21 November, 2017

Canons of Dordt, III/IV: 9—“It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ, nor of God …”

It is not the fault of the gospel nor of Christ, offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel, and confers on them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves, some of whom when called, regardless of their danger, reject the word of life; others though they receive it, suffer it not to make a lasting impression on their heart; therefore, their joy arising only from a temporary faith, soon vanishes, and they fall away; while others choke the seed of the word by perplexing cares and the pleasures of this world, and produce no fruit. This our Saviour teaches in the parable of the sower, Matthew 13 (Canons, III/IV, 9).

Appeal is often made to this article to overthrow the doctrine of sovereign reprobation and idea that God uses the gospel as a means to harden the reprobate. Their contention is that the gospel is always a means of grace to all that hear it, and if it wasn’t, it would be the part of the “fault” of why many who are called by the word reject it. The same also for the doctrine of sovereign reprobation, which, according to many who promote the “well-meant offer,” is a doctrine which makes God to be the fault or the one responsible for why many who hear the word reject it, and therefore would give men an excuse on the judgment day.

But all that begs the question: would the theologians at Dordt really be so stupid as to say one thing and then contradict themselves with their next breath? To speak of sovereign double predestination in the first part of the Canons (cf. 1.6, 15), and then to say something that directly opposes that??


Homer C. Hoeksema (1923-1989)

From a limited and specific viewpoint this article explains why many who are called through the gospel do not come and are not converted. To understand the place of this article in the Canons and its harmony with the whole truth of the Canons, it is necessary carefully to observe its limitations. The article does not give and does not intend to give the ultimate, sovereign reason that many who are called through the gospel do not come and remain unconverted.

But the article must not be read and cannot even be understood as though it ignores the sovereign, ultimate reason for the failure of many to come and to be converted when they are called by the ministry of the gospel. Exactly because the Reformed truth emphasizes that there is a sovereign reason, the subject of this article can be treated. That sovereign reason is described in the first head of the Canons, and unless we accuse our fathers of theological double-talk, we must understand what is stated in this article in the light of and within the limitations of their plain declaration concerning the reason many are unbelieving and go lost forever.

The position of the fathers thus far is that the reason some do not receive the gift of faith proceeds from God’s eternal decree. According to this decree, God leaves the nonelect in his just judgment to their wickedness and obduracy (Canons 1.6). These are negative and infralapsarian statements. Undoubtedly supralapsarians would speak more positively of a divine act of hardening. It makes no difference whether you assume the infralapsarian or the supralapsarian position. These facts stand: that some do not receive the gift of faith proceeds from God’s eternal decree, and according to his decree God leaves the nonelect in their wickedness and obduracy. Therefore, long before the fathers reach Canons 3–4.9, they have carefully circumscribed the limits wherein it may be stated that the fault of not coming and of not being converted is in those who are called. Canons 1.6 could be paraphrased as follows: That some do not receive the gift of coming and being converted proceeds from God’s eternal decree.

In Canons 1.15 the fathers propound the truth that some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree. They also say there that out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, God has decreed not to bestow upon the nonelect saving faith and the grace of conversion. Notice the complete harmony between the language of Canons 1.15 and of Canons 3–4.9. Those upon whom God has decreed not to bestow saving faith and the grace of conversion are the same persons as those who do not come and are not converted when they are called by the ministry of the gospel. In Canons 1.15 the fathers also strictly define the limits within which it must be said that the fault of not coming and of not being converted lies in the called themselves. These same limits apply to the negative statement of Canons 3–4.9 that the fault is not in God who calls through the gospel and confers upon them various gifts.

In Canons 2.8 the fathers teach concerning Christ offered in the gospel that it “was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation.” Although the nonelect are not mentioned, by the word “alone” the article positively excludes them from the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of God’s Son. Again this sharply defines the limits within which it must be said that the fault of not coming and believing is in the called themselves. The Christ offered in the gospel is the Christ of Canons 2.8, the saving efficacy of whose precious death was sovereignly destined to extend to the elect alone and therefore not to those described in Canons 3–4.9 as those who “refuse to come and be converted.”

In Canons 2.8 the fathers also teach that “it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross … should effectually redeem … all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit [the coming and conversion of Canons 3–4.9 included], he purchased for them by his death.” Again the fathers clearly circumscribe the limits within which it may be said that the fault of not coming and being converted lies in the called themselves.

