EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE
OF THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
REJECTION OF ERRORS
Article 2. Who teach: That God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere, and is ever ready to preserve these in him, if he will do his duty; but that though all things, which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God will use to preserve faith, are made use of it even then ever depends on the pleasure of the will whether it will persevere or not. For this idea contains an outspoken Pelagianism, and while it would make men free, it makes them robbers of God’s honor, contrary to the prevailing agreement of the evangelical doctrine, which takes from man all cause of boasting, and ascribes all the praise for this favor to the grace of God alone; and contrary to the Apostle, who declares: “That it is God, who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye be unreprovable in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Before we give our attention to the translation, we may remark in passing that in the present edition of thePsalter there are two printing errors in this article: 1) “though” is rendered “through.” 2) The textual reference is not I Cor. 1:18, but 1:8. Incidentally, there are more such errors in the Psalter, some of them serious. For example, there is a serious omission in Article 26 of the Netherland Confession which changes the meaning completely. These should be corrected, and new errors guarded against, in any future edition.
There is room for correction and clarification in the above translation too. And we can best make these corrections by rendering anew the entire article. Then the reader may compare and take note of the changes. We would translate as follows:
Who teach: That God indeed provides a believing man with sufficient powers to persevere, and is ready to preserve these in him if he will do his duty: nevertheless when all those things which are necessary for persevering in the faith and which God wills (wishes) to employ for preserving faith have been put into operation, then it always depends on the free choice of the will whether he will persevere or not persevere. For this view contains evident Pelagianism; and while it wishes to make men free, it makes them sacrilegious, contrary to the unbroken agreement (harmony) of the doctrine of the gospel, which takes away from man every reason for boasting and assigns the praise for this benefit to divine grace alone; and it is contrary to the testimony of the Apostle: “Who shall confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There is one point in the above translation which is difficult to settle. It concerns the expression, “when all those things . . . have been put into operation.” In our translation we have followed the Dutch rendering: “doch al is het nu ook dat alle dingen . . . in het werk gesteld zijn.” But it is possible that this rendering is too strong a translation for the Latin participle positis. Perhaps the idea is not that of being put into operation, but that of being given or supplied. In that case, then, the powers necessary and sufficient for perseverance are not actually put into operation by God, but they are granted or bestowed. Such, at least, is the way one Dutch commentary explains this article. Ultimately, of course, it makes no real difference as far as the meaning of the article is concerned, except that if the stronger rendering is adopted, the Arminian error becomes just a little worse. For in that case man by his free will not only chooses to use or not to use the God-given powers of perseverance, but he can by his free will interrupt those powers once they have actually been put into operation. But once again: the difference is not essential.
The main thrust of this article is not difficult to grasp, especially if in the translation it is brought out that the article concerns the will of God and the will of man. The erroneous position of the Arminians is clear; and the diametrically opposite position of the Reformed truth is equally clear here. Quite obviously we deal here with the fundamental issue of the Arminians’ sovereign will of man and dependent God over against the Reformed faith’s sovereign will of God and dependent man. The Arminian is at least consistent in his error, if that be any virtue. What he teaches about election he also maintains in regard to faith and conversion; and what he teaches about faith and conversion he also maintains in regard to perseverance. God’s choice in election is dependent upon man’s foreseen choice. God’s will to save all men through a Christ who dies for all men is dependent upon man’s free will to believe and repent or not to believe and repent. And thus it is also with perseverance, according to the Arminian. God’s will is that all believers shall persevere unto the end. To that end God supplies all believers with sufficient powers to persevere, and He intends on His part to employ those powers for preserving faith in the believers. But whether the will of God shall be accomplished, and whether the powers which He supplies shall reach the intended purpose, whether therefore the believers shall actually persevere to the end, that depends on the free choice of their will. Such is the Arminian position.
We may observe the following details in this view:
1) When the Arminians speak of “sufficient powers to persevere” and of “all things necessary to persevere” being bestowed upon the believers, and even being put into operation, they refer to all those spiritual benefits which are necessary for perseverance, namely, the power not to lose the grace of adoption, the power not to forfeit the state of justification, the power not to commit the sin unto death, the power to keep the incorruptible seed of regeneration, the power not to continue and perish in one’s backsliding but to come to repentance and to return to the light and to be filled with a sincere and godly sorrow for sins and to seek and obtain remission of sins in the blood of Christ, and the power diligently to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. In short, all those powers which are mentioned in the positive part of this chapter the Arminian also presents as being bestowed by God upon the believers.
