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The Canons of Dort, First Head of Doctrine, Article 6

Synod%20of%20Dort.jpgArticle 6: God's Eternal Decision

The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision. For all his works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us his act--unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just--of distinguishing between people equally lost. This is the well-known decision of election and reprobation revealed in God's Word. This decision the wicked, impure, and unstable distort to their own ruin, but it provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words.


Election is always a difficult concept, especially for Americans operating with the presuppositions of modern democracy–choice determines everything.  Nevertheless, election is a doctrine which is clearly taught throughout the pages of Holy Scripture.  If God gets all the glory when undeserving sinners are saved, and if men and women are blamed for not believing, how are we to understand this?  What about the question of “fairness?”  In article six, the authors attempt to deal with some of the implications raised by the fact that our salvation only comes about because of something good in God, and not because of anything good that God finds in the sinful and rebellious creature.

First, the Canons are careful to point out that the ultimate reason why anyone comes to faith in Christ is to be found in God’s eternal decree to save some, known in Scripture as “election.”  The Scriptures clearly teach that God acts according to his deliberate plan and purpose.  He does not merely watch his creatures act and he then reacts accordingly—which would be something akin to classical deism.  In a biblical text (
Ephesians 1:11) we have already considered in the previous article of the Canons (article 5), God’s choice to save some is not based upon his foreknowledge of contingent [uncertain] events.  Rather, God's choices are based upon his own “purpose” and his “plan,” or better yet, what Paul calls his eternal counsel.  

In other words, the decree of election is based upon God’s eternal plan and purpose, and not his response to what his creatures may or may not do using their free will.  Clearly this is difficult for us to understand since we are bound to time and space and God is not.  But what would the alternative be?  The alternative is a God who cannot act to rescue his creatures from their bondage to sin, but who can only watch and then react when the creature takes the first step—something Scripture teaches sinners cannot do (cf. Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13).  We are left with a “god” who cannot control every aspect of his own creation, but who can only attempt to change the actions of those who willingly co-operate with his efforts.  Such a view does not square with either God’s omnipotence or his immutability.

Those whom God has chosen to save do indeed come to faith only because he acts upon them, by “graciously softening their hearts and inclining them to believe.”  As we have seen above, God does this through the means of the preaching of Christ crucified.  It is the Holy Spirit working through gospel who turns unbelieving hearts of stone into hearts of flesh which will believe.  This means that according to God’s eternal purpose, the stony hearts and unwilling wills of his elect are softened and inclined toward Jesus Christ, through the preaching of the gospel.  Ends (God’s election of those specific individuals whom he will save) must be connected to means (the preaching of the gospel).

All of this raises the more difficult question, “what happens to those who are not numbered among God’s elect?”  In one sense, we can simply answer, “nothing.”  God, who is under no necessity of saving anyone, justly leaves the non-elect to suffer the effects of the hardness of their own hearts.  God does not soften that heart, nor does he incline them to believe.  He leaves them as they are, dead in sin, unable and unwilling to respond to the good news of Christ. 

The result is that they perish eternally, because they are guilty in Adam and they willfully commit sin, justly placing them under God’s curse.  Unless their hearts are so inclined and softened, they do not want to believe the gospel!  It remains dark and repulsive to them.  But the fault for this is theirs.  God passes over them, exercising his justice and withholding saving grace from them.  After all, he is God and can do what he wishes with his creatures.

At this point, the authors of the Canons are careful to point out that if we are all sinful by nature and by choice, the basis for anyone going to heaven and being numbered among the elect is to be found only in God’s unfathomable, mysterious and yet merciful act, in distinguishing between people equally lost.  In other words, since we are all sinful, we must see election as God’s choice to save some—based upon reasons known only to himself, his plan and counsel—and not because of anything in the creature which motivates him to chose one but not the other.  

Why does God choose one and by-pass the other?  He does not tell us why he acts as he does.  He doesn't have to.  But he does say that he has reasons which remain unknown to us.  Moses reminds us in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

This whole subject is difficult for us to comprehend and it is easy for the enemies of the Christian faith or those who do not understand, to distort the biblical teaching on this point.  It is easy to caricature the teaching of election so as make it seem as though the Reformed turn the “loving God” into a cold and capricious monster, who supposedly takes away all choice from us, and who creates people only to damn them to hell forever.  This obviously is not what the Scriptures teach, nor what the Reformed churches believe.

Indeed, for those who are Christ’s, and who know and believe what the Scriptures teach in this regard, the doctrine of election is a source of unspeakable comfort.  If we are in Christ, it is because of something good in God that is far greater than our weakness and sinfulness.  And if we are in Christ at this moment, we can be assured that we will be “in Christ” forever.  This is clearly taught in John’s gospel when Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:1-30).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

19 There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. 20 Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” 21 Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

We find here not the cold language of metaphysics, nor the terminology of speculative theology, but we find the image of the good shepherd caring for his sheep.  Since Jesus is our “good shepherd” and we are his sheep, we know that he will never leave us or forsake us because he is faithful and his father is all-powerful.  No one can snatch us from his hand!  In this, election is an unspeakable source of comfort.

Reader Comments (1)

Dr. R

Thanks for posting these commentaries on the Canons! There are great!
January 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDJ Cimino

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