The Canons of Dort “prepared the way for a dry scholasticism which runs into subtle abstractions, and resolves the living soul of divinity into a skeleton of formulas and distinctions.”[1] This is how the well-known nineteenth century Reformed historian, Philip Schaff (1819­–1893), described the Canons. Unfortunately, the caricature of “scholasticism” continues in us because of how we talk about this doctrine in cold, sterile ways and even how we live our lives presuming on the preserving work of God’s grace. Of all the points of Dort’s doctrine, the fifth point on preservation[2] and perseverance[3] is furthest from Schaff’s caricature. As Schaff’s contemporary, the Utrecht theologian Jan Jacob van Oosterzee (1817–1892) said, this doctrine was “defended at the Synod of Dort with such warmth.”[4] In the space that follows I intend to demonstrate how Dort expressed this doctrine in a warm way.

The Context of Perseverance and Preservation

The fifth point of doctrine opens with two articles of common (catholic) Christian conviction that form the context in which preservation and perseverance are discussed: we are freed from our slavery to sin but not from our struggle with sin.

Our Freedom From Sin

Article 1 links back to the previous points of doctrine when it says, “Whom God calls (third/fourth point), according to His purpose (first point), to the communion His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (second point), and regenerates by the Holy Spirit” (third/fourth point). There’s a close and strong connection grammatically between those “whom” (quos) all this is true and the next statement: “He delivers also (“them indeed”; eos quidem) from the dominion and slavery of sin in this life.” This past tense, or, already aspect of our freedom from sin is exemplified in Romans 6 where “our old man was crucified[5] with [Jesus]” (Rom. 6:6) with the immediate purpose “that the body of sin might be destroyed” (Rom. 6:6).

Our Struggle With Sin

The same apostle who wrote Romans 6 also wrote Romans 7 and Philippians 3 that teach us another common truth: we still struggle with sin.[6] Article 1 concludes its statement of the biblical truth of our deliverance from sin this way: “though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world.” Sin’s dominion has been abolished; it’s no longer my master. Yet, sin’s corruption still affects me. Thus article 2 goes on to say: “Hence spring daily sins of infirmity, and hence spots adhere to the best works of the saints.” Since we have this ongoing struggle, article 2 goes on to say it “furnish[es] them with constant matter” to do four things.

First, “humiliation before God”: “Not as though I had already attained [the glory of the resurrection], either were already perfect” (Phil. 3:12). Second, “flying for refuge to Christ crucified”: “But what things were gain to me” in my former life according to the law and the flesh “those I counted loss for Christ” (Phil. 3:7). Third, “mortifying the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer, and by holy exercises of piety.” In the memorable words of John Owen, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”[7] We don’t do this by force of our wills or the strength of our resolve. We mortify “through the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the one who sanctifies us freely and merely of his grace. But the means by which he does this work is through you and me.[8] The Canons tell us we mortify “by the spirit of prayer, and by holy exercises of piety.” Fourth, “pressing forward to the goal of perfection, till being at length delivered from this body of death, they are brought to reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.” We are to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” which is perfection (Phil. 3:14).

Perseverance and Preservation Defined

If article 2 were the last word, it would undoubtedly be true “by reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and the temptations of sin and of the world [that] those who are converted could not persevere in a state of grace if left to their own strength” (art. 3). We see something else, though, in Scripture, which article 3 states: “But God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.”

The Remonstrants were of the opinion that “true believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish.”[9] The issue, though, of such “if” language was viewing faith’s interaction with grace as a hypothetical condition of final perseverance. However, Paul speaks in Romans 8: “if so be it that the Spirit of God dwell in you…if Christ be in you…if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you” (Rom. 8:9, 10, 11). Thomas Schreiner comments that Paul’s purpose was not to cast into doubt the believers’ status but to assure: “εἴπερ (if) does not signify that some in the Roman community may be without the Spirit” and “εἰ (if) in the flow of the argument is another fulfilled condition” meaning “since.”[10] Article 3 affirms that in ourselves perseverance is an “iffy” proposition; but with God our preservation is assured.

The certainty of the saints’ salvation is confirmed by the adjectives Peter uses to describe it: “incorruptible” meaning it is imperishable and immortal, “undefiled” meaning it is pure, and “fadeth not away” or “unfading” meaning it does not lessen over time. The salvation is certain along with those who participate in it—the saved: “who are kept by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:5).[11] Peter uses a present participial verb “kept,” but it’s in the passive voice, meaning, God is the one active in guarding while believers are the recipients of this action.

