I would like to offer a few observations about Dort that should make us question certain pop-Calvinism interpretations. Some of these may seem self-evident, but in my own personal experience, I found them enlightening, if not startling.
1)- The Canons of Dort do not actually give “5 points.” The Remonstrants had written 5 points, and Dort’s job was to respond to those points. Dort combines points 3 and 4 into one category, and thus when one reads the Canons, he will only cover four sections. Furthermore, S. Vandergugten states that the more important emphasis of the Canons were the individual articles, of which there were 93. Vandergrugten writes:
The chairs and tables of the Arminians were put away. Synod now began to examine their opinions from available writings, concentrating on the Five Articles of the Remonstrance of 1610. The reading of the various judgments of the eighteen committees concerning these Five Articles took place from March 7 to 21 and from March 25 to April 16. The Canons were formulated in ninety-three separate articles. These were signed by all the delegates on April 23, 1619, and solemnly promulgated in the Great Church on May 6 before a large congregation.
And so as one reads Dort, he really ought not look for the famous “5 points.” Rather, he ought to take careful notice of the individual articles, which use very careful wording.
2)- The Canons of Dort do not follow the order of TULIP. In fact, the acronym TULIP only even works in English! It has become a popular catechetical tool in North America, but this should not be allowed to distort our historical understanding. In fact, I have been unable to find an early usage of TULIP than Loraine Boettner.
The Canons of Dort are laid out in this order: i) Divine Election and Reprobation, ii) Christ’s Death and Human Redemption Through It, iii & iv) Human Corruption, Conversion To God and the Way It Occurs, and v) Perseverance of the Saints.
3)- Dort teaches that Reprobation is due to God’s decision to “to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish them (having been left in their own ways and under his just judgment), not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice.” In other words, reprobation is a decision NOT to do something. The condemnation is due to personal guilt.
4)- Dort does not use the language of Christ simply dying “for” one group, but not “for” another. Instead, it treats his death as being “the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” It presents the limitation in the sovereign, secret, and eternal decree to give the elect faith: “For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation.”
Faith is a receptive instrument. It leads you elsewhere. Thus, God’s decision to grant justifying faith to the elect is the vehicle which he then leads them to the sacrifice of Christ. That sacrifice is then applied, and the benefits of it become efficient.
This type of explanation is important because it does not limit Christ’s own value or worth. Him being divine, his merit was necessarily infinite.
It also does not make faith the ground of forgiveness. If that were so, we’d be right back into a form of Semi-Pelagianism. Faith is something we use to take us to Christ.
Predestination is not determinism or fatalism either. However mysterious it may be, we must confess that there is genuine human responsibility and the use of it has full integrity. We have the atonement applied in history, through God’s ordained means. The cross did not simply zap all the elect into the right-standing box. If this were so all missions would be mere appendices.
And finally, this understanding of the atonement is necessary to preserve the free offer of the gospel and the legitimate grounds to say to the unbeliever that it is his faithlessness that is at fault, and not God. It is pastorally essential. We must be willing to say to all men that God desires their salvation, according to His revealed will, and we must be willing to weep over those who reject the gospel. “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” the LORD says.