For the correct rendition of this article we refer the reader to the previous issue of The Standard Bearer.
This is a very important article because it deals with the relation between God’s preserving grace and the sins and falls of the people of God, and therefore with the nature and the manner of the operation of God’s grace in the work whereby He preserves His people. And from this point of view it is an important article because it concerns the very honor and holiness of God and of His grace as they are presented according to the Reformed conception. This is after all but one phase of a very old problem, the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s sin. But here we have a very acute phase of that problem. It is not merely the general question whether sin has a place in God’s counsel. Nor is it the problem in general of God’s sovereign and providential government in relation to the sin of men. But it is a problem that deals, first of all, with the sins of God’s children. And therefore, in the second place, it is a problem that concerns God’sgrace,—the very power and work whereby God saves His people from sin,—in relation to the sins of the very people whom He saves. And in the third place, it concerns God’s grace in relation to, the sins of His people which they commit after they are saved, that is, after they have become conscious participants of that grace. And finally, it concerns the very grace that is supposed to preserve God’s saints against the power of sin, that is, against these very grievous sins which they commit. Hence, the question is this: if you maintain that the grace of God always must and always does preserve the saints, and if you maintain at the same time that the saints sin and fall grievously, do you not defame and impugn the very holiness of God, and that too, in regard to the very work of God in which the glory of His holiness is supposed to shine forth most brightly?
By the same token, of course, the whole question concerning this relationship brings us face to face with a most serious ethical problem. It is true that the Canons deal further with this problem in later articles; but here that problem is introduced, and that too, as to its very principles. The question is: if God’s grace must and does always preserve the saints, are not the sins and falls of the saints to be charged against that very grace that preserves them, and therefore not against the saints themselves? Is not the fault for the sins of the saints not in them, but in God’s grace? And are therefore the saints not to be absolved of any blame, any responsibility, for their sins and falls? And does not this necessarily produce careless and profane Christians?
Now the Arminians were well aware of these apparent weak points in the Reformed conception, and they capitalized on them, in order to hold the Reformed truth up to scorn and contempt as an ethically horrifying doctrine. This explains also why the fathers take pains already in the positive section of this fifth chapter to expound the true Reformed position.
But weak points these are only apparently. And to see these supposed weak points one must look at the truth through Arminian spectacles. In fact, the situation is thus, that the Arminians rear up their own presentation of the Reformed truth, in order then to criticize it as an immoral conception, one that is unworthy of God. And indeed, we may hasten to add, if it were true that the Arminian construction of the Reformed truth is correct, it would assuredly be an immoral doctrine. If it were really true that the preserving grace of God is itself responsible for the sins and falls of the saints, we could not possibly subscribe to that doctrine. However, is usual, the Arminians take the offensive against the Reformed faith simply in order to cover up and to divert attention from their own immoral view. For what could be more immoral than a doctrine which maintains that the grace of the only Lord of heaven and earth can be overcome by the power of sinful flesh, yea, is utterly dependent upon the movement of the human will before it can operate?
How then do the fathers explain the relation between God’s preserving grace and the saints’ falls?
In the first place, let it be noted that they do not retreat whatsoever from the stand of the preceding article: “But God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms, and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.” Now this is important. This means, as we have seen previously, that from the moment that He first confers upon His people the grace of conversion on to the very end God keeps on confirming and preserving them in that grace. OurCanons will have more to say on this in later articles. But already here it is plain that the motif of all the work and dealings of God with His saints, even in their deepest falls, is grace. Or, to express this from the viewpoint of the saints, the undercurrent of their entire life, even then when through falling into sin they may not be conscious of God’s grace, is the preserving grace of God.
In the second place, let ii be noted that the fathers steadfastly maintain that the confirming and preserving power of God’s grace is so great that it cannot be overcome by the flesh. This stands in close connection with the preceding, but emphasizes a little different aspect of the truth. To be sure, if at any stage that preserving grace of God could be overcome by the flesh of the saints, then the whole matter of the perseverance of the saints is in doubt. Then it is possible that they cannot endure to the end. Then it must also be granted that the operation of preserving grace is dependent upon whether or not the saints on account of their flesh resist and overcome and reject God’s power of preservation. But this is impossible: “The power of God which confirms and preserves the true believers . . . is greater than that it can be overcome by the flesh.” That always remains true. At no point in the life of the saint does the power of the flesh overcome the power of God’s grace,—no matter what takes place in his life. It may even appear sometimes as if he is utterly devoid of grace. It may seem to the saint himself that God’s grace has forsaken him. This is never the case. The flesh cannot conquer, no matter how mightily it battles against divine grace.
