We are now up to the latter portion of the Third and Fourth Heads of the Canons. In the previous article we dealt with the doctrine of man’s total depravity. Now we will move on to man’s conversion to God and the manner thereof. It is not surprising that just as the Arminians have exalted man in their explanations concerning predestination, the atonement, and man’s corruption, they also exalt man as being decisive in his own conversion.
Remember, in the Arminian scheme of predestination, it is man who must fulfill certain conditions in order to be elected. And man also, according to the Arminians, is the one who has the power to accept or reject the merits of Christ’s atonement. Further, as we considered last time, the Arminians have corrupted the truth of total depravity to the point where man is not really dead in his sins, but is capable of repentance and is able to desire righteousness and life of himself. Now, when we come to the doctrine of man’s conversion, the Arminians are completely consistent in their heresy by insisting that it is man who initiates his own conversion and by declaring a grace of God that is resistible. The Arminians are wrong, but at least they are consistently wrong. That is more than can be said for some who call themselves Reformed.
Various elements of the Arminian position concerning God’s grace and man’s conversion can be gleaned from their writings. First, we quote the Fourth Article of the Remonstrance of 1610.
- that this grace of God is the commencement, progression, and completion of all good, also in so far that regenerate man cannot, apart from this prevenient or assisting, awakening, consequent and cooperating grace, think, will or do the good or resist any temptations to evil; so that all good works or activities which can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But with respect to the mode of this grace, it is not irresistible, since it is written concerning many that they resisted the Holy Spirit. Acts 7 and elsewhere in many places (Essays in Commemoration of the Synod of Dort, pp. 208, 209).
We also quote from two opinions found in the Opinions Of The Remonstrants. The first is Opinion C.5. which states,
The efficacious grace by which anyone is converted is not irresistible; and though God so influences the will by the Word and the internal operation of His Spirit that He both confers the strength to believe or supernatural powers, and actually causes man to believe—yet man is able of himself to despise that grace and not to believe, and therefore to perish through his own fault (Essays, p. 226).
The second is Opinion C.6., which states,
Although according to the most free will of God the disparity of divine grace is very great, nevertheless the Holy Spirit confers, or is ready to confer, as much grace to all men and to each man to whom the Word of God is preached as is sufficient for promoting the conversion of men in its steps. Therefore sufficient grace for faith and conversion falls to the lot not only of those whom God is said to will to save according to the decree of absolute election, but also of those who are not actually converted (Essays, p. 226).
The two errors which are immediately apparent from a quick reading of these opinions are a grace of God that is both general and resistible, and an ability of natural man to either accept or reject this offered grace. These errors and others, as well as the Reformed position as set forth by our fathers, we will notice as we briefly go through various articles of the Third and Fourths Heads of the Canons.
We begin with Article 7 which clearly sets forth the Reformed truth that those to whom God reveals Himself in no way depends upon their worthiness. The Arminians argued that people or nations could make themselves worthy recipients of the preaching by their right use of the “light of nature.” In other words, the Arminians taught that some could make themselves to differ in such a way as to make themselves more worthy of the gospel in the eyes of God. Article 7 contradicts this lie and makes known the truth that God causes the gospel to be preached to whomever He in His good pleasure desires. Neither men nor nations are able to make themselves more worthy of receiving the gospel.
Article 8 refutes another Arminian error concerning the preaching of the gospel. The Arminians maintain that the preaching of the gospel is a general promise of eternal life to all who hear it. This is consistent with their teaching that God desires the salvation of every person. Article 8 makes clear the Reformed position that the gospel is to be the general proclamation of a particular promise. God does promise eternal life and rest “to as many as shall come to Him, and believe on Him (Article 8). This article clearly condemns one of Rev. DeWolf’s statements at issue in 1953 that “God promises to every one of you that, if you believe, you will be saved.” That general and conditional promise was clearly Arminian and it ought to remind us how the rejection of Arminianism is part of our own history as Protestant Reformed Churches. Any Protestant Reformed person who says that Arminianism is not a threat and that it is not important that we know and detest that lie either does not know or appreciate their church history.
