The Doctrinal Crisis Facing Our Churches

Over four years ago Professor Harold Dekker began a controversy in our church circles by publishing an article in the December, 1962, Reformed Journal under the title, “God So Loved—All Men!” The ensuing discussion led eventually to the appointment by the Synod of 1964 of a “Doctrinal Committee” which presented its report to last year’s synod. That report has been referred back to the committee for refinement, especially of the grounding of its conclusions, and to the churches for their study, with a view to having the matter taken up by the Synod of 1967.

During these four years of discussion a considerable amount of confusion seems to have arisen in the minds of many people about just what issues are involved. The long committee report with its detailed treatment of various aspects of the controversy may be very helpful to one who studies it. Unfortunately the very thoroughness of that report may also confuse a casual reader. Many an elder and minister, looking at the seventy pages of analysis and argument and two and a half pages of conclusions, may judge that the matter is hopelessly complicated and despair of reaching any decision concerning it.

lt seems to me, as one who has taken a personal interest in the discussion from its beginning, that the real issues are not at all as complicated as they appear to some to be. Reviewing the writings that began the discussion and the committee report which attempts to analyze them makes it increasingly evident that, however many interesting complications may be raised in connection with the points under discussion, the points themselves are few and comparatively simple. We should not permit our attention to be diverted from them to the side-issues.

What the Argument Is about: Professor Dekker’s Claims

The Committee Report calls attention to the fact (already apparent in Professor Dekker’s original article) that he has made two fundamental claims (Acts 1966, p. 438),

(1) there is no “qualitative difference between God’s love for all men and his love for the elect.”

(2) that Christ’s atonement is not limited to any group of people, but is inherently universal and therefore the church must say to unbelievers as well as to believers, “Christ died for you” (Acts 1966, pp. 446, 463 ).

(We may observe that while Professor Dekker’s original article still spoke of the atonement as in one sense limited, he later dropped that limitation and now states that it “is inherently universal.”) About two thirds of the report is devoted to these two basic issues, and we ought to concentrate our attention on them.

The Critical Test: God’s Word

The decisive question which must be raised concerning these two claims of Professor Dekker is, “Do they conform to or contradict the teaching of God’s Word?” The considerable amount of historical material’ and opinions of Reformed writers cited in the report is interesting and valuable to the student. This will have to be disregarded in our effort to deal as simply as possible with the heart of the problem.

It is significant that the committee in dealing with biblical evidence had to call attention to Professor Dekker’s manner of handling this: “The Scriptural evidence which he has set forth in his articles consists of a number of texts which are all supposed to teach a universal atonement. They are those passages which speak of the ‘world’ or ‘all men,’ or “every man’ in relation to Christ’s sacrifice. It is regrettable, however, that Prof. Dekker usually only quoted these passages and made little attempt to exegete them.” “Prof. Dekker reveals that same weakness also by the casual way in which he disposes of those texts which Reformed writers have always quoted to substantiate the position that the atonement is limited or definite. These texts too he does not exegete” (p. 477).

A consideration of the texts that are cited to support a universal atonement reveals that they are either found in a setting in which the objects of God’s love or grace are indicated also in a more limited and precise way, or they can be readily harmonized with the doctrine taught in the other scriptures that there is such a particular atonement. On the other hand the texts that speak of God’s electing love and of a particular or limited atonement cannot be harmonized with the claim that there is no such particular love or limited atonement. This point will become clear if we refer to a few of the Bible passages which teach that there is an electing love of God for his people that is not given to the un believing world:

Malachi 1:2,3, “I loved Jacob; but Esau I hated,” is cited in Romans 9:13 as a classic example of God’s elective dealing with men.

John 10:11, 15 speak of Christ dying for his “sheep” who are explicitly distinguished in verses 26ff. from unbelievers. (“But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.”)

Acts 20:28 speaks of “the church of the Lord which He purchased with His own blood.” Here the qualifying phrase can hardly be generalized as applying to all men without making it meaningless.

Ephesians 5:25–27 compares the love of Christ for his church with the exclusive love of a husband for his wife.

Ephesians 2:4 attributes the Christian’s salvation from being “by nature the children of wrath, even as the rest,” to God’s “great love wherewith He loved us.”

John 6:36–40 and John 17, especially verse 9, plainly reveal a unique concern of Christ for his own which he does not have for the world.

Professor Dekker is himself compelled to admit that the Bible nowhere teaches us to say to unbelievers, “Christ died for you.”

Tested by God’s Word, the two main points made by Prof. Dekker plainly conflict with rather than conform to it.

A Fundamental Error in Christian Doctrine

The committee’s analysis reveals a certain lack of clarity as well as instability in these teachings of Professor Dekker. Under questioning by the committee he (1) gave up a distinction he had earlier attempted to make between God’s love as redemptive and as redeeming, now maintaining that it is redemptive to all, and (2) abandoned the idea that the atonement is limited in any sense, now saying that it is “inherently universal.” Taking the latter position, he also came to hold “that the atonement as such has no efficacy.” In other words, maintaining that Christ’s atonement is made for everyone while recognizing that not all men are saved is compelling him to deny its saving meaning. The report observes, “Nowhere in his articles does he give any definite indication as to what the atonement really means for him.” “He does not seem to believe that Christ by His death on the cross has also actually purchased for those for whom He died faith and repentance, the adoption of sons and eternal inheritance.” This it seems to us is the fundamental fault in Dekker’s position (pp. 463, 471, 472).

