"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
THIS ASSURANCE DOES NOT LEAD TO CARELESSNESS
In Article 4 the fathers confessed the fact that an elect child of God is able to fall into serious sins. In Article 6 the fathers furthered confessed God to be a God of mercy who continues to hold on to His elect saints, even in their fall, so that He picks up His fallen saints and restores them to grace. God preserves the believer unto eternity. Article 13 addresses the reaction of the Arminians to this teaching.
THE CHILD OF GOD DOES NOT FLIRT WITH SIN
The Arminians insisted that the Reformed doctrine of preservation of the saints can only encourage carelessness and loose living on the part of the child of God. Said the Arminians: if God has elected a person to life so that He definitely restores this person each time he falls, this elect person is nor going to try hard to fight sin since God will always restore him again anyway. According to the Arminians, a doctrine of God preserving the elect is only going to promote licentiousness.
In response to that sentiment, the fathers wrote Article 13, "This renewed confidence does not produce carelessness or neglect of godliness in those who have been restored after their fall; rather, it renders them more careful and diligent to discern the ways of the Lord so that by walking in them they may retain the certainty of persevering." In other words, the child of God exercises greater caution, being more careful to do what the Lord wants of him.
One could compare this to a person who has fallen off the top of a high-rise building but was saved and dragged back up to safety; would he then place himself perilously close to the edge again in the conviction that his fall will be broken a second time before he hits the street? Of course not. The lesson this would have taught him is to that the edge presents a danger, and so he keeps a distance from the edge. Likewise, the child of God who has fallen into sin but who has been picked up by God and restored again will not walk on the edge of danger again either. The restored Christian will exercise greater caution and stay away from sin. He knows his vulnerability to sin and will all the more earnestly pray, "(Father), lead me not into temptation but deliver (me) from the evil one." The restored child of God will take upon his lips the words of LD 52.127: "In (myself I am) so weak that (I) cannot stand even for a moment. Moreover, (my) sworn enemies –the devil, the world, and (my own) flesh– do not cease to attack (me). Wilt Thou, therefore, uphold and strengthen (me) by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, so that in this spiritual war (I) may not go down in defeat, but always firmly resist (my) enemies, until (I) finally obtain the complete victory."
This is also what the Bible teaches. In Psalm 32:3,4 we read in what state David found himself after he had fallen into sin and refused to acknowledge his sin: "When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer." God did not let David go. It was God who pressed His heavy hand upon David in order to bring him to a confession of guilt so that He might again restore David. "I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD", and You forgave the iniquity of my sin" (vs 5). What was the result? That David felt free to give himself to new sin because God would rescue him again anyway? Listen to David’s advice to his fellow Israelites: "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with my eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you." If that is David’s advice to the others of Israel, will he himself then go back to the edge again, in the belief that God will pick him up and restore him anyways? Surely, he is not about to do that! Not as he gives this advice!
That those whom God has rescued from their sins will not readily give themselves to a life of licentiousness is pointed up to in a passage as 2 Corinthians 7:10. There we read, "For godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death." Repentance leads not to carelessness, says the apostle, but to salvation. God will pick us up and restore us when we fall, but what motivates us to stay away from sin is the godly sorrow God works in us on account of our fall. Contrast that to the sorrow of the world which merely results in a falling into sin and death again. Scripture teaches that those who have been restored will be careful in how they live.
THE RESTORED CHILD OF GOD IS FEARFUL OF GOD TURNING AWAY HIS FACE
The second part of our article mentions fear. Those who have been restored carefully and diligently discern the ways of the Lord and walk in them "lest, because of their abuse of His fatherly goodness, the reconciled God should again turn away His face from them (the contemplation of which is to the godly sweeter than life, and the withdrawal of it more bitter than death), and they should fall into more severe torments of soul." The fear of the consequence of falling away is that God should turn His face away.
The notion of having God’s face turned towards you implies God’s blessing. Aaron and his sons were instructed to bless the children of Israel by saying to them: "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace" (Numbers 6:22-26). God connected His blessing with having His face turned towards His people. Scripture also teaches the reverse: God’s face being turned away meant that God withheld His blessing. In Psalm 80:3,7 & 19 Asaph implores of God, "Restore us, O God; cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved!" This refrain was uttered in the context of problems as a result of God having turned His face away. "O LORD God of hosts, how long will You be angry against the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in great measure. You have made us a strife to our neighbours, and our enemies laugh among themselves" (vss 4-6). Asaph acknowledges that they can only be saved, blessed, if God turns His face towards His people.