Article 10 refutes both the Arminian heresies of man’s free will and a general grace of God. It is not the case, as the article states, that some are converted by “the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others, equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion.” That natural man has no ability to perform any spiritual good is made abundantly clear in the first portion of the Third and Fourth Heads. Related to this is Paragraph 5 of the Rejection of Errors. Here the Arminian error of a “general grace” is rejected. In no way, declared our fathers, does God on His part “show Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men” and apply to all “sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion” (Par. 5). God reveals Christ only to His elect and He alone brings about their conversion. Natural man is the slave of sin and has no free will to “choose” God or distinguish himself above others.
How our conversion is accomplished is more clearly set forth in Article 11. It is obvious as one reads Articles 11 and 12 that God accomplishes all and we contribute nothing. This does not mean that we are inactive in our conversion. We certainly are not. However, it does mean that our activity is only because of the work of God’s grace within us. Article 11 points out that God causes the preaching to go to His elect, illuminates their minds, opens their hearts, makes alive their will and “from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.”
It is in connection with this portion of the Canons that we must notice the “efficacy” of God’s calling. When God desires something to take place, it surely will take place. When it is God’s good pleasure that a man is to be converted, that man will be converted. God’s calling and grace are efficacious. God’s grace always has the power to produce the effect God intends it to have. To say, as the Arminians do, that God’s grace is resistible, is to say that God Himself is not able to accomplish what He intends to accomplish. And if this is true, God is no longer God. Man, because he can resist God, really becomes God.
The Reformed position concerning the operation of God’s efficacious grace in the conversion of man is further developed in Article 12. When we are regenerated, we are resurrected from the dead and made alive, a work which God works in us “without our aid.” To argue that man somehow cooperates in this work would be as foolish as arguing that Adam cooperated with God in his own creation, or that dead, stinking Lazarus cooperated with Jesus in his resurrection. Yet the Arminians do just this.
Article 12, with memorable words, describes this powerful work of God within us with the following words,
but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation, or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe.—Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.
The end of this article points out that, while God powerfully accomplishes all, man as a result of this work becomes active. Man’s renewed will acts. Man believes and repents. This article repudiates the Arminian charge that in the Reformed view, God treats men as “senseless stocks and blocks” (Art. 16). Quite the opposite is true as our fathers state. When God regenerates a man, He causes the will to sincerely obey. God does not work in such a way that His grace is forced upon a man and that man is reluctantly dragged along. No, when God converts a man, that man willingly obeys God.
One final error of the Arminian conception of conversion deals with their definition of faith. Arminians will say, “Yes, we believe that faith is a gift of God.” But, when you begin to question them about how this is possible when, on the other hand, they believe that man initiates his own conversion, you will find that they deny faith as God’s gift. Prof. H. Hoeksema explains in what sense the Arminians teach that faith is God’s gift. He writes,
He [God] helps man to believe. He removes the hindrances of the darkness of man’s understanding and the irregularity of his affections, and thus He makes it possible for man to perform the act of believing (emphasis, AJC) (The Voice of Our Fathers, p. 602).
Faith according to the Arminians is nothing more than an “act” performed by man. Article 14 makes clear that faith is much more than this. Faith is something that is “conferred, breathed, and infused” into man by God. Later in this article it is stated that God works in man “both the will to believe, and the act of believing also.”
Even though the Arminians accuse the Reformed of believing proud doctrines, the opposite is true. Arminians teach that man is able to make himself more worthy than others in the sight of God. The Canons teach that in no way does God reveal Himself to some because they distinguish themselves. Merely in His sovereign good pleasure does He reveal Himself to some and not others. Arminians teach that man of himself has the ability to believe in God and convert himself. The Reformed teach that God produces the will to believe and the act of believing. The Arminian doctrines do not produce a spirit of humility before God and fellow man, rather, they produce a spirit of self-righteousness and pride. The doctrines of the Reformed faith produce in the objects of God’s grace humility before God and an acknowledgment before men that they are the unworthy recipients of God’s unmerited grace.
Next time, Lord willing, we will examine the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints as it is explained in the Fifth Head of the Canons.