The Remonstrants (Arminians) charged the orthodox Reformed, i.e., those who confessed the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) sincerely (without crossed fingers) with being unconcerned about sanctification. The Remonstrants were convinced that the Reformed faith did not produce sufficient godliness. They suggested that the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) naturally led to indifference to spiritual growth and to growth in Christlikeness. Of course, the Remonstrants had a different doctrine of the Christian life. They not only taught that God elected conditions (rather than sinners) and that grace is not sovereign but resistible but they also taught that Christians, if they would, could reach entire perfection in this life.
By contrast, the Reformed were Augustinian Protestants. They believed the historic doctrine of original sin. They saw Luther’s doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide in Scripture. They were realistic about the Christian life. They knew that sinners sin—that even those who have been redeemed by Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit continue to struggle with sin and sometimes mightily. They read Romans 7 the same way Augustine did (contra Pelagius) and as Calvin and the rest of the Reformed did. Many of them preached regularly and many of them had been pastors. They had heard members of their congregations confess their sins. They had seen Christians repent. They had offered to needy sinners God’s approval and forgiveness (grace) in Christ.
Among the more frequent topics that came up in the counseling room is the same one that still comes up: assurance: how can I, sinner that I am, know that I am accepted by God?
Meanwhile, Scripture testifies that believers have to contend in this life with various doubts of the flesh and that under severe temptation they do not always experience this full assurance of faith and certainty of perseverance. But God, the Father of all comfort, “does not let them be tempted beyond what they can bear, but with the temptation he also provides a way out” (1 Cor. 10:13), and by the Holy Spirit revives in them the assurance of their perseverance (Canons of Dort, 5.11).
When Synod confessed, “Scripture testifies…” they were thinking of Romans 7 and Psalms 51 and 32. They were thinking of Abraham’s sins, of Moses’ failure to enter the promised land, and of David’s sins (e.g., murder and adultery). Scripture is almost replete, in the Old and New Testaments, with concrete examples of believers falling into sin. Eve was tempted to believe the lie that humans can be equal with God. Proverbs 7:1–23 is sharply realistic about how temptation works. Solomon (Prov 1:1) knew whereof he spoke. James speaks with equal frankness about how temptation becomes sin:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:13–15; NASB).
When James writes, “but each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed” he is speaking of the Christian struggle with sin.
One of the consequences of giving in to temptation is damage to one’s sense of assurance. Assurance is of the essence of faith but, because we sinners exercise faith in a fallen world, as Synod says, we “do not always experience this full assurance of faith and certainty of perseverance.” Our experience does not always match the definition of faith (but that does not redefine faith).
The temptations we experience in the New Covenant are the temptations that Christ’s people have always experienced. This is what Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10:13) and Synod applies it to us too. We are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, and Solomon. We sin as they do. We confess our sins and they do and we receive the grace of Christ as they do. Because we believing sinners are still believers the Holy Spirit revives in us a sense of assurance through the promises of the gospel.
Where sin abounded, grace super abounded. Does this mean that we should sin so that there would be more grace? Not at all! (Rom 6:1, 2).
This assurance of perseverance, however, so far from making true believers proud and carnally self-assured, is rather the true root of humility, of childlike respect, of genuine godliness, of endurance in every conflict, of fervent prayers, of steadfastness in crossbearing and in confessing the truth, and of well-founded joy in God. Reflecting on this benefit provides an incentive to a serious and continual practice of thanksgiving and good works, as is evident from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints (Canons of Dort, 5.12).
If there is any growth in grace, it is by grace alone. We do not rest in ourselves nor do we presume. Our confidence is Christ and his promises. He obeyed. He died. He was raised. He is at the right hand. He did all that for us, for his people. He has given us new life and true faith. He has rescued us from the wrath to come and saved us unto devotion and godliness. We have been saved to “crossbearing (the Latin text says “constancy in the cross and confession of the truth”; constantiæ in cruce et veritatis confessione.”). We are adopted sons and as such we seek to learn and to manifest “filial reverence” (filialis reverentiæ).
The law teaches us our sin and drives us back to Christ and there is the source of our new life and true godliness: “Reflecting on this benefit provides an incentive to a serious and continual practice of thanksgiving and good works.” Synod says Scripture testifies to this pattern. Look at Psalms 32 and 51. We see this very pattern. David confesses his sin, receives God’s forgiveness and out of that grace he is empowered to go forward in the Christian life.
Neither does the renewed confidence of perseverance produce immorality or lack of concern for godliness in those put back on their feet after a fall, but it produces a much greater concern to observe carefully the ways of the Lord which he prepared in advance. They observe these ways in order that by walking in them they may maintain the assurance of their perseverance, lest, by their abuse of his fatherly goodness, the face of the gracious God (for the godly, looking upon his face is sweeter than life, but its withdrawal is more bitter than death) turn away from them again, with the result that they fall into greater anguish of spirit (Canons of Dort, 5.13).
The similarity between the Remonstrant and Roman critique of the Reformation is striking. Here the Synod of Dort might just as well have been writing in the middle of the 16th century rather than at the beginning of the 17th century. Rome made the same attack: the Protestant doctrine of salvation and sanctification leads to moral carelessness. One sees this charge explicitly and implicitly even today in the popular press. Romanists blame late-modern licentiousness on the Reformation as if the early 16th century and the pre-Reformation popes were models of piety and chastity.
The question is whether there is true faith. Where it exists, there is a penitent faith. There is hope. There is genuine desire to die to sin and to live to Christ.
Our assurance does not rest in our perseverance and obedience. Our assurance rests in the promises and work of Christ. Our progress in the Christian life rests in the promises and grace of Christ. When we abuse God’s grace we damage our assurance. True godliness does reinforce our assurance just as entertaining temptation—”Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7; NASB)&mdashweakens our assurance and godliness.
All who believe are the recipients of grace so great that it is almost unthinkable. How we do anything but give ourselves over to our Savior who loves us? The Spirit is at work in us putting to death sin in us and making us alive in Christ day by day. He is true to his promises. He shall do it. He is doing it now.
The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.