"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS CONVERSION TO GOD,
AND THE MANNER IN WHICH IT OCCURS
FAITH IS A GIFT OF GOD
On the basis of the confession that regeneration is a gift of God, a work of the Lord through the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God's people, Article 14 draws the conclusion that "faith is therefore a gift of God". Faith and regeneration alike are worked by God. Article 14 arrives at this conclusion because faith and regeneration cannot be separated. One can distinguish between the two but one cannot separate them. The person who has faith has been regenerated and the person who has been regenerated has faith. If regeneration, then, is a gift of God (as was confessed in previous articles), it follows that faith is also a gift of God.
That faith indeed is a gift of God is what Scripture teaches:
- Ephesians 2:8
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God."
Salvation comes through faith, says the apostle, and faith is God's gift.
- Philippians 1:29
"For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake."
Paul mentions two things that are given by God, and the one is "to believe in Him": faith.
So we also confess in LD 25.65, "Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all His benefits, where does this faith come from? From the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel...."
THE ARMINIAN POSITION: FAITH IS AN ACT OF MAN, BECAUSE MAN HAS A FREE WILL
The fathers confessed the material of Article 14 in reaction to what the Arminians were saying, namely,
"In the true conversion of man no new qualities, powers, or gifts can be infused by God into the will. Therefore faith, through which we are first converted and because of which we are called believers, is not a quality or gift infused by God but only an act of man. It cannot be said to be a gift, except with respect to the power to attain to this faith" (Rejection of Errors No. 6, Book of Praise, p. 562.)
Said the Arminians: faith is not God's gift; faith is man's doing. In view of the Arminian belief concerning the notion of the free will (see Figure 2, pg 49), it is not at all surprising that they concluded that faith is an act of man. The Arminians insist that man is not dead as a result of the fall into sin, but only sick, injured. Because man is not dead, man is able to make decisions; he has a free will. When God comes with the Gospel and offers faith to man, man is able to decide what to do with this offer - and God respects man's ability to choose.
To clarify further: the act of giving implies two steps: 1) giving, and 2) accepting and receiving. The person to whom something is given decides whether or not to accept or receive what is given. I may give to you a rose, but my act of giving does not at all guarantee that you will accept the rose and take it home. When God offers salvation, say the Arminians, I get to decide whether or not I will accept it. That is: I decide whether or not I will believe, have faith.
THE REFORMED POSITION: FAITH IS A GIFT OF GOD BECAUSE SCRIPTURE TEACHES THAT MAN IS DEAD IN SIN
- Ephesians 2:1-5
Paul wrote to the saints who were in Ephesus,
"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, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)."
One can offer to a dead person the nicest gifts of the world, but the dead person -for obvious reasons- will not accept what is offered. We are spiritually dead. When the Lord, then, offers salvation to us, we are not in a position to make a decision as to whether or not to accept it. Yet some believe. How come? Faith is not only a gift of God; faith is also worked in certain persons. That is: God does more than give faith, offer faith. He makes my heart willing to accept this faith. The giving and the receiving are both God's deeds.
- 1 Corinthians 12:3
"Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit."
The phrase "Jesus is Lord" is a profession of faith. The apostle is moved by the Holy Spirit to say that no one can make such a profession of faith unless the Holy Spirit works in one's heart. A profession of faith is, then, not my doing but the Lord's.
For that reason we pray to God at the conclusion of the celebration of Holy Supper, "We thank Thee that Thou givest us a true faith, through which we may share in such great benefits" (Book of Praise, page 602). God has freely given faith. It is not my doing. All thanks be to God that I believe.
CHRISTIAN ATTITUDE WITH RESPECT TO GOD'S UNDESERVED GRACE
To understand adequately what the attitude of the Christian should be in response to God's gift of faith, one first needs to appreciate that man is not at all deserving of these good gifts. "This grace God owes to no one," begins Article 15. Why doesn't God owe us anything? Why is God's grace grace? Why is man undeserving of God's grace? The answer is twofold:
1) "What do I have that I did not receive?" (1 Corinthians 4:7)
On the sixth day of Creation God collected the clay He needed to fashion Adam. Having fashioned him, God breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life. What did Adam have that he did not receive? The Garden of Eden perhaps, or his wife? No, all that Adam had was given to him, including life itself. Because God is the Creator and Adam but a creature, God doesn't owe Adam a single thing. Adam had no right to ask or demand anything of God.
The same is true for me. Where do I come from? I did not make myself, did not conceive myself or give birth to myself. I participated not a thing to my coming into existence. I am here because of what God did. My life, my breath, my very being, then, is given. This principle is true also of the various bits and pieces I may have collected for myself in the course of my life. God's very sovereignty means that I have amassed nothing that I did not receive. To use the words of Acts 17:28, "for in Him we live and move and have our being." God, then, does not owe me a thing. On the contrary, I am deeply indebted to Him.
