Dort: When Believers Fall Into Sin

Some think a fall into grievous sin is impossible for Christians. Dort begs to differ.

This language from the first part of Dort 5.4 is in stark contrast with much of the Wesleyan (and Nazarene) doctrine of Christian perfectionism. The tone is rather different from the way some modern Reformed writers have spoken about the Christian life. It is not that all believers are always committing the sorts of grievous sins that David and Peter committed but we are sometimes given the impression that no Christian would ever fall into such. It is true that no Christian could ever fall into such sins impenitently but it is not true that no Christian could ever fall into them.

 

Breaking news: Christians, believers, sin. Sometimes they fall into grievous sin. David, the man after God’s own heart, not only lusted after another man’s wife, he abused his office, committed adultery, planned and executed a murder conspiracy. Peter, as a disciple, denied our Lord three times. As an Apostle, one upon whom the Holy Spirit had fallen at Pentecost, who had boldly preached the gospel also, as an apostle, denied the gospel. These are two of the episodes mentioned explicitly by the Synod of Dort (Canons of Dort 5.4) in 1618–19. They remind us of these and other “lamentable” lapses explicitly as part of the Synod’s explanation of how great is the remaining sin within believers. The problem and reality of the Christian life is that “the converted” (conversi) are not always (semper) are not always so “led and moved by God” (Deo aguntur et moventur), so led of grace (ductu gratiae) that we are not “in particular actions” (actionibus particularibus) and seduced into the “desires of the flesh” (carnis concupiscentiis). The good news is that God’s ” (confirmantis et conservantis) grace is greater (major) than our sin. Make no mistake. According to Dort we are not talking about those who merely make outward profession of faith but those who are “converted.”

This language from the first part of Dort 5.4 is in stark contrast with much of the Wesleyan (and Nazarene) doctrine of Christian perfectionism. The tone is rather different from the way some modern Reformed writers have spoken about the Christian life. It is not that all believers are always committing the sorts of grievous sins that David and Peter committed but we are sometimes given the impression that no Christian would ever fall into such. It is true that no Christian could ever fall into such sins impenitently but it is not true that no Christian could ever fall into them.

The Synod’s language here should also caution us about out setting up artificial expectations for believers. We might fabricate all kinds of things in our imaginations but that is not how the Dort speaks. It is realistic, i.e., it is grounded in Scripture and experience. These language also cautions us against thinking that Paul could not be speaking of the believer when he wrote:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good (Rom 7:14–16; ESV).

It might be that there are good exegetical reasons to think that Paul was not writing here about his experience as a Christian but the notion that he “could not” have been doing so is not one of those good reasons.

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