"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
In Articles 1-3 the fathers confessed that the believer in this life is and remains so weak that he is unable to stand on his own for a moment in the face of temptatio (see Figure 1, point 1). However, this weak believer remains under attack from the Devil, the world and his own flesh (point 2). Left to himself, the believer invariably collapses in the face of these attacks (point 3). However, this gives no reason for despair, since God remains faithful to His promises and holds on to His own right to the end (point 4).
SAINTS MAY FALL INTO SERIOUS SINS
"The power of God whereby He confirms and preserves true believers in grace is so great that it cannot be conquered by the flesh…." So great is God's power that His own are always safe in His hands. However, that does not mean that the converted can never fall into sin. Article 4 continues, "… yet the converted are not always so led and moved by God that they cannot in certain particular actions turn aside through their own fault from the guidance of grace and be seduced by and yield to the lusts of the flesh." The believer is able to fall. God in His wisdom may be pleased to withdraw His preserving hand, so that the believer is left to his own devices in the face of the attacks that be. Invariably, the believer falls into sin, falls for the attacks of the Devil the world or his own flesh.
Who is the believer of whom Article 4 speaks? It is me. What is written here is my confession. I am able to fall into awful sin. If God does not preserve me, if He does not uphold me by His hand day by day and moment by moment, I will invariably fall. Article 77 of the Australian Church Order stipulates,
"As serious and gross sins which are grounds for the suspension or deposition of office-bearers the following are to be mentioned particularly: false doctrine or heresy, public schisms, blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, unjustly enriching oneself; and further all such sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the Church."
Office-bearers are men who have been tested against the requirements of Scripture, and found acceptable. Consquently, we tend to regard these brothers as being above the sort of sins mentioned in this article of the Church Order. Yet the very fact that an article as this is included in the Church Order is in itself a confession that not even office-bearers are above blasphemy, perjury, adultery, fornication, etc. I may, then, not think that I for my part am above such sins. Article 4 speaks of saints: that includes me! No-one is to think in terms of "I would never do that." Although it is true that the heart of the believer has been changed by the Spirit of God, it is also true that the believer has not yet been perfected. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord Day 44.114, "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience."
If the believer is not supported by God moment by moment, he will collapse in the face of ongoing attacks from the devil, the world and his own flesh. There is therefore no room for pride in the heart of the believer; there is room only for humility. It is exactly because we depend so much on God's preserving grace that Christ taught us to pray the sixth petition, "And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one." The Church has echoed the teaching of our Lord in this petition with these words: "That is: 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. Wilt Thou, therefore, uphold and strengthen us by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, so that in this spiritual war we may not go down to defeat, but always firmly resist our enemies, until we finally obtain the complete victory" (Lord Day 52.127). Here we confess our own inability to stand on own strength in the face of Satan's attack. As such, it is a confession of total dependance on God's grace.
MY SIN IS ALWAYS MY RESPONSIBILITY
In Scripture we read examples of saints who did succumb to Satan's attacks and fell into sin. For example, we read of David's sin with regard to taking a count of the people of Israel, thereby placing his trust in his army rather than in his God. "Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, "Go, number Israel and Judah" (2 Samuel 24:1). How did God move David? In 1 Chronicles 21:1 we read, "Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel." Here Satan is said to have done it. This passage gives the answer to how God moved David to number the people. That is: God withdrew His support from David so that David was vulnerable to Satan's attack. As a result, David fell. This sin of David illustrates what we confess in Article 4, that God doesn't always preserve in such a way so that believers do not fall into deep sin. (See again Point 3 of Diagram 1.)
This does not mean, though, that David could blame God for his fall, in the sense that: "You, Lord, let go of me." In the beginning God made us able to resist the attacks of the devil. That we became dead in sin is our own doing, and so the fact that we are unable to resist Satan's attacks on own strength is also our own doing. God is in no way obliged to hold on to us in the face of Satan's attacks. We cannot, therefore, blame God when we do succomb to Satan's temptations. The saints remain always responsible for their sins. Therefore David acknowledged responsibility for his transgression and asked God for forgiveness: "And David's heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly" (2 Samuel 24:10). I can never say that I could not help sinning.
