We must keep in mind the subject. This article does not deal with the relation of the Christian to the law. Even then, of course, there is much of truth in what this article states. Certainly, also the Christian, who is already in possession of the grace of salvation, does not obtain grace, and does not even obtain more grace and further grace, by keeping the law. Certainly, the Christian discovers through the law the greatness of sin, even after his conversion, so that he continually grows in the knowledge of his sin, and confesses with the Heidelberg Catechism, Ques. 114, that “even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of (this) obedience.” And that same Christian realizes that he has need of the preaching of the law, “that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ.”Catechism, Ques. 115. The Christian therefore certainly realizes too that in the law itself there is no remedy pointed out for sin, and that the law as such imparts no strength to extricate him from his misery. He will acknowledge that the law as such leaves the transgressor under the curse. But above all, the Christian will understand and view the law as an integral part of the gospel of grace. He hears, and desires to hear, the commandments of his God, but always in the light of the gospel as it is briefly proclaimed even in the very introduction of the Decalogue: “I am Jehovah thy God, which bath brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That, you must remember, is the gospel. The law of the Ten Commandments is addressed not to the natural man, but to the saved man. The keeping of the law follows the obtaining of saving grace; it does not precede it. For only in the grace of salvation is the possibility of keeping the law. 

However, the question here concerns the natural man, and his relation to the law. Can he, the natural man, who is devoid of any grace whatsoever, obtain through the law the grace of God unto salvation? 

We must note that the opening proposition of this article is a comparison: what is true of the light of nature, is also true of the law. This is a very important comparison too. It applies not only to the conclusion, namely, that the natural man is unable through the law to obtain saving grace, just as he is unable through natural light to obtain saving grace. But the comparison speaks of the entire explanation, accounting (ratio), of the law. 

First of all, we must observe what is here compared. The comparison is between natural light and the law. It is between what is often called “general revelation” and “special revelation,”—terms which have their disadvantages, but which we may here use for the sake of distinction. For, you understand, there is a difference between the light of nature and the law, a difference which the fathers also note. All men have the light of nature; but the law was delivered by God to His peculiar people the Jews by the hand of Moses. In other words, the fathers point out that if you would make a comparison here, there is already a distinction which precedes the very giving of the law. The law was not given to all men. And therefore, the law could not possibly serve for the obtaining of saving grace for all men. Besides, how is it to be explained that God gave the law only to some? This very fact already presupposes a good pleasure of God, According to which He revealed His law to some, but not to others. In the third place, do not overlook the fact that the Jews, God’s “peculiar people,” are the church of the old dispensation, the very same church to whom the promise of salvation was given. And the law came four hundred thirty years after the promise, was imposed upon the promise. And this fact must certainly not be ignored in any consideration of the law. But nevertheless, we may make the comparison. All men have natural light; the whole nation of Israel had the law. Furthermore, there is an objective aspect both to this general revelation and this special revelation to God’s peculiar people, the Jews, the church. The objective element in the one is God’s testimony through the things that are made; the objective element in the other is God’s testimony in the Scriptures. Finally, we must note that both indeed shed light upon man, upon his way, upon his deeds. Through the light of nature, man has the light of a natural knowledge of God, of things about him, and of the difference between things good and evil. Through the light of the objective testimony of the Decalogue light is also shed. That law speaks of God and of man. That law speaks of the difference between good and evil. Hence, it is indeed able to make a comparison. 

In the second place, we must note the point of comparison. As we pointed out, it concerns the natural man, unregenerated, unconverted, devoid of grace. And it concerns the question whether he is able to obtain the grace of salvation. 

And in the third place, we must note the conclusion: 

1. Neither by the light of nature nor by the light of the law is man able to obtain saving grace. 

2. Both by the light of nature and by the light of the law man is left without excuse. For the article we are now treating tells us that the law leaves the transgressor under the curse. 

3. Both the light of nature and the light of the law the natural man renders wholly polluted and holds in unrighteousness. In the present article this is not stated, but it is implied in the comparison, and it is certainly true. 

4. Both the light of nature and the light of the law discover the greatness of sin and convict man thereof, so that he stands responsible before God. 

