Canons of Dort (32): Our Sovereign God Uses Means To Encourage Us

The Augustinian Renaissance

For perhaps 20 years we have been in the midst of a movement which Collin Hansen (2008) described as Young, Restless, and Reformed. Others have spoken of the “New Calvinists” (see the resources below). The one doctrine that animates these movements is the sovereignty of God. For many American evangelicals it is a given that God has his opinion and we have ours. That was the evangelical world I met in the 1970s. For many, perhaps most evangelicals, the idea that God is absolutely sovereign is considered an unknown, exotic, or bizarre doctrine. Of course, the doctrine of divine sovereignty has deep roots in the history of Christian thought. In the fifth century the Council of Ephesus (431) condemned Pelagianism, which undermined divine sovereignty and openly denied the doctrine of grace. By the 9th century, when Gottschalk of Orbais resuscitated Augustine’s theology, he was beaten and put under house arrest. In the 13th century, however, Thomas Aquinas taught unequivocally God’s divine sovereignty in unconditional election and even in reprobation. In the late medieval period there was a renaissance of Augustinian theology and that movement helped to fuel the Protestant Reformation. It was essential to Martin Luther’s Protestant breakthrough as he rediscovered Augustine’s doctrines of grace while he lectured on the Psalms in 1513–14 and the magisterial Protestants (as distinct from the Anabaptists, who mostly rejected the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone) followed him. Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon (contrary to some reports) and Calvin were all thoroughgoing Augustinians.

The Remonstrants, however, rejected the Protestant Augustinian consensus. They tried to take the Reformed churches back to the theology that had flourished between Aquinas and the the neo-Augustinian renaissance, i.e., the theology of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Arminius adopted Molina’s doctrine of middle knowledge (see the introductory posts in this series for more on this), which made God dependent upon human free choice. That revision gained a stronghold among evangelicals in Anglo-American evangelical theology in the 18th century (e.g., the Wesleys) and more or less swept the field in the 19th and 20th centuries in America in the Second Great Awakening and its successor movements.

Thus, the YRR movement is a welcome return to aspects of classic Augustinian theology but the downside of this recovery is that it is truncated. It has no doctrine of the church and its adherents mostly downplay a vital aspect of the Reformed confession: the God who is sovereign also uses means to accomplish his purposes. Many of those who adhere to the YRR/New Calvinism reject the Reformed doctrine of the church and sacraments.

He Sovereignly Ordains Means

Augustine himself understood that the God who elects sinners unconditionally (and reprobates some sinners) from all eternity has also instituted means by which he works. To be sure, for a variety of reasons he tended to assign more power to the sacraments (Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) than they actually have but still, he understood that God works through them to accomplish his purposes. So, the debate that the Reformed had with Augustine, as it were, was not whether God uses means but how. This is in contrast to the debate between the confessional Reformed and modern evangelicals, which is a debate about whether God uses means.

The Spirit Uses Means

At the Synod of Dort, against the Remonstrants (Arminians), the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles affirmed the importance of means the means of grace (media gratia) In books 3 and 4 of his Institutes Calvin discussed the means of grace extensively. The means are those things that God uses to bring his people to new life and true faith and to strengthen them in that faith and to enable them to persevere.

We confess:

And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments (Canons of Dort, 5.14).

This is what the Reformed had said in Heidelberg Catechism 65:

Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts1 by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

God the Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel to bring his elect to new life (regeneration). It is the regenerate who believe and it is those who believe who are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. The same sovereign Holy Spirit uses the sacraments to strengthen the faith and perseverance in faith of believers.

Paul points us in this direction in Romans 10:14: “How then will they call on him whom they have not believed and how will they believe him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”

This very literal translation is interesting because how the way Paul so closely relates Christ and the preacher. One does not pray to a God in whom they do not believe. Notice what Paul says next: “how will they believe him&nmdash;not “in him” but believe him. When Christ is preached, Christ is speaking. To believe Christ preached is to believe Christ. No one can believe unless Christ is preached to them.

