"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS CONVERSION
AND THE MANNER IN WHICH IT OCCURS
THE INADEQUACY OF THE LIGHT OF NATURE
In Article 1 the fathers had stated the Reformed position concerning man's total depravity and corruption as a result of the fall into sin. The fathers needed to do so because the Arminians taught that man did not become totally evil but only strongly inclined to sin (see Figure 2 on page 49). Man was not dead in sin said the Arminians, but only sick and therefore still able to call out for help. Said the Arminians: man has retained a something within him after the fall (the 'light of nature'), which, if used well, enables him to free himself from the depths to which he has fallen and reach out to God. The fathers summarised this error as follows, "The corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (which for the Arminians is the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, that is, the evangelical or saving grace, and salvation itself" (Rejection of Errors No 5 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 561).
The fathers are vague in Article 4 as to what the 'light of nature' actually is. They did not set out to define the term, but used it as they received it. So they could write towards the end of the article, "whatever this light may be." We ought not, then, to conclude that there is (according to the fathers) a 'light of nature'. They rather acquiesced to the language used. Their point was not so much to discuss whether there is some sort of a natural light as to consider the Arminians' argument that this light of nature was of benefit to fallen man. According to the Arminians, there is a natural light that assists man in "arriving at the saving knowledge of God and true conversion."
The fathers denied it. Certainly, God had created man in His image and so also given to man the capacity to fulfil his mandate of imaging God. God had equipped man with particular gifts so that man could carry out his task of being God's representative (see III/IV, Art 1). However, through the Fall man lost these gifts. Man lost his ability to image God (though the mandate to image Him remained). This loss did not mean, though, that man become an animal; man remained man. Nor did people after the Fall always commit every possible sin they were capable of. There is a something, call it a 'light of nature', if you will, "whereby he retains some notions about God, about natural things, and about the difference between what is honourable and shameful, and shows some regard for virtue and outward order." Man retained a small remnant of what he used to be. Just as the wreckage of a ship floating on the water is a remnant of what there used to be (and it certainly isn't a ship anymore!) so an evidence remains in man of what man used to be. The question of the fathers was therefore: can we use this evidence, namely that man remained man and has retained a measure of decency within him, to our advantage in order to work our way into God's favour again, to come to faith? Whereas the Arminians said this was possible, the fathers insisted it was not so, because man is dead, totally depraved (see Articles 1-3). The fathers could only be sure it was not so on the basis of what Scripture says in passages as the following.
- Romans 1:20-32
"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (vs 20,21).
God's attributes can be perceived by man in the things God has made. Man knows God. Yet what does man do with this revelation? Does man use whatever 'light of nature' there might be to work with this revelation in order to come closer to God? Not at all! rather, as the next verses state, man uses this revelation to make idols.
- 1 Corinthians 2:14
"But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."
Does a 'light of nature' help man? No. The Scriptures teach that the things of the Spirit of God remain foolishness to fallen man.
- Matthew 16:22,23
Jesus had just told His disciples of His imminent suffering, death and resurrection.
"Then Peter took (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord; this shall not happen to you!" But (Jesus) turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me Satan! You are an offence to me, for you are not mindful to the things of God, but the things of men."
Peter had spent many months under Jesus' tutelage and witnessed His many signs and miracles. Yet he responded to Jesus' words so negatively. If there is within us a something by which we can reach out to God, certainly Peter -advantaged as he was with his time with Jesus- would have used it. But, despite his advantage, he does not reach out to God; he spoke rather as a follower of Satan.
The fathers wanted to point out that what the Arminians taught does not work. Man cannot use a 'light of nature' to find his way back to God. This light of nature -"whatever this light may be"- is inadequate to save man. In fact, the remnant that is left within us testifies against us and only serves to accentuate how deeply we have fallen from the position God had once given us. So it leaves us without any excuse before God. As the fathers said, "... whatever this light may be, man wholly pollutes it in various ways and suppresses it by his wickedness. By doing this, he makes himself inexcusable before God."
THE INADEQUACY OF THE LAW
The Arminians taught that fallen man could also use the Ten Commandments to attain salvation. By obeying the law of God man could climb his way back into God's favour, for "the will (of man) as such has never been corrupted but only hampered through the darkness of the understanding and the unorderliness of the passions. If these hindrances have been removed, the will can exert its full innate power. The will is of itself able to will and to choose, or not to will and not to choose, all manner of good which may be presented to it" (Rejection of Errors No 3 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 560). In other words, given training and education, man could again learn to obey the Ten Commandments. After all, God gave the Ten Commandments and man is able to obey them; therefore the Ten Commandments can help man. Given the right education man would not only be able to obey the law again, but he would even do so very willingly!
