With this issue of the SB we begin a new volume year.
For the Reformed church world, what looms large this year, spilling into the first part of 2019, is the 400th anniversary of the Great Synod of Dordt and its magisterial document, the Canons of Dordrecht.
Although our good brother, Prof. Douglas Kuiper, has been ‘commissioned’ to contribute on a regular basis over the next year brief articles dealing with the history and main activities of the Great Synod, we would be remiss if, in this opening editorial of the new volume year, we did not deal with some issue relating to the Canons and the controversy that led to Dordt.
Hence, the article that follows.
The November 1 issue of the SB will be devoted to articles examining the content of the Canons themselves, examining each of the five heads of doctrine that have come to be known as the “Five Points of Calvinism” (TULIP), articles focusing on the central truth(s) set forth by each head. I have been assigned the fourth head of doctrine, the section that deals with the doctrine of “irresistible grace” (and its fruits).
In this editorial we want to touch on a few things that are related to the doctrine of irresistible grace. I fear that we tend to underestimate that truth and its implications, which really is to say, what He, the Holy Spirit, is able to make of a man. We give you exhibit A, Simon Peter—the boastful, self-confident disciple pre-cross, in contrast to the humble, courageous apostle post-Pentecost. When it comes to a believer, the difference could not be more remarkable.
We must not underestimate what by virtue of the operations of the Spirit a man becomes, and what the Spirit of grace enables a man to do!
Because there are so many truths and issues that stand related to Head IV of the Canons, we do not fear leaving ourselves with little to deal with in the special issue.
What we touch on in this editorial are issues that are not only relevant to a proper understanding of the Canons and of the historically defined Reformed faith, but to issues being discussed in the PRC of late, namely, grace and godliness—the life of good works—in the life of the child of God; in particular, how the life of godliness relates to grace, and to faith, and then to the preaching of the gospel itself with its call to faith and godliness.
And note that last phrase—the call to faith and godliness. Such is important when it comes to defining the call of the gospel—a being called not simply to “a” faith, to “a” believing, but to that faith that tendeth to godliness. For this reason Christ warned those who expressed a desire to follow Him that, if that was their desire, they must be ready to count the cost—starting with a willingness to part ways with this present world.
This is no small matter when it comes to true faith. Ask Demas, that young zealot who made an original profession of faith, evidently even aspiring to the gospel ministry, but who, in the end, parted ways with Paul and the Christian faith.
Why? Having loved this present world! (II Tim. 4:10).
The way of godliness did not appeal to Demas in the end. He was numbered with those who in the parable of the sower had a ‘faith’ and made a confession that in time was choked with the cares of this life. (Cf. Canons, III/IV.9.)
The Canons have something to say to the vital issues mentioned above.
When reading the Canons, it must be kept in mind that they were written in response to the Arminians, not only over against their heretical doctrines that ‘degraced’ salvation all of grace, but also with an eye to the accusations that the Arminians lodged against the Reformed and their Calvinistic doctrines of grace.
One of the chief accusations, if not the very chief, was the allegation that Calvinism with its ‘hyper-emphasis’ on “salvation is all of God and all of grace” simply turns mankind into ‘senseless stocks and blocks.’ (Cf. Heads III/IV, Art. 16.)
An allegation still heard today.
The Canons’ figurative reference is to a tree stump or a block of wood. An appropriate figure would be the ancient printing presses in which the printer put all the wooden block letters in place and then turned the handle of the press, pressing the ink-covered letters onto a page and leaving words behind, a process in which the passive paper played no active role at all. It simply displayed the ink of the letters pressed into it by the printer’s will and determination.
So, charged the Arminians, it is with the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation and man, the human being simply turned into a passive, receptive page, in whom the sovereign grace these high Calvinists keep prating about does it all. The saved human beings of such theology are simply receptacles who have no active involvement in responding favorably to gospel preaching, really not even needing to respond willingly. God, the great (Im)printer, does it all.
