"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
In the preceding articles, the fathers confessed that believers in this life remain weak and prone to falling into sin (Article 2,4,5), but that God holds on to His own irrespective of what sins they fall into (Article 3,6). In Article 7 the fathers underline that it is God who holds on to the saints so that they do not fall away eternally.
WILL AGAIN RENEW HIS ELECT TO REPENTANCE
GOD PRESERVES IN THE SAINTS HIS IMPERISHABLE SEED OF REGENERATION
In Article 6 confession was made of the "God, who is rich in mercy." This God, said that article, "according to the unchangeable purpose of His election, does not completely withdraw His Holy Spirit from His own even in their deplorable fall. Neither does He permit them to ... plunge themselves into eternal ruin." Article 7 draws out why this might be. Said the fathers in Article 7, "For in the first place, in their fall, He preserves in them His imperishable seed of regeneration so that it does not perish and is not cast out." The fathers derived the word 'seed' from the following texts in Scripture:
- 1 John 3:9
"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."
John does not say here that the believer never falls or never commits sin, but rather that the believer does not fall and remain in his sin forever. The believer does not continue living in sin because God's seed remains in him. The believer is born of God. God has worked in the heart of the believer, put His seed in his heart.
- 1 Peter 1:22,23
"Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides for ever."
A corruptible seed is perishable, like the seed of the bean, the potato or wheat. From the planted seed grows a plant, but the seed itself perishes. However, with reference to the believer the apostle writes of a seed which grows into a plant and bears fruit without the seed perishing. This incorruptible seed, the seed of regeneration, being born again, is what God has worked in the believer. This incorruptible seed marks the beginning of a new life. In the event that the believer falls, the believer does not die in his fall, does not perish eternally, because he is born of an imperishable seed. Though the work of the Lord may remain hidden in the life of the believer, God, who has begun His work in the believer, holds on and completes His work. The seed planted by God never perishes.
This is not what the Arminians teach. Said they, "It is not absurd that one, having lost his first regeneration, is again and even often born anew" (Rejection of Errors, No 8 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 574). According to the Arminians the believer, though born again, can fall away from God so totally that the seed of regeneration God worked in his heart perishes. This, they add, can happen repeatedly. For that reason the fathers saw the need for Article 7, pointing out from Scripture that though the believer falls in this life, God's work of rebirth in the believer always remains and so never needs to be repeated.
HIS WORD AND SPIRIT GOD RENEWS HIS SAINTS TO REPENTANCE
God does not let the believer who has fallen into sin remain in his sin. In His time, God picks him up and restores him. God's Word remains effective, bearing fruit in the life of the believer so that he is brought back to repentance. This effective work of the Word was evident in David's life. In 2 Samuel 11 Scripture records David's sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. In 2 Samuel 12 we read of Nathan being sent to David and of the parable he tells David concerning a poor man who owned only one little lamb, and of a rich man who owned "exceedingly many flocks and herds" but stole and killed the poor man's lamb. In verse 7 we read how God's Word came to David in his specific situation, cutting into David's heart: "You are the man!" God acted upon David at His appointed time. As a result of Nathan's words God brought David to repentance and confession, causing David to say to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD" (vs 13). To use the words of the fathers in Article 7, God "through His Word and Spirit ... effectually renewed (David) to repentance."
Lord's Day 33.88-90 explains what repentance is and how the believer demonstrates repentance. "True repentance or conversion of man ... is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.... (The dying of the old nature) is to grieve with a heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it. (The coming to life of the new nature) is a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works." God's work of renewal to repentance in the heart of believers has this result, say the fathers: "they grieve from the heart with a godly sorrow for the sins they have committed." A godly sorrow on the part of the believer is a keen sense of having hurt God by sin and feeling heartfelt grief on account of this. The following Scripture texts illustrate such godly sorrow in repentant believers:
- Psalm 51:8,17
"Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which you have broken may rejoice.... The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart."
Psalm 51 records David's repentance of his sin with Bathsheba. The psalm makes clear that David's repentance was not just a general confession of sinfulness, but a brokenness on account of hurting God by the adultery and murder he had committed. In speaking of broken bones David does not mean that his bones were physically broken on account of his sin, but that the specific sins he committed against God and his neighbour bothered him to the core of his being. David was not just sorry; he felt broken inside.
- Matthew 27:74,75
"Then (Peter) began to curse and swear, saying, "I do not know the man!" And immediately a cock crowed. And Peter remembered he word of Jesus who had said to him, "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Then he went out and wept bitterly."
Peter fell into sin, but God preserved him in his fall and brought him to repentance very soon after his fall. As soon as the cock crowed Peter recalled his master's words. His depth of his grief in the face of his sin is pointed up not just by the fact that he "wept", but by the fact that he wept "bitterly". This was not a shallow repentance!
