"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
DIVINE ELECTION AND REPROBATION
In 1610, the followers of Arminius compiled five articles or statements of faith based on the teachings of Arminius. These five articles were subsequently examined by the Synod of Dort 1618-1619. The Reformed, scriptural stance this Synod took in relation to the doctrinal issues raised in these Five Articles of the Remonstrants has been formulated into what we today call the Canons of Dort. Since the first article of the Remonstrants concerned itself with God's eternal decree concerning man's salvation, Chapter 1 of the Canons of Dort sets forth the Scriptural teaching concerning God's eternal decree. Hence this first head of doctrine is entitled "Divine Election and Reprobation".
Said the Arminians in Article 1 (and the error of their position is most clearly deciphered when the following key words are lifted out), "We believe that God by an eternal ... decree has ... determined ... to save ... those ... who ... shall believe ... and persevere ..." By these words the Arminians are essentially saying that God, before Creation, looked into the future to see who would believe in Him, and then determined that He would save those specific persons. Salvation of man, then, follows this sequence: 1. man believes and then, 2. God saves those who believe. Having seen ahead of time that a person was going to believe, God chose him for salvation. Say the Arminians, "we believe God determined to save those who shall believe and persevere".
The issue at stake here is, what is election? The Arminians say it is not a divine decree as to who will be saved, but rather, a divine decree as to the means by which man will be saved. God does not choose the recipient of salvation (Tom or Dick or Harry), but the requirement for salvation, namely faith - and, since God sees ahead of time that Tom and Dick will believe, they are automatically included for salvation.
Hence our fathers recognised that what they first needed to do was define election. However, election as such is not discussed until Article 6. The first five articles deal with some preliminaries one needs to understand in order to be able to fully appreciate what election really is.
ALL MANKIND CONDEMNABLE BEFORE GOD
When God created Adam, He established a covenant with Adam. Adam would be God's child and God promised to be his Father. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, and so supplied all Adam's needs; He was God for Adam. By the fall into sin, Adam broke this covenant with God, choosing instead to join Satan's side (see Figure 1).
Article 1 now asks who all went from God's side to Satan's side? Was it just Adam (and Eve), or all of mankind? Did just Adam disobey God and break the covenant or did the whole human race do so? After all, only Adam and Eve were in the Garden; they both sinned by eating of the forbidden tree and so both landed in Satan's camp. Adam and Eve had children after the fall into sin, but these children too were on Satan's side, due to their parents' sin. The critical question is whether or not Adam's children can be held responsible for being on Satan's side. If the children cannot be held responsible, is it right that God's wrath abides on them, and isn't it unfair of God to leave them on Satan's side?
By way of illustration: nobody can fault my children for the fact that they live in Australia. The fault (if one can rightly speak of fault here!) is mine, for I migrated to this land. The children 'suffer the consequences' of my decision. Can the same be said regarding the fall into sin? Are the generations who followed Adam and Eve victims of their ancestor's ill-judged decision to disobey God and join Satan?
Who sinned according to Scripture? God made His covenant not with Adam as an individual, but with Adam as the head of the human race. That is evident from the fact that when God created Adam (and Eve), God immediately gave the instruction to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen 1:28). God was interested not just in the individual Adam, but in all the offspring that would come from this one man. God's covenant would not be only with Adam (and Eve), but with any children they would receive also.
Since God made His covenant with the whole human race in its entirety, Adam's transgression in Paradise both affects the whole human race and is the responsibility of the whole human race. The action of a head of state (Prime Minister, King, etc) to declare war on another country does not make only the Prime Minister responsible for his country's being at war, but makes the nation as a whole responsible and hence target of enemy attack. In like manner, the decision of Adam to desert God and side with Satan makes the whole human race responsible for sinning. In Romans 5:12 we read, "... just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned-". Here Paul refers to Adam's sin in Genesis 3, but, says Paul, Adam was not the only transgressor in the beginning; all mankind sinned. All people were on God's side, and included in His covenant made with Adam in the beginning, and all people turned their back on God and turned instead to Satan. It will not suffice to superficially say that all people suffer the consequences of Adam's sin. No, all people participated in Adam's sin.
Further on in Romans 5 Paul draws a parallel between our union with Adam and our union with Christ. "Therefore, as through one man's offence judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:18,19). Just as our union with Adam our covenant head made us partakers of his condemnation when he sinned, so we in union with Christ do not simply enjoy the consequences of His death and resurrection but we died and rose with Him and share in His righteousness. Christ did not just die on our behalf, but we participated in His death. Says Paul in Romans 6:3-5 "... do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection." My union with Christ means that when He died, I died; when He rose, I rose; because He lives, I live. Christ's work has been written onto my account. If I were to deny my involvement in Adam's fall, I would by extension need to deny my participation in the saving work of Christ.