Do the fathers mean to teach by implication the very opposite of all this in Canons 3–4.9? Do the fathers teach that God decreed that not all should receive the gift of faith and conversion and that Christ’s death would cover the elect only, that nevertheless now God well-meaningly offers salvation in the call of the gospel to all who hear the preaching and is well-intentioned toward all those to whom the gospel is preached? Anyone who has a mind to read and understand the Canons must admit that this is utterly impossible. This would be a flat contradiction. The Arminian controversy would never have arisen and the Canons, especially Canons 3–4.9, would never have been composed had that been the fathers’ doctrinal position. If God in the preaching of the gospel is well-intentioned toward all who hear it, elect and reprobate alike, offers them all salvation upon the condition that they come and be converted, and if many do not come and are not converted, no one would have to add that it is their own fault that they are not saved. Any Arminian believes this. But then you must also teach that the sinner is the sole and sovereign reason and the sole fault for the failure to be converted and saved. You must teach that it does not proceed from God’s eternal decree that some do not receive the gift of faith. And you must also teach that Christ’s death, as far as God and Christ intended, was to be efficacious for all men, but its efficacy is limited by the sovereign determination of the sinner.

This is the position many take on the basis of Canons 3–4.9. When the Canons speak of “fault,” they read the article as though it says “sole reason” and “sovereign cause.” They are not mindful that the meaning of “offered” is to present, to set forth, or to propose. They are also not mindful that “Christ offered” in the gospel is the Christ described in the second head of doctrine as a Christ for the elect alone. And then the gospel becomes a general, well-meant offer. This is the explanation of T. Bos: “The gospel must be preached to all, and that gospel is a well-meaning invitation on the Lord’s part unto faith and conversion” (T. Bos, De Dordtsche Leerregelen [Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1915], 156). So also the Christian Reformed Church cited this article in 1924 to support its first point of common grace. They will not accept the consequences outlined in the last part of the previous paragraph. Rather they take refuge in the alibi of “mystery.” But the consequences remain, and if such is truly the idea of the preaching of the gospel, the holy angels and God himself cannot escape those consequences any more than the believer can.

Make no mistake. The fathers do not and do not intend to throw out the baby with the bath and to adopt the Arminian position. They do not forget their strict circumscription of the calling God as the decreeing God and of the offered Christ as the Christ of limited atonement when they consider the negative reaction of many to the call of the gospel. On the contrary they deal solely with subject of the “fault” of not coming and of not being converted in response to the call of the gospel. They are forced to consider this because of another one of the sordid and backhanded accusations of the Arminians. “Fault” (culpa) is blameworthiness, or guilt. Because the fathers maintain that God is absolutely sovereign with regard to the unbelief of those who regard not the call of the gospel, the Arminians falsely accuse that in the Reformed view God is the author of the sin of unbelief, that God’s is the guilt when many do not come and are not converted in response to the call of the gospel, and that the unbelieving and unconverting sinner cannot at all be blamed. The idea is the same as the audaciously wicked question of the objector in Romans 9: “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” This is an objection that is traditionally brought only against those who maintain that God is absolutely sovereign from beginning to end in the salvation of the elect and in the damnation of the reprobate.

How do the fathers react? Are they quickly vanquished by the Arminian foe, and do they hasten to point out that the line of the truth is a “double-track”? Do they fall down before the Arminian blast and concede that the call of the gospel is a “well-meant offer of salvation to all”? Do they concede defeat and grant that God on his part is “well-intentioned and gracious to all in the offer of the gospel”?
By no means! They quietly and firmly answer the arguments: “We affirm that the blame of those who do not come and are not converted is in the called themselves. The guilt of the sin of failing to come and to be converted in response to the gospel call is not to be charged to the gospel, to Christ, or to God.” The guilt of unbelief and of not being converted cannot be in the gospel, for the gospel is serious and true and never deceives (Canons 3–4.8). Besides, the gospel is clear so that it can be plainly understood by those to whom it comes. The guilt cannot be in the Christ set forth in the gospel, for there is nothing repulsive in him. He is the plain revelation of the only way of salvation. In him is set forth all the righteousness, justice, truth, goodness, grace, and mercy of the living God. And that guilt cannot be laid to God’s charge, for God is completely serious and absolutely truthful in the gospel call. He declares plainly that it is pleasing to him that men repent and believe. He promises with an unbreakable promise eternal life and rest of soul to all those who repent and believe. God does still more. He bestows on men, also on ungodly, reprobate men, all kinds of gifts. He bestows the gifts of reason, understanding, and discernment between right and wrong. These gifts are great and extensive. By them men are enlightened, taste of the heavenly gift, are partakers of the Holy Ghost, and taste the good word of God and the powers of the world to come” (Heb. 6:4–5). They have in abundance all the natural gifts necessary to understand the call of the gospel. One might say that—except for bestowing upon them grace—God puts them in the most advantageous position possible with respect to the gospel.

But many still fail to come and to be converted.

