"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
In Article 9 the fathers confessed that believers in this life can be certain and are certain that God preserves them to the end. The believer need not be in doubt that he will receive eternal salvation. Rather, he can be assured today already that he shall live with the Lord in glory on the new earth. This assurance is a reality for the Christian. Article 10 gives the grounds for making this confession.
GROUND OF THIS ASSURANCE
The Arminians taught that "without a special revelation we can have no certainty of future perseverance in this life" (Rejection of Errors, No 5 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 572). According to them, if you want to know today that you will persevere tomorrow, then you need a special revelation from God to this effect. By special revelation then is meant an event or occurrence by which you become convinced that you will be saved, be it via a dream, someone telling you so, or opening your Bible at a particular text.
This heresy has surfaced repeatedly in the history of the church, and it was confessed in very categorical terms by the Church of Rome. In the 16th century, in an attempt to stem the tide of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1562) issued a curse over the person who said he could be sure he'd be saved even if he doesn't have a special revelation. This heresy surfaced again during the 19th century with Mysticism. Inherent in this heresy is the notion that what the Bible says is not sufficient. The Mystics appealed to a passage as 2 Corinthians 3:6, where the apostle writes, "(God) also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Mystics interpreted this to mean that the Bible (the letter) is dead; therefore man needs the Spirit, without the Spirit one can't be certain of any thing. This is a poor interpretation of the passage. We do not read here that the letter is dead, but that the letter kills. To be able to kill, one needs to be alive to begin with! The Bible is very much 'alive', its contents authoritative.
SPECIAL REVELATION BUT GOD'S WORD ALONE
The Arminians said that believers need a special revelation in order to be assured. Were they correct? Do I need a special revelation from God apart from what is contained in the Bible itself? The Bible itself is very categorical in this respect. "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path", we read in Psalm 119:105. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16,17). All the revelation I require I can find in the Bible. From the Bible alone I learn that I will go to Heaven. This is what the fathers confessed in Article 10 when they wrote, "This assurance is not produced by a certain private revelation besides or outside the Word ...."
MEANS BY WHICH ONE RECEIVES THE ASSURANCE CONTAINED IN GOD'S WORD
The fathers list three means by which one receives this assurance contained in God's Word. "This assurance is not produced by a certain private revelation besides or outside the Word, but by faith in the promises of God, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God; and, finally, by the serious and holy pursuit of a good conscience and of good works."
1) By Faith
What is it that God promises in His Word concerning perseverance? With much confidence the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 1:6, "being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ." This is your God, says the apostle. If He has begun a work in you then He will also bring it to completion. A similar assurance is given in Romans 8:38,39. Paul is convinced that nothing in all the world will be able to break God's love for 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." Nothing shall separate us from God's love says Paul: this holds true for himself, for the saints at Rome, and for me too. It is the promise of God that He will never stop loving me.
How will I know that I will persevere? It is the promise of God. He has established a covenant of grace with me, and confirmed this covenant with granting the gift of faith. He has begun a work-to-salvation in my heart, and He does not quit where He has begun to work. His characteristic as God Unchanging demands that I be assured that He will hold on to me, no matter what may happen along the pathway of life.
At bottom, faith and assurance cannot be separated. Assurance is part and parcel of faith. To 'have faith', to 'believe' is to cling to all that God has said, including His revelation about Himself. Because of Who God is, the believer can and may be assured that he shall reach the goal of perfection on the last day. The assurance of faith is working with what God has said in the Bible, and believing and accepting it. Accepting what God says is to be sure that what God says is true. He will hold on to me. He is faithful to the end. Assurance comes not by special revelation but by believing what God has said in His Word.
2) By the testimony of the Holy Spirit
This is a direct reference to Romans 8:14-17
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together."
The point which the apostle wishes to make here is that the Holy Spirit teaches us to call God 'Father'. As a child grows up, a mother teaches her child that her husband is 'Daddy' and also teaches the child to say Daddy to him. As a result of this training, the child one day welcomes Dad home with the endearing cry: "Daddy!" The child as it were acknowledges, or makes a 'confession', that this man is Daddy. The Spirit does likewise with us. He has taught us that God is our Father, but He also works this confession on our lips so that we address God in prayer as 'Our Father in Heaven'. By calling God 'Father' I make a confession that I am His child. This confession comes not from my own heart but the Spirit has worked it in me to cry out "Abba, Father." "The Spirit himself bears witness that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs."
