"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS CONVERSION
AND THE MANNER
IN WHICH IT OCCURS
THE EFFECT OF THE FALL
The Canons of Dort are comprised of five chapters, each chapter defending an aspect of the Reformed Doctrine over against the heresies taught in the five articles of the Remonstrants (see Page 6 for a copy of the Five Articles of the Remonstrants). However, when the fathers set out to answer Article 3 of the Remonstrants, they realised that they could not answer it independently of what the Remonstrants wrote in their fourth article. For Article 3, read by itself, appears to be Scripturally quite correct. But read with the error of Article 4 in mind, Article 3 rattles. To expose properly the error of both articles, the fathers combined the material of Articles 3 and 4 of the Remonstrants into one Chapter, III/IV.
Articles 3 and 4 of the Remonstrants read as follows,
We believe that man does not have saving faith of himself nor by his power of his own free will, since he, in the state of apostasy and sin, cannot of and through himself think, will or do any good which is truly good (such as is especially saving faith); but that it is necessary that he be regenerated by God, in Christ, through His Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, affections and will, and all powers, in order that he may rightly understand, meditate upon, will, and perform that which is truly good, according to the word of Christ, in John 15:5, "Without me you can do nothing".
We believe that this grace of God is the commencement, progression, and completion of all good, also in so far that the regenerate man cannot, apart from this prevenient or assisting awakening, consequent and cooperating grace, think, will or do the good or resist any temptations to evil, so that all good works or activities which can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many that they resisted the Holy Spirit, in Acts 7 and elsewhere in many places.
Note especially the concluding sentence of Article 4, namely, "But with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many that they resisted the Holy Spirit, in Acts 7 and elsewhere in many places". In other words, the Arminians said that God gives grace but that I can resist it. Behind this statement lies the conviction that a person is in a position to offer resistance to God's offer of grace. That is: the sinner is not dead but alive; after all, we've never yet seen a corpse do anything, let alone accept or refuse an offer. It was the Arminian assumption that fallen man is not dead but alive that needed to be addressed before the material of Articles 3 and 4 could be exposed for the error it was. So, it Chapter III/IV the fathers deal with "The corruption of man, his conversion to God, and the manner in which it occurs". The fathers wished to determine from Scripture the extent of man's depravity and consequently ascertain whether it is indeed possible for man to refuse God and the offer of His grace.
MAN'S BEGINNINGS IN PARADISE ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE: COMPLETELY HOLY
For this reason the fathers saw a need to take the church members back to Scripture's record of man's beginnings in Paradise. In Genesis 1:26-28 we read, "Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness...." That man was made in the image or likeness of God does not mean that man looks like God, but rather that man represents God. The notion of 'image' implies an office, a task; one which is closely linked to having dominion over God's world, for God went on to say, . "... let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
God had created the world and within it He planted a Garden for man to live. God instructed man to take care of this Garden (Gen 2:15), to have dominion over it, to rule over it. Having been created in the image of God meant that man was to exercise dominion as God would do it, as God's representative. In so doing man was to reflect God, image God, show God's creation what God is like. In order for man to carry out this task God equipped man with particular talents. God gave man the capacity to image Him. As God is holy, so man was made holy. As God is righteous, so man was made righteous. Just as God cares for His creatures with love, so God made Adam able to love. Man received the ability to reflect, to image, the characteristics of God. Because of the office God gave Adam, Adam's focus was God-centred; he was 'tuned in' to God. This is also what we read in Article 1. "In the beginning man was created in the image of God." This means that man "was adorned in his mind with true and wholesome knowledge of his Creator and of all spiritual things; his will and heart were upright, all his affections pure, and therefore man was completely holy." All of man's attention was focused on God. Man had to image God in the work assigned him, and man was capable of doing it.
