Home > Brian's Blogs, Theology > The Canons of Dort, Part 4: Unconditional Election

The Canons of Dort, Part 4: Unconditional Election

In a previous post I outlined the content in the Canons of Dort first point of doctrine: unconditional election. Without regurgitating the content, I want to offer some of my own observations.

The Reason Election is Necessary

It is unfortunate that the Canons begin with sin rather than creation. On this point it does seem as if the Canons miss what is the true theological beginning of the Bible, creation, which lays the foundation for defining the true nature of sin. Perhaps a discussion of creation is beyond the scope of the Canons, but I have found sin to be much more understandable (and devastating) when taken in the context of God’s good creation.

On sin, the Canons provide an important insight into the character of God: “God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse.” In other words, it would have been perfectly legitimate for God to do nothing. BUT, doing nothing is not in the character of God. It is the character of God to intercede and, by his grace, overcome the sin of humanity!

On salvation, God is the cause of faith/belief but humanity is the cause of non-faith/unbelief. This is a cornerstone of Reformed theology and speaks to the severity of human sin. Human sin is not simply an inconvenience. Human sin completely destroys our relationship with God and others and is so powerful that only God can overcome it.

Here the Canons stake their mark on a very weighty theological issue: infralapsarianism versus supralapsarianism. The basic question of this debate is “what is the relationship between God’s decree to create and God’s decree to elect some to salvation?” There are two basic answers:

  1. Infralapsarians believe that God worked in this order: 1) create the world good, 2) allow human sin, 3) choose some people to be saved, 4) provide Jesus Christ as the means of salvation. The primary implication in this system is that God looked down to a sinful humanity and chose some sinners to be saved (this is gracious!)
  2. Supralapsarians believe that God worked in this order: 1) God chooses some people to be saved and some people to be damned, 2) create the world, 3) allow human sin, 4) provide Jesus Christ as the means of salvation. The primary implication in this system is that God created some people to be saved and He created some people to be damned (this is cruel!)

The Canons of Dort are correct, I think, it promoting infralapsarianism. God did not create people to be damned, rather, people damned themselves (through sin) and God chose to save some of the damned. This follows the narrative of the Bible and places the blame for damnation firmly on the shoulders of sinful humanity.

The Nature of Election

What I really like in this section is the purpose of election: election is “for the purpose of faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, and so on. Accordingly, election is the source of each of the benefits of salvation.” In other words, God doesn’t simply choose people to be saved and “get to heaven someday.” God elects people for a purpose! God elects for the purpose of faith, holiness, etc, in other words, to live lives TODAY that glorify God.

The Assurance of Election

Here is where the Canons of Dort become pastoral. The doctrine of election can create fear in people, fear that they are not elect. But the Canons want the elect to be sure of their election:

  1. The assurance of election is individual and different: “assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation is given to the chosen in due time, through various stages and in differing measure.” In other words, God applies his election in different ways to different people. Therefore, we have no right to determine who is elect and who isn’t. The Canons believe that assurance ultimately comes down to individual reflection.
  2. The assurance of election is fruit in a person’s life: “true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.” Again, it is primarily up to the individual to determine if they posses this fruit. As Dr. Lyle Bierma of Calvin Theological Seminary summarizes this individual reflection: “All God’s people bear a certain kind of fruit…I bear that kind of fruit…therefore, I am one of God’s people.”

On Teaching about Election and Reprobation

Now here is where the Canons get really pastoral. Notice how the Canons describe the teaching of election: “this teaching must be set forth – with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High.” In other words, be very careful about how and when you speak of election. Yes it is biblical and should be discussed at times, but the time had been better be the appropriate time! I think one reason we are afraid of preaching on election is that it is not done in accordance with the Canon’s own advice.

But perhaps the most pastoral moment of the Canons is when it discusses those who are not elect. How do we help people who fear that they are not elect? This is where, I think, the Canons are most surprising. So many people view Calvinists as cold-hearted Christians (“the frozen chosen”) who want to limit the number of people in God’s kingdom. The Canons paint a very different picture. In fact, the Canons are very affirming of those “who do not yet actively experience within themselves a living faith in Christ or an assured confidence of heart.” Those who are seeking, questioning, etc should not count themselves out! The Canons states that only those “who have forgotten God and their Savior Jesus Christ and have abandoned themselves wholly to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh” have reason to fear.

So there are some brief thoughts on unconditional election. Next we’ll summarize the content regarding total depravity.

  1. mike
    April 21, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Great evaluation, Brian. I only want to add two comments from Augustine.
    1. Augustine said that if someone believes in God’s sovereignty, then predestination is only a question of timing. If God is sovereign now, then was he also sovereign before he created the world–when he predestined people?
    2. Augustine said that every Christian already believes in at least one case of unconditional election, for we all believe that Jesus’ human nature did not do anything to merit being united to the Son, for it did not exist before it was joined to the Son. I call this the “elect egg” argument, and it seems to work.

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