Best-selling author Kevin DeYoung equips Christians to clearly define grace by looking at the Canons of Dort, exploring the historical context, theological implications, and practical applications of this important document in the Reformed tradition.
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About the Author
Kevin DeYoung (PhD, University of Leicester) is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). He serves asboard chairmanof the Gospel Coalition and blogs at DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed. He is the author of several books, including Just Do Something; Crazy Busy; and The Biggest Story. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, haveeight children.
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God's Purpose and Good Pleasure in Predestination
The First Main Point of Doctrine
I took AP Western Civilization when I was in high school. I've forgotten a lot since then, but I vividly remember the class where we talked about the Reformation. Even though it was a public high school, my teacher found a way to get us talking about Luther and Calvin. In discussing Calvin, we couldn't avoid a heated conversation about predestination.
The class uniformly thought the idea of God choosing people for salvation was ghastly. But I remembered my mom telling me that "we like John Calvin," so I felt duty bound to put in a good word for the Genevan Reformer. I raised my hand and, once called upon, explained to my classmates that predestination simply meant that God looked into the future to see who would believe, and then God elected those people for salvation. To my delight, the class seemed quite satisfied with my explanation. To think that God chose those whom he knew would choose him was a much easier pill to swallow. Only years later did I realize that I had magnificently defended Calvinism with Arminianism!
The First Main Point of Doctrine in Dort is the longest and the most theologically complicated. But at the heart of the debate is a straightforward question: Did God choose the elect because they would believe, or did God choose the elect so that they might believe? Or to put it another way, is divine election based on foreseen faith or according to sheer grace and God's free good pleasure? That's what Dort's first point means to answer.
Two Quick Notes
Before we turn to the canons themselves, I need to make two brief introductory remarks.
1. This book is not a biblical defense of the five points of Calvinism, nor is it a theological exposition of Reformed soteriology. There are a number of good books that set out to do one or both of those tasks. While I trust this book will also be biblical and theological (see Appendix 4 for all of Dort's Scripture proofs), my first goal is to explain the Canons of Dort. Think of this not as a mini systematic theology or as an exegetical exploration of key salvation texts, but as a brief, accessible commentary on the background and theology of Dort itself. Of course, in explaining Dort, I hope to say something valuable about the theology of the Bible as well. But you can be the judge of that.
2. When referencing or quoting from the canons, I will put the article in parentheses. Since each of these references will be for the main point of doctrine under consideration, I'll note the article number only. Besides the articles provided in the text of each chapter, the canons also include a section called "Rejection of Errors" after each main point of doctrine. These rejections can be found in Appendix 1. I will cite these parenthetically, so that (Rejection III) refers to the third rejection for the main point under discussion. There is a concluding section entitled "Rejection of False Accusations" included in Appendix 2. Finally, The Opinions of the Remonstrants can be found in Appendix 3. These will be referenced as (Opinions C.3) or (Opinions A.9) and so on.
Framing the Debate (Articles 1–5)
Article 1: God's Right to Condemn All People
Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, 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, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: "The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God" (Rom. 3:19), "All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23), and "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23).
Article 2: The Manifestation of God's Love
But this is how God showed his love: he sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (1 John 4:9; John 3:16).
Article 3: The Preaching of the Gospel
In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends messengers of this very joyful message to the people and at the time he wills. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For "how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent?" (Rom. 10:14–15).
Article 4: A Twofold Response to the Gospel
God's wrath remains on those who do not believe this gospel. But those who do accept it and embrace Jesus the Savior with a true and living faith are delivered through him from God's wrath and from destruction, and receive the gift of eternal life.
Article 5: The Sources of Unbelief and of Faith
The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in humanity. Faith in Jesus Christ, however, and salvation through him is a free gift of God. As Scripture says, "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is a gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). Likewise: "It has been freely given to you to believe in Christ" (Phil. 1:29).
* * *
These first five articles are essential for understanding the rest of this First Main Point and for putting all of the canons in a proper biblical framework.
At the outset, before even talking about election unto salvation, we have to accept that "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, and to condemn them on account of their sin" (Article 1). The question is not simply, "Why do some people get passed over?" but, "Why should anyone be saved?" We are all deserving of punishment and death. It is only by God's grace that any of us receive eternal life.
Because God loves us, he sent two great gifts into the world. The supreme gift was the sending of his Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Article 2). The other gift mentioned here by Dort is the sending of messengers to proclaim this good news (Article 3). As we'll see again, the doctrine of predestination does not eliminate the need for faithful preachers and evangelists. God normally works through means, which means he saves his people through the preaching of the gospel (Acts 18:9–11; 2 Thess. 2:13–14).
