EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE
OF THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
REJECTION OF ERRORS
Article 5 (continued)
We may notice in this connection that our fathers accuse the Arminians of reintroducing “the doubts of the papist” into the church. This is a rather strange expression, and perhaps in our day it has become rather meaningless. Undoubtedly in that day, which was not yet so far removed from the Reformation, the expression was more significant. By this term the fathers do not refer to the Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism of the Romish Church as such. But as the term “papist” or, literally, “adherent to the pontificate” in, dictates, they refer to the Romish belief in the pope (and in connection with the pope, the entire priesthood) as being able to grant the assurance of salvation, and that too, on all kinds of false grounds. The Romish Church held that the certainty of salvation could be granted by the church (the pope) on the condition that one fulfilled certain demands laid down by the pope. The pope held the power of the forgiveness of sins and life eternal. If one received from him the assurance of salvation, then such a person could rest secure, regardless now of the spiritual condition of his heart and his life. This special pledge in the name of the pope was a sufficient guarantee of salvation. But without this specific guarantee of the church, namely, the pontificate, the assurance of salvation was impossible. And here lies the point of comparison between the Arminian heresy and the Romish error to which the fathers refer here. In order to oppose the Scriptural doctrine of the perseverance of the saints the Arminians sought refuge in a view that was essentially, the same as this Romish error. They taught the necessity of a special revelation or pledge of the certainty of one’s final salvation likewise. They also maintained, like the papist, that without that special revelation one was uncertain of his own perseverance and of his final salvation. And just as the papist must live in anxiety and doubt as long as he does not through the priest receive in the name of the pope the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and of his salvation, so the Arminian must live in anxiety and doubt unless and until he receives such a special pledge of his perseverance and final salvation. Thus the doubtings of the papist are again introduced into the church by the Arminian.
Over against this error the fathers re-emphasize the Scriptural way of assurance. We need not in this connection enter into a lengthy exposition of this truth again. For the Canons have treated this doctrine of assurance at length in the positive section of this Fifth Head, Articles 9-14. Let it suffice to observe, in the first place, that the fathers remind us that the Holy Scriptures nowhere teach that the assurance of perseverance is to be gained through a special and extraordinary revelation. In the second place, the Holy Scriptures deduce this assurance from the marks proper to the sons of God, the marks of a Christian, those marks, namely, that are pointed out in the Word of God. This, you will remember from our previous discussions of this subject of assurance, does not refer to a sickly search for these marks of grace and to a cold process of logical conclusion that because these and these marks are present, therefore we are children of God. But it refers to the spontaneous assurance of faith, wrought by the Holy Spirit, in the way of godliness and sanctification. It is for this reason that the Canons mention here the most faithful promises of God. This, after all, is the solid foundation of all assurance, the speech of God Himself, by His Spirit, through the Word of the gospel, and, always in connection with the marks of the sons of God in the saint, that is, always in connection with the work of His own grace in us. Hence, he that has the marks of the sons of God may without doubt lay claim, and will lay claim by faith to the promise of God, unfailingly faithful, that no one shall ever pluck him out of Christ’s hand.
As usual, the fathers appeal to the Holy Scriptures themselves in order to prove their position. And a happier choice of Scripture passages they could hardly make. First of all, they cite Romans 8:39 in part, where the apostle Paul declares: “No creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Concerning this passage we may note that it is fitting proof because: 1) It expresses certainty, and that too most emphatically. No creature, nothing shall be able to separate us . . . No creatureshall be able . . . There is not even the possibility of separation from the love of God. The passage therefore is indeed to the point. It speaks of perseverance in the most certain terms. 2) The very essence of that certainty is in the faithful promises of God. For it is the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, in Whom all the promises of God are yea and amen, that is the power from which no creature can separate us. 3) In the context the text not only expresses objective certainty but also subjective assurance: “I am persuaded that . . . no creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” 4) Taken in the broader context of the entire beautiful chapter, the text is also proof of an assurance that is not derived from any special or extraordinary revelation, but of an assurance that is reached in the way of the marks proper to the sons of God, who are not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, and who through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body. 5) The text is at the same time proof that this assurance is not the rare exception for the children of God, but is spiritually normal. For the apostle includes not merely himself, but, speaking in the communion of saints, he declares that no creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the second place, they cite I John 3:24: “And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.” This passage is chosen especially to prove the fathers’ contention that this assurance, according to Scripture, is derived from the marks proper to the children of God. Those marks proper to the sons of God are in this text denoted by the keeping of His commandments. He that keepeth His commandments dwelleth in Christ and in God, and God in Christ abideth in the one that keepeth His commandments through His Spirit. Hence, out of the keeping of His commandmentsâ€• because that keeping of His commandments is the fruit of the indwelling Spirit of Christ â€• and but of the possession of that indwelling Spirit, Who makes His presence known by causing us to keep His commandments, we know, that is, we are assured, that we abide in Him and He in us.