BEGINNINGS IN PARADISE ACCORDING TO THE ARMINIANS: INCLINED TO SIN
The fathers saw need to mention the above element of Paradise because in their teachings concerning man's fall into sin, the Arminians had picked up on an element from philosophy. They distinguished three parts in man: mind, heart, and will (see Figure 1). As far as the mind was concerned, man in Paradise had the knowledge, that if he did good he would live but if he did wrong he would die. Man knew this because God had told him. As far as the heart was concerned, the Arminians said that in Paradise man's heart already had an inclination to sin. The argument went like this: God put Adam and Eve to a test by forbidding them to eat the fruit of one tree. However, in order for this to be a true test, there had to be an appetite for that particular fruit. To have to refrain from eating something you don't like is no test at all. Said the Arminians, in order for the test for sin to be real, there had to be at least a slight inclination to sin. There had to be within man's heart a bit of a desire to do wrong. As far as man's will was concerned, the Arminians taught that man had a free will in Paradise. Man's will could tell his heart to do what the mind knew it should do, namely, to do good by leaving the forbidden tree alone. Adam and Eve, by exercising their free will, could tell their hearts to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit.
According to the Arminians, man, before the fall into sin, had an inclination to sin. This was not necessarily a powerful inclination, but an inclination none the less. They taught, "The spiritual gifts or the good qualities and virtues, such as goodness, holiness, righteousness, could not belong to the will of man when he was first created, and can therefore not have been separated from his will when he fell" (Rejection of Errors No 1 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 560). That is: the will was neutral, and so the heart very able to sin. However, the fathers said very categorically in Article 1 that man "... was adorned in his mind with true and wholesome knowledge of his Creator and of all spiritual things; his will and heart were upright, all his affections pure, and therefore man was completely holy". This leaves no room for the presence of any sin or appetite to sin. We understand this to be a scriptural statement of the fathers, for in Genesis 1:31 we read that God, after He had completed His work of creation, "saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good." The man God had created did not have an appetite to sin. Rather, Adam lived in close communion with God, all his inclinations were directed to God, he was 'in tune' with God. That is further evident from the fact that God used to seek out Adam's and Eve's company - as is evident from Genesis 3:8: "And (Adam and Eve) heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day …." Adam and Eve were able to recognise the sound of God coming because it was God's habit to visit. God did not visit a neutral creature.
THE RESULT OF MAN'S FALL INTO SIN
After the fall into sin man's focus was no longer God-centred. Man was no longer 'tuned in' to God. Man could no longer image or reflect God because the talents needed for doing so had been taken away. This was man's own doing. As LD 4, Q&A 9 puts it, "... man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience, robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts. Likewise, Article 14, Belgic Confession, summarises Scripture to teach, "Since man became wicked and perverse, corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his excellent gifts which he had once received from God." Since man had thrown away all his gifts, he couldn't image God any more. However, man's mandate to do so remained.
As to the extent of man's depravity, Genesis 6:5 has nothing positive to say of man. "Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually". Note here how God has piled up the expressions He used to describe man's wickedness, in order to draw out how depraved we have become through our fall into sin. Man's heart is "only evil" and "continually" so; but more, the "thoughts" behind man's heart and even the "intent" that drives "the thoughts" are only and continually evil. The words of Jeremiah 19:7 are equally damning: "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" See too Ephesians 2:1-3, "And you (Christ) made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others."
This is quite different from the way the Arminians spoke. The Arminian position was this, "In spiritual death the spiritual gifts are not separate from the will of man, since the will 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, the will didn't become bad. The will was neutral and it remained neutral despite the fall into sin. The 'only' result of the fall is that man simply finds it much harder to exercise his free will; the fall has placed a hindrance on the ability of the will to prompt the heart to do the right. For man's heart is no longer a-little-bit 'inclined to sin' but 'strongly inclined to sin'. Therefore it is difficult now for the will to tell the heart to do what the mind knows it should do. Man's will has been "hampered".
The fathers therefore saw a need to state the Reformed position concerning man's total depravity and corruption as a result of the fall by adding in Article 1, "But rebelling against God through the instigation of the devil and through his own free will, (man) deprived himself of these excellent gifts, and instead brought upon himself blindness, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment in his mind; malice, rebelliousness, and stubbornness in his will and heart; and impurity in all his affections." In presenting the Reformed position of man in Paradise, the fathers said that man was created perfectly, 100% good. After the fall into sin man became totally corrupt, 100% evil. The Arminians on the other hand would not speak in such absolute terms concerning either man's created or fallen state. Man was not perfectly good in Paradise in the first place, they said, because man had an inclination to sin; i.e man was only (say) 95% good. Nor did man become totally evil, they said, but only strongly inclined to sin, say, 95% evil.