Most Christians would agree with everything in Articles 1–3. There is nothing too controversial (for orthodox believers) about sinners deserving death, God showing love, and preachers proclaiming the gospel. And among Bible believing Christians, there is nothing much to debate when it comes to Article 4: whoever believes in Christ is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already (John 3:18).
By the time we get to Article 5, however, Dort is setting us up for the crux of the matter. Some people believe, and some people do not. That much is self-evident. We can all see this. Further, as Christians, we probably all agree that unbelief is our fault, while salvation is the free gift of God. Following the Bible, Dort has divided humanity into two classes: those who are lost (because of sin) and those who are found (because of grace). This much we can all (for the most part) agree on.
Election Defined (Articles 6–11)
Article 6: God's Eternal Decree
The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decree. For "all his works are known to God from eternity" (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decree God graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of the elect and inclines them to believe, but by a just judgment God leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us God's act — unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just — of distinguishing between people equally lost. This is the well-known decree of election and reprobation revealed in God's Word. The wicked, impure, and unstable distort this decree to their own ruin, but it provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words.
Article 7: Election
Election is God's unchangeable purpose by which he did the following:
Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, God chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. God did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the Mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.
And so God decreed to give to Christ those chosen for salvation, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ's fellowship through the Word and Spirit. In other words, God decreed to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of the Son, to glorify them.
God did all this in order to demonstrate his mercy, to the praise of the riches of God's glorious grace. As Scripture says, "God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, so that we should be holy and blameless before him with love; he predestined us whom he adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, by which he freely made us pleasing to himself in his beloved" (Eph. 1:4–6). And elsewhere, "Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30).
Article 8: A Single Decree of Election
This election is not of many kinds, but one and the same for all who were to be saved in the Old and the New Testament. For Scripture declares that there is a single good pleasure, purpose, and plan of God's will, by which he chose us from eternity both to grace and to glory, both to salvation and to the way of salvation, which God prepared in advance for us to walk in.
Article 9: Election Not Based on Foreseen Faith
This same election took place, not on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen, but rather for the purpose of faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, and so on. Accordingly, election is the source of every saving good. Faith, holiness, and the other saving gifts, and at last eternal life itself, flow forth from election as its fruits and effects. As the apostle says, "He chose us" [not because we were [holy], but] "so that we should be holy and blameless before him in love" (Eph. 1:4).
Article 10: Election Based on God's Good Pleasure
But the cause of this undeserved election is exclusively the good pleasure of God. This does not involve God's choosing certain human qualities or actions from among all those possible as a condition of salvation, but rather involves adopting certain particular persons from among the common mass of sinners as God's own possession. As Scripture says, "When the children were not yet born, and had done nothing either good or bad ... she [Rebecca] was told, 'The older will serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'" (Rom. 9:11–13). Also, "All who were appointed for eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).
Article 11: Election Unchangeable
Just as God is most wise, unchangeable, all-knowing, and almighty, so the election made by him can neither be suspended nor altered, revoked, or annulled; neither can God's chosen ones be cast off, nor their number reduced.
* * *
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. After we talk about proximate causes like families of origin and cultural factors and all the rest, the ultimate reason why some believe (and others do not) must rest with either man's determination or God's divine plan.
The answer, according to Article 6, is on the side of divine decision. "The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decree." As this decree is executed in time, God softens the hearts of the elect and inclines them to believe, while he leaves the reprobate in their wickedness. Notice that for Dort, the decree of election and reprobation concerns "people equally lost." Out of this mass (and mess) of human sinners, God freely chose some for salvation and freely passed by others to leave them in their deserved misery.
That is the doctrine of election in summary form, but we must pay attention to several other important definitions and distinctions in Articles 7–11.
First, election is not based on foreseen faith (see Rejection V). God chose us in Christ not because he saw that we would be holy and blameless, but so that we should be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4–6). God's decision to choose some for salvation is not based upon any prerequisite cause or condition (Article 9), but only upon sheer grace, according to the good pleasure of his will (Article 7). This is in direct opposition to Arminian position, which stated that the "election of particular persons" is out of "consideration of faith in Jesus Christ and of perseverance" as a "condition prerequisite for electing" (OpinionsA.7).
Second, election is an unchangeable decree. This may seem self-evident. How could an immutable God decree one thing and then decree the opposite? But the Arminians believed that God could decree certain contingent effects without issuing "a decree of the end absolutely intended" (Opinions A.2). In other words, God could will certain ends that may or may not come to pass because his decree did not also include the means to those ends. Against this view, Dort affirms that the election made by an unchangeable God "can neither be suspended nor altered, revoked, or annulled" (Article 11). This is good news: God's elect can never be lost, and their number can never be lessened.