Let the believer beware, therefore, that he is not led astray from the only Scriptural way of assurance into the path of sickly mysticism, which is also the way of doubt and uncertainty.
Article 6. Who teach: That the doctrine of the certainty of perseverance and of salvation from its own character and nature is a cause of indolence and is injurious to godliness, good morals, prayers and other holy exercises, but that on the contrary it is praiseworthy to doubt. For these show that they do not know the power of divine grace and the working of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And they contradict thy Apostle John, who teaches the opposite with express words in his first epistle: “Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure,”
Furthermore, these are contradicted by the example of the saints, both of the Old and the New Testament, who though they were assured of their perseverance and salvation, were nevertheless constant in prayers and other exercises of godliness.
The translators of this article were evidently at a loss as to how to translate especially one phrase of this article into idiomatic English. And I must confess that it is rather difficult to preserve the figure of the original in good English. But those who know our Canons in the Dutch will know that the English “a cause of indolence” is a rather staid and prosaic and colorless rendering of “een oorkussen des vleesches.” But surely this Dutch expression comes much closer to the Latin “carnis pulvinar,” which is literally “a stately couch, or cushion, for the flesh.” The Dutch is: a pillow for the flesh. Our English “a cause of indolence” is not nearly so expressive. This was one of those ear-catching phrases that the Arminians used to discredit the Reformed truth in the popular mind. Over against the Reformed doctrine of assurance the Arminians exclaimed: “A cushion for the flesh!” And you can imagine that the inexperienced and unpracticed would be attracted by such an argument. The idea was that the truth of the assurance of perseverance and salvation would provide a soft and easy place for the flesh to recline, unbothered and unconcerned about any need for morality and godliness. Perhaps after all it would be better, even though this is hardly an accepted English figure, to preserve the figure in our translation, “a cushion for the flesh.” Our second remark about the translation is rather minor. Both the English and the Dutch fail to translate the Latin de ea, “concerning these,” in the clause: “but that on the contrary it is praiseworthy to doubt.” The reference is, of course, to the perseverance and salvation mentioned in the first part of the sentence. The idea is not that it is praiseworthy to doubt in general, but specifically that it is praiseworthy to doubt concerning our perseverance and final salvation. For the rest, the translation is quite accurate.
This article also deals with an error that has been carefully contradicted in the positive part of this chapter, Articles 11-13 especially. Besides, the error here rejected is essentially the same as that rejected in previous chapters. It is the old, old objection: this doctrine makes men careless and profane. That is the favorite and supposedly death-dealing argument of free-willism against every phase of the Reformed truth concerning salvation. They raise this argument already against sovereign predestination; and they raise it against the doctrine of perseverance as well. We need not spend much time on the nature of the argument as such. Let us briefly remind ourselves, in the first place, that it is not a Scriptural argument, but a rationalistic objection. When the Arminian cannot contradict the Reformed faith successfully with Scripture, he comes with this argument from his own sinful reason. And in the second place, let us remember that by the same token, according to Scripture, he places himself in the horrid class of those who object against the Word of God itself. For more than once this same objection occurs in the mouth of the opponents of the truth in Holy Writ, and is answered and exposed by the Scriptures.
(to be continued)