7
Mar
2017

The Canons of Dort as a Standard for Teaching and Preaching (3)

In our previous article I discussed section I of the Canons of Dort, to show how it presents and prescribes the proper way to teach about election. In this final article I will focus on the remaining sections of the Canons.

A Gracious Gospel for All

The first three sections of the Canons run parallel to each other. Even though they focus on different aspects of our salvation, they follow the same outline:

  • man’s misery (I.1; II.1; III/IV.1–5)
  • Christ’s work (I.2; II.2–4)
  • the gospel (I.3–4; II.5; III/IV.6–8)
  • unbelief (I.5; II.6; III/IV.9)
  • faith a gift (I.6; II.7; III/IV.10)
  • God’s sovereign work

The clear message is that, when speaking of God’s work in saving individuals, we must always do so in a broader context. Sovereign election, definite atonement, and effective grace are to be understood in a framework of sin, Christ, gospel, and faith. The Arminians complained that in Reformed churches these topics were overshadowed by a focus on God’s decree and election. The Synod of Dort denied this accusation by outlining the proper order. In our teaching we must always begin with Christ as the heart of the gospel, and the call to faith in him.

Note the universal overtones of the Canons. Just as all men stand condemned in Adam (III/IV.2), Christ is sent to the world (I.2), and his gospel is a promise to all persons (II.5). Many Calvinists are suspicious of this universal language. In the past four centuries, some have attempted to limit the scope of the word “world” in John 3:16 and Canons I.2; others have argued that the gospel is really only a promise to the elect. To be fair, there were even theologians at the Synod of Dort who leaned this way. But the churches decided on a statement of faith that is deliberately more generous.

Most importantly, the Canons teach kerygmatic universalism: a proclamation (kerygma) of Christ to all people without distinction. Once again we see that the Canons are very concerned with evangelism! Reformed theology can and may never be a reason to limit our gospel proclamation. Three aspects of this deserve our special attention.

First, we must proclaim Christ as the Savior of the world. Even though not all will be saved, the blood of Christ is available to all.[1] Especially Canons section II does not allow us to downplay this. It moves from the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice to the universal gospel promise that whoever believes will be saved. Even though actual salvation is conditioned on faith, the promise of that salvation comes to “to all persons promiscuously and without distinction” (II.5).[2]

Second, the gospel is a generous and genuine invitation from God to any sinner. “God has most earnestly and truly declared in his Word what is pleasing to him, namely that those who are called should come to him.” (III/IV.8) There is a strand of Reformed theology that likes to limit the “real” calling to the elect only, but the Canons leave no room for this.[3] If we follow the line set out by the Synod of Dort, we must not only proclaim Christ to all, but in the strongest possible terms extend an invitation in God’s name: “God wants you to come and believe in Christ!”

Third, there is only one reason why people who hear the gospel should not be saved. That reason is unbelief. Unbelief cannot be blamed on anything lacking in Christ or in the gospel (II.6; III/IV.9); unbelief is certainly not caused by God.[4] Canons III/IV.9 use Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Mat. 13) to analyze different types of unbelief; in each case, it is the person himself who is to blame: he rejects the Word, he does not allow it to take hold in his heart, or he chokes the seed by worldly cares.

In summary, the Canons of Dort teach us to offer Christ generously to all, and never to attribute unbelief to God. Following this instruction, Reformed people can evangelize with the best news of all: “Christ died for the sins of the world, and in the way of faith this will be yours!”

Definite Atonement

The Arminians had accused the Reformed of teaching that “Jesus Christ the Savior of the world did not die for all people, but only for those who are elected […] having been ordained a means and Mediator only to save them and no others.”[5]

Section II of the Canons is an answer to this complaint. This section is popularly known as “Limited Atonement”—the L in TULIP. This name places much emphasis on the negative aspect: Christ’s atoning work benefits the elect, and no one else. This is a Biblical teaching; the Canons clearly state this in article II.8: “all those and only those who were chosen from eternity unto salvation.”

However, everywhere else in section II the language is positive and inclusive. Here the Canons present the atonement and proclamation of Christ in the most generous terms possible. For this reason the summary statement, “limited atonement,” fails to do justice to the teaching of the Canons.

