"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT Rev. C. Bouwman
DIVINE ELECTION AND REPROBATION
GOD'S ETERNAL DECREE
In articles 1-5 God's deeds stand in the foreground. See Table 1. It was God who sent a Saviour to the lost, and it is God who lets His Word be preached to the lost and works faith in the lost. Article 6 tells us now that all these deeds are rooted in God's decree.
Scripture portrays this decree as being reflective of God's sovereignty. This decree of God is comprehensive, whereby God has determined all that is going to happen. In Genesis 45:5 Joseph confesses God's sovereignty when he says to his brothers, "But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life". Joseph was aware of the fact that his brothers had put him in a pit and sold him to the Midianites. Yet Joseph says that it was God who did it because it is God's sovereignty which controls all things, including jealousies between brothers and trade at the slave market.
Similarly, God says via the prophet Isaiah about Assyria (the world power of the day) and king Sennacherib, "Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger and the staff in whose hand is my indignation. I will send him against an ungodly nation, and against the people of my wrath I will give him charge, to seize the spoil, to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. Yet he does not mean so, nor does his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy, and cut off not a few nations" (Isaiah 10:5-7). Sennacherib and his army were but tools in God's sovereign hands to do only what He determined for them to do. Though God's sovereignty would have received no mention in the news reports of Sennacherib's day, just as it receives no mention today either in news reports concerning world leaders such as President Clinton, according to Scripture all kings and rulers of this world are merely tools in the hands of sovereign God.
Again, in Acts 2:22,23 the apostle Paul says to the Jews concerning Jesus, "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know - Him, being delivered by the carefully planned intention and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death". God had determined that the Jews would crucify Jesus. The Jews were instruments in God's hands.
If God, then, has decreed what happens on the slave market and in world politics, if He has decreed rejections and crucifixions, shall He then not determine who will be saved? The fact that God is sovereign means that it is God who determines who shall be saved. If I insist that my salvation is up to me, then I undermine the notion of God' sovereignty. With the words of Lord's Day 10, HC, I confess that I understand concerning God's sovereignty or "providence" the following:
"God's providence is His almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, heath and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed all things, come not by chance but by His fatherly hand. ... All things are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move".
If this is what I confess concerning both the big and the little things in life, I must by extension confess too that matters of faith and salvation come by God's fatherly hand. Conversely, if I challenge that salvation is a matter of God's decree, then I effectively challenge the correctness of believing that God is sovereign in the big and little things of life today. To dispute what the Church confesses in the Canons of Dort about the decree of God is at bottom to rattle also what the Church confesses about the sovereignty of God in LD 10.
That God has determined who will be saved is taught in Scripture in passages as Ephesians 1:11. The apostle is moved by the Holy Spirit to write, "in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will". Here it is emphasised that salvation is a matter of God's will, God's decree. God established this decree already before the creation of the world, says verse 4: "just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…." God, then, had determined before creation which lost sinners He would take back to His side. Yes, He had His eye on me already before creation, and determined that I should be saved! Article 6 echoes the words of Ephesians 1:11 when it confesses, "That God in time confers the gift of faith on some, and not on others, proceeds from His eternal decree". God has determined whom He would save and He causes this decree to happen in this world, in this society. On the basis of His decree He softens the hearts of some but leaves others. Says Article 6, "According to this decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, no matter how hard they may be, and inclines them to believe; those not elected, however, He leaves in their own wickedness and hardness by a just judgment". How God does this softening or leaving is not explained in our article, but comes back in later articles. The focus of Article 6 is God's decree, specifically the fact that God causes His decree to unfold. The unfolding of God's decree is also an element of God's sovereignty. That some come to faith (softening of hearts) but others not (hardening of hearts) is evidence of God at work.
The knowledge that God is busy makes predestination and election an exciting concept. To use the words of Article 6, "... it provides unspeakable comfort for holy and God-fearing souls". GOD is busy! Long ago He determined whom He would save and right now HE is busy carrying out perfectly the plan He determined long ago. More, by so doing God is working out my salvation. That indeed provides "unspeakable comfort."
One can speculate much concerning the doctrine of election and reprobation. However, we do well to realise that it is not a doctrine revealed to us to merely to occupy our minds, but rather to comfort our souls. That God works for our salvation must always be the focus of our discussions concerning this doctrine.
The definition presented in the first sentence of Article 7 can be summarised as follows, "Election is the unchangeable purpose of God whereby ... He has ... chosen in Christ to salvation a definite number of persons ..."
