This article was first published in the October 15, 1997 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol. 74, no. 2), part of a special Reformation issue on the Synod of Dordt, the 400th anniversary of which we commemorate this year and next.
When the Enemy launched a full frontal assault against the doctrinal walls of the church, the church responded with a ‘Canons’ blast of confessional truth to ward off the assault, to show that there is plenty of life in the old city yet, and that those “set for the defense of the gospel” (Phil. 1:17) do not intend to yield one precious inch of the heritage of truth once delivered to the saints. This had been the response of the church in the fourth and fifth centuries when the person and natures of Christ suffered direct assault. She responded with the ‘Christological’ creeds. This was the response of the church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well. What came from Dordt was just such a ‘Canons’ blast in confessional form. Arminianism was a full frontal assault against the apostolic gospel, aiming at the heart of the gospel, namely, grace!—the grace so recently restored by the Reformers to the preaching (Gal. 1:6).
A study of the Canons gives instruction about the strategy the general synod used in its battle against Arminianism, where it began and what it emphasized.
Significant, first, is the heavy reliance of the Canons on the Scriptures, quoting the Word of God again and again in its counter blasts. This is especially true of the First Head. The four sections that follow make regular reference to Scripture, but the First Head is especially loaded with biblical quotes and proof texts. In the first two articles there are five passages referred to (one of which is John 3:16, of all things—reminding us that there are no ‘Arminian passages’). And Article 3 basically is a quotation of Romans 10:14, 15. Biblical passages multiply from there. Clearly, the Canons are not interested in abstract doctrinal debate, in matching wits, or in an exercise of logic as has been charged, but in expounding the Word of God. They demonstrate that that is all Calvinism (the Reformed faith) really is, an explanation of the Bible according to its own words.
A confession loaded with God’s Word is devastating to the foe of heresy. Of course, you had better believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God, or you have no ammunition for your ‘guns.’ You have no weapons at all. Today the ‘Canons’ (with the other creeds) are museum pieces in most churches. Reformed churches may show them off a few Sunday mornings a year (you have to hit it right). And the pulpiteering tour-guides themselves are Arminians. Is it any wonder that there is not anyone really living in those churches anymore? It makes you weep. Reject the Scriptures as the very Word of God, and you have spiked the Canons. They roar no longer. “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem….”
Dordt was a better day.
We associate the Canons with five points (of Calvinism), as well we should. There are five (main) heads of doctrine. Significantly, they are called the “doctrines of grace.” Precisely correct. The general synod saw clearly what was at stake, where the main thrust of Arminianism and the Enemy was, namely, at grace!—the purity and the power of grace.
Salvation all of grace! This is Calvinism. This is the Reformed faith, heart and soul. Grace—God’s favor and saving power contrary to all deserving. And anything that diminishes or tarnishes or is inconsistent with that truth—salvation all of God’s free grace—is to be refuted and rejected. This was Paul’s blast against the Judaizers and their law-works in his day (Rom. 11:6), and so it has ever been for Christ’s true and faithful church. This is what the synod was set on defending and also setting forth in clear, unmistakable language. So, early on (I, 5), the Canons quote Ephesians 2:8—“For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves….”
Significantly, in the Canons, the synod began with the doctrine “Of Divine Predestination.” We learn the five points by beginning with ‘T’ for TULIP and “Total Depravity.” The Canons, however, as do the articles of the Remonstrance, begin with God’s sovereign election. Why? In the interests of “grace.” There is no doctrine that demonstrates so clearly and powerfully that salvation is all of God, not of man’s ability or worth, than does eternal election. “…in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children…to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Eph. 1:4, 5, 6—quoted in I, 7). Why is one man saved, and not another? Why is one able to believe and love the Lord, but another, perhaps one’s twin brother, not able and not willing? Shall I (you) boast superior in wisdom or worth? Of course not. It is election, the distinguishing grace of a merciful God (cf. I, 6, 7).
In the third place, note that though the Canons begin with the doctrine of predestination, yet they begin their treatment of predestination by referring to the sin of Adam and its universal consequences, bringing all under the wrath of God.
Why? Because the synod was not interested simply in out-arguing and outflanking the Arminians, and hence showing all the logical errors and fallacies in Arminian thinking. The synod had preeminently a pastoral concern. The gospel, with its comfort, was at stake. We hold to divine predestination not simply because it is the only theology logically consistent, but because predestinating grace is so absolutely necessary. Without it, what sinner, dead in trespasses and sins, could possibly be saved? Our lost condition is what makes God’s electing will and grace essential. From the outset the Canons are pastoral in their approach. That pastoral approach is woven throughout the Canons, bringing comfort even to grieving parents who have just lost another little one to the grave (I, 17).
A fourth element worth noting is the Canons’ extensive treatment of the wonder of regeneration (III/IV, 11-16). These articles stand among the most beautiful sections of any of the great Christian creeds you care to name. The phrase that the grace of regeneration “spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends [the will]” is one of the most exquisite phrases found anywhere in any creed (Art. 16).
Crucial to being a Calvinist in distinction from an Arminian is one’s position on the relationship of regeneration to faith, and that of regeneration to conversion. Which comes first? The Arminian puts one’s faith and conversion first. One shows spiritual activity (of a major sort) before one is even born again. The Canons sweetly and powerfully refute such error. First one is born again (whereby the Spirit of God “pervades the inmost recesses of the man…and infuses new qualities into the will” [III/IV, 11]), and then follows faith and conversion. And by this spiritual life bestowed, God renders the will “good, obedient, and pliable” (Art. 11). “And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture…” (Art. 12). This is truly Reformed. God must graciously bestow spiritual life before dead man can be spiritually active.
Also in connection with its treatment of regeneration, the synod answered the Arminians’ recurring accusation that the upshot of promoting a sovereign, electing, efficacious grace is practical antinomianism, a Christianity with little emphasis on godliness and spiritual activity in life. After all, it is God who has taken care of everything anyway. The recurring allegation was that high Calvinists “treat men as senseless stocks and blocks…” (III/IV, 16). Many a Reformed man today has backed off from full-fledged Calvinism, evidently persuaded by this allegation.
Nothing is more contrary to the truth. As the Canons make clear, the work of efficacious grace does not ignore the will of man, but powerfully affects it and then uses it. As Article 12 states, “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” (emphasis added). And any zealot who in the name of his own Calvinism would minimize the call to a godly life and good works, excusing himself on the basis of his own weakness and corruption, must contend with the Canons that declare that God, when He “…infuses new qualities into the will…actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions” (III/IV, 11). Godliness is found, or one’s will has not yet been set free, nor one’s heart renewed.
Does Calvinism minimize the preaching of the gospel and its urgent call to faith and repentance? Quite the contrary. “And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments” (V, 14).
And, finally, note that each head has a rejection of errors in addition to its positive development of truth. The synod shut the gates of the city to a variety of errors and to those who teach such things as well. Teachings that threaten the gospel and are contrary to it are identified each in turn. The fathers of Dordt were not interested in ecumenical fellowship with churchmen who promoted errors contrary to the sovereign, free grace of the gospel. They were willing to discuss these things with others to show them the errors involved, but not in inviting them into the city to join in some common defense. Defense of what? If one does this with Rome or the Arminians, step-children of the fearful error of Pelagianism, he will find the guns turned against his own walls and foundations in short order. Either that or the powder becomes so watered down that it will discharge nothing.
Dordt reminds us, not only that we must stand for the right, but also that we must speak against error. We are all for unity, but unity in love for the gospel of sovereign, free grace. Those who would embrace those whom the synod rejected, must hear again the ‘Canons’ roar. It is the roar of Jerusalem’s King.