Article 5. The cause or guilt of this unbelief as well as of all other sins, is no wise in God, but in man himself; whereas faith in Jesus Christ, and salvation through him is the free gift of God, as it is written: “By grace ye are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Eph. 2:8. “And unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him,” etc. Phil. 1:29.
The English version given above is substantially a correct rendering of the original Latin.
This article treats the question: whence is unbelief, and whence is faith? As such it forms the first step in the Scriptural answer to the all-important question which was raised by the preceding article, namely: who are they that believe?
We may notice that there are two main propositions here given, which stand in contrast with each other:
What, therefore, do these two propositions together teach us in answer to the question: who are they that believe?
In the first place, it is to be observed that the fathers here mention unbelief in one breath with all other sins when they insert the clause, “as well as of all other sins.” Unbelief, therefore is sin. And unbelief, though from a certain point of view it may be placed in a special class (it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for those who have heard the proclamation of the good tidings), nevertheless it is essentially to be placed in the common classification of sin. As sin unbelief may be described as the contrary reaction of the heart and mind and will of the natural man against the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, not a mere intellectual something (for it implies that the mind is confronted by, and understands from a purely natural point of view the gospel), but basically the spiritual ethical attitude of a man’s heart. It is not a natural and intellectual ignorance of the gospel, but is essentially enmity against God. This sin entails guilt. And guilt is liability to punishment. And thus it is to be explained that the wrath of God abides on those who believe not the gospel.
The fact that this article so intentionally places unbelief in a class with all other sins is perhaps not only to be explained from the fact that the fathers want to reason from the general truth that God is not the author of sin to the specific truth that God is not the author of the sin of unbelief. But it is also to be explained from the fact that the Arminians separate the sin of unbelief from all other sins. There were those who taught that the atonement of Christ covered all other sins, so that not a single man need be condemned because of sin. But there was one exception: the sin of unbelief was a sin that was not atoned for. All other sins would not make a man liable to punishment, if only he believed. But through the sin of unbelief a man remained liable to punishment. Over against this error the fathers directly maintain the unity of all sins. Unbelief may stand at the head of all sins, but it is still sin. It may be the apex of the pyramid of sin; but it still belongs to the pyramid.
Now the “cause or guilt” of this unbelief is no wise in God, but in man himself. The language of this proposition is to be carefully noted. The article does not simply use “cause”, since there is certainly a sense in which then it must be said that the cause of unbelief is in God, not in man. He is sovereign also with respect to the vessels of wrath. Nor do the Canons say “cause and guilt”: for this would identify cause and guilt in every case. But they very carefully state: “cause or guilt”. In other words, the term guilt here further defines the term cause. The guilt-entailing cause, the cause in the sense of the blame, is not in God. The question here, therefore, is one of the spiritual, ethical cause of all sin, and of the sin of unbelief specifically; a question of the authorship. It is the question: from whose heart does the sin of unbelief arise, God’s or man’s?
It is important that we understand this distinction. For the Scriptures certainly do not exclude sin, including the sin of unbelief, from the sovereign determination and power of God. Everywhere they testify the very opposite, namely, that sin and darkness and all the powers of evil come into existence and act only according to the sovereign decree of God and under the direction of His almighty providence. To mention only a few passages from holy writ, thing, for example, of Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Or again, Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Or think of that central sin of the ages, the crucifixion: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Acts 2:32. And again, Acts 4:27: “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus. whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” Or, with direct reference to the sin of unbelief, we may quote John 12:39, 40: “Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.” It is beyond contradiction, therefore, in the light of Scripture, that sin and evil exist according to God’s own decree, and that too, for the purpose of the glorification of His own great Name: for God wills to glorify the virtues of His sovereign grace and love by the revelation of those virtues through the deep way of sin and grace, death and resurrection, fall and redemption. Even sin is but a means in God’s hand unto the realization of His eternal purpose, namely, the glorification of His own name through the salvation of His elect people in Christ. Call this position supralapsarian if you like. But remember that also the infralapsarian, even though he likes to speak of the “permissive will” of God, cannot escape the implications of the fact that whether actively or “permissively”, sin is strictly within the confines of God’s decree. In fact, we may safely assert, even while we grant that the Canons are infralapsarian in their approach, that it is for the very reason that the Fathers included also the sin of unbelief under the decree of God, and were therefore charged with making God the author of man’s unbelief by the Remonstrants, that they felt constrained in this fifth article to emphasize that the “cause or guilt” of this unbelief, as well as of all other sins, is no wise in God, but in man himself.
