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From Death to Life

The Synod of Dort on Depravity, Effectual Calling, and Regeneration

He is dead. This is the worst thing you can say about a person’s physical health. Dead is worse than gravely ill. Dead means that inevitable deterioration has begun. Dead means that a separation with the living has taken place. Dead means that the person will never get better unless God intervenes and resurrects him from deadness. Dead is the word that the Holy Spirit uses to describe the spiritual condition of those who have never been regenerated.

When God first created humans, he warned them that if they disobeyed him, they would die. Forbidding them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God said, “For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Did they die that day? After Adam and Eve disobeyed, they lived physically for many years, but on the very day that they disobeyed God they began to suffer natural spiritual consequences that are worse than physical death. Note that the Lord did not say, “I will kill you,” but he said, “You shall surely die.”

The Effects of Spiritual Death

Spiritual death is the natural consequence of disobeying God. When a person will not submit to God, and the person attempts to determine for himself what is good and evil, he is living in a state of spiritual deterioration, he is separated from the living God, and his only hope is if God intervenes and resurrects him. That is the state of a spiritually dead person.

Millions of spiritually dead persons can read the foregoing paragraph, and their reaction will be to yawn, stretch, and say, “Yeah, that is what you religious freaks are always yammering about. Do you know who won the game last night?” They are dead in trespasses and in sins (Eph. 2:1) and are slightly amused at our alarmist pronouncements because “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor.2:14). I used to be among the dead, and so were you.

We were dead and too dead to do anything about it. The Lord Jesus was talking about us when he said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Let the comprehensiveness of Jesus’ statement sink in. “No one . . . no one can come . . . no one can come unless.”

To state the obvious, what this means is that no one can come to Jesus (and one must come to Jesus if he or she is to be saved) unless God draws him. We cannot sidestep the force of this categorical statement by saying that God draws everyone, because, as recorded in the very next verse, Jesus goes on to assert that those whom the Father draws actually do come to Christ: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). Simply put, a person cannot come to Christ on his own; God must draw him; when God draws him, he will come. In our Lord’s statement in John 6:44 we have the basic components for the doctrines of human corruption (no one can come), conversion to God (come to me), and effectual calling and regeneration (the Father draws him). In our Lord’s statement in John 6:44 we have the basic components for the doctrines of human corruption (no one can come), conversion to God (come to me), and effectual calling and regeneration (the Father draws him). Click To Tweet

Man’s Corruption in Relation to God’s Redemption

When I lecture or preach on the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace, or the Five Points of Calvinism, I begin by teaching on total inability, or as it is usually called, total depravity. The doctrine of total depravity lays the foundation for the doctrines of grace. For example, it is far easier to understand and embrace the doctrine of unconditional election when we understand that election is God’s planning for the success of the gospel in a world of sin-loving, God-hating people, none of whom would believe had God not planned to give life to some.

The ultimate reason that we believe any doctrine is because it is revealed in the Bible, and not because it is logical, but when we begin to understand the doctrine of total depravity, we see that the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace that follow after total depravity are not only biblical, they are also logical. So I always start with explaining total depravity.

In the Canons of Dort, however, the issues of depravity (or corruption), conversion, and effectual calling are grouped together, and appear, not under the first heads of Doctrine, but under the third and fourth. Why? The Canons of Dort are an answer to the Five Articles of Remonstrance published by the Arminians in 1610, and Dort is answering the articles in the order they appeared in the Articles.

The Accessibility of the Canons of Dort

The Canons of Dort are an astounding feat of composition: they are so comprehensive yet so concise; so comprehensive and concise yet so comprehensible. Also, the method of development is brilliant. The explanation of each of the Heads of Doctrine consists of two sections. The first section is a careful explanation of what we are asserting. The second section is a careful statement of what we are denying. The second section allows the writers to address specific misunderstandings that are common, or questions that a thoughtful reader might have. The denials are illuminating, which is not always the case in such documents.

C. H. Spurgeon genially criticized John Gill for devoting so much space in his Commentary on the Bible to disallowing fallacious interpretations. He writes, “His frequent method of animadversion is ‘This text does not mean this,’ nobody ever thought it did; ‘It does not mean that,’ only two or three heretics ever imagined it did; and again it does not mean a third thing or a fourth or a fifth or a sixth absurdity; but at last he thinks it does mean so-and-so, and tells you so in a methodical, sermon-like manner.”[1]

In contrast, the doctrinal variations that Dort denies are variations that occur to many people, and not to just two or three heretics. In fact, if you aspire to teach the doctrines of grace, you will do well to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the denials in Dort. Should you entertain questions from your audience or class, you will probably need to answer some objections that are addressed in the denials. If you aspire to teach the doctrines of grace, you will do well to familiarize yourself thoroughly with the denials in Dort. Click To Tweet

A confession of faith such as the Canons of Dort is already a condensed presentation of what the Bible teaches on these doctrines. It is brief. If you have not looked at the full document of the Canons, you ought to. On my printer, the entire document, including a page of front matter and a page at the end took only eighteen pages. It is a summary. In what follows, I will attempt to summarize six pages of the summary! I hope my summary encourages you to read the original.