3) The serious and holy pursuit of a good conscience and of good works
Why is it that I want to do what the Lord wants of me? In Galatians 5 I read of two kinds of works which I can do: works of the flesh or works of the Spirit. Works of the flesh include adultery, uncleanness, hatred, contentions, heresies, envy, etc. (See vss 19-21). "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (vss 22-23). What do I see in my life? Do I see works of the flesh or fruits of the Spirit? "For a tree is known by its fruit", said Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:33. This is true of everyone. I can know what I am by looking at the works that I do. Are my works evidence of belonging to God? In LD 32.86 I confess that I must do good works so that I "may be assured of (my) faith by its fruits." My lifestyle confirms for me the confession that the Spirit has worked within me, that I belong to God, that He has saved me and that I am on the road to heaven.
HINGES ON FAITH IN GOD'S PROMISES
Faith is the crux of the matter, but when I also receive the testimony of the Holy Spirit that I am God's child and when I can see in my life that I do the works of a child of God, then I can indeed be certain today that tomorrow I shall be with the Lord on the new earth. Then the matter is no longer a doubt in my mind or a relentless pursuit in case I do not reach the goal. God has begun a work in my life and He will complete it. So I can relax. God has allowed me the privilege of being convinced today that I will live with Him in eternity. This makes for a sense of peace and contentment beyond description. I can be sure of my salvation because God is so faithful. Therefore the fathers concluded the article by writing, "And if the elect of God did not have in this world the solid comfort of obtaining the victory and this unfailing pledge of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable." I am not left hoping for something I may not get. God has made me rich beyond compare because today I know with certainty where I shall be tomorrow: with Him.
THIS ASSURANCE NOT ALWAYS FELT
With Article 10 we confessed how rich we are allowed to be: God would have us be sure that we shall persevere. As it is, though, in the brokenness of this life the Christian does not always feel so certain of persevering. Time and again he is filled with doubt. This doubt forms the topic of Article 11. By mentioning this doubt, the fathers were being both Scriptural and realistic; they stood with 'both feet on the ground' and so should we. Scripture itself tells us that God will hold on to us, but Scripture also tells us that certainty concerning this truth is not always present in the life of the Christian.
SCRIPTURAL AND REALISTIC
Psalm 73 is a Psalm of Asaph, a brother in the faith. He worked in the Temple day by day, and so he daily saw and heard the preaching of the Gospel of salvation. We would say: if there was anyone who should have been filled with assurance all the time, it should have been Asaph. But he wasn't. As he says in vs 2: "As for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped." Why? "For I was envious when I saw the prosperity of the wicked ... They are not in trouble as other men ... their eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than heart could wish.... Behold, these are the ungodly, who are always at ease; they increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence.... Thus my heart was grieved, and I was vexed in my mind." What he say in real life around him took away his sense of confidence in the Lord. It's something we can relate to so well. We observe what goes on in the world around us, and see so much that to our minds does not add up at all. It shakes us in our faith .
Again, in Psalm 77:7-9 Asaph says, "Will the Lord cast off for ever? And will He be favourable no more? Has His mercy ceased for ever? Has His promise failed for evermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies?" One reads many such cries of doubt and despair throughout the Psalms.
Job: a man so strong in faith, blessed by the Lord with riches and prosperity. Then one day he lost everything. His wife even advised him to curse God and die. Be sure of it, Job was sorely tempted. He certainly did not stay on a 'spiritual high'. On the contrary, he too got down. Job's life too is an illustration of Christian realism.
The fathers knew this and therefore they wrote in Article 11, "Scripture meanwhile testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various doubts of the flesh and, placed under severe temptation, do not always feel this assurance of faith and certainty of persevering." Doubt and uncertainty were experienced so real by Asaph and Job, and similar feelings equally plague the Christian today.
Doubt: how real it is. The Arminians said "it is praiseworthy to doubt" (Rejection of Errors No 6 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 573). According to the Arminians it was praiseworthy to wallow in uncertainty in terms of God's faithfulness and it was over against this that the fathers wrote Article 11. Doubt: it's so realistic. The Christian has to struggle with various doubts at different times in life, and to doubt is a struggle. But is doubt a good thing? The answer is no. Doubt is sin.
In his letter to the Hebrews the apostle seeks to encourage the Hebrew Christians in their faith in the face of opposition, pointing them to Jesus Christ and what He had attained for them in His sacrifice on the cross. In chapter 10:19,22 he writes, "Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holy Place by the blood of Jesus ... let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith...." In other words, we do not have to approach God with trembling knees, unsure whether or not God will hear us. We are to look to Christ. He has triumphed and is now seated in Heaven at God's right hand. Therefore we can pray in the full assurance of faith. God has said that Christ has died for us and that He intercedes for us. Therefore we need not pray with doubt, but we can pray confidently.
