I’ve been using these letters to write about the Synod of Dort which met in 1618 to 1619 to contend for the truth of the gospel against the errors of James Arminius and his followers (known as the Remonstrants and Arminians). The Remonstrants published their views in 1610 in a document known as the Five Articles of Remonstrance and the reformers at Dort responded with the Canons of Dort.
We’ve already considered the first and second main headings in the Canons of Dort. The first concerned election to eternal life. The second concerned the death of Christ. In this letter, we’ll consider the third and fourth headings which are presented together. One is to do with human corruption due to the fall and the other is to do with irresistible grace.
What the Remonstrants said about human corruption was in accordance with what the reformers believed: since Adam’s fall in the garden, we are unable on our own to do anything truly good (such as, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation). Therefore, if we are to be saved, we must be born again and renewed by God. In other words, we need the gracious help of the Holy Spirit in order to believe in Christ for salvation. However, the Remonstrants went on to say that God’s gracious help ‘is not irresistible’. That is, sinners are able to resist and reject God’s gracious help. To support their views, they referred to Acts 7 where we read how Stephen, the first Christian martyr, complained that the Jews resisted the Holy Spirit.
While the reformers at Dort were satisfied with what the Remonstrants said about human corruption due to the fall, they disagreed with them over what they said about God’s grace being ‘not irresistible’. They made the following points in reply.
(1) In the beginning man was created in the image of God. Originally we were good. However, we lost that original goodness whenever Adam misused his free will and chose to disobey God in the garden. As a result, by nature we no longer know God as Adam once did; and we no longer love God. Instead of wanting to serve him, we are in rebellion against God. (2+3) Because of Adam’s original sin, all other humans (with the exception of Christ) are born guilty and corrupt. We are, by nature, children of wrath, incapable of any saving good and prone to evil. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, we neither can nor want to turn to God.
(4+5) Because of the light of nature (that is, God reveals himself to us in what he has made) and the law of God, we have some knowledge of God. However such knowledge cannot save us. (6) What the light of nature and the law cannot do, the Holy Spirit can do: through the preaching of the gospel, God is pleased to save all who believe. (7) God, who is sovereign, is pleased to reveal his plan of salvation to some, but not to all. (8) God calls sinners to repent and believe; and he promises that all who do so will be saved. His call and his promise are made sincerely. (9) Many who hear the gospel do not respond to the gospel. However, the fault lies, not in the gospel, nor in God who calls, but it lies in those who are called and who refuse to believe. Their hearts are hardened by sin. (This is an important point when it comes to evangelism. We often blame ourselves when people don’t respond to the gospel and worry that we need to do new things to attract converts. However, the fault lies, not in the gospel, but in those who refuse to believe.)
(10) Some who hear the gospel repent and believe. However, they’re only able to repent and believe because God has enabled them to do so. God gives them faith and repentance as a gift. (11) God enables them to repent and believe by causing them to hear the preaching of the gospel and by enabling them to understand and believe what they hear. God also works to renew their wills so that they want to come to Christ. (12) This work of God in sinners is known as regeneration, new creation and resurrection from the dead. God works supernaturally in us without our aid. Furthermore, it’s not that God begins his work in us and then leaves it to us to finish the work. On the contrary, when God works in our hearts, we are certainly and infallibly regenerated. (13) Believers cannot fully understand the ways of God.
(14) Faith is the gift of God. However, it’s not a gift which we’re able to refuse; nor does he leave it to us to decide whether we’ll accept the gift or not. When he gives us faith, he ensures we receive the gift and actually believe. (15) God gives this gift freely and he does not owe it to us. Those who receive it ought to give thanks for it. Of course, those who don’t receive it don’t care about it.
(16) When God regenerates sinners, he doesn’t take away their will and he doesn’t make them come to him against their will. Instead he heals and restores their fallen and rebellious will so that they turn to God most willingly. This is important, because when people hear of ‘irresistible grace’, they sometimes imagine that it means sinners are dragged against their will to Christ. On the contrary, God works in us so that we want to come to Christ.
(17) The supernatural work of God, by which he regenerates us and enables us to repent and believe, does not exclude the use of means. So, just as God feeds us by means of farmers who sow seed in the ground, so he converts us to faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. He also uses the sacraments and church discipline to help us persevere in the faith.
That’s a very brief summary of what the reformers taught under headings three and four of the Canons of Dort. Whereas the Remonstrants said God’s grace is necessary, but resistible, the reformers said that God’s grace is necessary and irresistible.
The reformers disagreed with the Remonstrants because they were concerned with God’s glory. They wanted to make clear that the power to regenerate the heart of a sinner is in God alone. We are dead in our trespasses and sins and contribute nothing to our salvation. Our salvation is entirely God’s work and therefore he gets all the glory, because he’s the one who sends the preacher to preach the gospel; and he’s the one who sends his Spirit to enable us to understand and believe the gospel; and the same Spirit renews our will so that we come to Christ for salvation. To claim that God’s grace is resistible, as the Remonstrants did, is to make God subject to our will. In that case, God is no longer sovereign over all and no longer worthy of our praise.
Above all, the reformers disagreed with the Remonstrants because of what the Bible teaches. By nature we are dead in our trespasses and sins, we live in the passions of our flesh, we carry out the desires of the body and mind, and we are children of wrath (Eph. 2:1–3). But then God had mercy on us and saved us. What do we have that we did not receive? (1 Cor. 4:7). Our faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8) and his divine power gives to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). God works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). And no one can come to Christ the Saviour unless the Father draws him and all who learn from the Father come to Christ (John 6:44+45).
Therefore, all who believe should give thanks to the Lord for enabling you to repent and believe. And those who don’t yet believe should come to church to hear the preaching of the gospel, because God works through the preaching of the gospel to illume the mind, to create faith in our hearts, and to renew the will so that we come to Christ.