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

Article 9. Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion, that they ever will continue true and living members of the church; and that they experience the forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life. 

The above translation is far from correct. It omits some elements of the original and embellishes others. How this translation was arrived at I do not know. But it evinces a certain lack of understanding of the very truth which the article intends to set forth, and it agrees with neither the Latin nor the Dutch versions. Because this article is very brief—briefer, in fact, than the above translation—we can very well make all our corrections by furnishing a new translation of the entire paragraph. We would translate the article as follows: 

Of this keeping of the elect unto salvation, and of the perseverance of the true believers in faith, the believers themselves are able to be certain, and are certain according to the measure of faith, by which they certainly believe that they are and always shall remain true and living members of the Church, that they have the remission of sins and life eternal. 

This article begins the treatment of the second main aspect of the perseverance of the saints. The first eight paragraphs of this chapter have dealt with the subject of perseverance and preservation as such. From Article 9 to Article 13 the subject of the knowledge and assurance of perseverance is treated. Article 9 speaks of the possibility and the fact of this assurance. Article 10 speaks of the way in which this assurance is attained. Article 11 deals with the subject of carnal doubts and temptations in relation to this assurance. Articles 12 and 13 speak of the effects of this assurance upon the believers. Hence, we shall be busy with this subject for some time to come. 

Let us first attempt clearly to understand the subject. 

Abstractly considered, it would be possible that God would preserve His elect and that the elect would persevere to the end, but that they would have no assurance of their perseverance. I say “abstractly considered,” because when we consider the truth of perseverance concretely, as contained in the Scriptures and developed in the preceding articles, it would certainly be impossible to maintain the doctrine of perseverance without the doctrine of the assurance of perseverance. But for the sake of distinguishing our present subject clearly let us consider this abstraction for a moment. In such a case the objective truth would be that God surely preserves every last one of the elect unto the day of Jesus Christ and that they surely persevere to the very end. That by itself would be a very precious truth. For, you understand, even if there were no assurance of perseverance, even if the elect would know nothing of God’s sure preservation and their sure perseverance, that preservation and perseverance would surely take place nevertheless. The knowledge or lack of a knowledge of a certain fact does not change the reality of that fact. Whether or not I know that Christ died for my sins 1900 years ago on Calvary’s cross does not change the reality of the fact that at the cross all my sins were forever blotted out. And so also, whether or not I know that God will surely preserve me to the very end and that I shall persevere to the end does not change the fact that God shall indeed preserve me and that I shall surely persevere to the end. The fact stands. In such a case, it might be that I never obtain the knowledge of that wonderful work of preservation until the whole process is finished and I arrive in the eternal state. Then I would say: “God in His wonderful grace has kept me safe all the way.” But now the question treated in this article is: can the believers themselves also be certain that they shall persevere in faith even unto the end? Can and may they know it? May they say it? May and can they have the trust and confidence that they shall persevere to the end? Can and may they depend upon it, derive comfort and security from it, that they shall surely persevere and obtain the final victory? 

The Reformed faith maintains not only the truth of the sure preservation and perseverance of the saints, but also the, truth that the believers can and do obtain the assurance of perseverance. 

The Arminian heresy denies both. 

The latter stands to reason. If the Arminian maintains the doctrine of the falling away of the saints, he cannot possibly maintain, but must necessarily deny, the doctrine of the assurance of perseverance. And this, in fact, the Arminian also did. He taught that without a special revelation we can have no certainty of future perseverance in this life. Cf. V, B, 5. In other words, if God foresaw that a certain man would by his own free will persevere to the end, and then would by a special and direct revelation inform that man of what He foresaw, then that man could have the assurance of perseverance. But all this is pure fiction and imagination. Our fathers, have maintained that the real implication of the Arminian doctrine is that no one would ever persevere if left to himself. The Arminian possibility of the falling away of the saints has in it the absolute necessity of the falling away of all saints. But if this be true, then all assurance is out of the picture. 