Under the heading Of the Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner Thereof, there are seventeen articles of assertion and nine articles of rejection. In the following summary, I am condensing and paraphrasing what is in the document, and I am not interjecting my own comments.

Articles of Assertion

The first three articles of assertion describe man’s original creation in God’s image and how sin has corrupted the entire human race, Christ only excepted. Humans are sinful from conception and “without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation.” Even sinful humans retain “the glimmerings of natural light” and may have God’s law, but these are not sufficient to obtain saving grace. Consequently, God saves “by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word or ministry of reconciliation.”

God bestows this grace unconditionally so there is no ground for pride. The call and promises of the gospel are sincere and true, and it is not God’s fault that sinners reject the call of the gospel; it is their own fault. When someone does answer the call of the gospel, it is not because that person has properly exercised free will, but “it must be wholly ascribed to God.”

When God calls someone to himself, he does more than simply illumine that person’s mind in the knowledge of Christ; by the Holy Spirit he “pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed and softens the hardened heart” and quickens the will. This is the essence of “the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture and denominated a new creation: a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid.” But even though the work of regeneration is without our aid, once the will is renewed, the will becomes active, and so “man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.”

How God accomplishes this work of regeneration is mysterious, but because God does it, faith must be considered as the gift of God. This person who receives this work of grace “owes eternal gratitude to God,” and while we cannot see into “the secret recesses of the heart” of others, and therefore cannot infallibly know someone’s spiritual condition, we ought to think favorably of other professing believers. In the work of regeneration, God “does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties, neither does violence thereto; but spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it.” Just as God prolongs and supports our natural life through means, so he uses means to create and sustain spiritual life.

Articles of Rejection

Dort rejects the notions that original sin is insufficient to condemn the whole human race, and that humans did not originally have goodness, holiness, and righteousness. Some say that the will is amoral—neither good nor bad—and the will merely follows the leading of the understanding and affections. This would mean that, given sufficient knowledge or motivation, the will could choose God without divine intervention. This is contrary to scripture. Also contrary to scripture is the idea that humans are not really utterly dead in sin and can therefore do a little something that will please God. But what if someone uses responsibly the natural gifts he possesses?

Might he eventually attain saving grace on his own? Would this allow us to say that God applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion? Answer: “The experience of all ages and the Scriptures do both testify that this is untrue.” God clearly has not been trying to save everyone: under the Old Covenant he gave his truth primarily to only one nation, allowing the other nations to walk in their own ways. He also forbade Paul and his companions to go to a place that needed the gospel. We reject the idea that God merely influences man to believe, which would make grace resistible. Instead, God does a supernatural, irresistible work. He accomplishes this work by grace alone and free will is not a partial cause of it.

A One-Sentence Summary of the Doctrines

Every believer knows that in the Bible God reveals laws that are obligatory for humans as long as we live in this sin-cursed world. We call those laws moral laws. Many of us agree with the Baptist Catechism, which states that the moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments. And even the Ten Commandments can be reduced to the two great commandments of love for God and love for neighbor. Similarly, the entire Bible teaches that because humans have been corrupted by sin, we are therefore unable to obey the gospel call, and that it is God alone who effectually calls us and regenerates us. This teaching has been summarily comprehended in the third and fourth Heads of Doctrine by the Synod of Dort.

But even this summary can be reduced to the one statement of our Lord, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”


[1] C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries: Two Lectures Addressed to the Students of the Pastor’s College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, Together with a Catalogue of Commentaries and Expositions. Passmore and Alabaster: London, 1876, p. 9.

Jim Scott Orrick

Jim Orrick is the author of the new book, Mere Calvinism (P&R), which clears up misinformation about Calvinism and explains its basic yet profound ideas and teachings. Orrick’s professional and academic careers have run in two confluent streams. For about 40 years he has been preaching and teaching the Bible, and he has served as pastor of churches in West Virginia, Illinois, and Missouri. At the same time his lifelong love for literature and language arts has enriched his appreciation for God’s Word and also enhanced his ability to interpret and communicate the Truth. He has taught in several colleges and universities. Orrick has contributed chapter to books on literature, philosophy, and church history.

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