The Reformed churches have endured discussions and disagreements about salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) before. Beginning in the late 16th century a Reformed minister in Amsterdam began offering significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Early on critics accused him of corrupting the faith but he was allied by marriage with some powerful families and therefore was protected. When a teaching position opened up at the most prestigious university in the land he was nominated to fill the post. Despite misgivings by faculty members and others he was appointed and almost immediately there was controversy. He was accused of replacing orthodox textbooks with unorthodox ones. He was accused of denying the Reformation doctrine of salvation. He denied the charges and always, throughout the controversy, played the victim—a rhetorical stance which has become standard for his followers since. Over the years it became clear that this revisionist was not merely trimming the edges of Reformed theology but advocating a revolution. His movement not only placed the churches in jeopardy but threatened to become a cause of civil war. Within a year after his death, his followers published a five-point summary of what he had been teaching, four points of which conceded what had been charged against him. The fifth point, on perseverance, was deliberately obscure and finally, in 1618, 9 years after his death, an international synod met to address the crisis and to stem the spread of the movement he had unleashed. Of course we are talking about Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609) and the Remonstrant movement he created, Arminianism.
One of the theological motives of the Remonstrants, which is not always fully appreciated, was that they had concluded that the Reformation doctrine of salvation (e.g., definitive justification and consequent progressive sanctification) would never produce the sort of godliness and good works they thought ought to mark the life of the Christian. Thus, they created a system whereby good works are not merely the fruit and evidence of salvation but an antecedent condition thereof. That is, where the orthodox Reformed had faith as the “sole instrument” or antecedent condition of justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (salvation), the Remonstrants had faith and works.
In the Remonstrant theology even election was said to be conditional. The Remonstrants taught that God had determined to save those who “shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere.” Salvation, they taught, was conditioned upon foreseen faith (fides praevisa) and upon our cooperation with grace. They used the word grace, as moralists usually do, but the clear effect of their revision was to take the Reformed churches back to the medieval system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace or salvation by grace and works. Indeed, their doctrine of the election was worse than some taught by the medievals since Gottschalk (d. c. 867), Thomas (d. 1274), and e.g., Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) had taught unconditional election before the Reformation. The Remonstrants turned the gracious Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide on its head. Note carefully how vociferously and with what terms the Synod rejected the Remonstrant theology:
We reject the errors of those who teach hat Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for any one, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error (Rejection of Errors 2.3).
The Reformed churches of the Netherlands, France (in absentia), Great Britain, the Palatinate, Geneva, Bremen, Zürich, and elsewhere with one voice rejected these revisions in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618–19). These canons (or rulings) of the Synod are helpful in the current discussions about sanctification, conditions in the covenant of grace, good works, and salvation. The Canons are organized under 5 “heads of doctrine,” corresponding to the Five Points of the Remonstrance.
The term “conditio” occurs about 10 times in the Canons. It occurs first in Canons 1.9 and that use tells us a good bit about the concerns of the orthodox about the Remonstrant theology.
This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: “He chose us [not because we were, but]…that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph 1:4).
One of the most fundamental things that the Reformed needed to re-assert was the total inability of fallen man and the radical, free favor (grace) of God, in Christ, toward helpless sinners. The Remonstrant revision had it that we are not as sinful as Augustine and the Reformation had said. They posited some ability to cooperate with grace. Indeed, arguably, they collapsed grace into nature. By nature, even after the fall, we had sufficient ability to do our part. In this scheme, grace becomes a helper but not the marvelous, sovereign free favor earned for us by Christ and given unconditionally to sinners. According to the Synod, there are no conditions that we must meet in order to warrant God’s favor in salvation. Rather, by contrast, the Reformed taught that election is the “fons (the source) of all salvation (fons omnis salutaris). Notice that the divines singled out not only “foreseen faith” but also “the obedience of faith, sanctity, or other good quality and disposition.” The Remonstrant position had the effect of moving the ground of our salvation from Christ’s righteousness for us (pro nobis) back to qualities intrinsic to us. According to the Remonstrants we are saved partly on the basis of things done by us and wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. Such a system raises the question: how much must one do, in cooperation with grace, in order to be saved? That such a question necessarily arises tells us that we are no longer living in the house of the Reformation and that we are not talking about “grace alone” and “faith alone” but grace plus works. The Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works (E.g., Rejection of Errors 2.2).
We know that the orthodox Reformed concern was the reception of eternal life because the Canons themselves say so. That is why the Reformed churches re-asserted that “faith, sanctity, and the remaining saving goods, and then eternal life itself flows from (profluunt) and is the effect of ” God’s sovereign, unconditional election. We are not elect because we are sanctified or obedient or because of foreseen faith but but we are being graciously, gradually sanctified by God because of God’s unconditional electing grace in Christ.