2) God made me His child but I rejected and deserted Him.
Though God in mercy established His covenant of grace with the human race in Paradise (though God did not owe us this gift), we rejected God in the fall into sin. My rejection of God in Paradise makes me infinitely more indebted to God than I already was.
Does God, then, owe me anything? NO, for all that I deserve is damnation, not salvation. Says Article 15, "This grace God owes to no one. For what could He owe to man? Who has given Him first that He might be repaid? What could God owe to one who has nothing of his own but sin and falsehood?" I am totally undeserving. But this is the marvel: God freely gives!!!
THE CHRISTIAN'S ATTITUDE IS TO BE ONE OF HUMILITY AND THANKFULNESS
Fitting response to God's free giving is pointed up in Daniel's prayer to God in Babylon after the seventy years of exile are approaching their end. In Daniel 9:4-19 we read the prayer of a man who is humble. Says Daniel,
"And I prayed to the LORD my God, and made confession, and said, ... we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments. Neither have we heeded Your servants the prophets ... O Lord, righteousness belongs to You, but to us shame of face, as it is this day ... because we have sinned against You.... To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him. We have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His laws.... Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against Him."
Daniel in his situation, displays an attitude which acknowledges before God that he does not deserve a thing, except damnation. Daniel knows and portrays that anything he receives beyond damnation is by grace alone.
In His parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus held up the attitude of the tax collector as an example for His disciples to follow.
"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:13,14).
Such humility is a fitting attitude for me also, because daily I transgress the commandments of my God. In LD 23.60 I confess what I learn from Scripture, namely, that "my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil ...." God does not owe me grace. Here is room only for humility.
At the same time, this humility in the face of my unworthiness comes coupled with deep gratitude in the face of God's undeserved grace. For that is the exciting and delightful surprise of the gospel: God nevertheless gives grace, more, He gives grace to me! Paul, in acknowledgment of this great marvel, writes in his letter to Timothy, "And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (1 Timothy 1:12-15). Paul, like Daniel, is humble. He knows what he is: a sinner. That knowledge motivated Paul to thank Christ Jesus his Lord (vs 12).
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul expressed similar thankfulness for what God gave. He begins his letter (after the customary opening lines) with an outburst of hearty gratitude: "I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in every thing by Him in all utterance and all knowledge." Likewise in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul expresses his excitement and thankfulness on account of what God has done for the unworthy. Writes Paul, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 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, ... in Him we have redemption ... in Him we have obtained an inheritance ... Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers" (Ephesians 1).
The fathers gave expression to the grace they received with these words of their confession: "He, therefore, who receives this grace owes and renders eternal thanks to God." The Christian today, aware as he is of his own unworthiness, and aware also of God's boundless mercy to him in Jesus Christ, echoes in words and deeds the faith of the fathers. I am deeply thankful that the Lord God has not treated me according to what I deserve, but instead gave His Son for a wretch like me.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE PERSON WHO HAS NOT RECEIVED GOD'S UNDESERVED GRACE
What about those to whom God has not given grace? What is their attitude like? Said the fathers, "He who does not receive this grace, however, either does not care at all for these spiritual things and is pleased with what he has, or in false security vainly boasts that he has what he does not have." When speaking of persons who have not received this gift of God's grace in Christ Jesus we immediately tend to think of the people around us who don't worship with us in Church or people on the mission fields. However, the Lord has revealed in His Word that there are also those in the Church who have not received the grace of God. In Article 29, BC, we confess in the Church are hypocrites "who are mixed in the Church along with the good and yet are not part of the Church, although they are outwardly in it." We do well, then, as we consider "he who does not receive this grace," in first instance to look close to home.
Our Lord Jesus Christ wrote a letter to His Church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). The letter of Jesus to the church of the Laodiceans was addressed to 'the angel of the church of the Laodiceans'; i.e. to the minister of that Church, so that this letter could be read to the entire congregation. To people, then, who regularly sat in church and listened to the preaching of the Gospel, Jesus said the following: "These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: 'I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot'" (vs 14,15). It is a noteworthy and disturbing sentence. To people who did all the things expected of them, who sang along lustily in the church services, who read along in their Bibles, who listened to the preaching, who gave their money in the collections, who joined in prayer, Jesus says that they were "neither cold nor hot." That is: they were neither turned off by the faith (so that they didn't bother coming to church any more) nor fired up by the faith. Though God had given so much in Jesus Christ for undeserving sinners, these Christians of Laodicea did not get enthused at God's grace.
