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

Article 8. Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits, or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings; which, with respect to themselves, is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen; but with respect to God, it is utterly impossible, since his counsel cannot be changed, nor his promise fail, neither can the call according to his purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated. 

There are only a few minor points of correction to be made in the above translation. The last part of the first sentence should read: “nor finally (i.e. with finality) remain in their falls or perish.” The second clause, beginning with “which” should read: “which, with respect to themselves, not only could easily happen, but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God . . .” Our final correction concerns the word “preservation” in the last part of the article. The Latin expression here is custodia. The Dutch hasbewaring. The proper English translation is not “preservation” but “keeping” or “custody.” 

This is the last article in this chapter that deals with the doctrine of perseverance as such. Article 9 begins the subject of the assurance of preservation, which continues through Article 13. Article 14 treats the means of preservation. And Article 15 is a concluding statement as to the church’s faith of perseverance. This eighth article forms at the same time a conclusion or summary as to the entire subject of perseverance as it has been treated thus far, and a final statement as to the radical difference between the Reformed and Arminian views of perseverance. The entire formulation of this article shows very plainly that the fathers had in mind the Arminian heresy, and that they intentionally set the two views over against each other. Hence, we can very readily draw a comparison in the form of several propositions, as follows: 

1) The Arminians teach that perseverance is by our own merits and powers; the Reformed faith denies this, and maintains that it is of God’s free mercy. 

2) The Arminians teach the possibility of a total fall from faith and grace; the Reformed faith denies this, and teaches the certain perseverance of the saints. 

3) The Arminians teach that such a final fall can easily happen as far as man is concerned; the Reformed faith teaches that as far as man is concerned such a final fall is not only possible, but inevitable. 

4) The Arminians teach that with respect to God also such a final fall of the saints is possible; the Reformed deny this, and teach that with respect to God it is utterly impossible that the saints fall. 

5) Hence, the following consequences must be drawn: 

a) The Arminians teach that God’s counsel can be changed; the Reformed faith teaches the unchangeability of God’s counsel. 

b) The Arminians teach that God’s promise can fail; the Reformed faith teaches that God’s promise cannot fail. 

c) The Arminians teach that God’s calling can be recalled; the Reformed faith teaches that God’s call cannot be revoked. 

d) The Arminians teach that the merit, intercession, and keeping of Christ can be rendered ineffectual; the Reformed faith teaches that these are effectual. 

e) The Arminians teach that the sealing of the Holy Spirit can be frustrated and obliterated; the Reformed faith teaches that this is impossible. 

It is plain, then, that according to our Canons, the Reformed and Arminian views stand diametrically opposed to one another. 

We deal in this article with the very essence of the doctrine of perseverance. Article 7 teaches us concerning the elements of perseverance. If you ask the question as to what remains absolutely untouched, undamaged, even in the deepest falls of the saints, Article 7 gives you the answer: God preserves in His saints the incorruptible seed of regeneration. And if you ask the question as to how the saints rise up again out of those deep falls, Article 7 answers: God surely and effectually renews them to repentance. But Article 8 clinches the matter. It shuts out all possibility of Arminianism. It emphasizes the truth that our perseverance is a matter of God’s free mercy, but then in such a way that the character of that free mercy is plainly set forth. After all, the Arminians could also prate about mercy and grace. They not only had to, but they purposely did so, in order to cover up their heresy and give it the appearance of Scriptural doctrine. But Article 8 speaks of free mercy in distinction from our own merits or powers. It speaks of God’s sure preservation in distinction from any work of man. It brings out the truth that the preserving grace of God is absolutely unconditional. The perseverance of the saints is invariably initiated by God’s preserving grace. And that preserving grace of God is itself initiated by nothing and by no one outside of God Himself. It is unconditional. 

Let us give our attention to the forceful way in which our Canons formulate this truth. 

In the first place, we may notice that our fathers go out of their way to mention the wonderful blessing of preservation once more. They might have been satisfied merely to state: “Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits, or strength; but of God’s free mercy, that they obtain this,” allowing the pronoun “this” to refer to the blessings mentioned in Article 7: But this is not enough. They define that “this” once more by adding: “that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor remain finally in their falls and perish.” They rejoice in this truth. They find a special element of comfort in it. And for that reason purposely mention this truth once more over against the Arminian heresy that the saints do totally fall fromfaith and grace, remain in their falls finally and perish. This is exactly the issue at stake, involving the very salvation of our souls: do we, shall we, fall from faith and from grace and perish? The answer of the Reformed faith is an absolute and divinely guaranteed: No! 

