To The Praise Of His Glory - Outline III - Outlines On The Canons Of Dort
DIVINE ELECTION AND REPROBATION (Articles 7-17)
1. (Articles 7-11)
We now arrive at the center of the whole chapter, the definition of election in Article 7.
When we quietly and attentively read these two long sentences, together with all their parenthetic clauses, we find the following main points :
A. The accent is put on the total depravity of all the elect. Together with the other sinners they are, by nature, involved in one common misery. We may understand that the Church herewith cuts off every glorifying of man. Not even in one single man was there any reason for God to elect just him.
B. The same thing is also said in those other words: out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will"; only His own desire, unsearchable in origin, has caused Him to elect some people. All honour be to God alone ! Election can only be "explained" from God. This is its glory. It reveals His incomprehensible grace.
C. Some emphasis is clearly given to the word "unchangeable". God guarantees His election. He maintains it. This is why we can put our confidence in it. God's election is not a matter of arbitrariness, which would make us uncertain. On the contrary, He has shown us the deepest grounds of the assuredness of our faith by revealing to us His eternal and unchangeable election. Read also Article 11 : as God Himself is, so is the election made by Him. Whoever does not confess the election as irrevocable (as if God would elect at the one moment but reject again at the other, like the Remonstrants taught; see Rejection of Errors, Paragraphs 2 and 6), makes God changeable and throws himself and others into uncertainty. Then the foundations of life waver, since in this sort of doctrine God is no longer the Rock, the Fortress, of which the Psalms sing. This way also "the comfort which the godly obtain out of the firmness of their election" is destroyed (Rejection of Errors, Paragraph 6; study the texts 1). This comfort is great for the course which the life of the God-fearing ones will take (John 6 : 39) and also for the future of the Church, which will be submitted to the great temptation of the Antichrist (Mat. 24 : 24; Rev. 13 : 7). (Remark No. 1).
With this Article 8 (read it, please!) has also been explained. There are not various kinds of election, e.g. a provisional one which would become definite after man's willingness had been proved - then man would as it were be "on trial- with God and man himself would decide whether God would have the first election followed up by the second and definite one (Rej.. of E., Paragraph 2). God's election, His good pleasure, His predestination, His counsel, are lone", like God Himself is "one" (Belg. Conf. of Faith : ---one only simple and spiritual Being", Article 1; this is one of the most beautiful treasures of our reformed confession !). The firmness of our faith rests in this : God gives Himself fully to us in His love, and because of that His work goes on infallibly and invincibly (Rom. 8 : 30). He begins and will perform (Philip. 1 : 6).
D. The election took place "in Christ-, according to Eph.1 : 4.
That does not mean : "because of- Christ, nor "through" Christ, but -inseparably from- Christ, the Son of God Who in due time would be revealed in the flesh and would found the salvation to which God decided by Himself in His own work. God has made this choice of love not apart from Christ, but in relation to His work.
So we must never separate Christ's work of salvation, which was done in history, and God's election, which is from eternity.
God's election lies behind all Christ's work. In this work God fulfills His plan (Chapter 2 will tell us more about this). When we really believe in Christ, we find in Him this God, Who made His decree of election "in" Him.
This is also of great importance for answering to the perennial question : Where does God's election become visible ? How do we know whether God has chosen me too? The answer reads : Not without Christ, not in a special way and through a special revelation, but always where Christ, by way of His Church, is doing His work in the midst of His people.
For, we have been elected in Christ. God has "from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation", and at the same time given the elect to Him to work in them (John 6: 37, 39). This too has happened "from eternity". All the work which we can see in the Church, of calling, drawing, working faith into the hearts, justifying, sanctifying, preserving, and glorifying, is a matter of God's election being executed. It is decided by God's choice and comprised in His counsel. We will come back to this very important point in our discussion of Article 12.
But now we must keep in mind: having been elected "unto salvation" does not just mean . having been chosen to "go to heaven", but : to be taken by Christ and His Holy Spirit along the whole way of calling, faith, justification, sanctification, perseverance and glorification.
