Canons Of Dort (20): God Unconditionally Saves Those Who Are Totally Unable To Save Themselves

One of the features of Synod’s reply to the Remonstrants is Synod repeated essential parts of their reply under the different heads of doctrine. So, in the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine they re-stated the Augustinian and Reformed doctrine of original sin and total inability (or corruption or depravity). The Reformed doctrine of “total depravity,” of course has been caricatured and misrepresented as saying that sinners are as evil as they can be. This is not our understanding of Scripture. We understand that God mercifully restrains wickedness after the flood and he shall do so until our Lord Jesus returns. This is the promise of the rainbow covenant:

I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:13–16; ESV).

When mercy ends, judgment will begin but, for now, we live under the shared mercy of God whereby he causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). The orthodox Reformed theologians spoke of God’s “common grace” in restraining evil. This approach to common grace was in stark contrast to the way the Remonstrants spoke of common grace, whereby they tended to conflate nature and grace and to talk about God’s “antecedant will” in ways that were virtually indistinguishable from the Pelagianizing way the William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel spoke about it in the 14th and 15th centuries. Under those formulations, God is said to have endowed all humans with certain “antecedents,” essentially natural endowments with which, they said, God is prepared to “co-act.” Biel’s formulation became notorious in the Reformation as Martin Luther and the Protestants rejected it as flatly Pelagian and an assault on grace, the gospel, and on Christ’s finished work. Biel said, “To those who do what lies within themselves, God denies not grace.” Arminius taught this view in his 1608 Declaration Of Sentiments, which he delivered orally to the States of Holland and which we have today in print. When we read together the third and fourth heads of the 1610 Arminian Remonstrance we see hints of the same doctrine, especially in the 4th head. The third head is more or less a feint, a dodge, a bit of misdirection.

So, we understand that, in his good providence, God has endowed image bearers with natural gifts for the civiland common good but not as a saving good. Remarkably, those who reject the orthodox Reformed view of common grace end up not far from the Remonstrants whom they oppose so strongly inasmuch as both fail to distinguish between nature (creation) and grace (salvation).

The Remonstrants also rejected the Augustinian/Reformed view of the consequences of the fall. For the Remonstrants, denied that original sin, of itself, is sufficient to condemn humanity. We might call them semi-Pelagian, insofar as they formally conceded that we fell into sin with Adam but Synod called them Pelagians repeatedly, in part, because they downplayed the effects of the fall. For the Pelagians, we become sinners only when we sin. For the Remonstrants, we become guilty only when we sin. Synod explicitly rejected this approach when they confessed: “Synod reject the errors of those who teach, that, properly speaking, it cannot be said that original sin in itself is enough to condemn the whole human race or to warrant temporal and eternal punishments” (RE 3/4.1). 1

The ground for this critique is Romans 5:12, 16. Sin and death entered the world through Adam’s disobedience. In Adam’s sin all men not only sinned but died. The Arminian way of speaking about sin was that of the medievals. We are ill or wounded (the classic example is the Levite who, according to Luke 10:30, was “half dead.”) Original sin is actual, spiritual death not merely the potential for death.

So, Synod continued in their rejection of the Remonstrant errors:

[Synod rejects the errors of those] who teach that the spiritual gifts or the good dispositions and virtues such as goodness, holiness, and righteousness could not have resided in man’s will when he was first created, and therefore could not have been separated from the will at the fall.
For this conflicts with the apostle’s description of the image of God in Ephesians 4:24, where he portrays the image in terms of righteousness and holiness, which definitely reside in the will (RE 3/4.2).

The Remonstrants not only downplayed the effects of the fall, they rejected the covenant of works and the Heidelberg Catechism when it says that Adam was created in righteousness and true holiness. Synod continued:

[Synod rejects the errors of those] who teach that in spiritual death the spiritual gifts have not been separated from man’s will, since the will in itself has never been corrupted but only hindered by the darkness of the mind and the unruliness of the emotions, and since the will is able to exercise its innate free capacity once these hindrances are removed, which is to say, it is able of itself to will or choose whatever good is set before it—or else not to will or choose it. This is a novel idea and an error and has the effect of elevating the power of free choice, contrary to the words of Jeremiah the prophet: “The heart itself is deceitful above all things and wicked” (Jer. 17:9); and of the words of the apostle: “All of us also lived among them [the sons of disobedience] at one time in the passions of our flesh, following the will of our flesh and thoughts” (Eph. 2:3) (RE 3/4.3).