All this becomes plain if we but consider the law for a moment. Why cannot the law save? What does the law do? 

The law can only demand. It says “Thou shalt . . .” and, “Thou shalt not . . .” And centrally, its demand is that man shall love the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his mind, with all his soul, and with all his strength. If man obeys this demand, the law holds forth to him freedom and life: “The man that doeth them shall live in them.” If man disobeys, the law curses him unto death, a death which includes the spiritual slavery to sin: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” More than this demand there is not in the law. 

Hence, the law discovers sin, and discovers the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof. This certainly follows. When a man comes into contact with that standard of the law, he finds that he is not in harmony with that standard. And the more the law is applied to him and to his life and walk, the more he stands exposed as a sinner. Still more: he stands convicted of sin before his own consciousness also. We found this to be the case with the man who has only natural light, and who by natural light knows the difference between good and evil. This is still more the case with the natural man as he comes into contact with the Decalogue. He has more light, is accordingly more clearly a sinner, and stands more responsible before the bar of God’s justice. We must remember this. The trouble with the natural man is not that he is intellectually a fool. He is not ignorant of the law. He can understand the law when it says: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” or when it says: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” He understands this far more clearly than the Gentiles, which have not the law, but which do by nature the things of the law, and which are a law unto themselves. But the natural man stands spiritually at enmity against God and His law. He will not obey it, cannot obey it, and cannot will to obey it. In fact the promulgation of the law excites him to sin. The more the law of God obligates him to live holily, and threatens transgression with death, the more the natural man, unwilling and unable to keep the law, sets himself against it and hardens himself in sin. 

At the same time, the law points out no remedy for sin. It speaks neither of salvation nor of a Savior. It does not even indicate a possible way of salvation. Nor does it impart strength to him that hears the law to extricate him from his misery. The law demands. And as it demands, it exposes, convicts, condemns. And it does no more. Hence, being weak through the flesh, it leaves the transgressor under the curse. Here the Canonsmake a partial quotation of Romans 8:3. The flesh is the human nature in which sin is committed. And through the flesh the law is weak, that is, it stands powerless to do anything else than curse man. It cannot save him. If the law were to do anything to save him, it would have to be able to condemn not the sinner, but the spiritual dominion of sin in the sinner. The law must, with its “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them,” assign the guilty sinner to the power and dominion of sin and death. The law exactly stands on the side of sin in its claim to rule the sinner. And when our mistress sin claims that she has the right to make of the human nature her dominion, then the law upholds her in this claim. Man is guilty. And upon the basis of this guilt he is justly assigned to the dominion of sin and death. And therefore the law leaves the transgressor under the curse. 

There is no possible way for the natural man to obtain the grace of salvation through the law. 

Finally, we must remark that if the law is even to be a teacher of misery in the real, spiritual sense of the word, grace is necessary. Even as it is true that the natural man is able intellectually to understand the law and its sentence of condemnation upon him, and therefore stands convicted as a sinner also before his own consciousness, so it is also true that more than that mere intellectual understanding is necessary if a man is to have true, spiritual conviction of sin, so that he confesses his sin, is sorry for it, and cries out to God for mercy. For this knowledge of our misery, the knowledge of which theHeidelberg Catechism speaks in its first section, more than the objective revelation of the Deealogue in the Scriptures is necessary. A man must not have only the mirror of the law to behold himself. He is in need of eyes to see the image of himself in the law. He needs grace in order that, beholding himself in the mirror of the law, he will not straightway forget what manner of man he is, but will confess, “I am that sinner. O God, be merciful unto me!” And therefore we must remember that also through the law there is a two-fold operation of God: an operation of grace in the elect, and an operation of wrath and hardening in the reprobate. The latter, discovering their sin in the light of God’s law, rave and rage the more in sin and enmity against God; the former, beholding themselves in the mirror of the law, become confessing and sorrowing sinners, and are driven out by the law to seek their salvation in the free grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Article 6. What therefore neither the light of nature. nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation: which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof, it hath pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old, as under the New Testament.

We have but one minor correction to make in the above translation. In stead of “good tidings” the translation might as well have been “gospel” or “evangel.” Apart from this, the above version is faithful to the original Latin.