E. "Before the foundation of the world" means : from eternity.
"A certain number of persons" is not the same as : just some persons, but a fixed number, which can neither be decreased nor increased.
F. In Article 9 it is again underlined that for God there was and is no reason at all in man to elect him. God does not elect believers, people in whom He foresees that they will believe (this was the doctrine of the Remonstrants). For then the faith of man would be first and God's election only following that.
On the contrary, faith is the fruit of the election as of a fountain. God is the First one. He elects sinners unto faith.
It is always the same: All honour be to God!
G. This theme is further elaborated on in Article 10, which says that God's good pleasure is the sole cause of this gracious election. There are no reasons but in God Himself.
In His free pleasure God has cast a look at some sinners, this one and that one. They are all known to Him. God's counsel does not consist of the decree : anybody who believes will be saved. For this may sound Scriptural and seem to be the same as what we read in John 3 : 16 (see Article 2), but this would mean that God left us uncertain about the question who this "anybody" is. Then the LORD would have loved the good quality of faith and not that and that sinner. Then we would fall again into the error which was rejected in Article 9. John 3 : 16 speaks about the way in which God works when He reveals His love in Jesus Christ, but not about God's decree to grant faith (Article 7) to those whom He has chosen. (Read the texts that are mentioned in Article 10 and the Rejection of Errors, Paragraphs 1, 3 and 4). (Remark No. II). The Remonstrants used this fine statement of John 3 : 16 to glorify man; it would be up to man himself whether he would believe or not; he would be able to make himself suitable for eternal life (Rej.. of E., Par. 4); God would do nothing but wait for faith, which would be the condition for and foundation of His election. This is an awful example of seeming respect for the Scriptures ! The truth of God is stealthily pressed into the service of falsehood I
II. (Articles 12-14)
In the Articles 12, 13 and 14 some very important questions are tabled, which have been living in the hearts of the children of God all through the ages.
It cannot be difficult to understand those Articles when we could follow the preceding ones, in particular Article 7.
For how do we attain the assurance of our election? Not by means of a special kind of revelation or by curiously and inquisitively prying into the deep things of God, but by giving through faith attention to that which God has put into our lives.
Faith in God's revealed Word opens our eyes to the way which God goes in our life. We begin to understand that God's gifts are no matters of course, but on the contrary that they are unexpected and unmerited.
Some of these gifts are mentioned in Article 12, but more could be enumerated ("etc."). Let us start where God Himselfalways begins : When you in faith take into consideration your birth from God-fearing parents, in a country where God has brought the Gospel, and your incorporation into the covenant, etc., then already in these things you learn to see your "separation" coming to the fore and "being distinguished" from others which is worked by the hand of God.
In these things God reveals Himself to us, and His love, the free, which means not obligatory, choice of His love. This way we may ascend from the gifts of God to God himself, Who is the Giver, the God of good pleasure. This is at the same time a matter of descending to the deepest grounds of our existence. Our eyes may be opened to everlasting assurances : God is our Fortress and Refuge (Psalm 48 : 3). (Read Rej. of E, Par. 7). (Remark No. III).
When we learn to speak and think this way about God's unchangeable intention, never apart from the work of God in our life through Christ and His Spirit, then we are saved from all sorts of troubling and confusing questions which otherwise would arise in our hearts as soon as we hear about it.
1. Now we may understand that the doctrine of divine election must be published in the Church of God (Article 14). If only this preaching is done in a wise and respectful way!
This preaching then will not make us uncertain and cause us to doubt, but it will show us the deepest certainty and last ground for our life, namely God's eternal and immovable love ! (Read in particular the texts that are given in Art. 14). (Remark No. IV).
We would rob God of His honour and God's people of their comfort if we did not preach and speak on God's election!
