The Canons of Dordrecht, Part Two, Exposition of the Canons, Fifth Head of Doctrine, Of the Perseverance of the Saints

Article 5. By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor, for a time, until on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them. 

The above translation is not wholly accurate. By “deadly guilt” is meant literally “a guilt of death.” “God’s favor” is in the original simply “grace.” The phrase “for a time” modifies only the expression “and sometimes lose the sense of grace.” And the last clauses of the article should be translated as follows: “until, having through earnest repentance returned into the way of life, God’s paternal countenance shines upon them again.” 

This article evidently follows in thought very closely upon the preceding article. It is still referring, as the expression “by such enormous sins” indicates, to the sins and falls of the saints mentioned in Article 4. There it was stated that sometimes converts sinfully deviate from the guidance bf divine grace, so that they are seduced by and comply with the lusts of the flesh, and are even drawn into great and heinous sins. And in connection herewith the fathers cited the lamentable falls of David, of Peter, and of other saints, described in Holy Scripture. About these “enormous sins” the present article continues to speak. And it is plain that the purpose of the article is to emphasize the reality and the very real seriousness of these sins of the saints. Negatively stated, the article teaches us that the Reformed doctrine of sure perseverance does not in any way minimize sin. This in itself is important, for, it furnishes us with an answer to—the calumnies of the Arminians. It was necessary to insert this article, not because there was any real danger of the Reformed believer denying the seriousness of his sins and falls. That is, after all, psychologically and spiritually impossible. Nor was it necessary to insert this article because there was any element of truth in the accusation of the Arminians that the Reformed truth of perseverance implies a denial of the seriousness of the saints’ sins and therefore leads to spiritual carelessness. But it was necessary because the Arminian charge was false, and the fathers here state the truth of the matter in order that the mouth of the accuser may be stopped and that everyone may know what is the Reformed view of the sins of those saints who are surely preserved by God unto everlasting life and glory. If anyone ever brings this charge today, one need only point such a one to Dordrecht and say: “There is our Reformed view concerning the sins and falls of the saints.” 

But we may find a further, non-apologetic, significance in this article. First of all, it serves to emphasize the tremendous contrast presented in Article 3. For the whole article is certainly one clear illustration of. the truth that “by reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and the temptations of sin and of the world, those who are converted could not persevere in a state of grace, if left to their own strength.” And therefore, as Article 6 will emphasize positively; the present article certainly emphasizes negatively the tremendous import and unspeakable blessedness of the truth that “God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms, and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.” What a grace it is that preserves such sinners as are described in this fifth article! And in the second place, the more clearly we see and acknowledge the truth expressed in this article, the more is the comfort of the grace of preservation enhanced for us and the more real and applicable it becomes. For surely, no child of God can escape the testimony that what is stated in this article is real. Article 5 describes life as we live it and experience it as long as we are in the flesh. It describes something which every child of God at one time or another and in one degree or another experiences. And how awful in such circumstances to have to live by a doctrine which teaches that the saint must lift himself out of such extreme straits! How reassuring for a saint who can fall so deeply to know that it is absolutely certain and irrevocable by the grace of God in Christ Jesus “that in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell!” Heidelberg Catechism, Question. 44. How comforting to know also with respect to those deep and hopeless falls into sin that the Holy Ghost “is given me . . . that he may comfort me and abide with me for ever!” How blessed it is to know with respect to such enormous sins “that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member” of the holy catholic church! Heidelberg Catechism, Question 53, 54. Hence, on the one hand, let us by all means not overlook and ignore the picture drawn in this article. Nor let us forget the truth taught in the last part of the article, namely, that the way out of the hopeless morass of despair pictured here is the way of earnest repentance. But on the other hand, let us not divorce this article from the truth taught in this chapter. It is an integral part thereof. And let us allow the full light of the wonder of perseverance to penetrate our hearts by beholding its contrast with the enormity and seriousness of our sins. 

Now let us attend to the contents of the article. 

