Dort 5.1–3: Reformed Realism On Sanctification

ART. I. Those whom, according to his purpose, God calls to the communion of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he also liberates from the dominion and servitude of sin; though not completely from the body of sin and the flesh in this life.

ART. II. Hence arises daily sins of infirmity and spots adhere to the best works of the saints, which provides perpetual material to them for humiliation before God, and fleeing for refuge to Christ crucified; for mortifying the flesh more and more through the Spirit of prayers and by holy exercises of piety; and unto to the goal of perfection, till being at length saved from this body of death, when they reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.

ART. III. By reason of these remains of indwelling sin and on top of the temptations of Satan and of the world, those who are converted are not able to persevere in that grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who having once conferred grace to them, mercifully confirms it and powerfully preserves them even to the end (Canons of Dort 5.1–3).

I. Quos Deus secundum propositum suum, ad communionem Filii sui Domini nostri Jesu Christi, vocat, et per Spiritum sanctum regenerat, eos quidem et a peccati dominio et servitute, non autem a carne, et corpore peccati, penitus in hac vita liberat.

II. Hinc quotidiana infirmitatis peccata oriuntur, et optimis etiam sanctorum operibus nævi adhærescunt: quæ illis perpetuam sese coram Deo humiliandi, ad Christum crucifixum confugiendi, carnem magis ac magia per Spiritum precum et sancta pietatis exercitia mortificandi, et ad perfectionis metam suspirandi, materiam suggerunt; tantisper dum hoc mortis corpore soluti, cum Agno Dei in cœlis regnent.

III. Propter istas peccati inhabitantis reliquias, et mundi insuper ac Satanæ tentationes, non possent conversi in ista gratia perstare, si suis viribus permitterentur. Sed fidelis est Deus, qui ipsos in gratia semelcollata misericorditer confirmat, et in eadem usque ad finem potenter conservat.

As part of our Lord’s Day evening service our pastor (Rev Chris Gordon) reads and reflects on one of the Reformed confessions to which the congregation subscribes, namely the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Recently we have been working through the Canons of Dort (1618–19). Last night we considered these articles.

When most think of Dort (if they think of it at all), they think of election and predestination or perhaps of definite atonement and perhaps perseverance of the saints. To be sure, these articles occur under the 5th Head of Doctrine, which is perseverance, but the Canons of Dort were about assurance and comfort throughout.

One of the lesser known aspects of the battle with the Remonstrants (Arminians), was that they, the Remonstrants, were not satisfied with the Reformed doctrine of sanctification. That continues to be a problem today. In the 18th and 19th centuries powerful voices within what we today call “evangelicalism” were also dissatisfied with the older doctrine. They wanted more. Some of them, deeply influenced by the Remonstrants, articulated a doctrine of Christian perfection, a doctrine that believers can, if they will, attain “entire perfection” (sinless sanctification) in this life. In our day, even among some who think of themselves as Reformed (principally because they identify with the Reformed doctrines of election and the atonement) teach a version of perfectionism. Since no one in this life ever actually achieves sinless perfection, such an approach to the Christian life is bound to create a crisis of assurance.

The doctrine of the Reformed churches stands in stark contrast to this approach to sanctification. According to the churches, who gathered at the Great Synod of Dort, Scripture teaches that we are liberated from the dominion of sin, its reigning power has been broken but, in this life, we are never completely delivered from “the body of sin” and “the flesh.” The expression “body of sin” is a quotation from Romans 6:6: “6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (ESV). Here we have the official, ecclesiastically sanctioned, interpretation of God’s Word in Romans 6. We are no longer slaves to sin but we are never entirely free from “the body of death” and “the flesh.” This last is an allusion to Romans 7:14. Let us consider vv. 14 and 15 for good measure. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” The standard Reformed understanding of these verses, in contrast to the Remonstrants, was that, in them, Paul was speaking as a Christian. He reflected upon the Christian struggle with the “desires of the flesh” in Galatians 5 also.

This is why Synod affirmed in article 2 that we struggle “daily” with sins and these are a source of humiliation before the face of God. Because of them we go daily to Christ to confess our sins and to ask for the grace of mortification, i.e., for the grace to put to death that which belongs to the old man and to live according to what we are, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ. Our daily struggle with sin provides incentive for prayer and the pious exercises (e.g., hearing the Word, attending to public worship, the sacraments, reading Scripture). It is only death, unless Christ returns first, that we shall be free from this struggle and daily humiliation.

Not only have to struggle against the remaining infirmity of the flesh and sin but Satan and the world also seek to undermine our growth in Christ. Here we see the true folly of perfectionism. Were it not for God’s unconditional (to us) favor, in Christ, we would surely be lost. Thus, synod, in article 3, sounds the very same note as Paul in Ephesians 2: “but God…” It is our gracious heavenly Father who, in Christ, has granted us favor and he will not abandon us to ourselves, to our sin, to Satan nor to the world. He not only confirms his gospel promise to save us but he is actively preserving us in the face of our sins, the Evil One, and the world.

In contrast to the Remonstrants and to the perfectionists, the Reformed churches, following Paul, are realistic about the nature and degree of sanctification in this life. Sin’s dominion has been broken. By God’s free grace we do make progress but also continue to struggle. Thanks be to God that our standing now and in future does not rest upon our performance or our obedience but upon Christ’s performance and obedience for us. Thanks be to God that the perfectionists are wrong but that Christ is right for us. Thanks be to God that he has not tossed us into the sea of the Christian life to swim on our own but that he is at work in us, sustaining us even despite our sins and failed mortification. Thanks be to God in Christ.

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