We must still call attention to the meaning of the several negative statements in this article. These statements by their negative form, remember, set the limits beyond which the saints cannot fall, due to God’s preserving operation, no matter how grievous their fall and how enormous their sin. Specifically the article defines these limits in the following statements: 1) God does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His people. 2) God does not suffer them to slip to the point that they fall out of the grace of adoption and the state of justification. 3) God does not suffer His people to commit the sin unto death, the sin against the Holy Spirit. 4) God does not suffer His people to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.
The first statement is very important, for it means that principally the saints always remain children of God, no matter how deeply they fall. Let us try to see the importance of this. We are from eternity the people of God by sovereign election. We are legally and objectively the people of God through the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which He purchased all the elect as His peculiar possession. We become actually and subjectively the people of God when the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of Christ takes up His abode in us. That Holy Ghost “makes me by a true faith, partaker of Christ and all his benefits.” Heidelberg Catechism; Q. 53. It is by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit that God “pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable.” Now the question is: what happens when the child of God falls into sin? Does the Holy Ghost come and go, depending on whether one walks as a child of God or walks in sin? When the saint falls into sin, does he at that moment become no more a saint? Are the people of God alternately children of God and not children of God? This must necessarily be the Arminian answer because of his conditional system. The Arminian must, if he is consistent, maintain that just as the initial entrance of the Holy Spirit into a man is dependent upon that man’s willingness to receive the Holy Spirit, so the Holy Spirit’s continued abode in that man is dependent upon that man’s willingness to continue to keep Him. Hence, man can drive the Spirit out of his” heart just as easily as he can allow Him entrance. This is consistent; but it is consistently Arminian and consistently wrong. Nor are the Canons the first to maintain this. Our Canons define it more carefully. But do not forget that the Heidelberg Catechism already stated, Q. 53: “secondly, that he is also given me, to make me by a true faith, partaker of Christ and all his benefits, that he may comfort me and abide with me for ever.” The Arminians could not subscribe to this. It means that once the Holy Ghost takes up His abode in a man, He remains in that man from that moment on, forever. No action of that man can ever drive Him out! Let us remember this. The Holy Ghost is always sovereign and efficacious in His operations. That is true of His initial operation in the regeneration and conversion of the elect sinner, but also of His continued operation. The sinner has absolutely nothing to do with the question whether or not the Holy Ghost shall take up His abode in him. He cannot accomplish it, and he cannot prevent it. That is the very essence of the work of grace. And therefore, the sinful saint cannot drive out the Spirit once He has taken up His abode. In fact, to deny this is a terribly hopeless doctrine. It would certainly mean that the Holy Ghost would never take up His abode in the heart of any sinned. And it would imply that should the Holy Ghost perchance enter a man, He would not stay there for a moment. Hence, we must maintain in the most complete sense of the word that the abode and operations of the Holy Ghost in God’s people are absolutely sovereign and unconditional from beginning to end.
Moreover, we must remember that even when the Holy Ghost in some sense and to some degree withdraws, He does so sovereignly, not conditionally. You will notice that the article implies that there is indeed a sense in which the Holy Ghost withdraws or is withdrawn from the saints. This is implied in the statement that God “does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people.” And this is further defined by the expression later in the article to which we referred in our remarks about the translation. (Cf. the Feb. 1 issue.) That expression means that the Holy Spirit does not inwardly, internally desert us. Hence, at those times when the Holy Ghost is grieved through the sin, of the child of God, He indeed recedes from the foreground of our conscious life and experience, and He as it were goes back into the inmost recesses of a man’s being. But He never deserts the saints as far as those inmost recesses of their being is concerned. Nor does He become inactive. Nor does He become dependent upon our action. He Himself withdraws; but He also makes His way back into our conscious life and experience. And He does so, not when we allow Him, but when He sovereignly drives the erring and sinning saint out to Christ for forgiveness, causes him to forsake his sin, repent, and confess it. In that way the child of God once again becomes conscious of the indwelling of the Holy Ghost and has the assurance of his salvation restored and renewed. But unless the Holy Ghost were sovereign even in this partial withdrawal and return, He would never return after He once withdrew.
