The final part of this short introduction and overview of the Canons of Dordt finishes by considering the third, fourth, and fifth heads of doctrine. A list of some useful resources for further study is attached at the end.
The Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine
What the first two heads of doctrine have in common, as we saw in part three, is that they were considering the salvation of believers in terms of God’s intention and decree. First in terms of election in eternity past, and then in the work of Christ on the cross. The Canons concluded, as we have seen, that God’s purpose in election was to show His grace in the predestination of a specific people unto election, soley for His glory and not on the grounds of any foreseen merit or work within the believer. They then concluded that Christ’s intention on the cross was to save for Himself a people, given to Him as a gift by the Father, and that those people would be wholly and actually saved through His blood, rather than simply to make salvation generally ‘available’.
In contrast, the third, fourth, and fifth heads of doctrine focus in on the experience of the believer in the salvation process. In terms of the TULIP acronym, these heads of doctrine line up with the ‘T’, total depravity, and the ‘I’, irresistible grace.
As mentioned previously, the third and fourth heads of doctrine are considered together. This is because what the third article of the Remonstrance said about God’s grace was not controversial, except in the context of what the Remonstrants went on to say in the fourth. The third article expounded the necessity of grace for salvation; that man does not have saving grace within himself but must be born again of God. The Arminians even sound like Calvinists when they say “that man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free-will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is)” (article 3 of the Remonstrance; all emphases in quotations are my own).
What the Arminians are doing is denying the Pelagian view of humanity that claimed man was able, in and of himself, to do that which is good apart from the grace of God. This is what the Canons themselves teach in article 1. However, a troubling thread of thought finds root for the Remonstrants at this point. Notice that they say that having faith is a ‘good’ that the sinner cannot (innately) ‘do’. Although this is formally true, what they go on to claim, in article 4 of the Remonstrance is in fact that good cannot be done “without prevenient or assisting…co-operative grace”. Now the Remonstrance in article 4 have re – defined grace. Compare this statement again to their words in article 3: “that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers”.
In other words the Arminians say “you cannot do good without grace, including faith” (article 3) but then say “to do good I must co – operate with grace” (article 4). Surely co – operating with grace is a good…but they have already said they can’t perform such a good.
In reality, then, grace as the Arminians define it is not simply an instrument of receiving, believing, and resting in Christ, but grace works in two ways. There is God’s grace that actually restores man’s nature to one that can do some good (previent grace – as Arminius himself taught, see part one) and then that nature is able to co – operate with the saving grace of God.
The clearest positive repudiation of this view came from article 14 of the Canons:
“Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred upon him, breathed and infused into him; nor even because God bestows 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 because He who works in man both to will and to do, works in man both to will and to believe, and indeed He works all in all.“
Here the Canons explicitly say God’s grace is not such that He gives them the power to believe and then requires some further co – operation, but that God works in man both to will and to believe. On the flipside, they negatively reject the Arminian position in rejection 4:
“That the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God. For these things are contrary to the express testimony of Scripture: “you who were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1,5). And: “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5, 8:21). Moreover, to hunger and thirst for deliverance from misery and for life, and to offer unto God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed (Ps 51:17; Mt 5:6).”
Aside for this issue, the Canons also deal pastorally with difficulties that might arise. Firstly, in article 15 below, they address the issue about considering those who are not saved and the apparent injustice of God giving saving grace to some but not others. The Canons highlight how man – centred this view of thinking is, but do so in a humble way. They make the point that God owes grace to no – one. If He did, we would no longer be talking about grace. By definition, God’s grace is entirely free. The question, of course, is not why some people aren’t saved, but why anyone is saved at all. They advise charity to those who do profess faith (however weak it may seem) and actually call the Christian to use this teaching to act with humility, because God did not chose us because we were better than anyone else. This means that a ‘proud Calvinist’ ought to (but is not always) a contradiction in terms.
“God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any; for how can He be indebted to one who had no previous gifts to bestow as a foundation for such recompense? By no means, how can He be indebted to one who has nothing of his own but sin and falsehood? He, therefore, who becomes the subject of this grace owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever. Whoever is not made partaker thereof is either altogether regardless of these spiritual gifts and satisfied with his own condition, or is in no apprehension of danger, and vainly boasts the possession of that which he has not. Further, with respect to those who outwardly profess their faith and amend their lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner; for the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us. And as to others who have not yet been called, it is our duty to pray for them to God, who calls the things that are not as if they were. But we are in no way to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we had made ourselves to differ.”
They also reject the modern view that ‘the Holy Spirit is a gentleman; He will never force Himself on you’ as a way of explaining that the Holy Spirit can be resisted. They say, in rejection 8:
“That God in the regeneration of man does not use His omnipotence to potently and infallibly bend man’s will to faith and conversion; but that all the works of grace having been employed which God uses to convert man, man may yet so resist God and the Holy Spirit, when God intends man’s regeneration and wills to regenerate him, and indeed that man often does so resist that he prevents entirely his regeneration, and that it therefore remains in man’s power to be regenerated or not. For this is nothing less than the denial of all that efficiency of God’s grace in our conversion, and the subjecting of the working of Almighty God to the will of man, which is contrary to the apostles, who teach that we believe according to the working of the strength of his might (Eph 1:19); and that God fulfills every desire of goodness and every work of faith with power (2 Th 1:11); and that “His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pt 1:3).”