First of all, everybody needs atonement (II.1). Graciously, Jesus Christ brought a sacrifice of infinite value (II.2–4), sufficient to atone for the whole world. Because of this, there must be a universal proclamation of Jesus as the sure way of salvation (II.5). Finally, all those who believe this gospel are saved completely (II.8–9).

Some find this presentation of the Canons too generous; indeed, it has been suggested that this section contains Amyraldian influences from English theologians.[6] Without going into historical details, it is safe to say that the Canons reflect the position of the entire Synod of Dort, rather than that of a handful of delegates. We must therefore receive the text of section II as a guideline for a Reformed presentation of the matter.

What is the practical importance of this? First of all, it deflects the idea that there is no atoning blood available for the non-elect. No, say the Canons, Christ’s sacrifice is of infinite value; the only reason why people are lost is that they do not believe the gospel. “This is not due to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ on the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves” (II.6). This must comfort those who doubt that Christ died for them; the answer is a resounding: “Yes!” There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved, but it is also the name by which any sinner can be saved through faith.

God’s Grace and Man’s Response

Section III/IV of the Canons deal with the ordo salutis, the way of salvation in the individual Christian. The Arminians underestimated man’s inability to save himself, as well as the completeness of God’s grace in salvation. The most profound response is found in articles III/IV.11–14. Contrary to what the Arminians believed, “[God does not] bestow the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ, but … he works in man both to will and to work …” (III/IV.14).

The Reformed churches emphasized, following the Biblical teaching, that the unregenerated sinner is so “dead” in his sin, that he cannot even muster the will to believe; and that the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit is so profound that he renews the very heart and will of a person. It is one of the most glorious confessions in the Canons that this miracle is “not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead” (III/IV.12).

But as with all good things, it is possible to make a caricature that misses the mark, and this has given the Reformed faith a bad reputation. The Canons teach us that we may not reduce the gospel to this black-and-white picture of total depravity and irresistible grace. More must be said about people and about God’s grace.

First of all, no one can complain that God withheld grace. He created mankind upright and able to serve him; our depravity is due to our own rebellion. Moreover, in spite of our sinfulness we understand right and wrong well enough to have no excuse for not serving God. God does not rob people of their creation goodness, and he is not out to disadvantage them.[7]

Second, the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit does not operate apart from human involvement. On the contrary. The Holy Spirit works “through the word or ministry of reconciliation” (III/IV.6). As discussed before, the Canons emphasize the importance of the gospel, as it is proclaimed to many people. God’s election involves the eternal purpose as well as the historical means; for instance, it is his sovereign choice which nation will hear the gospel and which nation will not. Likewise, an unbelieving response to the gospel is caused by the human heart, which rejects and chokes the seed that is sown (see above).

Third, the grace of the Holy Spirit in the elect involves his entire person, including his heart and will. Speaking of “irresistible grace” (the I in TULIP) easily makes the impression that God saves people against their will, or without their consent, but the Canons teach differently. “The will, thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Therefore man himself is also rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received” (III/IV.12). God’s grace does not treat people “as senseless stocks and blocks” (III/IV.16), but the Spirit works in them without violating their personality and their will.

In short, the Reformed teaching of effective grace does not deny redemptive history, the importance of gospel preaching, or the order of salvation of the individual.

The Canons frankly admit that it is difficult to understand the concursus between God’s secret work of regeneration and man’s conscious choice to believe. They go together, without violating either God’s sovereignty or man’s will; but how? Our forefathers at Dort warned us not to speculate beyond what is revealed (III/IV.13).

Articles III/IV.15 and 17 outline the implications of this doctrine in the Christian life. First, believers are to be grateful for the work of the Spirit in them, knowing that they were no better than any others. Second, this must call us to pray for those who still live in the darkness of depravity. Third, we must work out our salvation through the use of the means of grace: the gospel preaching, the sacraments, and the discipline of the church. Preaching, catechism, evangelism, and pastoral work must continue, not in spite of God’s secret work of generation, but because of it; God connects these visible means to the invisible results.

Any “Calvinism” that speaks of irresistible grace without mentioning the means God uses, in particular the gospel’s call to faith in Jesus Christ, does gross injustice to the teaching of the Canons!

Preservation and Perseverance

The last section of the Canons has been summarized as “once saved, always saved.” In non-Reformed circles it is viewed as a dangerous doctrine, because it leads to unholy living.[8] Sadly, there have been churches for which this was the case, but section V of the Canons cannot be blamed.

