The Canons of Dordrecht, Part Two—Exposition of the Canons, Fifth Head of Doctrine, Of the Perseverance of the Saints, Article 8 (continued)

Thus far we have called attention to the negative aspects of this article, namely, the truth that the perseverance of the saints is as far as the saints themselves are concerned absolutely impossible and that this perseverance is not in consequence of the saints’ own merits and powers. And we have found that this must be taken in the most stringent sense of the word. It means that there is not even the very faintest sigh for forgiveness, not even the slightest twinge of sorrow over sin, not the least breath of a prayer for deliverance from sin at any stage in the life of the saints that precedes the work of God in them. It means that if it were left to the saints themselves, they would not only fall but would totally fall from faith and from the state of grace, they would completely fall out of their union with Christ, would sink back into the spiritual death from which they were once rescued. And we must understand that this is true really not only of those occasions when the saints fall very deeply and probably continue in a certain sin for a time. It is in a most real sense true of every sin that we commit. All our sins constitute unfaithfulness to the spiritual marriage relation between the saints and the God of their salvation in Christ. All our sins are principally so many instances of spiritual adultery, also those sins of which we immediately repent and for which we immediately seek forgiveness. All our sins are backslidings. Now suppose that either in regard to those deep falls and continued sins or in regard to any of our sins God would let us go completely, would not at all interfere with the activities of “these remains of indwelling sin,” would put us spiritually “on our own,” what would happen? Only and always one thing: we would continue along the course of that sin steadily and plunge into everlasting destruction. Even granting the presence of the new life in our hearts, conceding that there is in us a small beginning of the new obedience, the power of those remains of indwelling sin is far too great for the small beginning of the new obedience. The little principle of the new life would never have the strength and the stamina to stem the rushing attack of the power of sin. If there were any attempt and inclination of that principle of the new life to break our fall, to interfere with our sin, to turn the soul to sorrow, to cry out for forgiveness, it would be utterly stifled. We are so weak in ourselves, even as saints, that we cannot stand a moment! We cannot even realize our sin, cannot even be sorry for it, cannot even pray for forgiveness, cannot even seek the strength to fight against and overcome it. We cannot stand for a moment! 

Nor are these things merely a matter of some objective doctrine for the child of God. This is the living, practical truth of the gospel. This truth ought to be, and principally it is, very real in the experience of every child of God. And the child of God who is not as aware of the reality of this truth as he ought to be, who imagines that there is in some small degree some strength to stand in himself, is in for some bitter spiritual experiences somewhere along the path of his life. He will probably be made to experience the hopelessness of utter despair and darkness in order that he may be made to realize that there is no strength at all in himself. Yes, but you say: “We must pray that God preserve and strengthen us. We must depend by faith upon God’s preserving power. We must consciously trust in Christ’s intercession for us. We must willingly have our hand in His.” And indeed we must. But I ask you: what happens when you do not do that? What is there then to interrupt you in your mad plunge toward destruction? What will become of you when you do not believe and trust and when you do not willingly place your hand in Christ’s? And those moments come! Make no mistake about that. Must we then return to the way of trust and faith and dependence and prayer of ourselves? Is our trust and faith and prayer the condition—and I am speaking of saints—of God’s interrupting our course of unbelief, of distrust, of self-confidence, of failure to watch and to pray? In other words, do you—and I speak especially of those times of our deep falls and backslidings—do you and must you pray in the consciousness that your prayer precedes any action on the part of God, yea, that God is impotent to take any action to rescue you before you cry to Him? Then the situation is utterly hopeless not only objectively, but an unutterably hopeless feeling of blank despair must needs creep over the soul of the child of God. Nay, but the very prayer for forgiveness, the very cry of sorrow, the very plea for rescue is, in the first place, itself the fruit of God’s preserving power and strength interrupting your headlong plunge into destruction. And, in the second place, it is not the conscious fulfilling of and acknowledgement of a condition that we as saints must fulfill, but the acknowledging of our own helplessness and of God’s almighty power to keep us and to rescue us—an acknowledgement that must spontaneously rise from the heart of the saint that is touched by His preserving grace! Hence, let us make no mistake about this: both as far as the objective relationship between God and His saints is concerned and as far as their subjective consciousness is concerned, the saints initiate nothing at all in the process of perseverance. God’s is and must be the first move always. That move must originate with and be initiated by God Himself only. And any activity of perseverance on the part of the saints—and there is such activity—is not in consequence of their own merits and powers. 

But it is in consequence of God’s free mercy, thus the article teaches us. 

