Canons Of Dort (5): God Ordains Means To Call His Elect

The first thing that the Reformed churches said in response to the Remonstrants, whom the Reformed saw as seeking to take the churches back toward the medieval system of salvation by grace and our cooperation with grace, was, in effect, “we are too sinful to be saved by any other way than by God’s unconditional favor” (sola gratia).

The second thing that the Reformed did in response to the Remonstrants was to quote two passages: 1 John 1:9 and John 3:16.

Art. II. But ‘in this the love of God was manifested, that he sent his only-begotten Son into the world,’ ‘that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (1 John 4:9; John 3:16).

The bad news is that all of us are fallen and unable to save ourselves. The good news is that God loves sinners eternally and unconditionally. He loves them so much that he sent his only-begotten Son to save those who cannot save themselves. How then do his elect benefit from what God, in Christ, has done?

Art. III. And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom he will, and at what time he pleaseth; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. ‘How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?’ (Rom. 10:14, 15).

Synod was following and explaining the earlier confession of the Reformed church, in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.

We are united to Christ, by the Spirit, only through faith (sola fide). The same Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of life,” who brings us to new life also gives us true faith. The sacraments certify that what the gospel promises, what we have believed, is really true.

What instrument or means does the Lord use to bring us to new life and to true faith? In the Heidelberg we confess that the Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel to create that new life and true faith. Synod re-affirmed that same truth. She quotes Romans 10:14, 15. The elect are brought to new life through hearing a message and for that to happen, there must be messengers. This is why, in the Reformed Churches, preaching is such a big deal. It is not because we are “clericalists,” i.e., it is not about investing ministers with power and authority to control the laity. Rather, we have a high regard for the ministry because we are convinced from God’s Word (e.g., Romans 10) that our gracious Lord has willed to use ministers and the public preaching of the Word to accomplish his purposes. He has established the office of the ministry and has himself, through his church, sent them to perform one vital function: to preach the good news. This is a mercy to sinners. God does not send upon us what we deserve. He withholds his wrath against us because he has already poured it out upon Christ our Substitute.

Those ministers are “messengers” of his “most joyful tidings.” Of course ministers must preach the law. They would be unfaithful if they failed in that duty but the one thing that marks out Christian ministers, beside their ordination to office, is their message: the good news, that Christ has come, that he has suffered and obeyed in our behalf, that he died, that he was raised, that he has ascended, that he reigns, and that he is coming again in glory to judge the reprobate and redeem his elect.

It is through such preaching that God is pleased, when and where he wills To call his elect repentance (recognition of their sin and misery) and to faith in Christ, i.e., to a living trust in Christ our Substitute and Savior.

Calvinists are known for upholding the biblical and ancient Christian doctrine of election—we did not invent it. We inherited it—but we are equally committed to the doctrine of means. It is easy to make a caricature of the Reformed, as always talking about predestination. Perhaps we live up to that caricature too often but we are just as committed to the doctrine that the same God who has ordained the ends has also ordained the means. Indeed, we know a great lot more about the means than we know about the ends. We know that God has elected a people and reprobated others but we do not know whom God has elected or whom he has reprobated. That is God’s business. We do know, however, that God has ordained people to go and preach and an institution through which that preaching is done: his visible church. This was Paul’s point in Romans 10. Chapter 9 comes before 10, obviously, but it is in the background conceptually. We preach confidently because we know that, behind the scenes, as it were, God is working out his purposes. He is using the “foolishness” (1 Cor 1:25) of the gospel to bring his people to new life and to true faith.

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  1. Had this exact conversation with my father tonight, explaining to him means and their relation to God’s electing grace. Thank y’all for publishing such great stuff on the Synod! I’m currently writing my senior research paper on the Synod of Dort, and some of the insight from the articles and “Office Hours” podcast has helped me hone in on the specifics of my paper. A valuable event in history that testifies to God’s grace in preserving His Truth. Thanks for the posts!

    Also, Your Heidelcast Series “I Will Be a God to You and Your Children” has opened my eyes to the truth found in Reformed Covenant Theology, and the importance of the right means and understanding of so much, not only infant baptism. Thank you for that as well, God bless!!

  2. Since the fall it is no longer possible for us to obey the law in order to achieve eternal life by our own obedience, because that obedience is imperfect. But God has provided a way, under the new covenant of grace, for those, he has chosen, to be regenerated, for their eyes to be opened so they see their sin and misery and despair of their own ability to do what God requires of them. They throw themselves at His mercy and He provides all righteousness for them. God does this in the context of of the Word and sacrament administered through the true Church. They now strive to obey the law of God, not to be justified, they know they could never be justified by their imperfect obedience, but in love and gratitude to God who has provided perfect righteousness for them, in full confidence that their acceptance will be vindicated on the last day.

    The Pelagian and Arminian is still seeking to attain eternal life through the broken covenant of works. He hears that salvation is by accepting Christ. His eyes have not been opened to his sin and misery, so he imagines he can do this by exercising his own free will, to obey by making the right choice in accepting Christ, and by continuing to obey the law for final justification and salvation when he is judged on the last day.

    These are mutually exclusive ways of salvation, only one can be true. I believe it was that conviction the that provided such urgency for the churches to set down the true way of salvation in the Canons of Dort.

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