Jesus adds: "…you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' - and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked." The reference to riches and wealth was not meant in a financial sense, but spiritual. The Laodiceans considered themselves rich in the sense of, "look at what Christ has done for us!" But Christ tells them that though they think they are spiritually wealthy, they don't know how spiritually bankrupt they in reality are. Therefore Christ instructs them, "I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed ..." (Vs 18). Forget about the riches you think you have, Laodiceans, and come to Me. The Lamb offers the Laodiceans white garments washed in His blood; i.e. the forgiveness of sins. Christ offers this because these people, contrary to what they themselves think, are not forgiven of their sins. There was no faith; they were not born again, not regenerated. The Laodiceans were not enemies of the Cross in the sense that they were hostile to it, but they were not in love with the Cross either.
This letter to the Laodiceans has been included in the Bible for our instruction. In accordance with Article 29, BC, we confess that in the Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott there may very well be hypocrites. That we go to Church does not make us Christians in the full sense of the word; going to church is not a guarantee that we are regenerated. We may well say that we are rich, but that does not mean we have the riches of Christ. Yes, there can be those in the Church who have not received God's grace. They either live in the false security that they have received what they actually haven't got, or they don't care.
What does this mean for me? How can I know whether I have received the grace of God? The "Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper" (Book of Praise, p.595) exhorts us to examine ourselves. It describes the three parts that constitute true self-examination, these being identical in content to the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism namely, 1) Our Sin and Misery, 2) Our Deliverance, and 3) Our Thankfulness. "First, let everyone consider his sins and accursedness, so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God.... Second, let everyone search his heart whether he also believes the sure promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him.... Third, let everyone examine his conscience whether it is his sincere desire to show true thankfulness to God with his entire life...." Which sins are meant here? My general depravity? Yes, certainly. But not only my general depravity! I need to consider also my personal sins, the ones I committed today. God's wrath applies to all my specific sins. My act this afternoon of loosing my temper with my child and so lashing out at him in uncontrolled anger was sin. This sin, says the Form, I need to consider and repent of with humility. The sins of which David repented in Psalms 32 and 51 were very specific sins. Then (as the second aspect of self-examination would have me know), these specific sins, when confessed before God as sin, are forgiven. God freely grants forgiveness for specific sin of mine. This is an act of His undeserved grace. In response to Him not punishing me for all my specific sins, but having punished His Son on my behalf, I am deeply thankful to God, and show this thankfulness with my whole life.
Self-examination such as prescribed here is intended for every day of the Christian's life. Each day I consider my unworthiness before God, each day I confess the sins of the day, and each day I delight in the forgiveness God grants for those sins. Where such sorrow for sin and delight in forgiveness pervades my life, I need not fear that I am a hypocrite.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE CHRISTIAN TO THOSE WHO HAVE RECEIVED GOD'S UNDESERVED GRACE
"Further, about those who outwardly profess their faith and amend their lives we are to judge and speak in the most favourable way, according to the example of the apostles, for the inner recesses of the heart are unknown to us." This is a scriptural attitude, for the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 7:1 "Judge not, that you be not judged." It is not for me to say that God has given me a lot, and so look down my nose at another in disdain for how he uses what he has received. I may not have such an attitude because anything I have received is undeserved grace. Instead, if the other person, be he of the Church or not, says that he too is saved and complements his words with Christian conduct, then I am to accept that person as a fellow believer. My attitude is to demonstrate that I know myself undeserving of the abundance God has given, and so I accept the other in a spirit of humility. I am to "judge and speak in a most favourable way." It is not a Christian spirit to be condemning of the other.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE CHRISTIAN TO THOSE WHO HAVE NOT RECEIVED GOD'S UNDESERVED GRACE
"As for those who have not yet been called, we should pray for them to God, who calls into existence the things that do not exist. But we must by no means act haughtily towards them, as if we had distinguished ourselves." This statement in our Confession is lifted from the Scriptures. In 1 Timothy 2:1 Paul writes, "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men." The reason we are to pray for all men is this, "For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (vs 3,4). So, in thankfulness to God for what He gives me, I ask Him to cause His grace to come also upon those who haven't yet received His grace. I ask for God's grace towards those who still live in darkness, be they for those who may sit with us in Church or those in far off places whom we don't know. Exactly because I do not at all deserve the wonderful gift of faith God has given to me, I seek that gift also for others - who are as unworthy as I am.
However, I need to accompany such a prayer with deeds. For example, I do well to support or be involved in mission work, eager to see the Gospel spread to the ends of the earth. What motivates me to do so? It is my thankfulness to God for what He has given me. Further, my efforts to have the gospel come to others is a drive to live a life of thankfulness. In the words of Lord's Day 32, "that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ." Again, the way I live includes the way I speak with the other (evangelism), showing the other that I would like for him to have what I have. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify My Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).