Canons Of Dort (25): Perservance Is Not A Covenant Of Works

In this installment we should consider how Synod interpreted the Remonstrant doctrine.

We see this in their “Rejection of Errors.” These rejections were given under each of the chapters or heads of doctrine and though they have often been ignored they are very illuminating. They help us today not only to see why Synod took the Remonstrant doctrine so seriously but also to understand various (other than Arminianism) errors around us today.

 

In the previous essay we saw that the Reformed Churches defended perseverance by grace alone (sola gratia) against the Remonstrant attempt to deny perseverance by making grace resistible and conditional rather than sovereign and free. To see that we looked at the 1610 Remonstrance and 1618 Opinions of the Remonstrants themselves.

In this installment we should consider how Synod interpreted the Remonstrant doctrine. We see this in their “Rejection of Errors.” These rejections were given under each of the chapters or heads of doctrine and though they have often been ignored they are very illuminating. They help us today not only to see why Synod took the Remonstrant doctrine so seriously but also to understand various (other than Arminianism) errors around us today.

Synod rejected the error of those who teach that:

the perseverance of true believers is not an effect of election or a gift of God produced by Christ’s death, but a condition of the new covenant which man, before what they call his “peremptory” election and justification, must fulfill by his free will.

As my friend Bob Godfrey says, in the Remonstrant (Arminian) theology, God is not said to elect persons as much as to have elected conditions. Whoever meets those conditions is elect and will be finally saved, if one does not resist grace and fall away. It is a radically different understanding of election, of grace, and of salvation. It is fundamentally a legal understanding of salvation.

Beginning with Arminius, who died the year before the Remonstrance was published in 1610, the Remonstrant theologians and pastors rejected the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works before the fall. This was the way that the Reformed expressed the basic Protestant distinction between law and gospel, i.e., the conviction that there are two kinds of words in Scripture. The law says: “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) or “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13; ESV). The gospel says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or “the serpent shall strike his heel and he shall strike his head” (Gen 3:15). These are essentially two kinds of speech. One demand perfect righteousness of us (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10). The other promises that someone else, Jesus, will perform that righteousness for us, in our place, as our substitute, and that righteousness will be imputed to us who believe. The historical, covenantal way of speaking about gospel is to call it a “covenant of grace.” The early Reformed theologian For example, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) explicitly correlated the law/gospel distinction to the distinction between the covenants of works (law) and grace (gospel).

Typically, however, when Reformed folk have denied the covenant of works before the fall, that covenant does not go away. It typically returns but this time as part of the covenant of grace. This usually happens because some are worried that a gospel of unconditional acceptance with God for Christ’s sake will not produce sufficient personal holiness. This was a driving concern of the Remonstrants (Arminians). They were highly critical of the level of sanctification among the Reformed churches. Like the medieval church before them they thought that if we put Christians back under the law for salvation, that would produce more sanctity. They denied doing this, of course, but they did it nonetheless.

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