Pastoral Aspects of the Canons of Dordt

The Word of God calls those men whom Christ has given to His Church as His mouthpieces, through whom He speaks His saving Word, pastors. This designation is distinct from other gifts of the ascended Lord, for Paul writes the Ephesian church that Christ gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. The word pastor also has a different emphasis than do other common terms in use today, preachers andministers. A pastor is a shepherd, a shepherd on earth of the Great Shepherd’s dearly beloved sheep. The term is a tender one. It calls to mind the relationship of a flock and its shepherd. This shepherd knows his sheep individually, calls them by name, is known and trusted by them, and this in distinction from other shepherds and hirelings. The labor of the shepherd involves the leading, feeding and protection of the flock. Thus local congregations are flocks of Christ’s sheep who are gathered, fed, and defended through the labor of Christ-sent shepherds. There is also an aspect to the work that is very personal; the labor of the shepherd with a single family, or with an individual, which has a peculiar weakness or problem. In our times, pastoral work has come to refer especially to this individualized labor. We know it as family visitation, sick calls, and visits in homes where there is some difficulty of a spiritual nature. 

The standard of behavior for both pastor and sheep is given in the Word of God. As the pastor busies himself with the work of the ministry, he has in mind the perfecting of the saints and the edifying of the body of Christ “that we be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men and cunning craftiness whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (Eph. 4:14) In other words, he brings the Word of God also in pastoral work. That Word feeds, gathers, defends, consoles. Reformed pastors possess the decided advantage of having the Three Forms of Unity in their hearts and minds as a guide in interpreting the Scriptures and in applying the Scriptures to the sin-sick souls of the sheep individually. We are all well acquainted with the Heidelberg Catechism and its subjective, personal approach to salvation. As it treats matters of misery—deliverance—gratitude, the Catechism never wearies in asking, “What doth this profit thee?” We love the Catechism for this concern, and saints do not tire of hearing the Lord’s Days preached to them over a period of seventy or eighty years. The “other” confessions, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt; are less well known, and because of their theologic, doctrinal approach are thought to be of less value in pastoral labors. This is a mistake. Pastors and sheep alike continue to make this mistake only to their disadvantage. 


The Canons especially are thought to be cold, hard, and difficult. They are thought by many to be “the product of unkind theologians who wrote of abstract mysteries without any concern for the life and needs of the Church. This general low regard which the Reformed community has for the Canons is typified by the following words from the pen of Leonard Verduin. In a review of Carl Bang’s Arminius (The Banner, Jan. 19, 1973) Verduin writes, “Many of the nuances in the theology of Arminius have gained respectability among Reformed thinkers since his day, and one wishes that Gomarus and all the rest who were after his scalp had been less vehement.” Later he recommends Bangs’ sympathetic account of Arminius’ life and doctrine as must reading “If there are still people around who live with the caricature that Arminius was an arch-heretic, a Pelagian, a man who shied away from the idea that salvation is by grace and by grace alone . . . if there are still people to be found who think Arminius got a square deal at the hands of the ‘orthodoxy’ of his times . . . if there are still people on the scene who think of the Synod of Dordt as an altogether holy moment in the annals of Christ’s church . . .” I, for one, thrill at the vehemence displayed by the hard pressed, synodical resident Bogerman (who finally exclaimed, “Dimittimini, exite! You are dismissed, leave!”). I am convinced that Arminius was an arch-heretic, a Pelagian, who spoke of grace but denied the power thereof. I know that through long, difficult labors orthodoxy (without the quotation marks) gave the Arminian party a square deal. And I thank God for the monumental work the Synod produced in the Canons; they were a congress of which to be proud! Besides, the question is not: Was every delegate to the Synod sinless or spotlessly pure in his motivation? The question is: Are the Canons true?And, through the Great Synod did God preserve the doctrines of sovereign grace for the future Church? The answer to these latter questions is a resoundingyes! 

At any rate, the above demonstrates the low place the Canons occupy in much of the Reformed churches. Add to this the fact that a long series of articles on doctrine, with more articles called Rejection of Errors, are thought by many to be difficult and cold, and you have more than enough reason for some to come to the careless conclusion that the Canons can best be left on the shelf; certainly they cannot be used in approaching distressed souls in pastoral work as we have briefly described it. The error underlying this conclusion is that doctrine is not profitable for life and life problems. The Gospel is needed, not doctrine. The Canons seem to anticipate this modern error by speaking of “doctrines of the Gospel”! We will develop the thesis that the Canons of Dordt are a wonderful tool in pastoral labor, and that the reason is that pastoral concern for the child of God in this sinful world shines through everywhere. The fathers of Dordt were not cold, merciless men who entertained themselves at the expense of the Arminians by splitting hairs. They were pastors! They demonstrated an admirable balance between concern for the glory of God’s Name and the well-being of His people. And they succeeded in demonstrating that the two go together! 


