Canons of Dort

The year 2017 was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther and the other reformers set about reforming the church according to God’s word. I wrote about the five ‘solas’ of the Reformation during 2017 to mark the anniversary. There’s sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone) and soli Deo gloria (God’s glory alone). The Scriptures, which alone are our authority for what to believe, teach that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone; and to him alone belongs the glory.

The years 2018 and 2019 are the anniversary of another important event in reformation history. I’m referring to the Synod of Dort (also known as Dordrecht and Dordt) which was held from November 1618 until May 1619 in Dordrecht, Holland. Delegates from Reformed churches across Europe met to contend for the truth of God’s word against the doctrines of James Arminius (or Jacob van Hermanns) and his followers, known as the Remonstrants. Following Arminius’s death in 1609, the Remonstrants published in 1610 the Five Articles of Remonstrance which set out what they believed. The Synod of Dort responded to this document by publishing the Canons of Dort.

None of this may be familiar to you. However, you may have come across the acronym ‘Tulip’ which tries to summarise the Canons of Dort. ‘Tulip’ stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. If you have heard of ‘Tulip’, it’s important to know that the delegates at Dort did not come up with this acronym, which is a recent invention; and many scholars complain that ‘Tulip’ doesn’t summarise Dort accurately.

What are the Canons of Dort? I’ll try to explain them in forthcoming letters, but they can be summarised as follows.

The first heading is about our guilt and God’s grace (kindness). God’s grace is seen in various ways: by sending his Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish; by sending preachers to call on sinners to repent and believe; and by enabling his elect people to repent and believe the good news. God elects his people not because of anything he sees or foresees in them, but it’s due to the ‘good pleasure of God’.

The second heading is about God’s justice and Christ’s death. God’s justice requires that sin should be punished, but Christ satisfied the justice of God by his death on the cross for sinners. His death is ‘the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin’. However, ‘the saving efficacy’ of his death extends only to God’s elect people.

The third and fourth headings are about how we’ve become corrupt because of Adam’s fall and are unable and unwilling to turn to God without the ‘regenerating grace’ of the Holy Spirit. In other words, unless the Spirit enables us, none of us would turn to God for salvation.

The fifth heading concerns the perseverance of the saints. Believers will continue to sin in this life and can commit ‘enormous sins’ which ‘highly offend’ God. But God, who is rich in mercy, will not completely remove his Spirit from them, or take away their adoption as his children, or let them lose their justification so that they will be condemned eternally. On the contrary he keeps them from perishing and enables them to repent and to seek his forgiveness so that they once again experience his favour. God both preserves them and enables them to persevere in the faith.

There’s not room to go into these in any detail or to explain how the Canons of Dort are thoroughly biblical. I’ll say more about them in subsequent letters. However, you might be wondering what’s the point in writing about these things. Is it not ancient history? How will knowing these things help me in my daily life?

However, we need to remember that we’re commanded to love the Lord our God with our mind as well as with our heart and soul and strength. He has given us his word so that we might know him and what he has done for us. And so, because we love him and everything about him, it’s important that we make the effort to understand his revelation to us. The Canons of Dort help us to understand his word and what he has done to save us.

Furthermore, the Lord commands us through the short letter of Jude to ‘contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’. We need to contend for the faith, which means we must stand firm against every error and hold on to the truth. Just as there were many in the church who taught wrong doctrines in the days of Jude and in the days of the Synod of Dort, so there are many in our own day who do the same. We therefore need to know the truth, so that we’re not led astray ourselves; and so that we can warn our fellow believers who have been misled.