"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Chapter five of the Canons of Dort defends the Reformed doctrine concerning the perseverance of the saints over against the Arminian heresy as taught in Article 5 of the Remonstrants. Their fifth article reads as follows (see page 6 of these Notes for the entirety of the Five Articles of the Remonstrants):
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 Scripture before we shall be able to teach this with the full persuasion of our heart.
By means of the above article, the Arminians tried to answer this question: Can a person redeemed by Christ resist and triumph over the attacks of Satan, sin, the world and his own flesh? The Arminians believed that a person could withstand these attacks provided he work with the assistance given by God. Note well that according to Arminian reasoning the triumph over attack depends on what man does with the resources made available to him. See Figure 1.
The fathers sought to determine from Scripture whether it was indeed true that a redeemed person, using the assistance provided, is capable of withstanding attack. Scripture revealed to them the error of such reasoning and so the fathers set out to respond to this error of the Arminians in Chapter 5.
This error of the Arminians is echoed by the fathers in their list of Rejected Errors attached to Chapter V of the Canons of Dort (Book of Praise, p.570). The fathers summarised this error like this: "The perseverance of the true believer is not a fruit of election or a gift of God obtained by the death of Christ. It is a condition of the new covenant, which man before his so-called decisive election and justification must fulfil through his free will" (Rejection of Errors No 1.) Again: "God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere, and is ready to preserve these in him if he will do his duty. But though all these things have been established which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God will use to preserve faith, even then it still always depends on the decision of the will whether he will persevere or not" (Rejection of Errors No 2 - Error, Book of Praise, p.571). It all depends on the believer, say the Arminians. Granted, God gives the strength and the means required, but it all depends on whether or not the believer "will do his duty." For the Arminian the free will of man is the hinge on which everything turns if one is to persevere in reaching the goal of perfection.
THE REGENERATE NOT FREE FROM INDWELLING SIN
In response to the Arminians denying that the believer's perseverance is a fruit of election or a gift of God the fathers, by means of Article 1, pointed out how the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints actually builds on the doctrine of election, redemption and regeneration; i.e. the material of Chapters I, II, III/IV respectively. Therefore Article 1 commences with an appeal to each of these actions of God in the life of the believer. "Those whom God according to His purpose calls into the fellowship of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by His Holy Spirit ...." God applies to the elect, those called by Him from eternity, Christ's work of redemption and the Holy Spirit's work of regeneration. See Table 1.
Those elect "He certainly sets free...." Whereas the Arminians made man the focus, speaking of perseverance in terms of man accepting and working with the assistance God offers in the face of attack, the fathers put the emphasis on God; God is the driving force in the life of the believer. It is God who calls the believer from eternity, God who joins the believer to Christ in order that he may be saved by Christ's blood, and it is God who regenerates the believer by His Holy Spirit. But God's work does not stop there. He also sets the believer free "from the dominion and slavery of sin."
FREED FROM THE DOMINION AND SLAVERY OF SIN
To confess that God has set us free from the dominion and slavery of sin is to confess that one time we did live under the dominion of sin and so were slaves to sin. This is what Scripture teaches:
- John 8:33.
Jesus had said to the Jews that the truth would set them free (vs 32). "They answered Him, "We are Abraham's descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, 'You will be made free'? Jesus answered them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin." One may say what one will of the Jews' failure to remember how their ancestors had once been in bondage to the Egyptians and the Babylonians, and how they were currently subjects of the Roman Empire. That aside, Jesus insists that every last person on earth is in bondage and needs to be set free for all are sinners and so all are in bondage to sin.
When God created man, man served God freely. However, man fell into sin and so no longer served God, but the Devil. Man gave himself up to bondage to Satan; made himself a slave to sin. Therefore all men, by nature, are slaves to sin. God then came to man with His plan of redemption in order to redeem His elect. (Genesis 3:15). God sent His Son to set man free from sin, free from slavery.
Jesus continued by saying to the Jews, "Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed." That is exactly what we confess the Son to have done. With the words of the LD 13.34, we call the Son of God our Lord "because He has ransomed us, body and soul, from all our sins, not with silver or gold but with His precious blood, and has freed us from all the power of the devil to make us His own possession." Freed from the devil's power, we are no longer slaves to sin. See further I Peter 1:18,19; Col 1:13,14.
- John 8:36
- Romans 6:17,18
"But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness."
The apostle speaks here of believers who were changed from being slaves of sin to slaves of righteousness. Though the word 'slave' has negative connotations, to be a slave of righteousness means to be free in the biblical sense of the word. It means to be free to serve God once again according to the purpose for which we were created, and the believer can serve God again because he has been freed from slavery to Satan and sin. Therefore the apostle can say in verse 14, "For sin shall not have dominion over you ...." This is not a promise of what will happen in the future on the day of Christ's return, but it is a present reality in the life of the believer. The believer has been set free and so sin does not master or have dominion over the believer.
