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The Canons of Dort as a Standard for Teaching and Preaching (2)


In a previous article I pointed out that the Canons of Dort not only define the content of Reformed doctrine, but also direct the way in which it is taught and preached. In this article I will address section I of the Canons, and draw conclusions about the way we ought to speak about God’s work of election.

Election in Broader Context

The first section of the Canons is about election, but this is only brought up in section I.6. The first few articles of section I outline more foundational principles of Christian doctrine; and we see this pattern repeated at the beginning of the other sections.

There are several reasons for choosing this approach. By taking its starting point in basic Christian doctrine, the Canons emphasize that the Reformed churches are not sectarian, but stand fully in the tradition of the Christian church. By beginning with common ground, the polemic with the Arminians also becomes less militant.

But most importantly, the introductory articles I.1-6 show us the proper context in which we must think about election. The doctrines of sin, Christ, gospel, and faith take priority over the doctrine of election. In election, God chose people from the sinful, human race. Election is in Jesus Christ. Election is no direct ticket to heaven, but predestination to be in Christ, and to be saved in the way of faith in the gospel.

In this way the Synod of Dort defused the first main complaint against the Reformed, namely, that they teach that God predestines people to heaven or hell “without the least regard or consideration of any sin.”[1] People perish eternally because of their sin and unbelief; people inherit eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Contrary to the Arminian accusation, sin and the obedience of faith are central in the Reformed doctrine!

I frequently meet Reformed believers who will suspect anyone of being “Arminian” if he begins his gospel presentation with John 3:16, in God’s love for the world. It is true that some evangelicals take this text too far, and declare God’s saving love for every individual, whether they believe or not. But note that our very own Canons of Dort start with John 3:16—in his love for the world, God gave Christ. This merciful gospel must be preached to all, so that people may believe. And God, based on his eternal decree of election, will give faith precisely to those he has chosen. Do you see how evangelistic the Canons are from the very beginning?

Speaking of Reprobation

Article I.15 addresses the dark side of predestination. If God elects some to receive Christ and his benefits, there will be others to whom this is not given. They will perish in their unbelief.

According to the Remonstrants this was a terrible, cruel doctrine. They complained that the Reformed made “reprobation the cause of unbelief and ungodliness, in the same manner in which election is the source and cause of faith and good works.”[2] This would make God the cause and “author” of sin.

To be fair, there were some Reformed ministers who drew this conclusion. The Synod of Dort even dealt with a seminary professor, Maccovius, who taught that “God wills and decrees sin” and that “he predestines people to sin.” Maccovius was not declared a heretic, but he was strongly reprimanded to tone down his teaching. Even those who did not agree with Maccovius would conclude that, at the very deepest level of God’s decree, God must be the ultimate cause of sin. After all, he created people, he allowed them to fall, and by electing some to be saved, he implicitly allowed others to die in their sins.[3]

The Canons do not give an explanation of the origin of sin; the reality of sin is simply assumed throughout, starting explicitly in article I.1. And article I.15 ends with a serious warning, intended to keep our thinking and speaking straight. Never, ever are we to think of God as the cause, the author of sin.

The decree of reprobation, say the Canons, is no more than this: that God decided to leave the non-elect precisely where they are, by their own fault, in the guilt and misery of sin.[4] He does not make them sin. He does not prevent them from believing. He simply gives them what they (and we, if it were not for God’s grace!) want in their rebellion.

The Canons make it abundantly clear: people do not go to hell because God forces them to go there. People go to hell because they are guilty and do not believe in Jesus Christ. Is it unfair that God permits them to become lost? Article I.18 answers with a sharp but loving rebuke to those who complain: if anything is unfair, it is our election! Everybody deserves hell, and our election to faith and salvation is undeserved.

The first section of the Canons ends with praise to God for his deep council, which we cannot understand. It points us to Romans 9, which teaches that God has the basic right to do with his creation as he wants, like a Potter with his clay.

Today there are Calvinists who like to start with this principle, that God is sovereign and therefore has the right to cast into hell whoever he wants. They believe that this is a “higher,” better view than that presented in the Canons.[5] It is this kind of teaching of unmitigated divine sovereignty that evoked the Arminian complaint that the Reformed doctrine is no different than Islam.[6] But the Canons start with the revealed gospel of grace in a sinful world. The teaching of God’s sovereignty is for those who would talk back to God who justly punishes rebellion.