THE SAINTS MUST CONSTANTLY WATCH AND PRAY
The believer remains weak, ever dependent on God's grace. "They must therefore constantly watch and pray that they may not be led into temptation." This is an explicit instruction from Scripture. In Matthew 26 we read how Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, accompanied by His disciples, went to Gethsemane to pray to His Father. Three times Jesus had requested His disciples to "stay and watch with Me." But three times Jesus returned to His disciples to find them asleep. Said Jesus to His disciples, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). The believer wants to do what is right, but does not have the inner where-with-all to accomplish it.
I must, therefore, watch and remain on the alert for the attacks of the Devil who goes around like a roaring lion, and I must watch for the attacks of the world and my own flesh. I pray to God and tell Him of my weaknesses. I ask God to hold on to me, for if He were to let me stand on my own for even a moment, I would collapse. The need to watch and to pray is a constant reality for the Christian - lest he fall.
In Luke 22:31,32 Jesus tells Peter that Satan had demanded of God to let him sift Peter. Peter did not know this and therefore he could not pray for protection against this particular attack. But Jesus said to Peter, "But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail." In His wisdom, God permitted Satan to have Peter so that he might sift Peter as wheat. Jesus knew that Peter was going to fall; he was going to deny the Lord. However, Jesus prayed that his faith would not fail. Here is an illustration of the importance of prayer; every believer is under constant attack, and so each must "… pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). If God were to remove His hand for a moment, not a single believer could stand in the face of such attacks. At the same time Jesus showed Peter the value of such prayer, for He added straightaway, "when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren." Here is a promise that, though Peter would fall, God would restore him.
Jesus taught us to pray daily for food; "Give us this day our daily bread." In like manner, we need to pray constantly, "lead us not into temptation." This prayer we direct to God. God.… Who is this God? This is the God of whom we say, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:3-5). To whom do we pray? To whom do we come with our petitions concerning our inability to stand on our own, pleading for support? It is to the God of great and abundant mercy that we pray this; our God who caused us to be born again, who made us a believer in the first place and who brings to completion His work in us. This God keeps His own "by the power of God." So I may be confident that even if I fall my God, who is strong, will hold on to me.
The believer who has a keen sense of his own depravity and weakness and a deep awareness of his total dependence on God will therefore adopt an attitude of humility also before his neighbour. Knowing how prone I am to succumbing to the attacks of the Devil, the world and my own flesh, I in turn will be understanding and gentle to someone who has fallen into sin. For example, society knows the scourge of AIDS. There may come a time that a brother or sister in this congregation contracts AIDS through sin on his/her part. Then no matter how repulsive I may find the practice of homosexuality, I at the same time confess that if God does not hold on to me, I too could fall into such sin. Therefore I cannot look down on another who has fallen into such sin. There is only room for me to be humble, and to offer my brother or sister the support and encouragement needed in the face of such a trial.
THE EFFECTS OF SUCH SERIOUS SINS
Falling into serious sins has results; neither the believer nor God remain unaffected by them. Says Article 5, believers, "By such gross sins, ... greatly offend God, incur deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, suspend the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God's favour ...."
SIN OFFENDS GOD AND INCURS DEADLY GUILT
God hates sin. God had explicitly commanded the Israelites not to make a graven image. Yet, this is exactly what the Israelites did while God spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. They had made for themselves a golden calf to worship. In response God wanted to destroy Israel. Said God to Moses, "…I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them" (Exodus 32:10). On another occasion the Israelites complained to God about having to eat manna all the time and asked Him for meat. This displeased the Lord. He did send quails into the camp of Israel "but while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was aroused against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague" (Numbers 11:33). God does not appreciate sin; He hates sin. It was because of their sins that the Israelites ended up in exile, that they were taken away from their homes, that they were cut into pieces, and that babies were torn away from their mothers.