The fault lies in man’s corrupt heart, mind, and will. According to his corrupt heart—and he only is to be blamed that his heart is corrupt—man despises and rejects the call of the gospel. Because of his corrupt heart, from which are the issues of his life, the sinner will not and cannot will to receive what is for his eternal good. He refuses to repent and to believe, regardless of how clearly the gospel call is sounded, and regardless of how beautiful is the Christ offered in the gospel, and regardless of how seriously and truthfully the God and Father of Jesus Christ calls through the ministry of the gospel.

This sin of unbelief, as is plain from the parable of the seed in Matthew 13, is manifested in various ways. In some it is a cold and complete indifference; the gospel has no effect upon them. They are careless and secure in their sin, and they never stop to consider the gospel call. Others reveal a temporary faith, paired with a superficial and vanishing joy, that becomes revealed as temporary and vanishing under the stress and strain of persecution. In these, too, there is no true faith, and the wicked and corrupt heart must reveal its corruption sooner or later. In still others the corrupt heart is revealed in a preference for the things of the earth and the pleasures of the world. Never does the corrupt heart of the sinner want or receive the things of God and Christ. Thus it is that through the call of the gospel the sin of unbelief and the guilt thereof are brought to manifestation.

It is not through the Arminian gospel of a Christ for all and a general, well-meant offer of salvation, but through the Reformed gospel—the gospel of Scripture, of a sure and unfailing promise of eternal life to all those who repent and come to Christ, of a most serious call to faith and repentance, of the demand to repent and believe that may not be disobeyed because it is God’s demand—that the responsibility for the sin of unbelief and nonconversion is laid squarely at the door of the unrepentant sinner.



Prof. David J. Engelsma

Q. “Does not Canons III/IV.9 contradict the idea that the gospel is ‘an instrument of hardening,’ as some say? The article states that continued unbelief in the reprobate is ‘not’ due to the actual gospel being preached (‘It is not the fault of the gospel …’), but only due to the unbelieving recipient him/herself. Surely if the preaching were an instrument of hardening, it would actually be the fault of the gospel content or presentation?”

Canons III/IV.9 establishes the guilt of the unbeliever when the gospel is presented to him. The teaching that God’s purpose with the preaching is the hardening of the reprobate does not deny this or weaken this in any way. The reprobate is fully responsible for his rejection of the gospel by his unbelief. But the responsibility of the reprobate unbeliever does not rule out the sovereignty of God in the matter of the reprobate’s rejection of Christ in the gospel. On the contrary. The eternal purpose of God in reprobation is accomplished in the rejection of the gospel by the reprobate. Paul teaches this explicitly in Romans 9:  “... and whom he will he hardeneth” (v. 18).  This is the end of the debate over God’s two-fold purpose with the preaching. On some, the elect, He has mercy in the preaching, saving them; others, He hardens, according to His purpose of reprobation. As for the Canons, the creed quotes this very text in proof of its assertion that God has decided not to save all by the preaching, but to pass some by, which passing by is not essentially different from hardening. See Canons 1. Rejection of Errors 8: 

[The Synod rejects the errors of those] Who teach: That God, simply by virtue of his righteous will, did not decide either to leave anyone in the fall of Adam and in the common state of sin and condemnation, or to pass anyone by in the communication of grace which is necessary for faith and conversion. For this is firmly decreed: “He hath mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth,” Romans 9:18. And also this: “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given,” Matthew 13:11. Likewise: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes; yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight,” Matthew 11:25, 26.



Prof. Herman C. Hanko

Article 9 teaches that the fault for man’s disobedience, therefore, does not rest with the gospel—as if the gospel is insufficient to point the way to salvation. The gospel is clear and concise. Man must obey God and believe in Christ. Man’s unbelief is his own fault and responsibility, and he may not, as the rich man in hell did, blame the gospel (Luke 16:29-31). (Herman C. Hanko, “Common Grace Considered” [2019 edition], p. 33)

… God’s counsel in reprobation is indeed to manifest His righteous justice in damning sinners to hell, but let it never be forgotten that God executes His counsel in such a way that man remains responsible for his sin. God does not make man sin; man sins willingly and wilfully. This is clearly the teaching of Article 9 …
If one should inquire into how it is possible for God to be sovereign also over the sin of man and still hold man accountable for his sin, let it be clearly understood that one is shifting the discussion to an entirely different question; indeed a question over which much ink has been spilled and with which theologians have struggled for many centuries. Already the old church father, Augustine, who taught double predestination, but never denied man’s accountability, dealt with the problem. (Herman C. Hanko, “Common Grace Considered” [2019 edition], p. 337)



More to come! (DV)

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