EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE
OF THE PERSERVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Article 14. And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments.
The above translation is substantially correct although it is a bit difficult to do justice to the original Latin in a smooth-flowing English translation. For the sake of correctness we will give a more literal translation: “Moreover, even as it hath pleased God to begin this his own work of grace in us through the preaching of the gospel; thus through the hearing, reading, meditation, exhortations, threatenings, promises of the gospel, and also through the use of the sacraments he preserves, continues, and perfects it.”
At first glance we would perhaps be inclined to say that this article sets forth such a patent fact that it was scarcely necessary for the fathers to mention it. The article deals fundamentally with the means of grace and with the fact that God does not supply His people with the blessings of salvation except through these means. And this is such a simple and basic truth that any child of God is acquainted with it, if not doctrinally, then experientially. Every child of God knows the necessity of these means, knows that they are indispensable, knows that if he neglects these means of grace to whose use God has bound Himself in the work of His grace, his spiritual life can only suffer. And therefore the question arises: why do the fathers take pains to mention this truth in this connection?
In the main, the reason for this article is the same as that for the two preceding articles. There, as we have seen, the Arminian objection that this doctrine of certain perseverance through sovereign grace makes men careless and profane was faced by the fathers and rejected. They maintained that the very opposite was true, namely, that the certainty of perseverance leads to true piety, not to carelessness. And the fathers maintained, further, that even in the case of one who falls into sin and is restored it is not true whatsoever that the renewed confidence of persevering makes a saint careless. A careless saint is a contradiction in terms, an impossibility: Either one is careless, and then he is no saint; or he is a saint, and then he is not careless. Now here, in Article 14, we have the same objection in a way. Only this objection is directed against the necessity of the means of grace and their use. The Arminians argued, first of all, that if perseverance is certain and is wrought certainly by God’s absolutely sovereign and efficacious grace, so that it is absolutely impossible for an elect saint to fall away and to go lost, then the means of grace are not necessary. The elect will be saved, and they will surely be preserved and persevere unto the end. This is absolutely guaranteed. And therefore there is no place for the preaching of the gospel and the Sacraments in this scheme of things. Even if it be granted that this salvation takes place initially through the preaching of the gospel, then after the saint has once come to the knowledge of Christ, since he will surely be preserved anyway, there is no more need of the preaching of the gospel. Whether that gospel is preached to him or not, he will be preserved to the end. And the Arminians argued, in the second place, that this view takes away all necessity and all incentive for the saints to be diligent in the use of the means of grace. If it be true, so they argued, that the saints are certainly preserved, and if it be true that the saints are assured of their preservation, then the saints themselves are free to take the position that the means of grace are unnecessary in their lives. They will feel that they do not need the Word and the sacraments. They will conclude that their perseverance is an assured fact whether they attend to the preaching of the Word or not, whether they use the sacraments or not. They will neglect to read and meditate upon the gospel, since they will be preserved without these very well. They will feel no need of the exhortations, threatenings, and promises of the gospel. All necessity of the means of grace, so the Arminians argued, is done away, both principally and as a matter of the practical life of the Christian. This is the doctrinal view over against which the fathers take position in the article under discussion.
And how do they answer?
Let us notice that there is a comparison in, their answer, first of all. They say: “As it hath pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, thus (it hath pleased God) to preserve, continue, and perfect it through the hearing, reading, meditation, exhortations, threatenings, and promises of the gospel, and also through the use of the sacraments.” The comparison, therefore, is between the method by which, God begins this work and the method by which God continues this work. And there is a reference here to an earlier teaching of the fathers, concerning the beginning of this work of grace, in Article 17 of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine. We may remind ourselves of this by quoting the first part of this article: “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 also the before mentioned supernatural operation of God, by which we are regenerated, in no wise excludes, or subverts the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration, and food of the soul.” And the main thrust of the article is that this manner of operation by which God begins the work of His grace in us is the same manner of operation on God’s part in the preservation, continuance, and perfecting of the work of grace in us. To the details of this proposition we shall return presently.
