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The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (3): Canons 1:16 (c)

The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (3): Canons 1:16 (c)

By Martyn McGeown. Previous article The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (3): Canons 1:16 (b)


There is a third kind of person addressed in Canons 1:16: he should fear the doctrine of reprobation. He, “regardless of God and of the Savior Jesus Christ, [has] wholly given [himself] up to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, so long as [he] is not seriously converted to God.” The unconverted person, who has no interest in believing in Jesus, who has no love for God or desire to keep his commandments, who neglects the means of grace and really hates to hear the preaching of God’s Word, who loves his sin and has no desire to turn from it, may not take comfort from the doctrine of election. He may not say, “I am a member of the church; therefore, I am elect” or “Since election is unconditional, it does not matter how I live” or “Since salvation is by grace alone, I can live as I please, without any fruit of election in my life, and still expect to go to heaven.” 

The Canons repudiate such a wicked attitude in the church. Here are a few references. God has chosen us “both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation” (Canons 1:8), which “way” includes good works, the good works which God has ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). Be careful: good works are not the way to salvation, but the way of salvation, the way that God has ordained for his saved people to walk. Good works are not part of the way to the Father (Christ alone is the way—John 14:6), but the way that we are required to walk to heaven is the way of obedience and good works. Election is “the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed… holiness… as its fruits and effects” (Canons 1:9). Not only faith, but also holiness! “Remissness [carelessness] in the observance of the divine commands” and “carnal security” are the characteristics not of the elect, but of those “who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect” (Canons 1:13). The reprobate who are left “to follow their own ways” (Canons 1:15), if they hear the preaching of the gospel either “refuse to come [believe] and be converted [or]…regardless of their danger, [they] reject the Word of life… [they] suffer it [the Word] not to make a lasting impression on the hearts” (Canons 3-4.9), and they persist in such unbelief to the end, never repenting, showing that they are reprobate. Such reprobate are not recipients of the grace of God and are either “regardless of these spiritual gifts and satisfied with [their] own condition, or [they are] in no apprehension of danger and vainly boast the possession of that which they have not” (Canons 3-4.15). 

Hypocrites in the church may take no comfort in election so long as they are unconverted. 

Similar is the testimony of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Cannot then they be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” The answer is sharp: “By no means” and provides a list of sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God (Q&A 87). All kinds of sinners will inherit God’s kingdom—God saves the vilest of the vile—but one kind will be excluded: the impenitent. It must be “declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 84).

What, then, shall the impenitent sinner be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation? Yes, say the Canons: “this doctrine is justly terrible [terrifying]” to impenitent sinners (Canons 1:16). They should tremble before the God who ordains sinners to everlasting destruction in the way of their sins. However, no man living should say, “I am irrevocably reprobate” and then, using reprobation as an excuse, continue in his sins. Instead, he must, as all sinners must, repent and believe the gospel, not prying into the secret things of God. The gospel is clear: Whoever believes in Jesus, even if he fears to be a great reprobate, shall be saved. The one who is damned is the one who refuses to believe in Jesus Christ and repent. 

As many as are called [through the preaching] are unfeignedly [seriously] called. For God hath most earnestly and truly shown in his Word what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him (Canons 2:8).

God surely and infallibly fulfills His promise to the elect. The sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer. All those who are not thus disposed, who do not repent but walk in sin, are the objects of His just wrath and excluded from the kingdom of heaven. That the preaching comes to all; and that God seriously commands to faith and repentance, and that to all those who come and believe He promises life and peace (The Declaration of Principles, III, B, 1-2)

“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:15-16).

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31).

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).


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