The words 'slaves' and 'deliverance' bring to mind Israel's position in and deliverance from Egypt. In Egypt the Israelites were slaves in every sense of the word, groaning under the burden of hard labour. However, the Lord took them out of Egypt, set them free, redeemed them. On the other side of the Red Sea, the Israelites were free; they experienced their deliverance from Egypt as something real. In Romans 6 the apostle speaks of our deliverance from bondage to sin as being equally real. Drowned in the Red Sea, Pharaoh no longer had dominion over Israel. Likewise, sin shall no more have dominion over us.
It remains true that the believer is still subject to the attacks of sin, but sin is no longer a powerful overlord or master over the believer. God has called the believer (election - Chapter I), joined him to Christ (redemption - Chapter II), and regenerated him by His Holy Spirit - Chapter III/IV. Therefore, the attacks of sin are no longer the believer's master for God has set the believer "free from the dominion and slavery of sin." Christ's triumph over sin and Satan are real. That is not to say that there is no sin any more, but sin is no longer my master. That means that sin, or giving into temptation, is not inevitable any more. Freed from Satan, the need to give in to sin has been removed.
FREED ... BUT NOT ENTIRELY
The elect "(God) certainly sets free from the dominion and slavery of sin, but not entirely in this life from the flesh and from the body of sin." We have not yet been made perfect, as we learn from the following Scripture passages:
- Romans 7:14-25
Having said in chapter 6 that he and the saints of Rome had been set free from sin and were therefore no longer slaves to sin, the apostle nevertheless goes on to say in chapter 7 .".. but I am carnal, sold under sin." 'Carnal' means flesh, and it applies to Paul, to the saints of Rome, and to me: we are sinful and weak. "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do." The apostle gives voice to the frustration of the Christian freed from the dominion of sin; determined as one might be not to sin again, sin remains a reality. I cannot do what I will to do. "But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me." Sin remains an enemy for me to contend with, for I am not yet perfect. In verse 23 the apostle goes on to speak of the war which the Christian wages within himself: "But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." Therefore Paul cries out, "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" Thankful that deliverance from the dominion of this "body of death" has already been secured by Christ, Paul cries out, "I thank God - through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (vs 24).
- 1 John 1:8
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
Although the power of sin is broken, we are by no means above sin.
- James 3:2
"For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body."
These are the words of an apostle, a man we regard as a holy man, the Lord's mouth piece, inspired to write an epistle. He includes himself when he writes that we all stumble. James illustrates this by reminding us how prone we are to stumble by the things we say. "No man can tame the tongue" (vs 8).
This is the material confessed in the Heidelberg Catechism. "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience", we confess in LD 44.114. Sin remains in us. Therefore Jesus taught us to pray the sixth petition, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one." By this petition we confess that "In ourselves we are so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment. Moreover, our sworn enemies - the devil, the world and our own flesh - do not cease to attack us" (LD 52.127). That Satan is defeated is a glorious gospel I may embrace. Yet, at the same time, I confess that sin remains in me and so I am weak, unable to handle Satan's attacks on my own. "I cannot stand even for a moment."
In the life of the believer there are two realities with regard to sin. God says in His Word that Christ has conquered Satan and so has also defeated sin, and God also teaches that in this life I remain weak and vulnerable in the face of sin. The Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper acknowledges this ongoing struggle against sin in the life of the believer. It exhorts those who are guilty of any of the sins listed, to refrain from coming to the Lord's table. These are sins which do not leave any Christian life untainted. However, the form continues,
"But all this, brothers and sisters, is not meant to discourage broken and contrite hearts, as if only those who are without sin may come to the table of the Lord. For we do not come to this supper to declare that we are perfect and righteous in ourselves. On the contrary, we seek our life outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ and, in doing so, we acknowledge that we are dead in ourselves. We also are aware of our many sins and shortcomings. We do not have perfect faith and we do not serve God with such zeal as He requires. Daily we have to contend with the weakness of our faith and with the evil desires of our flesh" (Book of Praise, p.596).
Both David, a man after God's own heart, and Peter, an apostle, were children of God: i.e. they had been set free from the dominion of Satan and sin. In spite of this reality, they both fell into sin. Though I am a child of God, I too experience the daily struggle against sin, for I am not yet "entirely in this life (set free) from the flesh and from the body of sin."
DAILY SINS OF WEAKNESS
"Therefore daily sins of weakness spring up and defects cling to even the best works of the saints." Following on from Article 1, the fathers wrote this on the basis of the following Scripture texts:
- Isaiah 64:6
The prophet Isaiah was moved by the Holy Spirit to say, "But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away."
