The first head of doctrine in the Canons of Dordt sets forth the Reformed teaching regarding divine predestination, and exposes some errors regarding that doctrine. I will explain the Arminian error that our Reformed fathers rejected, summarize the positive teaching of the first head, and evaluate the Reformed response. Unless otherwise noted, every article of the Canons to which I refer is found in Head I.
The Arminian error: Reprobation
Simon Episcopius, the Arminians’ spokesman at the Synod of Dordt, said: “We do not so much scruple at the doctrine of Election; but it is in that of Reprobation that the difficulty lies.”1 For this reason the Arminians wanted the Synod to focus on reprobation, and not address the doctrine of election.
To be clear, the Arminians did not deny that some would go to hell. Rather, they denied that God had in eternity appointed specific individuals to hell. According to them, God determined that all people who put themselves in a certain category would go to hell— those who, after hearing the gospel and being given a fair opportunity to believe, would choose unbelief and disobedience. Because infants who died in infancy are not given this “fair opportunity,” the Arminians denied that any such children, whether born to believers or unbelievers, went to hell.
Our Reformed fathers were not convinced that the Arminian error was limited to reprobation. For one thing, the logical relation of reprobation to election gave them pause: if God decreed to reprobate a category of people but not specific individuals, would the same not be true of His decree of election? And if He punishes some solely because of their unbelief and disobedience, what role do faith and obedience play in God’s election to salvation?
In addition, our Reformed fathers knew what the Arminians had written in “The Remonstrance,” a document that they presented at a conference in The Hague in 1610:
God, by an eternal and unchangeable decree in His Son, Christ Jesus, before laying the foundation of the world, determined, out of the human race fallen in sin, to save those in Christ, on account of Christ, and through Christ, who through the grace of the Holy Spirit, would believe on His same Son, and who would persevere in that very faith and obedience of faith, through the same grace without ceasing to the end; but on the other hand, to leave the obstinate and unbelieving under sin and wrath, and condemn them as alienated from Christ.2
On the basis of this, our Reformed fathers concluded that the Arminian error also pertained to election.
The Arminian error: Conditional election
At the root of the Arminian error was their view that election is conditional, that is, that God chooses to save those who believe and obey, because they have believed and obeyed. The quotation from “The Remonstrance” indicates this: God chose to save those who “would believe…and who would persevere in that very faith and obedience…to the end.” The Arminians quickly added that faith and obedience and perseverance are of grace, but they redefined grace as “a gentle advising” (III/IV, B, 7)3 that is common to all men (III/IV, 10; B, 5) rather than as God’s almighty and irresistible work in the elect.
Viewing election as conditional, the Arminians denied that God elected particular individuals to salvation. Rather, He chose a certain category of men—those who believe, obey, and persevere to the end in faith and obedience (B, 1, 3).
What of the person who believes for a while, even experiences for a time the benefits of believers, but then falls away? The Arminians taught that there were various kinds of election—a general and indefinite, regarding those who believe for a time but do not persevere to the end, and a particular and definite, regarding those who ultimately go to heaven (B, 2, 5). Because of these various kinds of election, some elect perish (B, 6), so that no one can be assured in this life that he is chosen to heavenly glory (B, 7).
These statements in the Rejection of Errors are not just words that the Reformers put into the mouths of the Arminians; they are borrowed from “The Opinions of the Remonstrants,” a document that the Arminians wrote at and submitted to the Synod of Dordt.4
Head one: The Reformed response
The first part of Head I sets forth positively the teaching of Scripture regarding election (7-14) and reprobation (15), and gives pastoral implications (13-14, 16-18).
Article 7 is a beautiful confessional statement regarding God’s electing grace. The article emphasizes 1) that God appointed a specific number of people to everlasting life (“He…hath…chosen…a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ”); 2) that the necessity of His having chosen them in Christ was that He knew they would be sinners; 3) that the elect know they are elect even before death, because in this life God gives them all the blessings of salvation; and 4) that election is “of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will.”
Articles 9 and 10 elaborate on the unconditional character of this election. Article 9 emphasizes that man’s faith and holiness are not the reason for election, but the fruit and effect of election. Article 10 explains “the sole cause of this gracious election” as being “the good pleasure of God.”
Because election is God’s sovereign work, He has but one decree of election, not several (8); this one decree is unchangeable (11); and God assures His elect that they are elect, though in various degrees and different measures (12).
