Canons Of Dort (17): The Offer Of The Gospel Is Genuine But So Is Unbelief

In their second head of doctrine, the Remonstrants confessed, in 1610:

ART. II. That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness ef sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only. but also for the sins of the whole world.”

According to the Arminian construction of the gospel, the good news is that Christ died for all and one can benefit from his death if one believes, obeys, and perseveres (see also their 1st head and their 5th). In short, for the Remonstrants, the gospel is that Christ’s death created the possibility, the potential of salvation but by it he did not actually save anyone. For the Remonstrants, the gospel is not “Christ has saved you” but rather, “Christ has made it possible for you to be saved.” This was the predominant medieval message which the Protestants rejected.

Consider the paradigmatic biblical salvation event: the Red Sea. According to the Remonstrants, it is as if Yahweh said to the Israelites, “I have created the potential of deliverance from the Pharaoh and his armies but you must do your part.” Of course Yahweh never said any such thing. What he did say is “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Ex 14:13–14; ESV). The Psalmist says, “Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belong deliverances from death” (Ps 68:20; ESV). Salvation does not belong to us. It is not ours to actuate, if only we will. It is ours to receive with an empty, open hand, which the Spirit of God freely gives to his elect (Eph 2:8–10). “And this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Salvation does not belong to the Lord and to us. It belongs to him. He accomplished it. He administers it. It is a free gift from beginning to end.

Under this head, in their Opinions Remonstrants confessed:

Only those are obliged to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has died. The reprobates, however, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to such faith, nor can they be justly condemned on account of the contrary refusal to believe this. In fact, if there should be such reprobates, they would be obliged to believe that Christ has not died for them.

In their view, the only way that their gospel of the possibility of salvation to those who do their part can be announced is on the basis of a universal atonement. Short of that God could not justly oblige anyone to believe in Christ, obey him, and persevere for salvation. This is, as I have been arguing, a form of rationalism. It sets up a standard of justice to which both God and man are obligated. Rather than bowing the neck before God’s Word and the mystery of election and reprobation, it privileges (as people say now) reason over special revelation. Here we see that the line between the Remonstrants and the Socinians was thin. Indeed, more than a few of the Remonstrants crossed this line into a flat denial of the atonement at all, of the deity of Christ, and of the Trinity.

Another implicit assumption of the Remonstrants was their denial of the distinction between the substanceof the covenant of grace and its outward administration. In effect, the external administration is abrogated since, according to the Remonstrants, Christ has already accomplished salvation for “all men and every man” and all men and every man may, if he will, actuate that salvation by believing, obeying, and persevering. In their scheme, the Holy Spirit is not using what the Reformed call the “due use of ordinary means” to bring his elect to new life and to true faith.

This is how the Synod of Dort put it in their Rejection of Errors under this head:

We Reject the Error of Those Who use the difference between meriting and appropriating, to the end that they may instill into the minds of the careless and inexperienced this teaching that God, as far as He is concerned, has willed to apply to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ; and that, while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life, and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception, and that it is not dependent on the special gift of mercy, which powerfully works in them, that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace. For these, while they pretend that they present this distinction in a sound sense, seek to instill into the people the destructive poison of Pelagianism (CD, RE 2.6).

In response to the Remonstrant reconstruction of the faith, the Reformed confessed:

Art. VI. And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves (CD 2.6).

Why is that some believe and others do not? This is a great mystery hidden from us. Either one accepts this reality or one seeks to plumb the depths of the divine intellect and will. Scripture teaches us which course we ought to choose. Deuteronomy 29:29 specifically tells us to content ourselves with the revealed things, which are for us and for our children and to leave the hidden things to God. In Isaiah God says:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa 55:8–9); ESV.

Ours is not to do as the Remonstrants did, i.e., effectively to make everyone elect conditioned upon their faith, obedience, and perseverance. Ours is to leave election and reprobation in God’s hands. Ours is to administer the good news faithfully by announcing, in the words our Lord, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Ours is to announce, to call, to invite, to offer Christ freely, seriously, and sincerely to all.

We do so as stewards of divine mysteries, in the confidence that God the Spirit is using the “foolishness” (according to some of Paul’s Corinthian critics) of the gospel preached to bring his elect to new life and to true faith. There is no defect in the gospel that Christ died for sinners, that he has saved all those whom the Father gave to him (John 17:1), that he laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:15–17). The message is perfect even if the messengers are not and even if the message is not always conveyed perfectly. One of the mysteries of the faith is the Lord’s decision, as it were, to use clay jars (2 Cor 4:7) to carry and convey his message to sinners but then again, God the Son became incarnate and suffered the indignities of life among sinners (even though he himself was sinless) and suffered the consequences of the fall with and for us.

