EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE
OF THE PERSERVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Article 13 (continued)
As we indicated in our remarks concerning the translation last time, this article is really a continuation of the preceding paragraph. In Article 12 the general objection, namely, that the certainty of perseverance produces a spirit of pride and renders men carnally secure, was faced by our fathers and answered. Here, in Article 13, we have a specific and emphatic instance of that general argument. The objection is raised by the Arminians that in the case of those saints who fall and who are restored from their fall, and who thus have the renewed confidence of persevering, — that in that case there surely must be the result that they become careless and profane. That renewed confidence of persevering in those that are restored from backsliding must produce in them licentiousness and must be harmful to piety. Therefore the article begins as it does: “Neither even in those who are restored from backsliding . . .” The Arminian claims that in their case there surely must be carelessness and profanity; but we, the Reformed, claim that this is not even true in their case. On the contrary, the Reformed view is that the very opposite is true. In the end, the whole process of their fall, their restoration, and their renewed confidence of persevering works together for good to them that love God, who are the called according to His purpose: it produces in them a greater concern for carefully observing the ways of the Lord, which he hath prepared, that by walking therein they may keep the assurance of perseverance.
Such is the general thrust of this article.
In order to appreciate its instruction more fully, let us enter more detailed into the objection that is raised, the denial that is made by the fathers, and the positive truth that is laid down in this thirteenth article.
The possibility that is suggested by the Arminian objector in this article could only arise out of an ethically perverted mind and could only be based upon a warped conception of the moral character of the operation of God’s grace. And one who raises this objection against the Reformed view of perseverance and of the assurance of perseverance either has never understood that view or else he deliberately twists it and presents it in an evil light. Our fathers in this article purpose to counter-act this Arminian objection, whether raised out of misunderstanding by those who are uninitiated to the truth or whether raised out of malicious mischief. Hence, while there is plenty of sound reason behind the article, they do not reason at all, but simply state what is not the Reformed view and what is the true Reformed faith.
What presentation of the matter do the Arminians make? They claim that if a saint falls into sin and walks in sin for a time, and that if such a saint through God’s preserving grace is efficaciously brought to realize his sin, to be sorry for it, and to repent of it, and that if thus such a saint attains to a renewed confidence of persevering, then the result will be that he becomes licentious and that the renewed confidence of persevering in such a fallen and restored saint will be detrimental to godliness on his part. He will reason, so they say, that he is perfectly free to live as loosely and carelessly as he wants to. Believers cannot fall permanently from grace anyway; ultimately God always preserves them and brings them back, no matter how deeply they fall. Besides, he has learned by experience now that when he falls into sin, God restores him. Hence, he does not need to be concerned about his walk. He does not have to be careful to live a godly life. In fact, he may carry this line of reasoning a step farther: his deep falls serve to magnify the power of God’s preserving grace, so that the more he sins, the more the preserving grace of God abounds. Such is the Arminian position concerning the Reformed view: the renewed confidence of persevering in those who are restored from backsliding produces licentiousness and is injurious to piety.
Let us remember that this is a charge that is brought, and that can be brought, only against the Reformed view of perseverance and of the assurance of perseverance. What is the very genius of that view? It is this, that in absolutely, sovereign grace God never completely deserts His saints, even in their deepest falls, but always efficaciously restores them and renews in them the assurance that they are and forever shall remain living members of His church. Perseverance and the assurance of perseverance, both being the work of sovereign grace, they are in no sense of the word the work of man. Well now, the Arminian reasons: if they are in no sense the work of man and entirely the sovereign work of God, unconditional, uninitiated and unaided by the saint, then all reason for a careful godly walk and all incentive for piety on the part of the saints is removed. And he reasons further: if a saint once actually experiences this, experiences, so to speak, that he can fall into sin and walk in sin and “get away with it,” then he will surely become wanton and careless in his walk. If he once experiences that he can actually walk in sin and still be preserved, he will do the same thing again and again, without any fear and without any restraint. You understand, do you not, that as soon as you introduce into the work of perseverance and the assurance of perseverance any element of man’s work as an integral part of the work of perseverance, as a first step, as a condition, a prerequisite, a cause, or meritorious reason, at that moment there is no room at all for this argument of the Arminians. That was just their “sales point.” But then let it also be understood that the Arminians betray themselves in this argument. No, they seldom or never want to put it just that way. They always like to say too that it is all of grace, that it is only through the work of the Holy Spirit, etc. But the alternative to the argument which the Arminians raise here is that there is no perseverance except that which man accomplishes, and that there is no certainty of perseverance except that which rests upon uncertain conditions of man’s fulfillment. The Arminian claims really that if you want a pious and God-fearing saint, one who is truly diligent to observe God’s precepts, then you must scare the devil out of him. You must make the Christian “run scared.” You must tell him that if he does not persevere (with the understanding, of course, that he is able to do so, if he wills), he will never reach the inheritance. God will not preserve him unless he is willing to persevere. God will not hold his hand unless he will hold God’s hand. You must tell the Christian: “It all depends on you.” Then he will be, so the Arminian presents matters, so concerned about his salvation that he will never be bothered by any false sense of security. If he falls once and manages somehow to extricate himself from the clutches of the devil, he will have learned such a lesson that he will never fall again. But, so the opponent claims, if you tell that Christian that he is surely preserved and instill in him the confidence of this certain perseverance, he will be unconcerned about sin to begin with, and the more he falls into sin the more unconcerned he will become. Now what shall we say to this?