Here, of course, Synod addressed and directly contradicted the Remonstrant steps toward Pelagianism. And here:

[Synod rejects the errors of those] who teach that unregenerate man is not strictly or totally dead in his sins or deprived of all capacity for spiritual good but is able to hunger and thirst for righteousness or life and to offer the sacrifice of a broken and contrite spirit which is pleasing to God. For these views are opposed to the plain testimonies of Scripture: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1, 5); “The imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). Besides, to hunger and thirst for deliverance from misery and for life, and to offer God the sacrifice of a broken spirit is characteristic only of the regenerate and of those
called blessed (Ps. 51:17; Matt. 5:6) (RE 3/4.4).

Finally, in RE 3/4.5 Synod addressed directly the Remonstrant corruption of the orthodox Reformed doctrine of common grace:

[Synod rejects the errors of those] who teach that corrupt and natural man can make such good use of common grace (by which they mean the light of nature) or of the gifts remaining after the
fall that he is able thereby gradually to obtain a greater grace—evangelical or saving grace—as well as salvation itself; and that in this way God, for his part, shows himself ready to reveal Christ to all people, since he provides to all, to a sufficient extent and in an effective manner, the means necessary for the revealing of Christ, for faith, and for repentance.

For Scripture, not to mention the experience of all ages, testifies that this is false: “He makes known his words to Jacob, his statutes and his laws to Israel; he has done this for no other nation, and they do not know his laws” (Ps. 147:19–20); “In the past God let all nations go their own way” (Acts 14:16); “They [Paul and his companions] were kept by the Holy Spirit from speaking God’s word in Asia”; and “When they had come to Mysia, they tried to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit would not allow them to” (Acts 16:6–7).

The Remonstrants were arguing not only for a universal atonement but also a kind of universal salvation, that it is possible for those who have never heard the gospel to reason their way to salvation by the “light of nature.”

They moved beyond the Reformed view of natural law and natural light to a kind of rationalist, Pelagianizing natural theology.

We must bear in mind these fundamental revisions of the Reformed confession when we read the 1610 Remonstrance, where they confessed:

ART. III. That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free-will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”

When the Arminians said that man has not saving grace “of himself,” that was formally true insofar as all humans, according to them, were endowed with the potential of believing, obeying, and persevering. They had only to actuate the potential. Notice how the Remonstrants call saving faith a “good.” This is a signal of the way they think of faith, not as we do (as a mere instrument of receiving, resting in, leaning upon Christ) but as that which is imputed to us for righteousness. They wrote that it is necessary for us to be born again but Arminius made it clear that special, saving grace comes after we believe not before. Thus, this head is positively misleading when read independently or when read without the broader context of Arminius’ writings or those of the other Remonstrants. In short, this head must be decoded rather carefully and read in conjunction with the 4th head. When they say “state of apostasy and sin” they do not mean by those words what Augustine meant contra Pelagius, nor what Luther meant contra Erasmus.

The program of the Remonstrants becomes clearer in their fourth head:

ART. IV. That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.

Again, the Remonstrance has to be read carefully. Just as soon as the Remonstrants seemed to affirm what the Reformed churches do on grace they qualify what they intend: “without prevenient or assisting…co-operative grace.” These qualifications are essential. When the Remonstrants spoke of grace, they did not intend to teach that God, his sovereign, unconditional favor raises dead sinners to new life and true faith but rather he cooperates with our free will. We know that from the testimony of the Remonstrants since, at the end of the article, they followed Arminius in teaching that grace, to be grace (by definition in their view) must be resistible. This is 180° different from the Reformed understanding of grace. As we read Scripture, if it is resistible, it is not grace.

So, Synod confessed positively:

Man was originally created in the image of God and was furnished in his mind with a true and salutary knowledge of his Creator and things spiritual, in his will and heart with righteousness, and in all his emotions with purity; indeed, the whole man was holy. However, rebelling against God at the devil’s instigation and by his own free will, he deprived himself of these outstanding gifts. Rather, in their place he brought upon himself blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in his mind; perversity, defiance, and hardness in his heart and will; and finally impurity in all his emotions (CD 3/4.1).

