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The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (2): Canons 1:12

The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (2): Canons 1:12

By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (1): Heidelberg Catechism, A. 86.

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The Canons of Dordt deal with assurance in four of the five heads of doctrine except the second head, “Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby.” In Head One the subject is the assurance of election; in Head Three/Four the subject is the assurance of regeneration/conversion; and in Head Five the subject is the assurance of final perseverance. 

In none of those sections of the Canons is assurance based upon the good works of the believer; in none of them are good works the cause of assurance; in none of them are good works the instrument or the means of assurance. 

In addition, the Canons do not address the assurance of justification. Justification, including the assurance of justification, the assurance that we are acquitted at the judgment seat of God and declared righteous at his tribunal, is by faith alone without our good works. It is possible to “incur a deadly guilt… interrupt the exercise of faith” (Canons 5:5) when we fall into a gross transgression or walk in sin for a time, but even in those times God “[does not] suffer [us] to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification” (5:6). Why not—because, as Canons 5:7 explains it, “[God] … certainly and effectually renews [us] to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for [our sins]” (5:7). When we fall, even grievously, we do not cease to be God’s children—he expresses a holy, chastising anger, but not hatred, toward us; and even with “a deadly guilt” which we feel in our consciences until we repent, God does not condemn us. There is no condemnation for the believer, even in his lamentable falls—consequences, yes; condemnation, no. But if a person suffers a lamentable fall into sin and never repents, he proves that he never was a believer. 

The first eleven articles of Head One deal with the doctrine of predestination, especially election, God’s choice in love of his people in Jesus Christ. Election is unconditional, eternal, and unchangeable. “The elect [cannot] be cast away, nor their number diminished” (Canons 1:11). 

The question is, “How can we know that we personally, in distinction from others, are the elect of God?” The Arminians claimed that it was impossible for anyone to know that. “There is,” they said, “in this life no fruit and no consciousness of the unchangeable election to glory, nor any certainty” (Canons 1:R:7).

In Canons 1:12 our Reformed fathers give the answer: “The elect … attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election.” Take note that the Canons teach that the elect do actually attain assurance of election. Preaching which fosters doubt, so that the child of God fears that he might not be elect, is not faithful to the Canons or to the Word of God. “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God,” says Paul to a young church in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. How did Paul know that, so that he could confidently affirm it? Verse 3 explains, “Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father.” Paul saw the work of the Thessalonians, work that was the fruit of faith (“work of faith”). Paul saw the labor/toil of the Thessalonians, labor/toil that was the fruit of love (“labour of love”). Paul saw the patience, the patient endurance of trials, of the Thessalonians, patience that was the fruit of hope (“patience of hope”). He concluded that these men, women, and children who evidenced such faith, love, and hope in their work, labor, and patience were believers, and being believers were God’s elect. 

In other words, Paul “[observed] in [the Thessalonians] with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God” (Canons 1:12). Election, teach the Canons in 1:9, is “the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects.” 

In Canons 1:12 we do not attain assurance of our election “by inquisitively prying into the deep things of God,” as if we could ascend into heaven and take a peek into the Book of Life—is my name there? Instead, assurance is by faith. Assurance is faith, and faith is assurance. Faith looks nowhere else but to Jesus Christ, to his person and work, for salvation, for blessedness, for peace. When the believer confidently looks to Christ, he can say, “I know that Christ died for my sins; I know that in him I am perfectly righteous; I know that because of him I can never be condemned; he is my full salvation; and I will not add anything to what he has done for me.” 

That is why Canons 1:12 begins with faith when it lists the fruits of election: “a true faith in Christ.” Without a true faith in Christ the other fruits, which are the fruits of faith, do not follow. 