There can be no doubt that the occasion that demands the individual pastoral labors of a minister is sin, either a walk in sin that is an offence in the Church or the accusing testimony of sin in a person’s conscience. All such labor, therefore, is directed toward bringing a person to confession of his sins (with an accompanying forsaking of them) and toward his receiving the Spirit-worked testimony that all sins have been forgiven him for the sake of Christ so that no one can lay anything against the charge of God’s elect. Although it would be possible to list every statement in the Canons that have bearing on these matters, we would rather show but a few instances from the first four heads of doctrine. It is very striking that already in the First Head, Of Divine Predestination, this concern for the soul’s welfare is present. One who is having spiritual problems, doubts concerning forgiveness and salvation, will be especially anxious concerning election and reprobation. The fathers, understanding this, carefully state in Art. 12 that “the elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election.” And this assurance is attained not in the sickly prying into the secret and deep things of God, but “by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God.” Here already the anxious are pointed to God and His Word and away from their sickly, despondent selves. And in the Word we find the fruits of “true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” If some might say that they don’t observe those fruits in their lives, Art. 16 provides the further answer. Those who lack faith, have not the peace of conscience, do not possess an earnest endeavor after filial obedience, but who continue to use the means of grace are not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor rank themselves, among the reprobates, but wait for a season of richer grace. The beauty of this entire article that the fathersunderstand, they have been there, they are able to describe various kinds of believers and their problems. In Art. 18 of this same First Head the Canons speak to believing parents who have lost an infant to death. There is more, but this will suffice in showing that the fathers are careful to adjust every possible misconception and to comfort the feeble. 

The Second and Third-Fourth Heads of the Canons also contain Truth that must be carried to the troubled saint. It might seem that there is not much here of a consoling nature, but we may not overlook the fact that the heart of the Gospel is that the death of Christ made satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf (Art. 2). Further, Arts. 8 and 9 teach that the saving efficacy of the Son of God’s death extends to all the elect, and that this powerful work shall stand even against the ineffectual opposition, of the gates of hell. And the conversion of man to God, the subject of the Third and Fourth Heads, is ascribed to God alone and His irresistible grace. Finally, if the weary saint is tempted to give up, to stop using the means of grace, to withdraw into himself, he is warned in Art. 17 to continue in their use because God has in His good pleasure intimately joined together grace and means, namely, the preaching of the Word and the use of sacraments. 


It is in the Fifth Head that we find the concrete treatment of the imperfect saint’s problem. After all, most often the problem takes this form: I am a sinner who has fallen many times in the past. How may I know that I will not fall in the future (or am falling at the present time) in such a way that I will never be restored. Very wisely the fathers catalog the remains of indwelling sin that remain in the believer: spots adhere to the best works of the saints, there are daily sins of infirmity, there are infirmities of the flesh, the lamentable sins of David and Peter are mentioned, sin is not excused but called enormous. It is recognized that sin offends God, grieves the Spirit, interrupts the exercise of faith, and grievously wounds the conscience. And as the weeping saint shakes his head in sad recognition of these things, the words “but God . . . )” are constantly held before him. But God is faithful, but God is rich in mercy! According to His unchangeable purpose of election, God does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit, does not allow His people to lose the grace of adoption, so that the assurance of justification is lost, does not allow the committing of the sin unto death, nor will He allow the saint to plunge himself into destruction. Look, therefore, to God! Remember that every saving benefit proceeds out of His election of grace! 

Again, a warning is necessary. One may not expect to receive this assurance of preserving unto the end by way of special revelation. One receives this through faith in then promises of God as these promises are recorded in the Bible. The Spirit, the Spirit of our Father of all consolation, speaks through and with the Scriptures. And it is through the preaching of this Gospel that God continues His once-begun work in us (Arts. 10, 14).

This is enough to show that the Canons of Dordt are not abstract and cold, and that the fathers were not unkind or lacking in understanding. Throughout the Canons ring true with the solid sound of the Word of God. Throughout they demonstrate Father’s concern and Christ’s concern for the child of God’s spiritual welfare. Let this creed occupy a large place in our ecclesiastical life, that the spouse of Christ may continue to love tenderly and defend constantly these truths, and esteem them an inestimable treasure. Then honor and glory will be unto this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Art. 15, V). 

In closing, two recommendations seem to be in order. Bible study societies, both young people and adult, ought seriously to consider an article by article treatment of the Canons. We recently spent our after recess programs for three and a half years in this study, and have profited immensely. Secondly, the Permanent Committee for the Publication of Prot. Ref. Literature ought to consider the publishing in book form of the lengthy exposition of the Canons that Prof. Hoeksema has written. These articles, found inStandard Bearer Volumes 29-37, should be available as a study guide for all those who love the Reformed faith.