Whereas the Arminians spoke of man being only sick, still able to call out for help, the Reformed spoke of man being dead. Once perfect in Paradise, man became totally and radically depraved as a result of the fall - said the fathers.
The notion that man is not dead but only sick is familiar to us today too. This philosophy of so many years ago is presently very much alive in today's New Agism: no person is dead in sin, each person is instead a god. The cause of the evils prevalent in society are not, therefore, to be found in man's depravity but in (for example) a lack of education, deprived home backgrounds, or mental illness. At bottom, though, the refusal to acknowledge that we are totally depraved is the teaching of the Arminians come alive in a different jacket again. That in turn makes it clear how relevant our Confessions still are today. Our Confessions, though written so many years ago, address very contemporary issues. Many years ago the fathers gave us the answers we need today.
In the years prior to the Synod of Dort, the people in the pews of the churches of the Netherlands were taught that man is not depraved, but sick. The Arminians repeated the error of the Pelagians: sin (it was said) was the result of imitating others. Therefore, in order to set straight the thinking of the faithful church members, the fathers saw a need to include the material contained in Article 2. Article 2 addresses the issue of why it is that I am sinful and that I sin. The answer given is that corrupt fathers bring forth corrupt children. "Since after the fall man became corrupt, he as a corrupt father brought forth corrupt children."
In Genesis 5:1-3 we read, "This is the book of the genealogy of Adam. In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created. And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth." We read here of God having created Adam in the image of God, and of Seth being begotten in the image of Adam. In other words, Adam reflected what God was like and Seth reflected what Adam was like. Adam had been created "very good", and had received from God the ability to image what God was like; with his task to be image had come also the capacity to carry out the task.
However, between Adam's creation and Seth's birth was the fall into sin. Adam bore a son after he had discarded his capacity to image God. Adam had become evil, and so Seth -born as he was in the image of his father Adam - reflected the sinfulness of his father. The depravity and corruption and evil that characterised Adam characterised Seth also. Adam "as a corrupt father brought forth corrupt children."
This is the pattern followed from one generation to the next down through the centuries. Seth's son Enosh imaged the sinfulness of his father and so on, all the way to us who are alive today, imaging the sinfulness of our fathers. And the children we bear today possess our sinfulness and so image it too. This is the principle and the tragedy of every childbirth: children image the parents, reflect their sinfulness. This tragedy is pointed up in Leviticus 12, where we read of the Lord's instructions concerning purification after childbirth; the mother had become unclean because she had placed a sinful child in the Father's creation.
That the child born to sinful parents is himself sinful is confessed by David regarding himself in Psalm 51:5, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." Here David is not saying that the act of conception as such was sinful, but that sin was present in him right from the moment of his conception. With reference to man Job said, "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?" (Job 14:4), and adds this answer, "No one!" Man is sinful, and so his offspring are invariably sinful too. The concept that corrupt parents bring forth corrupt children is also confessed in Belgic Confession Article 15, namely, "We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race. It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother's womb." Said the fathers to the people in the pew: your children are sinful, not because they follow the your example as parents, but because each is born depraved. Children are born into this world as sinners.
By the grace of the Lord, God has sovereignly broken the cycle of corrupt parents bringing forth corrupt children when He caused His only Son to become man. Says Article 2, "Thus the corruption has spread from Adam to all his descendants, with the exception of Christ alone.…" From generation to generation sinful parents conceived only sinful children who in turn conceived only more sinful children. Yet God has intervened to break that cycle. Christ was born of a woman, but not of a man. Said Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:35, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God." Note the title the Child was to receive: Holy One, i.e. without sin. The Gospel of Redemption is that God broke the cycle, giving a perfect man who could pay for sin.
