Christians have long struggled to affirm the truth that God saves freely, sovereignly, unconditionally and the truth that he uses means to bring his elect to new life and true faith. During the Middle Ages particularly, the church came to think that sacraments do what they do because they are what they are: “by the working it is worked” (ex opere operato). Another way to describe this error is sacerdotalism, wherein the thing signified (salvation) is completely identified with the sign (e.g., baptism or the Supper). The minister becomes a priest dispensing salvation. This approach almost always turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. The recipient is said to receive salvation provisionally from the use of the sacrament but that salvation must be retained by cooperation with grace (works).
The opposite error is to divorce salvation from the signs, so that the preaching of the Word and the administration sacraments lose their import. When the Word and sacraments become marginal, something has to fill the void. This view of Word and sacrament ministry is often the consequence of revivalism and Pietism. What matters in these —isms is the quality of one’s religious experience more than what the Reformed call “the due use of ordinary means.”
The Synod of Dort was responding to a corruption of Word and sacrament ministry proposed by the Remonstrants. As the re-defined election to make it conditioned upon foreseen faith, obedience, and perseverance, so too they made the human will decisive. According to the Remonstrants, Jesus died for all men and every man, to make salvation possible for those who will capitalize on the “common grace” given to all, i.e., in Remonstrant/Arminian theology, the potential given to all to believe.
This again takes us back to the biblical doctrine of sin. The Remonstrants downplayed the effects of the fall. Synod responded by rejecting the errors of those
Who teach that, properly speaking, it cannot be said that original sin in itself is enough to condemn the whole human race or to warrant temporal and eternal punishments. For they contradict the apostle when he says: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death passed on to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12); also: “The guilt followed one sin and brought condemnation” (Rom. 5:16); likewise: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Sin brought guilt, death, and condemnation. After the fall, we sin because we are sinners.
The Remonstrants also downplayed the state in which we were created. Like some medieval theologians, they suggested that we were faulty from the beginning. Synod rejected the errors of those
Who teach that the spiritual gifts or the good dispositions and virtues such as goodness, holiness, and righteousness could not have resided in man’s will when he was first created, and therefore could not have been separated from the will at the fall. For this conflicts with the apostle’s description of the image of God in Ephesians 4:24, where he portrays the image in terms of righteousness and holiness, which definitely reside in the will.
Our will was righteous before the fall but it became corrupt in the fall and therefore it is not true to say that we may believe if only we will. We must be born again in order to will to believe.
Notice how Synod, drawing from the words and writings of the Remonstrants themselves, characterizes the Arminian view of the fall:
We reject the errors of those who teach that in spiritual death the spiritual gifts have not been separated from man’s will, since the will in itself has never been corrupted but only hindered by the darkness of the mind and the unruliness of the emotions, and since the will is able to exercise its innate free capacity once these hindrances are removed, which is to say, it is able of itself to will or choose whatever good is set before it—or else not to will or choose it. This is a novel idea and an error and has the effect of elevating the power of free choice, contrary to the words of Jeremiah the prophet: “The heart itself is deceitful above all things and wicked” (Jer. 17:9); and of the words of the apostle: “All of us also lived among them [the sons of disobedience] at one time in the passions of our flesh, following the will of our flesh and thoughts” (Eph. 2:3).
This background is significant because of the way the Remonstrants wrote and spoke in 1610, in the original Remonstrance but also in the way their views were articulated in their Opinions at Synod. In first several articles under these heads (i.e., the 3/4 Heads of Doctrine), they wrote:
Man does not have saving faith of himself, nor out of the powers of his free will, since in the state of sin he is able of himself and by himself neither to think, will, or do any good (which would indeed to be saving good, the most prominent of which is saving faith). It is necessary therefore that by God in Christ through His Holy Spirit he be regenerated and renewed in intellect, affections, will, and in all his powers, so that he might be able to understand, reflect upon, will and carry out the good things which pertain to salvation.
2. We hold, however, that the grace of God is not only the beginning but also the progression and the completion of every good, so much so that even the regenerate himself is unable to think, will, or do the good, or to resist any temptations to evil, apart from that preceding or prevenient, awakening, following and cooperating grace. Hence all good works and actions which anyone by cogitation is able to comprehend are to be ascribed to the grace of God.
3. Yet we do not believe that all zeal, care, and diligence applied to the obtaining of salvation before faith itself and the Spirit of renewal are vain and ineffectual, indeed, rather harmful to man than useful and fruitful. On the contrary, we hold that to hear the Word of God, to be sorry for sins committed, to desire saving grace and the Spirit of renewal (none of which things man is able to do without grace) are not only not harmful and useless, but rather most useful and most necessary for the obtaining of faith and of the Spirit of renewal.