Election, Assurance, and Comfort

Several articles toward the end of section I of the Canons spell out important pastoral consequences of election. Christians who are aware that their faith is a gracious gift can easily worry: how can I be sure that God has chosen me? How do I know my faith is real? Sadly, there are entire denominations where this anxiety overshadows all of the Christian life, and only very few are assured of their salvation.

The Canons do not want us to think this way, and certainly not to teach this pious-sounding doubt. Article I.12 gives a careful, sensitive answer. Believers, as they grow in faith, will receive assurance of their election. Not by some private insight in God’s secret council. Not by a miraculous experience. But “by noticing within themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word”: faith, awe and trust in God, sorrow for sin, desire to be righteous.

What about those who lack this assurance? As a result of sin we can feel so guilty, so much lacking in godliness, that we may fear that God has not chosen us. Canons I.16 comforts us that we should not “be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor count ourselves among the reprobate.” This article point us to the mercy of God. It shows the way of growth and perseverance in the Christian life; I will address this at the end of my next article, where we look at section V of the Canons.

The pastoral approach of the Canons is balanced; articles I.13 and 16 also address the opposite problem of presumption and antinomianism. There are people who are not serious about their faith, but claim to be elect in spite of an uncaring, ungodly life. It even says that such false assurance “usually happens to those who casually take for granted the grace of election” and “are unwilling to walk in the ways of the chosen.”

The Question of Dying Infants

Believing parents care about the salvation of their children. One particularly pressing question is what we may believe about our children if they die at a very young age. At the time when the Canons were written, infant mortality was extremely high, due to warfare, pestilence, and other factors. But even today, when most infants survive after birth, many parents look for comfort after a miscarriage.

The Arminians made this question a focus in their campaign against the Reformed doctrine. As I mentioned in the previous article, they accused the Reformed churches of teaching that “many children of the faithful are torn, guiltless, from their mothers’ breasts, and tyrannically plunged into hell” (by God).

The delegates at the Synod of Dort had to address this question. They did so, briefly but powerfully, in Article I.17.

We may believe that children of believers who die at an early age belong to God’s elect. There is no reason for doubt, because God himself speaks favorably about the children in the Scriptures. The Canons give two arguments. First of all, there is the covenant, which continues from parents to children and is only broken by deliberate unbelief at older age. Second, there is the declaration in 1 Cor. 7:14 that children of believers are holy. This does not automatically mean that all children of believers are elect, and saved no matter what; but it does imply that these children are special to God. If he takes them to himself at a young age, there is no reason to doubt his covenant mercy.

In fact, article I.17 says very much the same as the traditional Reformed form for the administration of baptism to infants.

Throughout the centuries this article has been controversial in Reformed circles, especially in those experiential churches who were hesitant to lay hold of the assurance of faith. The Canons of Dort also clearly go beyond the Westminster Standards in this respect, which only teach that elect infants will be saved, even though they have not believed (WCF 10.3). But where the church received this article as a faithful reflection of the covenant promise, it has been of great comfort to many parents.

Teaching Election Properly

We have seen that section I of the Canons is evangelistic and pastoral. It also exhibits great pedagogical qualities, as a guide for preaching and teaching. If we are to preach on predestination, let it always be in the context of sin, Christ, and gospel, as shown in Articles I.1-6! If we are to preach on election, let us give comfort to the afflicted and warning to the presumptive! If we are to preach on reprobation, let us endeavor never to suggest that God is the author of sin, but admire the justice and wisdom of God even when we do not comprehend him!

Article I.14 gives explicit instruction about how to teach the doctrine of election. This doctrine was taught throughout the history of the church, in Old and New Testament, and so it must be taught today. But it is very important how this teaching takes place. Article I.14 is not only a warning against not preaching election; it is also a warning against improper teaching of it. The Canons list a number of qualities our teaching of election should have.

