"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS
CONVERSION TO GOD, AND THE
MANNER IN WHICH IT OCCURS
WHY SOME OF THE CALLED DO NOT COME
Although God's call for repentance to all people is an earnest call, not all who hear this call respond positively. Article 9 explains why it is that some people reject God's call.
In order to understand the material of this article, one first needs to appreciate that everybody remains responsible for responding to the Gospel in faith. It is true that by the fall into sin each member of the human race became dead in sin. Yet God continues to hold each person responsible for his actions; our fall into sin is in God's eyes not an excuse that gets us off the hook of our God-given responsibility. So, when God causes His Word to come to particular hearers so that they are called to repentance, He is serious about this call and He holds each person responsible for responding in faith. Therefore we read in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life". All are responsible to answer the call positively, and whoever does answer positively will certainly receive the promised life. God's call is always well-meant.
Why is it then that some respond differently than others? This is not because different people hear a different call. Nor is it because God's call is genuine to some and not to others. As our article states, the fault lies not with God, nor with the Word, nor with the work of Christ as proclaimed by the Word. "It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of the Christ offered by the gospel, nor of God, who calls through the gospel and who even confers various gifts upon them, that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not converted." Where does the fault lie then? Says Article 9, "The fault lies in themselves." The problem lies with man, with us. Our own self-inflicted deadness-in-sin is the cause for some not responding to the gospel in faith and obedience.
That the problem lies with the hearer is drawn out by the reference to Jesus' parable of the sower in Matthew 13. One kind of seed is sown, some falling by the wayside, some in stony places, some among the thorns and some on good ground. Though the seed falls in different places, it is the same seed. It is likewise with God's call of the gospel. All people hear the same call. In Church we all hear the same preaching. Yet people respond differently. The problem is not that the Word differs. Rather, the problem lies with the soil, i.e. the hearts of the hearers. The one person remains cold and indifferent when he hears the preaching; like the seed which falls on the path and is snatched away by the birds. Another person hears the Word with much initial enthusiasm, but this enthusiasm doesn't last for other cares of life receive priority; like the seed which falls among the stones, grows into a plant but soon withers and dies because its roots have not gone down deep enough.
Where the response to the call of the gospel is not one of faith, God holds the person responsible. One's circumstances will never excuse a negative response. Man's heart is at fault. Man is dead in sin by His own fault, and so by nature responds with rejection to the call of God's Word.
WHY OTHERS WHO ARE CALLED DO COME
If it is man's own fault if he does not come and is not converted when called through the ministry of the gospel, who must receive the credit when man does come and is converted? Says Article 10, "This is not to be ascribed to man.... It is to be ascribed to God." This emphatic statement was made in the context of what the Arminians taught. Said the Arminians: man is not totally dead in sin, but man is only sick, injured, and still has the capacity to cry out for help and to make decisions for himself (see Figure 2, page 49). Man is still capable of responding to God's call in whichever way he wills. The Arminians believed (in the words of Article 10) that the person who responds with faith to the call of the gospel "distinguish(es) himself by his free will above others who are furnished with equal or sufficient grace for faith or conversion." In other words, the 'better people' respond positively to God's call. However, the fathers rejected this. Said they: it is strictly God's doing alone, and this is pointed out by Bible passages such as:
- Romans 9:16
"So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy." Man can try all he wants to do it alone, but he cannot.
- Ephesians 2:8
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God."
Man's heart does not want to respond to God's call with faith. If God did not work faith in man's heart, man would not respond with faith.
If a positive response to God's call is God's work alone, then we owe God much praise. Said the fathers in their conclusion to Article 10, "All this (God) does that (men) may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvellous light, and may boast not of themselves but of the Lord, according to the testimony of the apostles in various places." As to this testimony of the apostles, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:31, "He who glories, let him glory in the LORD," and in Romans 11:36, "For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory for ever." To give God all the glory is exactly what the Arminians didn't want to do. They wanted man to receive some of this glory. But what can depraved, sinful man do to save himself? Man is totally dependent on the Lord for salvation. To the Lord alone be praise for the miracle of man's positive response of faith!