2. Besides, we now may also understand that whoever truly believes in God, the God of election, and loves Him because of His choice of love and free grace, will never be able or will never intend to use the doctrine of election to become lazy, or passive, or indifferent (Read Art. 13 : "remissness in the observance of the divine commands or . . . sinking men in carnal security"). When we through faith understand God's mercy, we will never become high-minded but on the contrary humble, and daily receiving a strong stimulant to serve the LORD in doing good works (Eph. 1 : 4; 2 : 110; compare also No. 64 of Heid. Cat.).
When one says he accepts the doctrine of election, but does not use this "faith" to serve the LORD (for he has been elected, has not he? he cannot be lost, can he?), then he uses the, grace of God to cover his sins and talks ("trifles") about it and imputes it to himself in a very rash and reckless way, in self love, but then he proves that he has never known God truly. He uses a text from the Bible to give a nice veneer to his sinful life. This then means for us, that we can speak about election through faith only. We are not permitted to answer all sorts of questions that are asked without faith, as e.g. if you have been elected why would you still have to pray for faith, for the strength to do good works etc.? if your future and the outcome of your life has already been decided, why then does God require of us that we obey His word, and how can He then threaten punishment? if you are not among the elect, can you help it when you do not come to believe? These questions are to be rejected without any more ado (1 Tim. 1 : 4; 11 Tim. 2 : 23; Ti. 3 : 9).
Ill. Articles 15-16)
The opposite of "election" is "reprobation". When one chooses everything one does not make a choice at all.
Our confession says that "the eternal and unmerited grace of election" is peculiarly illustrated and recommended by the revelation of God's decree to reject other sinners. Please, note the formulation ! (Art. 15).
Only when we speak of ---the grace of our election- is there room for respectfully saying something concerning the dreadful revelation of God concerning His decree of reprobation. Here we can also speak through faith only!
Then the doctrine of reprobation does not obscure our joy about the election, neither would it curb us in diligently using the means of grace (God's Word and the sacraments through which the Holy Spirit leads us to the assuredness of faith), as if we would have to go to God's Word in fear because of the awful possibility that we could be among the reprobates (read Art. 16).
It is equally wrong to call God's reprobation "the dark shadow- of election. No, we confess that reprobation recommends" God's election.
This means for us :
A. The doctrine of reprobation (read in Art. 15 what this doctrine really contains !) shows us very clearly that our salvation is only a matter of grace. God was not obliged to elect: He can do otherwise and does otherwise indeed. We know Him also as the God of reprobation ! Yes, our God is a consuming fire ! (Heb. 12 : 29). Now we must humble ourselves because of this grace !
B. Further, by this doctrine we learn to fear God, to thank Him respectfully and to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, which means : with deep respect (Philip. 2 : 12). For a fire is burning in God, against sin; the same fire that will make itself felt to the sinners in hell.
This is a terrible thing for those who, while living in the community of the Church and listening to the Word of grace, still have the courage to live in sin 1 It is not a matter of course when God elects some ! (read the end of Art. 16).
C. Confessing God's reprobation we thus know Him as the eternal enemy of sin and as the "awful, irreprehensible, and righteous Judge and Avenger thereof". We do not do this because we understand everything, but because we are not permitted to deny our great God this great honour. The thought should not even arise in us that God is the Author of sin, because of His decree of reprobation. (Read again that which we wrote about Art. 5). "Far be it from God, that He should do wickedness" (Job 34 : 10). Sin does not surprise God. It is not a " secret weapon" which the devil uses against God. It is never beyond God's control. Sinners can never go any further than . . . God's decree! (This is a very comforting thought
Read Acts 4 : 28; John 17 : 12; Rom. 9 : 17).
But God never approves sin : He hates it with a perfect hatred !
D. When we thus confess all these things respectfully we should not ask any further questions ! For then we would become fools in our own wisdom 1 The point is not that we must understand everything. But also in respect of the doctrineof reprobation we must rightly know and confess our God, the God of free grace, and not charge Him foolishly. We must not murmur but worship Him 1 (Art. 18).
IV (Article 17)
Finally a few words concerning the salvation of the children who die in their infancy.