First of all, the doctrine of election is “specifically intended” for God’s church, to comfort believers. It is not the first (or even second) aspect of Christian doctrine to bring to unbelievers! For many zealous Calvinists that may seem wrong, especially if they are eager to combat Arminianism in all its forms. But the Canons are following the Biblical example here: the Bible speaks about election almost exclusively in the context of God’s people, whether Old Testament Israel or the New Testament church.

Second, the Canons call for discretion and a godly and holy attitude. Because the doctrine of election can raise difficult questions, and can be distorted into a false denial of assurance or presumptive complacency, we must be very careful how to present it. Articles I.12, 13, 16, and 17 list some pastoral considerations that should be taken into account.

Third, the Canons tells us that election must be preached “at the appropriate time and place.” This should be understood as the proper time and place in the preaching and teaching curriculum. For instance, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of election in Lord’s Days 20 and 21, and when teaching these questions and answers a teacher should explain election. Likewise, election must have a place in sermons about Deut. 7, Rom. 9, and Eph. 1. But neither the Bible nor the catechism speaks about election all the time, and neither should we.

Fourth, in the preaching and teaching of election we must be careful to bring glory to God, “without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High.” Practically, this means that we echo the clear teaching of the Bible that God has chosen for himself a people, to save them in the way of faith; but we must refrain from speculation on the details which are not clearly revealed.

Some argue that election is one of the most foundational doctrines of the Bible, and must therefore figure in most sermons. One Reformed minister wrote, for instance:

If the question be asked, ‘What place does Scripture allot to the truth of election?’ the answer is: ‘First place.’ The truth of election is of prime importance. … Take it away, and the whole body of the truth dies. For there is not a single element of the entire truth of Holy Scripture that can stand ultimately without the truth of sovereign election. … Even while the church is busy with the task of proclaiming in the narrower sense of the word such truths as vicarious atonement, regeneration, or conversion, for example, that truth of election will pulsate regularly and strongly through the preaching. If it does not, then the truth of election is being deprived of its proper time and place.[7]

It even seems that Canons I.9 support this view, when it calls election the “source of every saving good”.

But this view is mistaken. God’s decree (including election) comes first in the logical and historical order; but that does not mean that it is the central element in God’s revelation. Scripture tells us clearly that the center of revelation is Jesus Christ and his ministry. The Bible calls to faith in Christ much more than it speaks of election. In fact, even our election is in Christ (Eph. 1:4). Likewise, in the very definition of election, the Canons define Christ as the foundation of salvation (I.7).

To be sure, the truth of God’s electing grace may not be obscured or denied. It is a tremendous source of comfort for the believer. But this doctrine must take its proper place, so that Jesus Christ, the greatest Word of God to a sinful world, remains at the center.

The same guiding principle is found in the remaining sections of the Canons. I will address this in the next and last article of this series.

[1] See the “Conclusion” of the Canons of Dort for this accusation. The full text of the Remonstrant complaint is this: “Some [Reformed churches teach] that God by an eternal and unchangeable decree, out of the people whom he did not view as created and much less as fallen, ordained some to eternal life, some to eternal perdition, without any consideration of righteousness or sin, obedience or disobedience, merely because he was pleased to display the glory of his justice and mercy, or—as others formulate it—his saving grace, wisdom and sovereignty.”

[2] See the “Conclusion” to the Canons.

[3] See, for example, the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, which was published in 1625 by four leading Reformed professors. Also, in his dissertation, The Issue of Reprobation at the Synod of Dort (1618-19) in Light of the History of this Doctrine (1985), D. Sinnema discusses the many ways in which Arminian and Reformed theologians alike attempted to parse out the difficult doctrine of election without putting the blame on God.

[4] The last paragraph of I.15, “And this is the decree of reprobation …” must be understood in a limiting sense. This, and nothing else or more, is the decree of reprobation.

[5] E.g., Homer Hoeksema, The Voice of Our Fathers

[6] The “Conclusion” of the Canons summarizes the Arminian complaint that “this teaching … is nothing but a refurbished … Turkism.” Mainstream Muslim doctrine has many tenets of hyper-Calvinism: A hard determinism, combined with the view that Allah is absolutely sovereign, and even the most faithful believers can only hope that he will be merciful to them.

[7] Homer Hoeksema, The Voice of Our Fathers, 231.


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