EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE
OF THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Article 13 (continued)
We now face the question, however: does the fact that even the backslidings of the Christian are not to be divorced from God’s preserving grace but are rather subservient to the purpose and work of the preservation of the elect mean that these backslidings and deep falls are as such and in themselves a reason for spiritual joy and pleasure on the part of the child of God? Is it so that the Christian exclaims, looking back upon such backslidings: “Blessed fall into sin! How glad I am that I fell into such a depth of iniquity”? Does it mean that the child of God deliberately aims to sin, more and to fall again, in order that grace may abound so that he may experience more of those “good results” wrought by God’s preserving grace through the means of his fall and backsliding?
If the answer to the above questions is in the affirmative, then the Arminian is entirely correct in his evaluation of the Reformed doctrine of perseverance. Then it is indeed an immoral doctrine. It will surely produce licentiousness in those who are recovering from backsliding; and it will be harmful to true Christian piety. And such a doctrine would be unworthy of God, the Holy One. In that case we must revamp our whole doctrine of perseverance along Arminian lines.
But the fathers maintain that this is not true. We said last time that this thirteenth article reveals that they had a clear discernment of the experience of God’s child in this process of fall and restoration. We referred, of course, to their claim that the renewed confidence of persevering renders the restored saint much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord, and to their claim that it renders the restored saint much more fearful of abusing God’s fatherly kindness and of experiencing the withdrawing of God’s gracious countenance from him.
Which is correct, the Arminian or the Reformed claim?
The fathers in this connection state reality, but they do not attempt to explain the relation between the truth which we expounded last time and the truth concerning the Christian’s actual experience when he is restored from backsliding. And we may follow their example first, and later inquire whether it is possible and whether it is necessary to explain this relationship.
If we turn to Scripture with our inquiry as to whether the fathers’ presentation is correct or not, it is not difficult to find examples of the very picture which the fathers draw. Let us take two examples, one from the Old and the other from the New Testament, — examples which the Canons themselves cite in Article 4. The first is that of David, an Old Testament saint. The expression of his experience you find in Psalm 51. The occasion of this psalm is that of his sin with Bathsheba, after which Nathan the prophet was sent to him to reprove him for his sin. If you read the Psalm, you will discover, first of all, that this example fits the situation of Article 13. David was a saint. He was a saint who had fallen deeply into sin and who had compounded his sin of adultery with the sin of murder. And he was a saint who temporarily was unrepentant; he persisted in his sin and refused to confess it until virtually forced to do so through the message from Nathan. Then he became a saint (in the language of the Canons) who was certainly and effectually renewed to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for his sins, who sought and obtained remission in the blood of the Mediator, in order that he might again experience the favor of a reconciled God through faith adore his mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. Cf. Article 7. He was a saint, therefore, who was restored from backsliding. All this you can plainly discern in the language of Psalm 51. Now what was David’s reaction to this experience? Did it make him careless and licentious? Was it injurious to David’s piety? If you approached David and asked him whether he would like to go through that whole experience again, would he answer enthusiastically in the affirmative? The very opposite is true, as is plain from what the psalmist himself says in this fifty-first psalm. Listen! The poet is much more careful diligently to keep the ways of the Lord, for he says : “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me . . . . Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee . . . . My tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” Such is not the language of one who is licentious and who shows a disregard for piety. The poet is afraid of ever passing again through the dreadful experience of having God’s gracious countenance turned away from him, or, to use the language of the psalm, of experiencing that God had broken his bones and that he could not hear joy and gladness. For he prays: “Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities . . . Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.” Such is Christian experience. Such is the experience of any fallen and restored saint. Our second example is Peter, the Lord’s own disciple and apostle. He fell so deeply that he denied his Lord thrice, though severely and plainly warned against that very sin. He too fits the situation described in Article 13. He was a saint who fell and who recovered from backsliding, and that too, through the preserving grace of God in Christ. For remember that the Lord Jesus says: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” And what was Peter’s reaction when through preserving grace he was restored? In the first place, it is obvious that the Lord’s disciple did not assume an attitude of conceited carelessness and licentiousness; only think how in humility he was scarcely ready to say that he loved the Lord at the Sea of Tiberias. In the second place, if you would ask the apostle later on whether or not that whole experience was good for him from the point of view of the fact that it had cured him permanently of his boastful self-confidence and converted his forward and assertive nature into one that was ready to preach the gospel with all boldness, he would undoubtedly have answered in the affirmative. But, in the third place, if you would also ask him whether he would gladly pass through that whole experience again, he would undoubtedly have said: “What? Deny my Lord? Experience again that penetrating look of my Savior? Feel that I had no right to be called a disciple and an apostle? Endure the excruciating pain of that question, thrice asked, ‘Lovest thou me? I would indeed go into prison and into death for the sake of my Lord; but never let me experience that agony of denial again!”