This article forms the transition from the subject of the corruption of man to that of his conversion, and it sets forth the fundamental proposition of this entire section of the Canons, namely, that salvation is of the Lord alone. From this point of view it is an important paragraph, even though it is brief and intentionally lacking in detail. The details are supplied in the articles that follow and which explain this main proposition. Let us briefly note the setting and the implications of this article. 

In the first place, we must bear in mind that the present section of our Canons deals with salvation as far as its subjective application is concerned. The first section dealt with predestination. Over against the Arminian error of conditional election, the Great Synod maintains sovereign predestination. The second section dealt with the atonement. Over against the Arminian error of so-called general atonement, which actually is no atonement at all, the fathers of Dordt maintain that Christ died for the elect alone, and that by His death He merited all the blessings of salvation, including faith, for them, and for them only. Now we have arrived at the third main issue. The Arminians teach, quite in harmony, of course, with their teachings concerning predestination and atonement, that the natural man obtains actual, personal possession of salvation in Christ through his own free will, whereby he fulfills the conditions of faith and repentance. His conversion is, at least as far as its beginning is concerned, to be ascribed to himself. Over against this, the fathers maintain, first of all, that the natural man is wholly corrupt, conceived in sin, by nature a child of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, in bondage thereto, so that without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, he is neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of his nature, nor to dispose himself to reformation. This is indeed the foundation stone of any true doctrine of man’s conversion. There is no danger, if this truth be maintained, that man’s conversion can be ascribed to himself. On this basis there is no possibility of conversion outside of the grace of God. And thus the fathers found it necessary also, over against the rather general teachings of the Arminians concerning the corruption of man,—teachings which were confusing just because they had the sound of truth,—to be very painstakingly specific on this subject of man’s corruption. They sought to lay a sound foundation. Next, because the Arminians liked to employ the language of the truth, as heretics always do, and because they persisted in speaking of God’s grace even while they boasted of man’s goodness, the fathers found it necessary to gainsay two further errors of the Arminians, errors which agreed in this, that they both taught that somehow man himself obtains the grace, of God unto salvation. This is the perfidy of Arminianism. It speaks of grace, but at the same time denies grace, making it ultimately dependent on man’s will and man’s work. And we must understand that then grace is no more grace. Hence, the fathers strive to emphasize that as far as man is concerned, there is no way out. Grace is free, and must be left free. There is no possible way for corrupt man to become worthy in himself of the grace of God, to merit the grace of God, to attain to that saving grace. He can do so neither by the light of nature, nor by the law. All man can ever do is to stand as a guilty, corrupt, damn-worthy sinner, inexcusable before God. Such is the setting of this article, as its opening words also indicate. 

But now, if such is man’s situation by nature, how is he saved? To this question the article we are now discussing gives the answer. And notice that the answer is really that what man cannot do, God does. Moreover, notice that the article connects this work of God with His good pleasure, that is, with His sovereign counsel of predestination: “It pleased God to save such as believe . . .” In connection herewith the fathers already make mention of the agency and means of this divine work of salvation, namely, the operation of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of reconciliation, or the gospel concerning the Messiah. As we said, the details follow. But it is important to note here already that over against the Arminians, who always came with all kinds of false accusations on these matters, the fathers take pains to mention the preaching of the gospel and faith along with the operation of the Holy Spirit. These are some of the matters at issue. And concerning them the remaining articles of this chapter will give full explanation. What is the significance of the preaching of the gospel? What is the relation between the gospel and faith? How is the gospel effective unto salvation What about those who do not believe the gospel? What is the nature of the operation of the Holy Spirit through the gospel in the corrupt sinner? On these matters, and others, the Reformed Christian must have a clear understanding, lest he fall into the Arminian lie. 

Finally, the article adds that God’s way of salvation was never any different than here stated. It is not true that in the old dispensation men were saved by the law and its works, while in the new dispensation they are saved through the gospel. Always, both under the old and under the new dispensation God performed the work of salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation. God Himself, and He alone,—whether you speak of that aspect which is called the operation of the Holy Spirit, or whether you speak of that aspect of His work which is called the ministry of reconciliation through Jesus Christ,—God Himself saves His people from the beginning to the end of the world.