Article 15: Responses to God's Grace
God does not owe this grace to anyone. For what could God owe to one who has nothing to give that can be paid back? Indeed, what could God owe to one who has nothing of his own to give but sin and falsehood? Therefore the person who receives this grace owes and gives eternal thanks to God alone; the person who does not receive it either does not care at all about these spiritual things and is satisfied with himself in his condition, or else in self-assurance foolishly boasts about having something which he lacks. Furthermore, following the example of the apostles, we are to think and to speak in the most favorable way about those who outwardly profess their faith and better their lives, for the inner chambers of the heart are unknown to us. But for others who have not yet been called, we are to pray to the God who calls things that do not exist as though they did. In no way, however, are we to pride ourselves as better than they, as though we had distinguished ourselves from them.
Article fifteen deals with the attitude that we as Christian are to have about our salvation from sin and its consequences. Given the fact that it is God alone who saves (because human sinfulness renders us incapable of saving ourselves), salvation originates not in an act of the sinful human will, but in the gracious decree of God who loved the fallen world so much that he sent Jesus Christ to die for those very same unworthy sinners that he has graciously decreed to save (cf. John 3:16).
The point the canons make here is that grace is not truly gracious if we define grace in such a way that it is owed to us by God because of something we have done which places God under obligation to respond to wicked and sinful creatures who have collectively rebelled against his majesty and holiness (cf. Romans 4:16). This is why we must be very careful not to discuss theology with the presuppositions of American democracy, which teaches us that we are all equal and able, and that those who act righteously get what they deserve in the end—a reward.
As we have seen repeatedly, the bible does not begin to discuss redemption from the perspective of human worth, ability, or equality, as the Arminians would like us to believe. Instead, the Bible begins with the fall of the human race into sin. This includes universal human sinfulness, inability, and guilt. The Reformed have always charged that in the Arminian system, grace cannot be truly gracious, because we supposedly have it in our power to act, and when we act in faith, God must respond by granting us eternal life.
At this point the Canons raise what is truly the salient question. How on earth can we as sinful creatures, who are justly under God’s righteous condemnation, ever pay off our debt to God (namely, our offence to God’s infinite majesty and holiness because of our sin)? What can we do to make things right before a Holy God? To sin but a single time against the Holy God is to accrue an infinite debt, a debt which we can never pay, and a debt which only increases every day.
The canons remind us that all we have to offer God in an attempt to assuage his anger is sin and falsehood. Rather, our attitude should be that of the apostle Paul, who when contemplating these matters in Romans 8:31-39, declared,
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Arminian system cannot account for such spontaneous doxological theology, since, according to the Arminian, we are more than conquerors because we took advantage of prevenient grace and saved ourselves. How can someone who believes such a thing ascribe all praise, glory and honor to God? They cannot. God is for us, the Arminians say, because, we were for him first!
Article fifteen also addresses the fact that people who do not respond to the gospel are those who have not been crushed by the righteous demands of God’s law. They refuse to see their need of the merits of the Savior, since, as self-deceived, they are confident of their own righteousness. As the Canons put it, "Therefore the person who receives this grace owes and gives eternal thanks to God alone; the person who does not receive it either does not care at all about these spiritual things and is satisfied with himself in his condition, or else in self-assurance foolishly boasts about having something which he lacks." This is why the self-righteousness of unbelief is nothing but so much folly. To be satisfied with our own righteousness, is to be headed for eternal judgement.
This article also reminds us that many times we do not truly know the identity of God’s elect. We can only go upon a person's profession of faith and (with great caution) the outward conduct of people’s lives. There will indeed be tares growing among the wheat, and goats mixed among the sheep. But God knows those who are his, and separating the wheat from the tare is his business, not ours.
Since our confidence is to be placed in his grace and mercy, not in the human will or in human merit, this also teaches us that there are many more apparent wolves out there waiting to be converted into sheep, and even shepherds. Consider that at one time the Apostle Paul, was known as Saul of Tarsus, and cheered on the crowd who were stoning Stephen to death. This is the same man whom God chose to be the apostle to the Gentiles! As Calvin once put it, God turned a wolf into a sheep.
Therefore, the biblical focus upon the grace of God means that we cannot boast about our own faith, spiritual accomplishments, or godliness, since the only reason we believe in the first place is because God has called us to faith when we were “dead in our sins.” Those who trust in Christ must never forget that it is God who chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27-31). This is why Arminianism is seriously flawed. It robs God of the glory and honor due him, and attributes our salvation to an act of the sinful human will.