Who is God? He is the Almighty Creator. He made me. When I fell into sin He came to me, mortal and sinful as I was, and said, "My child, I gave up My Son to pay for your sins." How then, in view of who God is, must I respond to this Gospel? Is it right for me to say, "I don't know Lord if I can take your word at face value"? God's very Godness makes my doubt wrong. Who am I to challenge or question what God says to me? Therefore the only fitting response on my part is to accept what God says. (See Philippians 1:6, Romans 8:38,39).
Shall I then doubt? I know that I do doubt, for sin continues to cling to me. "For I know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.... For the good that I will to do, I do not do, but the evil I will not to do, that I practise" (Romans 7:14, 19). Doubt is so real, so true, but that does not mean it is acceptable. If God is God, then it is for me to accept what He says. We may be weak, and Satan so strong, and we certainly experience Satan's attacks in our lives. However, that does not make doubt acceptable. Doubt is part of our lives in this vale of tears, indeed, but we are to know that doubt is not praiseworthy. God's Word is sure, and to that Word I may cling resolutely.
GOD OF ALL COMFORT PROVIDES ME WITH THE WAY OF ESCAPE IN THE FACE OF TEMPTATIONS
From Scripture I also learn what God does in the face of my doubts and uncertainties. As Article 11 confesses: in the face of my doubt, God remains my God. What kind of a God is this? From 2 Corinthians 1:3,4 I know that He is "the Father of mercies and ... of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." Note here the repeated usage of the word comfort. God is the God of all comfort. When I am in tribulation, beset by doubt, conscious of so many weaknesses in myself, unsure whether I really belong to God after all today, unsure whether I will really be with God on the last day, then (say the fathers), "God, the Father of all comfort, will not let (me) tempted beyond (my) strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape." This is a direct quote from 1 Corinthians 10:13. The situation of the Corinthians was one of trial, trouble. There was a reason why Paul, in the verses 7-10, warned the Corinthian saints not to "become idolaters", not to "commit sexual immorality", not to "tempt Christ", not to "complain". The Corinthians needed this instruction because they were faced with temptation to give themselves to idolatry, immorality, complaining. In the face of concrete attacks from Satan, the apostle warned the Corinthian saints not to seek their strength from within themselves. "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (vs 12). Then Paul reached out with a word of immense comfort: "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (vs 13). The people of Israel are an example to us; just read the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers to read how often they doubted God and gave in to temptation. We are no different from them. Yet 1 Corinthians 10:13 assures us of the certainty of escape in the face of temptation. Every Christian is faced with temptations, but God is faithful.
Satan's attacks are so real. We experience temptations and doubts repeatedly, but need I despair in the face of these? No, says the apostle, for when temptation comes my way, it comes because God allows it. Satan wanted to tempt Job, but he couldn't do so without God's permission. In Luke 22 we read how Satan demanded to have Peter (vs 31). However, he could not sift Peter unless God consented. No temptation will come upon me unless God permits it. When God does permit Satan to tempt me, then Satan cannot tempt me beyond the limits God has set. God sets limits for both the intensity and the duration of Satan's temptations, and God also gives the strength to be able to bear these temptations. In the face of the doubts and uncertainties that beset me in this life of sorrows, God would have me know that I am always safe in His hands.
What an enormous security this gives to the child of God! Jeremiah experienced such security when he felt weighed down by the pressures of the ministry God had place upon his shoulders. In chapter 20:7-10 Jeremiah utters his complaint: "O LORD, You induced me, and I was persuaded; You are stronger than I, and have prevailed" so that Jeremiah took up the call to be a prophet (cf Jeremiah 1:4ff). But Israel was not responsive to Jeremiah's ministry. They were not interested in hearing what he had to say. They derided him: "I am in derision daily; everyone mocks me. For when I spoke, I cried out; I shouted, "Violence and plunder!" because the word of the LORD was made to me a reproach and a derision daily." In the face of this opposition Jeremiah is sorely tempted to refrain from saying what God has instructed him to say. But he can't do this: "I said, "I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His Name. But His Word was in my heart like a burning fire, shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not." So he faced more mockery, and more revenge; even his friends were against him. Jeremiah was under considerable duress, pressure. Note then what he goes on to say to the Lord. He does not say, "Lord, it's all too much." Instead he is confident that because God had begun a work in him, God would also deliver him from the temptations around him. Therefore Jeremiah moves on to confess his faith and trust in the Lord in the verses 11-13. "The Lord is with me as a mighty, awesome one. Therefore my persecutors will stumble, and will not prevail.... Sing to the LORD! Praise the LORD! For He has delivered the life of the poor from the hand of evil-doers." Jeremiah knew himself safe in God's hands. Though the pressures may be enormous, the security of the Christian may be greater yet!