If even our "righteousnesses", our best works, are defiled by sin, then let alone all our other works! This is echoed by LD 24.62: "But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it? Because the righteousness which can stand before God's judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God, whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin."
- Philippians 3:12
"Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me."
Paul, that apostle of such stature, acknowledges that he is not yet perfected, for many weaknesses remain in him.
Beside the references to LD 44 and 52 mentioned above, we confess our continuing imperfection also in LD 21.56: "What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins? I believe that God, because of Christ's satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, nor my sinful nature, against which I have to struggle all my life ...." That is the life of the Christian: no triumph, but a daily struggle against my sinful nature. Although God freed me from my sinful nature, He left me with my sinful nature. Sin still remains in me, and so I must constantly battle to resist sin; constantly strive to do what the Lord wants rather than what I want. Not only does "my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments, (and that I) have never kept any of them, (but it also accuses me that I) am still inclined to all evil." My inclination to evil is an ever present reality in my life. I am weak, with many shortcomings remaining within me, and so I do not have the wherewithal within myself to resist Satan.
DAILY SINS: A CONSTANT REASON FOR HUMBLENESS BEFORE GOD
If that is the life of the Christian, that even though God has freed me from the dominion of Satan I "am still inclined to all evil", then all reason for pride and boastfulness about what God has made me is removed. Although my sinful nature may incline me to feel proud, the fact that God has not yet perfected me gives much reason for me to remain humble. Therefore I must also steer clear of spiritual arrogance, by which I think myself capable of standing firm in the face of temptations to sin. As the fathers wrote in Article 2, daily sins are for the saints "a constant reason to humble themselves before God." Humbleness is the only attitude befitting the chid of God. Although Satan has been defeated and although I have received much in Christ, my daily sins compel me to flee to Christ with a broken heart. In the face of my daily sins I need to cry out to the Lord to give me strength to resist sin, and to forgive me in mercy when I fall into sin.
Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, in speaking of the marks of the Christian, also portrays the Christian as a person who is conscious of his need to fight against the sin that remains within him and his dependence on Christ for forgiveness. "Those who are of the Church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour, flee from sin and pursue righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works. Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life. They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him." The Christian is not tall-in-himself and independent, but small and dependent. He looks to his Saviour in humility, acknowledging his sin and asking for mercy.
PRAYER AND THE STUDY OF GOD'S WORD: THE CHRISTIAN'S DEFENCE AGAINST HIS DAILY SINS
The Christian who knows himself dependent on his Saviour is propelled to "humble (himself) before God, to flee to the crucified Christ, to put the flesh to death more and more through the Spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of godliness." Prayer and exercises of godliness serve as apt descriptions for the conduct and practices of David. David was a godly man, a man after God's own heart, but he was also very much a sinner; weaknesses abounded in his life too. The Bible tells us of his conduct towards Bathsheba, Uriah, and his weakness in the face of his son Amnon having raped his sister Tamar. In Psalm 119 David expresses in words his determination to do the will of his God, the attacks he faces from evildoers, and his need for God to hold on to him so that he will not go astray: "I hate the double-minded, but I love Your law. You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your word. Depart from me you evildoers, for I will keep the commandments of my God! ... Hold me up and I shall be safe, and I shall observe Your statutes continually" (Psalm 119:113-117). Here is a spirit of humility, an acknowledgment of dependence on God. David knows he cannot stand tall. For that very reason David busies himself with the law of God, expresses his love for the law of his God. "At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You, because of Your righteous judgments.... Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe Your commandments.... Their heart is as fat as grease, but I delight in Your law.... The law of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of coins of gold and silver.... Oh how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation.... How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." (Psalm 119:62-105).
God's Word is so very important to David. In the daily grind of his life as king David had to make decisions. However, knowing himself to be under constant attack from his three sworn enemies, the devil, the world and his flesh, and knowing himself to be so weak that he couldn't stand for even a moment, David engaged himself in prayer and holy exercises of godliness. David communed with God and was busy with the Word of His God. Prayer and the study of God's Word are the Christian's defence against the attacks of the Devil. See further Article 4.
DAILY SINS CAUSE THE CHRISTIAN TO LONG FOR PERFECTION
Daily sins of weakness are also a constant reason for the saints to "long for the goal of perfection until at last, delivered from this body of death, they reign with the Lamb of God in heaven." These words refer to the Church's plea for deliverance as expressed in Revelation 22:20, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!" Paul too, in his letter to the Philippians, writes how he longs to be with Christ. "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.... For I am hard -pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Philippians 1:21,23). To be delivered from this body of death means to be made perfect and therefore to sin no more.