All this is true because of the certainty of the Savior. He is faithful to who he is and what he has promised. He is faithful having conferred grace, [he] mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein even to the end (1 Cor. 1:8–9; Phil. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Peter 1:5; 5:10; Jude 24). Perseverance is true because of the certainty of the Savior. Click To Tweet

Perseverance and Assurance

As the above shows, articles 4–8 of the Canons of Dort’s fifth point of doctrine do not present preservation and perseverance in a cold way. We see this again in articles 9–13 where we transition from the attacks on our faith to the assurance of our faith as we strive to persevere.

Its Possibility

“Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith,” article 9 confesses, “true believers” not only “may” but “do obtain assurance.” “True believers” can have a “certain persuasion that they ever will continue true and living members of the church; and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life.” Faith is rooted in the objectivity of Christ, although subjectively I may or may not feel that at any given time.[12] Some believers are spiritual babies in Christ while others are mature adults in Christ (Heb. 5:13–14). Both have faith that contains the element of trust, but an immature, childish believer doesn’t always exercise faith as a mature believer does.[13] Assurance is a possibility for all of us although it may not be a possession yet.

Its Production

Where do we find this assurance? Article 10 points out three legitimate sources, which we recognize aren’t magical remedies taken once; they are a matter of cultivation. First and foremost is God’s promise: “but springs from faith in God’s promises”—such as Romans 8—“which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort.” Second, the witness of the Spirit: “from the testimony of the Holy Spirit witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:16).” We also recognize that this “testimony although it be not always alike powerful in believers, yet notwithstanding it manifests itself many times in their greatest humiliation and distress ‘that we are children of God.’”[14] Third, the good works we do: “lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works.”

Its Struggle

Does assurance mean no more spiritual doubts? Absolutely not. “Believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts and that under grievous temptations they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering” (art. 11). Sin’s guilt has been nullified in our lives but we still have pollution of sin that leads to “various carnal doubts” and when it undergoes “grievous temptation” we’re “not always sensible of this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering.”

Its Motivation

If our God and Father of all consolation doesn’t allow us to be tempted more than we can handle, provides us with the way of escaping it, and renews us by the Holy Spirit, why should we even try in the Christian life? Do we just “let go and let God?” On the contrary “this certainty of perseverance…is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride or of rendering them carnally secure” (art. 12).[15] Certainty motivates us not to carelessness in godliness but carefulness to godliness; not self-gratification but glorification of God; not laziness but love. In contrast to our natural inclination to turn certainty into an excitement for sin, article 12 proclaim in no uncertain terms that certainty is:

…the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering, and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God; so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive [Latin, stimulus] to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.

Article 13 goes on to say, “Neither does renewed confidence of persevering produce licentiousness or a disregard to piety in those who are recovering from backsliding.” We cannot be careless because the power of God’s grace is at work within us. Instead, assurance:

…renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord, which He hath ordained, that they who walk therein may maintain an assurance of persevering, lest by abusing His fatherly kindness, God should turn away His gracious countenance from them, to behold which is to the godly dearer than life, the withdrawing whereof is more bitter than death, and they in consequence hereof should fall into more grievous torments of conscience.

We’re going to be tempted to sin, but we have the assurance of the Lord’s care for us even in those temptations. We’re going to fall into sin, but we have the assurance not only that we won’t fall out of grace but that our faithful God will restore and renew us again. Grace shouldn’t lead to carelessness but to carefulness.

The Means of Perseverance and Preservation

God’s preserving work that leads to our perseverance is a daily reality. It’s a tangible reality as well according to article 14, which describes God’s institution and our use of means. Knowing the many weaknesses we’ve seen above, God gives tangible aids for this faith to embrace along the path of life.

He Uses the Means of the Gospel

In particular, it is “by the preaching of the gospel” that the Lord has “beg[u]n this work of grace in us,” meaning our being born again. The translation goes on to say: so God preserves, continues, and completes this work [of grace] by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.[16] This whole—hearing, reading, meditation, exhortations, threats, and promises— are linked back to the same means God used to regenerate us. By the proclamation of the gospel God has begun a work of grace in us so by means of the same gospel he continues his work of grace in us to the end.[17] By the proclamation of the gospel God has begun a work of grace in us so by means of the same gospel he continues his work of grace in us to the end. Click To Tweet

While it sounds “normal” to us that the gospel begins, preserves, continues, and perfects God’s work of grace in us and even that we are to hear, read, meditate on, and embrace the promises of the gospel, to those of us out of tune with seventeenth century forms of speech, it sounds odd to us that the gospel is described here as having exhortations and threats. Yet this was standard fare in seventeenth century Reformed Orthodoxy. The promises of the Gospel are obvious: justification and eternal life, citing Romans 1:17 and 1 John 2:25.[18] What about its commands and warnings? Its commands are repentance and faith. As Jesus said in Mark 1:15: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Finally, the Gospel’s warnings are the condemnation of unbelievers who do not obey Christ and the punishment of eternal death, citing John 3:18 and 36 as well as Hebrews 2:2–3.[19] With this, we can go on to see how article 14 mention three ways the Gospel is used to preserve[…], continue[…], and complete[…] this work of God’s grace. First, the gospel in public: by the hearing and reading of the gospel. Second, the gospel in private: by meditation on it. Third, the gospel in all its aspects: by its exhortations, threats, and promises.