The committee goes on to observe that this position would “drive a wedge” between the work of the Father (who elects some) and that of the Son (who dies to save everyone, according to Professor Dekker) and between the work of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit (who saves only the elect). When anyone says “that the atonement as such has no efficacy” it should be apparent to all that he flatly contradicts the doctrine of the Canons of Dordt (II, 8) that it was “the will of God that Christ…should effectually redeem…all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.”

It should also be apparent that teachings such as these are not trivial differences of opinion which may be dismissed as insignificant by the church in whose seminary they are being taught. When the confession of the church is being contradicted, the doctrine of the Trinity is distorted and the very effectiveness of Christ’s atonement is denied, the church should wake up to realize that the fundamentals of its faith are under attack.

Mischievous Practical Consequences

The report duly recognizes that Professor Dekker raised these issues not out of a desire to attack the faith of the church but because he wanted to sec its evangelistic work made mare effective and felt that the doctrinal changes he advocates would serve that purpose. But the report points out that the church’s confessed doctrine regarding these matters has been biblical and that the weaknesses in its evangelistic efforts are not traceable to these doctrines but to other causes.

It may be further observed, however, that Professor Dekker’s misrepresentation of the love of God in a solely universalistic manner would seem to make it impossible to do justice to other considerations which the Bible teaches should spur the church to missionary witness and be expressed in that witness. How can one concentrate exclusively on the love of God shown indiscriminately to all and at the same time warn people, as God’s word teaches us to do, to “flee the wrath to come?” The very text which was misquoted in the article that began this controversy does not read, “God So loved—all men!” It reads “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And the whole passage concludes with the warning, “but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him!” (vs. 36). How can anyone do justice to that if he insists on reading into it that “the love of God abideth” on the unbeliever?

Similarly the Apostle Paul was spurred on to missionary activity not only by the fact that “the love of Christ constraineth us,” (II Cor. 5:14) but also by the accompanying truth, “For we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ…Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men…” (vs. 10, 11). He also points out that it was not merely an indiscriminate love of Christ for all men that inspired his missionary labour, but Christ’s saving love for his elect; “Therefore, I endure all things for the elect’s sake, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (II Timothy 2:10). Our Lord himself was moved by the same consideration: He said, “I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me, And this is the will of him that sent me that of all that which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day” (John 6:38 and 39). In missionary witness we must like the Apostle Paul not “shrink” from declaring to men “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We cannot expect greater missionary success if we preach anything other or less than that.

It is being urged by some advocates of these objectionable views that the church should make no decision regarding them lest it stifle theological progress. To that we must reply that the churches’ toleration of teachings that contradict the Word of God can never result in real progress. It can only lead to decline, as it is doing in many churches around us. These views do not even have the right to be called new. They are old errors, on the whole much more adequately discussed by such men as William Cunningham a hundred years ago and even more extensively by the French Reformed Church three hundred years ago when strange and so-called “new” views led those churches away from their biblical faith.2

The Need for Decisive Action

The issues that confront us in this controversy are not minor or indifferent matters. They touch the heart of our Christian faith.

Although much may be said about them and the truths related to them, they are themselves not especially complicated or difficult. The claim has been made (1) that there is no qualitative difference between God’s love for all men and his love for his people and (2) that Christ’s atonement is not limited to any group of people, but is inherently universal and therefore the church must say to unbelievers as well as believers, “Christ died for you.” After patient and careful investigation it has been plainly shown that these claims contradict the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions.

To continue to tolerate them would be both to betray the Christian faith we maintain as Reformed churches and to abandon the biblical discipline of our creeds and Form of Subscription which we have promised before God to uphold. May God give our Synod the conviction and courage to declare that these teachings are contrary to his word and our Christian confeSSion and may not be taught in the churches.

1. Regarding the history of this mailer the committee makes the valuable observation that “this time we have the problem of 1924 in reverse” (p. 445). While Rev. H. Hoeksema denied that there is common grace shown to the non-elect, Rev. H. Dekker now denies that there is a special grace or love shown to the elect.

2. William Cunningham, Historical Theology, II 323–367 summarized in my article, “Cunningham on ‘Calvinistic Universalism’” in Torch and Trumpet, April 1964. Roger Nicole, “Amyraldianism, Amyraldism, Amyraldus, Amymut,” in Palmer, ed., The Encyclopedia of Christianity, I, 184–193. Compare also John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death 0f Christ, a Treatise in which the whole controversy about Universal Redemption is fully discussed, (reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust, London, in 1959. The original appeared in 1648). It is interesting to observe that there are two prefaces to the original, the first of which by Stanley Cower, begins: “There arc two rotten pillars on which the fabric of late Arminianism … doth principally stand. “The one is, That God loveth all alike, Cain as well as Abel, Judas as the rest of the apostles. “The other is, That God giveth…both Christ, the great gift of his eternal love, for all alike to work out their redemption…” The rest is less apropos, for the position which we are considering has not yet developed to the consistency of Arminianism. It reads, “… and power to believe in Christ to all alike to whom he gives the gospel...” This observation, made 319 years ago, makes it evident, however, that the two main points about which the controversy has arisen in our church at present are not the new discoveries some consider them to be.

Is the doctrinal issue facing the synod of 1967 so complicated that no clear-cut decision can be expected at this time? In the light of his answer the Rev. Peter De Jong, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church of Sarnia, Ontario, shows what consequences further delay will have for a confessional Reformed church.