The truth that God in His sovereign grace keeps His people and causes them to persevere in grace and salvation, makes the salvation of the people of God absolutely certain. Jesus Himself rejoices in this, declaring in John 10:27, 28, “My sheep hear My voice and I know them, and they follow Me: And I give unto them eternal lie; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My Father’s hand.” The power of that preserving grace and the certainty of perseverance bears fruit in the life of the child of God. The sheep of Christ follow Him, and He leads and guides them in paths of righteousness and holiness. Therefore the Apostle John in his First Epistle writes of the power of that grace of God in us, that we, being assured that we are the sons of God, and having the certainty of eternal life, manifest that hope in a life of sanctification and a godly walk. “And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (I John 3:3).
It is not surprising therefore that the Arminians, who deny the sovereign grace of God, should deny the truth of God’s preserving grace and of the saints’ perseverance. Nor is it surprising that they should make the believer’s assurance and certainty an object of their attack upon God’s grace. The challenge which they brought against this truth is subtle in its evil. For they charged that the certainty that one would persevere in grace, the doctrine of God’s sovereign preservation of His elect and the believer’s assurance of salvation, must invariably lead to a profane walk of life. Would not the believer who had no doubts become careless, complacent about his life and walk, since he was certain to persevere and since God would preserve him, no matter what? How much better to doubt one’s salvation. Such doubt would serve to spur the believer on to walk in obedience, to maintain good works carefully, and to live in holiness. But certainty and assurance would lead only to carnal security and licentiousness.
In doing this, the Arminians obscured their true charge with words which sounded fair and sensible, even reasonable. But their charge speaks with the wisdom of men, for at its root it is an attack upon the grace and holiness of God, for it charges the preserving and assuring grace of God with producing in the life of the child of God, not the fruit of righteousness, but of sin and indifference. It is nothing more than the charge against salvation by grace alone, the charge, “Let us sin that grace may abound,” brought in a new guise. The Scriptures are quick to answer that charge. We read in Romans 6:1, 2, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” The grace of preservation and assurance cannot work carnal security or licentiousness. God’s grace is the grace of a holy God, and the Scriptures teach that assurance and hope in the life of the believer are the spiritual means by which God works sanctification in us. Nor does the Lord ever allow His people to sit in spiritual complacency or to rest securely in the flesh, but He even humbles our pride and renews us to repentance, One need only read the account of David’s sin with Bathsheba to see that this is indeed the case. It is when the believer walks in sin and pride that he loses the conscious assurance of God’s favor and grace.
Our Reformed fathers at the Synod of Dordt were not slow to respond to this heinous charge of the Arminians. Nor did they concede one ounce of truth to it. In Canons V, Rejection of Errors VI, they emphatically reject the error of those who teach
that the doctrine of the certainty of per severance and of salvation from its own character and nature is a cause of indolence and is injurious to godliness, good morals, prayers and other holy exercises, but that on the contrary it is praiseworthy to doubt.
They point to Scripture and the lives of the saints to show the falsehood of this charge.
Over against this falsehood they take the position that doubt in the life of the child of God is “carnal” (Canons V, A. 11). While they recognize that believers “. . .in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election,. ..” (Canons I, A.12) yet they deny absolutely the conclusion that the Arminians draw (cf. Canons I, A. 13; V, A. 12, 13). It is assurance and hope, the certainty of perseverance which are the spiritual incentive to the child of God in his life and walk, the means by which God quickens faith into activity in thankfulness and gratitude.
Indeed it is the Arminian error which leads to dead works, for doubt leaves the child of God in misery and without thankfulness. Moreover, it produces not godliness but phariseeism, an outward keeping of Gods commandments out of a desire to persevere by one’s own efforts and works, out of a fear, not of God, but of punishment. It is the unbelieving pharisee who stands carnally secure, secure in his own works and self-righteousness. The child of God is secure in grace, not in the flesh.
It is therefore to be deplored that this Arminian error crept back into the Reformed churches not long after the Synod of Dordt and continues today. It entered the Reformed church during a time of spiritual decline and dead orthodoxy. The Reformed Church in the Netherlands was a state church. Moreover it was socially acceptable and profitable to be a member of that church. The result was that there were many in the church who were there for carnal reasons. Nor could discipline be properly exercised in the church because of state interference. Believers in the church were justly frustrated with the spiritual deadness of the church and in the preaching, often by heretics who could not be removed. Rationalism, the exaltation of human reason over revelation, also entered the church. The result, by way of reaction, was that Spener’s German pietism, which emphasized inward experiential religion, swept over the churches of the Netherlands.
In addition to this a similar situation had prevailed in the state church in England, and the writings of the Puritans who struggled with the same problems there, found ready acceptance in the Netherlands. These too taught an inward experientialism. There is much that is good and profitable in these writings. Nor is a healthy experientialism wrong, for indeed the whole of the Heidelberg Catechism is written from that perspective. Yet there were certain errors which came with these influences. The Puritans were weak in their doctrine of the covenant. They had been greatly influenced by Anabaptist ideas of a pure church on earth, a church of believers only. The Puritans began to teach a conditional covenant, sometimes called the half-way covenant, that while one was outwardly and formally a member of the church by baptism, true participation in the covenant of grace required an inward revelation and experience of assurance, rather than a growth in assurance as our Canons teach. The result was that one was called over to look within himself for signs of grace, to examine himself, to doubt his salvation. Conversion, regeneration, and assurance of faith became a hard-fought spiritual struggle with definite steps, eventually fixed in a certain order, culminating in a moment of revelation and conversion. This experience became the condition unto salvation which a man was to seek, through prayer and hearing of the Word, and by the power of a preparatory or common grace. One can very easily see the Anabaptist influence in such thought, for the Anabaptist needs such an experience in order to practice “believer’s only baptism.” The effect among the Puritans was that baptism was seen as bringing one only halfway into the covenant, and in order that those who had not had the experience of assurance or conversion might yet have their children baptized, profession of faith became only formal, a mere intellectual assent to the truth. This same doctrine entered the Dutch churches through the writings of the Puritans and it became pious and praiseworthy to doubt one’s salvation and assurance. Thus assurance came to be sought not outside oneself in Christ and His Word, but inwardly, by seeking to discern the marks of Christian experience, rather than the marks of a Christian. The necessary consequence of this was that many could not go to the Lord’s Supper, lest they eat and drink judgment to themselves. That which God had ordained for the comfort and quickening of the assurance of His people (Canons V, A.14) became an impossibility for many. The preaching of a well-meant offer also developed in this connection, in which the people of God were called to struggle to lay hold of God’s grace. Sinners were earnestly invited to seek the experience of conversion and assurance, to plead with the Lord for more grace.
This basically Heynsian conception of the covenant still survives in many Reformed churches today, particularly those that in practice follow the Arminian teaching that it is praiseworthy to doubt, and which are suspicious of assurance, deeming it carnal security. It is noteworthy that Canons V, Rejection of Errors V regard assurance based on special revelation or experience as also being Arminian and Papist.
The believer is secure, absolutely secure, not in the flesh, but in the power of grace and by the testimony of the Spirit, Who witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God. Doubt is not praiseworthy, but carnal. There are indeed marks of a child of God, and we can know them, but we do so in the way of clinging to the promises of God and by looking, not within ourselves, but to the Word of God and the cross of Christ, fighting the battle of faith and walking in daily conversion with a childlike faith. For He is faithful Who promised, and His Word can never be broken.