Canons Of Dort (26): Perseverance Is Good News For Sinners

Under this head of doctrine we have considered the errors that Synod rejected—the Remonstrants turned the perseverance into a covenant of works—so now we turn to what Synod confessed positively about how Christ graciously preserves his people through their pilgrimage in this world. Make no mistake, according to Scripture as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches, this Christian life is a pilgrimage. This image or metaphor is important and though it might seem self-evident it needs to be reinforced in our age when varieties of Christian triumphalism seem to abound. Consider the popularity of the so-called “health and wealth” gospel. Benny Hinn is an outrageous charlatan and fraud but he remains a very popular and influential con man. Joel Osteen is merely a more mainstream packaging of the same lust for worldly success. Triumphalism comes in other forms too. Christian perfectionism—the doctrine that it is possible to achieve “entire sanctification” in this life—remains a widely held view of the Christian life.

The Reformed understanding of Romans chapter 7 (see below) is rather different and we see it reflected right at the beginning of the Reformed response to the Remonstrant revision of the doctrine of the Christian life. Remember, the Remonstrants were unhappy with the Augustinian and Reformed view of the Christian life. They wanted more sanctification and they agreed with the Romanist critics of the Reformation that the Protestant doctrine of salvation (including sanctification) by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) was inadequate.

The first thing the Reformed said about perseverance was that Christians are fallen, sinful people who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit:

Those people whom God according to his purpose calls into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he also sets free from the reign and slavery of sin, though in this life not entirely from the flesh and from the body of sin (Canons of Dort, 5.1).*

Christians believe because they have been called efficaciously by the Holy Spirit through the external call of the gospel, i.e., through the preaching of the Gospel. That is good news. We did not come to faith because we freely chose to respond or because we freely met the conditions of the New Covenant (in the Remonstrant view) but because God sovereignly gave us new life and true faith.

Not only have we been given new life but we have been called into fellowship with the Son of God. By grace alone, through faith alone, the Spirit has united us to Christ, with whom we now have a living communion with the risen Christ. The Reformed faith is not cold orthodoxy. It is a vital doctrine and a vital relationship with Christ.

Synod here also captures two complementary truths: because we are no longer under the covenant of works, i.e., under the law (Rom 3:19) the reign of sin has been broken. This truth, however, is not a springboard for perfectionism. The reign or dominion of sin has been broken but its reality remains.

This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 6. By grace we have been united to Christ. When Christ died it is as if we died with him. He died to sin, as it were. In Christ, by virtue of our union with him, we died to sin. This great reality must change our attitude toward sin. The reigning power of sin has been broken. We, who are united to Christ, ought to live in light of that great reality. Nevertheless, Romans 7 follows Romans 6. In chapter 7 we see that even for Paul the continuing reality of sin in this pilgrim life.

Thus, so did Synod:

Hence daily sins of weakness arise, and blemishes cling to even the best works of God’s people, giving them continual cause to humble themselves before God, to flee for refuge to Christ crucified, to put the flesh to death more and more by the Spirit of supplication and by holy exercises of godliness, and to strain toward the goal of perfection, until they are freed from this body of death and reign with the Lamb of God in heaven (Canons of Dort, 5.2).

This is the Reformed understanding of Romans 7. This is the doctrine that the Reformed churches confess in Heidelberg Catechism 60: “although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil…”.

We are often tempted by the idea that we might be able to present to God our good works as part of our salvation. We are, as my colleague Mike Horton reminds us, wired for the covenant of works. We need to be reminded continually that Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works for all his people because they could not and would not do it themselves. All our good works are stained with sin. None of them, in themselves, are fit to present to God. Further, when we do good works we are not doing anything extra but only what we already owed: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10; ESV).

Our continual struggle with sin is not the exception, it is the norm. The very idea that struggle with sin is unusual is a lie of the Evil One to make the Christian lose hope, to try to put him on a works footing before God, and thus to lose hope and give up. To paraphrase an old television ad: “Silly Christian, grace is for sinners.”

Christ—not our good works— is our refuge. The biblical plan, synod’s plan, for the Christian life is a constant acknowledgement of our sinfulness (our propensity to sin) and our actual sins and a constant fleeing to Christ for his free acceptance, to his righteousness for our cover and protection. This is exactly what the Evil One wants us to forget. He wants us to think about our sins and to imagine that somehow, at sometime (perhaps at the last day) we will finally be on a works footing. So, with all the lies from the pit of hell, it leads us away from Christ and to ourselves and thus to despair.

