Unconditional Election (Canons of Dort – First Head of Doctrine)

This first head of doctrine expounded and defended in the Canons of Dort is Divine predestination (or unconditional election). The Canons break down the biblical teaching on this heading or subject into 18 articles (basically sub-points), followed by 9 points of explicit rejection of errors which were (and in some cases still are) taught by those who hold to Arminianism. Rather than trying to deal with all 27 points in one study, we will simply highlight some of the more significant aspects of the Canons’ teaching over the span of a number of posts.

The first four (4) articles state truths of Scripture that are basic to any right understanding of the gospel, things which both Calvinists and Arminians would more or less equally affirm. These are summarized as follows:

1. All men have sinned in Adam and are deserving of eternal condemnation and wrath for our sins. (See Romans 3:23; 6:23.) 2. God’s love for lost sinners was manifested in Him sending His only-begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. (See John 3:16; 1 John 4:9.) 3. In order that sinners may come to a saving faith in Christ, God has willed that messengers of the gospel be sent out to preach. (See Mark 16:15; Romans 10:14-15.) 4. The wrath of God abides upon those who do not believe in Christ, but to all who believe are assuredly delivered by Him from the wrath to come, and have the gift of eternal life. (See John 3:16-18; 36.)

Article 5

“The cause or guilt of this unbelief, as well as of all other sins, is no wise in God, but in man himself; whereas faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the free gift of God, as it is written: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him,” etc. (Phil. 1:29).”

Article 5 is where the real differences between Calvinism and Arminianism begin to be made clear. For Calvinism (unlike Arminianism) affirms the Scriptural teaching that the ultimate cause of unbelief, sin, and guilt is not to be found in God (as if He were the Author of Sin), but rather “in man himself.” But in contrast to that, “faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the gift of God.” In establishing this from Scripture, the Canons point us to Ephesians 2:8 and Philippians 1:29.

  • “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8, ESV)

  • “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Philippians 1:29, ESV)

In the former text, Paul teaches us that our being saved by grace and through faith is not our own doing, but is the gift of God. That is, not only our salvation itself, but even our faith in Christ unto salvation is not our own doing, but is the gift of God. Likewise in Philippians 1:29 Paul (in passing, no less – he makes no attempt to try to argue the point) tells us that it has been “granted” to us to believe in Christ.

Here we see the most basic difference between those who remain lost in their sins and those who are saved by the grace of God. If you are a believer in Christ, the only thing that distinguishes you from someone else who rejects Christ is the sovereign grace and mercy of God alone. In this way, all of the glory for our salvation is ascribed to God alone.

In the Arminian (i.e. free-will) view, at some point the real difference is to be found in the sinner himself. For Arminianism teaches that God elects the sinner unto salvation on the basis of “foreseen faith” (rather than electing the sinner unto saving faith – see Article 9 and Rejection of Error 5).

Article 6

“That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, for “known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). “Who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11). According to which decree, He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation revealed in the Word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.”

In his book, Grace Defined & Defended, Kevin DeYoung writes,

“After explaining the what of judgment, gospel, and grace, Dort now brings us to the why. We can all see that some people believe in Christ and others do not. But why? What is the ultimate reason that some exercise faith, while others remain in unbelief? There are really only two possible answers: God or man.” (p.34) 

Here the writers of the Canons affirm the biblical teaching regarding the sovereignty of God over all things, which then necessarily includes such things as election and reprobation (sometimes referred to as double-predestination). All of these things are part of the sovereign decree of God from all eternity.

Notice that the doctrine of unconditional election, rightly understood by “pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.” There is a great source of comfort and assurance for sincere believers in the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace in election. (And it could be said that Arminianism is actually contrary and even destructive to that comfort.) And so this is not just some cold academic issue, but a deeply theological and even pastoral one!

Article 7

“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.

“This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy and for the praise of His glorious grace, as it is written: “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6). And elsewhere: “Whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified them He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).”

Here in the first paragraph of Article 7 we finally come to what amounts to a simple definition of the doctrine of election. It is “the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.” In other words, before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and by His sheer grace and good pleasure of His will alone, God chose to save “a certain number of persons” in Christ. And that decree of election unto salvation is unchangeable. All of those and only those whom He has chosen to save will, in fact, be saved.

And not only has God chosen us in Christ for salvation (Ephesians 1:4), but He has also chosen both the means and the manner by which He saves us – drawing us irresistibly to faith in Christ by His Word and Spirit. And moreover, He has not just chosen to draw us to faith in Christ by His effectual calling, but has also then predestined us to justification, sanctification, and glorification as well (i.e. Romans 8:30). As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (ESV) God finishes what He starts in us because He chose to do all of this for our salvation from all eternity by the mere good pleasure of His will, “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

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