GOD PRESERVES HIS OWN
THE CHRISTIAN IS UNDER ATTACK FROM HIS THREE SWORN ENEMIES
In the face of attack from his three sworn enemies -the "remains of indwelling sin, ... the temptations of the world and of Satan"- the Christian is in need of God's preservation. Sufficient scriptural grounds for the constant presence of indwelling sin in the Christian have been given in Articles 1 and 2. The following Scripture texts speak of the attacks of the world and of Satan:
The attacks of the world:
- John 15:18,19
"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."
Here the Saviour speaks of the world's hatred against me; the world is my enemy. It may well be that I do not feel hated by the world, but I cannot go my feelings since they are affected by the fall into sin, and therefore unreliable. Satan is most cunning, and he will certainly make it seem as though the world is friendly towards me. But God in His Word presents me with the facts: "the world hates you."
- 1 John 2:15
Because the world hates me, God says, "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."
To love that which hates us is follish. The world hates me and I am to hate the world. Either I love God and hate the world, or I hate God and love the world; I cannot love both.
- Romans 12:2
"And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."
The seed of the woman lives in enmity with the seed of the Devil; hence no room for conformity with the world. It is the will of the Lord that we live as children of Him, different from those of the world.
The attacks of Satan:
- 1 Peter 5:8
"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour."
- Revelation 12:9-12
"So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time."
Satan was defeated by Christ and so he lost his dominion over the elect. Knowing that his time his short, Satan's attack on us, the inhabitants of the earth, is intense. Attacks of Satan are a reality for the Christian.
- Luke 22:31,32
"And the Lord said, "Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me strengthen your brethren."
Satan knew that he would be defeated on the cross. Nevertheless, he asks for Peter and God grants his request. The Saviour then said to Peter, "when you have returned"; i.e. Peter, you are going to fall. Satan is a very real enemy. But not only would Peter fall; he would also return, because Christ prayed for him. Christ told Peter that He would hold on to him, even when he would fail.
BUT GOD IS FAITHFUL
Our three sworn enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh are very real enemies; so real in fact, that we cannot persevere in the face of their attacks by our own strength. However, this gives us no reason to give up in despair, for didn't Jesus say to Peter, "I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail?" In His parable of the Good Shepherd, Christ promised his disciples this concerning the sheep which the Father gave to the Son, "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand" (John 10:28,29). Jesus knows how weak the sheep are of themselves, and how strong the enemies are. Yet the sheep given to Him would not perish, said Jesus.
Why would the sheep not perish? Because .".. the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one" (2 Thessalonians 3:3). Could it be possible for God, being the God He is, having elected us from eternity, having sent His Son to die for us, and having poured out His Spirit on us, to turn His back on us and leave us on our own in the face of Satan's attacks (cf Table 1, Article 1)? No, God does not leave us on our own, for having started His work of redemption in us, He also brings it to completion. "He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). It does not depend on me, but on God. That is why I am so safe. Although I am so weak, my God holds on to me and leads me by the hand day by day to the goal of my perfection. That's my God!
Said David in Psalm 138:7,8, "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch our Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand will save me. The Lord will perfect that which concerns me; Your mercy, O LORD, endures forever; do not forsake the works of Your hands." David speaks of walking in the midst of trouble; his enemies were ever so real. But David did not despair. David knew his God and knew himself to be dependent on his God. His prayer for God not to forsake the works of His hands was therefore not just an empty prayer, mere words, but it was a prayer of conviction: this is my God who will do what He said He would do. God will see me through to the end. "He will perfect that which concerns me."
What then are we to think of David's sins, or our own sins? Do our sins make us unworthy of God? Though that may well be the case, it is beside the present point, for even before God started His work with me, He knew that my sins would remain. In spite of my sins, God commenced His work!
"A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench" (Isaiah 42:3). What does this text tell me about my God? Will He say of me in my weaknesses and sins that I am a reject to Him - in spite of Him having done so much for me? Will He say like one does of a bruised reed, that I am useless? No, God will not discard or reject me. My God is merciful, gracious to the broken-hearted, the weak, and He carries us farther. For God knows that .".. those who have been converted could not persevere in that grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who mercifully confirms them in the grace once conferred upon them and powerfully preserves them in that grace to the end."
The apostle Paul knew so well the sufferings of this life and the attacks these could make on the faith of the Christian. Yet Paul asks, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39). The apostle expressed his confidence in the ways of the Lord, that He holds on to His own in all circumstances.
The Arminians put man in the centre; man perseveres by making use -through an exercise of his free will- of the resources that God has (graciously) supplied. The Bible on the other hand puts our God in the centre. It is because God is in the centre, and not me, that I can feel safe always.