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The Canons of Dort, First Head of Doctrine, Article 1


With this post, I'm beginning a new series at the Riddleblog entitled, "notes on the Canons of Dort."  This is material which I prepared some time ago when I took our congregation through the Canons during our evening service.  Those notes will be edited and posted here.

The goal of this series is to go through the Canons of Dort, article by article, and explain many of the basics of the Reformed faith, especially those associated with the so-called "five points of Calvinism."  It is my hope that you will find this helpful, edifying, and that you will discover as I once did, the Canons are not the theological bogeyman people make them out to be.  The Canons are biblical, non-speculative and very pastoral.  They deserve to be read and studied by God's people.

It has long been my concern that many "five point" Calvinists are not familiar with the document which gave the five points confessional status in the Reformed churches.  Hopefully, this series will in some measure help rectify that shortcoming.

This series is designed to be a basic introduction to the Canons, so all of you arm-chair theologians out there, please keep this in mind as the series unfolds. 

 Article 1: God's Right to Condemn All People

Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God (Rom. 3:19), All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).*


I.  The Canons begin with the human condition as set forth in the Scriptures.

  • All of humanity is subject to the just judgement of God [Romans 3:19]
  • All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory [his righteous requirements for perfect obedience— Romans 3:23]
  • The human race is under the curse—which is death [Romans 6:23]

Too often Americans approach matters of sin and grace from a cultural rather than a biblical perspective.  Since this is the case, many of our contemporaries begin the discussion of human sinfulness and God’s grace with a far different set of  presuppositions than we find in Scripture and which are summarized in the opening article of the Canons. 

This difference in presuppositions explains why there is so much anger and confusion whenever a Reformed Christian even mentions the five-points of Calvinism in a non-Reformed context.

According to most of our contemporaries, we must not begin this discussion with the fact of human sin, but with a kind of democratic egalitarianism.  In other words, most Americans already assume the notion to be true that “God isn’t being fair with his creatures, unless everyone has an equal chance at heaven."  While it is easy to acknowledge that we are sinners, it is not easy to take that admission to the obvious conclusion--because we are sinners, we are guilty before God.  In fact, when you take this as far as Scripture does--we are sinners, we are guilty before God, and we are unable to do anything to save ourselves from God's anger toward our sins--then the trouble begins.

II. These typically American presuppositions are as follows:

  • All men and women have an equal opportunity to go to heaven and God would not be acting fairly if any were somehow deprived of that to which they are entitled—they must deprive themselves.
  • Of course, all have sinned, but free will and natural ability remain.  We are not robots after all.
  • We are may be guilty , but we still have the ability to remove the curse from ourselves with Christ’s help, if only we are willing.

These different presuppositions (The Reformed--"we can do nothing to help ourselves" v. the American ideal--"everyone should be given an equal chance to go to heaven") explains why Reformed theology strikes so many Americans as a strange and cruel.  The theology set forth in the Canons does not begin with the rosy estimation that most Americans have about human nature--it begins with a biblical realism about human sin and a great confidence in God's grace to save his people from their sins. 

The Canons therefore strive begin where Scripture does--with the biblical teaching regarding the sinfulness and inability of men and women to save themselves.   Because we begin with humanities’ sin, guilt and inability to come to faith, God’s grace is seen as a rescue of those [the “elect”] who deserve God’s wrath, but are instead chosen to be the recipients and beneficiaries of God's mercies in Christ.  

III.  This is an age-old debate

  • Those in the Augustinian tradition emphasize God’s graciousness to sinners—it is God who saves sinners from beginning to end.
  • Those in the Pelagian tradition focus upon humanities natural ability—salvation from sin stems from acting upon our knowledge of God’s commands.  If God commands something, it is because we have the ability to carry out that command.  (Ironically, this has more in common with Kant’s categorical imperative “ought implies can” than it does with the biblical estimation of human nature after the fall!).
  • Most American Christians are “semi-Pelagian.”  Simply put, semi-Pelagians see human salvation from sin not so much as a divine rescue in which men and women who are described as “dead in sin” require a resurrection from death to life before they can even respond to God.  Semi-Pelagians often speak of salvation as a kind of transaction in which God contributes grace and men and women contribute faith.  He has done his part, now its up to you . . .

