Canons Of Dort (5): God Ordains Means To Call His Elect

The first thing that the Reformed churches said in response to the Remonstrants, whom the Reformed saw as seeking to take the churches back toward the medieval system of salvation by grace and our cooperation with grace, was, in effect, “we are too sinful to be saved by any other way than by God’s unconditional favor” (sola gratia).

The second thing that the Reformed did in response to the Remonstrants was to quote two passages: 1 John 1:9 and John 3:16.

Art. II. But ‘in this the love of God was manifested, that he sent his only-begotten Son into the world,’ ‘that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (1 John 4:9; John 3:16).

The bad news is that all of us are fallen and unable to save ourselves. The good news is that God loves sinners eternally and unconditionally. He loves them so much that he sent his only-begotten Son to save those who cannot save themselves. How then do his elect benefit from what God, in Christ, has done?

Art. III. And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom he will, and at what time he pleaseth; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. ‘How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?’ (Rom. 10:14, 15).

Synod was following and explaining the earlier confession of the Reformed church, in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.

We are united to Christ, by the Spirit, only through faith (sola fide). The same Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of life,” who brings us to new life also gives us true faith. The sacraments certify that what the gospel promises, what we have believed, is really true.

What instrument or means does the Lord use to bring us to new life and to true faith? In the Heidelberg we confess that the Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel to create that new life and true faith. Synod re-affirmed that same truth. She quotes Romans 10:14, 15. The elect are brought to new life through hearing a message and for that to happen, there must be messengers. This is why, in the Reformed Churches, preaching is such a big deal. It is not because we are “clericalists,” i.e., it is not about investing ministers with power and authority to control the laity. Rather, we have a high regard for the ministry because we are convinced from God’s Word (e.g., Romans 10) that our gracious Lord has willed to use ministers and the public preaching of the Word to accomplish his purposes. He has established the office of the ministry and has himself, through his church, sent them to perform one vital function: to preach the good news. This is a mercy to sinners. God does not send upon us what we deserve. He withholds his wrath against us because he has already poured it out upon Christ our Substitute.

Those ministers are “messengers” of his “most joyful tidings.” Of course ministers must preach the law. They would be unfaithful if they failed in that duty but the one thing that marks out Christian ministers, beside their ordination to office, is their message: the good news, that Christ has come, that he has suffered and obeyed in our behalf, that he died, that he was raised, that he has ascended, that he reigns, and that he is coming again in glory to judge the reprobate and redeem his elect.

It is through such preaching that God is pleased, when and where he wills To call his elect repentance (recognition of their sin and misery) and to faith in Christ, i.e., to a living trust in Christ our Substitute and Savior.

Calvinists are known for upholding the biblical and ancient Christian doctrine of election—we did not invent it. We inherited it—but we are equally committed to the doctrine of means. It is easy to make a caricature of the Reformed, as always talking about predestination. Perhaps we live up to that caricature too often but we are just as committed to the doctrine that the same God who has ordained the ends has also ordained the means. Indeed, we know a great lot more about the means than we know about the ends. We know that God has elected a people and reprobated others but we do not know whom God has elected or whom he has reprobated. That is God’s business. We do know, however, that God has ordained people to go and preach and an institution through which that preaching is done: his visible church. This was Paul’s point in Romans 10. Chapter 9 comes before 10, obviously, but it is in the background conceptually. We preach confidently because we know that, behind the scenes, as it were, God is working out his purposes. He is using the “foolishness” (1 Cor 1:25) of the gospel to bring his people to new life and to true faith.

—R. Scott Clark, Escondido

Here is the entire series so far on the Canons of Dort

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  1. What does it mean to us that we do not know who are the reprobated and who are the elected?

    Please expand on the theology behind this. Please expand on the scripture behind this.

    • Hi David,

      Sometimes Reformed Christians, particularly those who are new to the Reformed confession, in their enthusiasm, are tempted to play a game I call, “Guess The Elect.” They play this game by asking, “Am I Elect?” This is not a question the confessions ever encourage us to ask nor is it a biblical question. The biblical question is this: “do I believe?” The only way believers come to faith is by the sovereign grace of God.

      Here is a longer explanation, from Scripture, of this doctrine:

      The other way to play this game is think that we know what God knows, that we know whom he has or has not elected from all eternity. Of course, that is not ours to know. What we know is who believes and who does not believe but even those who do not believe now may later come to faith. Further, not all those who make profession of faith are actually believers.

      This is why we talk about “true faith” and assurance of faith. The elect are given true faith and through faith the Spirit gives us assurance. The basis of our assurance is the promise of God: “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). We know that there are those whom the Father has given to the Son and no one can snatch them from the Father’s hand nor from the Son (John 10).

      I am repeating what Calvin said, that we should not “curiously inquire” into the secret will of God, into the decree. We should content ourselves with his promises. We should believe them and rest in them.

      Behind all this is a distinction taught in Deuteronomy 29:29, the secret things belong to God but the revealed things belong to us and to our children. I call this the “categorical distinction.” On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession. See also:

      Here is a library of materials on this distinction:

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