4. The will in the fallen state, before calling, does not have the power and the freedom to will any saving good. And therefore we deny that the freedom to will saving good as well as evil is present to the will in every state.
As with the original Remonstrance, the Reformed churches could affirm most of what the Remonstrants said, were it the case that they meant by the words “grace” and “faith” etc. what we mean by them. Now, earlier in this series we have seen that the Remonstrants do not mean by them what we do. This becomes clear as we keep reading:
5. The efficacious grace by which anyone is converted is not irresistible; and though God so influences the will by the word and the internal operation of His Spirit that he both confers the strength to believe or supernatural powers, and actually causes man to believe, yet man is able of himself to despise that grace and not to believe, and therefore to perish through his own fault.
For the Remonstrants, for grace to be grace, it must be resistible. It is not sovereign. It is not free. It is conditional. It facilitates salvation for those who do their part. It does not actually save.
6. Although according to the most free will of God the disparity of divine grace is very great, nevertheless, the Holy Spirit confers, or is ready to confer, as much grace to all men and to each man to whom the Word of God is preached as is sufficient for promoting the conversion of men in its steps. Therefore sufficient grace for faith and conversion falls to the lot not only of those whom God is said to will to save according to the decree of absolute election, but also of those who are not actually converted.
This paragraph must be read carefully but the outcome is clear at the end. Sufficient grace is given to all. What distinguishes between believers and non-believers is not an unconditional election but the exercise of the free will in cooperating with this sufficient, enabling grace.
With Scripture, in CD 3/4.10, Synod affirmed:
The fact that others who are called through the ministry of the gospel do come and are brought to conversion must not be credited to man, as though one distinguishes himself by free choice from others who are furnished with equal or sufficient grace for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains). No, it must be credited to God: just as from eternity he chose his own in Christ, so within time he effectively calls them, grants them faith and repentance, and, having rescued them from the dominion of darkness, brings them into the kingdom of his Son, in order that they may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called them out of darkness into this marvelous light, and may boast not in themselves, but in the Lord, as apostolic words frequently testify in Scripture.
God operates secretly, freely, and sovereignly through the preaching of the Gospel to bring his elect to new life and to true faith. We are not Pelagians. We recognize the reality of original sin in Adam and its consequences for us: death and condemnation. The same sovereign God who rescued Israel from Pharaoh has rescued his elect, in Christ.
Moreover, when God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds (CD 3/4.11).
Our gracious, Triune God elects unconditionally, saves freely by the work of Christ, and graciously, unconditionally applies the work of Christ to all the elect. The Spirit uses the preaching fo the gospel to enlighten out minds, so that we might understand the ruth of the gospel. He works mysteriously and deeply to soften our hard hearts, to give us a new will. Salvation is not a package laid at our door for us to open or not as we will. It is a resurrection and resuscitation of dead sinners. It is a new creation by the same Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep.
And this is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, and the making alive so clearly proclaimed in the Scriptures, which God works in us without our help. But this certainly does not happen only by outward teaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a way of working that, after God has done his work, it remains in man’s power whether or not to be reborn or converted. Rather, it is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead, as Scripture (inspired by the author of this work) teaches. As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe. And then the will, now renewed, is not only activated and motivated by God but in being activated by God is also itself active. For this reason, man himself, by that grace which he has received, is also rightly said to believe and to repent (CD 3/4.12).
The Remonstrants tried to affirm grace but they redefined it. They stripped it of its power. They reduced it to mere persuasion or influence. They left it to the human will to take the decisive step in salvation. Synod reaffirmed Moses, Paul, and Augustine. Salvation is of the Lord. It is a supernatural work—not merely capitalizing on a quasi-natural endowment shared by all humans. That work is a mystery but it is not magic. The Reformed doctrine of salvation is not sacerdotalism—the priestly distribution of magic but yet the Spirit does will to operate through preaching and to use the sacraments to strengthen faith and assurance. We are not Pietists or Revivalists.
In this life believers cannot fully understand the way this work occurs; meanwhile, they rest content with knowing and experiencing that by this grace of God they do believe with the heart and love their Savior (CD 3/4.13.
People have often been tempted to try to make the mysterious work of the Spirit (see John 3) a little less mysterious. In their own way, the Remonstrants tried to do this by re-defining sin, grace, and faith. In truth, we know more about what the Spirit does and what Scripture promises than we know or understand exactly how he does it. Nevertheless, we rejoice that he does it. Soli deo gloria.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido
The translation of the Canons of Dort is taken from the edition published by the United Reformed Churches in North America in Forms and Prayers.