The Canons of Dordrecht

PART TWO 

EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS 

FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE 

OF THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS

REJECTION OF ERRORS 

(The true doctrine having been explained, the Synod rejects the errors of those:)

Article 1. Who teach: That the perseverance of the true believers is not a fruit of election, or a gift of God, gained by the death of Christ, but a condition of the new covenant, which (as they declare) man before his decisive election and justification must fulfill through his free will. For the Holy Scripture testifies that this follows out of election, and is given the elect in virtue of the death, the resurrection and intercession of Christ: “But the elect obtained it and the rest were hardened,”

Rom. 11:7

Likewise: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth? It is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather, that was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”

Rom. 8:32-35

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Concerning the translation we have the following comments: 1) The expression “true believers” is in the original “the truly faithful.” 2) The term “fruit” is literally “effect” or “consequence,” and could better be rendered literally in this case in order to emphasize the cause-and-effect relationship between election and perseverance. 3) The parenthetical expression “(as they declare)” is correctly rendered in the Dutch, and should be in English, “(as they speak).” Moreover, in our English version it is in the wrong position. It belongs with the peculiar Arminian expression, “decisive election and justification,” in order to emphasize that the latter is not the speech of the fathers but of the Arminians. 4) In the sentence, “For the Holy Scripture testifies that this follows . . . .,” the term “this” could for the sake of clarity better be rendered by “it” or by “this perseverance.” As it stands in our accepted version the reference is not clear. 5) Although in this case the translation of the Scripture passages given in the article is more acceptable, yet for the sake of consistency the texts should be given according to the King James Version, as throughout our Canons. In this article there are some minor variations which the reader may discover for himself by comparison. 

With this fifth chapter of our Canons we have again a rather thorough treatment of the errors concerning the doctrine of perseverance that are to be rejected. And we may add: an enlightening and highly necessary exposé of those errors, and that too, for more than one reason. In the first place, especially in regard to this doctrine of perseverance the Arminians were somewhat vague, and in the Fifth Article of the Remonstrance, at least, they left the impression that they were themselves undecided and wanted to leave it an open question. There they wrote, with the typical craft of heretics, as follows: “But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.” That leaves a rather nice impression at first sight. They had questions. They wanted to be objective about the matter and determine it more particularly out of the Holy Scripture. And genuine questions are, of course, all right. They are to be commended and they are to be answered patiently with a view to convincing the questioning soul. Moreover, if a man has questions, the only proper place to turn with such questions is the Holy Scripture. There he will surely find the right answers. But it must be remembered, first of all, that the Arminians, that is, the Arminian leaders and Arminian clergy, did not have questions in that sense of the word at all. They had arguments which they deceitfully raised in question form, ― arguments with which they intended to overthrow the established Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and with which they meant to raise doubts in the minds of the people. For they saw very well that if they could only succeed to raise doubts in the minds of the ordinary members of the church, they had the proper soil in which to plant the seeds of their heresy. Secondly, it must be remembered that even though the doctrine of perseverance was at the time of the Arminian controversy set forth in detail in our Reformed confessions―something which was done in ourCanons at the occasion of the Arminian controversy ― nevertheless it was not at all true that the doctrine of perseverance was not confessionally established and that this still remained to be done on the basis of the Scriptures. That doctrine was indeed contained in both the Catechism and the Netherland Confession. It was confessionally not a questionable item of the truth. But the Arminians, purposely ignoring the confessions, present it as an open question, one that still had to be determined in the light of Scripture. In the third place, while it is entirely possible that the “inexperienced” might have genuine questions even concerning the adopted and established doctrines of the Reformed faith, it was certainly out of place for the leaders and the clergy, who were supposed to be, as it were, “instructors of babes,” to have such questions. They are supposed to be founded in the truth and firmly committed to the fundamental doctrines of the church. If they are not, they have no business occupying a position of leadership and instruction. Then they should be sitting in the pew and in the catechism class, still learning. And therefore, we should always beware of leaders, pastors, teachers, who have “questions” as to the fundamental doctrines of the church. Those questions usually turn out to be challenges of the doctrines already confessionally adopted and accepted by the church. That is why all office-bearers are required to swear in the Formula of Subscription: “And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis and synod, that the same may be there examined, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis and synod, under the penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, suspended from our office.” This is an extremely stringent regulation, but it is absolutely indispensable to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine in the church. 

