As part of The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, Kevin DeYoung led a breakout session titled “Grace Defined and Defended: The Continuing Relevance of the Canons of Dort 400 Years Later.” DeYoung argued for theological precision—the wise measurement of words used to describe God’s interaction with his people—via a close look at why and how the Canons of Dort came to be. When it comes to the doctrines of our faith, we ought to hunger for the specifics, because they matter deeply.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Kevin: This is a breakout session, Grace Defined and Defended about the Canons of Dordt. Spoke this morning about mission and ministry of Jesus, and the proclamation, and the poor, and then I did a luncheon about the differences between men and women and then I just was on a panel about Jesus and justice and now it all crescendos to the Canons of Dordt. This breakout session is sponsored by my favorite seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary. And you should learn more about RTS by visiting their booth, number 31 in the exhibit hall or rts.edu. Just by curiosity, how many of you are Dutch? How many of you ain’t much? That’s the rest of… You know, we’re very glad to have all of you here. And there were several hands that went up. Of course, this is of interest, not just to people who may be from the land of Dordt, but to all of us who care about the doctrines of grace.
Of personal interest to me, however, is that my family as far as we have traced back our ancestry, traces it back to Dordrecht. One of my great uncles did a bunch of family history and genealogy research a number of years ago and I was wanting to get into it a little bit and thankfully he had done all the work and he handed over a number of his documents to me and he was able to trace back the DeYoung family tree to a Peter De Jong who was born in Dordrecht in 1695. That’s as far back as he could find it. I think he did a pretty good job. Who married Neil cha Lee Svelte of neighboring Zwijndrecht on August 23, 1716. The first of my family to immigrate to the United States was a Tunis P. De Jong who was born in Holland in 1839, died in 1925 in Edgerton, Minnesota. And the story, at least as it’s passed down in our family is that DeYoung with a J, which is how you really should spell it, was Anglicized to a Y when one of our ancestors signed up for the civil war fighting on the side of the union and they just said, “DeYoung, whatever, here’s what it sounds like. You get a Y.” And that’s how the name was changed from DeYoung to Y. I cannot confirm or deny that.
But I’d like to think that tracing my roots back to Dordrecht that I had a relative there at the Synod and I hope that he would have been on the right side. So maybe it’s just as well not to trace it all the way back and have my hopes dash, but whether you have any reason to be interested in the Dutch and most of you don’t or that’s a part of your heritage, hopefully, spending a few minutes to think about the Canons of Dordt will be useful for you in your life and in your ministry. Today is April 2nd, 2019 which means yesterday was April 1st. Three weeks, hence from yesterday, April 22nd will be the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordrecht approving the Canons of Dordt. There’s also a date in May, you could celebrate when the official Latin translation was issued, but April 22, 1619, we are at the 400th anniversary. And I know everybody with 2017 was celebrating the beginning of the Reformation and Martin Luther, so I’m sure you have your parties set. Your party hats, all of your wooden shoes and whatnot, ready to go for the 400th anniversary of Dordt.
There is much to learn from Dordt rather than spending these 45 minutes or so and outlining the 5 points of Calvinism, we will talk about those briefly, but that may be well-known to many of you. I thought perhaps giving some of the history and even stepping it back from the history and trying to understand why it is important for Christians to not only have the right doctrine somewhere in their hearts, but to defend and define it with care and precision.
The first car I owned, I remember my dad taking me to a used car lot. We were picking out the first car that I would own and I forget…I was paying for a little bit of it and he was paying for some of it, a 1995 Dodge Neon. It was a lemon. Besides being a girly car, as my eventual wife told me later when I picked her up in a white Dodge Neon, my friends would cut out articles on the five girliest cars and the Neon was on there. No shame if you also had a Neon, men. My wife told later, “I was sort of hoping you would have come in a pickup truck, but you picked me up in a Neon.”
