God’s Counsel Exclusively Divine and Sovereign.
Over against the Arminians the Fathers of Dordrecht defended the sovereign and unconditional character of the counsel of God and set forth their findings in the well-known Canons of Dordrecht.
Before we call attention to these Canons we would remark that also our Confession of Faith maintains the unconditional character and sovereignty of the counsel and will of God. In the only article which directs us to the Lord’s Eternal Election, Art. XVI, we read, and we underscore: “We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just: merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works; just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.”
And in Art. XIV our Fathers emphasize the sovereignty of God’s salvation by emphasizing our utter and complete depravity in these words: “And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness apprehendeth it not; where St. John calls men darkness. Therefore we reject all that is taught repugnant to this concerning the free will of man, since man is but a slave to sin, and can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven. For who may presume to boast that he of himself can do any good, since Christ says: No man cometh to me, except the Father that sent Me draw Him? Who will glory in his own will, who understands that the mind of the flesh is enmity against God? Who can speak of his knowledge, since the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God? In short, who dare suggest any thought, since he knows that we are not sufficient of ourselves to account anything as of ourselves, but that our sufficiency is of God? And therefore what the apostle says ought justly to be held sure and firm, that God worketh in us both to will and to work, for His good pleasure. For there is no understanding nor will conformable to the divine understanding and will but what Christ has wrought in man; which He teaches us, when He says: Apart from Me ye can do nothing.”
And now let us call attention to the Canons of Dordrecht. That these Canons are infralapsarian is evident from their approach to the issue which confronted them. The very first statement declares that all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death. Hence, the Fathers take their position in the midst of sin and death. They begin with fallen man. This is Infralapsarianism. However, this does not imply that they fail to emphasize the sovereign character of God’s predestination, election and reprobation. In the first Head of doctrine, which deals with divine election and reprobation, the sovereignty of the Lord’s decree is beautifully emphasized and maintained.
Having established the utter misery of mankind in Art. I, and having set forth the love of God which the Lord has revealed in the sending of His only begotten Son into the world, Art. Ill gives expression to the means whereby some are brought to faith. Already in this article mention is made of the good pleasure of Jehovah, and we underscore: “And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom He will and at what time He pleases; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. How then shall they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? ().”
In Art. IV mention is made for the first time that not all men are saved. There the Fathers declare that the wrath of God abides upon those who believe not this gospel, whereas such as receive it and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them. Notice in this article that, in contrast to the Arminians who did not dare to speak of the certain perseverance of the saints, we read of the gift of eternal life which has been conferred upon us. And in the following fifth article the question is asked:
Whence this faith and unbelief, to which our attention has been called in Art. IV? We are told that the cause or guilt of unbelief is in no wise in God, but in man himself. It must not escape our attention here that this article identifies “cause” with “guilt”. The viewpoint is therefore subjective, that of man’s sinning. The article explains why the sinner, from his subjective viewpoint, rejects the gospel, does not believe. And the answer is that the cause or guilt of this unbelief is in man. Unbelief is sin. Man sins, not because the Lord drives him to sin, but because he wants to sin. Once again, the viewpoint here is the subjective responsibility of the sinner. In this sense the cause of unbelief is never in God but in the sinner. In him is the desire to sin, to reject the gospel in unbelief; this desire is never in the Lord. To maintain the latter would make the Lord the Author of sin. But faith, according to this fifth article, is the free gift of God. Consequently, if faith is the free gift of God, it must be evident that the Lord then determines who believes or does not believe. And to this question which involves the divine determination of all things, also of faith and unbelief, the Fathers give an answer in this first Head of doctrine.
Art. VI is the first article which mentions God’s eternal decree. This article reads as follows: “That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree. For known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world (, A. V.) Who worketh all things after the counsel of His will ( ). According to which decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe; while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which, though men of perverse, impure, and unstable minds wrest it to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.” It is true that also this article is infralapsarian (as are all the articles), but the fact remains that the Fathers ascribe both, the faith of some and the failure to believe on the part of others, to God’s eternal decree. We read: “That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree.” Emphatically the Fathers in this article deny the Arminian contention that the Lord has elected upon the basis of foreseen faith. Whereas, according to the Arminians God elected those that believe so that God’s election follows upon their believing, in this article we are explicitly told that the hearts of the elect (mind you, the “elect”) are softened and that the Lord inclines them to believe according to election, this eternal decree. Hence, God’s eternal decree is the cause of our faith, not its fruit. And we should also note that this same Divine decree is the cause of the failure on the part of others to believe. Hence, it is not true that God reprobated them because they do not believe (reprobation on the basis of foreseen unbelief), but they do not believe because of the Lord’s sovereign and righteous decree.