Does it matter if I fall into sin? Most certainly, for it is against no one less than God that I sin. And this God "is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). And: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). God hates sin. If I fall into sin I greatly offend God and I incur His wrath. This God has not changed from the days of the Old Testament! One need but recall the plagues mentioned in the book of Revelation.
SIN GRIEVES THE HOLY SPIRIT
Our article adds that "such gross sins" also "grieve the Holy Spirit." I read in 1 Corinthians 3:16 that I am the temple of God and that the Spirit dwells in me. Shall I then use my body, my mind, my hands or my tongue to sin? If I do, I grieve the Holy Spirit. It is as Paul put it: "put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness, ... putting away lying .... Let him who stole steal no longer ... Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth ... do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, ... Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice" (Ephesians 4:24-31). That is: to lie, to steal, to use foul language, etc, is to "grieve the Holy Spirit of God." This was a truth David knew. That is why, after David's repentance of his adultery with Bethsheba in Ps 51 David does more than acknowledge the fact of his sin and repent of it; he also recognises that there is a price to pay for sin, namely, that the Holy Spirit departs. From Psalm 51:11 it is clear that to fall into sin, to embrace sin, to live and harden in sin comes at an exceedingly high cost: God then takes His Spirit away. In realisation of this cost, David prays, "Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me."
SIN SUSPENDS THE EXERCISE OF FAITH
Falling into sin also "suspends the exercise of faith." Faith is not just believing that Jesus died on the cross for sin. Faith is action, is believing the Gospel and therefore living the Gospel. In the face of my sin, I may find it exceedingly hard to be gentle and loving to my wife (as per Ephesians 5), or may rebell against the notion of being submissive to my husband, or may loathe the need to be obedient to my parents. But if God says in His Word that that is what I must do, then I do it - that is faith. But the presence of sin makes the exercise of faith -the doing what I know God wants- so extremely difficult.
SIN WOUNDS THE CONSCIENCE AND CAN MAKE ONE LOSE THE SENSE OF GOD'S FAVOUR
In Psalm 32 we read of the effects of sin in the personal life of the believer. Life's vitality is sapped, the fun is out of life, the believer feels restless, his conscience is bothered with guilt. This is how David felt the effects of living with his unconfessed sin of adultery with Bathsheba. "My bones grew old through my groaning all the day long ... my vitality was turned into the drought of summer" (Psalm 32:3,4).
When the believer lives in friction with God he finds no desire to read the Bible, maybe even an inability to read the Bible. He finds it difficult to pray, feels that heaven is closed to him, feels he is unable to pray. He experiences no joy in attending Church or attending Holy Supper. For sin gets between the sinner and his God, and so God seems so far away. The effects of falling into sin are not pleasant and the discomfort of God's heavy hand continues to be felt until the moment of confession and repentance. It wasn't until David owned up to his sin before God that he could again experience God's blessing. Said David, "I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, "I will confess my transgression to the LORD, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin" (verse 5). Only after confession of sin could David say, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit" (Verse 1,2). Only after confession of sin and the subsequent assurance of God's forgiveness and redemption can the believer live in peace and joy again, assured once again of God's favour.
GOD WILL NOT PERMIT HIS ELECT TO BE LOST
THE REFORMED: BELIEVERS CAN AND DO FALL BUT NOT TO THEIR ETERNAL RUIN
To have fallen deeply away from God's presence, feeling the weight of His heavy hand pressed upon him, is a most unpleasant experience for the believer. To what purpose though must the believer experience this? It is all for the purpose of restoring the sinner to the place where he belongs. If it wasn't for God holding on to me, I would fall for sure. In Article 6 I confess that God does not forsake me in my sin. "But God, who is rich in mercy, according to the unchangeable purpose of His election, does not completely withdraw His Holy Spirit from His own even in their deplorable fall." Notice how the accent is laid here on God.