In the first place, the fathers assert that by these enormous sins the saints “very highly offend God.” This statement is important for two reasons. First of all, we see that the entire outlook of this paragraph is theocentric. The very first concern of Reformed doctrine is to stand for the name and honor and glory of God. That is also the case with the doctrine of perseverance. And that is in particular the case in dealing with the truth of perseverance in its relation to the sins and falls of the saints. And secondly, just because we are taught here that the character of the love and grace of God in preserving His children unto the end is such that it cannot possibly ignore sin, but is highly offended by our sins, we can understand that all the rest of this article must needs follow. Hence; let us understand this truth. God is highly offended and displeased by the sins of His children. No, this does not and cannot mean that God alternates between love and wrath, between blessing and cursing, between favor and disfavor toward His people. But we must remember, in the first place, that God’s love and grace toward His people is always first of all the love and grace which He has in Himself and toward Himself as the ever-blessed Triune One. God is in Himself the gracious God because He is the God of all infinite perfections. God is the God of love in Himself, so that He loves Himself and seeks Himself as the highest and only good. God’s love and grace are holy. For that very reason the counterpart of God’s love is His wrath against all that is opposed to Him. God’s love always reacts in wrath whenever the object of His love is touched. Hence, as truly as the object of God’s love is fundamentally always Himself, and as truly as sin—all sin, whether the sin of elect or reprobate—assails the object of God’s love which is Himself, so surely is God highly displeased with sin, especially the sin of His people. In the second place, it is the purpose and goal of God’s grace toward His people in Christ Jesus to make His people gracious and beautiful like Himself, that is, ethically perfect. Hence, when He reveals that grace through our Lord Jesus Christ and in His cross, He in the nature of the case reveals it as a grace that is opposed to all sin, that condemns and destroys sin. In the third place, God loves His people unchangeably, and blesses them with all the blessings of grace, but only as they are in Christ Jesus, and therefore, not as they are by nature, but as He beholds them from eternity in Christ and as He actually makes them in time through the operation of that grace. Everything in His people D that is contrary to that power and operation and goal of His grace is displeasing to Him, is the object of His wrath, and must ultimately be destroyed. Certainly the cross reveals this truth most clearly. That cross is the highest revelation of His love, and at the same time the fiercest revelation of His wrath,—His wrath not only against the ungodly, reprobate world, but His wrath against the sins of His elect people. Rather than have those sins go unpunished, He has punished the same in His beloved Son. Now the grace that flows from Calvary through the operation of the Holy Spirit is exactly of such a kind: opposed to all sin, aiming at the uprooting and destruction of sin. And therefore, the sin that remains in the saints is not ignored by God. Nor will it do simply to say that all those sins are done away and are not real any more since they are covered by the blood of Christ. Nor will it do to say that when His saints sin, God has the same attitude toward them as toward the reprobate,—the attitude of a severe Judge, Who demands satisfaction for sin. That cannot be: the satisfaction has been made by Christ. But exactly because God loves His people in Christ Jesus, He hates and is displeased with their sins. The offense of which this article speaks is the offense of a loving Father! And it is for this reason that the article also emphasizes that these enormous sins of the saints offend God “very highly.” You ask the question: are the sins of God’s people more offensive than the sins of the ungodly? And the answer is: by all means! The saints are those in whom God works the work of His grace. The saints are those who bear the name of God in the midst of the world. The saints are those who represent the cause of God in the midst of the world. And therefore the sins of the saints, and especially their gross sins and falls, are the occasion that the name of God is blasphemed. They are His children. And therefore when they sin, they cast reflections upon the name of their Father. When they sin, they sin against grace! We may therefore surely say that there is nothing more displeasing to God than the sins of His people. 

In the second place, the article asserts that by such enormous sins the saints incur a deadly guilt. We immediately wonder, of course how this assertion can stand in the light of the fact that in the cross the saints are forever and perfectly justified from all sin, and that by the blood of Christ they are purged from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing.’ We probably wonder how this statement can stand in the light of the fact that the saints are justified from all eternity in the counsel of God. In reply, we state, in the first place, that whether we can explain this statement or not, we all know by experience that it is true. On account of our sins we are guilty and feel that we are guilty. Otherwise we would never pray, “Forgive us our debts.” In the second place, we hasten to add that the statement does not refer to, our objective position before the bar of God’s justice: from this point of view we are forever justified. But, in the third place, we must remember: 1) That all these sins are in themselves worthy of death. 2) That the saints feel the guilt of their sins before God. 3) That as long as the soul does not get rid of its burden of sin through confession and the seeking of forgiveness through the blood of Calvary, that soul must carry the burden of guilt. 4) That therefore, in the case of gross sins for which the saints do not immediately come to repentance, sins in which they walk, sins which go unconfessed for a time, the result can only be that the saints feel themselves to be in a state of damnation. And when finally they come to the spiritual consciousness of these sins, the saints can give expression to this very hopeless feeling. In fact, we must remember that this is fundamentally true of any one of our sins. As long as it goes unconfessed, as long as we do not get rid of it in the prayer for forgiveness, we can only feel a deadly guilt. 

—H.C.H.