If God would turn His face away then whatever one does is doomed to fail. In Deuteronomy 28:15-68 we read of God’s curses on disobedience. The curses pronounced here pervade every sphere of life: "But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I (Moses) command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl (i.e. the kitchen). Cursed shall be the fruit of your body (i.e. one’s children) and the produce of your land, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flocks. Cursed shall you be when you come in and cursed shall you be when you go out. The LORD will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the wickedness of your doings in which you have forsaken me." (Verses 15-20).
Then follows in the verses 21-68 the details of how these curses will be felt and experienced: "The LORD will make the plague cling to you …. Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth ... you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you. You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but shall not gather its grapes...." The list of curses go on and on, with this as the last, "And the LORD will take you back to Egypt in ships… And there you shall be offered for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you."
In the case of disobedience God promises that He will turn His face away and cause His heavy hand to press upon His people. To be deprived of God’s blessing is the most horrible experience a child of God can contemplate. The child of God who has fallen, and so also has felt what it is like to have God’s face turned away from him, is thankful to God for restoration and never again wants to feel forsaken by God.
Psalm 22 was written by a man from whom God had turned His face – a man forsaken by the Lord. Said David, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent." David got no reply from God and in the verses 14 and 15 he describes how this felt: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it has melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue clings to my jaws; You have brought me to the dust of death." The reason for this is found in verse 19: God was far away: "But you O LORD, do not be far from me; O my Strength, hasten to help me!" To David’s experience, God had deserted him totally, had turned His face away from David.
The forsakenness mentioned in this psalm was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. God turned His face away from Him when He hung on the cross so that He was surrounded by darkness. In His anguish He cried out, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). The elect can think of nothing worse than for God to turn His face away.
What a difference then between what David wrote in Psalm 22 and what he wrote in Psalm 4! "There are many who say, "Who will show us any good?" LORD, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us. You have put gladness in my heart, more than in the season that their grain and wine increased. I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety." What makes for the difference? Here David experiences God’s face turned towards him; he experiences God’s blessing. Blessings from God, we learn from Deuteronomy 28:1-14, can only be expected when one obeys God. "Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth.... And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not beneath, if you heed the commandments of the LORD your God...."
THE USE OF MEANS INCLUDED
THE MEANS OF GOD’S WORD
Chapter I, Article 3 made confession of the fact that God sends heralds of the Gospel of salvation to those whom He has elected to salvation in Jesus Christ. He does so since no one is able to come to faith in Jesus Christ without the preaching. This confession was made on the basis of Romans 10:14,15 where Paul writes, "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?" Chapter III/IV, Article 17 made a similar confession, namely that the gospel is the means God is pleased to use in order to work regeneration.
This element is picked up again in Chapter V, Article 14. In this article, though, there is more than a mere repetition of what has already been confessed. In Article 14 the fathers confess God’s use of means in the context of the perseverance of the saints. The elect can fall, but God preserves them in their fall. As was confessed in Article 9, the elect can be certain of their salvation and election. They can be assured today that they shall live with the Lord and the rest of the elect, in glory on the new earth. Although this assurance is not always felt by the elect (Article 11), one can be certain of persevering (Article 9). How one becomes the more certain of persevering? That is by making use of the means that God has given. And the means God is pleased to use is His Word.
"As it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so He maintains, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word ...." God makes sure that the work of grace He has begun in us by His Word also stays in us and is completed in us by His Word. To ensure that assurance of faith and growth in faith happen, God uses means. When we were born our mothers ensured growth in our little bodies by means of the food they gave to us; by means of feeding us, we grew. Likewise, God lets there be spiritual life in His children and He also lets it grow. God causes growth in His ‘spiritual infants’ by feeding them with His Word. God has ordained that His Word is the source of spiritual growth: "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17).
The need for God’s children to feed on His Word is expressed repeatedly in Scripture. Whilst waiting on the banks of the Jordan River before they crossed over into the Promised Land, Moses said to the people of Israel, "Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the LORD your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged" (Deuteronomy 6:1,2). Moses was referring to the commandments, laws and ordinances that had been given earlier in Numbers, Leviticus, Exodus and Genesis; i.e. the Bible which Israel had in those days. But not only did these commandments have to be taught to the people; these commandments also had to be in the people’s hearts: "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Verses 6,7). Not the shelf, but the people’s hearts was the place for these commandments. The parents had to be busy with the Scriptures. They had to talk about God’s commandments and statutes to their children from the beginning of the day until day’s end. Why? So that the children would come to know their God and come to believe in God’s promises of election. Not only did they have to believe, have faith, but they also had to grow in faith. Growth comes not by one meal but by successive meals.
