The overarching concern of the Canons of Dort is not just a doctrinal or theological one, but a decidedly pastoral and experiential one as well. And that is demonstrated in the fact that a common theme throughout the First Head of Doctrine (i.e. unconditional election) is that of assurance.
In many ways the doctrines of Arminianism undermine assurance, and so the Canons here show how a right understanding of the biblical doctrine of election actually serves to establish and strengthen the assurance of believers.
“And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”
Arminianism teaches a conditional election from start to finish. Not only does it wrongly teach that God’s election of sinners to salvation is based on foreseen faith at the beginning, but it also holds that one can abandon the faith and lose his or her salvation in the end, rendering God’s decree of election in a sense temporary. Article 11 here clearly refutes that error.
Contrary to the errors of Arminianism, the Canons remind us that God is “most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent,” so that the idea that His decree could change or be in need of revision is blasphemous. Nothing can change God’s gracious decree of election from all eternity, and so “neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”
In his book, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Robert Godfrey writes:
“Election reflects the very character of God. As God is immutable, so His purpose in election is immutable. Nothing can interfere with God’s implementing his decree of election. In particular, the specific number of the elect cannot be reduced. This conviction is foundational to the doctrine of God and to predestination as well as to the teaching on assurance found throughout the canons.” (p.93)
So the biblical doctrine of election, properly understood, is a matter of utmost importance, as it has to do not just with assurance of salvation, but even with our doctrine of God. Because God is immutable, so is His decree and purpose in election. And that should be a rather encouraging truth for believers.
“The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”
Here in Article 12 we are taught the right way to understand the relationship between election and assurance. Believers are not to try to attain the assurance of their election by “inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God,” which is impossible for us to do. (See Deuteronomy 29:29.) Rather, we are to seek to observe in ourselves “the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”
In other words, how do you know if you are one of God’s elect? You look to your true faith in Christ, repentance, desire to grow in holiness, etc. as the “infallible fruits” or evidence of God’s election. In this way we are to ‘make our calling and election sure’ (2 Peter 1:10). How often do sincere believers lack a sense of assurance because we look to the wrong things as evidence of our salvation?
Election is known by its fruits. And the “infallible” or unmistakable fruits of election consist not in some secret, hidden knowledge of God’s decree, nor in some kind of ecstatic spiritual experience, but rather in simple and sincere faith in Christ, repentance, etc. And so if you want to know whether or not you are one of God’s elect, the thing to ask is simply, “Am I a believer in Christ? Have I sincerely turned from sin and turned to Christ by faith?”
And notice that Article 12 points out that the elect attain the assurance of their eternal and unchangeable election “in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures.” Assurance is not just automatic and may take some time, and it may come “in varying degrees” rather than in completeness or perfection.
“The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him, who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.”
Some who oppose the doctrine of election seem to confuse assurance with presumption, fearing that assurance would lead to loose living. But here we see the difference between assurance and presumption.
True faith and assurance lead to humility, adoration of God’s mercy and grace, and to seeking to grow in holiness and love for God because of His great love for us in Christ. It is sinful presumption (and not assurance) that rather leads to “remissness in the observance of the divine commands” and a neglect of holiness in the fear of God. And such as are remiss in these things will necessarily be lacking in any genuine assurance of salvation, as long as those “infallible fruits” of election are lacking or absent in their lives.