In the third place, let it be noted that the fathers do not posit a conflict, an antithesis, between the operation of God’s grace and the responsibility of the saints for their own falls. Nor do they at all present this whole problem as a matter of a sort of double-track theology. They present the entire matter from the viewpoint ofGod’s actuating and influencing the believers. It is true, the fathers use a negative statement here. The fact remains that they explain the sins and falls of the believers in this light: “The converted are not always thus actuated and influenced by God so that they are not able in certain particular actions to draw back . . . .” Once again, therefore: the preserving grace of God never forsakes the saints. It is simply a question of how that grace actuates and influences them.
In the fourth place, the manner of the actuation and influence of God’s grace is not always such that the believers do not sometimes deviate from the guidance of divine grace, and that they do not sometimes fall into temptation and comply with the lusts of the flesh. Here we really have the crux of the matter. What happens when the believers are led into temptation, when they fall? Is it thus, that the Lord wants to lead them so that they do not fall into temptation, but that the power of God’s grace is overcome by the power of the flesh, so that the Lord God is helpless to prevent their fall? Was it thus, for example, with the fall of David in the incident of Bathsheba? Was it thus, when Peter denied his Lord? Speaking now abstractly of what might have happened, could not the Lord have so led David and Peter that they would never have fallen into those gross sins? And when you and I fall into sin, can that be ascribed to the inability of God’s grace to prevent our falls? Such must necessarily be the Arminian position: God would like to prevent it, but He is powerless. But God forbid that such should be the case! That would certainly mean that not only occasionally, but always, the power of the flesh is beyond the control and dominion of God’s grace. What then? The fact is that God in His grace does not always lead His people in such a way that they do not fall into temptation. Sometimes He leads them thus, that according to their own carnal inclinations and lusts of the flesh they are seduced and actually fall into grave and atrocious sins. Thus it was very plainly with Peter. For, first of all, the Lord Jesus plainly foretold the fact of Peter’s three-fold denial of his Lord, and that too, in the face of Peter’s bold assertion that it was impossible. Was the Lord merely venturing a guess that this denial would take place, on the basis of His knowledge of Peter’s self-assertive character? By no means; but He made a flat prediction that before the cock crowed, Peter would deny Him thrice. But in the second place, the Lord did not at all prevent the fall of Peter. He could have. If He could pray that Peter’s faith fail not,—and that prayer was answered,—He could also pray that Peter would not succumb to the temptation to deny his Lord at the high priest’s palace. And that prayer would be answered also. But Jesus did not pray thus. Why not? There can be but one answer: He knew the Father’s will was that Peter should be led into temptation. But He also knew that the Father’s will was that Peter’s faith should not fail. And according to the Father’s will He prayed; and the prayer was answered.
This brings us to our fifth observation, namely, that even in such instances God in His gracious leading of His people works righteously. This is according to the teaching of the fathers in this article: “but sometimes by the righteous permission of God they actually fall into these evils.” We need not stumble over the termpermission here. We may safely say that this is a characteristically infralapsarian expression. But we may say at once that it makes no principal difference whether you speak of “permission” or of “leading.” If I permit something when I could prevent it, the fact remains that it takes place within the confines of my control and my decision. Besides, God’s permission is active; God is the living God, the God of pure and full activity. And further, it is certainly according to Scripture to believe that God sometimes leads into temptation. This is presupposed in the prayer which the Lord Himself taught us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation.” However, the point to bear in mind here is, first of all, that whether you speak of “permission” or use a more positive and active term, we are concerned here with God’s gracious dealings with His people. We must not avoid this issue and say that here we must forget about God’s grace and concentrate on God’s other virtues. Not at, all; we are talking about God’s dealings with His children, dealings that are always fundamentally gracious. And we are speaking precisely of the operations, the actuating and influencing operations, of God’s preserving grace. And now, secondly, the fathers state that even then, when the actuating and influencing operation of God’s grace is such that it permits the saints to deviate from the guidance of grace, to be seduced, to comply with the lusts of the flesh, and actually to fall,—even then God deals righteously, justly.
What this implies we shall see the next time, D.V.