In Art. VII the same emphasis is laid upon the unconditional and sovereign character of God’s counsel of election, and we quote: “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He has out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, Whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation. This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God has decreed to give to Christ to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit; to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of the riches of His glorious grace; as it is written: “Even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before Him in love: having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”—. And elsewhere: “Whom He foreordained, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified.”— . We should note, in this article, how the Fathers combat the Arminian notion that the election of God is based upon foreseen faith. This article emphasizes, in no uncertain manner, that the election of God is the cause, and not the fruit, of our faith, justification, and sanctification. We read that the Lord decreed to give the elect to Christ, that they should be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification, to preserve them powerfully in the fellowship of His Son, and finally to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy; and all this must occur for the praise of the riches of His glorious grace.
In Art. IX the error of the Arminians, that election is based upon foreseen faith, is literally repudiated by the Fathers, and we quote: “This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: “He hath chosen us (not because we were, but) that we should be holy, and without blemish before Him in love.”—. This article certainly speaks for itself. Election is not based upon any foreseen good, but is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, etc.
And in Art. 10 we are told that the good pleasure of the Lord is the sole cause of this gracious election: “The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election; which does not consist herein that out of all possible qualities and actions of men God has chosen some as a condition of salvation, but that He was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself, as it is written: “For the children being not yet born, neither having done anything good or bad, etc., it was said unto her (namely, to Rebekah), The elder shall serve the younger. Even as it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated (). And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48).” This article, too, is completely clear and needs no elucidation. The Fathers said the things they wanted to say in a language which people could not fail to understand. It is evident from these articles in the first Head of doctrine that they, in these Canons, emphasized the unconditional and sovereign character of God’s decree of predestination, consisting of election and reprobation.
Also in the second Head of doctrine of these Canons this truth of God’s sovereignty is beautifully expressed and maintained, as in Articles IX and X, and we quote: “For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He conformed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever…. This purpose, proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has from the beginning of the world to this day been powerfully accomplished, and will hence forward still continue to be accomplished, notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell; so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one, and that there never may be wanting a Church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ; which may steadfastly love and faithfully serve Him as its Savior (Who, as a bridegroom for His bride, laid down His life for them upon the cross) ; and which may celebrate His praises here and through all eternity.” Need we question where our Fathers stood in regard to the character of the Lord’s eternal decrees? Need we wonder whether they believed that election is the “heart of the church”? And need we question their belief and conviction with respect to the absolute certainty of the eternal salvation of the elect?
We would conclude our quotations from the Canons by calling attention to Articles 10, 11, 12, and 15 of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, and we quote: “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, whereby one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains); but it must be wholly ascribed to God, Who, as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He calls them effectually in time, confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son; that they may show forth the praises of Him Who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light, and may glory not in themselves but in the Lord, according to the testimony of the apostles in various places. . . . But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy (Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit He pervades the inmost recesses of man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions. . . . And this is that regeneration so highly extolled in Scripture, that renewal, new creation, resurrection from the dead, making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scriptures inspired by the Author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and 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 himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received. . . . God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any; for how can He be indebted to one who had no previous gifts to bestow as a foundation for such recompense? Nay, how can He be indebted to one who has nothing of his own but sin and falsehood? He, therefore, who becomes the subject of this grace owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever. Whoever is not made partaker thereof is either altogether regardless of these spiritual gifts and satisfied with his own condition, or is in no apprehension of danger, and vainly boasts the possession of that which he has not. Further, with respect to those who outwardly profess their faith and amend their lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner; for the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to 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 had made ourselves to differ.”
The position of the Reformed Fathers is therefore unmistakably clear. Although the Canons are infralapsarian they maintain the absolute sovereignty of the Lord. The counsel of the Lord is strictly sovereign and unconditional. They maintain unconditional election. Also with respect to the doctrine of reprobation they declare that the Lord is God and He alone. That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree. They reject, therefore, the proposition that God’s predestination rests upon foreseen faith or unbelief. The predestination of the Lord is absolutely sovereign.