He Uses the Means of the Sacraments

We celebrate our God’s power through means. Not only does he preserve us by means of hearing the Gospel as well as by the use of the sacraments. In baptism we feel the Lord’s grace of washing away all our sins. Every time you witness a baptism remember your baptism, God’s promise of grace to you, and your commitment to him by faith alone! In the Lord’s Supper or Lord’s Table or Communion we feast with our hands, eyes, noses, and mouths upon Jesus Christ our gracious Savior.

Conclusion

There are various attitudes towards this doctrine, but article 15 especially emphasis the attitude of those who are comforted by it: the spouse of Christ hath always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it as an inestimable treasure. Love and defense of this treasure are to be our outlook on this doctrine. The regenerated and converted believer has had a work of grace performed upon them by God. This causes a recognition that the perseverance of the saints is biblical, brings glory to our great God, and consoles the pious in their spiritual struggles. Our attitude is one of grateful humility for such a great benefit.

Editorial Note: The above article is abridged from Daniel Hyde’s chapter within Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort (Davenant Press, 2019).

 


Endnotes

[1] The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff, 3 vols. (1931; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 1:515.

[2] conservat (arts. 3, 7, 14); conservantis (art. 4); custodia (arts. 8, 9).

[3] perseverantia (arts. 9, 15); perseverantiae (arts. 11, 12, 13).

[4] J.J. van Oosterzee, Christian Dogmatics: A Text Book for Academical Instruction and Private Study, trans. John Watson Watson and Maurice J. Evans (1870; fifth edition, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891), 664.

[5] Paul uses the aorist passive indicative συνεσταυρώθη.

[6] One pastoral question I’ve faced over the years is “why does God allow sin to still dwell in his children in this life?” One of the best answers I’ve read comes from Thomas Boston, “Why the Lord Suffereth Sin to Remain in the Regenerate?” in The Whole Works of the Larte Reverend Thomas Boston of Ettrick: Sermons and Discourses on Several Important Subjects in Divinity, ed. Samuel M‘Millan (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1849), 6:110–124.

[7] “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 16 vols. (1850–53; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, fifth printing 1993), 6:9.

[8] Manton once said, “For to dream of a mortification which shall be wrought in us without our consent or endeavours, as well as whilst we are sleeping, as whilst we are waking, is to delude ourselves with a vain fancy.” Manton, “Sermons Upon the Eighth Chapters to the Romans,” in Works, 12:73. The active nature of sanctification and holiness was expressed by Hendriksen, who said, “…the recipients of these favors [mentioned in vv. 1–11] must go into action.” William Hendriksen, Romans, New Testament Commentary (1980, 1981; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, sixth printing 1989), 254.

[9] “Appendix H: The Opinions of the Remonstrants,” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619, ed. Peter Y. De Jong (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 1968), 228. See also The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis, Princeton Theological Monograph Series 51 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 112–113.

[10] Schreiner, Romans, 413, 414. See the further discussion in Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 333, and Schreiner, Romans, 395, 409, 410.

[11] φρουρουμένους

[12] Louis Berkhof, The Assurance of Faith: The Firm Foundation of Christian Hope (1939; Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, reprinted 2004), 24.

[13] Berkhof, The Assurance of Faith, 24.

[14] Dutch Annotations on Romans 8:16­–17.

[15] See rejection of errors 6 where we reject the Remonstrant teaching “that the doctrine of the certainty of perseverance and of salvation from its own character and nature is a cause of indolence and is injurious to godliness, good morals, prayers and other holy exercises, but that on the contrary it is praiseworthy to doubt.”

[16] From the 2011 translation of the Christian Reformed Church. As cited at https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/canons-dort (Accessed October 4, 2018). See also Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke, 4 vols. (Third printing, 2007; Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1995), 4:276–77.

[17] See the discussion in Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013), 47–49. For fuller treatments of law-gospel issues, see “The Puritans on Law and Gospel,” in Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 321–333; “The Threats of the Gospel: John Owen on What the Law/Gospel Distinction is Not,” in Ryan M. McGraw, John Owen: Trajectories in Reformed Orthodox Theology (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 71­–109.

[18] Synopsis Purioris Theologiae: Volume 1, 573.

[19] Synopsis Purioris Theologiae: Volume 1, 573.