Canons Of Dort (29): The Reality Of Sin And Grace In The Christian Life

Even the elect are utterly dependent upon the grace of Christ (sola gratia) for our perseverance and for our preservation.

Our sins never turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. This is perhaps the greatest truth to learn here because this is the very lie that The Accuser uses to try to trap us in our sins, to try to convince us that God cannot and will not save such great sinners. Of course here, as always, the Evil One is a liar. Our gracious Father never turns away from those for whom he sent his Son.

 

One of the great and persisting differences between the Reformed and Remonstrant (Arminian) confessions is the difference between the Reformed realism about the Christian life as distinct from the latent Remonstrant perfectionism, i.e., the Pelagianizing doctrine of entire, sinless perfection short of glory. In the fifth head of doctrine the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles openly acknowledged the historic Augustinian reading of Romans 7, that Paul spoke for all Christians when he honestly acknowledged his struggle with sin. So great can that struggle be that even the most devout believer sometimes cries out:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:21–24; ESV)

The most frequent objection to the Augustinian reading of Romans 7 is that it cannot be true. Oh but it can and it is. How do we know that these are the words of a regenerated person (i.e., a person to whom the Holy Spirit has given new life and true faith, who is truly united to the risen Christ by the Spirit)? We know it from the next verse: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” The same person who has been struggling so mightily with sin, who has been so close to despair through so much of the chapter, who has just confessed his anguish, closes with a profoundly Christian doxology. For more on this see this post and the resources there.

The Synod of Dort understood that “cannot be” is what logicians call an a priori, something that one knows before one has considered the facts. We might also consider the life of any of the Patriarchs, which testify to the mixed nature of the Christian life and we see the same even in the New Covenant, which reminds us again of the continuity of the covenant of grace. The Apostle Peter struggled with sin before Pentecost and after, as Paul reminds us in Galatians 2. The book of Acts witnesses to inter-personal disagreements in same Apostolic church upon which the Holy Spirit had been poured out. Two Christ-professors (Ananias and Sapphira) lied to the Holy Spirit and received the strictest penalty in church history. In Corinth, members of the church engaged in gross sexual immorality and schismatic behavior. In Philippians, Paul pleads with Euodia and Syntache to resolve their dispute. The book of Hebrews was written to Christ-professors who were tempted to go back to the types and shadows. Jude was forced to warn the church about dangerous heretics and much of the book of James is the pedagogical use of the law to teach that congregation the greatness of their sin and misery, to call them to true faith in Christ. These are just a few of the instances to which we could point.

Truly, nothing has changed. Christian perfection does not come until death or until Christ returns. So Synod confessed:

Because of these remnants of sin dwelling in them and also because of the temptations of the world and Satan, those who have been converted could not remain standing in this grace if left to their own resources. But God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end (Canons of Dort, 5.3).

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