Besides that, this particular one never worked properly. It had alignment problems, it had electrical problems, it had transmission problems, and those are just the problems that I can recall. The worst problem is that it would from time to time, for no discernible reason, simply stop. It’s a very bad thing to happen for your car, like at traffic lights, or turning a corner, or when spooked by hummingbirds, it would just stop. The car would shut down completely. The dashboard would go dark. The vehicle would slow to a halt. And being an auto repair genius, I learned that the only thing to do in this situation was to pop the hood if I could find the lever, walk around the front and I looked for a silver-looking thingy somewhere under the hood and I would grab a ratchet. Why a ratchet? Just happen to be the only tool I had in my glove box and I would bang on this silver-looking thingy as hard as I could and lo and behold, that would often do the trick and the car would start up again. And once I got married, I had to tell my wife, “The car may stop. No fear. You got a ratchet, there’s a silver-looking thingy. Just hit it real hard.” And she too would know the joys of owning this wonderful Neon roadkill.
Well, it wasn’t long before my wife told me that this was not an appropriate way of fixing the car. She called into question my mechanical acumen and suggested that maybe I should actually bring it in to an auto mechanic, somebody who knew what he was doing. So the mechanic was able to ascertain, as perhaps some of you have, that the silver-looking thingy was a very important part called the alternator, an invaluable piece of machinery which supplies power to the electrical system while the engine is running and it had come loose or something. I do not know anything about cars. I just fill up the blinker fluid in the Cadillac converter, never turns into a Cadillac. I don’t know how that works.
Well, it turns out that my whack-a-mole approach to fixing the car was neither a long-term solution nor a particularly sophisticated diagnosis. Hitting things with a ratchet works for a time, but after a while you need someone to give you a diagnosis with a little more care and precision. I’m glad there are people in the world, most people, as it turns out, who know more than I do about fixing cars. I’m glad there are people that have studied, had been apprenticed, who understand more than I do and are more than well-wishers and ratchet bangers, but actually know what they’re doing. To act as if no one knows more than anyone else is not only silly, it is a serious mistake. To act as if precision is not warranted, whether in surgery, or auto mechanics, or theology is a profound mistake.
Tom Nichols has a fascinating book, I think it came out a year or two ago called, “The Death of Expertise.” And he cites a survey from a few years back in which enthusiasm for military intervention in Ukraine was directly proportional to the person’s lack of knowledge about Ukraine. That is to say the less they knew where it was, what the conflict was about, the more likely they were to support military activity in Ukraine. It seems that the dumber we are, the more confident we are. Nichols relays an incident where someone on Twitter was trying to do research about sarin gas, S-A-R-I-N. When the world’s experts on sarin gas offered to help, the original Tweeter, what we might call a tweet, proceeded to angrily lecture the expert for acting like a know-it-all. He actually did know it all, or in this case, at least exponentially more than someone who was crowdsourcing his research online and when it comes to chemical warfare, I’d like my experts to have as much expertise as possible, but he just simply waved him away. Who are you to think you know more about this than I do after Googling it for 10 minutes? We’ve swallowed the lie that says, if we believe in equal rights, we must believe that all opinions are equally valid.
Nichols also tells the story of an undergraduate student who was arguing with a world-renowned astrophysicist who is on campus giving a lecture about missile defense. And after seeing that the famous scientists allowed for questions, this erstwhile student stood up and proceeded to ask him a question and somewhat berate the man and the scientists realized that they were not going to change each other’s minds. And so, as they were at a standstill, a student and a world-renowned astrophysicist arguing about missile defense, the student concluded in a kind of harrumph, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” At which point, the astrophysicists quickly replied, “No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours.” It’s true. There was nothing wrong with a student asking hard questions or even getting into an argument. We don’t automatically defer to experts in every situation, but the problem was assuming that he had as much to offer after a few minutes’ reflection as a scientist did after decades of training and research. We live in an age where passion is often mistaken for precision and on so many discussions…we were just talking about this in the last breakout I was on, talking about Jesus and justice, so often our conflicts, and our disagreements, and our confusion is because we have not done the hard work to define what it is we are talking about, to press in for further detail. What do you mean by that word?
Charles Spurgeon once advised young ministers that when drawn into controversy, they should, “Use very hard arguments and very soft words.” Isn’t that good? Isn’t that the opposite of social media? Very hard words, very soft arguments. Many of us, even Christians have little patience for rigorous thinking and little interest in careful definition. We emote better than we reason. We describe our feelings better than we define our words, which is one reason why we need to study old confessions by dead people because for all of their faults, and they had many, they were sinners just like us, but one of the things that they did so well that we do so poorly is they pressed very hard for theological care, definition, and precision. They were relentlessly passionate about doctrinal truth. They cared about definitions. And we ought to praise God that people who have gone before us have cared enough to be very careful. And in no reformation era, confession or catechism do we see this as clearly, I think, as in the Canons of Dordt.