However the fathers did not recognise the above teaching of the Arminians as being scripturally correct. Granted, God did indeed give His law to the Jews through Moses. However, obedience to the law would not save the Jews. That was not God's purpose for the law. Rather, the law served to convict man of his sin and guilt. "... For though (the Ten Commandments) reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convicts man of his guilt, yet it neither points out a remedy nor gives him power to rise out of this misery. Rather, weakened by the flesh, it leaves the transgressor under the curse. Man cannot, therefore, through the law obtain saving grace." The fathers wrote this on the basis of what they learned from Scripture in the following passages:
- Romans 7:5
"For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death."
The law did not encourage us to reach out to God, to know how to do good or to please Him. Rather, the law aroused within us sinful passions, the fruits of which is our death.
- Romans 7:7-11
"What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet". But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me."
I only know what sin is because the Lord has told me by means of His Law. God's Law spells out my sinfulness and how deserving I am of death. By saying in Article 5 that the Law "reveals the greatness of sin ... yet it neither points out a remedy" for man, the fathers are echoing the message of Romans 7. The Law itself is no remedy for man's total depravity; it offers no hope of salvation.
- Romans 8:3
"For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh."
In Paradise the Law was able to do what it was supposed to do. That is: in Paradise man was able to obey the law perfectly, and so keep the obligations of the covenant. With the fall into sin the law became weak. Not that the Law itself became weak and lost its capacity to accomplish its purpose. Rather, man through his own sinfulness lost his capacity to obey it and so the law was of no advantage to him in working his way out of the pit into which he had fallen through his fall into sin. Therefore the fathers wrote that the Law does not give man "power to rise out of this misery. Rather, weakened by the flesh, it leaves the transgressor under the curse. Man cannot, therefore, through the law obtain saving grace."
- Galatians 3:10
"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.'"
If man wants to gain access to God via the Law, then he must obey it perfectly; and sinful man cannot. Therefore the apostle Paul instructs that the law does not save us.
THE NEED FOR THE GOSPEL
By means of Article 6 the fathers put emphasis on God's work of salvation. Man is not saved by the light of nature, nor by obedience to the Law. In no way is salvation man's doing. Rather, it is God who is at work, reaching out to man in order to save him from the perdition into which he had thrown himself. "What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God performs." What God does (and what neither the law nor this light of nature could do) is work in human hearts the faith needed to be righteous before God.
How does God work this faith? God does it "by the power of the Holy Spirit." Yet the Holy Spirit does not place faith into human hearts just like that, without the use of means. The Spirit uses a tool, an instrument. The instrument used is "the word or ministry of reconciliation, which is the gospel of the Messiah." As we use a tool, the hammer, to place in a nail in a plank, so the Holy Spirit uses a tool, the Word, to work faith in our dead hearts. The following evidence may be drawn from Scripture:
- Romans 10:14,17
"How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? ... So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."
Faith, then, comes through the word. But the word in turn does not act by itself. For:
- Ephesians 6:17
"And take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God".
In the preceding verses the apostle has instructed his readers to "put on the whole armour of God." This armour includes a sword, the word. A sword lying on a table is harmless. But in the hands of a soldier, the sword becomes deadly. Likewise with the word of God. On its own the word does nothing. However, when God the Holy Spirit uses the word, it is effective and gets things done; it reaches into hearts dead in sin and works faith. We must understand, then, that the Holy Spirit and the Word are not two separate tools of God, but rather, that the Holy Spirit is sent by God to use the tool of the Word in order to work faith. See Figure 1.
- 1 Thessalonians 1:5
"For our Gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit ..."
Said the apostle to the Thessalonians: the Word didn't come to you by itself, but with (the power of) the Holy Spirit, and therefore it is effective: i.e. "and you became followers of us and the Lord..." (verse 6).
This is also the material of Lord's Day 7, Q&A 21: "What is true faith? True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word.... This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel." That is: the Holy Spirit works faith by means of the Word. Likewise, in Lord's Day 25, Q&A 65 we confess, "Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all His benefits, where does this faith come from? From the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel .…"
At the end of Article 6 the fathers saw need, in the face of Arminian teaching, to state that God's way of saving sinners was the same in both Old and New Testament times, viz, salvation comes only through faith, worked by God in the hearts of man. In the Old Testament one was not saved through obedience to the Law, but by faith. This is equally true for those who live in the times of the New Testament: faith is a gift; it is God's doing alone. As the apostle wrote to the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).
What the fathers wished to make clear so many years ago to those who sat under the preaching of Arminians week by week was that salvation is not an achievement of man, but a sovereign deed of God. God works faith and therefore salvation is God's doing.
WHY THE GOSPEL IS SENT TO SOME AND NOT TO OTHERS
If God works the faith that is needed for salvation by means of His Word, then why doesn't His Word go out to all? The Arminians conceded that in the Old Testament God revealed Himself to only a few: Israel. For example, one reads in Psalm 147:19,20, "He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them. Praise the LORD!" In the New Testament, the circle was broadened; God sends His Gospel to many peoples. However, it is not true that the Gospel goes to everybody. For example, in Acts 16:6,7 we read of Paul and his companions, "Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them." God forbade Paul and his co-workers from preaching the Gospel in specific areas of the world.