This was the doctrine of art. 10 also. The “cause” of our election is only (solum) God’s good pleasure (Dei beneplacitum). Salvation is not the outcome of our sanctification and good works. Rather, our sanctification and the consequent good works are the result of our salvation. The Remonstrants had set up “possible human qualities and actions” as a “condition of salvation” (salutis conditionem). The Reformed taught that God unconditionally, freely elected out of the “common multitude of sinners” (communi peccatorum multitudine) some to salvation. Their proofs? Romans 9:11–13 and Acts 13:48. Jacob believed and was saved because he was unconditionally elect. The Reformed make salvation a benefit freely given to sinners in the covenant of grace.
According to Canons 1.12, God’s free, sovereign decree of election comes to expression in history “in due time” in various ways. In other words, our experience varies. Even though our salvation is as sure as God’s free grace and election our subjective experience of assurance varies. It is interesting then to note how the divines spoke of the “infallible fruits of election” (fructus electionis infallibiles). According to the divines (and contrary to the popular caricature of Reformed theology and piety) we are never to ask “Am I elect?” Rather, the divines would have us ask, “Do I believe? Is there some evidence of true faith?” God’s grace produces observable effects. We are not to rest in but we are to observe the effects of election: true faith in Christ (vera in Christum fides), a filial fear of God—not a servile fear. Believers are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. We respect (timor) our holy God but we do not fear him as if we are under judgment. Christ has endured that judgment for us. Because we have been saved and are being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone we have a genuine sorrow (dolor) for sin, a hungering and thirsting for our own actual righteousness. Our sanctification and good works are the fruits of God’s gracious election and salvation, which he bestows unconditionally upon his people.
The divines were aware of the Remonstrant doctrine that there are different kinds of election: “general and indefinite” (general et indefinitam) and “singular and definite” (singularem et definitam). We have faced the exact same threat in our time in the self-described “Federal Vision” theology, which posits two kinds of election, eternal and conditional. The Reformed approach to assurance is to start with the objective, Christ’s work for us, which is credited to us and received by us through faith alone (sola fide). We observe the fruits of God’s grace and give thanks to him for them. We rest in Christ and his promises (gospel) but we recognize that he is working in us, however slowly that almost imperceptibly that work may sometimes seem to us. We do not have to choose between the objective and the subjective. We embrace them both. Neither do we need to become de facto sacerdotalists by turning baptism into magic so that our only answer to doubt is “I am baptized” (and ergo necessarily saved ex opere operato). No, baptism itself is not salvation but a sacrament of our salvation, i.e., a sign and seal of what is true of those who believe. Baptism is not the “sole instrument” (Belgic Confession art. 22) of our salvation. Faith is is the alone instrument of our salvation (sola fide).
The divines also, however, rejected as an error the notion that there is an election unto faith (electio ad fidem) or unto justifying faith (ad fidem justificantem) but which nevertheless leaves one “without a preemptory election to salvation (absque electione peremptoria ad salutem; rejection of errors 1.2). The Remonstrants were trying to set up a system where our salvation is in stages. We are justified now but not yet saved, which is the second stage. Here was their opportunity to make room for our good works and cooperation with grace co-instruments of our salvation. According to the Reformed churches, however, under such a construction, “the doctrine of election is corrupted” and the “golden chain of our salvation is dissolved” (auream hanc salutis catenam dissolvens). To that end they re-asserted the ordo salutis (order of salvation) by quoting Romans 8:30. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (ESV). This fact should give us pause when we encounter those contemporary writers who wish to “move beyond” what they dismiss as “ordo salutis thinking.” There is an order to the application of redemption. It is the elect who are given new life, who come to faith, who through faith are justified, united to Christ, adopted, saved, and glorified. Our salvation is not contingent upon our performance, even if that performance is qualified as “cooperation with grace.” Any such construction necessarily turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
One consequence of abandoning the biblical and Reformed order of the application of redemption is our current confusion over the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come), conditions in the covenant of grace, and the role of good works. This confusion is not new. There was confusion in the 1590s and in the early 17th century leading up to the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants were not satisfied with the Reformation doctrines. They wanted our cooperation with grace and our good works to be more than the fruit and evidence of our justification and our sanctification, more than those necessary accompaniments to true faith and sanctification. In response the the Synod made not only our sanctification and good works but our new life and our faith to be fruit and evidence of our unconditional election. In so doing, they effectively re-contextualized the whole debate. Where the Remonstrants, who denied the pre-lapsarisan covenant of works, had put believers in a covenant of works for salvation, the Reformed churches re-asserted that believers are in a covenant of grace for salvation. As a result of the Synod’s reassertion of the Reformation against the Remonstrants, the question concerning good works was no longer, “How much must I do to warrant salvation?” but “How should I respond in gratitude for God’s unconditional favor to me in Christ?”