If all mankind fell into sin when Adam sinned, we consequently are all on Satan's side by our own choice. It wasn't some particular circumstance beyond our control which landed us with Satan, but it was purely our choice. We fell into sin. We cannot understand how, but because God says we did we accept what He says. His word on the matter is final. So we accept too that we rightly deserve God's wrath, His judgment. Were God to pour out His wrath upon us, we would have no grounds for accusing God of being unfair. This notion is critical to our understanding of the argument which our fathers put forward in Article 1 in opposition to the Arminians. There we read, "Since all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and deserve eternal death, God would have done injustice to no one if He had willed to leave the whole human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn it on account of its sin..." The concept basic to Reformed faith is that I am a sinner by my own fault, and consequently am deserving of God's judgment.
THE SENDING OF THE SON OF GOD
No-one asked God to save them. After Adam and Eve had fallen, we read in Genesis 3:8 that God came to them: sinners. In spite of man's fall, God sovereignly and mercifully came to man again. (That God came habitually to Adam and Eve in Paradise is pointed up by the fact that Adam and Eve recognised the sound of God's coming; they were familiar with God's arrival and presence). In response to His coming on the evening of the day of their fall, Adam and Eve hid themselves; they didn't want God. "And (Adam and Eve) heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden." From man's part there was unwillingness to meet God, and certainly there was no crying out for help.
The next verse tells us what God then did: "Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, 'Where are you?'" The Lord called: in infinite mercy He reached out to fallen man. He wanted to save. Hence we confess in Article 17 of the Belgic Confession, "When (God) saw that man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable, our gracious God in His marvellous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him." This is precisely the material of Article 2. Just as Adam and Eve did not reach out to God but God to them, so it is not we reaching out to God but God to us. This evidence from Genesis 3 (echoed in Article 17) is a loud condemnation of Arminianism.
From John 3:16 we learn that salvation is God's sovereign and gracious gift. "For God so loved the world (which had fallen into sin) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life". Salvation is not us asking but God giving. In 1 John 4:9,10 we read that it was God who sent. God acted: He loved us and sent His Son. "In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins". Article 2 echoes Scripture when it confesses, "But in this the love of God was made manifest, that He sent His only Son into the world ..."
When we place articles 1 and 2 side by side, and notice their contrasting contents, we come to see the powerful Gospel they confess. Man fell into sin by his own fault. God's response however was to freely give His Son for people like us. Sinners we are, but salvation is freely prepared for us. How amazingly merciful is the God of our salvation!
THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL
Article 2 ended with a reference to the need for believing in order to receive salvation. "... (God) sent His only Son into the world, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." In order to be saved, people on Satan's side need faith. But where does faith come from? "From the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel..." (Lord's Day 25, Q&A 65). As quoted in Article 3, Romans 10:14, 15 says concerning the source of faith, "... And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? ..." Faith is worked through the preaching. In order to come to faith one needs to hear the Gospel. Not only did God send His Son to provide salvation, but He also sends preachers to "whom He wills and when He wills".
That it is God who determines when, where and to whom His Gospel is to be preached is vividly illustrated by what we read in Acts 16. From Phrygia and Galatia Paul wanted to go north and preach in Asia. However, he was not permitted to do so by the Holy Spirit. "Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia" (Acts 16:6). It hasn't been revealed to us how the Spirit restrained Paul, be it by the weather, political circumstances, or ill health. Regardless of the means, Paul concluded that he was not to go north to preach the gospel. Hence he continued his travels west. When he came to Troas, God made it clear to Paul by means of a vision that he had to go further west, to Macedonia. "Now after (Paul) had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them" (Acts 16:10). Paul accordingly crossed the water to the district of Macedonia, and came to the city of Phillipi.
Why did God close the road to Bithynia, and instead lead Paul to Phillipi? God did so because He wanted to save Lydia. "Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul" (Acts 16:14). By God's decree Lydia needed to come to faith. By God's decree she therefore needed the apostle's preaching and hence God closed to Paul the road to Bithynia. Who will hear the Gospel? As we confess in Article 3, God sends His servants "to whom He will and when He wills". This doesn't mean that the Gospel should never go to Bithynia at all; the point is that the Gospel would go wherever God determined it should go and at a time determined by Him.
