The Reformed churches have endured discussions and disagreements about salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) before. Beginning in the late 16th century a Reformed minister in Amsterdam began offering significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Early on critics accused him of corrupting the faith but he was allied by marriage with some powerful families and therefore was protected. When a teaching position opened up at the most prestigious university in the land he was nominated to fill the post. Despite misgivings by faculty members and others he was appointed and almost immediately there was controversy. He was accused of replacing orthodox textbooks with unorthodox ones. He was accused of denying the Reformation doctrine of salvation. He denied the charges and always, throughout the controversy, played the victim—a rhetorical stance which has become standard for his followers since. Over the years it became clear that this revisionist was not merely trimming the edges of Reformed theology but advocating a revolution. His movement not only placed the churches in jeopardy but threatened to become a cause of civil war. Within a year after his death, his followers published a five-point summary of what he had been teaching, four points of which conceded what had been charged against him. The fifth point, on perseverance, was deliberately obscure and finally, in 1618, 9 years after his death, an international synod met to address the crisis and to stem the spread of the movement he had unleashed. Of course we are talking about Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609) and the Remonstrant movement he created, Arminianism.
One of the theological motives of the Remonstrants, which is not always fully appreciated, was that they had concluded that the Reformation doctrine of salvation (e.g., definitive justification and consequent progressive sanctification) would never produce the sort of godliness and good works they thought ought to mark the life of the Christian. Thus, they created a system whereby good works are not merely the fruit and evidence of salvation but an antecedent condition thereof. That is, where the orthodox Reformed had faith as the “sole instrument” or antecedent condition of justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (salvation), the Remonstrants had faith and works.
In the Remonstrant theology even election was said to be conditional. The Remonstrants taught that God had determined to save those who “shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere.” Salvation, they taught, was conditioned upon foreseen faith (fides praevisa) and upon our cooperation with grace. They used the word grace, as moralists usually do, but the clear effect of their revision was to take the Reformed churches back to the medieval system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace or salvation by grace and works. Indeed, their doctrine of the election was worse than some taught by the medievals since Gottschalk (d. c. 867), Thomas (d. 1274), and e.g., Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) had taught unconditional election before the Reformation. The Remonstrants turned the gracious Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide on its head. Note carefully how vociferously and with what terms the Synod rejected the Remonstrant theology:
We reject the errors of those who teach hat Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for any one, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error (Rejection of Errors 2.3).
The Reformed churches of the Netherlands, France (in absentia), Great Britain, the Palatinate, Geneva, Bremen, Zürich, and elsewhere with one voice rejected these revisions in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618–19). These canons (or rulings) of the Synod are helpful in the current discussions about sanctification, conditions in the covenant of grace, good works, and salvation. The Canons are organized under 5 “heads of doctrine,” corresponding to the Five Points of the Remonstrance.
The term “conditio” occurs about 10 times in the Canons. It occurs first in Canons 1.9 and that use tells us a good bit about the concerns of the orthodox about the Remonstrant theology.
This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: “He chose us [not because we were, but]…that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph 1:4).
One of the most fundamental things that the Reformed needed to re-assert was the total inability of fallen man and the radical, free favor (grace) of God, in Christ, toward helpless sinners. The Remonstrant revision had it that we are not as sinful as Augustine and the Reformation had said. They posited some ability to cooperate with grace. Indeed, arguably, they collapsed grace into nature. By nature, even after the fall, we had sufficient ability to do our part. In this scheme, grace becomes a helper but not the marvelous, sovereign free favor earned for us by Christ and given unconditionally to sinners. According to the Synod, there are no conditions that we must meet in order to warrant God’s favor in salvation. Rather, by contrast, the Reformed taught that election is the “fons (the source) of all salvation (fons omnis salutaris). Notice that the divines singled out not only “foreseen faith” but also “the obedience of faith, sanctity, or other good quality and disposition.” The Remonstrant position had the effect of moving the ground of our salvation from Christ’s righteousness for us (pro nobis) back to qualities intrinsic to us. According to the Remonstrants we are saved partly on the basis of things done by us and wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. Such a system raises the question: how much must one do, in cooperation with grace, in order to be saved? That such a question necessarily arises tells us that we are no longer living in the house of the Reformation and that we are not talking about “grace alone” and “faith alone” but grace plus works. The Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works (E.g., Rejection of Errors 2.2).
We know that the orthodox Reformed concern was the reception of eternal life because the Canons themselves say so. That is why the Reformed churches re-asserted that “faith, sanctity, and the remaining saving goods, and then eternal life itself flows from (profluunt) and is the effect of ” God’s sovereign, unconditional election. We are not elect because we are sanctified or obedient or because of foreseen faith but but we are being graciously, gradually sanctified by God because of God’s unconditional electing grace in Christ.