Christ’s death was perfect. He said so: “It is finished” (John 19:30). He did not say, “I have done my part, now you do yours.” That was Rome’s message. That was the Remonstrant message. It was Richard Baxter’s message but it was not Christ’s. Our Savior’s work was perfect and his good news is perfect. He accomplished salvation for all his people and the Spirit uses the preached gospel to bring his elect to new life and to true faith in the Savior.

As we saw under the first head of doctrine, election is unconditional but reprobation is not. Those who are left in their sins are so abandoned (reprobated) in view of their sin and unbelief. So too, here, under the Second Head of Doctrine, we blame unbelief, not God, for the reprobate refusal to turn to Christ. The gospel is perfect but unbelief is genuine too. People really do love darkness rather than light (John 3:19). We freel chose to sin. Those who are unregenerate freely choose, without coercion, to reject Christ.

Only the Spirit grants new life and true faith. This is why our Lord said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). The words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus were a complete mystery until the Spirit opened his eyes and granted him new life and true faith.

Thus, for the Reformed churches, salvation is not possibility to be actuated by us. Rather:

Art. VII. But as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own.

Ultimately, the contest at the Synod of Dort came down to this: was the Reformation correct about Christ and his gospel or did Rome have a point? Do we need to incorporate bits of Romanist theology, piety, and practice into our theology? The Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles, with one voice, said no. We will stand on the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ’s obedience and death for his elect, on the grace of the Spirit in renewing his elect and uniting them to Christ, and on faith alone as the sole instrument of salvation.

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  1. Is it possible for non elect to believe? My reading of scripture says no, but my Lutheran friends say the parable of the sower and apostasy passages imply more than the elect do believe but are not given the grace of perseverance. Is this the same as Dordt’s use of “temporary” faith, and if temporary is it justifying faith? Thanks

    • Michial,

      We confess that there are three aspects to true faith: knowledge, assent, and trust.

      Our writers distinguish between true and false faith. Those who have the latter might have knowledge of the facts and history of the gospel or they might even give assent that the gospel is true but they do not have and never have had a heartfelt trust (fiducia).

      Here’s a series on HC 21: What is true faith?

      The Formula of Concord and the Federal Vision have similar doctrines in this regard. Both confess that baptism creates new life, true faith, and a real union with Christ etc. Both confess that these benefits can be lost if resisted or not maintained. The FV confesses that we persevere through good faith and works.

      The “temporary faith” to which the Canons 3/4.9 refer is a species of the false faith to which I referred above. Whether it is knowledge (notitia or assent assensus or both it lacks a hearty trust because it is not born of the sovereign, regenerating grace of God.

      So, no reprobate (one whom God has passed over) or hypocrite (a false professor of faith) ever has true faith. They were never elect. They were never regenerated. They were never justified, adopted, or mystically united to Christ by the Holy Spirit.

      Another way to put this is to say that they only and ever had an external relationship to the covenant of grace and never an internal relation to the covenant of grace.

      For more on this see:

  2. Excellent. Thank you Dr. Clark. That is my understanding as well. It seems clear from scripture all the benefits of Christ flow from His sovereign election. Over and over Jesus says only those given to him by the Father can come(believe) and he will lose none. So there is no third category of people non elected who come with true faith and then fall away. But I was confronted with a couple objections by my Lutheran friends. They said the warning passages imply some do have real faith and union who are not elect who do fall away. They pointed to a couple of numerous examples. One, our Lord’s own interpretation of the parable of the sower where he actually said some believed for a time. They say Jesus said they believed. Is it correct to say when Jesus only said the last kind had root is another way of saying genuine? Another objection is the passage in Galatians where Paul warned those who seek justification by the works of the law they will be cut off from Christ. I was told to be a true warning it implies one is joined to Christ if one can be cut off. One cannot be severed unless first joined. It says from Christ, not an external union to the church. How do you understand these passages? Thanks again.

    • Michial,

      Here is an account of the warning passages.

      Read in context, the warning passages do not imply the existence of true faith. Again, the Bible’s own distinction between an internal relation and an external relation to the covenant of grace help us here.