In the second place, let us notice that the fathers here put the Arminian heresy in its true light. The Arminians always present their view of the perseverance of the saints thus, that it is possible that the saints fall away, and even very easily possible. Perhaps they would even admit that the falling away of the saints is highly probable. At least, they not only teach that the saints can easily fall away, but that there are many instances of those who actually do fall away. The fathers point out that this is not really the Arminian doctrine, but that the consequence of the Arminian heresy is that there is no perseverance of the saints possible. They point out that as far as the saints themselves are concerned, they not only easily can, but undoubtedly would fall away. This is the consequence that must be accepted as soon as you deny the Reformed doctrine of perseverance. It must be remembered that the Arminians exactly maintained that the saints are left to themselves in the matter of perseverance. O yes, the Holy Ghost assists them. And Jesus Christ assists them in all temptations, and extends to them His hand. But they must be ready for the conflict, must desire His help, must not be inactive. And only then does He keep them from falling. Hence, in the last instance the perseverance of the saints depends on their own will. From this the Arminians derived their doctrine of the possibility of a fall from grace. But our fathers go a step farther, and they insist that as soon as the perseverance of the saints depends on their own will, that perseverance becomes impossible and their fall from grace becomes inevitable. This we must plainly see. The issue is not a sure perseverance over against a possible perseverance, but a sure perseverance over against no perseverance at all. As soon as you adopt the Arminian position, perseverance,—and with it the whole of salvation,—becomes a hopeless case. 

It is in this connection that this article emphasizes, in the third place, that the perseverance of the saints is not in consequence of their own merits or powers. This stands in close connection, of course, with the preceding, and is not in need of much explanation. The Arminian teaches that the saints are preserved on account of their own worthiness to be preserved: they are willing to be preserved, and therefore God preserves. And he teaches that the saints are preserved in consequence of their own powers: Jesus Christ extends His powerful hand to them, but they must grasp that hand. Hence, the saints are really left to themselves when it comes to perseverance. 

The important point to remember, however, in this connection is that throughout this article the fathers are speaking of the saints, the believers. This is crucial. The issue is not whether the natural man, the man utterly devoid of grace, the man in whom God has never worked unto salvation, the man in whom is not found the seed of regeneration, can persevere if left to himself. The question is not merely whether the natural man has any merits or powers unto perseverance. No, we are concerned here with the saints, the believers. The question is: what would happen to them if they were left to themselves? Do those saints, who have been received into the fellowship of God’s Son, who have been regenerated, who have been delivered from the dominion and slavery of sin, but who have within them the remains of indwelling sin,—do they persevere, are they kept from finally falling away, in consequence of their own merits and powers? Or, if you will, is there any condition that even a saint can fulfill unto preservation? This article concerns so-called “Reformed conditions.” The saints are in fellowship with Christ. They have the new life. They have freedom from the dominion and slavery of sin. Now then, can they through this grace fulfill any conditions unto preservation? The Arminians taught that this was possible: “God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere, and is ever ready to preserve these in him, if he will do his duty; but that though all things, which are necessary to persevere in faith and. which God will use to preserve faith, are made use of, it even then ever depends on the pleasure of the will whether it will persevere or not.”Canons V, B, 2. This is nothing less than the theory of “Reformed conditions.” God gives us grace; through this grace we fulfill the conditions; and then we receive the blessings of salvation. But the fathers rule this out completely. Not only the natural man, but the saint, the believer, the man endowed with grace, if he is left to himself will undoubtedly fall from faith and grace totally and fall into everlasting perdition. There is absolutely nothing of man,—not even of believing, saved man,—in the wonder of perseverance. And is not the child of God taught to pray exactly in harmony with this truth in the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, according to ourCatechim? There we read: “. . . . since we (the saints) are so weak in ourselves (again: the saints, regenerated children of God), that we cannot stand a moment . . . do thou therefore preserve and strengthen us by the power of thy Holy Spirit, that we may not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, but constantly and strenuously may resist our foes, till at last we obtain a complete victory.” 

—H.C.H.