The Canons of Dort and the Gift of Faith

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This year is the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort. In fact, last Monday marked the exact date, 400 years ago, that the canons were officially approved. If you want to know more about the history and theology of Dort, I have a new book entitled Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches Us About Salvation, Sin, and the Sovereignty of God. You can go to Crossway to get more information about the book, including endorsements and table of contents. The book is also available for purchase at Amazon and WTS Books.

To give you a feel for the book, I’ve excerpted a section on irresistible grace and the gift of faith.

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Imagine two different scenarios and two different gifts.

In scenario one, your father comes home from work on your 16th birthday and announces he has a surprise for you. He takes you to the local car dealership and points to a brand new, sporty convertible. He tells you the car is yours if you want it. He’s paid for it and signed all the papers. All you have to do is grab the keys, hop in the car, and drive your shiny new vehicle off the lot. That’s quite a gift: a pricey convertible for free, if you decide you want it.

Here’s another scenario. You are lying unconscious on a hospital bed. You don’t know where you are, who you are, or what is going on. You should be dead. In fact, the doctor pronounced you dead a minute ago, but now your heart is beating. The hospital staff pumped blood into your veins when you had bled out from a massive laceration on your leg. That’s quite a gift: someone else’s blood for free, put into you when you had no ability to ask for it, resist it, or receive it.

No analogy is perfect, so don’t read spiritual significance into every detail. Don’t focus on the value of the gift (Arminians believe that God gives new life, not new cars) or whether the recipient is dead or alive (though that’s important on another level). Think instead about the nature of the gift. Both are freely given. Both are undeserved. But one gift is presented for you to accept, while the other gift is a new quality infused within us. The gift, as represented in these scenarios, is not salvation per se, but faith. Is saving faith a gift that we can accept or deny, or is it a new principle worked in us by God’s sovereign and unfailingly effectual will? That question is at the heart of Dort’s Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine.

It would be unfair to say that the Arminians did not believe in human depravity and divine grace. Like the Calvinists at Dort, the Arminians taught that men and women need the Spirit’s work in their lives in order to exercise faith and repentance. The difference lies in how both sides understood the Spirit’s work in conversion. The Arminians maintained that all people have been given sufficient grace for faith and conversion. Faith is a gift offered to all, but unilaterally infused in none.

By contrast, Dort says we need more than enlightening or enabling grace. God doesn’t affect conversion by mere “moral persuasion” (Rejection VII). Rather, he “penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised.” In other words, God “infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant.” We believe because God unilaterally changes the human heart so that we can and will believe.

When the Arminians defended their view of conversion at Dort, they highlighted our need for divine grace, but they called it a “preceding or prevenient, awakening, following and cooperating grace” (Opinions, C.2). This is why the Arminians denied “irresistible” grace. “Man is able of himself,” they maintained, “to despise that grace and not to believe” (Opinions, C.5).

What then can we do to be regenerated? By Dort’s logic, that is the wrong question. We “cannot fully understand the way this work occurs” (Art. 13). We cannot make ourselves be born again, just as we cannot make ourselves be born (John 1:12-13). We do not work for the miracle of regeneration. That would be a contradiction in terms. Our part is to “rest content with knowing and experiencing” the new birth, being assured that if we “believe with the heart and love the Savior” we have been regenerated. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

While we must exercise faith as an act of the will, faith “is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for people to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on them, breathed and infused into them” (Art. 14). This brings us back to the two scenarios at the opening of the chapter. Faith, according to Dort, is not like the car we have to drive off the lot, but like the blood transfusion poured into our veins when we were utterly helpless to help ourselves. In other words, faith is not something outside of us that we grab hold of. It is a work that God works in us, producing “both the will to believe and the belief itself” (Art. 14).

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