      The Parable of the Sower is a classic example of the sort of “temporary faith” to which the Synod referred. It was not true faith.

      On Galatians and John 15, the external relation is a genuine relation but it is not a saving relation. Esau was really in the covenant of grace externally. He really participated in the life of the covenant community. He tasted of the age to come but he was never regenerate. He was never actually united to Christ.

      See Paul’s account of the benefits of the external administration of the covenant of grace in Romans:

  3. Great article on the warning passages. Law gospel is fundamental to it. The letters were addressed to mixed communities of both professors and possessors of faith. The third use of the law is vital in many ways. It serves as both the rule for the saved to express gratitude for grace already given, as well as continuing to function as a schoolmaster to drive both those succumbing to self reliance or the discourages saint to remember their acceptance with God is only found in Christ’s perfect active obedience.

    The third use continues to guide the saints into Christ alone for his glory. It creates a snowball effect of forgiveness and love throughout their lives, always confirming the promises and strengthening the effects of the gospel.

    For the hypocrites and professors it either strengthens their self righteousness or drives them to despair of their imperfect obedience into the arms of Christ’s righteousness. In the case of the former it serves to warn of being cut off from the Christ they claim to serve, but who in reality are not in Christ but are relying on Christ’s righteousness.

    The gospel always casts a shadow which is expressed in the form of grateful loving obedience in varied levels, some 30, 60 or 100 fold as Jesus said. If no shadow is cast it shows there is no gospel reality behind them.

    The third use is vital for a proper understanding of law and gospel. To deny it denies the gospel and it’s full effects. Denying it truncates the work of Christ and serves as a tool of the devil to believe they are actually obeying enough and to rely upon themselves and ultimately become apostate. Denying it causes the good name of Christ to be slandered by a lack of true holiness being exhibited by saints. Denying it perverts the gospel promises as ineffective and a license to sin.

    Far from creating self righteousness and despair, if preached aright the third use will continue to schoolmaster the saints to rely on Christ’s righteousness and grow in loving obedience. It’s warnings are also the most loving to give the mixed visible church to guide and keep her in the truth though it ultimately confirms and exposes the apostate.

    Sorry for the ramble. I appreciate your blog and your assistance.

    • Perhaps I misunderstood, but you refer to those “who are not really in Christ but are relying on Christ’s righteousness.” Are these the hypocrites? If so, the problem would seem to be that they may be claiming to trust in Christ, but in reality they do not trust in Him at all, or are they like the Remonstants who are trusting only partly in Christ and also in doing their part? If they are trusting in Christ’s righteousness ALONE, then they would be really in Christ.

  4. Certainly helpful in enabling me to understand the substance/administration distinction in the CoG: God knows beforehand from eternity those he has predestined to salvation, however, he providentially makes the promise of salvation to all those in the visible covenant community, conditioned upon saving faith. Those who are elect will be saved, for those non-elect failure to believe will lead to being cut off as seen in Romans 11, and as happened with Cain, Ishmael, Esau et al. The Reformed view as laid out in the 3FU and WCF is really the only viable option, as opposed to saying people can lose their salvation as Arminians do or these warnings are mere hypotheticals like the Particular Baptists.

    • The reason it is a covenant of grace for the elect is because, as he promised to Abraham and all of his children in the faith when God walked through the pieces alone, God fulfills all of the conditions of complete righteousness for them in Christ, and then fulfills the condition of saving and persevering faith, that trusts in Christ alone, by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves it is the gift of God, not of works soi no man can boast.” Eph. 2:8-9

    • Thanks, that is a very important distinction. Yes, rightly appreciating the law and its three uses is central to understanding Scripture. As a law of nature written on every man’s heart it curbs their sinful nature. When we understand that the law shows us God’s perfectly, righteous character and how we fall infinitely short of measuring up to His standard so that we deserve only His eternal wrath it drives us to despair. What wonderful good news to discover that God himself, in Christ, imputes His perfect righteousness to us and suffers God’s wrath for us when the Holy Spirit gives us new life to believe and trust, resting in Christ alone for our salvation. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” Then we use the law in its third use, as a guide for a grateful and loving response to God. “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure. Psalm 19:7

      • I should have also said the second use should continue throughout our Christian lives along with the third use to keep us from self righteousness or despair. We are guided into sanctification but at the same time always back to Christ for our acceptance.

    • For sure! We live a life of repentance, we are always driven back to Christ by our remaining imperfections and sin. While we are in this life, we never get past Romans 7.

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