Written by W. Robert Godfrey |
Tuesday, December 26, 2023
The focus in this article is on the Word of God and the sacraments. The Word of God helps to preserve us in the faith as we hear it preached, as we read it in church and privately, and as we meditate on it. The article highlights what we will find in the Scriptures when we hear, read, and meditate on them. First, we will find exhortations. The Bible calls us to live the faithful Christian life and instructs us in the character of that life. Second, we will find threatenings. Even though God will surely preserve us in grace, we need to hear the warnings of God as one of the means that He uses to confront us with our sin and draw us to repentance. Third, we find promises.
Calvinism does not have five points. Calvinism as summarized in its great confessions and catechisms was never meant to be reduced to five points. The Arminians, however, had five attacks on Reformed teaching. On the fifth point, they wrote:
Whether they [those incorporated into Jesus Christ] can through negligence fall away from the first principle of their life in Christ, again embrace the present world, depart from the pure doctrine once given to them, lose the good conscience, and neglect grace, must first be more carefully determined from the Holy Scriptures.
The Arminians in 1610 were uncertain about the doctrine of perseverance. But in the years that followed, they increasingly taught that the truly regenerate could fall from grace and be lost.
Clearly, the Arminians feared that the doctrine of perseverance would make Christians negligent, lazy, and self-indulgent. They seemed to imagine that the Reformed taught that the Christian life is like a train running downhill. Just get it started, and it will run on its own momentum.
The great Synod of Dort (1618–19) answered the Arminian doubts and fears clearly and helpfully. It reminded all Christians that God does indeed so preserve His own that they will not fall from grace. But He preserves them through the means that He has appointed, and by His Spirit He ensures that they make good use of those means.
The Canons of Dort take up the subject of perseverance in the fifth head of doctrine. In fifteen articles, the fifth head presents a remarkable biblical and pastoral statement of the Reformed teaching. It begins by recognizing that sin remains a problem in the life of regenerate Christians. Since sin is a daily problem and affects even our best works, we must daily turn to God anew:
These [sins] are to [Christians] a perpetual reason to humiliate themselves before God and to flee for refuge to Christ crucified; to mortify the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety; and to press forward to the goal of perfection, until at length, delivered from this body of death, they shall reign with the Lamb of God in heaven. (Article 2)
Here is clearly no mechanical, or automatic, sense of preservation. Human responsibility and active turning to God are upheld as the fruit of the grace of God.
We see here how important means are to persevering in the faith. The canons mention first the cultivation of humility and faith in the Christian life. We dare not be a proud people, as though we had accomplished much by our own strength. But we must recognize our weaknesses and look away from ourselves to Christ. One of the key means of cultivating humility is prayer. In prayer, we acknowledge that God is the source of all strength and hope in our lives. Article 2 also encourages “holy exercises of piety” in addition to prayer. Here the stress falls on reading the Bible and engaging faithfully in worship with fellow believers. The canons recognize that even the regenerate, left to themselves and their own strength, would not persevere. Only the faithful, persevering grace of God can uphold the regenerate as they face the temptations of sin.
The canons recognize that God’s saints can fall into terrible sins, of which David and Peter are clear examples. Such terrible sins bring with them terrible consequences.