Paul takes this as simple matter of logic. He gives us a syllogism, i.e., a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. The conclusion follows from the premises and the premises are true but they are not the premises of many evangelicals for whom the means (in this case the preacher) are considered irrelevant. It was not so for Paul and it was not so for the Synod of Dort.

With Paul, we say that God the Spirit operates “through the preaching of the gospel” (per prædicationem Evangelii) to begin faith. The Spirit also uses the hearing of the gospel, the reading of the gospel, meditation on the gospel, its exhortations, threats (minas), and the use of the sacraments to conserve, continue, and perfect our faith.

What should we make of Synod’s language regarding “threats” of the gospel? The English Reformed theologian, William Gurnall wrote:

The news which the gospel hath in its mouth to tell us poor sinners is good. It speaks promises, and they are significations of some good intended by God for poor sinners. The law, that brings ill news to town. Threatenings are the ‘lingua vernacula legis’—the native language of the law. It can speak no other language to sinners but denunciations of evil to come upon them, but the gospel smiles on poor sinners, and plains [smooths] the wrinkles that sit on the law’s brow, by proclaiming promises.

Properly, the law threatens sinners and the gospel promises free salvation. We should say that Synod was speaking improperly or broadly here—not to say incorrectly. Synod was thinking of the preaching warning hearers of the jeopardy that attaches to unbelief. We have seen Synod repeatedly distinguish too often and unmistakably between the law (“do this and live”) and gospel (“Christ has done”) to think that here, near the end of the Canons, that it was suddenly changing course and turning the gospel into law. We need to be hearing the good news. We need to be reading it. We need to hear its instruction as well as its sweet promises.

When believers absent themselves from the “due use of the ordinary means” (Westminster Confession, 1.7) of grace they are abandoning the divinely instituted matrix of assurance and perseverance.

Means Are Not Magic

The other great error here is to do as Rome has done and as the Federal Visionists do and that is to turn the means into magic. Rome does this through her doctrine that the sacraments confer new life automatically (ex opere operato) because of what they are. The Federal Visionists (see the resources below) teach this also in their doctrine of conditional election, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, and adoption through baptism. Both Rome and the Federal Vision turn the sacraments (signs and seals) into the thing itself. It is akin to regarding a picture of my wife as my wife. Sacraments are signs and promises but they are not the thing itself. If they become the thing itself, then they are not sacraments. Christ has promised his benefits to those who believe not to those who are mere recipients of his sacraments. Esau was circumcised. He was initiated into the visible covenant community but he never had new life. He was never a believer. He was never elect in any way: “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated” (Mal 1:2; Rom 9:13). Judas was never regenerated. Simon the Magician was never regenerated or elect. Ananias and Sapphira were never elect or regenerated. The same is true of the other “waterless clouds” (Jude 12) mentioned throughout the New Testament, who participate outwardly in the life of the church (Heb 6:4) but who trample underfoot the Son of God and profane the blood of the covenant (Heb 10:29). This happens because there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: externally and internally. Simon et al. had only an external relation to the covenant of grace. They were outwardly members (Rom 2:28). They were in Israel but they were not of Israel (Rom 9:6).

We should not, however, over-react to the Roman and FV abuse of the means of grace (preaching, the sacraments, and prayer) by making less of them than they are. They are divinely instituted means and instruments. They are vital to our assurance of faith. We are weak sinners and we need to be reminded constantly that Christ loves us and gave himself for us. We need to be present to hear the gospel in our ears and to see it made visible in baptism and the supper. We need to hear our brothers and sisters singing God’s Word around us. We need to join with them and with the minister in prayer. Our Lord who gave himself for us has also given these things to us to strengthen us and carry us through our pilgrimage. The Spirit operates mysteriously through these means. By baptism he sets us apart and continues to testify to us of the reality signified by baptism in the Word preached, heard, and read. In the supper the Spirit mysteriously feeds us on the body of Christ (John 6:51). The elements do not become the literal body and blood (contra Rome) nor is he bodily “in, with, and under” (contra the Lutherans) the elements, nor does baptism itself confer new life (contra the Lutherans, the Campellites and so-called Boston Church of Christ). Baptism is not itself new life but it is a sign of it and a seal to those who believe.



The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.

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