The Israelites had fallen so deplorably. They were camped at the foot of Mount Sinai and only a few days prior God had said to them that He was their God, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow to them or serve them." Yet the people blatantly transgressed God's command, and built for themselves a golden calf. How did God respond? Did he reject the Israelites, throw them away in favour of another people? No, on the contrary, God reveals to them who He is, namely, "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin..." (Exodus 34:6). God then renewed His covenant with His people. He had said of Israel in the past "you are mine", and therefore even after their deplorable fall He restores them to Himself again. This God does not change.
The prophet Jeremiah went through a difficult time when Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnessar, king of Babylon. 'The Book of Lamentations' is Jeremiah's book of grief in which he laments Jerusalem's destruction. Feeling downcast and dejected, rejected by God, Jeremiah writes, "I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath. He has led me and made me walk in darkness and not in light. Surely He has turned His hand against me time and time again throughout the day. He has aged my flesh and my skin, and broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and woe. He has set me in dark places like the dead of long ago. He has hedged me in so that I cannot get out; He has made my chain heavy. Even when I cry and shout, He shuts out my prayer" (Lamentations 3:1-8). How similar these experiences are to those described in Article 5! Where is God's goodness, God's care? To Jeremiah heaven seemed closed. How come? At bottom the cause of Jeremiah's dejection was Israel's sin. Jeremiah realised this and therefore in spite of his misery He does not forget Who his God is. Jeremiah knows his God, Israel's God, to be the God of compassion and mercy. So he confesses the words of verses 22f: "Through the LORD's mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is your faithfulness." God is compassionate and each morning again He showers new mercies on His people.
It was thanks to God's mercy therefore that David's adultery did not mean the end of him. Although David and the Israelites deserved to perish, and we no less, God does not deal with His own according to His children's transgressions. Why not? "For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob" (Malachi 3:6). That we don't perish on account of our sins is thanks to Who our God is. Our God remains a God of great compassion, a God of infinite mercy. This God of ours forgives. His compassion is endless. To use the words of Psalm 103:11,12, "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." God has compassion and therefore He holds on to me, even when I fall into the most horrid of sins!
In His compassion God holds on to me "according to the unchangeable purpose of His election." God determined to save His elect and therefore they shall be saved, even if they fall into the worst possible sins. In his letter to the Philippians Paul thanked God, "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" (Philippians 1:6). What a wonderful Gospel this is! When I fall, I can depend on my God, confident that He will pick me up again. What a security there is for us in a God of such compassion. To fall into sin is no enjoyable experience for the child of God. Weak as I am, with only a small beginning of the obedience God requires of me, and under constant attack from the Devil, the world and my own flesh, I should not be surprised when I do fall into sin. But I should not despair, as if all is now lost. By no means! To use the words of the Form for the Baptism of Infants, "And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sins, we must not despair of God's mercy nor continue in sin, for baptism is a seal and trustworthy testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God" (Book of Praise, p.585). I need never despair in the face of my sin because I know Who my God is: a God of endless compassion, faithful to His promises. What a rich and delightful comfort I have in knowing this! To Him be all praise!!
ARMINIANS: BELIEVERS CAN AND DO FALL AND ARE ETERNALLY LOST
The richness of believing God's boundless compassion becomes all the more apparent when it is compared to what the Arminians at the Synod of Dort believed. The fathers summarised their teaching like this: "True regenerate believers not only can fall completely and definitely from justifying faith and also from grace and salvation, but indeed they often do fall from them and are lost forever" (Rejection of Errors No 3 - Error, Book of Praise, p.571). In other words, believers -people who live by the wonderful promises of God's forgiving grace, who are justified by the blood of Christ and are sanctified by the Holy Spirit- if they fall, they lose all of this, forever. Then they are justified no more, and sanctified no more. To have to believe this in the face of constant attack from the Devil, the world and my own flesh is so void of comfort. What blessed comfort it is then for the believer to recall what God says in His Word, "(My) compassions fail not. They are new every morning."