The third and fourth heads of doctrine explain how God effectively calls those whom He has chosen, and for whom Christ died, and worked in us a gift of faith. We are, in our fallen nature, entirely unable to exercise faith or co – operate with God’s grace as we are truly dead in our sins. This is a monergistic work of God, in that there is only one worker, God, in regeneration, rather than the synergistic model offered by the Arminians, where God and man co – operate.
The Fifth Head of Doctrine
Finally, we come to the fifth head of doctrine, the ‘P’ – perseverance of the saints. The Remonstrants were decidedly unsure on this is issue of perseverance, and seemed to lean (but not with any real conviction) on the side that true Christians indeed could lose their salvation and completely depart from grace. Whilst the believer has the power to resist the lure of Satan, sin, and the Devil, as they said in article 5, the believer might not actually resist and fall away altogether.
Into the Arminian uncertainty, the Synod provided clarity and assurance. In article 3 they clearly state:
“By reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and also because the temptations of the world and of Satan, those who are converted could not persevere in that grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.”
Article 1 had maintained that sin did always remain in the believer on Earth (denying Perfectionism). However, as article 3 above says, these sins would actually cause the believer to lose their salvation if they relied on their own strength. Yet God upholds us by His grace to preserve them in faith. This does not mean, however, that the Canons sanction the ‘once – saved – always – saved’ system (often preached in Fundamentalist Baptist circles) that teach that you can be saved on a profession of faith and that repentance and obedience to the law is not a necessary fruit of justification. It’s not a ‘free ticket to Heaven’ theology. Article 2 has already stressed that:
“[B]lemishes cleave even to the best works of the saints. These are to them a perpetual reason to humiliate themselves before God and to flee for refuge to Christ crucified; to mortify the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety; and to press forward to the goal of perfection, until at length, delivered from this body of death, they shall reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.”
Moreover, the Canons even admit that truly regenerate believers can fall into serious sin, in article 5, but the believer “sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favour, until, when they change their course by serious repentance”. The Canons maintain the seriousness of sin, and its need for repentance, all whilst assuring the believer that they never can fall further than God’s grace. This leads to the Canons’ statement in article 6, defining clearly what the preservation of the saints means:
“God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls; nor does He allow them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted and plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.”
This is a most comforting doctrine for God’s children. We can know full assurance of our salvation; God will not let us fall from His grace. We may be tempted, and fall into sin. We may lose the sense of God’s grace and God may seem far from us for a season, but we have a sure hope that God will preserve us for His glory.
Rather than being a licence to sin or live without holiness, the Canons say the exact opposite in article 12:
“This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God; so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.”
This legacy is borne out in history. Following the Synod of Dordt, those who adhered to its confession were sometimes referred to as ‘Precisionists’ in the Dutch Republic. In England, they were known as ‘Puritans’. These are not people typically associated with a low view of holiness in favour of licentious living.
Finally, the Canons make sure to pastorally point to the means of grace (the Word preached, and the sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s supper – administered) as the instruments through which He preserves us by His grace. As article 14 says:
“[I]t has pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, and by the use of the sacraments.”
Here, the Canons are touching on a wider Reformed view of the means of grace. The central importance of Word, baptism, and the Lord’s supper in the life of the Church is established. They are not optional extras. They are the way in which God saves His people (yes, the Scriptures uses that language, see 1 Peter 3:21) in the sense that He preserves us in the faith. They are the visible word of promise to us.
We persevere, not by our own strenght, merit, or goodness. We persevere because the Holy Spirit upholds us, strengthens us, and works in us by the means He has ordained. We may feel far from God is difficult seasons, but we have assurance that God will never release us from His hands.
The Canons of Dordt stand in history as a triumph of a classic understanding of God’s predestination unto election. It stands in the tradition of Paul against the Judaisers, Augustine against Pelagius, Luther against Erasmus. The Canons give assurance to the believer in their salvation, because it ultimately does not hinge upon what we do – in our exercise of faith or whether we are able persevere. Instead, the Canons teach that salvation is of the Lord, and it’s all about grace.
Another name of the summary of the theology of the Canons of Dordt is “the doctrines of grace”. They express the Biblical reality of salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. They remain a confessional standard for the Dutch Reformed churches, along with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism (collectively known as the 3 Forms of Unity), and is widely revered across the Reformed world.
The Belgic Confession (1561)
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
The Remonstrance (1610)
The Canons of Dordt (1619)
R. Scott Clark, Commentary on the Canons of Dordt (33 part)
R. Scott Clark, Growing Beyond TULIP
R. Scott Clark, The Synod of Dort: Keeping Venom from the Lips of Children
Echo Zoe podcast, featuring Dr. R. Scott Clark.
Office Hours podcast, featuring Dr. W. Robert Godfrey
W. Robert Godfrey, Who Was Arminius?
W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Reformation Trust, Orlando, Florida, USA (2019) [D.r Godfrey’s translation of the Canons in this work is particularly excellent]
Richard Muller, The Problem of TULIP