Dort: When Believers Fall Into Sin

Breaking news: Christians, believers, sin. Sometimes they fall into grievous sin. David, the man after God’s own heart, not only lusted after another man’s wife, he abused his office, committed adultery, planned and executed a murder conspiracy. Peter, as a disciple, denied our Lord three times. As an Apostle, one upon whom the Holy Spirit had fallen at Pentecost, who had boldly preached the gospel also, as an apostle, denied the gospel. These are two of the episodes mentioned explicitly by the Synod of Dort (Canons of Dort 5.4) in 1618–19. They remind us of these and other “lamentable” lapses explicitly as part of the Synod’s explanation of how great is the remaining sin within believers. The problem and reality of the Christian life is that “the converted” (conversi) are not always (semper) are not always so “led and moved by God” (Deo aguntur et moventur), so led of grace (ductu gratiae) that we are not “in particular actions” (actionibus particularibus) and seduced into the “desires of the flesh” (carnis concupiscentiis). The good news is that God’s ” (confirmantis et conservantis) grace is greater (major) than our sin. Make no mistake. According to Dort we are not talking about those who merely make outward profession of faith but those who are “converted.”

This language from the first part of Dort 5.4 is in stark contrast with much of the Wesleyan (and Nazarene) doctrine of Christian perfectionism. The tone is rather different from the way some modern Reformed writers have spoken about the Christian life. It is not that all believers are always committing the sorts of grievous sins that David and Peter committed but we are sometimes given the impression that no Christian would ever fall into such. It is true that no Christian could ever fall into such sins impenitently but it is not true that no Christian could ever fall into them.

The Synod’s language here should also caution us about out setting up artificial expectations for believers. We might fabricate all kinds of things in our imaginations but that is not how the Dort speaks. It is realistic, i.e., it is grounded in Scripture and experience. These language also cautions us against thinking that Paul could not be speaking of the believer when he wrote:

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. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good (Rom 7:14–16; ESV).

It might be that there are good exegetical reasons to think that Paul was not writing here about his experience as a Christian but the notion that he “could not” have been doing so is not one of those good reasons. That is an a priori, something that we have decided ahead of time. Yet, I have sometimes heard Reformed Christians speaking about the Christian life as if that a priori is true, that a fall into grievous sin is impossible for Christians. Dort begs to differ.

The Canons also help us by addressing another error that crops up in Reformed circles, namely, that if God is sovereign over all things (he is), if he has ordained all things (he has), that there is not much to be done. The pastors and theologians gathered at Dort to respond to the Remonstrants rejected that sort of fatalism. They came to a very different conclusion.

In contrast, the churches confess that we face  three terrible powers: the flesh, the world, and Satan. In light of those enemies and in light of the possibility of grievous sin, believers must be constantly watchful and praying lest (ne) they be led (inducantur) into temptation. Without that watching and prayer we are led, sometimes even “by the just permission of God,” (justa Dei permissione) into “grave and atrocious” sin. At Dort we confessed two complementary truths: God is absolutely sovereign and he operates mysteriously through means. Apart from Scripture we do not know what God has ordained and we do not know God’s providential decree until it has happened. The person who adopts fatalism implicitly thinks that he knows what God’s decree is before it has been realized in time. Further, the fatalist ignore the truth that God has ordained means to fight against our sinful nature, against temptation, against the world, and against Satan: prayer. In the midst of our struggle with sin, God is pleased to work through prayer to protect and to deliver us. It seems too weak. It seems as if we need something else but prayer is most appropriate because in it we confess our temptation, our sin, our weakness and we confess God’s power to save. In prayer we lay hold of power that is outside ourselves, the very power that delivered Israel from Pharaoh and Jesus from the tomb. The power is not in prayer. It is in God the the Father who is pleased to hear our prayers, in our Mediator Jesus, who makes them known, and in the Spirit who is pleased to use them.

We are weak. Our prayers are imperfect but God is great and good and he is pleased to hear us for Christ’s sake and to deliver us by his grace and for his glory. When we do fail to pray, when we do sin, even when we sin grievously, God forgives his penitent people just as he forgave David and Peter. Christ’s grace for sinners is greater than their sin.

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  1. I am very grateful for and always (well nearly always!) enjoy your posts brother, as with this one. Your posts are always looked forward to. My teen-age son once tearfully confessed to me that he could not successfully live the Christian life, and I said; “Neither can I son. We need the Lord to help us’. He wanted to go on a trip with a girl-friend and when I objected said; “Don’t you trust me?” To which I replied; “Son, I don’t trust myself!”
    We so often attempt to be a role model for our children for righteousness, and they don’t recognise our own daily struggle against the world the flesh and the Devil.
    Thankyou again brother, and even though you don’t allow any comment of mine which you deem to be in error, I will still, if you allow, enjoy your so profitable posts. Thankyou

  2. Surely Paul is writing as a new creature? For who is ‘The inward man’ he says he has? Romans 7:22 ‘For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.’ It’s a man who delights in the law! the Law delights no sinner!

  3. I know we try to rationalize Romans 7:14-16. Paul really means it when he said he was the chief of sinners. The only chance I have is Jesus, when He said It is Finished.

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