The second statement is that God never suffers the saints to fall out of the grace of adoption and the state of justification. These two are mentioned together undoubtedly because they are so intimately related. In the inclusive sense of the term our adoption belongs to our justification. Justification means that God declares us righteous in Christ Jesus. Our adoption means that God takes us as His children on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ. Both our justification and our adoption are eternally fixed in sovereign election, and both are objectively accomplished by the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification. Subjectively, they are accomplished by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through faith. And the fathers teach us here that the saints can never fall out of this grace of adoption and the state of justification. The reason is again that the blessings of justification and adoption are absolutely unconditional. The realization of them is not in any way dependent upon anything we may or may not do. Long before we believe our justification is accomplished forever in the cross and resurrection of Christ. In fact, the very wonder of justification lies in the fact that it triumphs over our sin and guilt. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly,” Rom. 5:6. And: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” Rom. 5:8. Justification is of such a nature that all our good works cannot possibly add to the righteousness which we have in Christ. But it is also such that all our sins, even the sins committed after believing, cannot possibly take away from our righteousness. This is true because in the most real sense of the word our Lord Jesus Christ atoned and made satisfaction for all our sins. The justified sinner never commits a sin which has not been paid for 1900 years ago on the cross of Calvary. Andy therefore no sin that the saints ever commit can cause them to fall out of the state of justification or from the grace of adopt&. But we must say still more. Principally the child of God cannot even fall from the state of justification subjectively. He may lose the conscious assurance of justification for a time and lose the joy of being righteous in Christ when he does not walk by faith. But the principle and power of faith cannot be lost because the Holy Spirit never withdraws totally from God’s people. And if faith cannot be lost, then the righteousness which is by faith cannot be lost. Once justified is always justified, and once having received the adoption unto children is always adopted. The unconditional” blessings of justification and adoption cannot be lost because they are unconditional.
The third statement is that God never suffers the saints to proceed so far that they commit the sin unto death or the sin against the Holy Spirit. We cannot here go into a detailed explanation of the passages that speak of this sin. Scripture speaks of it in various passages. In Matthew 12:31, 32 it is referred to as the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and is spoken of by Jesus as the sin which shall not be forgiven, neither in this age nor in the age to come. In Hebrews 6:4-6 it is spoken of as the sin according to which men crucify the Son of God afresh and put Him to an open shame, and we are instructed that it is impossible that those who commit this sin are renewed again unto repentance. And in I John 5:16, ff., it is called the sin unto death. Concerning it we may say: 1) That it is a sin which can take place only in the sphere of the covenant, not in heathendom. This follows not only from the fact that it is a sin against the Holy Ghost, and must therefore take place in the sphere of the Spirit’s operations; but it also follows from the fact that it is a crucifying afresh of the Son of God. 2) That it is a sin which is characterized by the fact that those who commit it never come to sorrow, and repentance over it. This is undoubtedly not because any sin is so great that God cannot conquer it by the power of His grace, but because God does not so operate that in the process of sanctification the Holy Ghost first lets a man go so far that he blasphemes the very Spirit of sanctification Who works in him and then brings him to repentance. The impossibility of repentance therefore is due to the fact that this is contrary to the Holy Spirit’s mode of operation. 3) In this light we may also see why this sin is never forgiven. Only those sins are forgiven of which a man feels true sorrow, of which he repents, and of which he makes confession. 4) We may also conclude that the sin against the Holy Ghost is never committed by the elect, only by the reprobate, and that therefore the child of God, who is sorry for his sin never need fear that he has committed this sin against the Holy Ghost. He who commits this sin is hard and indifferent, shows no concern about this sin or about any other sin when he has reached this state. Anyone who is anxious about having committed the sin unto death certainly has not committed it. But let us notice once more that the impossibility of this sin for the people of God lies not in them, but in God’s own grace. If we could ever commit this sin unto death, it would mean that the Holy Ghost had already withdrawn Himself totally and inwardly from us. But God Himself through the indwelling Spirit prevents us from ever falling so far.
Thus, finally, we can understand the last statement, namely, that God never suffers us to plunge ourselves into everlasting destruction. We must remember that we are, on our part, ever ready to do exactly this. But God never suffers us to do it. Once delivered out of the clutches of death and hell is always delivered. He that hath begun a good work in us shall finish it unto the day of Jesus Christ.
How could we better conclude than by calling attention to the one clause which we have not discussed as yet? You will find it at the beginning of the article under discussion: “But God, who is rich in mercy . . . .” How we learn from this wonderful work of preservation to acknowledge more and more the truth of that clause! For mercy, rich mercy, pure, sovereign mercy it is alone that preserves us to the very end! It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.