The Canons of Dordrecht

PART TWO ― EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS 

FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE 

OF THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS 

Article 14 (continued) 

Previously we have seen that the key of this entire article lies in the words, “It hath pleased God.” It is simply the divinely appointed method of operation in the work of salvation to use means, the means of grace. We have seen too that therefore God has bound His people to the use of these means. Outside of them and apart from them He does not save His people. We must remember too, however, that this at the same time means that these means and their use are never in vain. God has not only bound His people to the use of these means. He has, as it were, bound Himself to the use of them, and will therefore surely employ His own means unto the salvation of His own. 

This pleasure of God to use the means of grace in the work of salvation is said, first of all, to be true in regard to the beginning of the work of grace in us. The Holy Ghost works faith in us through the preaching of the gospel. We need not go into detail concerning this element of Article 14 since this is simply a repetition of the truth already expounded in Article 17 of the previous chapter. However, we may notice that in this connection the article speaks only of the preaching of the gospel, not of the hearing, reading, and meditation thereon, as it does in connection with the work of preservation. And we may notice that this is quite in harmony with reality also, particularly in the sphere of the covenant. It is through the preaching of the gospel that the seed of the covenant experience the beginning of the work of God’s grace in them. And it is only after that beginning has been consciously wrought that they consciously persevere and continue in the faith through their hearing, reading, and meditation upon the Word, with its exhortations, threatenings, and promises. For the rest, the fathers mention the beginning of the work of grace in us simply for the purpose of the comparison drawn in this article. God does not begin by using the means of grace, and then continue the work of grace without means. The line follows through. What is begun mediately is also continued and preserved and perfected mediately. The latter follows from the former. In fact, we may make the same comparison with our natural life in this instance as is made in III, IV; 17, and say: “As the almighty operation of God, whereby he prolongs and supports this our natural life, does not exclude, but requires the use of means, by which God of his infinite mercy and goodness hath chosen to exert his influence, so the supernatural operation of God, by which he preserves, continues, and perfects the work of grace in us, in no wise excludes or subverts the use of the gospel, the food of the soul.” 

In the second place, the article makes a distinction in the work of preservation in the broader sense, and speaks of three aspects of this work of God: He preserves, continues, and perfects the work of His grace in us. God keeps the new life in us alive, keeps it in existence, through the means of grace. Secondly, there is also progress: that new life must continue and advance. It must grow in grace. This also takes place through the divinely appointed means. And finally, that life must be completed and perfected. The beginning, the continuance, and the end of the work of grace is all God’s work, and it is accomplished to the very end through the means of grace. When the child of God is on his deathbed, then he still is in need of God’s Word to strengthen and comfort him; and he lays hold on that Word even though perhaps he is no longer able to read it, drawing upon his memory, in order to meditate on its precious promises. 

We must notice now, however, that the article gives us valuable instruction concerning the means of grace in connection with this work of preservation. As we have remarked already, it does not only speak of the preaching of the Word, but pointedly of the hearing, reading and meditation thereupon. God’s people must have His Word. And the church must indeed be busy in the ministry of the Word. The Word must be preached, in order that the Word may be heard. A moving and emotional address will not do. “The saints cannot be preserved in the faith by means of so-called topical preaching, in which a Scripture-text is used only as a sort of hook on which to hang up and display some nice thoughts or attractive philosophy that have nothing to do really with the Word of God. The Word of God must be expounded and applied. For that Word itself must speak! Through the means of that Word preached the life of faith is strengthened and built up. That Word, as we shall see presently, in all its fulness, with its exhortations, threatenings, and promises, must be proclaimed. And it must be proclaimed as accompanied by the administration of the sacrament, the holy, visible signs and seals which God hath appointed to the end that He may more fully assure us of the promise of the gospel. 