But to return more directly to the matter of the necessity of this rejection of errors in the fifth chapter, we may say that it is especially true in regard to the doctrine of perseverance that it is necessary clearly to distinguish between truth and error. This is due to the peculiar nature of this doctrine, and due to the fact that it is in a way easier to complicate this doctrine and involve it in all kinds of apparent difficulties and problems which make it appear to be an untenable doctrine. This is not to say that the doctrine of perseverance is a difficult and involved doctrine as such. On the contrary, it is very simple. The core of it is: God sovereignly preserves His elect. But because it is especially here that one deals with the saints as conscious, thinking, willing, active creatures, active participants in the grace of Christ Jesus, and because it is especially in regard to this doctrine that one is confronted by the action and reaction between the flesh and the spirit, the old and the new nature of the Christian; it is especially easy to lead one into a veritable labyrinth of speculations and difficulties in regard to this doctrine until one finally begins to fed that the only proper way out of those difficulties is the Arminiaa way. For this reason it is indeed good and necessary that our fathers set forth the Arminian errors and expose them for what they are worth. 

We may notice in this connection, first of all, that the approach in this negative section of the Fifth Head is somewhat different than in the positive section. In the latter the fathers approached the truth of perseverance rather gradually. They begin with the fact of the indwelling remnants of sin in the believer, and proceed to emphasize the inability of the saints to persevere if left to themselves. They then devote two articles to the reality of sin in the believer, to the danger of his succumbing to temptation, and to the spiritual consequences of the believers’ sins. And finally, in Articles 6 to 8 they treat the truth of perseverance as such. In this negative section, however, the approach is much more direct. Immediately in this first article the fundamental difference between the Reformed and Arminian views of perseverance is set forth. They clash with the Arminians head-on. The Reformed view is that election is the cause of perseverance: the perseverance of the true believers is an effect of election. The Arminian view is that perseverance is the cause of election: the perseverance of the true believers is the condition of their decisive election. And it is through this rejection of errors, therefore, that the sharp difference between the Reformed truth and the Arminian heresy is set forth clearly and that thus the positive truth stands out in clearer light. 

Secondly, we may notice again that the fathers reply to the Arminian errors throughout this section by quoting Scripture. As we have had occasion to note before, this is due to the fact that the Arminians themselves refused to be bound by the confessions and appealed directly to Scripture. The fathers meet them on their own ground and defend the truth of the confessions on the basis of Scripture. This is proper, of course. Creeds are not infallible; Scripture is. And therefore the Holy Scriptures are the supreme court of appeal for our creeds. In this connection we may observe too that in most cases the fathers reply to the Arminians by the simple quotation of Scripture. They do not find it necessary to engage in a lengthy exposition of the passages quoted. The simple word of Scripture is clear enough in itself to gainsay the various errors rejected. And it will surprise you how true this is in general of all heresies. This does not mean that the exposition of Holy Writ is unnecessary and that it is not beneficial. But it does indeed mean that the truth is essentially simple and clear, and that it is clearly and simply set forth in the Scriptures. In most cases it can be shown that heresy literally opposes the Scriptures. 

With this in mind we may study this last section of ourCanons. We have devoted a good deal of attention to these matters in order to emphasize once again the importance and the value of the Rejection of Errors, a distinctive feature of our Canons. This is necessary in times such as ours when there is a growing loathing to call attention to error, and, along with that loathing, a false emphasis on areas of agreement and similarity. Our fathers considered a Rejection of Errors necessary. If we listen to the “Voice of our Fathers,” we will be of a like mind. 

H.C.H.