We may take time out at this point to remark that this article furnishes no ground for the view of mediate regeneration. It is a rather sad fact that some lose sight almost completely of the fact that this article is directed against the Arminians, and turn their commentary on this article into a vehement polemic against their Reformed brethren who hold to the view of immediate regeneration. But there are some who grasp at the first clause of this article in order to prove that it is the position of our Reformed confessions that regeneration (the beginning of the work of grace in us) takes place through the preaching of the gospel. We will not take the time to enter into a detailed discussion of this matter, because we did this in connection withCanons III, IV, 17, to which the reader may refer if he is interested. Suffice it to say here: 1) That it certainly could not have been the intention of the Canons in this article to say anything about mediate or immediate regeneration. That was not the issue at that time, and it surely was not the issue in this article. This is an anti-Arminian article. 2) A glance at the context of this article, both in the Fifth Head and in the preceding chapter, will show that it surely was not the intention of the fathers to say something about regeneration in the narrower sense of the word, as it takes place without our consciousness in the depth of our heart; but the whole context is concerned with the work of grace as it is wrought in us consciously. And there is no argument in Reformed circles as to whether that conscious work of salvation is wrought mediately or immediately. That is always wrought through the means of grace. For the rest we will not enter into the argument at this stage.
But now let us enter somewhat into the details of the fathers’ teaching in this article.
Of course, as we have indicated previously, from a practical point of view this whole article is really unnecessary. Practically speaking, this Arminian lie is as false as it is big. What real Christian is there who ever for a moment honestly thinks that the means of grace are unnecessary? No, I do not mean that there are no Christians who temporarily fall into the sin of neglecting the means of grace. And I do not mean that it is unnecessary to admonish God’s people to be diligent in using the means of grace. These are different matters. They are not matters of understanding, but of ethical error. The Christian who neglects the means of grace knows better. He knows that he does wrong. But for one carnal reason or another he sins in the face of his better knowledge. And he knows too that he sins. But what I want to emphasize here is that as a matter of real life there is not a Christian and there is not a church that would ever take the position that the means of grace are unnecessary for the preservation, continuance, and perfecting of the work of grace in God’s children. And there is not a preacher who as a matter of real-life preaching takes the position that the exhortations, threatenings, and promises of God’s Word are unnecessary. Take these out of the Word, and it is safe to say there is no Word left to preach!
The trouble is that we are sometimes misled in our thinking by Arminian arguments of the kind under consideration. You will even hear these arguments presented sometimes in Reformed circles and in the name of Reformed doctrine. The accusation will be raised against those who maintain the Reformed truth of efficacious grace and certain preservation that there is no room left in their view for the conscious response and activity of faith, and therefore no room left for admonition and warning. And then we sometimes begin to ask ourselves whether this accusation does not after all have some truth in it. We ask the question: why is it really that the preaching of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and the reading of and meditation upon the gospel with its exhortations, threatenings, and promises are necessary? Mark you well, the question is not: are the means of grace necessary? But it is: why, under the view of sovereign grace, are the means and their use indispensable?
And to this our present article gives a beautiful and very final answer: “It hath pleased God!” No other answer can you really give to this question. No more final answer can you give to it. God in performing the work of His grace has been pleased to use meansAbstractly considered, it might have pleased God to save His people without means. But that did not please Him. And therefore God has joined together the work of His grace in us and His use of the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments. It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. And God has joined together our salvation and our diligence in the use of the God ordained means of grace. God also maintains and realizes the inseparable connection between the two. The fact that God uses means and the fact that He requires of us to use these means does not vitiate the truth that it is He alone who saves us. But to that we must return later. For the present let us emphasize this: Let not man put asunder what it has pleased God to join together! To attempt it is folly, and it is vain; and it is sin!