After the fall into sin all men were by nature children of Satan. However, already before He created people, God had determined by an unchangeable purpose to save in Christ a definite number of persons. Not all, but only some would be saved. It was not a changeable number of people, nor were the names of those to be saved changeable; rather, God chose a definite number and was definite in His choice of who would be saved.
Article 7 speaks of people who are "chosen" in Christ. God sent Christ to earth in order to pay for our sins. Although we deserved God's wrath on account of our transgressions, God transferred His wrath to Christ and so Christ payed for our sins. It is because Christ did this for us that we are included in Christ, and are taken back to God's side. In Christ we are justified and declared righteous. The only possible way of return to God's side is through Christ. "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:11). Christ is the only foundation for salvation. Speaking of Jesus Christ, Peter said to the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:12, "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved". There is no salvation in Buddha or in good works, but only through Christ can one be saved. Therefore election is in Christ, "just as He (God) chose us in Him (Christ) ..." (Ephesians 1:4). This is the emphasis of Article 7. "He has also from eternity appointed Christ to be the Mediator and Head of all the elect and the foundation of salvation and thus He decreed to give to Christ those who were to be saved..." Not only has God decreed from eternity whom He would save, but also that He would do so in Christ. Christ's task was to save those the Father gave to Him: the elect. That God sent Christ into the world, then, was a necessary step in God's executing His decree to save His chosen. Take Christ away from God's saving work, and God's election collapses into wishful thinking.
Article 7 is lengthy, and provides much material for further comment. However, much of what is confessed in Article 7 receives elaboration in the following articles.
ONE DECREE OF ELECTION
Article 8 confesses "one and the same decree concerning all those that are to be saved under both the Old and the New Testament". Our fathers saw need for devoting an article to this because the Arminians believed in "various decrees of ... election". The Arminians insisted on God having made multiple decisions or decrees, and hence they speak of various sorts of election.
THE ARMINIAN ERROR OF MULTIPLE DECREES OF ELECTION
The Arminians believe that God, before the foundation of the world made a decree of election. This was not one simple decree, said the Arminians (see "Rejection of Errors" No 2 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 540). Rather, "there are various kinds of divine election to eternal life". They spoke of two main kinds of election, namely, General or Indefinite Election and Particular or Definite Election. The second, Particular or Definite Election, was in turn subdivided into incomplete, revocable, non-decisive and conditional election or complete, irrevocable, decisive and absolute election. See Figure 2.
a. General or Indefinite Election
God's eternal decree of election was not concerned with which persons He would save (said the Arminians in their error), but which conditions people had to meet in order to be saved from Satan's side and be taken back to God. Of all possible conditions (e.g. good works, qualifications, monetary payment) God, in His sovereign good pleasure, determined that this condition would be faith. The Arminians made conditions rather than people the object of God's elective decree. God determined to save only those persons who had faith.
b. Particular or Definite Election
Whether a person's election is incomplete or complete, revocable or irrevocable, etc. depends on the person. Said the Arminians: God, before the foundation of the world, having determined that faith was the criterion for election, looked into the future and saw who would have faith. Those whom God saw would decide to believe, God decided to elect. This is election on the basis of "foreseen faith". Those who would meet the condition of faith were elected and were written into God's book.
However, some people only meet the condition of faith temporarily; they end up rejecting the Lord in the course of their lives. In that case one still speaks of an election, but it was an election which was incomplete, revocable (i.e. it was rescinded, cancelled), non-decisive, conditional. On the other hand there are those who persevere in faith till they die. As far as these people are concerned one can speak of an election that was seen through to its completion, it was irrevocable, decisive, absolute. Faith and perseverance in faith determine one's election.
It is clear that the Arminian concept of election has no room for the sovereignty of God. Whether one's election was complete or incomplete, according to Arminian reasoning, all hinges on man's perseverance in faith. Since it is man's decision whether or not he'll persevere in faith, it is consequently man's decision whether or not he will be saved. Either way, God's sovereignty is cast aside as irrelevant when it comes to the point of who will be saved. God's sovereignty only comes into play in the general / indefinite election, when God determined that having faith was the condition for salvation. However, when it comes to particular / definite election, i.e. who will be saved, God merely waits on man. God's action of filling in names in His book before the foundation of the world is done on the basis of what God sees ahead of time that man will do. According to such reasoning man's actions become the basis of election.
