Canons Of Dort (25): Perservance Is Not A Covenant Of Works

In the previous essay we saw that the Reformed Churches defended perseverance by grace alone (sola gratia) against the Remonstrant attempt to deny perseverance by making grace resistible and conditional rather than sovereign and free. To see that we looked at the 1610 Remonstrance and 1618 Opinions of the Remonstrants themselves.

In this installment we should consider how Synod interpreted the Remonstrant doctrine. We see this in their “Rejection of Errors.” These rejections were given under each of the chapters or heads of doctrine and though they have often been ignored they are very illuminating. They help us today not only to see why Synod took the Remonstrant doctrine so seriously but also to understand various (other than Arminianism) errors around us today.

Synod rejected the error of those who teach that:

the perseverance of true believers is not an effect of election or a gift of God produced by Christ’s death, but a condition of the new covenant which man, before what they call his “peremptory” election and justification, must fulfill by his free will.

As my friend Bob Godfrey says, in the Remonstrant (Arminian) theology, God is not said to elect persons as much as to have elected conditions. Whoever meets those conditions is elect and will be finally saved, if one does not resist grace and fall away. It is a radically different understanding of election, of grace, and of salvation. It is fundamentally a legal understanding of salvation.

Beginning with Arminius, who died the year before the Remonstrance was published in 1610, the Remonstrant theologians and pastors rejected the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works before the fall. This was the way that the Reformed expressed the basic Protestant distinction between law and gospel, i.e., the conviction that there are two kinds of words in Scripture. The law says: “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) or “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13; ESV). The gospel says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or “the serpent shall strike his heel and he shall strike his head” (Gen 3:15). These are essentially two kinds of speech. One demand perfect righteousness of us (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10). The other promises that someone else, Jesus, will perform that righteousness for us, in our place, as our substitute, and that righteousness will be imputed to us who believe. The historical, covenantal way of speaking about gospel is to call it a “covenant of grace.” The early Reformed theologian For example, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) explicitly correlated the law/gospel distinction to the distinction between the covenants of works (law) and grace (gospel).

Typically, however, when Reformed folk have denied the covenant of works before the fall, that covenant does not go away. It typically returns but this time as part of the covenant of grace. This usually happens because some are worried that a gospel of unconditional acceptance with God for Christ’s sake will not produce sufficient personal holiness. This was a driving concern of the Remonstrants (Arminians). They were highly critical of the level of sanctification among the Reformed churches. Like the medieval church before them they thought that if we put Christians back under the law for salvation, that would produce more sanctity. They denied doing this, of course, but they did it nonetheless.

When the Reformed churches speak of perseverance, then, we speak of it as a gift or a grace. Gifts are freely given. Grace is God’s free favor toward sinners. That gift or grace was earned for us by Christ and is received by us through faith alone, itself a gift of grace. For the Remonstrants, however, the new covenant is a legal covenant in which God has established conditions that we must satisfy in order finally to be saved. In other words, the Remonstrants (like some ostensibly Reformed writers today) taught a two-stage doctrine of salvation. We are finally saved through our perseverance. It is not a gift or grace. It is a condition to be met just like “do this and live” is a condition to be met. That they made it “cooperation with grace” (as the medieval church had) changed nothing about its fundamentally legal character.

Synod’s next rejection clarifies the issues.

We reject the error of those who teach that God does provide the believer with sufficient strength to persevere and is ready to preserve this strength in him if he performs his duty, but that even with all those things in place which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God is pleased to use to preserve faith, it still always depends on the choice of man’s will whether or not he perseveres (Emphasis added).

For the Remonstrants, God is ready to help those who help themselves. As Synod said in the very next line in this Rejection, “this is obviously Pelagian.” Indeed it is. Adding grace to the mix does not make it less Pelagian because they have simply re-defined grace. This formula of the Remonstrants was lifted almost verbatim from the late-medieval Pelagians opposed by the late-medieval Augustinians and the entire Reformation.

“For it is by grace you have been saved…” is the gospel. “For it is by sufficient cooperation with grace” is not good news at all. How much cooperation? Of what quality and who says? Without question, once one enters this approach we are in a spiritual and theological quagmire.

Synod confessed, against the legalism of the Remonstrants, that their doctrine is

…against the enduring consensus of evangelical teaching which takes from man all cause for boasting and ascribes the praise for this benefit only to God’s grace. It is also against the testimony of the apostle: “It is God who keeps us strong to the end, so that we will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8).

Indeed it is. Beware of those suggest that our salvation now is merely provisional and that we have yet to stand before God and pass a covenant of works or who speak of a “final salvation through works” because, however much they make their boast of being Reformed, their doctrine and piety is more Remonstrant than Reformed.

    Post authored by:

  • 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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3 comments

  1. This series on the Canons of Dort has been such a blessing and inspiration as it shows the efforts and precision of faithful men God called to defend the church in its perennial struggle to maintain the covenant of grace against those who would turn it into the covenant works by adding conditions that we must fulfill in order that we might be accepted by God, as though God has not done enough in Christ, not only that we should be justified by trusting in Him alone, but that we might respond to Him in love for so great a salvation. “We are His masterpiece, He has created us anew in Christ Jesus for good works, which He prepared for us to do.” Eph. 2:10 The Canons of Dort set forth all the precise reasons, defending the covenant of grace, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God’s glory alone. Thank you explaining the historical background and importance of this amazing document. It should be a priority for us all to study it, so that we can defend the faith when we are confronted by those who would put us back under the covenant of works, when Satan tempts us to question our acceptance with God, and to effectively give a reason of the hope that is in us when we share the gospel.

  2. Perseverance is a direct result of God’s election. According to Rom 8:29-30 it’s a necessary part of “eternal” life already begun at calling, regeneration and justification. To deny Likens the entire redemptive work of the Trinity a mock trial and a hypothetical dependent upon something in man to keep himself.

    Lutherans claim unconditional election yet also teach non elect are monergistically born again yet lose salvation and do not persevere. To deny perseverance or to espouse non elect have parts of the whole of salvation is to fail to see that al the graces of salvation are direct corollaries of sovereign election. From the atonement to calling, to regeneration, to faith and repentance, to justification, intercession, sanctification and glorification, all is a package deal lovingly delivered from the Triune God sola gratia. To deny this robs God of glory and turns salvation into a work.

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