Two Points for the Price of One (Digging into Dort, Points 3 and 4, Part 1)
People often like the “buy one, get one free” specials at stores. In some ways, the Canons of Dort offer a “buy one, get one” special when it comes to its teaching. You see, there are five Main Points in the Canons of Dort … sort of. There are actually four main sections, so why do we say there are five points in the Canons (and you will hear people talk about the “5 Points of Calvinism”)? It is important to keep in mind that the Canons of Dort that were developed at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 were actually a response to the 1610 statement of the Remonstrants (people influenced by Jacob Arminius) that, you guessed it, had five points. As we have seen even in our discussion of Points 1 and 2 in the past few months, the ideas found in these Points are closely related to each other. This is evident as the third and fourth points of the Remonstrants are addressed in a single section in the Canons of Dort, what is often labeled as Points 3 and 4 (these points were also lumped together in a further explanation of the views of the Remonstrants that was published in 1618). So, you get two points for the cost (or space!) of one here.
What Does This Respond To?
What are the two issues discussed by the Remonstrants that Main Points 3 and 4 discuss? The topic concerns the nature of humanity’s fall into sin and how God’s grace encounters people. The Remonstrants claimed that humans had fallen into sin and God then gives grace to all people to restore them to a condition where we can choose to either cooperate with or resist God’s grace (this idea is known as “prevenient grace”). The Remonstrants believed that people are saved by grace through faith, but their understanding of the way that God’s grace works differs from those found in the Reformed tradition, as will be seen as we look at the statements in the Canons. In some ways, the ideas that come in the third and fourth points of the Remonstrants build upon their idea about what Jesus’s death accomplished (discussed in second section of their document), as in their minds, Jesus’s death makes us savable and give us another chance. The Canons of Dort thus reveal differences in understanding of things such as the atonement, sin, and grace.
Overview of Teaching
The Canons of Dort offer a different view of how sin affects humans and how people come to faith and find salvation. They do not reject every single statement made by the Remonstrants in the 17 Articles of Main Points 3 and 4 (and nine statements that follow that reject certain erroneous beliefs and ideas), but do differ in significant ways on the topics. Dort teaches that humans were created good but lost this connection through the fall of the first humans into sin (Article 1) with this sinful nature spreading to all people (Article 2), making us unable to save ourselves (Article 3). Neither learning from the natural world (Article 4) nor the Old Testament law (Article 5) is able to help save us because of our sinfulness, but God is able to save us through the power of the gospel (Article 6), with this good news expanding, first being told to a few in the Old Testament and now to all the world (Article 7). There is a genuine call to all sinners to believe (Article 8), with the rejection of this call coming from sinful humans and not God (Article 9) while the act of belief comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, which makes us alive so that we can then believe. It is all God’s work, not His work that we then complete or cooperate with (Articles 10-12). We don’t totally understand how it works (Article 13) but need to view all of salvation, including faith, as God’s gift (Article 14). Our response to this truth should be one of great thanks to God for what He has done, not thinking that we are better than others, but rather to pray for people who do not believe (Article 15). While God’s grace will work in those whom He has chosen to save, we should not think of God forcing people to be saved or that we are robots who make no choices, as God works to change our hearts so that we now move towards Him (Article 16). While God works however He wishes, we need to recognize that God’s work of grace typically comes through certain means -- specifically, the Word of God, sacraments, and discipline (Article 17).
I realize that an overview like the one I offered above can seem both dense and complex. As we walk through these points in the coming weeks, I hope to explore more of the pastoral and practical significance of this point (or points!), but I wanted to give one implication even now: this shows us that God’s work is not ineffective or partial. God does not go halfway or hope that His work will do what He wants. This gives me confidence in this world ... that God is completely able to do the seemingly impossible, as giving life to dead sinners seems impossible. May this knowledge lead to awe in worship and trust in this life.
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