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Secret Recesses of the Heart

The Canons of Dordt are often considered heavy stuff. Pretty doctrinal. Not easy to understand. Good for ministers and the more mature members of the church. But some think it to be out of reach for the common pew-sitter—and especially for young people.
It is true that the Canons of Dordt are doctrine, that is, teachings. The Canons set forth the answer of the Reformed fathers to the error of the Arminians concerning God’s work of saving his chosen sinners. It is true that there are places in the Canons where the presentation and argumentation might require some deeper thinking. However, for the most part, the teaching of the Canons is understood without a lot of difficulties.
It is true that among the authors of the Canons of Dordt were men of great intellect. They obviously worked hard to be very clear and precise in their answers to the crafty arguments of the Arminians. This they did with their feet on the ground. They never forgot the responsibility to write in such a way that the normal member of the pew could understand. (This is true in spite of the practice of that day to write in very long sentences.) This they accomplished by being biblical. The Canons are full of phrases from the Bible. And this enabled them to communicate truth reflecting scripture’s simplicity and practicality.
I have been assigned the task of presenting the practical application of the third and fourth heads of the Canons. This section of the Canons treats scripture’s teaching of man’s corruption and God’s manner of saving his chosen sinners. There is so much that I would like to say about this. I really think that I could write quite a few Beacon Lights articles on this subject. But to keep things simple I’d like to focus on what I believe to be the most practical article of Canons III, IV. It is Article 15. In a very clear and powerful way, this article best presents the practical implications of the teachings of God’s sovereign work of saving his people.
It does this in three ways.
First, there is the simple statement with which the article begins: “God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any.”
Second, in the middle of the article, it states that anyone who receives God’s grace “owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever.”
Third, the article concludes by describing the proper perspective anyone who receives God’s undeserved grace should have to others. “With respect to those who make an external profession of faith, and live regular lives [show amendment of life], we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner. For the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us. And as to others, who have not yet been called, it is our duty to pray for them to God, who calls the things that are not, as if they were. But we are in no wise to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we had made ourselves to differ.”
Let us look at each of these three parts.
“God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any.”
There is the thinking that God ought to save all men. Or there is the thinking that man has the right to be saved. However, man (Adam) consciously and purposefully refused to give loving obedience to God. In committing such a grievous sin against God, Adam forfeited for himself and all of his descendants all the excellent gifts with which he was created. As a result, he and all his children are spiritually blind, perverse in judgment, wicked, rebellious, and horribly stubborn in heart and will, and most impure in his affections. Every human being is conceived in sin. We are by nature children of wrath. We are incapable of doing any saving good. We are constantly prone to do evil because we are spiritually dead in sin. We are slaves to sin.
With regard to such sinners, God is not obliged to save. Rather he is obliged, in his righteous justice, to punish every human being.
That any human is saved is solely because of God’s grace. Grace is a love undeserved and unmerited. Everyone who receives grace is undeserving of it. And everyone who receives God’s love is to live his own life aware that he does not deserve in any sense to receive God’s favor. It is grace—undeserved love. God is under no obligation to confer grace on any human.
This clearly implies that man does not and cannot merit any favor with God. If the works of man merited with God, then God would be obliged to man. This is what Romans 4:4 means, “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.” Salvation is not by works. It is by grace alone without works.
This first practical application of the truth of divine, gracious salvation is intimately connected with the second practical application found in Article 15. “He therefore who becomes the subject of this grace, owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever.”
That anyone is saved is to be wholly ascribed to God! The salvation of spiritually dead sinners has to be a divine work. Sinners who are graciously saved owe God an eternal debt of gratitude!
The knowledge of gracious election affords to the children of God reason for daily humility before God and for rendering grateful returns of ardent love to him who first manifested so great a love towards them. Every recipient of grace is moved to thankfulness. This is also the thought of the third part of the Heidelberg Catechism. The ones God is pleased to save are obliged in gratitude to live a life of thankfulness. The gratitude of one saved by grace is seen in loving obedience to God’s commandments and in sincere prayer.
The third practical part of Article 15 is at the end of the article. “With respect to those who make an external profession of faith, and live regular lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner. For the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us. And as to others, who have not yet been called, it is our duty to pray for them to God, who calls the things that are not, as if they were. But we are in no wise to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we had made ourselves to differ.”
The first two practical applications of the truth of divine, gracious, particular salvation found in Article 15 lead to the third practical application of this truth. Everyone who is powerfully and irresistibly saved by grace alone walks humbly with his God and with his neighbor. As our love for God cannot be separated from our love of the neighbor (the second and great commandment is like to the first), so our walk with God in humble gratitude cannot be separated from our humble walk with those humans God puts in our path.
It is very interesting to see how our fathers would have the humble, saved believer look at his neighbors, namely, as either those who make an external profession of faith (with a corresponding walk of life) or those who have not yet been called. Very interesting indeed! The neighbor is not to be viewed as unregenerated, for the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us. Correspondingly, the neighbor is not to be viewed as reprobate, for the knowledge of whom God elected and whom he reprobated is part of the secret things which belong to Jehovah our God (Deut. 29:29). Instead, our fathers, following the example of the apostle, would have us view our neighbors as either to be spoken of in the most favorable manner or as the objects of our prayers.
With regard to those who make no profession of faith, our Reformed fathers declare that we are to pray for them. We may not stand aloof from them, criticizing and condemning. We may never give the impression to our non-professing neighbor that we would never do what they are doing. Instead, one way in which the command to love our neighbor is to be expressed is that those saved by grace will be praying for their ungodly neighbors. Notice that the wording of this article is almost like a warning: we are in no wise to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we had made ourselves to differ. We did not save ourselves. Nor do we keep ourselves saved. It is all divine, sovereign grace—the undeserved and unmerited love of God
And because they know that that the grace which saved them and which keeps them saved is that powerful grace of the Almighty Creator, they pray to him for their neighbor. He created the physical creation by calling it into existence. He spoke, and it was done. He called everything into existence as if it already existed.
As he did and does in the physical creation, so God performs his spiritual work of re-creating. He calls spiritual life into existence and keeps it in existence. He alone calls the things that are not as if they were!
Notice that the powerful reason for this most practical application of the doctrines of grace by the recipients of grace is humility. Humility is seeing oneself as unworthy of God’s favor or of any good gift from him. Humility is the very opposite of pride, of haughtiness. Humility knows that he has done absolutely nothing to earn God’s favor and be saved, and he never forgets it. In every relationship and every situation, humility characterizes the child of God.
The Canons of Dordt do present the beautiful doctrinal teachings of scripture. But they also powerfully present the practical implications of such beautiful doctrine.
Get to know the Canons better and better. The better you know them, the more you will appreciate not only the truth of scripture contained in them but also the practical implications of these scriptural truths.