SORROW OF THE WORLD PRODUCES DEATH
In 2 Corinthians 7:9,10 we read that on account of a transgression amongst the saints in the Church at Corinth, there were two kinds of sorrow possible: a "godly sorrow", such as that of David and Peter, and a 'sorrow of the world' which produces death. Paul says, "Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death."
Scripture texts which illustrate the sorrow of the world:
- Matthew 27:3
"Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that he had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood", and they said, "What is that to us? You see to it!" Then he threw down the pieces of sliver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself."
Judas' remorse on account of his sin of betrayal and his subsequent suicide provide an example of the sorrow of the world. It was not a repentance in the sense of sorrow that God was hurt and hence not a godly sorrow. If anything, one may rather speak here of self pity.
- Hebrews 12:16,17
... "lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterwards, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears."
Esau shed tears, but they were not tears of repentance for his repentance was not a sorrow driven by the fact that he had hurt his God. Hence his sorrow led to death.
REPENTANCE WORKED BY GOD PRODUCES FIRST GODLY SORROW, FOLLOWED BY A HEARTFELT JOY
The repentance God works in the hearts of believers produces first a godly sorrow on account of having offended God by sin, but it also produces "a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works" (LD 33.90). This we learn from David's life. In Psalm 32 David says that he felt God's heavy hand pressing down on him, so that he was driven to the point of repentance. As a result of God working this repentance in him, David says in verses 1 and 11, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.... Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!" David expresses the joy God worked in his life by driving him to repentance from sin. Though the believer falls, God preserves him, leads him to a repentance which produces godly grief and sorrow, after which God allows him to again experience His favour. Returned to God's favour, the believer experiences the heartfelt joy expressed in Psalm 32. As a result, the repentant believer desires to be busy with God's Word.
To use the words of Article 7, believers, having grieved from the heart with a godly sorrow on account of their sins and having sought forgiveness in the blood of Christ, "again experience the favour of a reconciled God and adore His mercies and faithfulness and ... they more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling."
GRACE OF THE TRIUNE GOD PRESERVES
The Arminian stressed that perseverance of the believer depends not on election, nor on what Christ obtained through His death, but only on man's free will, on whether or not man believes. To take away any confusion on the point, the fathers made it their business to devote another article to defend the doctrine of Scripture that the preservation of the believer, even in his fall, is all God's doing alone, apart from any input of man.
Said the Arminians,
"The perseverance of the true believers 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 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 570).
"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).
The Arminians lay all the accent on the believer. According to them, the fallen believer can only be restored if he so chooses. God may extend a helping hand to the fallen believer, they say, but the believer's restoration and perseverance depends ultimately on the believer availing himself of the help God offers; man must "do his duty."
The fathers therefore commence Article 8 by restating what has already been confessed in Articles 1-7 concerning the weakness of the believer and his total dependence on God for preservation: "So it is not through their own merits or strength but through the undeserved mercy of God that they neither totally fall back from faith and grace nor persist in their backslidings and are finally lost." The fathers give God alone all the credit for the believer's preservation. The humbling truth of this is pointed up all the more by the next revealing statement, that "As far as (the believers) are concerned, this (falling back from faith and grace, persisting in their backslidings and being eternally lost) could not only easily happen but would undoubtedly happen." With the words of LD 52.127, we confess that "In ourselves we are so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment." If God didn't hold on to me, I would most definitely fall. It is a humbling reality: if my preservation depended on me, I would be eternally lost. This reality makes the following words so wonderfully rich: "But as far as God is concerned, this cannot possibly happen...." The wealth of this statement is what the fathers worked out in the rest of the article by means of confession of the work of the triune God with respect to the preservation of the believer.
WORK OF GOD THE FATHER
The believer is preserved in his fall, for, "as far as God is concerned ... His counsel cannot be changed, His promise cannot fail, the calling according to His purpose cannot be revoked ...."
1) God's counsel cannot be changed
The Arminians said that the perseverance of the saints does not depend on God having elected anybody. However, Scripture speaks differently. There God teaches that before the beginning of the world, God decided that some men shall be saved and receive the crown of glory; no-one would be able to pluck them out of His hand for, "The counsel of the LORD stands for ever" (Psalm 33:11). With reference to the "election of grace", Paul writes in Romans 11:7 that "the elect have obtained it." It is solely God's doing that the elect (not some but all of them) have obtained the election of grace. God's counsel stands. God has elected and so we are safe.