This was the doctrine of art. 10 also. The “cause” of our election is only (solum) God’s good pleasure (Dei beneplacitum). Salvation is not the outcome of our sanctification and good works. Rather, our sanctification and the consequent good works are the result of our salvation. The Remonstrants had set up “possible human qualities and actions” as a “condition of salvation” (salutis conditionem). The Reformed taught that God unconditionally, freely elected out of the “common multitude of sinners” (communi peccatorum multitudine) some to salvation. Their proofs? Romans 9:11–13 and Acts 13:48. Jacob believed and was saved because he was unconditionally elect. The Reformed make salvation a benefit freely given to sinners in the covenant of grace.
According to Canons 1.12, God’s free, sovereign decree of election comes to expression in history “in due time” in various ways. In other words, our experience varies. Even though our salvation is as sure as God’s free grace and election our subjective experience of assurance varies. It is interesting then to note how the divines spoke of the “infallible fruits of election” (fructus electionis infallibiles). According to the divines (and contrary to the popular caricature of Reformed theology and piety) we are never to ask “Am I elect?” Rather, the divines would have us ask, “Do I believe? Is there some evidence of true faith?” God’s grace produces observable effects. We are not to rest in but we are to observe the effects of election: true faith in Christ (vera in Christum fides), a filial fear of God—not a servile fear. Believers are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. We respect (timor) our holy God but we do not fear him as if we are under judgment. Christ has endured that judgment for us. Because we have been saved and are being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone we have a genuine sorrow (dolor) for sin, a hungering and thirsting for our own actual righteousness. Our sanctification and good works are the fruits of God’s gracious election and salvation, which he bestows unconditionally upon his people.
The divines were aware of the Remonstrant doctrine that there are different kinds of election: “general and indefinite” (general et indefinitam) and “singular and definite” (singularem et definitam). We have faced the exact same threat in our time in the self-described “Federal Vision” theology, which posits two kinds of election, eternal and conditional. The Reformed approach to assurance is to start with the objective, Christ’s work for us, which is credited to us and received by us through faith alone (sola fide). We observe the fruits of God’s grace and give thanks to him for them. We rest in Christ and his promises (gospel) but we recognize that he is working in us, however slowly that almost imperceptibly that work may sometimes seem to us. We do not have to choose between the objective and the subjective. We embrace them both. Neither do we need to become de facto sacerdotalists by turning baptism into magic so that our only answer to doubt is “I am baptized” (and ergo necessarily saved ex opere operato). No, baptism itself is not salvation but a sacrament of our salvation, i.e., a sign and seal of what is true of those who believe. Baptism is not the “sole instrument” (Belgic Confession art. 22) of our salvation. Faith is is the alone instrument of our salvation (sola fide).
The divines also, however, rejected as an error the notion that there is an election unto faith (electio ad fidem) or unto justifying faith (ad fidem justificantem) but which nevertheless leaves one “without a preemptory election to salvation (absque electione peremptoria ad salutem; rejection of errors 1.2). The Remonstrants were trying to set up a system where our salvation is in stages. We are justified now but not yet saved, which is the second stage. Here was their opportunity to make room for our good works and cooperation with grace co-instruments of our salvation. According to the Reformed churches, however, under such a construction, “the doctrine of election is corrupted” and the “golden chain of our salvation is dissolved” (auream hanc salutis catenam dissolvens). To that end they re-asserted the ordo salutis (order of salvation) by quoting Romans 8:30. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (ESV). This fact should give us pause when we encounter those contemporary writers who wish to “move beyond” what they dismiss as “ordo salutis thinking.” There is an order to the application of redemption. It is the elect who are given new life, who come to faith, who through faith are justified, united to Christ, adopted, saved, and glorified. Our salvation is not contingent upon our performance, even if that performance is qualified as “cooperation with grace.” Any such construction necessarily turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
One consequence of abandoning the biblical and Reformed order of the application of redemption is our current confusion over the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come), conditions in the covenant of grace, and the role of good works. This confusion is not new. There was confusion in the 1590s and in the early 17th century leading up to the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants were not satisfied with the Reformation doctrines. They wanted our cooperation with grace and our good works to be more than the fruit and evidence of our justification and our sanctification, more than those necessary accompaniments to true faith and sanctification. In response the the Synod made not only our sanctification and good works but our new life and our faith to be fruit and evidence of our unconditional election. In so doing, they effectively re-contextualized the whole debate. Where the Remonstrants, who denied the pre-lapsarisan covenant of works, had put believers in a covenant of works for salvation, the Reformed churches re-asserted that believers are in a covenant of grace for salvation. As a result of the Synod’s reassertion of the Reformation against the Remonstrants, the question concerning good works was no longer, “How much must I do to warrant salvation?” but “How should I respond in gratitude for God’s unconditional favor to me in Christ?”
Part 2: Does the doctrine of perseverance turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works?