The Remonstrants were convinced that the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) did not and could not produce sufficient sanctification (holiness) and obedience. Thus, without admitting to it, they turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works in which the sinner must do his part to receive salvation. They spoke of grace and faith but they substantially changed the meaning of those terms. In effect, the Remonstrants agreed with Rome that Luther’s message of free justification and free sanctification, received through faith alone defined as resting, receiving, leaning on, and trusting in Christ alone would never get the job done. Of course, the Reformed churches all agreed with Luther, that salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) is the free gift of God, that sanctification is the necessary fruit or result of justification but that it is just as gracious as justification. The Reformed were content to say that sanctification produces good works as fruit and evidence of the gracious work of the Spirit in his elect. The Remonstrants, as the Federal Visionists and their friends today, were dissatisfied with that eminently biblical approach.
In making both election and the covenant of grace essentially conditional, in their misguided attempt to engineer sanctification and good works, the Remonstrants undercut the ground of assurance for many in the Dutch Reformed Church. When election and the covenant of grace are made essentially conditional, when one’s election and salvation are conditioned upon faithfulness and perseverance, doubts necessarily arise in the hearts and consciences of believers. Who of us is sufficiently sanctified and does enough good works of sufficient quality to be able to say that he has done enough and that God must be satisfied? Of course, in the Remonstrant scheme (as in the Federal Vision scheme today), the ground of our standing with God has been moved away from what Christ did for us to what the Spirit is doing in us and how well we are cooperating with the Spirit toward a so-called final salvation.
In Canons of Dort 1.12 and 13 Synod addressed directly the pastoral problems created by the Remonstrants:
Art. XII. The elect, in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God; such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.
Here is an essential distinction that all Christians ought to learn. It was most clearly explained to me by a former student about 20 years ago. There is a distinction between the decree (or even faith) as it is in itselfand the effect of the decree (or even faith) as we experience it. The decree is not conditional. Faith, in itself, is assurance. In our experience, however, things are not always so simple. We are sinful. We doubt. We fear. Instead of trusting the Lord to open the waters, we complain against Moses for taking us out of Egypt.
In the ordinary providence of God, Christians are granted assurance. This does not mean that everyone experiences the same degree of assurance all the time or necessarily at the same time as other believers. Further, believers do not gain assurance by looking directly at the doctrine of election, as it were. We do not gain assurance by asking “am I elect?” The answer to the question, put that way, requires one to climb up into heaven, as it were, to “pry into” the secret things of God (Deut 29:29). Rather, we are to give ourselves to the revealed things, to the revelation of God in Christ and to the gospel promises made to us in Christ. The question is not whether one is elect. The question is where one stands with Christ. Do I know the greatness of my sin and misery? Am I trusting in Christ as my Savior and Mediator? These are the questions we must and can answer. The believer says, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Believers ought to trust and not doubt because, after all, it is only through the sovereign grace of God that anyone ever comes to faith. It is God the Spirit who gives new life to the dead (John 3:1–15). Just as the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep (Gen 1:2), so the Spirit is at work granting new life and true faith to those whom God has known and loved unconditionally, from all eternity, in Christ (Eph 1:1–14)
Far too often, those who either reject the doctrine of unconditional election in Christ or who do not understand it, caricature it as a source of uncertainty and doubt. They do so because they imagine that we, who confess this glorious doctrine, think that we have access to the secret will of God. This is a scurrilous misrepresentation. Those who speak that way understand neither Scripture nor the Reformed confession. Rather, as Calvin explained in Institutes 3.24.5, Christ is the mirror of our election:
But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.
He went on to explain what he meant by thinking of Christ as “the mirror” (speculum) our election. We do not turn inward, into ourselves, but rather we begin by looking at the promises that Christ has made:
Now he gave us that sure communion with himself, when he testified through the preaching of the gospel that he had been given to us by the Father to be ours with all his benefits [Rom. 8:32]. We are said to put on him [Rom. 13:14], to grow together into him [Eph. 4:15], that we may live because he lives. Frequently this doctrine is repeated: that the Father did not spare his only-begotten Son [cf. Rom. 8:32; John 3:15] “that whoever believes in him may not perish” [John 3:16]. But “he who believes in him” is said to have “passed out of death into life” [John 5:24]. In this sense, he calls himself “the bread of life” [John 6:35]; he who eats this bread will never die [John 6:51, 58]. He, I say, was our witness that the Heavenly Father will count as his sons all those who have received him in faith (ibid)
It may be hard to imagine but there was a time when we were not surrounded by mirrors, when many people had little to no idea how they appeared to others. Thus, to see one’s reflection in a mirror was to gain a sense of clarity and perspective about what really is. This is what Calvin meant. We do not go about imagining what must be. Rather, we at what God has said and what is.
Synod said the same thing:
Art. XIII. The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before him, for adoring the depth of his mercies, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to him who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men into carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election, in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.
By “humiliation” Synod wanted us to humble ourselves before God. We were not elected for anything in us—not even anything foreseen in us. Rather, we gratefully accept God’s grace in humility and wonder. It works in us adoration and doxology for his mercy. He has not given to us what we deserve. He has given to us grace earned for us by Christ our Substitute and Savior. When we contemplate his unconditional favor toward us in Christ we are not licensed to sin but moved to self-denial and obedience. The rationalist Remonstrants (and our Federal Visionists) today do not understand the gospel mystery of sanctification. Just as the incarnation was the most surprising way to save sinners—not at all what Judas wanted or expected—so too God’s way of producing sanctification is not what the moralists want or expect. They want a machine (insert law, turn handle, produce good works) but God has given us a mystery instead.
Sanctification is produced by God’s sovereign grace. Good works are the infallible fruits of that grace. They come as they must. God’s Word and work never faith. We are God’s “workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). We are not elect because God foresaw our obedience but we are obedient out of gratitude for God’s grace, in union with Christ, mindful of our continual struggle with sin and doubt in this life.