HOW GOD BRINGS ABOUT CONVERSION
In order for man to respond to God's call, the Arminians taught that God didn't have to instil anything new into man's heart, for all that man needed to make a response was already present in man. Said the Arminians, "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 this faith" (Rejection of Errors No 6 - Error, Book of Praise, p.562). This is consistent with their teaching that man did not become totally dead in sin after the fall into sin but merely sick, injured, still capable of making decisions and able to ask for help (see Figure 2, page 49). Fallen man still has the capacity to make a decision in favour of God. Little wonder then that the Arminians go on to say that nothing has to be added to man's will in order to make him believe. The fathers rejected this teaching of the Arminians as false. Said the fathers: man is dead, and a carcass simply doesn't respond no matter how long you preach to it.
How then can man, totally dead in sin, be saved? It can only be God's doing. God has elected certain persons from eternity. For the salvation of these persons, God ensures that a preacher is sent to them and that they hear the preaching. God in turn ensures also that, as a result of the preaching they hear, their hearts are changed (see Figure 1).
One can distinguish between two groups among the elect (see Figure 2). All the elect hear the Word, but some hear it first through the home, others first through the missionary. As it is, over the centuries so many of the elect have first heard the Word from Godly parents in the home. Those who first hear the Word this way are God's children by covenant, claimed by Him to be His in the covenant. In His care for these children of His, God has entrusted them to the care of believing parents, and given to the parents the instruction to teach their children (His children) Who their Father in heaven is (cf Deut 6:1-9, Ps 78, etc). The children in turn hear and normally respond with faith to the call to repent and believe. This is the norm. However, their are also other people whom God has chosen to life but who have not been entrusted to the care of believing parents. To reach these elect with the life-giving gospel, God has commanded the Church to send out missionaries to the ends of the earth (cf Matthew 28:19).
CONVERSION: THROUGH THE WORD AND THE SPIRIT
The Word does not work on its own, but together with the Holy Spirit. Better put: it is the Holy Spirit who works in the heart of the hearer through the Word. The reason why the Word does not work on its own is not because the word is of itself ineffective. It is rather because of the condition of the human heart. So dead in sin is the human heart that it does not and can not respond positively to the Word.
Consider Bill and Bob. If Bob cannot understand Bill, the problem could be that Bill is not speaking clearly. The problem could also be that Bob is deaf. As it is, there is no problem with the Word of God itself, as if it might in some way be unclear or not well-meant (see Article 9). Rather, the problem is with the hearer, for the fallen human race is dead, spiritually dead (Eph 2:1), and therefore very deaf. So the Holy Spirit needs to work through the Word to cause man to hear. That is: the Spirit uses the Word to reach into the heart of man to this dead heart is made able to hear what the Lord says. This close working relationship between the Spirit and the Word in the heart of the sinner is pointed out by the following passages from Scripture:
Paul, having exhorted the Ephesians to "put on the whole armour of God", (Ephesians 6:11) continues to say in verse 17, "And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God." The Word of God is the sword of the Spirit.
"For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joint and marrow…."
In the hands of the Holy Spirit, the Word becomes a powerful two-edged sword which pierces the heart petrified by sin. The Spirit breaks the heart so that it can respond to the Word which reaches into it.
"Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh".
The Holy Spirit removes the petrified heart, and replaces it with a heart of flesh.
"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them".
It is the work of the Spirit to reach into the heart of sin. The Spirit makes the person, dead in sin, undergo a 'heart transplant' as it were, replacing the stony, dead heart with a heart of flesh which responds to the Word.
Article 11 too, points out how the Spirit uses the Word to work faith. God "takes care that the gospel is preached to them, and powerfully enlightens (the minds of the elect) by the Holy Spirit, so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God." The Spirit penetrates the heart of man in order to make it receptive to the Word. "By the efficacious (=effective) working of the same regenerating Spirit He also penetrates into the innermost recesses of man. He opens the closed and softens the hard heart, circumcises that which was uncircumcised, and instils new qualities into the will." Contrary to what the Arminians claimed, new qualities and powers MUST be infused by God into the will in order for conversion to occur.