A figure more up-to-date would be that of a computer screen with its keyboard. The Arminians alleging “You hyper-Reformed have turned believing man into nothing but a computer screen on which a man’s spiritual words and actions appear as God pushes the keys and types the commands. Thoughts and desires that one can call his own have nothing to do with it because that would mean man has contributed something. Rather, the spiritual activities expressed by one are simply things that God and the Spirit have imprinted, typed into us for others to see.”
Nothing but “stocks and blocks”!
Is this indeed what salvation by sovereign, irresistible grace teaches or implies?
It is true that, when it comes to things spiritual, there is that which one is called to do, indeed, is required to do. But is it altogether improper for preachers so much as to suggest that there is that which one can do (is able to do)? And then, in the end, to go so far as to declare that if a man would be saved, there is that which he must do? Surely, that is altogether unbiblical and unreformed, it is sometimes argued.
Such, the Arminians alleged, was the logical conclusion of the “hyper-Reformed.”
This allegation the Canons reject and condemn.
No, not when those of whom you are speaking are the ungodly and unregenerate. Then, it is true there is that to which every fallen sinner is called to do, namely, to repent and believe, but which he cannot do.
But when those of whom one is speaking are the born-again, that is, regenerated, living children of God, that is another matter entirely. Then there is not only that which one is called to do, but also that which one can do as well.
The Canons make this plain when they speak of a marvelous, incomprehensible grace by which the elect “…are enabled to believe with the heart, and love their Savior” (III/IV, Art. 13).
By whom but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of irresistible grace! This Holy Spirit breaths into a man a life-giving power that transforms, a power called ‘grace’ because it is so completely contrary to what any sinful man or woman deserves. There is a newness that results, called newness of life, spiritual life, a life out of which there will proceed spiritual activities of faith and obedience.
In Article 11 of this 4th Head, the Canons describe what this wonder-work of the Spirit accomplishes. Having spoken of the “efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit” acting upon the heart of man, the Canons declare that the Spirit “…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; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”
Good actions! Namely, faith (actively believing) and godliness (the life of good works).
The question is, what does the Spirit use to bring forth these spiritual actions or activities?
What the Canons wanted no part of was the notion that these spiritual actions are automatically present and produced where grace has worked, provided by God in such a way that the child of God has nothing to do with actually believing or walking in godliness. The Spirit of Christ who has begun this work in him is really the One who now does this work through him, simply providing for one what he cannot do himself. And this is to be insisted on because only then does all the glory go to God.
Anything else would be giving credit to man.
This was exactly what the Arminians claimed consistent Calvinism really comes down to.
And this was exactly what the Calvinists of Dordt were adamant in refuting. This was a wicked caricature, not true Calvinism.
Not that there have not been Calvinists of a certain stripe that have taught such a view. But this is not the Calvinism of the Canons, God be thanked!
It is exactly to refute this allegation that the Canons in Head IV emphasize the centrality of the preaching of the gospel with its call to repent and to believe, the gospel set forth as a means of grace.
That the writers of the Canons insisted that the gospel preached was a necessary means of grace (cf. the opening sentence of Art. 17) means they confessed and taught that if a man with his household was to be saved and consciously enter into the kingdom, placing himself with his family under the rule of Christ as his Lord and Savior, he was called, he was required, to respond obediently to the call and command of the gospel—“Repent and believe, that thou mightiest be saved with thy house.”
Covenantal salvation is to be found in no other way. Yielding to the gospel call, a man becomes active in believing what the gospel declares. To the call of Christ “Come unto me,” there is the response “Lord, I come.” One might piously respond, “But that is impossible for sinful man.”
To which we reply, if the reference is to one unregenerate, yes, to be sure, impossible!
But if to a sinner regenerated and indwelt by the life-giving Spirit, then such obedience is not only possible, but that which actually occurs. The heart has been renewed and one’s will set free to respond positively to the gospel summons.
