The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (3): Canons 1:16 (a)
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (2): Canons 1:12.
Although this article (Canons 1:12) does not directly address the topic of good works, it is important in Dordt’s treatment of assurance. In the conclusion the Canons address certain wicked slanders against the Reformed faith, such as:
[The doctrine of Reformed churches concerning predestination] renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please; and therefore, that they may safely perpetrate every species of the most atrocious crimes; and that, if the reprobate should even perform truly all the works of the saints, their obedience would not in the least contribute to their salvation; that the same doctrine teaches, that God, by a mere arbitrary act of his will, without the least respect or view to sin, has predestinated the greatest part of the world to eternal damnation; and, has created them for this very purpose; that in the same manner in which the election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety, etc.
The context of the beautiful sixteenth article of the First Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dordt is the fearful truth of reprobation. Reprobation is the opposite of election. If predestination were a coin, election would be on one side and reprobation on the other side. Some professing Calvinists attempt to affirm election while denying reprobation, but that is impossible. Where reprobation is denied, a denial of election will follow.
Reprobation is rejection; indeed, the Canons begin the rejection of errors section by referring to the “true doctrine concerning Election and Rejection.” In election God has “from eternity chosen particular persons to whom above others in time He will grant faith in Christ and perseverance” (Canons 1, Rejection 1), while in reprobation God has rejected certain persons. God has “passed [them] by” and “hath decreed to leave [them] in the common misery [of sin]” (Canons 1:15). Moreover, God has decreed “not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion,” but rather “leaving them … to follow their own ways,” God has decreed to “punish them forever” (Canons 1:15). Such a decree, declared our Reformed fathers, is rooted in God’s “sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure” (Canons 1:15).
If a person has faith and the grace of conversion, therefore, he has them from God’s eternal decree of unconditional election; if he lacks these benefits, it is because God has not yet worked them in him if he is an as yet unregenerate elect person, or it is because God has decreed never to give them to him according to his eternal decree of unconditional reprobation.
The theologians at Dordt, being far from cold, unfeeling men without a pastoral heart, recognized the effect such a doctrine might have upon the tender consciences of God’s people. They also knew by experience how heretics, such as the Remonstrants proved themselves to be, exploited this doctrine to blaspheme the Reformed faith. Therefore, our Reformed fathers were not content to state the doctrine of reprobation; they applied that doctrine and added Article 16, addressing it to three kinds of people.
The first kind of person does not yet experience “a lively faith in Christ, an assured confidence of soul, peace of conscience, an earnest endeavor after filial obedience, and glorying in God through Christ.” The Canons do not say that this person does not possess these things, but he does not yet experience them. Compare Canons 1:16 with Canons 1:12: the “infallible fruits of election” are “a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow over sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” When we observe such things in ourselves, we “attain the assurance of [our] eternal and unchangeable election.”
But this category of person does not yet experience that. He does not observe such infallible fruits in himself, which distresses him greatly. These fruits are “efficaciously wrought” in believers, but he does not experience them. How dreadful!
Yet he does not throw his hands up in despair and say, “There is no point in me going to hear the preaching because I am probably reprobate!” Instead, he “persist[s] in the use of the means which God hath appointed for working these graces in us.” He knows that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). In obedience to the Fourth Commandment he “diligently frequents the church of God” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 103). He knows that faith proceeds “from the Holy Ghost who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 65). Therefore, he places himself under the preaching in the hope that God will use the preaching for his spiritual welfare.
Such a person, whether he knows or experiences it or not, has grace. Article 16 speaks of a “season of richer grace,” which presupposes that he already has a measure of grace. Not that everyone who hears the preaching has grace: some hearers are reprobate or hypocrites and grace is withheld from them, but it is not so with this person. He is troubled and he longs for the things that he lacks in his experience. He longs to know that he has a lively faith, but his faith is weak and languid—not lively. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” He longs for an assured confidence of soul and peace of conscience, but he experiences all kinds of doubts and fears, for he “struggles with various carnal—that is, fleshly—doubts” and “grievous temptations” (Canons 5:11). He longs to experience an earnest endeavor after filial obedience, but he hardly dares call his efforts obedience, so defiled and imperfect they are; and he has only a weak sense of being a child of God. He longs to experience a glorying in God through Christ: he loves God sincerely, but he can hardly call it glorying.
Is that you? Is that sometimes, indeed often, your experience?
The reaction of such a person to the preaching of the truth of reprobation is alarm, and even terror. When reprobation is mentioned, he sees his sins. When reprobation is preached, he trembles. When reprobation is set forth from Scripture, he is tempted to “rank [himself] among the reprobate” (Canons 1:16). Perhaps, he says, “The absence of fruit in my life, fruit which I long to see, but cannot perceive, is evidence that God has rejected me. If I were one of God’s elect, I would perceive the fruit of his election in my life.”
The Canons give comforting counsel to such a person: “[You] ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor rank [yourself] among the reprobate” (Canons 1:16). Sorrow over sin, earnest desires for grace and pardon, earnest desires for holiness: these are the marks of a Christian. Belgic Confession Article 29 explains the marks not only of the true church, but also of the Christian:
With respect to those, who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians: namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood, as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit, all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in him.
The marks of a Christian are not showy: faith in Christ, which is defined by “having receiving Christ the only Savior;” repentance (avoidance of sin and crucifying the lusts of the flesh); and obedience (following righteousness, loving God and the neighbor). Where those are present, even imperfectly, there is a true, sincere Christian. The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper used in Reformed churches contains similar sentiments:
Considering that we seek our life out of ourselves in Jesus Christ, we acknowledge that we lie in the midst of death; therefore, notwithstanding we feel many infirmities and miseries in ourselves, as namely, that we have not perfect faith, and that we do not give ourselves to serve God with that zeal as we are bound, but have daily to strive with the weakness of our faith, and the evil lusts of our flesh; yet, since we are (by the grace of the Holy Spirit) sorry for these weaknesses, and earnestly desirous to fight against our unbelief, and to live according to all the commandments of God: therefore we rest assured that no sin or infirmity, which still remaineth against our will, in us, can hinder us from being received of God in mercy.
How familiar! We do not have perfect faith, we are not as zealous as we ought to be, and we strive against our evil lusts. One who has imperfect faith, one who sorrows over and flees from sin, one who has a small beginning of the new obedience, such a person must not view himself as reprobate. Why not? Because his holy longings after Christ, his holy hatred for sin, and his holy desires to obey God, as languid as they may be, are sure indications that God is at work in him by his grace. Let him continue to use the means of grace. Let him lay aside “all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” and let him “receive the engrafted word which is able to save [his soul” (James 1:21). Let him, as a newborn babe, “desire the sincere milk of the word that [he] may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2). Let him not say, “Woe is me, for God has rejected me!