If the Canons of Dordt are known at all today, it’s usually because they are considered the progenitor of that famous acronym, TULIP, the five points of Calvinism. Growing up in a Dutch reformed church background, I remember hearing as a child that we believed in total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints, T-U-L-I-P. I’m thankful for that acronym, and many of us have perhaps learned it in the same way and yet for all that tulip may get right in terms of basic soteriological truth, there are several things that the acronym, or at least the use of the acronym gets wrong. Let me just quickly give you three first. TULIP is not an adequate summary of Calvinism. Calvinism was never limited to predestination. It was, in fact, the school of Karl Barth and the Barthians to insist that the locus of Calvin’s authority…or not his authority, but rather later Calvinism, was centered and fixated upon predestination. And then from that, you have the idea that Calvin was manipulated and his later followers distorted his views. But it’s simply not the case that Calvinism can be boiled down to predestination. And we know from Dordt itself that yes, it’s important to Dordt’s doctrine, but we should not limit Calvinism to soteriology alone. Reformed theology is not less than the doctrines of grace, but it is much more than that.
Second, TULIP is not a historic summary of Calvinism. Yes, the Canons of Dordt have five points. TULIP has five points, but the ladder, TULIP, was not used to summarize the former until the 20th century. Canons of Dordt, news flash, were not written in English. The acronym was popularized by David Steel and Curtis Thomas in their 1963 book, “The Five Points of Calvinism.” Fifty years earlier, we have the earliest known use of TULIP in a 1913 periodical called, “The Outlook” Now, some people before that would talk about the five points of Calvinism, but as far as we can tell, and this is Ken Stewart’s research in his book, “Ten Myths About Calvinism, he says, “The earliest we see TULIP show up is in 1913. So it’s only 100 years old. So it can be useful, but we should not oversell it as if that is Calvinism.”
And then third, TULIP is not an entirely accurate summary of the Canons themselves. As we’ll see just a little bit in our time this afternoon, the Canons, even with five points, cannot be reduced to only those five theological truths. The Canons are more detailed, more comprehensive, and much, much more nuanced than can be captured in a simple acronym. So not saying at all we have to get rid of the TULIP, but just realize there are many more gardens or many more flowers in the garden of Dordt.
So let’s try to have some understanding of where this synod came from and understand what we mean by Calvinists and Arminianism. Remember that the Arminians spelled with an I, not Armenians. We have nothing against the country of Armenia. Let’s not bring those poor people into it. What do you have against the Armenians? Nothing. Love them. This is Arminians with an I. Well, where does that come from? Jacobus Arminius is his Latin name. He lived from 1560 to 1609. So just barely overlapping with Calvin who died in 1564.
Arminius began his teaching career thoroughly Calvinistic. He studied for a time in Geneva under Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, and then he moved to Amsterdam to pastor a prominent church there in the Netherlands. As a pastor, Arminius was called to defend the views of his former teacher against the attacks of a Dutch theologian… And you’re just got to brace yourself for a few minutes here with a lot of really awesome Dutch names. A Dutch theologian named, Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert. Okay? And in preparing his defense of traditional Calvinist doctrine against Coornhert, here Arminius became convinced of his opponent’s views. So he was going in to defend traditional Calvinism and he came out and he said, “Nope, I think I’m wrong. I think my opponent is right.”
Later, Arminius preached a series of sermons on Romans in which he emphasized free will. He stressed the government’s authority in ecclesiastical matters and he began to doubt his own Calvinism even more fully. People then began to doubt whether Arminius was really in line with the doctrinal standards of the Dutch church, that is the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, especially in doubt, was article 16 of the Belgian confession on the doctrine of election. You may know that now the three forms of unity are Heidelberg, Belczyk, and Canons of Dordt. At this time, the Dutch church has two, Heidelberg and the Belgic confession.
