One of the great and persisting differences between the Reformed and Remonstrant (Arminian) confessions is the difference between the Reformed realism about the Christian life as distinct from the latent Remonstrant perfectionism, i.e., the Pelagianizing doctrine of entire, sinless perfection short of glory. In the fifth head of doctrine the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles openly acknowledged the historic Augustinian reading of Romans 7, that Paul spoke for all Christians when he honestly acknowledged his struggle with sin. So great can that struggle be that even the most devout believer sometimes cries out:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:21–24; ESV)
The most frequent objection to the Augustinian reading of Romans 7 is that it cannot be true. Oh but it can and it is. How do we know that these are the words of a regenerated person (i.e., a person to whom the Holy Spirit has given new life and true faith, who is truly united to the risen Christ by the Spirit)? We know it from the next verse: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” The same person who has been struggling so mightily with sin, who has been so close to despair through so much of the chapter, who has just confessed his anguish, closes with a profoundly Christian doxology. For more on this see this post and the resources there.
The Synod of Dort understood that “cannot be” is what logicians call an a priori, something that one knows before one has considered the facts. We might also consider the life of any of the Patriarchs, which testify to the mixed nature of the Christian life and we see the same even in the New Covenant, which reminds us again of the continuity of the covenant of grace. The Apostle Peter struggled with sin before Pentecost and after, as Paul reminds us in Galatians 2. The book of Acts witnesses to inter-personal disagreements in same Apostolic church upon which the Holy Spirit had been poured out. Two Christ-professors (Ananias and Sapphira) lied to the Holy Spirit and received the strictest penalty in church history. In Corinth, members of the church engaged in gross sexual immorality and schismatic behavior. In Philippians, Paul pleads with Euodia and Syntache to resolve their dispute. The book of Hebrews was written to Christ-professors who were tempted to go back to the types and shadows. Jude was forced to warn the church about dangerous heretics and much of the book of James is the pedagogical use of the law to teach that congregation the greatness of their sin and misery, to call them to true faith in Christ. These are just a few of the instances to which we could point.
Truly, nothing has changed. Christian perfection does not come until death or until Christ returns. So Synod confessed:
Because of these remnants of sin dwelling in them and also because of the temptations of the world and Satan, those who have been converted could not remain standing in this grace if left to their own resources. But God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end (Canons of Dort, 5.3)
So great are the remains of sin, temptations, and the power of The Accuser, even the elect are utterly dependent upon the grace of Christ (sola gratia) for our perseverance and for our preservation. Mark those words: “But God is faithful…”. He does not give to us the justice we deserve. He gives us mercy, i.e., he restrains his judgment against our sin. He strengthens us in his unconditional favor. God does not approve of us (justification), nor sanctify us (put to the death the old man, make alive the new), nor glorify us because we are good enough but he because he is faithful to the gracious promise to be a God to us in Christ. We make it to the finish line only because he carries us across.
Although that power of God strengthening and preserving true believers in grace is more than a match for the flesh, yet those converted are not always so activated and motivated by God that in certain specific actions they cannot by their own fault depart from the leading of grace, be led astray by the desires of the flesh, and give in to them. For this reason they must constantly watch and pray that they may not be led into temptations. When they fail to do this, not only can they be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into sins, even serious and outrageous ones, but also by God’s just permission they sometimes are so carried away—witness the sad cases, described in Scripture, of David, Peter, and other saints falling into sins (Canons of Dort, 5.4).
God’s power and free favor toward us sinners is more than sufficient but even so we are not always so “activated and motivated” (aguntur et moventur) by God and his grace. In particular instances we sin. Christians give in to temptation and to the flesh, whether in anger, or sexual temptation, or covetousness, disobedience to authority, or idolatry. Christians sin. This would not seem to be a controversial statement but the reality of Christian sin seems to shock believers and unbelievers alike. We might understand how unbelievers might be surprised since they imagine that salvation must be by works. Ask an unbeliever how he intends to present himself to God and he will invariably say, in some way, “By my good works.” It is more surprising that the recipients of grace should themselves be shocked to learn than Christians sin.
The Reformed are realistic about sin but we are not indifferent to it. Synod counsels us how to combat it. Just as we put up fire extinguishers in our homes and businesses so too we should be careful about out souls. That fire extinguisher is constant watchfulness. Whenever we say to ourselves, “I am ok,” we have already lost sight of what we are by nature. We can be led into temptations and thence to sin. We can be “carried away” by “the flesh,” i.e., the old man. Our sanctification is just beginning. It is more like a sapling than and old oak. When lose sight of our true nature after the fall, we can fall into “serious and outrageous” sins.
By such monstrous sins, however, they greatly offend God, deserve the sentence of death, grieve the Holy Spirit, suspend the exercise of faith, severely wound the conscience, and sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time—until, after they have returned to the way by genuine repentance, God’s fatherly face again shines upon them (Canons of Dort, 5.5).
These sins, however monstrous they be, are offensive to God and deserve death. They grieve the same Spirit, who unites us to Christ and to each other, interfere with exercise of our faith. Synod’s list here is quite true and telling. Nevertheless, grace abounds even to fallen Christians. Our sins never turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. This is perhaps the greatest truth to learn here because this is the very lie that The Accuser uses to try to trap us in our sins, to try to convince us that God cannot and will not save such great sinners. Of course here, as always, the Evil One is a liar. Our gracious Father never turns away from those for whom he sent his Son.
For God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election does not take his Holy Spirit from his own completely, even when they fall grievously. Neither does he let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by him, into eternal ruin(Canons of Dort, 5.6).
The Reformed are unjustly painted as tightwads when it comes to grace but let the reader notice how freely Synod offers grace to grieving sinners with wounded consciences. God is rich in mercy. His purpose in election is not defeated by our sins. The elect do not commit the unforgivable sin. If you believe, you are elect and Christ shall not lose you.
For, in the first place, God preserves in those saints when they fall his imperishable seed from which they have been born again, lest it perish or be dislodged. Secondly, by his Word and Spirit he certainly and effectively renews them to repentance so that they have a heartfelt and godly sorrow for the sins they have committed; seek and obtain, through faith and with a contrite heart, forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator; experience again the grace of a reconciled God; through faith adore his mercies; and from then on more eagerly work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Canons of Dort, 5.7).
The Holy Spirit has sovereignly and immutably given to his elect new life. Sin and concupiscence (lust) can be extinguished but that new life, which is God’s free gift to his elect, cannot be extinguished. The same Father who loved his people from all eternity does not stop loving them when they sin in this life. He gives them godly sorrow—not just sorrow for consequences but a genuine sorrow for having offended their Father. He gives them repentance. He gives them contrition. Believing sinners turn again and again to Christ for forgiveness and free acceptance with God.
The Christian life is a struggle. It is a fearful thing to sin against God. It should cause us shame. May God give us a holy desire to be rid of it and to be more and more conformed to Christ but grace really is greater than all our sin. Jesus forgave David. He forgave Peter. He forgave Thomas his doubts. Believer, he forgives you too. Do not doubt it. The free forgiveness found in Jesus is the greatest weapon against sin ever given.
The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.