This makes for a remarkable thought. Why are we allowed to have the preaching? Do we just attribute this to certain circumstances? No. God sends His Word via servants of His choosing to people of His choosing and at a time appointed by Him alone. As with Lydia who heard and heeded the Gospel because of God's interest in her, so it is with me. That I may hear and heed the preaching is evidence of God's interest in and care for me. In His own sovereign way and time, God caused the Gospel to come even to me. It is of great encouragement to know that God sends His Gospel wherever He has elect people.
By Article 3 our fathers refuted a specific error of the Arminians. The specific error in question is recorded in Article 9 of the Rejection of Errors attached to Chapter 1 (see page 544). The error was that "God sends the gospel to one people rather than another not merely and solely because of the good pleasure of His will, but because one people is better and worthier than another to which the gospel is not preached." Our fathers rejected this as being contrary to Scripture, for Scripture teaches that God freely chose because of His good pleasure and not because of any merits of man. Hence they quoted what Moses said to Israel (Deuteronomy 10:14,15), "Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the LORD your God, also the earth with all that is in it. The LORD delighted only in your fathers, to love them; and He chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as it is this day." Though God could have picked any people of the globe for Himself, He was sovereignly pleased to choose Israel alone, for reasons of His own good pleasure. Similarly, Christ said to the Jews (Matthew 11:21), "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes". Chorazin and Bethsaida, two Jewish cities where Jesus preached, rejected His preaching, while Tyre and Sidon, two heathen cities, would (said Jesus) have believed if He had preached and worked there. Though a better people, God sovereignly determined for Christ to go not to Tyre and Sidon, but to Chorazin and Bethsaida.
A TWOFOLD OUTCOME
The Lord causes the Gospel to be preached to an audience of His choosing. This preaching has a twofold result: there are those who respond by coming to faith and there are those who respond with unbelief. On those who respond with unbelief God's wrath remains. The word 'remains' is important here. With our fall into sin, the human race joined Satan's side and consequently we placed ourselves under the wrath and judgment of God. That judgment remains, in this life and the life to come, if we reject the Gospel of salvation (Lord's Day 4). At the same time we need to note that those who respond to the preaching of the Gospel with unbelief will be judged the heavier, simply because they have heard the Gospel. "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:48).
On the other hand, those who come to faith receive from God the gift of forgiveness by imputation; i.e. their accounts are credited with the satisfaction of God's wrath which Christ attained by His death on the cross. Christ received wrath so that I might receive mercy.
Each response to the preaching of the Gospel has its own consequence: the response of faith results in life and the response of unbelief results in eternal death. As we read in John 3:16, "whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life". The Word of the Lord never returns empty. The preaching of God's Word demands a response: a yes or a no; both are responses. God's Word always accomplishes what God sets out for it to do. We should dare to see both faith and rejection as fruits of the preaching of the Word.
THE CAUSE OF UNBELIEF, THE SOURCE OF FAITH
Article 4 confesses that the one responds to the preaching with acceptance and faith, and another responds with rejection and unbelief. What are the causes of unbelief and faith?
1) THE CAUSE OF UNBELIEF
The Bible teaches that the person who responds with unbelief can only blame himself. The cause of unbelief is the self. I fell into sin. Though God made me able to hear His Word and able to respond to it in faith, I made myself unable to do it. As we confess in Lord's Day 4, "God (is) not unjust by requiring in His law what man cannot do ... for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts." If I respond to the preaching with unbelief, it is my own doing. I cannot blame another person, nor can I blame God; I can only blame myself.
Scripture is clear concerning man's unwillingness to believe:
"... this is a rebellious people, lying children, children who will not hear the law of the LORD." Here we do not read of a people who shall not hear (in the future), but rather, of a people who will not hear, i.e., do not want to hear. Unbelief is nothing but an unwillingness to listen. Isaiah goes on to say in verse 15, "For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: "In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. But you would not". Again, it is a matter of unwillingness. Unbelief cannot be attributed to the Word being unclear or to particular political or home circumstances. No, the responsibility to believe lies with each individual.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!"
Said Jesus to the Jews, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me. But you are not willing to come to me that you may have life." It wasn't that the Holy Spirit didn't work, but rather, the Jews were unwilling to believe. It was the Jews' own responsibility that they would not believe.
What these Scripture passages point out for us is this: anyone's refusal to believe is one's own fault. Regardless of anyone's personal circumstances, a decision not to believe is always an unwillingness to believe. Unbelief is not a matter of 'I cannot believe', but rather a matter of 'I don't want to believe'.
