In my last letter, I began to write about the Canons of Dort which were published in 1619 as a response to the errors of James Arminius and his followers who were known as the Remonstrants and also as the Arminians. A recent book on the controversy has the title, ‘Saving the Reformation’. That title is an indication of the importance of the Canons of Dort, because if the errors of the Arminians were widely adopted, all the good that came from the Reformation might have been lost.
It was vital, therefore, for the reformed churches to respond to the errors of the Arminians and to contend once again for the truth of God’s word. I said in my last letter that I’d say more about this controversy is subsequent letters. Therefore this letter is also about the Canons of Dort.
The Arminians published what they believed in five brief articles or paragraphs in 1610. The reformers responded to each of these five articles were their own five points. The first one is to do with election.
The reformers at Dort first made clear that since we have all sinned, then we all deserve to be condemned by God. God would not have been unfair to anyone if he chose to condemn us all. However, God showed his love by sending his Son into the world so that all who believe in him may have eternal life. Furthermore, he has sent preachers into all the world to announce the good news of salvation and to call on sinners to repent and believe. Whoever believes is pardoned; whoever does not believe remains under God’s wrath.
The reformers then made the point that while the cause of our guilt is in us, the ability to believe and to be saved comes from God. So, we’re responsible for our guilt, but faith and salvation are the gift of God. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.’
Since this is true, why do some receive the gift of faith and salvation and others do not? The answer has to do with God’s election. God elects or chooses some to be saved while he leaves others in their sin and under his curse.
Now, the Arminians also believed in election. After all, the doctrine of election is taught in the Bible. However the Arminians and the reformers believed different things about election. The Arminians believed that God’s election is conditional, whereas the reformers said it is unconditional.
We all know what conditions are. I’ll do something for you if you do something for me. I’ll give you £10 if you clean my windows. I’ll give you another £10 if you clean my gutters too. I’ll do something for you on the condition that you do something for me. Let’s apply that to salvation. The Arminian position is that God says to sinners: ‘I’ll elect you to eternal life if you believe in the Lord Jesus.’ God will elect sinners to eternal life on the condition that they believe in the Lord Jesus.
That might seem like a biblical truth, until we realise that this means sinners who believe can claim they now deserve to be elected to eternal life. Sinners who believe in the Lord Jesus can say they deserve to be elected to eternal life because, by believing, they have done what God required. God is now obligated to elect them. He owes it to them.
Furthermore, the Arminian position means that those who believe and meet the condition for election to eternal life can boast about themselves that they are better than the rest who do not believe. They are better because they believed. But what did we say at the beginning? That we all deserve to be condemned by God because all of us are sinners. God would not have been unfair to anyone if he chose to condemn us all. He is under no obligation to save anyone, because we have all sinned and fallen short of doing his will.
Therefore, the reformers at Dort rejected conditional election and taught instead that election to eternal life is unconditional. God’s decision to choose his people is due to his good pleasure alone and it was not determined by anything in them. In accordance with his decision, God softened the hearts of his chosen people and enabled them to believe, whereas he left the others in their sin and unbelief.
His chosen people are not better or more deserving than the others, because he chose them before the foundation of the world, before they had done anything, whether good or bad. Before the foundation of the world, God gave his chosen people to the Lord Jesus in order that he might save them and call them and draw them through his word and Spirit. God therefore decreed to give his chosen people a true faith in Christ and to justify them and to sanctify them and, after enabling them to persevere, to glorify them in his presence.
As Paul says in Ephesians 1: ‘he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.’ And as he says in Romans 8: ‘And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.’
The reformers were careful to note, however, that the person who does not believe shouldn’t conclude from this that they have not been chosen and cannot be saved. They should continue to listen to the preaching of God’s word, because God uses the preaching of his word to convert sinners to a true faith in Christ.
This doctrine is important because it humbles us and it exalts the Lord. Since our salvation is from God from beginning to end, then we have no reason to boast in ourselves. Instead we should boast in him, because of his grace and mercy towards us; and we should aim to please him, because he first loved us.
This doctrine is important because it’s a great comfort to God’s people. Since God’s decree is eternal and unchangeable and nothing can frustrate God’s plan to save his people, then all who believe are comforted because it means they cannot lose their salvation and he will bring it to completion.
Finally, this doctrine is important because there are still churches today which, knowingly or unknowingly, teach what the Arminians taught. Christians need to be careful that we are not taken in by false views, but hold on to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.