Canons Of Dort (4): Unconditonal Grace

Part 3

In the preface to the Canons of Dort, Synod characterized the challenges she faced and the promise on which she relied to face those challenges. The preface characterized the Christian life as a “this wretched pilgrimage.” It is one, however, that is conducted under the shepherding care of Jesus, our high priest, who has “entered the heavenly sanctuary to go to his Father,” who is fulfilling the Great Promise behind the Great Commission: “A Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Synod’s characterization of the opponents of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands is instructive too. She mentions two threats. First, “the public force of enemies and the ungodly violence of heretics” and second, “the masked subtleties of seducers.” The former is an evident reference to Philip II (King of Spain), who sought to exterminate the Reformed in the Netherlands. Under his campaign about 12,000 Reformed Christians were murdered at the hands of the Spanish. The subtle seducers refers to Arminius and the Remonstrants. Indeed, absent the Great Promise, the churches would have been “naked without the beneficial consolation of his promised presence” and oppressed and seduced.

The Remonstrant (Arminian) narrative and self-identity is that of victim. They see Arminius as the innocent victim of unwarranted hostility. They see the Remonstrants as righteous protesters unjustly treated. The Synod, however, painted a very different picture. According to the Reformed, it was not Arminius nor his followers who were victims but the Reformed churches:

This Church has been attacked, first secretly and then publicly, by Jacobus Arminius and his followers (bearing the name of Remonstrants). They did this by means of various old and new errors. These flourishing churches, being persistently disturbed by offensive disputes and schisms, have been brought into such grave peril that they were in danger of being consumed by a dreadful fire of discord.

I have elsewhere noted that Synod characterized the Remonstrants as heretics. They did so because they saw the Remonstrants not merely disagreeing on minor or technical points (e.g., the logical order of the decrees). They saw the program of the Remonstrants as an all-out assault on the Reformation and the gospel. Under the Remonstrant revisions the covenant of grace becomes a covenant of works. The gospel becomes law and assurance of faith is destroyed.

The first thing that Synod confessed against the Remonstrants was not, as the (early 20th century) TULIP arrangement suggests, “total depravity” but unconditional grace. Properly, the expression unconditional grace is redundant (since by nature grace is unconditional) but I use it because of what the Arminians were teaching: that election is conditioned upon foreseen faith (fides praevisa). In that case, grace is no longer grace since, in the Remonstrant scheme, our faith is imputed to us and is the product, to some degree, of our cooperation with grace. As we have seen already, the Remonstrants made our salvation contingent upon our faithfulness and perseverance. Remember, they re-defined grace as resistible. In their scheme, our free cooperation with grace makes “grace” efficacious. Without it, then redemption and grace remains nothing but a potential.

We know this because Synod summarized the Remonstrant view in the Rejection of Errors (RE) under each head of doctrine. In RE 1.1 Synod declared: “We reject the error of those who teach:”

Who teach: That the will of God to save those who would believe and would persevere in faith and in the obedience of faith is the whole and entire decree of election, and that nothing else concerning this decree has been revealed in God’s Word. For these deceive the simple and plainly contradict the Scriptures, which declare that God will not only save those who will believe, but that He has also from eternity chosen certain particular persons to whom, above others, He will grant in time, both faith in Christ and perseverance; as it is written “I have revealed Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world” (Jn 17:6), and “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). And “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him” (Eph 1:4).

If we did not know that Synod was attacking the Remonstrants we might think that they were addressing some major evangelical and ostensibly “Reformed” figures, e.g., John Piper and others who teach two stages of salvation (initial and final), the last of which depends, in part, on our perseverance and obedience. This is the doctrine of the self-described Federal Visionists and it was that of the Remonstrants. They turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

Synod confessed in CD 1.1:

As all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death, God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin, according to the words of the apostle: “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God” (Rom 3:19). And: “for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). And: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

To combat that notion, Synod started where Scripture started: our inability. This is not the major topic of the head of doctrine but it is a necessary precondition. We cannot understand the true nature of grace until we have some idea of our desperate need. The Remonstrants had re-defined the consequences of sin. According to them we are not, in Adam, dead in sins and trespasses.

In the nature of justice, God owed us nothing but judgment. Grace is favor to hell-deserving sinners. Grace is not a mere potential or assistance with which we cooperate. As we have seen, this is how the Remonstrants re-defined grace in the 3rd and 4th heads of their 1610 Remonstrance. Real grace, i.,e., grace as it is, is favor earned for elect sinners by the righteous Savior Jesus. That favor is bestowed on the elect, in time, despite their demerits. “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.” Grace is an unconditional gift to sinners.

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  1. “Grace is an unconditional gift to sinners,” because Christ has done it all. He has obeyed the law perfectly for us, and died in our place to atone for our transgressions, just as God covenanted with Abraham when He promised to be his God and his children’s God after him in the faith. There is no need for us to “do our part,” it has all been done for us. And sinners who have been brought to see their sin and misery, in their total inability do anything to make themselves right with God, will want to obey Him out of love and gratitude for so great a salvation. That is the fruit and evidence of trusting in Him alone. What an insult it is to Christ when we think we can add to the perfect salvation we have in Him by trying to, “do our part.”

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Since the Synod condemned Remonstrants as heretics, should Reformed Christians treat modern-day Arminians and Amyraldians as heretics? Should we have no fellowship with individuals and churches who have not embraced Calvinism? Where do we draw the line?


    • Venkatesh,

      Yes, the Synod of Dort condemned the Remonstrants as heretics but they didn’t speak to Amyraldianism, which wouldn’t come up for several years. That was condemned by the Swiss Churches but the French Churches were unable to do so in three synods.

      Obviously we don’t have ecclesiastical relations with Arminian congregations. I don’t think that the judgment of Synod means that we cannot have Arminian friends.

      What else did you have in mind?

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Just to give you a little context: Recently, I had a conversation with a PRC friend. He was of the opinion that all modern-day Arminians (whether they hold to Arminian doctrine consciously or unconsciously) and Amyraldians are heretics and hence objects of evangelism. He said that this conclusion is warranted from the Canons of Dordt.

    I find this conclusion rather difficult to digest, partially because of my own personal experience. I was an Arminian (perhaps a non-Calvinist to be more precise) for nearly five years before I embraced Reformed Theology. I am not sure whether I am prepared to say that I was a non-Christian during those years. I was inconsistent for sure, but I still held to the basics of the faith, even though my understanding of salvation was rather muddled.

    Hope this gives you a context. So, my question is this: Should we treat modern-day Arminians as objects of evangelism? Should I consider my embracing RT as my genuine conversion?

    • Venkatesh,

      Your friend is wrong on some things. Amyraldianism is a significant mistake, even a gross error but it isn’t the same error as Arminianism. As one of my profs used to say, “when you go heresy hunting, be sure to use a rifle and not a shotgun.” Your friend is using a shotgun.

      Not everyone who makes an error is necessarily unsaved. Further, it is not our business to decide who are and are not the elect. Even more, we can encourage Christian friends in the gospel without declaring them lost. As some say, the gospel is for Christians too. The gospel is that Christ loved me and gave himself for me. The Amyraldian changes that and thus does damage to the gospel in his attempt to the make the faith more sweetly reasonable.

      Your experience is not unique. A lot of us were confused about a lot of things and still trusting in Christ and in his finished work. There are blessed inconsistencies. As Warfield said, on our knees, we are all Calvinists.

      Just as it is not our business to play guess the elect, neither is it our business to try to guess when we were regenerated.

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