The secret of the Christian life is no secret: it is the gospel. Only in Christ and only in light of the good news, that Christ loved and loves sinners, can Christians go about the business of the Christian life, namely the putting to death of the old life (mortification) and being made alive in the new (vivification). The holy exercises of godliness are prayer (including confession of sin) and the due use of the ordinary means of grace: hearing gospel sermons and coming to the Lord’s Table. As we make these holy exercises we grow. The Lord has promised to use them.

He has not promised us a “victorious Christian life” but he has promised to be with us during the pilgrimage. Here is yet another reason why it is so important to get our metaphors right. We are in combat but the experiential victory will not be ours until Christ returns or we die to sin finally when we die bodily (Heidelberg 42). Christ has won the victory for us but if Paul is to be believed (and he is!) we are realizing it only gradually and sometimes imperceptibly in this life. So, we are immeasurably grateful to God for his free grace to needy sinners.



The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido.

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  1. I wonder if you would also consider the social gospel\social justice movement to be triumphalist. One of its major proponents has written: “The ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon from sin but also the renewal of this world, to end disease, poverty, injustice.” In another passage he ties working for social justice to justification. He claims that a true work of grace will cause us to see justice in the world, “the end is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.” We are to do good deeds of compassion and charity, but to make it mandatory,and a condition of seeing ourselves as justified? Isn’t that tying our conscience to working for social justice? Isn’t that making social justice a covenant of works, where justification is tied to doing social justice?

  2. In saying “Christ, and not our good works, is our refuge” you biblically refute the two-step justification theories, which reduce Christ to merely a supposed initial refuge; these theories leave Christ behind as a refuge, and keep Him only as an explanatory theory which can only be supposed to have acted when we, by taking refuge in our good works, infer Him.

    These theories, “final justification” and “triumphalism,” put Christ as a background explanation, and lose direct access to Him. Is it possible that Paul could mean this in saying “you have been severed from Christ, you who seek to be justified by law” in Gal 5?

    • Hi Larry,

      It depends upon how we understand the theology of the Judaizers to whom Paul was responding. It’s a challenge because we must reconstruct their views from what Paul says. We have a better idea of what the rabbis were saying. They did teach a form of covenantal momism, “in by grace, stay in by works” as the NPP formula goes. May we impute something like this to the Judaizers? I think so. I suspect that they were affirming the necessity of faith in Jesus but seeking to add good works to faith as part of the ground (and perhaps the instrument) of justification.

  3. Professor Clark,

    Thanks so much for The Heidelblog. I learn so much from it! I have not so much a comment as I have a question: would you extend the charge of “triumphalism” to the view that is postmillenialism? Postmillenialists, whether of the 19th century sort or of the more (semi)-current theonomic variety, do represent a valid Reformed view (albeit perhaps a minority view). To say nothing of the American Puritans in New England in the 17th century…could they not be charged with a type of “triumphalism” as well? While I know that the context of your charge pertains to charlatans and non-confessional strains of American evangelicalism, it did occur to me that within the larger Reformed sphere, intramural debates along these lines have occurred and are occurring. After all, both Rushdoony and Bahnsen were OPC ministers, were they not? From the use of your word “triumphalism”, I was keen to get your thoughts relative to people in our own churches who do feel that their positions along these lines are entirely confessional and, certainly heterodox—if not orthodox. Thanks so much in advance for your comments—

    • Gregory,

      I typed a long response, which I then lost.

      The short answer is yes, there have been triumphalist eschatologies in the Reformed world off and on since the 17th century.

      That said we should distinguish a few things. Amillennialism didn’t exist as a category until the early 20th century. Thus, some whom we know as “postmillennialists” (e.g., Warfield) might be better classified as “Amil” today.

      Yes, there were optimistic eschatologies in the 17th century but there were also chiliasts (anticipating a literal 1,000 kingdom on the earth). in the Reformed world from the late 16th century. I wouldn’t support either. The biblical eschatology is semi-realized. I have no expectation of an earthly glory age. This is the eschatology of the Second Helvetic Confession and the Belgic Confession.

      This is, more fundamentally, the eschatology of 1-2 Peter. Some resources: (a 3-part series).

      On theonomy, in my view it is a serious departure from the Scriptures as confessed by the Reformed churches in WCF 19.4:

      4. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

      It is not possible to speak of the “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail” and affirm the “expired” of WCF 19.4. Further, the theonomic explanation of “general equity” is a fantasy with no basis in the history of the West.

      Here are some resources:

      Rushdoony renounced the jurisdiction of the OPC. He mocked them as the “Orthodox Pharisees Church.” Bahnsen died a minister in good standing but his theology remains controversial. That it gained a foothold in the Reformed world is a signal of how weak our grasp of our own heritage and confession had become. Theonomy is, in that way, like a virus that attacks a weakened immune system.


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