David loved God’s law so much that it was his "meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97). David busied himself with God’s commandments. It is in that light that we must read Romans 10:14-17, where the need for hearing God’s Word is stressed in order for there to be faith. Therefore Paul charged Timothy to "Preach the word!" (2 Timothy 4:2). Faith and growth in faith comes by the preaching. "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it" (Revelation 1:3). To be busy with the Word, be it by hearing it or reading it, results in becoming more sure of God’s promises and consequently becoming more assured in faith. Hence the exhortation in Hebrews 10:24,25 to attend Church and to urge each other on in the faith: " And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching." Therefore Article 14 confesses that God is pleased to use the means of His Word, so that by our hearing it and reading it we may grow all the more in Him.
GOD’S WORD IS TO BE THE SUBJECT OF OUR MEDITATION
Not only must we hear and read God’s Word, but we must also meditate upon it, write the fathers. Our meditation must be done in the way we read that Mary meditated in Luke 2:19. "Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." We are to busy with God’s Word in our minds, thinking about and thinking through what God says, contemplating it and trying to come to grips with what it is God is saying in His Word.
The fathers also wrote that God perfects His work of grace in us by the "exhortations and threatenings" of His Word. In God’s Word we read of His promises of blessing AND His promises of curse. We may not just read those pleasant, soothing parts of Scripture that ‘stroke’ us, for God, knowing that we need them, has also given us His sharp words of warning and threat. It is by both God’s promises of blessing and God’s promises of curse that faith is worked in us and made to grow in us.
THE MEANS OF THE SACRAMENTS
Nor must we be negligent in the use of the sacraments which God in His grace has given us to illustrate the text of His Word. The content of the sacraments are identical to the content of God’s Word for they serve to spell out to sinners the benefits of Christ crucified. In using the sacraments we are edified by what they symbolise. God has given us both the audible and the visible Word, and so we are to use both.
THIS DOCTRINE HATED BY SATAN BUT LOVED BY THE CHURCH
THIS DOCTRINE HATED AND ATTACKED BY SATAN
This concluding article of the Canons of Dort is a song of praise to God, albeit in a context of much hatred towards God on Satan’s part. The fact that God chooses particular persons to life and that they invariably reach the goal of perfection, the fact that a sinner can know himself safe in God’s hands and be certain that no matter what might happen today he shall be with his Lord tomorrow, is a gospel which Satan hates with a passion. He hates this gospel because it directs all praise to God. It is God who elects, it is God who saves in Christ, it is God who works faith in His elect, and it is God who holds on to His elect no matter what. This gospel is totally GOD-CENTRED. For God to receive all the glory is what Satan hates.
In Paradise, mankind’s fall into sin marked a triumph for Satan. Since the fall into sin though, God has scored victory upon victory against Satan. Satan knows this, hates this and makes it his constant business to detract from the glory of God. God warns us in His Word, "be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8). Likewise in Revelation 12:12 we are warned, "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 is angry, knowing full well that he is fighting a lost battle. Therefore he does what he can to detract from the glory God receives and he does what he can to detract from the comfort God’s people have in the knowledge and assurance of God’s victory over him.
Satan hates the contents of the Canons of Dort. He hates the doctrine of election and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Therefore, in the course of church history, there have been preachers of the Gospel who have proclaimed that it’s up to you to choose for God; it’s up to you to open your heart to God. (i.e. Arminians). At the Synod of Dort churches from all over Europe were represented. Today however we see that many churches which call themselves Reformed, professing to be followers of Calvin, are in deed followers of Arminius. The heresy of Arminius is widely embraced today, and Satan’s hatred against the doctrine of the Canons of Dort plays no minor role in that.
One of the characteristics of evangelicalism is the dual detraction from the ‘Godness’ of God and the man-ness’ of man. The distance between God and man is shrunk. That leaves the door wide open for believing that God doesn’t do everything in the salvation of the believer; man also has a contribution to make. That is the doctrine Satan loves. As far as the contents of the Canons of Dort are concerned, the fathers write, "Satan hates it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocrites abuse it, and the heretics oppose it." Church history is full of examples of the demonstration of this hatred, ridicule, abuse and opposition levelled against the doctrine confessed in the Canons of Dort. Hence the time we and our children invest in studying the Canons of Dort in order to stay familiar with what it is God has revealed in His Word and what we believe, is time well invested.