Third, election is a single decree. This is related to the last point. The Arminians believed that election functioned in different ways and on different levels. God might elect some for blessings that are incomplete, revocable, and contingent, while decreeing that other blessings are particular and definite (Rejection II, IV). For example, it was common to speak of God having an antecedent will (what God decreed before he saw who would believe) and a consequent will (what God decreed after he saw who would believe). So according to his antecedent will, God can choose all persons for primordial benevolence, but according to his consequent will, God chooses those who will believe for special benevolence. On the Arminian scheme, then, those who are chosen for salvation based on God's consequent will are not predestinated so much as they are post-destined.
In this way, the Arminians could affirm unconditional election (of a kind) and conditional election. Dort wanted to make clear that this is not what the Reformed churches meant by "predestination." In God's "single good pleasure, purpose, and plan," God chose us "from eternity both to grace and to glory, both to salvation and to the way of salvation" (Article 8). That is to say, God didn't decree that believers would be saved unconditionally, while at the same time making the election of those believers conditional upon foreseen faith. The divine decree is single, and the choice of the elect unconditional from start to finish. God does not plan the ends without planning the means.
Fourth, election involves "certain particular persons" (Article 10). This may seem like a strange point to make, but again, it is in distinction to the Arminian notion that election involves God's choosing of certain human qualities or actions that he will bless, rather than God's choosing of certain particular persons to be his treasured possession. Divine election is not just an act of sovereignty; it's an act of grace. God knew us before the foundation of the world. God sets his affection upon us. In love he predestinated us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4–5). Election is about God choosing specific people to save, not about God choosing the kinds of people he will save.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Grace Defined and Defended"
Copyright © 2019 Kevin DeYoung.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: In Praise of Precision 11
1 God's Purpose and Good Pleasure in Predestination: The First Main Point of Doctrine 27
2 Redemption Accomplished and Applied: The Second Main Point of Doctrine 47
3 Human Corruption, Divine Conversion: The Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine 63
4 He Who Began a Good Work Will Bring It to Completion: The Fifth Main Point of Doctrine 81
Appendix 1 Rejection of the Errors by Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed 97
Appendix 2 Conclusion: Rejection of False Accusations 115
Appendix 3 The Opinions of the Remonstrants (1618) 119
Appendix 4 Scripture Proofs in the Canons of Dort 129
General Index 131
Scripture Index 139
What People are Saying About This
“Though many Reformed Christians talk about TULIP, too often they neglect the rich soil from which that flower springs: the Canons of Dort. Yet this historic statement of faith abounds with biblical truth wisely designed to encourage love for the triune God and evangelism of the lost. DeYoung’s brief exposition of the canons is ideal for personal study, doctrine classes, and small groups that aim to better understand the controversy over Arminianism and why the Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace alone leads us to live for the glory of God alone.”
Joel R. Beeke, President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary
“Why would a finger-on-the-pulse, contemporary pastor-theologian like Kevin DeYoung take us on a journey four hundred years into the past to a place few of us could locate on a map to meet people whose names we are unable to pronounce? And why should we join him? I can think of at least three reasons. As twenty-first-century Christians we need to (1) remember that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’; (2) meet believers who thought deeply and cared passionately about the glory of God in the gospel; and (3) put roots into nourishing theological soil that will give clarity to our thinking, create stability in our living, and put doxology into our serving. Grace Defined and Defended helps us to do all three.”
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary; Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries
“DeYoung manages to bring an event from four hundred years ago right back into the present needs of the church and of theology, with clear style, solid theological insights, pastoral tone, and helpful clarification of difficult but biblical notions. This is a book that helps us understand that Dort certainly is not just history and we must keep working with its message.”
Herman Selderhuis, President, Theological University Apeldoorn, the Netherlands; Director, Refo500; President, Reformation Research Consortium
“I am so encouraged to see a book on the Canons of Dortnot only because it explores the finely tuned confession of Reformed thinking but also because it highlights the precision of biblical fidelity. DeYoung’s concise summary of this catechism’s emphasis on the doctrines of grace is so vitally needed in our late-modern culture, which tends to prioritize emotional reasoning over thoughtful reflection. This book is a clarion call for all Christians to avoid cognitive distortions and to root their lives in a historic, confessional faith that is both biblically and theologically faithful to the Scriptures.”
Stephen T. Um, Senior Minister, Citylife Presbyterian Church of Boston; author, Micah For You