Home > Brian's Blogs, Theology > The Canons of Dort Part 12: Perseverance

The Canons of Dort Part 12: Perseverance

Having outlined the content of the Canons of Dort‘s fifth main point of doctrine (perseverance of the saints), today I will provide some of my thoughts on this final point.

I think the most important point to make about this fifth and final point of doctrine is that the phrase “perseverance of the saints” is not the best phrase to describe what the Canons intend to communicate. The Canons never actually utilize that phrase. However, a phrase that is used often is “the preservation of the Elect.” In other words, the emphasis in this point is not so much that “Christians will persevere” it is that “God will preserve and protect Christians.” The emphasis is on God’s actions, not ours.

With that in mind, here are a few other thoughts:

The Sinfulness of the Elect

The astute reader will realize that every main point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort begins with the topic of sin. Sin is real. Sin is important. It is not possible to talk about salvation without discussing sin. Perhaps we can learn something from this as we proclaim the gospel in the twenty-first century.

In this particular context the Canons introduce the tension between being free from slavery to sin but not being free from sin itself. At this point the Canons are introducing a theology of “already but not yet.” In relation to sin it looks like this: Through the work of Jesus Christ, the Christian has already been set free from the ultimate consequences of sin, but the Christian has not yet experienced complete freedom from sin. Complete freedom from sin will not occur in this life; it will only occur when “they are freed from this body of death and reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.”

All Christians existentially know this to be true. But it leads to an important theological question: does my continued sin severe my relationship with God?

God’s Preservation of the Elect

The Canons of Dort answer this question by going back to the source of salvation: God. Because salvation is dependent upon God and not on man, then God will complete the salvation that he began. Therefore, even though continued sin is harmful to our relationship with God, it cannot and will not severe our relationship with God because “God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end.”  Or, as the Canons say, the “power of God strengthening and preserving true believers in grace is more than a match for the flesh.”

Falling into Serious Sin

But, even though God’s grace is greater than our sin, Christians can resist this grace and fall into sin.  As the Canons say, “not only can they be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into sins, even serious and outrageous ones, but also by God’s just permission they sometimes are so carried away.”

This brings up an important theological distinction between justification and sanctification.  The Canons of Dort clearly promote a theology of irresistible grace (discussed here).  However, irresistible grace refers to justification but not sanctification.  In other words, we cannot resist God’s internal call when he reorients our sinful will back to him.  We will choose to follow Christ.  However, we can resist God’s continued work in transforming us to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ (sanctification).  Let me see if I can explain this in a couple of different ways:

  1. There is irresistible grace in regard to salvation/justification.  There is resistible grace in regard to Christian maturity/sanctification.
  2. Before we are saved we are “unable not to sin” (in other words, we will definitely sin because our wills are oriented toward sin).  After we are saved we are “able not to sin” (in other words, God gives us the ability to overcome sin).
  3. Salvation/justification is purely an act of God.  Christian maturity/sanctification is an act of both God and people.
  4. We cannot choose to be saved, but we can choose (or not choose) to become mature.

God’s Preservation of the Elect

After yet another discussion of sin, the Canons of Dort again make the point that God will preserve his elect, despite their sin.

In my personal opinion, the Canons of Dort are making two extremely important and pastoral points.  First, Christians should experience a tremendous amount of assurance and comfort from the fact that our salvation is not dependent upon us but is completely dependent upon God.  Even in the midst of sin we are God’s children!  But, second, Christians must be challenged to take responsibility and action for overcoming sin.  Becoming a mature Christian is an active, not passive, life.

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