This must be maintained if one will do justice to the record of the apostolic Scriptures.
On Pentecost, following Peter’s sermon concerning Jesus crucified and risen as the scripturally prophesied Messiah, a multitude besought the apostles, asking “Men and brethren, what must we do?” To which Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ…” (Acts 2:37-38)
The Philippian jailor cried out “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” To which Paul responded, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved…” (Acts 16:30-31).
There was something they were called to do. And they did it.
Of themselves, apart from grace? No! But they themselves did do it—they repented and believed. Grace enabled them to do it. Or more correctly, God the Holy Spirit graciously enabled them to do it. But do it they did in the obedience of faith to the call, to the summons of the gospel. And in so doing, God was praised and grace glorified. God the Holy Spirit has made out of sinners new creatures indeed.
And the same thing holds true when it comes to godliness—walking in the way of good works.
The emphasis of Head IV of the Canons is not upon godliness as such, but rather upon the connection between grace and faith. But neither is the call to godliness (the life of good works) absent. As pointed out above, the Canons speak of a grace that brings forth “the fruits of good actions.”
And in Article 16 of Head IV the Canons speak of “…a ready and sincere spiritual obedience [that] begins to reign.”
There is a godly walk to which the regenerated child of God is called, and godly actions (deeds) that believers perform, fruits of grace and evidences of what the Heidelberg Catechism calls “true conversion.”
To such good works the regenerated child of God is not only called, but such he is also able to do as evidences of and proof of the grace and faith he claims to have.
The elect child of God is not, as one blatant species of Antinomian taught, saved like a piece of dead meat found in the city dump, tied to the bumper of a garbage truck, and dragged to heaven against his will, resisting all the way.
The newness of life worked by the Holy Spirit begins to show itself already in this life. And under the call of the gospel will and must show itself. As Article 17 declares, “For grace is conferred by admonitions.”
The Holy Spirit is not so powerless that even He in the life of a saved sinner can make no headway against the current of the depravity of sin that remains. Rather, His irresistible grace transforms and works true conversion indeed.
This is important for Christ’s church to understand as she labors with her members, members who as sinners have perhaps backslidden and come under power of who knows what addictions—that of alcohol and drink, that of pornography, or of gambling, and more.
The sinning member despairs, informing his elders, “I am snared, I am depraved, there is nothing I can do!”
To which the elders respond, “There is nothing you can do? Of yourself, to be sure, nothing. But you claim to be a believer confessing Christ? Then there is not only that which you are called to do, but which you can do—repent, turn from this sin, and walk as a child of the light.”
This is the power that grace confers on a sinner who is seeking grace and help in time of need.
When it comes to faith, to repentance, and to walking in the ways of godliness, these are not things that we ourselves can produce. They are the product of the life worked by the Holy Spirit. But having been recreated in the image of God, God’s children are enabled to do these things.
And under the admonitions and exhortations of the law and gospel preached, they come to active expression.
The doctrine of salvation by sovereign grace does not turn the hearers of the gospel into “senseless stocks and blocks.” This the Canons make plain. That is not Calvinism.
But neither does it mean that when it comes to the call to repent and believe and to “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance,” there is really nothing we as the redeemed can do.
To claim such is the case, be it ever so piously motivated, is to display a profound misunderstanding of the wonder of grace, grace that profoundly transforms. Such is to minimize the work of the Holy Spirit who breaths life, Christ’s life, and who is able to bring out of a corrupt stock a people recreated to be “zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14).
The God of saving grace is magnified when it is seen what His Holy Spirit can make of a man, namely, one who hears, obeys, arises, and takes up his bed, walking in God’s ways (cf. Mark 2:11-12).
 The word “enabled” is not found in the original. The phrase could better be translated “…by this grace of God they believe with the heart and love their Savior.” Nonetheless, the truth of the statement is set forth in the immediately preceding article (12) which concludes with the words “Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.”