God’s mercy is His love revealed to His people in their misery. It is that virtue of the Most High according to which He wills to deliver them from the misery of their sin and imperfection and death and to make them partakers of the highest blessedness with Himself. It is therefore peculiarly a manifestation of His mercy that God prevents His people from totally falling from faith and from the state of grace, and that He does not allow them to continue in their backslidings and to perish. His people are still in their misery. True, they have been redeemed and principally delivered, and they are in principle partakers of all the blessings of salvation and life eternal. But their deliverance from their misery is not complete. It has not been finished. They are still in a position, as far as they are concerned, to become the slaves of sin once more, to renounce their Savior and their very salvation. And therefore God’s mercy is revealed not only in their first and principal deliverance out of the power of darkness, but it is continually revealed. His mercy does not reach its goal until His saints have been finally and perfectly delivered, are free from all sin and death, and are received into the everlasting kingdom of righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ. The saints must be continually rescued and preserved. And that God repeatedly rescues His people out of sin and temptation and keeps them from totally falling and brings them back out of their deep falls is a repeated and continued manifestation of divine mercy. 

But the article emphasizes that this mercy is free, gratuitous. This stands directly in contrast with the Arminian idea that our perseverance is in consequence of our own merits and powers. Negatively, therefore, that God’s mercy is free means that it is absolutely undeserved and unmerited, in the first place. There is nothing that the saints must do in order to obtain the right to that mercy. They do not and cannot and need not hay for it and earn it. But, in the second place, the gratuitous character of God’s mercy means that it is also freely bestowed. Otherwise it is not free in the full sense of the word. A store of mercy for which we do not have to pay, which we need not earn, but which is ours merely for the asking and accepting is not free. And it is certainly not free when one considers that the one who must ask and accept in such a case is just exactly unable to do so. No, it must also be freely bestowed upon us and wrought in us without our aid. This is exactly the beauty and the comfort of God’s free mercy. It is just exactly at the moment when His people show by their sins that they do not at all deserve to be called His people and that they do not deserve to be kept unto the incorruptible inheritance, in the first place, that God demonstrates His mercy toward them. And in the second place, it is exactly at the time when His saints on their part abandon that mercy, fail to trust in it, seek the ways of sin and lust, that God bestows His mercy, keeps them from totally and finally falling away, and brings them back from their sin. It stands to reason, therefore, that not only is this mercy free in the sense of being gratuitous, but it is also free in the sense that it is sovereign. It proceeds in the fullest sense of the word from God alone. It has its origin in Him. It has its reason in His good pleasure. It has its revelation in His only begotten Son. It has its realization through His Holy Spirit. 

Thus the article, finally, maintains that the falling away of the saints is with respect to God utterly impossible, and it does so on solid grounds. Notice that the article finds the reason for this impossibility entirely in God. 

In the first place, God’s counsel cannot be changed. This is the root of the matter. The truth of eternal and unchangeable predestination necessarily implies the perseverance of the saints. Because His counsel is unchangeable, God’s promise cannot fail. According to His counsel God promises His people, that is, swears with an oath, to give them eternal life and glory in Christ Jesus through faith. That promise is the Word of the unchangeable Jehovah Himself. It is emphatically His promise. It is not an offer. It is not even to be compared to a human promise: It is absolutely unconditional, dependent for its fulfillment on God alone, whose counsel is unchangeable. And because His promise can never fail, His calling cannot be recalled. One called is always called. Once a child of God is always a child of God. Once drawn out of darkness into God’s marvelous light is to remain a child of light forever and never to sink back into the oblivion of the darkness. 

In the second place, this essential and root ground of perseverance is revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. There is, first of all, the merit of Christ. He has obtained for us eternal righteousness. That righteousness was obtained through the payment of the debt of our guilt. And that righteousness is our right to eternal life. That can never be rendered ineffectual. The most heinous sin into which the saint falls after his initial conversion cannot make the merit of Christ ineffectual. Why not? Because also that sin was atoned for by the blood of Christ long before it was ever committed. Secondly, therefore, Christ’s intercession can not be made ineffectual. We may fail to watch and to pray. But Christ makes continual intercession for us on the basis of His own perfect work. And His prayer, founded upon the perfect righteousness of the cross, is: “Father, I will that those whom thou hast given me may be with me where I am.” That prayer is surely heard. And in response to that prayer God commits all His elect to the custody of Christ, to be kept by Him until the final day. That keeping cannot be frustrated. No one can pluck the saints out of the hand of Christ, to whom has been given all power in heaven and on earth. 

And finally, the reason for our sure perseverance is to be found in the realization of God’s unchangeable counsel and unfailing promise and irrevocable call by the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit seals us. He marks the people of God as His own property and as genuine by the power of His grace. That seal, that divine mark of ownership and genuineness cannot be obliterated, blotted out so that we lose our adoption and our sonship. Nor can it be frustrated. No one can successfully claim that we are not God’s peculiar possession—not the devil, not we ourselves. His grace is efficacious, and it effectually changes us from children of darkness to sons of the living God. 

We are safely kept! Glory to His sovereign and free mercy alone! 

—H.C.H.