So how do we know that we are elect, eternally and unchangeably so? “By observing in [ourselves] .... the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God.” Paul named some of those fruits in 1 Thessalonians 1:3—when he observed the Thessalonians’ “work of faith,” their “labour of love,” and their “patience of hope,” he concluded, “knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God” (1 Thess. 1:4). Later, Paul writes to the same church: “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath chosen you from the beginning through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Sanctification and faith were not the cause of the Thessalonians’ election, but they were evidence and infallible fruit. Since they believed and walked in sanctification of life, Paul knew that they belonged to the election of grace. Had they walked impenitently in darkness, Paul would have had no such certainty, and would not have encouraged them to have confidence in their election. Instead, he would have warned them that “remissness in the observance of the divine commands” or “carnal security” are “the usual effects of rash presumption … in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect” (Canons 1:13). 

We must never forget that God does not merely elect us unto everlasting salvation, but also “to the way of salvation, which He hath ordained that we should walk therein” (Canons 1:8). If a person refuses to walk in the way of salvation, which the allusion to Ephesians 2:10 proves is the way of good works, he cannot have the assurance of election; he may not presume to have faith. 

So if a person lives in malice and envy, hating God and his neighbor, he may not say, “[I am] delivered to do all these abominations” (Jer. 7:10). Delivered to oppress the stranger, and the widow; delivered to shed innocent blood; delivered to walk after other gods—God forbid! (see v. 6). If he will not walk in the ways of the elect, to which God’s elect are chosen, he may not view himself as belonging to God’s elect.

Peter makes the same point in 2 Peter 1: the believers to whom he writes are called and elected, and Peter urges them to “make [their] calling and election sure” (v. 10). They are to give all diligence so that they are certain that they are called (effectually called out of darkness by the Holy Spirit) and elected (chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world). Peter explains how: “giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue… knowledge… temperance… patience… godliness… brotherly kindness… charity” (vv. 5-7). One who has these virtues, which are the fruits of faith in his life, and, therefore, “the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God” (Canons 1:12), will make his calling and election sure, he will know his calling and election and be sure of them. One who walks in the opposite vices, malice, envy, hatred, evil lust, pride, and the external expressions of such vices, will not have, and may not have, assurance of his calling and election. It is simply not true to say, “I can sin as much as I like, and my assurance cannot be affected” or “Good works have nothing to do with my assurance.” They are not the basis, cause, instrument, or means of our assurance, but their absence jeopardises assurance: “But he that lacketh these things (virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, charity) is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins” (v. 9). A blind, spiritually myopic person who has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins is a person without assurance, one who has not made his calling and election sure. 

Return to Canons 1:12: what do we observe in ourselves as the “infallible fruits of election”? We observe “true faith in Christ:” we experience that “by that grace of God [we] are enabled to believe with the heart, and love [our] Savior” (Canons 3-4:13). We observe “filial fear:” we experience that we trust God as our Father (filial is an adjective which means “pertaining to sons;” a sonlike fear), and we revere and obey him, as a son reveres, honors, and obeys his father. We observe “a godly sorrow for sin;” we experience that we hate sin, that we avoid it, and that we flee from it, and that we are grieved when we disobey God’s commandments and bring dishonor to our God. We observe “a hungering and thirsting after righteousness:” this is not a hungering after justification, for we are already justified, but a longing to live more and more in harmony with God’s law, a desire to please him. 

These “infallible fruits” are not spectacular in the eyes of the world or even in the church, but they are precious to us. “To hunger and thirst after deliverance from misery and after life, and to offer to God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed” (Canons 3-4:R:4).

We observe these things in ourselves “with a spiritual joy and a holy pleasure.” These things do not make us proud because we see them as “fruits,” fruits which we could never bring forth except in union with Jesus Christ. These things give us joy and pleasure and we conclude, “I could never have these things (faith, reverence for God, sorrow over my sin, and a desire to have a life conformed to God’s standard) if I were not elect.” These fruits are not perfect, of course (for our best works are defiled with sin and we have many evil inclinations in our hearts), but they are real, genuine fruits, fruits in which we observe the effect of the grace of God in our lives. That gives us spiritual joy and holy pleasure. And it gives us spiritual joy and holy pleasure to observe them in our fellow believers, in our children and young people, in our friends and family, in our fellow church members. 

Thus we attain the assurance of our eternal and unchangeable election.

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