The Fifth Article Of The Remonstrance
Now we want to consider the fifth article of the 1610 Remonstrance, on perseverance. It was vague and confusing and must be read carefully, word by word, phrase by phrase, and clause by clause. It began with promising language, by speaking of those who are “incorporated into Christ by a true faith,” who have “thereby become partakers….” This sort of language was very familiar to the Reformed and created a false impression that the Remonstrants were more sympathetic to the Reformed cause than they really were. As I always say: keep reading. According to the Remonstrants, we are partakers of Christ’s “life-giving Spirit….” This is a subtle move since the truth is that it is the Spirit who has sovereignly and unconditionally made us alive (regenerated us), given us true faith, and who, through the sole instrument of faith, united us to Christ. We are already partakers of Christ’s life-giving Spirit.
The second sentence of 5 could expresses the underlying Perfectionism of the Remonstrants. B. B. Warfield saw this connection and identified two sources for the Perfectionism he encountered in the 19th century: Mysticism and the Remonstrants. According to the Remonstrants, those so united to the Spirit have “full power” to “win the victory.” This language may be interpreted more or less favorably but it is not exactly that of Heidelberg Catechism 56, which speaks of “the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long…” nor of Heidelberg 60, which testifies that even as a Christian, in union with Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit nevertheless “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….” One document is full of the spirit of Paul, Augustine, and Martin Luther and the other is not.
The Remonstrants always find a way to put the believer “on the hook” for his final salvation. Grace is never really free. It is never really amazing. As with Rome, grace is reduced to a helper. The Remonstrants wrote of “the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus Christ “assists” us poor sinners “if only” we are “ready for the conflict and desire his help, and are not inactive….” Here the true nature of the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance emerges: God helps those who help themselves by cooperating with his “assisting grace.” This is quite another picture of salvation. Here God has not parted the Red Sea and led us through, by the hand, as it were (Jer 31:32; Ex 14:16). Rather, according to the Remonstrants, God has covenanted to co-act with those who do what lies within them (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam). The Remonstrants turned Reformed theology into the Pelagian covenant theology of the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–95). Those who meet these antecedent conditions—the Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works—cannot be plucked out of Christ’s hands. If we only read the first few lines and then let our eyes slip down to quotation of John 10:28 we might get entirely the wrong impression. Once, however, we read the words in between the picture becomes much clearer. The Remonstrants re-contextualized John 10:28 and the evangelical (in the original, sixteenth-century sense of the word), Protestant, Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.
Then comes the last part of the article, in which the Remonstrants feigned modesty and uncertainty about whether it was possible for one, who had been regenerated, “through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace….” Whether that might be true, the offered, “must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.” In light of history we may say with confidence that the Remonstrants made up their minds quickly.
Synod Reasserts The Reformation Doctrine
Of course, the Synod was having none of it. They categorically rejected this doctrine as Pelagianizing, to whom or to which heresy they referred no fewer than 8 times. Remember, what is at stake here is the salvation of the elect. What is the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come)? Is it by “assisting grace” and sufficient cooperation with the same or by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide)? In the Rejection of Errors under the Fifth Head of Doctrine (on perseverance) Synod explicitly labelled the Remonstrant doctrine “Pelagianism:”
We reject the error of those who teach: That God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere ( sufficientibus ad perseverandum viribus), and is ever ready to preserve these in him if he will perform his office (si officium faciat); but that, though all things which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God will use to preserve faith are furnished to us, even then it ever depends on the pleasure of the will (pendere semper a voluntatis arbitrio) whether it will persevere or not. For this idea contains manifest Pelagianism (manifestum Pelagianismum), and while it would make men free, it make them robbers of God’s honor, contrary to the consensus (consensum) of evangelical doctrine (evangelicæ doctrinæ), which takes from man all cause of boasting, and ascribes all the praise for this favor to the grace of God alone (soli divinæ gratiæ); and contrary to the apostle, who declares that it is God who “will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8).
This paragraph alone makes clear that, for the Reformed Churches of Great Britain, France (in absentia), Geneva, Zürich, the Palatinate, Bremen, and the Netherlands the Reformation was at stake. Under the guise of promoting greater sanctity, the Remonstrants were attempting to lead the Reformed Churches back to medieval moralism: salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. That scheme they could only say that our cooperation with grace was tantamount to the doctrine of salvation by works condemned by the Apostle Paul: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6; ESV).