As Augustine once said, “the grace of God does not find men fit for salvation, but makes them so.”  This is a fundamental choice every Christian must make--either we can save ourselves by acting upon the proper information (Pelagianism), God will help us save ourselves (semi-Pelgianism), or God save sinners who can do nothing to save themselves (Augustinianism). 

The Bible speaks to this matter directly.  "We are dead in sins and transgressions,” (Ephesians 2:1).  We are by nature “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), we “do not seek God” (Romans 3:11), and like the leopard, “we cannot change our spots” (Jeremiah 13:23).  In fact, we cannot even come to God unless he first draws us to himself (John 6:44, 65).  How, then, can we say as our contemporaries do, that our salvation depends upon our choice, our willing, our efforts, even if God helps us do these things. 

Scripture is clear that the latter is not the case.  In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).  And, as Paul says in Romans 9:16, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

We are fallen and enslaved in sin.  If God did not act first in our lives, no one would have any hope of heaven nor enjoy the comfort of eternal life.  Indeed, the wrath of God would still abide on us.  That is where Scripture begins when addressing the matter of sin and grace.  This is where the Canons begin as well.

Reader Comments (13)

Excellent beginning to a series I'm looking forward to reading!
December 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChris R
Thanks for doing this series. It looks like it will be really imformative and useful.

I look forward to the rest.
December 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPatty
WOW!! Do you happen to have the audio in your bookstore?
December 6, 2007 | Unregistered Commentervox reformata
I just want to thank you, Rev Riddlebarger, for all the work you do for those of us who are not able to attend your church. I have disseminated your writings to friends and members of my church, as we are in the process of returning to our Reformed roots. It is a long and, at times, difficult process. Your work is very helpful.
December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl
I think a lot of "5-pointers" would be fairly surprised to actually read the heads of doctrine. Often I get the sense that self-professing "5-pointers" may more mean less than the doctrines say and more what they don't...

Good stuff.

December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterZrim
Outstanding!<insert thumbs-up smiley here>
December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPB
I will enjoy this greatly. I do have one question so far. If we are unable to respond to God's grace because we are sinners, how then do we "receive" it? I'm probably missing something.
December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Alvarez
This is fantastic Kim!! Thanks, and looking forward to all the learning!
December 6, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterplw
Thanks for beginning this series. I am an LCMS Lutheran who came to Christ in a Southern Baptist church. I fear I am a closet Calvinist! Actually, I am one day convinced of the Reformed position and another I am closer to Melancthon. I am looking forward to this series helping me get a better handle on where I belong in the theological spectrum.
December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFran S.
There are few studies out there on the Canons of Dordt. This is lamentable for this is the only Reformed Symbol that directly engages the Arminian position. Talking about the 5 points is not enough. The Canons of Dordt reach beyond the 5 points into the full range of systematic theology. I am grateful for your post and look forward to the rest.

December 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Carr
There go those pesky Reformed theologians again, who never teach anything relevant with personal application!

Tsk, Tsk...

Thank you for putting the meat on the table, Pastor Kim.
December 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRobin
I love history, it's always good to know were and what God was doing in the past with our brothers and sisters in the faith. On one hand I'm looking forward to this new addition to the blog, but a little hesitant on the other. My beliefs aren't rutted in Church history, their founded on God's words in scripture. From what i know of the Cannons of Dort, I thank God for them and the men who God used to frame them. I consider my self Reformed/Calvinist. I grew up Pentecostal and through God's providence attended a bible school that taught the inductive bible study method and with it we went through all the books of the bible. To make a long story short I went into this school pentecostal and came out a reformed Calvinist (Although I wouldn't have called my self one). I didn't actual know It at the time but I held to tulip. I was even upset when I found out that my best friend became a 5 point Calvinist. One day when talking to him we just started going through what we believed and to my surprise we held to the same beliefs. My point in all of this is, yes it's fun and good to learn about the past and things like the Cannons of Dort, but I'm a Calvinist because I'm a bible believing Christian not because I want to stand in the line of great Teachers or doctrines of the Church.
December 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjason
This may sound odd and maybe even a little Roman Catholic, but standing in line with great teachers and confessions of the Church is standing in line with the Bible. You are not the only one who has the knowledge of the truth, and you are not the one who is the pillar and ground of the truth; the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth.

December 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Carr

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