But notice, if you will, that the terms used by our fathers all emphasize the activity of the saints themselves. They emphasize in this connection our use of the means. We must hear the Word of God. We mustread the Word of the gospel. We must meditate upon the gospel of salvation. Undoubtedly this also is presented in this fashion in order to gainsay the Arminian heretics, who always wanted to present the Reformed picture of the Christian as that of one who is entirely passive. O, no! God has appointed means. And He has appointed such means as imply and require the conscious activity of His people. They musthear the Word preached. For to that preaching the Lord has attached a rich blessing. Without it the saints cannot expect to persevere and to continue in the faith, to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, and to be perfected. It is indeed a sad phenomenon when people of God fail to take advantage of every possible opportunity to hear the Word of their salvation, when they become irregular and indifferent with respect to this means of grace, or when, though they attend divine worship, they do not come to hear, for that is also possible, and that too, in various ways. Such a policy can only lead to serious spiritual consequences, to a weakening of our faith, to a slackening in our strength and courage for the battle of faith in the midst of the world, and, ultimately, to our downfall unless God graciously forbids it. Moreover, the fathers emphasize the necessity of reading the Word. This certainly does not imply that such reading may be substituted for the hearing of the Word. There would be no Word to read were it not for the preaching of the Word. The Word which we read is but another aspect of the preaching of the Word as the primary means of grace. And therefore also the reading of the Word follows upon the hearing of the Word inevitably. There should be an open Bible in our families and in our homes, so that we read God’s Word together at fixed times, and that too, not out of mere custom and habit, ―a habit that we satisfy as hastily as possible, ― but out of a sincere desire and purpose to be instructed and with a real striving to understand and comprehend it. Besides, such reading includes within its scope not only the Bible itself, but such reading material as is related to the Scriptures and which edifies us by explaining and elucidating the truth of the Word of God. And this may well be emphasized in our day. How much time do we actually allow ourselves for such reading? We are too busy? Or do we deliberately make ourselves so busy that we have no time for important reading, reading that will benefit us spiritually? How much attention do we pay to the reading habits of our children? We are concerned that they shall learn to read. And that is good. But what do they read? Do we teach them by word and example to read the Scriptures and to study them personally? How early in their young lives do we go about teaching them to pick up the Beacon Lights, yes, and The Standard Bearer? How much do we insist that they study the Word of God in preparation for catechism and society? Or are we ourselves often so lax and unconcerned about these matters that our example would belie our words? Finally, in close connection with the preceding, the article speaks ofmeditation. Ah, but is that not well-nigh a lost art in our day? Yet we may well emphasize this strongly. It is not enough that we hear and read; we must meditate upon and contemplate and study the Word of God! This cannot be stressed too strongly in a day when Christians are willing to exert themselves but little to receive the Word of God. But Scriptural this idea certainly is. The psalmist of old meditated in the night watches. He had God’s law for his meditation day and night. And frequently today the church must have its spiritual food spooned in, and not in too rich a concentration. It must not require too much mental exertion, and it must be interesting and pleasant to hear or to read. Let us remember we are not fed magically in our spiritual life. We must eat and digest and assimilate the Word of God. And it is through such meditation that the Lord God preserves and continues and perfects the work of His grace in us. 

For that Word, whether it exhorts or threatens or promises, is always the Word of God’s grace to His people. The distinction made here by Article 14 is a relative one. Fundamentally the whole Word of God has as its content the promise. The Lord exhorts His people, but always upon the basis of the gospel of grace and with the purpose of realizing in them through such exhortations the work of grace. In a sense it may be said that God threatens His people. But this must be understood pedagogically. Paradoxically speaking, God threatens them in His grace, to warn them of the dire consequences of the way of sin and iniquity, to call them away from the darkness. In the sense that He is of bad intentions toward His people, or even means to frighten them into heaven by poising the whiplash of hell-fire over them, the Lord does not threaten His saints, however. Always His Word is a Word of grace to His own, and always He is graciously inclined toward His people, even in the so-called threatenings of the gospel. And, therefore, attached to the exhortations and threatenings of the gospel are also the abundant and precious promises of salvation for our encouragement and comfort and to serve as incentives in the struggle to persevere to the end. In fact, the Lord has provided for His people richly. For He has added to the Word the holy sacraments as an additional means of grace for the strengthening of our faith. And of all these means the people of God in the midst of the world, struggling and striving toward Zion that is above, must make diligent and regular and consistent use. 

Nevertheless, when all due emphasis has been laid upon the responsibility of the people of God with respect to these means, let us not forget that the fruit of these means of grace is not dependent upon our use of them, nor even a matter of cooperation between God and man. It is not merely thus, that God provides the means, but that we must use those means unto our salvation. Then we after all entertain the Arminian view. No, the fathers tell us here that God preserves and continues and perfects the work of grace in us. The Word and the sacraments are means of grace, provided by God Himself. But also our hearing, reading, and meditation on the Word of the gospel are means, equally provided by God, which He uses for the preservation, continuation, and perfection of His work of grace in us. It is all of Him! He preserves, and we persevere. He continues His own work of grace in us, and we continue and grow in grace and in faith. He perfects, and we are perfected and endure to the end. And it is all a work of His own grace, wrought not merely upon us, but in us as His conscious and willing people, and wrought through the means which it has pleased Him to ordain and to use, the best possible means to the highest end! 

H.C.H