THE EFFECTS OF THE OUTPOURING OF THE SPIRIT AT PENTECOST
Christ spent all of three years preaching the Gospel in Palestine, and one reads of many followers. However, by the end of His life, how many were still dedicated to Him? In Herod's courtyard the masses cried out their rejection of this Jesus of Nazareth by their loud calls to "crucify Him, crucify Him!" His disciples too did not stay by Him. One, betrayed Him, another denied Him, the rest fled. All that was left of Jesus' following was some women who came to the cross. Given such dismal numbers, one is much inclined to speak of Jesus' ministry being a failure…. But see, after the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, we read of 3000 people being converted in one hit (Acts 2:41). Here is pointed up the effective working of the Holy Spirit; hearts hardened by sin were broken open. It happened as Jesus prophesied during the course of His ministry:
- John 14:26
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you."
- John 15:26
"But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me." The Helper Jesus spoke of is the Holy Spirit.
- John 16:13
"However, when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth...."
The Spirit works in the hearts of people and so changes people. That explains a text such as Acts 16:14, where Paul writes, "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." Of her own strength Lydia could not respond to the preaching.
The Word cannot be believed without the Holy Spirit's work of transformation of the human heart. Therefore Article 11 concludes, "(The Holy Spirit) makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing; and which was stubborn, obedient. He moves and strengthens it so that, like a good tree, it may be able to produce the fruit of good works."
Just how radical a change the Holy Spirit works in the heart of sinful man is pointed up by passages of Scripture as the following:
- 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
In 1 Corinthians 1:2 we read that Paul addresses this letter to "the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints." To these persons, now, Paul writes, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God."
Said Paul to the saints at Corinth, "and such were some of you". Note the past tense: not 'are' some of you, but 'were' some of you. No longer are they fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, etc. By the Spirit of God they were washed, radically changed, so that what they used to be they no longer are.
- Ephesians 5:8-10
Said Paul to the Ephesians, "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), proving what is acceptable to the Lord." The saints at Ephesus too had been changed and so were to show this in their conduct. To use the words of Article 11, "He makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good ..." The change worked by the Spirit in the heart of depraved man is real and it is radical.
- Romans 7:18
Paul writes of the Christian, the person changed by the Spirit, "... for to will is present with me..." I can will to do the will of God; the drive to do so is there. The very same Paul who once went out collecting court orders in order to imprison Christians now says that he wants to do good. This is a radical change worked in Paul's heart by the Holy Spirit. Certainly, it is not a total change, so that Paul can carry out God's will perfectly. Not at all; "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God" (HC, LD 44, Q&A 113, 114).
Such is the effect of the Spirit's work in my heart. He changed me so radically, that in spite of once having a dead, petrified heart, incapable even of desiring to doing God's will (let alone doing it), I now want to do His will.
THE DIVINE CHARACTER OF REGENERATION
Whereas Article 11 focused on the role of the Holy Spirit in the work of conversion (He changes the hearts of people), Article 12 focuses on the conversion itself. Concerning this conversion, our article gives a list of terms that mean the same thing taken from various places of Scripture. Some examples of the terms are given in Table 1.
CONVERSION: THE WORK OF GOD OR OF MAN?
The Lord used the word 'born again' when He spoke of conversion (John 3:5). As man has no involvement at all in his birth, so many has no involvement either in his rebirth, ie, his conversion. As man can generate himself, so many cannot re-generate himself. As Adam did not contribute at al to his creation (he didn't, for example, collect the dust for God to assemble him), so Adam after the fall could not contribute to his re-creation. As Lazarus could contribute nothing to his physical resurrection from the dead, so he could contribute nothing to his spiritual resurrection from the dead. The very terms Scripture uses to describe conversion rule out any involvement from man himself in that conversion; his contribution to conversion is nil. We do not recreate ourselves, regenerate ourselves, or raise ourselves from our spiritual death. Our conversion is exclusively God's work.
The first part of Article 12 emphasises that it is God who is busy in the work of man's conversion. The fathers saw the need for such emphasis because of the teaching of the Arminians who said, "Grace and free will are partial causes which together work the beginning of conversion. In the order of these causes grace does not precede the working of the will. God does not efficiently help the will of man unto conversion until the will of man moves itself and determines to do this" (Rejection of Errors No 9 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 564). Quite clearly, the Arminians said that Yes, man can and man does contribute to his conversion. God's grace and man's free will are both "partial causes" leading to conversion. The fathers however, on the basis of the following Scripture passages, pointed out the error of the Arminian teaching. Man's conversion is exclusively the work of God:
"So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy."