One may consequently find it difficult to understand that in Exodus 11:10 we read that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. In Romans 9:18 we read "... He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens". Who then was at fault for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart: God or Pharaoh? We know that God punished Pharaoh. Yet the fault remains Pharaoh's alone. He (with all of us) fell into sin, and so wished to do evil only. Possibly one may say that God let the evil in Pharaoh's heart have free reign, so that Pharaoh resisted the promptings of God to let His people go. However it may be, we cannot ultimately understand the tension between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. It is something we can only say 'Amen' to.
2) THE SOURCE OF FAITH
The credit for faith lies not with the self but with God. In Ephesians 2:1,4 and 5 the Ephesians and the human race in its entirety is described as dead as a result of man's fall into sin. "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins. ... But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses..." Paul goes on to write of the remarkable thing which God did for people who were dead, namely, "... made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)". This Paul repeats in verse 8, namely, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God" Here it is said that faith is the gift of God. Therefore when I hear the preaching of God's Word and come to faith, it is only fitting for me to get on my knees and thank God for this great gift. He works faith. The cause of unbelief lies with the self, but the source of Faith is God. All credit for my faith goes to the Lord alone.
Article 1 paints a bleak picture of myself and the whole human race. After making this confession (in the face of the Arminians' positive concept of man), our fathers drew attention to God. God came to us, seeking to save us, even when we didn't want God. In order that we might be saved, God sent His Son (Article 2), and sends preachers to proclaim His Gospel of salvation (Article 3). There is a twofold response to this preaching, unbelief or faith (Article 4). Whereas unbelief is caused solely by man's unwillingness to believe (here is again the depravity of Article 1), the source of faith is God's free and gracious gift to His elect (Article 5). In Articles 2-5 the emphasis is on what God is doing. Such an emphasis is not merely characteristic of Reformed thinking, but it is fundamental to it; the focus needs to be on God. Because salvation and the means by which it is obtained, namely faith, are God's free gifts (to people who fell into sin by deliberate disobedience), all praise is to be directed to Him.
Furthermore, to know that God is busy gives a great sense of security. In Psalm 138:8 I read that the Lord brings to completion the work He has begun in me. "The LORD will perfect that which concerns me". God is busy in my life. God sends the preaching of His Word to me because He is completing the work of salvation He has begun in me. Salvation begins with God. He sent His Son. Salvation also continues with God: He sends preachers and thereby works faith in me. God also works my perseverance in faith and my ultimate glorification. All praise be to God!
We believe that God by an eternal and immutable decree has in Jesus Christ his Son determined before the foundation of the world to save out of the fallen, human race those in Christ, for Christ's sake, and through Christ who by the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe in this His Son Jesus Christ and persevere in this faith and obedience of faith to the end; and on the other hand to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath and condemn (them) as alienate from Christ - according to the word of the Holy Gospel in John 3:36, "He that believeth in the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him" and also other passages from the Scriptures.
We believe that in agreement with this, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all through the death of the cross; yet, so that no one actually enjoys the forgiveness of sins except the believer - also according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life". And in the first epistle of John 2:2, "And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
We believe that man does not have saving faith of himself nor by his power of his own free will, since he, in the state of apostasy and sin, cannot of and through himself think, will or do any good which is truly good (such as is especially saving faith); but that it is necessary that he be regenerated by God, in Christ, through His Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, affections and will, and all powers, in order that may rightly understand, meditate upon, will, and perform that which is truly good, according to the word of Christ in John 15:5, "Without me you can do nothing".
We believe that this grace of God is the commencement, progression, and completion of all good, also, in so far that the regenerate man cannot, apart from this prevenient or assisting awakening, consequent and co-operating grace, think, will or do the good or resist any temptations to evil, so that all good works or activities which can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many that they resisted the Holy Spirit, in Acts 7 and elsewhere in many places.
We believe that those who are incorporated into Jesus Christ and thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit have abundant strength to strive against Satan, sin, the world and their own flesh and to obtain the victory; it being well understood (that this is) through the assistance of the grace of the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus Christ assists them through His Spirit in all temptations, extends the hand, and - if only they are prepared for warfare and desire His help and are not negligent - keeps them standing, so that by no cunning or power of Satan can they be led astray or plucked out of Christ's hands, according to the word of Christ, John 10, "no one shall pluck them out of my hands".
But whether they can through negligence fall away from the first principle of their life in Christ, again embrace the present world, depart from the pure doctrine once given to them, lose the good conscience, and neglect grace, must first be more carefully determined from the Holy Scriptures before we shall be able to teach this with the full persuasion of our heart.
1) The Remonstrants
are the followers of Arminius