2) God's promise cannot fail
"But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one" (2 Thessalonians 3:3). In the face of attacks from "unreasonable and wicked men" (vs 2), the Lord remains faithful. His promise that I am His stands firm: "For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall my covenant of peace be removed, says the LORD who has mercy on you." (Isaiah 54:10). Though Satan may try his utmost to snatch me out of God's hand, I may trust that God's promise in John 10:28-30 cannot fail. There Jesus says, "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. I and my Father are one."
3) The calling according to God's purpose cannot be revoked
"... 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). God has elected a certain number. These specific persons are all called to faith, with as result that they all believe and so are justified. These particular ones, though, cannot fall away for "these He also glorified." Paul is so certain that the elect (= the called = the justified) will all be glorified (on the day of Christ's return) that he uses the past tense: "these He also glorified." Here is the unbreakable chain of predestination, justification and glorification of His elect. The number of the elect = the number of the justified = the number of the glorified. None will be missing, simply because the calling according to God's purpose cannot be revoked. As Jesus said: No one is able to snatch them out of my Father's hand." And Paul said it elsewhere too: "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). When the children of God fall into sin, they cannot be lost. Rather, they shall certainly reach their goal because God is who He is.
WORK OF GOD THE SON
The believer is preserved in his fall, for, "... the merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ cannot be nullified...."
1) The merit of Christ
The merit of Christ is a reference to His work on the cross by which He obtained for the elect the forgiveness of sins, righteousness and eternal life. There is forgiveness for my sins through the blood the Saviour shed for me on Calvary. So when I fall into sin, I need not despair that all is now lost; there remains forgiveness in the blood of Christ. His work on the cross covered all my sin for "Christ came as high priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:11,12). With His own blood Christ came into the presence of God. No matter how gross the sin I commit, be it the adultery or murder David committed, or Peter's blasphemy and denial, Christ's redemptive work adequately covers it. God the Father has chosen me for life eternal, and so no sin of mine can nullify the merit of Christ's work.
2) The intercession of Christ
From 1 John 2:1 we learn that Christ intercedes for us before the Father in Heaven. "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." In heaven today Christ is busy pleading with the Father for the sake of those for whom He died. As it were, He reminds the Father, in the face of our sins, that He died for us, and so God has already accepted us as righteous before Him (see Zechariah 3:1-5). Paul, in Romans 8:34, jubilates that there is no one in all creation -not even God Himself!- who will condemn us any more. He gives this explanation for his certainty: "It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us." The same Saviour who gave up His life for our sins is today at the right hand of God - doing for our benefit the work of a lawyer! Truly, "Christ has entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us" (Hebrews 9:24; cf LD 18.49a). Today we benefit so enormously from Christ's presence in heaven! No sin today can turn the Father's favour away from His own! It is as we confess in the Belgic Confession, Article 26: "If, therefore, we had to look for another intercessor, could we find one who loves us more than He who laid down His life for us, even while we were His enemies? If we had to look for one who has authority and power, who has more than He who is seated at the right hand of the Father and who has all authority in heaven and on earth? Moreover, who will be heard more readily than God's own well-beloved Son?" Though I in my weakness may fall into sin, I need not despair, for Christ's intercessory work cannot be nullified.
From Luke 22:31,32 I learn how effective Christ's intercessory work is. Said the Lord to Peter, "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." In God's presence Christ prayed for Peter. Peter most certainly fell, blaspheming and denying His Saviour, but so effective was Christ's intercessory work for Peter, that as soon as the cock crowed, Peter remembered what Jesus had said to him and he went out and wept bitterly. (See Matthew 26:74,75).
Christ's intercessory work is effective for every believer. Says Paul in Romans 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit." In verse 34 (as already just quoted) Paul gives the reason, "Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us." So convinced is Paul that Christ's work in heaven on his behalf is effective that he breaks out in song in the verses 38,39: "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." God loves me in Christ and therefore nothing will separate me from God or God from me.
3) The preservation of Christ
In John 10:28 Christ assures us that He holds on to us eternally so that we shall never perish. "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand." This knowledge is a source of rich comfort for the believer. Therefore with the words of LD 1 I confess that my only comfort in life and death is this, "That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus 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." No matter the circumstance of my life, whether I stand strong in faith or fall into sin, my comfort is that I belong to Christ my Saviour who has paid for all my sins, even my sins of adultery, murder, blasphemy or denial of Him. I cannot even fall into sin without the will of my heavenly Father. Indeed, even my fall into sin -and I sin daily- works together for my salvation. As LD 1 continues: my comfort in the face of my sin is that my Saviour Jesus Christ "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."
WORK OF GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT
Article 8 speaks also of the 'the sealing of the Holy Spirit." These words we find in Ephesians 1:13,14: "In him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of his glory." Just as certificates or other official documents bear a seal as a guarantee of their authenticity, so the sealing of the Holy Spirit guarantees that the promises God directed to us are real for us (cf LD 18.49c). This sealing of the Holy Spirit, said the fathers, "can neither be frustrated nor destroyed." Though the believer may fall, the sealing of the Holy Spirit remains.