In their refutation of the above heresy of the Arminians, the fathers drew attention to Romans 5:8 where we read, "But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Before God began His work of salvation for us and in us, God knew what we were: sinful. Yet in spite of this He gave up His Son to death for us. When Christ died for us He knew we were sinners, sinful, and inclined to every evil. If God saved me when I was a sinner, if it is not my goodness which makes me acceptable, shall I then despair in the face of succumbing to sin? No, for He saved me when I was a sinner. In 1 John 3:9 we read, "Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God." God's seed abides in the believer and it shall not be taken out of him. Where the Lord has worked faith, that seed cannot be removed. This does not mean that we become perfect but rather, being born of God, we do not live in sin. John 10:28,29 gives a similar assurance concerning the believer not being able to fall to his eternal destruction. There Christ, the Good Shepherd, says, "And I give (My sheep) 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." No, I need never to despair. The mercy of my God is always there for me.
SIN AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT
The fathers also saw need to point out that it is because the mercy of God is so abundant and rich that God does not permit His own "to sink so deep that they fall away from the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin unto death or the sin against the Holy Spirit and, totally deserted by Him, plunge themselves into eternal ruin." The fathers confessed this in order to let Scripture speak against the Arminian error that "True regenerate believers can commit the sin unto death or the sin against the Holy Spirit." (Rejection of Errors No 4 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 572).
What is the sin against the Holy Spirit? In Matthew 12:31,32 we read that this is the one sin which cannot be forgiven. Said Christ, "Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." To the believer who finds that he has fallen into sin, finds himself conscious of having incurred God's wrath, that the exercising of his faith is stifled, and that heaven appears closed to him, it may appear that he has committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness. Consequently he concludes that he must be lost after all. However, the fathers say in Article 6 that God does not allow a child of His to fall that far. God holds on to his own and this knowledge is reassuring for the believer. See Diagram 2.
What then is the sin against the Holy Spirit? Contrary to what some believe, it is neither adultery nor blasphemy. In Matthew 12:22-30 the Pharisees claimed that Jesus cast out demons because he was filled with the devil. Said the Pharisees, "This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons." The Old Testament is clear as to what the deeds of the devil are, and this does not include the casting out of demons. The Old Testament is equally clear as to what it is the Son of God would do when He came to earth, and that included removing the consequences of sin. For years the Pharisees had heard, and busied themselves with, Scripture and they also heard Jesus' teaching. In spite of all this their response to Jesus' casting out of demons was to claim that 'He is of the Devil'. This was a blatant rejection of the Word of God and its promises; a rejection of the God who has revealed Himself through the Gospel. To know God but yet to say "I don't want Him" - for that sin there is no forgiveness.
"For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put him to an open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6). Although there is no direct mention in these verses of the sin against the Holy Spirit, it is a reference to it. These words were addressed to covenant people who had tasted God's covenant blessings. It is not people outside the Church who commit the sin against the Holy Spirit, but people in the Church. These are the hypocrites spoken of in Article 29, Belgic Confession, i.e. those "who are mixed in the Church along with the good and yet are not part of the Church, although they are outwardly in it." Knowing that I can fall, I am warned against falling so that I do not put myself at the risk of falling that far. To fall into sin is one thing; God offers forgiveness to the repentant sinner. However, to consciously choose to continue in sin and to turn one's back on God - for that there is no forgiveness. To have known God but then to harden one's heart and reject God is the sin against the Holy Spirit.
How far does God let us, His elect, fall? Does God let us fall to the point where we say, "I don't want the Gospel anymore?" Does God permit us to turn our back on Him, to reject Him totally? No, for the Lord holds on to His own. That a believer may at times wonder where God is, feel as though God doesn't care about him, find himself unwilling or unable to pray, is something different than a blatant rejection of God.
What great comfort and encouragement I derive then from knowing and believing that God does not let His own fall down to that point. It puts all the emphasis on God and what He does. The Arminians say, "I'll do it on my own", but the Reformed believe what God says: it all depends on Him. Therefore I am always safe.