matter how furious it was, and no matter how much destruction it seemed to accomplish, God always maintained His cause and preserved, His church. But in the second place, the frustration of its vanity reaches its peak,—and undoubtedly this is what moves the powers of darkness to foam and froth in fury,—in this, that the Lord God, according to His everlasting purpose of love, so directs and controls that very opposition that it must serve the realization of His purpose. Never was that more clearly revealed than at the cross itself, where indeed wicked men nailed. God's precious Son to the accursed tree, but all according to His determinate counsel and foreknowledge, so that they were but instruments in the realization of His purpose, "that the saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect." And how that very fact infuriated the powers of darkness becomes evident in their raging attempt to down the cause of the church immediately after Pentecost,—an attempt that was again so frustratingly vain because it only served the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel.

And so the fathers proceed, and say boldly that this purpose will "henceforward still continue to be accomplished." O, to be sure, this comforting assurance is based upon past history. But that is not its foundation ultimately. On the basis of the doctrine of conditional election and conditional salvation, the doctrine of free will, this certainty could never be attained, neither with regard to the individual believer nor with regard to the church as a whole. But on the basis of past history as it is the divine accomplishment of the divine purpose this assurance is absolutely established. The whole elect church shall be saved most assuredly. Not one of them shall perish. For if Jehovah of hosts accomplishes His own purpose, a purpose proceeding from everlasting love, who shall ever hinder it? 

The result, therefore, is that the elect are in due time gathered together into one, and that there never is wanting a church composed of believers, founded in the blood of Christ. This has reference, first of all, to the present. The Lord takes care that there is always a church on the earth. Never is the line of the church broken in history. Always there are the 7,000 that have not bowed the knee to Baal. And it has reference, in the second place, to the final gathering of all the elect, the complete body, in eternal glory. Then all who according to sovereign election belong to the body of Christ shall be finally gathered together. And the divine purpose, and therefore the holy calling, of that church is, both here and to all eternity, to steadfastly love, faithfully serve, and celebrate the praises of Him, who as a bridegroom for His bride, laid down His life for them on the cross.Soli Deo gloria! 

H.C.H.