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God."
WHO NEEDS TO BE BORN AGAIN?
Having been raised in the Church does not exempt anyone from needing to be born again. We all need to be born again if we wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Jesus did not say this to a heathen, but to Nicodemus - a child of the covenant as any of us, a man 'raised in the Church', yes, even "a teacher in Israel", a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a man who knew his Bible (see John 3). To him Jesus said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again." If a man of Nicodemus' standing and pedigree had to be born again, I certainly too need to be born again!
Automatically we go on to ask, "Am I born again?" and if so, "When did it happen?" One hears repeatedly of the need to have a 'conversion story' - like Paul had on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). However, experiences as Paul had are not the norm for how conversion takes place in all people's lives. Adam came into being as a mature adult, for God called him into existence in a moment. Yet none of us expects the rest of the human race to come into existence in the same way. For we all understand that Adam's creation is not the norm for the way people come into existence. The norm is that people come into existence by a process involving a vague conception (who can tell when that occurs, or even how?), a period of hidden growth in the womb, an eventual birth, and more growth before one becomes the adult Adam was. That Paul was converted instantly and that he could recall his conversion was not the norm. Faith is a process, a growth that takes years. As none of us can recall the moment of our conception or birth, and yet we are convinced it happened, so it may well be that we cannot recall the moment we began to believe or were born again - and yet we can be convinced it happened.
CONVERSION: A SUPERNATURAL AND POWERFUL WORK OF GOD
"But this regeneration is by no means brought about only by outward preaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a mode of operation that, after God has done His part, it remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not regenerated, converted or not converted." This is a direct reference to what the Arminians taught, namely that "The grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle advising" (Rejection of Errors No 7 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 562). According to the Arminians, God's role in man's conversion is no more than a kind whisper that he has something better to offer us than the competition (ie, Satan) can offer. That advise, say the Arminians, is grace. They go on to say, "This manner of working which consists in advising is the most noble manner in the conversion of man and is most in harmony with man's nature." In other words, man is a 'somebody' and would be offended if God compelled him to believe. Remember that according to the Arminians man is not dead but sick. God is portrayed as a 'gentleman' who knows better than to exercise force on us; rather, God advises us. "There is no reason why this advising grace alone should not be sufficient to make the natural man spiritual. Indeed, God does not bring about the consent of the will except through this moral suasion. The power of the divine working surpasses the working of Satan, in that God promises eternal while Satan promises only temporal goods." In other words, Satan also whispers in our ear, but we have enough wherewithal to decide that God's offer is better than Satan's offer.
The fathers could not accept the Arminian stance that God gently advises man, for that is an injustice to God and His Word. Regeneration is God working in a supernatural manner in a heart which is dead in sin. "It is ... clearly a supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious, and inexpressible work. According to Scripture, inspired by the Author of this work, regeneration is not inferior in power to creation or the resurrection of the dead." Paul, in Ephesians 1:19,20 speaks of God's mighty power at work in us who believe, the same power which He used to raise Christ from death. God works mightily with mighty power and as a result of this we believe.
REGENERATION IS INCOMPREHENSIBLE
Articles 11 and 12 have certainly not answered all our questions concerning our conversion. In Article 13 the fathers wish to point out that believers in this life "cannot fully understand the way in which God does this work." Can you explain God's work of Genesis 1, namely that God simply called into being the light, plants, and animals? It is beyond my understanding and explanation. Can you explain that Christ was able to raise Lazarus to life after he had lain dead in the tomb for four days? I can't. Creation and resurrection are concepts we cannot understand, not because they defy reason, but because our minds are finite - and sinful too. Concepts as creation and recreation extend beyond our understanding. God's ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8f).
However, that does not mean that conversion is beyond belief. A little child may ask how a motor runs, and his father may tell the child also, but the child will not understand - not because the concept is too difficult but because the child is but a child. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has told us that every Christian is reborn. I might not understand how my rebirth came about, in fact, I do not understand it. But I accept the Word of my God, and so believe that Yes, a sinner can be born again, I can be born again, I am born again. I believe: the God Who created the world and man, Who raised Lazarus from death, has also changed my heart by His Spirit and Word.
I believe it. And because I believe it, I also experience the effect of His work of conversion in my life.