Article 15 sets forth the doctrine of reprobation, namely, that God eternally determined to leave others in the misery of sin, not giving them faith and conversion, but letting their sin work out their own ruin. The reprobate are a specific number, the number of all those who are not elect. By appointing them to everlasting condemnation God manifests His justice.
Appreciating this response
Reformed believers love and appreciate this first head for several reasons.
First, it is explicitly biblical. In the eighteen positive articles, our fathers quoted sixteen Scripture passages (not just verses), and referred to five more. The nine articles in the Rejection of Errors section include references to twenty-three Scripture passages. The point cannot be overemphasized: our forefathers responded to false teaching with Scripture.
Second, the teaching of the Canons connects the doctrine of election to the gospel of salvation in Christ. Election has everything to do with the gospel: we are elected in Christ! Those who are elected are sinners, in need of salvation! God’s decree of election includes the decree to bestow on us all the blessings of salvation! Election is itself “the fountain of every saving good” (9; italics mine).
The first head underscores this connection in its first six articles. Why did our fathers not begin with the doctrine of election immediately in Article 1? Because they would put election clearly in the context of the gospel of grace. Articles 1-6 set forth the fundamentals of the gospel: all men have sinned in Adam and deserve God’s curse (1). God manifested His love in Jesus Christ (2) and through the preaching of the gospel calls many to believe in Christ and repent (3). Those who will not believe experience God’s wrath, and those who do believe are given eternal life (4). Unbelievers are responsible for their own unbelief, while faith, by contrast, is God’s gift (5). And God’s decree is the deepest explanation for the faith of some and unbelief of others (6).
Why is this connection of election to the gospel worth pointing out? One reason is to remind us that any expression of the doctrine of election that does not relate election to the gospel is not proper. I refer, for example, to those who claim to be elect, but who do not confess specific sins, who do not express their need for the death of Christ and His continuing grace, and who disregard His law. These treat election as something that has nothing to do with the gospel of salvation for sinners.
Another reason is to remind us to follow this pattern when explaining the Reformed faith to one who does not understand it. In explaining the Reformed faith, we should not begin by referring to the doctrine of election. Rather, we should begin by explaining the gospel: man’s sin, God’s curse, man’s need for Christ, and God’s provision of Christ. When the person understands the gospel, he is ready to hear and understand the doctrine of election.
Third, Reformed believers appreciate the warm, pastoral approach of the entire Canons, and particularly the first head. It relates election to the believer. Why was I elected? Because God wanted to choose me (10). How do I know that I, being elected, will go to heaven? Because election is unchanging (11). How can I know that I am elect? By observing in myself the fruits of election, “such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness,” etc. (12). What response does this doctrine of election produce in me? Daily I humble myself before Him, adore His mercy toward me, examine myself and hate and flee from sin, and strive more and more to obey His law. Emphatically, the doctrine of election does not lead me to ignore God’s law (13). What of my child who dies in infancy? Even though the child has not come to conscious faith in Christ, the fact that God continues His covenant in the line of generations means that I have no reason to doubt the election and salvation of my dead child (17).
Even the doctrine of reprobation is set forth pastorally. Perhaps I am not confident that my sins are forgiven; might I be reprobate? The law requires perfection of me, and I know that I fall short; am I reprobate? I do not always focus on God, and desire to serve Him as I ought; did God reprobate me? Article 16 says that they only must be terrified who cast off all regard for God and Christ, who love sin and this world, and continue in an unconverted state. However, those who see the enormity of their sin and realize how far short they fall need not be terrified at reprobation, but must continue to use the means of grace.
Finally, we love this first head because it sets forth the glory of our God before whom all must bow. Are we prone to murmur at God’s free grace? Or, does the severity of His justice in reprobation cause us to question His goodness? Article 18 reminds us that we are but men, who must not reply so against God (Rom. 9:20); that it is lawful for God to do what He will with His own (Matt. 20:15), and that our response must be that of the apostle Paul: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!… For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen!” (Rom. 11:33-36).
Believer, say “Amen!”
1 Gerard Brandt, The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transactions In and About the Low Countries (London: T. Wood, 1722), 3:102.
2 “The Remonstrants (1610),” in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 4:42.
3 “B” here and throughout the issue refers to the “Rejection of Errors” part of the Canons in each head.
4 This document is found in Homer C. Hoeksema, The Voice of Our Fathers: An Exposition of the Canons of Dordrecht (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, c.1980, 2nd ed., 2013), 103-109.