Canons of Dort (24): Synod’s Pastoral Concern For Assurance

As Bob Godfrey has well illustrated in his new book on the Canons of Dort, Saving the Reformation, the theology of the Synod of Dort was eminently pastoral. Synod was precise in its response to the Remonstrants but it was not technical. The Canons of Synod were not technical or academic, even if they were informed by the academic work of some of the delegates and other Reformed theologians across Europe and the British Isles. Remember, the Reformation was only about a century old when Synod began to meet. Arguably, if Luther did not reach his Protestant views (as he himself said) until 1519, then the Reformation was 99 years old when Synod began meeting.

Certainly the Remonstrant attempt to undermine the Reformation by re-defining grace, faith, justification, and salvation was evident in their doctrine of conditional election and universal atonement but the pastoral consequences of that doctrine became even clearer in the fifth chapter (head) of the 1610 Remonstrance where 42 Arminian ministers confessed:

ART. V. That those who an incorporated into Christ by a true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his lifegiving spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory, it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand; and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled, nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the word of Christ, John x. 28: “Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.

Under the pretense of uncertainty, the Remonstrants sketch their doctrine of assurance (or rather the lack thereof) when they suggested that there are those who are actually, really “incorporated into Christ,” i.e., united to Christ and actually, truly “partakers of his life-giving spirit” with “full power” to “strive” toward godliness and to “win the victory” (because it is in doubt) with the “assisting grace” of the Holy Spirit. Again, as we have been noting through this series, in the hands of the Remonstrants, grace is not sovereign, saving, efficacious in the way that the Apostle Paul had spoken of it nor in the way that Augustine and his followers in the Reformation had spoken of it. In Arminius’ theology and in that of his followers, grace became once again “assisting.” Grace does not secure its object and end. It facilitates. At best, in the Remonstrant conception, grace more like a performance-enhancing drug than it is the powerful, saving favor of God. Arguably, however, the Remonstrants had an even lower or weaker view of grace as a natural endowment with which God is prepared to “co-act” as William of Ockham had taught in the 14th century and as Gabriel Biel had taught in the 15th century.

We see this very thing in the conditional language used by the Remonstrants. Christ, they said, “extends to them his hand” but that hand is effective only under certain conditions: “if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive.” Again, this is more the theology of the 18th century American founder Ben Franklin, who said “God helps those who help themselves” than it is the theology of Abraham, Moses, or the Apostle Paul, who all, by God’s grace alone (sola gratia knew the greatness of their sin and misery and who were raised from spiritual death to spiritual life not by cooperation with grace but by grace alone.

The Remonstrant doctrine, however, of “if only” signals their fundamental dissatisfaction with the biblical and Reformation doctrine of grace alone. The Remonstrant doctrine was grace and cooperation. This was nothing but a return to the very medieval doctrine that the Reformation had rejected with heart and soul.

From here, however, things only get worse. Next, the Remonstrants suggested without taking ownership of their doctrine, that it might be possible for a true person (whom they described as united to Christ) “through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace…”. In 1610, largely for political reasons, they refused to affirm that this was their doctrine but contemporary scholars or Arminius’ writings find this very doctrine in the works that he wrote but never published in his lifetime. In other words, he taught this very Remonstrant doctrine of resistible grace to his students and others but did not publish it or present it to the church for examination.

At the Synod of Dort, in their Opinions, the Remonstrants made clear that they had, indeed, embraced what they had only suggested eight years earlier: “True believers call fall from true faith and can fall into such sins as cannot be consistent with true and justifying faith; not only is it possible for this to happen, but it even happens frequently.”

Like the Romanist critics of the Reformation and the Anabaptists, the Remonstrants were worried that the Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide (by faith alone) would lead Christians to lead impious lives. Like Paul’s opponents, they worried that free salvation would lead Christians to conclude that we may sin that grace might abound (Rom 6:1). We see this in their Opinions when they rejected various Reformed doctrines as “harmful to piety and good morals,” that true believers sin only out of weakness and ignorance, that believers cannot fall from grace even when they sin, that no number of sins are able to invalidate election, that all sins past, present, and future have been remitted, that true believers may commit gross sins (e.g., adultery or homicide), repent and be restored to communion.

Here we see the effect of their redefinition of election as conditional. For the Remonstrants, the only way to ensure that Christians would become holy and remain that way is to put them in a conditional covenant or what the Reformed called a covenant of works.

In this brief survey of the Remonstrant doctrine of apostasy and resistible grace we can see for ourselves why the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles were so alarmed.

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