For we must remember that God’s sovereign and preserving grace, the grace that preserves the saints even in and through their deepest falls, always operates in an unchangeably holy way, even as it has a holy purpose. And this can only mean that the saint must feel the reaction of God’s unimpeachable holiness whenever he sins. No, that grace never lets the child of God completely alone. But when he walks in sin, God, according to His gracious purpose and in His gracious dealings, makes the backsliding saint feel as though that grace has let him go. When he walks in sin, God hides His gracious countenance from that backsliding saint. When he persists in sin, God turns a deaf ear to the petitions of that unrepentant child, and makes him feel it. In other words, as far as the consciousness of the child of God is concerned, his salvation and the joy of his salvation is gone. And our Canons mention the dreadfulness of such times for God’s children. To experience that God’s gracious countenance is toward us, so that we behold it, is dearer than life for the godly. For the same godly man to experience that God has withdrawn His gracious countenance, so that he cannot see Father’s face, so that he cannot reach Father’s ear with his petitions, is more bitter than death, and results in grievous torments of soul. From our point of view, the point of view of our conscious spiritual experience, we feel, in the words of Isaiah 59:1, that the Lord’s hand is too short to save, that His ear is heavy, so that it cannot hear. But those times are so dreadful that no child of God would ever deliberately seek to pass through them, especially not if he has once experienced them. The basic reason, however, lies in the unchangeable norm of God’s holiness according to which His grace ever operates. Thus the prophet indicates in the second verse of Isaiah 59: “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.” Because the Lord cannot countenance sin, because His eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, therefore the blessings of His grace can be experienced always and only in the sphere of perfect righteousness and pure holiness.
But then just because His grace is not dependent on us, but functions in the sphere of the perfect righteousness and holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ, our sins and iniquities cannot interrupt the current of His grace. In His very gracious purpose, yea, while His grace continues to operate, God causes the saints toexperience all the dreadful torments of the withdrawal of His countenance as long as they continue in sin. But He uses that very experience in all its dreadful and soul-rending bitterness as a means to bring His erring child back, first of all. And in the second place, that grace, which has never basically and internally forsaken the saint, ultimately goes into action to renew the backsliding saint unto repentance and sorrow. And thus, coming to repentance and sorrow over sin through free grace only, the child of God has the renewed confidence of persevering, enjoys the light of God’s countenance, and through the same grace strives to maintain that assurance with renewed zeal and watchfulness.
You feel that problems remain concerning the relationship of these truths? True, we cannot fully understand the dealings of our God in this respect, no more than we can fully understand the relation between God’s sovereign counsel and providence and the fact of the fall and of sin. But this is not necessary. Suppose the two truths stood side by side in the Scriptures, and that it was entirely impossible to say anything about the relationship between them would that impossibility on our part destroy either of these truths? Not at all. But now we can do more: we can at least glimpse a little of the beauty of God’s matchless grace in the wonder of a preservation that keeps us so securely that even our deepest falls must tend to our salvation. And then, rather than join the Arminian calumniators of the truth, we can only fall on our knees in thankful adoration, and exclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”