REFUTATION OF ARMINIAN ERROR
Our fathers attacked this Arminian heresy on the basis of what Scripture says. The Synod of Dort refuted it as "an invention of the human mind without any basis in the Scriptures" (See "Rejection of Errors" No. 2 - Refutation, Book of Praise, p. 540). Quoting from Romans 8:30 where we read, "Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified", our fathers wished to make clear that all things begin and end with God and hence too election and faith - in that order. The apostle Paul was insistent that when God elected someone, that person, in the course of time, due to God having sent preachers to his doorstep, makes definite his calling to faith. Those whom God has called, says Paul, God justified (justification = being declared righteous before God for Jesus' sake). In full confidence of God completing the works He has begun, Paul goes on to say, in the past tense, that those whom God has justified He has also glorified, even though this glorification is not due to happen until Christ comes back. If God has begun a work, election, then He will also bring it to completion. "The LORD will perfect that which concerns me; Your mercy O LORD endures for ever; Do not forsake the works of Your hands" (Psalm 138:8). It all comes back to God' sovereignty. God does what He says He will do. God is not the 'wimp' the Arminians made Him out to be through their beliefs concerning election, reducing God to someone who can only do what man lets Him do.
When God elected a definite number of persons, He did this for a purpose. As we read in Ephesians 1:4,5, "just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will". God's purpose in electing us was up in the air, indefinite, but fixed, certain: we would be holy. Will not God, being the sovereign God He is, attain what He has set out to attain? God has ONE decree of election, and God brings to completion whatever He has decreed to do.
ELECTION NOT BASED ON FORESEEN FAITH
The Arminians said "incomplete and non-decisive election of specific persons to salvation took place on the ground of foreseen faith, conversion, holiness, and godliness, which either began or continued for some. Complete and decisive election, however, occurred because of foreseen perseverance in faith, conversion, holiness and godliness to the end" (See "Rejection of Errors" No. 5 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 542). In other words, to be elected, one needs to have certain qualities. One needs to decide to come to faith (even though one might only have faith temporarily and consequently only be indecisively elected) and one needs to persevere in faith (and consequently be decisively elected).
Wishing to point out the error of the Arminian position, the fathers at the Synod of Dort quoted several texts from Scripture to show that election comes first and faith second. In Acts 13:48 we read, "And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed". This text places the appointment to life eternal be fore the decision to believe, not after. First God needs to ordain us to life and only then can we have faith. In Ephesians 1:4 we read that we are not elected because we are holy, but so that we would be holy. Hence Article 9, last sentence, quotes this text as follows, "He chose us (not because we were, but) that we should be holy and blameless before Him". We are not elected because we have faith but so that we have faith. Once again, it is a matter of whether I see election as being dependent on me or on God. Scripture insists that we believe because God has first elected.
ELECTION BASED ON GOD'S GOOD PLEASURE
Why does God choose certain persons? Having confessed in Article 9 that the cause of our election is not faith or holiness on our part, Article 10 confesses that the cause of our election is God's good pleasure. To say it plain English: God elected certain persons and left others because He "felt like it". In Ephesians 1:5 we read, "having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will". God did not look for people who were the most handsome, the richest, or the most civilised, but He simply chose according to His good pleasure. Article 10 quotes what we read in Romans 9:11-13, where God declared His intentions concerning Jacob and Esau even when they were still both in their mother's womb and had not yet done anything. "(For the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to (Rebekah), "The older shall serve the younger". As it is written, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated". Why did God choose Jacob and not Esau? Scripture simply tells us that it was because God wanted to do so.
This notion must make a person humble, for it leads to the personal question of 'why have I made profession of faith?' It had nothing to do with me but it had everything to do with what the Lord was pleased to do to me and in me. He dealt with me according to His decree concerning me so long ago. This is humbling. I am no better than my neighbour. The point is that God has worked in me, according to His eternal decree. He does so not because of me but in spite of me.
Thankfully we may confess that Scripture teaches God's unchangeable decree of election. According to the Arminians, God could change His mind in accordance with how man changed. However, this takes away all comfort, for it negates what God has revealed concerning Himself in Psalm 102:25-28, namely, "Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will endure; yes all of them will grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will change them, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and Your years will have no end. The children of Your servants will continue, and their descendants will be established before You". Since God Himself is unchanging, His decrees which He made before the foundation of the world also stand fixed and unchangeable. Were it possible that God's decrees could change, what security and comfort would I have? God spoke and decreed that I am His. Due to that decree He sent His Son to die for my sins, and sent me preachers of His Word so that I might come to faith. Will God, having done all that for me, then drop me?? Will God change His mind concerning me? No matter how great and numerous my sins might be, even if they are greater and more numerous than David's sins, God does not and will not change.
Knowing that my God is dependable always and in all things, also in His decree of election, I may live securely and with comfort. Said Jesus concerning the elect whom the Father gave Him, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me ..." (John 6:37) and "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and My Father are one" (John 10:27-30). These texts do not speak of probabilities but of certainties, because it is God who has decreed from eternity that they shall happen.