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

Article 6. But God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeablepurpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people, even ii their melancholy falls; nor suffers them to proceed SO far as to lose the grace of adoption, and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death; nor does he permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction. 

The above translation is very inaccurate, and, as a comparison will show, does not correspond with the Dutch translation, which is far more correct. In the first place, the article does not begin with the contrasting “but” in the original, but with “for,” indicating that here we have a further step in the logical development of the truth of perseverance. This certainly changes the viewpoint of the article entirely. In the second place, even though this gives a somewhat clumsy English expression, we should nevertheless note that the original does not have “according to his unchangeable purpose of election,” but: “out of his unchangeable purpose of election.” This is a fine distinction, but nevertheless significant since it points to the idea ofsource rather than that of standard. The last part of the translation above is incorrect even to the extent that an entire phrase is omitted. It should be rendered as follows: “nor Suffers them to slip to that point that they fail out of the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or that they commit the sin unto death, or against the Holy Spirit, and having been totally deserted by him (i.e., the Holy Spirit), plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.” In this connection we may also note that the original Latin has two different terms in this article that are translated “wholly” and “totally.” The Latin terms are prorsus andpenitus respectively. I believe this distinction is of importance. The latter term defines more carefully the respect in which the Holy Ghost is not utterly taken away from God’s people. For the root meaning of the term is “internally, in the inmost part, deep within.” And in this sense it comes to mean “through and through, thoroughly, entirely, wholly.” We shall call attention to the significance of this a bit later; but even now we may point to the fact that this stands in close connection with the first statement of the following article: “For in the first place, in these falls he preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration.” 

The first matter demanding our attention, then, is that of the connection of this article with the preceding. That connection is expressed by the word “for,” which indicates that here we have a reason and a further explanation of that which Gas taught earlier in the chapter. In the preceding the fathers laid down the truth that the saints, by reason of the remains of indwelling sin, could not persevere in grace if left to their own strength (Article 3). And in the two subsequent articles the fathers enlarged on this idea, calling attention to the reality and seriousness of the sins and falls of the saints, and at the same time emphasizing that the truth of preservation does not at all abrogate the necessity of watching and prayer. However, the main proposition was that God, who is faithful, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves the saints in grace even to the end, influencing and actuating them by His Spirit. And the very last part of the preceding article had returned to the thought that after all; even in their deepest falls, the saints cannot fall from grace, but that through serious repentance they return into the way of life and into the light of God’s fatherly countenance. And now the present-article gives the reason and the explanation of the fact that even in and through their deepest falls and enormous sins God powerfully preserves His people unto the end, so that they do indeed through earnest repentance return into the path of life. And strikingly enough,—and, too, quite in harmony with the very keynote of the Reformed truth,—that reason is fundamentally God. Notice how the article begins: “For God . . . .” God, who is rich in mercy,—He Himself is the reason. And it is mercy alone, rich, abundant mercy, that delivers us from the misery of our deepest falls and powerfully preserves us even in and all the way through our most miserable failures. 