Each parent could ask, "is it really fair that my children are born sinful even though they were not present in Paradise?" Note then the concluding phrase of Article 2: "... the corruption has spread from Adam to all his descendants ... by the propagation of a vicious nature, according to the righteous judgment of God." That is: God is not at all unfair in letting children be sinful - though they are born centuries after Adam's fall. For God says in Scripture: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned -" (Romans 5:12). Here it is said that everybody was sinned in Paradise, including Adam, Nathaniel, ... and me. How does one explain how we were there? A couple of possible explanations have been suggested, but at bottom we cannot explain definitively. The two suggested explanations are as follows:
1) The Realist Approach reasons that I was actually present in Paradise, and appeals to Hebrews 7:1-10 to explain. This passage recalls the episode of Genesis 14, when Melchizedek received from Abraham one tenth of the booty he had acquired after defeating the four kings in battle, and argues that in effect the Levites paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham. "Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him" (Hebrews 7:9,10). The Realist explanation for my involvement in the fall in Paradise says that as Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek through his being present in Abraham's loins (though born years later), so we were present in the loins of Adam when he sinned and so we partook in that act of sinning.
2) The Federalist Approach reasons that Adam was the head of the human race, and when he followed a particular course of action, the whole human race followed suit. This can be compared to a Head of State declaring war on another country. Not only is the Head of State at war with that country but his whole country is at war.
In an attempt to answer our questions concerning our participation in the act of the fall into sin, these two approaches by no means answer all our questions. The fact remains that God says that we all sinned. Whose fault is it that I am sinful? Can we say that Adam is at fault because he fell and so lost all his good gifts? No, the Lord says that I am sinful because I fell. Every man is punished for his own sins. Although the Arminians say that "It is improper to say that original sin as such is sufficient to condemn the whole human race or to deserve temporal and eternal punishment" (Rejection of Errors No 1 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 559), the Lord says it is fair. In the words of our article, it is "according to the righteous judgment of God."
MAN'S TOTAL INABILITY
This article is a response to the Arminian belief that man did not become totally corrupt after the fall into sin, and is still able to exercise his free will. Man, they said, is not dead, but only sick. Said the Arminians, "The unregenerate man is not really or totally dead in sins, or deprived of all powers unto spiritual good. He can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit which is pleasing to God" (Rejection of Errors No 4 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 561).
In response the fathers turned to what Scripture teaches in passages as Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9 and Ephesians 2:1-3 (see Article 1 above). These texts are only open to one interpretation, namely that man's depravity and inability are not partial but total. Man is dead in trespasses and sin, and death knows no degrees. The fathers were insistent that the Bible teaches that man is inclined only to sin. Therefore Article 3 states that "... all men are conceived in sin and are born as children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in sins, and slaves of sin."
One finds a graphic depiction of man's radical depravity in John 6:44 where Jesus says, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day." The word 'draw' in this passage means literally 'to drag', as the net full of fish in John 21:6. In other words, there is no co-operation on man's part to leave Satan's side in order to return to God's side. That is how radically depraved we made ourselves. We made no contribution whatsoever to our conversion. For that reason Article 3 ends with the statement, "And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation." This is identical to what we read in LD 3, Q&A 8, namely, "But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil? Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God." That is: we do not have within ourselves the capacity to do the slightest good (according to the Scriptural loading of the word 'good'; see LD 33.91) unless God acts upon us. Only if God works in us do things change or get done in our lives. My salvation does not depend on me. I cannot even call out to God for Him to help me. I depend totally on Him. As the farm-hand Klaas Kuipenga said to his minister, Rev deCock, before the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands: "If I had to add even one sigh to my salvation, I would be forever lost."
What kind of a God is my God? He says concerning a person of His choosing, "that person is mine; I will regenerate him, give him a new heart, heal him and raise him to a new life." From beginning to end salvation is totally and completely God's doing. We are allowed to be dependent on God who freely gives life, and gives it abundantly. This moves me to voice praise to Him: what a God He is that He has chosen me, dead, with "every intent of the thoughts of my heart being only evil continually." Yet God says to me, "I work faith in you and I give you a new heart". It is all His doing - what a marvel of His grace!