From Dort to Today (5): The Development of the Reformed Faith-The Great Synod

The basic question which needs answer­ing (which we are discussing in these ar­ticles) is, “Who are the ones today which stand in the line of the Calvin Reformation?” This means, as far as our present discussion of the Arminian controversy is concerned, that we want to know whether the Arminians were, as they claimed, those who were the true Calvinists; or whether our fathers who met at Dordrecht and composed the Canons could justly claim to be the ones defending Cabin’s doctrines.

More particular, this is the question of who stood on the solid foundation of Scripture. It is not necessarily good to be a Calvinist; one must teach the truth of Scripture. Nevertheless, it was the ques­tion of what is Calvinism, because it was (and is today agreed) admitted by all that Calvin taught the truth. The Calvinistic tradition is the tradition of the Scriptures.

If we put the question in today’s setting, then we ask. “Are those who teach that God loves all men: that Christ died for all men; that predestination is based on foreseen faith; that God intends all to be saved, and really wants this?” — are these the ones who have a just claim to being Calvinistic? Or are we — Protestant Re­formed Churches — who deny these errors, faithful to the teachings of Calvin? and thus faithful to Scripture?

We were discussing the five points of the Arminians adopted by them in the city of Gouda in the year of our Lord, 1610.

We have discussed the first three. We turn now to the last two.

Calvin had taught that the work of sal­vation was by grace alone. It was a work of God Who accomplished it all through His Spirit. It was performed in the heart of man as God’s work, not man’s. God not only chooses those whom He saves; He not only sends His only Son into the world to die for these whom He chooses; He also comes into the hearts of these elect and redeemed people whom He loves, and saves them by His power and His grace. The only possibility of salvation in any sense is the work of God,

In addition to this, Calvin taught that: when God comes into the hearts of His people, He comes irresistibly. There is no man who can resist this work of God. He may hate God, rebel against the truth, be a bitter enemy of the Church, walk in the deepest paths of sin; but he cannot resist God. When God works salvation, he is helpless in God’s hand. Those whom God wants to save are actually saved.

In this teaching, Calvin followed closely the doctrine of St. Augustine who lived many centuries before him. And he fol­lowed in the footsteps of Martin Luther, his contemporary and fellow-reformer who taught this especially in his Bondage Of The Will.

It seemed at first as if the Arminians agreed on this point. In their fourth ar­ticle they wrote:

“That this grace of God is the begin­ning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, fol­lowing and co-operative grace, can neither think, will nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be as­cribed to the grace of God in Christ.”

There isn’t anyone who would criticize what is taught here: least of all the leaders in the Netherlands who met at the Synod of Dordrecht. This is good Reformed doc­trine. Calvin would have said, “Amen.” And we have no criticism to make of this, either.

But, the trouble is that this is not the whole article. As so often happens, men who are determined to bring evil doctrine into the Church, try to sound as Reformed and Scriptural as they can. They only come with their evil doctrines by the back door.

And so, the rest of this article reads quite differently from the first part.

“But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is irresisti­ble, inasmuch as it is written con­cerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts, vii, and else­where in many places.”

So, this is, after all, what they wanted. Salvation is by grace they say. They wouldn’t want you to think that they deny it. But, this grace was not resistible. You don’t have to take it if you prefer not to.  It only comes to you as an offer of God. You can reject it, and it will then never be yours. Even if God wants to save you, you don’t have to be saved if it is your choice to remain in your fallen state.

And, of course, it follows from this (and this was and is also good Arminian theology) that grace can only come to you and be your salvation if you accept it. You must want it. You must agree to receive the Holy Spirit. You must be willing. Only then can you actually be saved.

So . . .  salvation is dependent upon the will of man. He must make the first advance towards God. He must initiate this work in his heart. Else it is all hopeless after all. Christ died for such a man; but it makes no difference; he is not saved until he agrees to salvation.

And . . .  only this decision of a man will result in his election of reprobation — depending on what decision he makes. If he does agree, well, then he becomes elect. He may not agree however. This agreement and rejection of God’s willing grace makes him a reprobate.

Our fathers knew this was not the truth of Calvin —and not the truth of Scripture. They severely condemned this doctrine in the third chapter of the Canons.

It follows from all these cardinal doctrines (sovereign predestination, limited atone­ment, total depravity, irresistible grace) that when God saves His people for whom Christ died, that they are saved not only in this life, but they are also brought safely into heaven to enjoy the blessings of salvation forever. God preserves His work of salvation in the hearts of His people. He maintains this work faithfully. He keeps His people in the midst of temptation from falling away. He protects them and defends them from the attacks of persecution. He makes it impossible for their evil flesh to win over them throughout all their life. Once saved, saved forever.

Calvin saw this truth in Scripture and taught it. But the Arminians (quite naturally) wanted nothing of it. In their last article they said:

“That those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life- giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory: it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, accord­ing to the word of Christ, John x.28: ‘Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.’ But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsak­ing again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was de­livered them, of losing a good con­science, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly deter­mined out of the Holy Scripture, be­fore we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.”

There are two points which the Arminians make.

The first point is that a person who is once saved is quite capable of falling away so that after all, he goes to hell. He can return again to the evil world. He can turn away from the truth of Scripture which once was his. He can lose a good con­science which he once possessed. He can become devoid of grace. There is every possibility of this happening, His salvation is like a fortune gained or lost on the stock market depending on the whims of in­vestors.

It is true that the Arniinians did not really state this as their position. They merely ask a question. They suggest the possibility that this might be true; but they are willing they say, to withhold final judgment of this question. Only, they want to be shown that Scripture teaches the op­posite.

Nevertheless, it was plainly a deceitful way of sowing seeds of doubt about the perseverance of the saints in the minds of the faithful.

Secondly, they insist (and they do this in a very emphatic wav) that, if it is true that a man does succeed in remain­ing a believer and does safely reach heaven, it is only because he takes hold of the hand that Christ extends to him. If he does not fall away, it is only because he is ready for the conflict, really wants Christ’s help and remains at all times active.

In other words, if it is true that you find anywhere a believer once in a while who does remain faithful to the end, this is his own work, and not God’s work in him. He needs some help, it is true. But it remains his work nonetheless. God’s help becomes the truck driver who brings am­munition to the soldier on the front line.

This error was specifically answered in the last chapter of the Canons.

So you see the evil that had come into the Churches in the Netherlands. If these evils sound familiar to you, it is only because they are so widely taught today.

But the Church was threatened in those days. A blow had been struck at the very foundation of the faith of the gospel.

These are cardinal doctrines that came under attack. They are the fundamentals of Scripture. They are basic because they are necessary to maintain the glory of God. Soli Deo Gloria — this was Calvin’s theme. But the Arminians were trying hard to steal this glory from God and give some of it to man. It may not be done. Our fathers saw to it that it was not done. We can do no less today.

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, (and this is, after all the question) lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:8, 9.