Canons of Dordt, Head IV: Man’s conversion to God and the manner thereof

In Head IV of the Canons, the head that sets forth the truth of “irresistible grace,” are to be found some of the most exquisite phrases not only in the Canons but in all the great Reformed confessions.

When describing how the Holy Spirit deals with those whom He intends to save, the Canons declare that the Spirit’s regenerating grace does not do violence to our wills, “…but spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it; that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign…” (III/IV, 16).

And again, in describing how God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, He “…by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will.” (III/IV, 11).

The language of poetry and wonder. This is only proper in light of the fact that what the Canons is describing is essentially a second creation wonder, the beginning of a new creation in God’s chief creature, man—the beginning of restoring what will one day be the full restoration of the image of God.

And when a creative work takes place, the “morning stars [sing] together; and all the sons of God [shout] for joy” (Job 38:7). Contemplation of God’s creative works always move sons of God to wonder and praise.

Head IV explains (gives the biblical explanation for) how it can be that fallen and spiritually dead men, men who moreover are living in rebellion, can live again.

And not only that, but only some live again, not all. Why? What is it that makes men to differ in the end? Some alive and rebellious no longer; others rebellious against the will of the true God and despising His Son until the day of their deaths.

Head IV speaks of salvation in terms of ‘conversion,’ which is a conscious turning from sin, a renouncing it, unto the ways of God in faith and repentance. The gospel call, “Turn ye, turn ye,” goes out to all. Some turn, con­fessing Christ as Lord and Savior, while others do not.

What accounts for this difference?

Over this question arose the great controversy in the Netherlands between the Reformed Calvinists and their Arminian counterparts (who also claimed to be Reformed).

The issue of contention revolved about the freedom of man’s will. As other articles in this issue make plain, it is not that the Arminians flat-out denied predestina­tion altogether or man’s extensive depravity. They paid a lip service to salvation all by God’s grace. But in the end the decisive factor that determines for every man or woman whether they are to be saved or not is whether or not they so willed salvation, whether one gave one’s consent to God or not, without which permission grant­ed by man’s free will the sovereign God’s will to save cannot be accomplished or prevail.

In Arminianism, it is a man exercising his alleged ‘free will’ to accept what God offers in the interest of their salvation that explains why some differ spir­itually from others in this life, and are converted and saved.

When it comes to salvation all of grace the Arminians are slippery in their explanation. In their fourth point they declare that if any sinner is saved it can only be ascribed to God’s marvelous grace (first prevenient!, then saving). However, “with respect to the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible [!]….”

In other words, when it comes to what God desires to accomplish in a man by His grace, that grace is resist­ible. Whether or not the Spirit will enter a man’s heart to renew it hinges on the decisive choice of a man’s will… Acts 7:51 is cited as proof.

In Acts 7:51 Stephen declared to the Jews, “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.”

So, resistible grace.

Such is shoddy exegesis. As the verse following makes plain, Stephen is not referring to the Jews resist­ing some grace of the Spirit by which He desired to save them one and all, but he is referring to their resisting the words of the prophets, calling the nation to repent and denounce their idolatrous ways.

Stephen’s pointed point was, “In resisting the gospel, you as a miserable stiff-necked nation are guilty not just of resisting the words of men, but of the Holy Ghost Himself! Because who else was it who spoke through the prophets but the Holy Ghost?!”

Such was the enormity of the nation’s sin before God.

But of God desiring to save the whole Jewish na­tion and of a grace powerless to save though the Spirit yearned to do so the passage speaks not a word.

Nor does any other.

What then is the explanation for the fact that in the human race there are two kinds of people—the convert­ed and saved in contrast to the lost and unbelieving? What is it that makes one to differ, to be numbered with the redeemed and renewed?

The Canons give answer, an answer that magnifies the Holy Spirit and that humbles man.

What makes one to differ from another is the wonder of regeneration. As Christ declared to Nicodemus, “Ex­cept a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3).

The Canons speak glowingly of this regeneration, describing it as “…highly celebrated in Scripture and denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid; …a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable…” (III/IV, 12).

When it comes to salvation, every theologian and be­liever is confronted by the great question, why is one (myself) born again and another not?

The Arminian answer is that some, having heard the gospel, find in themselves (ourselves) the wisdom to make the spiritual choice to believe, granting the Spirit permission to enter their hearts so that they might be born again. And thus one distinguishes himself from the foolishness of the rest.

The Canons’ answer stands in stark contrast.

“But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will [better is, “as though man through a free will…”], whereby one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion.; but it must be wholly ascribed to God, who as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He confers upon them faith and repentance…, and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son…” (III/IV, 10).