In the second place, we must by all means not overlook the very quality that causes that mercy to be so rich and abundant. It is sovereign mercy. Most significantly the article calls our attention to the truth that the deepest reason for our preservation and perseverance is “God’s unchangeable purpose of election.” The first article of this chapter already made reference to this truth indirectly. But here the perseverance of the saints is directly referred to God’s election. And as we indicated in our comments on the translation, actually the fathers present God’s purpose of election as the source or fountain from which the blessing of preservation flows. It is out of God’s unchangeable purpose of election that He does not totally withdraw His Holy Spirit from His own. Hence, the perseverance of the saints is essentially the preservation of the elect, of “His own.” We are pointed, therefore, once more not only to the fundamental significance of the truth of sovereign election, but reminded again that after ail the basic cleavage between us and the Arminians is in regard to that truth of election. This is not the first time our attention is called to this point. Already in the chapter on predestination the connection between election and all the blessings of salvation was clearly pointed out; and in this connection perseverance was also mentioned. Thus we read in I, 7: “This elect number . . . God bath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by him, and effectually to call and draw them to his communion, by his Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification;and having powerfully persevered them in the fellowship of his Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of his mercy, and for the praise of his glorious grace.” And again, in I, 8: “. . . . since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which he hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation . . . .” And again, I, 9: “. . . . therefore election -is the fountain of every saving good; from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects.” This same connection is traced again in regard to the quickening and saving efficacy of the-death of Christ in chapter two (II, 8). And when the truth concerning the conversion of man is set forth, the fathers once more take pains to note the inseparable connection between it and God’s purpose of election. Cf. III, IV, 7, 10, 11. And here again, the truth of the sure perseverance of the saints proceeds from God’s unchangeable purpose of election. Election is the answer to the question as to why the saints persevere, God’s unchangeable election. And that is just exactly why the Arminians were forced to deny the perseverance of the saints: they denied the truth of election. We must see this important fact clearly; it can never have too much emphasis, especially in our day of rampant Arminianism. Once we let go of the truth of sovereign, immutable election, we lose all of the truth of salvation. Indeed, the Arminians apparently maintained a doctrine of eternal election. But do not forget that it was an election that rested upon the will of man, rested upon foreseen faith and perseverance. And for that reason they could not maintain the truth of the perseverance of the saints. From the Arminian doctrine of election the truth of perseverance could not follow for the simple reason that, according to the Arminians, election itself followed from perseverance. In the Arminian system man’s perseverance, not God’s election, was the ultimate. In the Arminian system everything is wavering and vacillating. The Arminian does not know of any unchangeable purpose of election. And that is its fundamental failure. The whole strength of the Reformed view is in God’s unchangeable purpose of election. That purpose is that the elect shall be conformed to the image of God’s Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. That purpose of election is sovereign and unchangeable, unchangeable just because it is absolutely sovereign. And therefore it shall certainly be realized and the saints can never fall from grace. Their perseverance is sealed from eternity! Nor is this connection between perseverance and election one that is established merely by a process of logical deduction. It is directly taught in the Scriptures. More than once do the Scriptures connect the preservation of the saints with God’s unchangeable purpose. Thus, for example, we read in John 6:39: “And this is the Father’s will which bath sent me, that of all which he hat11 given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again, at the last day.” And again the Lord Jesus alludes to that same election in John 10:28, 29: “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” And to mention one more, the vision of the sealing of the one hundred and forty and four thousand, recorded in Rev. 7:1-8, teaches us the same truth. 

From this fundamental truth all the rest of the truths stated in this article follow. In the first place, God does not wholly withdraw His Holy Spirit from His own. In the second place, He does not suffer them to slip so far that they fall from the grace of adoption and the state of justification. In the third place, He does not suffer them to slip so far that they commit the sin unto death and thus plunge themselves into everlasting destruction, having been totally deserted by the Holy Spirit. 

We must call attention to these points in detail in our nest article. 

However, there are two significant observations to be made before we go into detail. Our first observation is that it is indeed true according to the very language of the article that these truths are connected with God’s unchangeable purpose of election. From whom does God not wholly withdraw His Holy Spirit? “From his own people.” Whom does God not suffer to fall from the grace of adoption and the state of justification? “Them,” that is, “His own people.” Whom does God not suffer to commit the sin unto death, to be totally deserted by the Holy Spirit, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction? “Them,” that is, “His own people:” Our second observation is that the language of this article is again totally negative. God does notwholly withdraw His Spirit from His people. He doesnot suffer them to slip so far that they fall from the grace of adoption and the state of justification. This is rather striking. Also the language of Article 4 was negative: “yet converts are not always so influenced and actuated . . . .” Perhaps this negative language is somewhat occasioned by the fact that the fathers are answering the Arminians. I rather believe, however, that it is due to the fact that while the truth of preservation as such is positive and can be positively stated, and while it is possible by means of such negative statements as these to define the boundaries within which the grace of preservation operates. (and also, by the way, within which the enormous sins and falls of the saints are committed), nevertheless it is very difficult to say anything positive about the manner of the operation of this preserving grace. That manner is mysterious. And the truth stated in another connection in Article 13 of the previous chapter could well be applied here also: “The manner of this operation cannot be fully comprehended by believers in this life.” And the last part of that article might well be paraphrased: “Notwithstanding which, they rest satisfied with knowing and experiencing that by this grace of God they are enabled to persevere unto the end.” 

—H.C.H.