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.
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).