What do I confess in LD 16.44 concerning the benefits of Christ having descended into hell? "In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell." Christ was rejected so that I might never be rejected. Then Yes, I may from time to time feel deserted by God, and doubt also the promises of God about His abiding care. But I may know: no matter the temptation, no matter the loneliness, no matter the pressures, I am safe in the hands of my God. Can I be sure that I will reach the goal of perfection? Yes, because God is faithful. How I feel is not the important thing. What is important is who my God is.
ASSURANCE DOES NOT LEAD TO COMPLACENCY
When the fathers insisted that believers can be sure of salvation, the Arminians replied that this doctrine prompts the believer simply to live it up and enjoy the sins of this life, for 'I'm saved anyway'. Said the Arminians, "By its very nature the doctrine of the certainty of perseverance and salvation causes false security and is harmful to godliness, good morals, prayers, and other holy exercises" (Rejection of Errors No 6 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 573). In other words, if you are going to heaven anyway, why bother to live a godly life? One must work for it, earn it, said the Arminians; such a doctrine will compel a holy life-style.
The fathers rejected this the notion that having assurance of salvation leads to a complacent life style. In fact, in the Heidelberg Catechism the same sort of error is also rejected. In LD 23.60 I confess that I am saved by grace alone; salvation is God's free gift. Therefore in LD 24 I confess that my good works are not helpful to me in attaining salvation. That leads to this question: "Does this teaching not make people careless and wicked?" The Catechism summarises Scripture's answer to this question like this: "No. It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness" (LD 24.64). This is exactly what the fathers wrote in Article 12: "So far, however, is this certainty of perseverance from making true believers proud and complacent that, on the contrary, it is the true root of humility, childlike reverence, genuine godliness, patience in every conflict, fervent prayers, constancy in the cross and in the confession of the truth, and lasting joy in God."
ASSURANCE OF PERSEVERANCE IS AN INCENTIVE TO GRATITUDE AND GOOD WORKS
If God has saved me, freely given me salvation, what will my response be? Will it be one of godlessness? It cannot be so. The Bible says that the child of God will not respond that way, but rather will fight sin and bear fruits of faith. "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit" (Matthew 7:18). If we are grafted into Christ, then we are going to bear the fruits of Christ. Said Christ, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Christ made a statement of fact that the child of God will bear fruit. Therefore the fathers wrote, "Further, the consideration of this benefit is for them an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as is evident from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints."
Contrary to what the Arminians believe, the one who has his hope in Christ is not proud, does not live it up, but on the contrary, he purifies himself. "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when he is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:2,3). This passage does not teach that holiness leads to salvation; it teaches instead that salvation leads to holiness.
Psalm 116 too, illustrates the typical response of the Christian who is thankful for God's free gift of salvation. Speaking of this salvation the Psalmist writes, "For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living" (vs 8,9). The Psalmist then asks how he should respond to the Lord's deliverance. "What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits towards me?" (vs 12). God has freely given me salvation. How can I thank Him? "I will take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows to the LORD now in the presence of all His people" (vs 13,14). Here is no complacency, no carelessness, no sense of living it up, pride. Rather, here is a spirit of humility and gratefulness - a spirit of "Lord, I thank You." This reaction is totally different from what the Arminians said. The redeemed child of God is keen to live for the Lord. "(Jesus Christ) gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14).
No, the assurance of perseverance does not lead to complacency, as the Arminians said, but to humility. In Matthew 11:28,29 Jesus invites us to learn from Him. "Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." One thing the Christian can most certainly learn from the Saviour is humility. Lord, that You have saved me, is humbling.
Such knowledge also incites me too to reverence, godliness, patience, prayerfulness, faithfulness to the truth, joy. These attitudes listed by the fathers are the attitudes that arise in the hearts of God's redeemed in response to what God has freely given. If I recognise such attitudes within me toward God, then I can see evidence in my life that I am assured of the salvation which God has worked for me.