What distinguishes the Reformed teaching of the Canons from Arminianism is the conviction that true believers, even if they fall in serious temptation, never fully lose their salvation (V.6). But like regeneration, this divine preservation cannot be separated from the means God has appointed for believers. The Holy Spirit uses the gospel to lead to repentance and good works. If we speak of the preservation of true believers, by God’s unfailing grace, we must also speak of their perseverance in pursuing a holy life with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Note, again, the pastoral and practical wisdom of the Canons. How can we be certain that we are elect, so that we can be comforted even though our faith is often weak? The careful answer avoids both presumption and anxiety. If we recognize that our faith is true, we may be confident of God’s protection (V.9). But this assurance is never apart from our reliance on God’s promise and our serious endeavor to holiness (V.10). Christians cannot receive God’s preserving grace passively; because a believing understanding of it leads to humility and godliness, prayer and confession of faith (V.12).

The Canons treat the doctrine of preservation similar to that of regeneration. Without compromising the sovereignty of God in every aspect of salvation, they highlight that the Holy Spirit uses means, and involves every aspect of our being in his work. The philosophical difficulties of this approach are not denied; article V.15 echoes the sentiment of III/IV.13.

Conclusion

This last observation brings us to a final conclusion about the Canons of Dort. This document is clearly aimed at the philosophy of the Arminians, who tried to answer the difficult questions about salvation by emphasizing man’s free will. However, as I have tried to point out, the Canons are just as concerned that we do not fall into the opposite error: the rationalistic solution that emphasizes God’s sovereignty at the expense of man’s involvement. Between these rationalistic extremes, the Canons steer a safe course, as it follows the testimony of Scripture without trying to resolve the deepest mysteries.

Out of fear for being Arminian, many a Calvinist have spoken or written with more force and less nuance than the Canons. This has contributed to a bad reputation of Calvinism and Reformed doctrine in the evangelical world. It is my hope that those who stand in the tradition of the Reformation will take note of the Canons; not just its key points against Arminianism, not merely the petals of TULIP, but its entire package. The method of teaching employed here, with its sensitivity to evangelistic and pastoral concerns, is informed by the truth and the wisdom of Scripture.


[1] The question remains if we should be as bold as Puritan John Preston, and proclaim to everyone that “Christ is dead for him.” (The Breastplate of Faith and Love, 1630). Some have accused Preston of the heresy of hypothetical universalism (Amyraldism); see e.g. Jonathan Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids), 2007. For a defense of Preston’s statement, see Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Crossway), 2016, esp. chapter 2.

[2] Note the formulation of Article II.5: “The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes [will be saved]”—a promise for all, containing a condition. Some read it as: “The promise of the gospel to whoever believers is [that they will be saved]”—a promise only for some. That appears to be the position of Homer Hoeksema in Voice of Our Fathers. This reading is harmful because it leaves no true proclamation to unbelievers. In this view, they only have a command to repent and believe, but no promise and no Christ to take hold of.

[3] For instance, Canons III/IV.9 talks about “those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted.” If the gospel “call” were limited to the so-called effective calling of the elect, this would make no sense at all!

[4] Recall that Canons I.15 warns us away from the blasphemy of “making God the Author of sin.” Also note the Conclusion to the Canons, where the churches denied the charge of teaching “that in the same manner in which the election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.”

[5] This was point 3 of the Remonstrance.

[6]  Amyraldianism, or hypothetical universalism, is a more subtle heresy than Arminianism, but eventually wrong for the same reasons. See e.g. Jonathan Moore, “James Ussher’s Influence on the Synod of Dordt,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618–1619).

[7] The practical question arises to what extent we can embrace this general goodness in mankind. Discussions on this point are generally placed under the heading of “common grace.” The Canons draw a clear, necessary line: creation goodness or “common grace” is not able to bring people to saving knowledge of God (III/IV.4). No unregenerate person will make a conscious positive contribution to the Kingdom of God as it makes its way into the world.

[8] The conclusion of the Canons mention the allegation that this teaching “renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that … they may safely perpetrate every species of the most atrocious crimes.”

You may also like

Karl Barth’s (basically) Infralapsarian Theology: A Review Article
The Canons of Dort as a Standard for Teaching and Preaching (2)

Leave a Reply