Why doesn't God permit His Word to be preached everywhere? The Arminians explain this as being due to the fact that some people are better than others, and are hence more worthy of receiving the Gospel. Said the Arminians, "God sends the gospel to one people rather than to another not merely and solely because of the good pleasure of His will, but because one people is better and worthier than another to which the gospel is not preached" (Chapter 1, Rejection of Errors, No. 9 - Error, Book of Praise, p.544). The fathers on the other hand explained in Article 7, "The cause of this very distribution of the gospel is not be ascribed to the worthiness of one people above another, nor to the better use of the light of nature, but to the sovereign good pleasure and undeserved love of God." It is simply because God was pleased to do it this way. See Deuteronomy 9 as evidence that Israel was not privileged above other nations because they were better. In the context of this article, the point of the fathers' insistence is that each tribe is as depraved as the next; all are dead in sin and there equally undeserving of salvation.
In view of the fact that all are equally depraved, and that God sovereignly and graciously sent His Gospel of salvation to me so I might have faith and be saved, heightens the gratitude and the humility that must fill my heart. "Therefore we to whom so great a grace is granted, beyond and contrary to all we deserve, ought to acknowledge it with a humble and grateful heart."
At the same time the very depravity of our hearts and mankind's common unworthiness halt us from trying to determine why the Lord sends His gospel to the one nation and not to the other. "But as regards others to whom this grace is not given, we ought with the apostle to adore the severity and righteousness of the judgments of God but by no means inquisitively to pry into them."
THE EARNEST CALL BY THE GOSPEL
The Arminians questioned the earnestness of God's call to faith. They accused the Reformed of portraying God as being hypocritical. For, they said of the Reformed, you say that God sends His preachers to proclaim the Gospel to all, whereas God knows ahead of time that only the elect are able to respond positively to this call and the reprobate can not. So, the Arminians concluded, you Reformed people must teach that God is not serious, not genuine, not earnest when He calls a reprobate to repentance. And, they continued, if you say that God is genuine, is earnest, is sincere in His offer of salvation, then God must surely want every hearer to be saved, doesn't want any in hell. According to the Arminians the Reformed could not have it both ways, the Reformed could not maintain both that a) some people are reprobate and shall go to hell, and b) God is serious, sincere, genuine in His call to all hearers to repent. According to the Arminians, these two positions were contradictory; to maintain them both is to say that God is hypocritical.
In response to the above reasoning of the Arminians the fathers wrote Article 8. God, said the fathers, is serious in His call. God's call to repent and believe is always well meant. "As many as are called by the gospel are earnestly called, for God earnestly and most sincerely reveals in His Word what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He also earnestly promises rest of soul and eternal life to all who come to Him and believe."
A. Various passages of Scripture reveal something of the sincerity of God in His call to repentance and faith.
- Ezekiel 33:11
"As I live", says the Lord God, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?"
Does God seriously mean what He says here, or is He merely 'having Israel on'? No one who reads as passage as this could seriously contend that God does not mean here what He says. God certainly does not come with an invitation to repent, only to turn around and say to the repentant that he has to go to hell. Such is not the God of the Bible!! When God says "turn from your evil ways" then God means exactly that. It comes down to who one thinks God is.
- Isaiah 55:1
"Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."
Here, too, none who reads this invitation can maintain that does not mean what He says here. The question is really, If God invites to come and drink of the waters of salvation, how can one doubt that He means it?
- 2 Corinthians 5:20
Paul says, "... we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God."
- Luke 13:34
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!"
Who is not touched by the laden emotions of the Lord in this passage? And who could maintain that Jesus is not sincere in His appeal to Jerusalem?!
B. Not only, though, do the Scriptures teach that God is most sincere in His call to repentance and faith. The Bible at the same time teaches that some are reprobate and will certainly go to hell.
- I Peter 2:8
"They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed."
- Romans 9:22
"What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction…?"
The fathers were convinced: the Lord also reveals that some are reprobate, yes, even of those who hear the word.
Is God's call of the Gospel to repent and believe serious? Yes, indeed it is. Are all who hear this Gospel saved? No, not all. How then does one correlate the two? One cannot. The problem with the Arminians is that they are rationalists to the core. The Arminians will only believe what is logical and understandable to the human mind. That is to be expected, for the Arminian maintains that man is not completely dead in sin; the mind is only "hampered" by the fall (see Rejection of Errors, No 3).
But the Reformed believer knows that a creature cannot possibly understand the ways of God. And he knows also that a fallen creature can understand the ways of God even less. So the reformed believer is not surprised that not every part of God's revelation adds up logically. The reformed believer confesses that God's ways are perfect, and his own mind is depraved, and so he quietly accepts all that God has revealed - even when to the human mind that revelation is contradictory. So I acknowledge Who God is and I acknowledge what I am. Then, in humble adoration of God, I say with David in Psalm 147, "Praise the Lord!"