THIS DOCTRINE TENDERLY LOVED AND CONSTANTLY DEFENDED BY THE CHURCH
The Church on the other hand loves and defends the doctrine confessed in the Canons of Dort. The Church finds her comfort in it. What we confess in the Canons is the same as what we confess in LD 1.1: "What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ." God has elected me and has given me to Christ. "He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil." I didn’t have to do a thing; Christ did it all. "He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation." Here is total security, the confidence of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. "Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him." So grateful am I that I belong to Christ that I in response live for Him.
The contents of the Canons is something which "the Bride of Christ ... has always most tenderly loved and constantly defended ... as a treasure of inestimable value ...." God has caused the Church to hold on to this confession and He has seen to it that the doctrine contained in it has been preserved through the centuries, from generation to generation. Thanks to God, this gospel of free salvation will always stand. "God, against whom no counsel can avail and no strength can prevail, will see to it that (the Church) continues to (tenderly love and constantly defend this gospel) to the end." The gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church of God.
Peter, having warned in his letter that the "devil walks about like a roaring lion" urges us to "resist him, steadfast in the faith." To this he adds the prayer, more, the promise, "But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you" (1 Peter 5:9,10). We, God’s elect, called by God, have this promise of God: "…whom he predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom he justified, these He also glorified" (Romans 8:30). It is God’s promise that we will persevere. No matter how fierce the attacks of the Devil, and though we may have to suffer on account of his attacks, God will perfect us and complete the work of grace He has begun in us.
"To God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honour and glory forever. Amen."
After the fathers had completed their response to the errors of the Arminians, they adopted a conclusion to accompany the Canons of Dort. This conclusion is largely a summary of what is recorded in the Articles of the Canons. For that reason, not much needs to be said about this Conclusion. Two points only need our attention, relating specifically to the first paragraph and the last.
THE CANONS OF DORT ARE TAKEN FROM THE WORD OF GOD AND ARE IN AGREEMENT WITH THE CONFESSIONS OF THE REFORMED CHURCHES
In conclusion, the fathers prefaced the summary list of the heresies taught by the Arminians with this sentence, "The Synod judges this declaration and rejection to be taken from the Word of God and to be in agreement with the Confessions of the Reformed Churches." Doesn’t it sound a trifle arrogant, one might ask, to write a number of articles and then to make such a bold statement that these articles are categorically in harmony with the Word of God?
What is arrogance? Arrogance is not that one speaks plain and straight-forward language. Arrogance is that one sets oneself above the Word of God. The fathers listened carefully to the Word of God, and wrote down what they heard in relation to the questions of their day. By so doing, they consciously placed their Confession under the Word of God. As we have worked our way through the Canons of Dort, we frequently took up our Bibles to read in them what it is that God has revealed about the doctrine of election and reprobation, the death of Christ and man’s redemption, the corruption of man, his conversion to God, the manner of man’s conversion, and the perseverance of the saints. Our study of the Canons of Dort was really a study of God’s Word. As a result, we too can summarise God’s Word on these topics with the words of the Canons of Dort. It is arrogance to formulate answers to the questions of Arminianism in terms that differ from the Word of God (even if what God says in His Word is difficult to accept and harmful to one’s pride). It is humility to echo precisely what God has revealed to us. What the fathers stated in their conclusion to the Canons of Dort is simply that they accept as true what God has written in His Word and that the articles they have written simply serve to echo and summarise God’s Word accurately. The fathers placed the Canons of Dort under God’s Word. So this statement of the fathers is not an exercise in haughtiness but a demonstration of humility of faith. This is the perspective we must cling to for otherwise we will lose our grip on the Confessions as a whole.
A PRAYER TO GOD FOR THE DEFENCE OF THE TRUTH OF HIS WORD
Article 15 was said to be a song of praise to God for a gospel which is GOD-CENTRED. Throughout the Canons God’s greatness was pointed up: it is sovereign God who freely saves dead sinners. To God therefore be all praise. How then do I resist those who attack and resist the doctrine confessed in the Canons? How do I resist those who teach contrary to God’s Word (e.g. the Arminians) and those who slander the truth of His Word, persisting in their refusal to repent? The weapon of the Christian against Satanic attack on the truth of God’s Word is PRAYER and so the fathers so aptly concluded the Canons with this prayer:
"May Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is seated at the Father’s right hand and gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth, bring to the truth those who err, shut the mouths of the slanderers of the sound doctrine, and equip the faithful ministers of His Word with the Spirit of wisdom and discretion, that whatever they say may tend to the glory of God and the edification of those who hear them. Amen."