God, therefore, is not responsible for man’s sin. Man himself, the natural man, is the author of his own unbelief. Never will he be able to rightly assert: “I wanted to believe in Christ, but God prevented me.” He may wickedly charge God with this in this present time, as does the objector in Romans 9:19. But ultimately, when he appears before the judge of heaven and earth, “every mouth shall be stopped, and all the world will become guilty before God.” Then the unbeliever shall have to acknowledge the wickedness and the blame of his own unbelief, and the strict justice of his condemnation. God is not the author of sin, for He cannot sin. But sinful man is always unbelieving!
One more remark in this connection: the Canons in this instance offer no direct Scriptural proof. The texts quoted are offered in proof of the second proposition of this article. The reason for this failure is not that the Scriptures cannot be quoted to sustain this position, but rather in that there was no controversy between the fathers and the Remonstrants about the specific question of the guilt of unbelief. The fathers therefore simply state that it is also their position,—and not uniquely the Arminian position, that the blame of this unbelief is man’s, not God’s.
About the second proposition, namely, that faith in Jesus Christ, and salvation through Him, is the free gift of God, we may be brief. As we remarked before, the Canons treat the subject of faith later in detail. Here they simply make a declaration concerning the origin of faith: it is the gift of God. And we must note that this stands in direct contrast with the preceding: “Whereas…but…autem” The natural man is unbelieving and an unbeliever; BUT faith in Jesus Christ is the free gift of God.
To sustain this contention over against the Arminian it was necessary to quote the Scriptures. This is a crucial point. And so we have two Scripture passages, of which the first is Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” We need not enter into detail about the question whether the word “that” refers to “faith” or to the fact that we are saved through faith. Briefly we mention the following: 1. Arminians make separation here between salvation and faith: salvation by grace, then, is not of ourselves, but is the gift of God, while the latter cannot be said of faith, which is of man. This is the position, for example, of A.T. Robertson in his “Word Pictures in the N.T.,” IV, p. 525: “Through faith (dia pisteos). This phrase he adds in repeating what he said in verse 5 to make it plainer. ‘Grace’ is God’s part, ‘faith’ ours. And that (kai touto). Neuter, not feminine taute, and so refers not to pistis (feminine) (“faith”, H.C. H.) or to charis feminine also) (“grace”, H.C.H.), but to the act of being saved by grace conditioned on faith on our part.” This is rank Arminianism. 2. The question cannot be determined on the basis of grammar, since the neuter “that” can refer to the feminine “faith”, and still be perfectly sound Greek grammar. 3. There are many Reformed men, Calvin among them, who refer the term “that” not to “faith”, but to the whole idea of salvation by grace through faith. And it may be added too that good reasons may be produced for this position. Furthermore, it cannot be contended that the Canons refer “that” to “faith”, since in their statement they also mention “salvation through him.” 4. Personally, I am inclined for various exegetical reasons to adopt the view under “3”, and maintain that it, as well as the view which explains faith as not of ourselves, but the gift of God, excludes the Arminian position also. But I will not quarrel with those other Reformed exegetes who adopt the alternate position.
Certainly, as far as the gift of faith is concerned the quotation of Philippians 1:29 is quite sufficient: “And unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, . . . .” The fathers quote only part of this verse, since it is the part which constitutes the clear proof, literal proof, that faith is the gift of God.
In conclusion, therefore, let us note that we have here the first step in the Scriptural and Reformed answer to the question: who are they that believe? The answer is that since faith is a gift of God, it is God Who decides who shall and who shall not believe. Only they believe who are graced with the gift of faith by God. And that gift is free; it is of grace.
The question still remains, however, to be answered: how does God determine this? To whom does He impart the gift of faith, and to whom not?