And this brings us to our second observation, which we made also in connection with our discussion of the assurance of election, namely, that assurance must be based upon objective fact and reality. If the assurance of perseverance is not based upon sure perseverance, it is false and worthless. This relationship is beautifully expressed in the article we are now studying. Notice that the article does not begin with the perseverance of the true believers. It does not merely say: “Of the perseverance of the true believers in faith the believers themselves are able to be certain, and are certain according to the measure of faith . . .” Such a statement is true, but it does not express the whole truth of the matter. It leaves out the solid rock of the foundation upon which such assurance must be based. It leaves out God and His work. The term “perseverance” looks at this truth from the viewpoint of the activity of the believers. And that perseverance in itself can never explain the assurance, can never form the basis of assurance. In fact, if I consider my own activity of persevering as an imperfect saint, the result must necessarily be doubt, not assurance. Hence, there must be something objective, something firm and solid and sure, to which assurance clings. And it is at that point that the article begins: “Of this keeping of the elect unto salvation, and of the perseverance of the true believers in faith, the believers themselves are able to be certain, and are certain according to the measure of faith . . .” We may notice in this connection, therefore: 

1) That the article mentions both: God’s keeping and the perseverance of the true believers. 

2) That God’s keeping of His elect is mentioned first, and the perseverance of the believers second. This is important. It is not thus, that the believers persevere in faith and that God then preserves them. The opposite is true. God keeps the elect unto salvation, and therefore the true believers persevere in faith. Hence, it is God’s keeping of the elect unto salvation that is the ground of the assurance of perseverance because that divine keeping is the cause and only possibility of the perseverance itself. 

3) That the article very properly and carefully distinguishes between “this keeping of the elect” and “the perseverance of the true believers.” It is elect that are kept; it is believers that persevere. Our fathers are careful to keep the relationships in good order. In the first place, this serves to emphasize once more the truth that election is the key to the whole truth of perseverance. Whom does God keep? His own elect, chosen from before the foundation of the world in Christ according to His good pleasure. Why does God keep them? Because He has chosen them according to His own good pleasure. The ultimate ground, therefore, of all assurance, including the assurance of perseverance, is sovereign election. In the second place, we must remember that the terms “elect” and “true believers” are co-extensive. The article certainly does not mean to posit a relation of contrast between the keeping of the elect and the perseverance of the true believers, as though it meant to say: “God keeps the elect, but of those elect only the true believers persevere.” No, they are the same, and their election is the cause of their being true believers. The true believers who persevere are the elect who are kept, and their election is the fountain and cause of the blessings of faith and perseverance. Nevertheless, it is only in their capacity of true believers, or, if you will, by faith, that the elect persevere. And it is only by faith, therefore, that the assurance of perseverance is possible. 

Our third observation concerning this article is that it teaches not only the possibility, but the reality of the assurance of perseverance on the part of the true believers. Also this is important. The article says: “The believers themselves are able to be certain, and are certain . . . .” This means that for believers assurance is not the rare exception, but the rule without exception. Assurance is not to be depicted as an elusive pot of spiritual gold at the foot of a mystical rainbow. It is not something possible but rarely attained. It is not thus, that there are only a certain holy few among all the true believers that ever obtain this assurance. On the contrary, our fathers teach that true believers not onlycan, but also do indeed obtain the assurance of perseverance. This was also their teaching in regard to the assurance of election. Cf. I, A, 12. Hence, doubt is not normal for a child of God. Assurance is normal for believers. 

In the fourth place, the article calls attention to the fact that the measure of assurance is not the same in all. “The believers themselves are certain according to the measure of faith . . . .” This implies, first of all, the fact that in various children of God not only, but also in the same child of God at various times, the measure of assurance is not the same. This is also experience. The children of God are not always at those heights of faith where with defiant challenge they firmly and confidently assert in the very face of the enemy that “nothing can separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This implies, in the second place, that there is a very definite and constant proportion between the measure of assurance and the measure of faith. Believers are certain of their perseverance according to the measure of faith. Where the measure of faith is large, there the measure of assurance is large; where it is small, there the measure of assurance is proportionately small. And in the third place, this implies already that our present assurance cannot be based upon our past assurance. Principally, it is true, once assured is always assured. But this by no means implies that our former assurance is the basis of our assurance in the present moment. Assurance is a continuing process. 

To the nature of this assurance we will call attention in a following article. 

—H.C.H.