Where the Remonstrants posited salvation by assisting grace and sufficient cooperation with grace by those who are willing , the Reformed taught that it is by God’s grace alone that we persevere. We are justified by grace alone. We are sanctified by grace alone. We are saved by grace alone. One ground of their insistence upon grace was their stout Pauline, Augustinian, and Protestant assessment of the human condition. The Remonstrants downplayed the effects of the fall. The Reformed understood Scripture to teach that, by nature, we are desperately wicked (Jer 17:9), dead in sins and trespasses (Rom 1–3; Eph 2:1–4). The Remonstrants had collapsed grace into nature. As far as they were concerned, God had endowed us with all we need, if only we will exercise our free will to “do what lies within us,” as the Franciscans had put it. Just as the entire confessional Reformation rejected the Franciscan covenant as Pelagian, so also the Reformed rejected the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance as its latest manifestation.
Whereas the Remonstrants implied the possibility of perfect sanctification in this life (Perfectionism), the Synod rejected it. Though we are “though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world” (5.1). As long as we are in this life all our good works shall be spotted with sin. This is a cause of humiliation that causes us to turn Christ and by his grace to put to death the old man and to be made alive in the new. We press forward toward heaven, where perfection rests (5.2). The Synod rejected the over-realized eschatology of the Remonstrants.
Left to “what lies within” us, to cooperation with assisting grace, we would be lost. Instead, the churches declared, “God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end” (5.3). Where the Remonstrants said “we can,” the Reformed said, “But God.” The Remonstrants gave us law but the Reformed preached the gospel of free grace in Christ to helpless sinners.
Because of our struggle with sin in this life. Sometimes we are not always “so influenced and actuated” by the Spirit as ought to be. That is why we sometimes “sinfully deviate from the guidance of divine grace.” That is why we do not always experience the presence of God (5.11) and the strong sense of assurance that is ours by right. Sin and the struggle against sin are both real. That is why we confess that it is the “power of God who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace…” (5.4). It is by the “righteous permission of God” that we, like David, Peter, and other believers “actually fall into these evils…” (5.4). Such sins are truly offensive. They grieve the Spirit. They interrupt the exercise of faith. They wound the conscience and we may even, for a time, lose the sense of God’s presence (Ps 51:11). In such cases we have not fallen from grace. We have not lost our salvation but we have given ourselves great cause to lament our fallen state, our actual sins, and to repent of them and to seek, by grace alone, to mortify them. Whatever our experience may tell us, the Gospel tells us (5.10) that God never abandons his people. He never permits “them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.” (5.5,6). Even in sanctification (mortification and vivification), the Christian life is still a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. Assurance is restored to believers as their property under the gospel (5.9).
In order to produce sanctity among believers, the Remonstrants sought implicitly to put Christians back under the law, under a covenant of works, for salvation. In contrast, as the Reformed churches understood that it is by grace we are saved, through faith (Eph 2:8–10) unto good works appointed by God for us. God’s grace produces in us a desire to be conformed to Christ (5.13). It is not by the law that we are sanctified, though those who are being sanctified seek earnestly to bring their lives into conformity to God’s holy law. Rather, Synod said:
And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the Sacraments (5.14).
The ground of the Christian life, of perseverance is the gospel of God’s free (to us) favor earned for us by Christ and received through faith alone. By his grace he strengthens us. By hearing his Word, by meditating on the gospel, we are drawn back to Christ. By meditating on the law—the threatenings of what happens to those who do not believe—we are driven back to Christ’s righteousness for us but we are not placed under a covenant of works. It is impossible for believers, those for whom Christ died, to be placed back under works for salvation.
As the churches said (5.15), this doctrine will not be received favorably by all. The Socinians rejected it for the same reason as the Remonstrants. Both were essentially rationalists—thus explaining why so many Remonstrants became Socinians after Dort—and wanted to remove the gospel mystery of sanctification and perseverance. To those who know the greatness of their sin and misery and how utterly dependent they are on Christ for salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) the doctrine of perseverance by grace alone, through faith alone is a great consolation. It is explains our experience. It is a roadmap. It teaches us what to expect and how to understand our experience. Sinners sin but believers repent and seek to be conformed to Christ. We shall not reach perfection in this life but Christ was perfect for us. We shall be perfected after this life or at Christ’s return, whichever happens first. In the ordinary providence of God we shall endure periods of doubt and struggle but God has promised not to abandon us, whatever our experience may suggest. Christ has met the conditions of the covenant of works for us. We, who believe, are in a covenant of grace: All that he did is credited to us and God has graciously worked in us true faith, the sole instrument of our salvation. The Spirit has united us to Christ and is even now sanctifying us in Christ’s image and he shall glorify us.