So, election (God’s sovereign determination) is the decisive reason and, in accordance with the Creator’s will, the Holy Spirit with irresistible power enters a man’s heart, breathing newness of life. Accordingly, one is born again, having no more say in this second birth than he had in his own physical birth.

It is out of this sovereignly bestowed and worked newness of life that faith and repentance are called into expression by the gospel summons.

In the Arminian scheme of things, first comes the gospel call (as an invitation), then comes faith as a man decides to believe what he has heard, and then follows regeneration (being born again). This implies, of course, that a man is able, by his free will, to display the spiritu­al virtue of faith before he is spiritually alive. A contra­diction in terms. It can only mean that in reality no one is really spiritually dead—nearly so, perhaps, sick unto death, but not completely so.

In the Reformed and biblical scheme of things, being born again by the grace of the Holy Spirit comes first, and faith and all other spiritual activities follow. Before one can believe, the will of a man must be set free from bondage to sin and death.

This the Holy Spirit accomplishes in whomsoever He wills. Whom the Spirit yearns to save, earnestly desires to save, He saves. He is not frustrated as Spirit, unable to penetrate a man’s heart where He is not first wel­comed and accepted. If such were the case, who would be converted and saved?

Put that question to the apostle Paul and the answer would come back with a vigor. “By grace I was saved, through faith; and that not of myself, it was the gift of God!” (cf. Eph. 2:8)

In other words, not grace offered, and one deciding by faith to take advantage of this wonderful ‘well-meant offer,’ but grace worked, and the fruit of that grace is the faith that results.

Not that Paul as unconverted Saul did not at first resist the Spirit’s word through the apostles, “Confess yourself to be a damnworthy sinner, Saul of Tarsus, you young Pharisee, one standing in need of grace found only in the name of this Jesus.” He resisted that call with fierce vigor, with all his will-power.

And then something happened to him—not only a voice from heaven, but an irresistible word within: “Let there be life and light!” (a “spiritual quickening,” and a will “sweetly and powerfully” bent from rebellion to obedience, a will set free, III/IV, 16). The Spirit had secretly “pervade[d] the inmost recess” of another elect child’s heart (cf. Art. 11).

Saul could not resist the Christ’s saving will: “[H]e is a chosen vessel unto me” (Acts 9:15). As reportedly was said later by a proud, defeated Caesar, “Galilean, thou hast conquered!”

The Galilean, by His Spirit, always does.

As the Canons put it: “Faith is therefore to be con­sidered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him…” (III/IV, 14).

The praise, the glory, the credit goes to almighty God.

But note, the Canons also make plain that part of that glory is how God accomplishes this, namely, with­out doing violence to our being “creatures endowed with understanding and will” (III/IV, 16).

Violating our creaturehood was exactly the Arminians’ charge against the Reformed.

Such was a calumny.

Rather, God works in such a way that His regenera­tion “does not…take away our will and its properties…neither does violence thereto,” but rather renews the heart so that “…a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign, in which the true and spiritual resto­ration and freedom of our will consist” (III/IV, 16).

The freedom of our wills restored. Something that Article 12 labels as “mysterious, and ineffable.” Ineffable. A word difficult to understand? How ap­propriate. Because so it is difficult to understand the mystery of God sovereignly transforming us by His irresistible grace, in such a way that He does not do violence to our being rational, moral, choosing crea­tures. Not completely explainable, but nonetheless true!

God works in such a way that when the gospel is declared, we ourselves “…do actually believe. Where­upon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received” (III/IV, 12).

What the Canons mean is that man is rightly said to believe and repent in response to the gospel call, “Who­soever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).

And the graced sinner freely, joyfully obeys.

Calvinistic truth does not contradict Scripture and its “whosoever wills.”

But, for this ability to hear, ponder, turn, and to be­lieve, all the praise and the glory goes to God and not to self.

The Reformed, Calvinistic, apostolic truth of irre­sistible grace is humbling. And not only before God, but also before our fellow man.

We as believing Protestant Reformed Calvinists, still holding so strongly to the old paths and truths, are different from many others—in some cases, strikingly so.

What shall we then conclude? We are superior? Away with all others?!

Let the Canons remind us, “And as to others, who have not yet been called, it is our duty to pray for them to God, who calls the things that are not as if they were. But we are in no wise to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we have made ourselves to differ” (III/IV, 15).

Haughtiness towards others! That makes one an Arminian, though one calls oneself a Calvinist. As if we made ourselves to differ! Rather, the true Calvinist prays for those who have not yet been led into life and all the truth as oneself (as did a certain converted Saul of Tarsus for his countrymen). Such is the evidence of Christ’s Spirit in us, nothing less.

In the end, to our God of gospel truth and saving power be all the glory.

As the Canons put it, “He therefore who becomes the subject of this grace [that works conversion and faith] owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever” (III/IV, 15).