2) Secondly, we may notice that the Arminians speak of “the believer,” or, “The believing man.” Now this in itself is not wrong, of course. But it is characteristic of the Arminian nevertheless that whenever he can use another term than “elect,” he will do so. Our fathers repeatedly use such terms as “the elect” and “his own people.” But the Arminian will avoid this language if possible, and speak as little as possible about election. While it is true in itself, therefore, that God bestows the powers of perseverance upon the believing man, in Arminian parlance this means that God bestows these gifts because of man’s believing.
3) In the third place, the Arminian can leave nothing untainted with the corruption of conditionalism. Even the opening statement in this paragraph must be qualified by “if he will do his duty.” That is, if only man will believe and repent, and if only man will receive and use these powers of perseverance, then God will grant these powers and is ready to preserve those powers in man. This is, of course, the usual Arminian double talk.
4) But it is that double talk which makes the Arminian error again so insidious. Mark you well, if you insist that all the powers needed to persevere are from God, and if you maintain that God must bestow those powers, and if you teach that man cannot persevere without those divinely bestowed powers-in all this the Arminian will go along with you. In fact, he not only must leave the impression that he speaks Scripture’s language of a gospel of grace, but he willfully does leave that impression in order to deceive. The Arminian, in order to succeed, must proclaim his error of conditionalism and salvation by works under the guise of a gospel of grace.
5) But, though he may not always do so as clearly as in the language that is condemned in this article, the Arminian will always end by maintaining the supremacy of man. The use of these divine gifts, the effectualness of their operation, even the bestowal of them this is all a matter of the free choice of the will. God’s will is ever dependent upon and can always be frustrated by man’s will.
It is in this connection that the fathers take hold of one of the age-old and fundamental arguments of all Arminians and Pelagians in their reply to this error. This out-and-out Pelagian idea, which the church had condemned long before James Arminius appeared on the scene of history to revive it, purposes “to make men free.” Their argument is that if grace is absolutely sovereign, and if the will of God prevails over the will of man, determines the will of man, then man is no more free, but is reduced to a stock and block. This is exactly the argument that is raised so frequently today also. We should beware of it. Man is indeed a rational, moral being; and his moral choice and action is always in harmony with his own will. In that sense we may probably speak of a psychological freedom of the will. But we must never forget that man and his will are not independent of God and His will. Man’s will and his voluntary actions are never outside the scope and the confines of God’s omnipotent will. We must not confuse freedom and sovereignty. That is the error of Pelagianism, repeated by Arrninianism. And that error the fathers describe as making men sacrilegious, that is, making men robbers of God’s honor. Sovereignty is a uniquely divine attribute and honor. If therefore you ascribe sovereignty to man’s will, you attempt to make man God and to rob God of His honor. And that is sacrilege.
The fathers condemn this error on the ground that it is contrary to the current thought of Scripture: “contrary to the unbroken harmony of the doctrine of the gospel.” This consensus of Scripture they describe as taking away from man all cause of boasting, and assigning the praise for this benefit (of perseverance) to divine grace alone. This is noteworthy. The Reformed view does not rest on isolated texts, passages that are violently plucked out of their connection and that are considered apart from the Scriptures as a whole. The strength of the Reformed view lies exactly in the fact that it is “the current thought of Scripture.” And as one expression of that current thought of Scripture the fathers cite the text in I Corinthians 1:8, in which it is plain that to God alone, and not at all to man, is assigned the praise of this benefit of perseverance: God shall confirm you unto the end, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We may conclude on a practical note by quoting (in translation) the comment of Rev. T. Bos in this connection: “What a comfort there is in this truth for all the upright in heart. They are but all too easily convinced of their own weakness and unfaithfulness. All hope of salvation would be taken away from them if, as far as the future is concerned, they had to trust in their own will, their own strength. Now, however, they may believe that God has begun a good work in them and that therefore God has begun that good work in them in order that one day He shall save them completely, and that no one can resist His will: now they can be certain that He Who once called them out of darkness, gave them faith, and brought them into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ, will also preserve them and confirm them, that they may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”