Triune God -Father, Son and Holy Spirit- holds on to His people so that they shall not perish. Let the Arminians believe that true regenerate believers can and often do fall to their eternal destruction unless "they do their duty", but we shall stand by what God tells us in His Word and seals by His Spirit: we are always safe with Him, no matter what may happen in our lives and no matter how deeply we may fall. Fall we may, even often, but never to our eternal ruin, for our God will never let go of us. Our preservation is His doing alone. To Him therefore be all our thanks and glory.
ASSURANCE OF THIS PRESERVATION
Articles 1-8 spoke of the believer's vulnerability to sin, and insisted that even in the face of repeated fall into sin, God holds on to His own, always. These articles pointed up the weakness of the believer, the strength of God, and therefore the safety and security of the believer in God's hand. This reality does not and can not change because God is GOD. With Article 9 the fathers move on to a new topic, focusing on how the believer experiences this delightful Gospel.
The believer may know that God's elect are always safe, but he may not always experience it that way. Human as we are, we have our doubts and questions. Should we in turn feel bad because we doubt? In Articles 9-13 the fathers shift their focus to our human reactions and responses to the wealth of the contents of Articles 1-8.
What gave rise to the mention of this element of the believer's assurance of his preservation was the following error of the Arminians: "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). In their refutation of this error, the fathers made reference to "the followers of the pope," for the Arminians were re-introducing the Roman Catholic teaching that one can never be certain of his perseverance unless he receives some sort of special revelation. Although Article 9 does not elaborate on the grounds of the believer's assurance (this is the material of Article 10), the fathers simply state in Article 9 that the believer can be sure: "Believers themselves can be certain and are certain of this preservation of the elect to salvation and the perseverance of true believers in the faith."
The certainty of God's promises does not depend on how we feel. Whether or not I feel God's promises to be true is irrelevant to the fact that they are true. By the grace of God we are allowed to be sure that God is faithful to His Word and promises. In John 10:28 Jesus gave the assurance that His own shall never perish for they are eternally safe in His hand and in Romans 8:39 Paul writes that there is absolutely nothing which can separate us from the love of God. So sure is Paul of attaining the goal God has set for him, that he writes in 2 Timothy 4:7,8,18 "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing... And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom." Here Paul speaks with conviction. He has not a single doubt that he will get there because he has learned from Scripture that God holds on to His own.
"This assurance is according to the measure of their faith ." The one person, like Paul for example, is strong in the Lord without any doubts, but another person may feel certain the one day, but not be so sure the next. Isn't that the reality of the Christian life? In Ephesians 4 we read how the Lord gave office-bearers "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ", with this goal: "till we all come to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into him who is the head - Christ - from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:12-16). Here Paul characterises the Ephesians as children who need to grow; grow in the Lord. Officebearers have been given so that the children of God may grow from childhood to manhood, from small-in-assurance to strong-in-assurance, convinced that the work of God in Jesus Christ has been done not just for the benefit of others but also for my benefit.
Lest there be the thought in my mind that I doubt too much and therefore do not have true faith after all, I need to be mindful of the fact that I remain touched by the brokenness of this life and therefore my faith will go up and down. I need to grow in faith and hence in assurance, but I will never reach full maturity in this respect in this life. Many of the Psalms give evidence of saints whose assurance fluctuated. See for example Psalm 13. David, a man after God's heart, a man who loved the Lord, begins this Psalm feeling downcast: "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever? How long will You hid Your face from me?" (vs 1). There certainly is no expression of joy here. Rather, David is plagued by doubt, feels distant from God, is ready to despair: "Consider and hear me, O LORD my God; enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed against him"; lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved" (vs 3,4). Yet, David immediately proceeds on a much more positive note: "But I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation" (vs 5). God Himself holds on to David in his down moments, and carries him forward again to greater assurance. So doubt is replaced by joy: "I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me" (vs 6). Notice how doubt and certainty lie close together. Isn't that a normal experience for the Christian?
I can be assured that God holds on to me, but the certainty will nevertheless go up and down according to the measure of my faith - and that can vary from day to day and from circumstance to circumstance. In order to be encouraged, therefore, I must keep the promises of God before my eyes. God wants me to cling to the promise that He holds on to me, no matter what. The certainty of God's promises depends not on my feelings, but on the Giver of the promise. God is always faithful and therefore His Word of promise is my most trustworthy assurance that He will hold on to me always, even when I fall into sin, and He will preserve me for His heavenly kingdom where I will wear the crown of righteousness which He today already has laid up for me.