Why is this subject dealt with here? Well, because the Remonstrants wanted to bring the doctrine of God's good pleasure into disrepute in particular at this tender spot.
They said : When the Reformed people confess man's total depravity, even from his very birth (original sin, see III/IV, Art. 2), so that God does not find any good in him, they must think in a very merciless way about the fate of those little children who die in their infancy. The God Who elects and reprobates must condemn many of them without more ado. For none of these children have ever been able to use the means of grace, neither to show the fruits of election in their life.
Here the old reproach that the doctrine of election takes away all certainty returns in a new shape ! (Remark No. V).
But read once again the very fine and comforting statement of Art. 17, which concerning the children of the believers, "whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy-, concludes from the gift of the covenant to their election.
For, these children were born and die in the Household of God. God's counsel concerning them was revealed in the first place by their incorporation into the covenant and their participation in its fine promises (this incorporation is their being 11 sanctified in Christ-, compare the Form for Baptism, question 1), and in the second place by the fact that they died before they could deny God and leave His Household in unbelief. So their death too, is an entering into eternal life (Heid. Cat. No. 42). God definitely distinguishes these children from the world of sin, and very early He fulfills the promise of baptism, that He at lost will present them without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal, which promise can be frustrated in its effect only by unbelief.
Of course, this does not mean that we now have to consider and treat all the children of the believers as regenerated (which was the doctrine of Abraham Kuyper and of the "synodical" churches in The Netherlands). For we are dealing here with those that already have served their own generation by the will of God (Acts 13 : 36). Our confession does not teach us to speak about the election of the children at an earlier stage !
All this is very important in view of the doctrine of Karl Barth, who argues that the "free" God never commits Himself to one single decree only and can and wants to change His 11 choice- time and again.
Today the same interpretation of John 3 : 16, that is rejected in the Canons of Dort, is given by Karl Barth and some of his followers. This is another example that the Canons of Dort have not outlived their usefulness.
This then is our strength against the spirit of times, which has gained strong influence among the younger generation in particular. They are living in uncertainty and would not dare to do anything else. Our confession makes us feel rich in a world which is full of doubt and despair. We are privileged to know God as our Rock. This is what we confess in the Canons of Dort.
In the 'Conclusion" of the Canons of Dort we read the following : "Finally, this Synod exhorts all their brethren in the Gospel of Christ to conduct themselves piously and religiously in handling this doctrine, both in the universities (schools) and churches; to direct it, as well in discourse as in writing, to the glory of the Divine name, to holiness of life, and to the consolation of afflicted souls ;to regulate, by the Scripture, according to the analogy of faith, not only their sentiments, but also their language, and to abstain from all those phrases which exceed the limits necessary to be observed in ascertaining the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures, and may furnish insolent sophists with a just pretext for violently assailing, or even vilifying, the doctrine of the Reformed Churches".
In the official decision of the Synod of Dordrecht regarding the doctrinal controversies we read the following : Synod "admonishes, obliges, and commissions all and everyone, the ministers of the Divine Word, professors, rectors, and masters of the academy and schools (universities) in The United Netherlands, yea ! all those who have been commissioned with the care for the souls or the education of youth, that they shall sincerely and inviolately according to their ability and office preserve the sound doctrine of salutary truth, which has been taken from the most pure fountain of the Godly Word; theyshall faithfully and carefully deliver and interpret it to the people and youth, and diligently explain the very wonderful and profitable use thereof both in life and death".
The opinion of the Remonstrants and their propaganda slogan against the Reformed people is formulated in the "Conclusion" of the Canons of Dort as following : From the Canons it clearly appears "that some, whom such conduct by no means became, have violated all truth, equity, and charity; in wishing to persuade the public . . . (and here it comes !) 'that many children of the faithful are torn, guiltless, from their mothers' breasts, and tyrannically plunged into hell : so that neither baptism nor the prayers of the Church at their baptism can at all profit them' ". As if the Reformed people would have taught things like these !!C. Trimp.