Shall we admit that this is indeed a danger under the Reformed view? Shall we become panicky and concede the whole struggle to the enemy? Shall we say that there is truth in the Arminian charge, and that we ought to stress the “other side” of the truth a little more in order to counteract any potential fatalism and passivity? This is the approach of some. They follow a double-track theology. But by following this double track they in reality forsake the track of the truth. By admitting that there is at least an element of truth in this Arminian charge they concede in, principle that the Reformed view is wrong, that it is dangerous for Christian morality. But our fathers concede nothing! The fathers state flatly that the renewed confidence of persevering even in the case of those who are restored from backsliding does not produce licentiousness and is not injurious to godliness.
As we have said, the fathers do not give any reason in this article for their flat denial. In the present article they are only concerned about gainsaying this accusation. This does not mean, however, that there are no sound grounds for this denial; nor does it mean that the fathers have not produced the reasons. This article must be considered in its context once more. And we may profitably consider that context presently. But for the present let us view this statement of the fathers just as it stands there in all its nakedness. This too is profitable. Is it not the expression of Christian experience? Is it not the natural and the first reaction of the sanctified child of God exactly to deny flatly and unequivocally the very suggestion that when he is restored from backsliding and when the joy of his salvation is restored to him, he becomes licentious and less concerned about godliness? The very idea is offensive to the Reformed believer. With our fathers and with the apostle Paul he will reply to this suggestion: “God forbid!”
And why is this denial so flat and emphatic?
It is because there is one fundamental flaw in the argumentation of the Armenians. They come with an apparently strong and iron-clad argument against thesovereignty and the efficacy and the unconditionalityof God’s preserving grace. But they forget or deliberately ignore the fact that sovereign grace is the grace of a holy and pure and righteous God, and that therefore sovereign grace always operates in a holy and pure way. It can never produce a saint who is licentious and unmindful of the requirements of true godliness. The Arminian seems to think, —and many are misled by this thinking, — that sovereignty and holiness in God’s gracious dealings with a rational, moral creature, in whom God also requires holiness and godliness, are mutually exclusive. And he therefore attempts to assault and to destroy the sovereignty and efficacy of preserving grace and to put in its place conditionality and free will by means of the weapon of divine holiness and morality. He would have us choose between sovereignty and morality. And the Reformed believer insists that the antithesis presented by the Arminian is false, that there is no conflict whatsoever between the two.
God’s grace preserves. But how does it preserve the fallen or backsliding saint? That grace never totally deserts him. Always the incorruptible seed of regeneration remains in the Christian. Notice: that seed is incorruptible, that is, holy. Where is the conflict? There is none. Moreover, that grace certainly and effectually renews the backsliding saint unto repentance and to a sincere and godly sorrow for sin, so that he again seeks and obtains remission in the blood of the Mediator. Is it possible that such a restored backslider becomes licentious? Is it possible that true piety in him is injured? That is impossible in the very nature of the case. If he is licentious and disregardful of piety, then he has not repented, then he has never come to a sincere and godly sorrow for sin. He would show by his very licentiousness and impiety that he has not tasted that grace which is at the same time sovereign and holy, efficacious and pure.
God’s grace supplies the confidence of persevering and also the renewed confidence of persevering. But it operates always in the same holy and pure way. The renewal of the confidence of persevering is never produced apart from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works. He who is licentious and impious has not tasted this reassuring grace. His confidence, if he claims to have assurance, is false.
No, the preserving grace of God, which is always both sovereign and holy, when it operates in the elect saints, even in their deepest falls, can never produce licentiousness and impiety. That is contrary to its divine character. (to be continued)