This is the doctrine of Heidelberg Catechism 6 and 9. We were created in righteousness and true holiness. We had the ability to obey the law and thereby to enter into blessedness (Rom 2:13) but we chose disobedience and death. The fault of the fall is ours and not God’s nor is it the fault of anything in creation. The consequences of the fall were not minor.

Man brought forth children of the same nature as himself after the fall. That is to say, being corrupt he brought forth corrupt children. The corruption spread, by God’s just judgment, from Adam to all his descendants—except for Christ alone—not by way of imitation (as in former times the Pelagians would have it) but by way of the propagation of his perverted nature (CD 3/4.2).

We are not Pelagians. We do not sin merely out of imitation of Adam. Jesus was not merely a good example. Thus, the Reformed do not equate Jesus’ “faith” with our faith.

Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin; without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform (CD 3/4.3).

When we think, speak of, and confess the doctrine of sin, we do so in Pauline terms, in Augustinian terms. This is the shared doctrine of all the high Augustinians, of all the Reformed churches. When we speak of regeneration, in this context, we are talking about the granting of new life, the initiation of a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Creation does not cooperate in creation. It does not act with God (as Arminius put it). It is acted upon by God.

It is in this context that we must interpret Synod’s language about the “light of nature.”

There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God.

Synod sought to affirm what all the Reformed affirmed about the existence of natural revelation (which Barth and the Theonomists reject) and natural law. This is basic Reformed theology, which was obscured for much of the twentieth century so that as some have tried to retrieve it for use today there has been confusion and misunderstanding.

Synod was rejecting the universalism of the Remonstrants. This is clear when they confessed: “But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God…”. Some have inferred from the clause, “…so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society” that therefore we reject the use of natural law in civil life. This is not at all what Synod was doing or confessing. They were simply affirming the limits of natural law. They were not Theonomists. They did not believe that the Mosaic civil laws ought to be enforced by the civil magistrate. They understood that the Israelite civil polity and civil laws had expired with the death of Christ. It is true that we do not use the natural law properly in “matter of nature and society.” That does not mean that those laws have no force or that they do not exist.

One of the functions of law, its pedagogical function, is to teach sinners the greatness of their sin and misery and of their need for a Savior. The Remonstrants rejected that view and tried to put us back under the law for salvation. Synod repudiated that move:

In this respect, what is true of the light of nature is true also of the Ten Commandments given by God through Moses specifically to the Jews. For man cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue, because, although it does expose the magnitude of his sin and increasingly convict him of his guilt, yet it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery, and, indeed, weakened as it is by the flesh, leaves the offender under the curse (CD 3/4.5).

The law of nature and the Ten Commandments are both law. Neither is saving. Both expose our sin. This is the right use to which Synod referred. The Remonstrants missed this great point and thereby corrupted the gospel by seeking to turn grace into works.


1. The translation of the Canons of Dort and the Rection of Errors is taken from the edition published by the United Reformed Churches in North America in Forms and Prayers.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. God said to Adam that if you disobey, you, as the representative and father of all humanity, will bring death on all as the curse of the broken covenant of works. Jesus said that unless you are born again you cannot see the kingdom of heaven. Only God can make the dead alive again in the Spirit so that they can believe in Christ for salvation. That is the righteousness of faith, the righteousness of God imputed to God’s elect for their justification, and then, through gradual sanctification by the Spirit we begin to make a small progression toward being conformed to the image of Christ which God will complete at the resurrection. For all of those who, like the Remonstrants, want salvation to be by a cooperative effort on the part of man, it is necessary to insist that we are spiritually not quite dead. That is a denial of the broken covenant of works and the curse of spiritual death that causes complete inability, so that God alone can save. We’ve seen this in the current justification controversy, where our modern Remonstrants deny the broken covenant of works, and its consequences of our total inability to do our part for final salvation. They always want to insist that there is only one covenant of conditional grace, where we can and must do our part, but they do not realize that in doing this they have made the covenant of grace a new covenant of works. What an amazing tool we have to aid in discerning false gospel through this document that was born out of the struggles of the church to refute false doctrine that denies salvation by grace ALONE, through faith ALONE, in Christ ALONE, to the glory of God ALONE.

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