So in 1603, Arminius was appointed Professor of Theology at the University of Leiden where he was strongly opposed by his colleague, Franciscus Gomarus. So if you’re keeping score here, Arminius over here, opponent now, Gomarus. Both Arminius and Gomarus believed in predestination. Note that, they both…if you said, do you believe in predestination? They raised their hand, “Yes, we do. And it is in the Bible. So yes we do.” What they disagreed on was the meaning of the word. And at the heart of the disagreement was whether predestination was based solely on the will of God or based on foreseen knowledge of belief.
I may have told this story sometime before, but I remember, because I went to a public school, but it was in Grand Rapids, so we learned about Calvin. And in my AP Western Civ class, we were learning about the Reformation and when learning about John Calvin, of course, what’s the one thing that comes up is John Calvin, predestination. And even in my class in Grand Rapids with lots of Dutch people there, everyone was pretty suspicious of this. Predestination? God chooses us, we don’t choose Him. I don’t know that we like this. Well, my mom had said to me years earlier, “We like John Calvin.” Don’t underestimate your voice moms. That stuck with me one day when I came home from school, ready to tell my mom about these, but she just said, “John Calvin, we like him.” So I took that, “Okay, my mom likes him. I’ll give him a chance.” So I thought I should defend John Calvin. And so, I said to the whole class, I said, “You’re misunderstanding this. When it says that God predestined us, all Calvin meant was that God looked into the future to see who would choose Him and then on the basis of that, He chose us.” I did an amazing job of defending Calvinism with Arminianism, and the whole class said, “Okay, We like Calvin.” Later I had to learn that that was in fact the very heart of the controversy
In 1608, Arminius and Gomarus met for a public debate, but the issue was no closer to being settled. Both men thought of themselves as reformed, but they were not saying the same thing. Arminius dies in 1609. Following his death, the movement continued under the leadership of Johannes Wtenbogaert, a court preacher at The Hague. In 1610, the Arminians then met at Gouda. I want to say here, a cheesy place for a conference, but okay. But they met there at Gouda and they issued a document called “The Remonstrance.” A Remonstrance is a protest. It’s reasons stating your opposition, so it is their opposition to Gomerez and to the traditional understanding of reformed soteriology. This Remonstrance set forth the five Arminian articles. Not sure if you are aware of this, but the five points of Calvinism come to us because they were responding, first of all, to the five points of the Arminians. It was the Arminians who first had the five points.
Because of this document and because the Arminians disagreed with Reformed theology as it was understood in practice in the Netherlands, they became known as the Remonstrants. But we have the five points responding to theirs. Because their points are at times deliberately ambiguous and other times highly nuanced, it can be difficult to see what all the fuss was about. In fact, even though you are all very smart people and you’re energized on an afternoon to come learn about Dordt, I imagine that if we passed out “The Remonstrance” of 1610, and it’s not long, you can read it in a few minutes, that many of us would read through it and say, “Oh, I think that sounds okay.” And yet there were very important hairs being split. For example, point one of the Arminian Remonstrance affirms that, “God, determined before the foundation of the world to save out of the fallen sinful human race, those in Christ for Christ sake and through Christ, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe in this, his son, Jesus Christ.”
That’s the Arminians. Is that objectionable? Well, it sounds kind of like Ephesians 1 except it’s not clear from that statement whether God chooses us based solely upon his electing grace or based upon his knowledge of our foreseen faith. So does God choose the elect so that they might believe or does he choose the elect based on the knowledge that we will believe? And we know from the arguments at the Synod of Dordt that the Arminians meant that He was choosing based on foreseen faith. Or here’s point two. They affirm, the Arminians, Jesus Christ, “Died for all men and for every man so that he merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sins for all through the death of the cross yet so that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer.” You might say, “Okay, yeah, well, it’s only believers.” But did you notice the language, died for all men and for every man? See, if he just left it at for all men, that’s sufficiently scriptural language, the lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, but they said for all men and for every man, so not just for the race of fallen sinners but for every particular individual. We can see the conflict here between what Dordt would consider limited atonement as it was later called or particular redemption.
Here’s point three. It sounds like total depravity. The Arminians affirm, “Man does not have saving faith of himself nor by the power of his own free will.” And moreover, they teach that we cannot do anything truly good without first being regenerated through the Holy Spirit and renewed in all powers. You say, “Well, that sounds like total depravity, right? We can’t do anything apart from the grace of God.” Except…here’s the rub. The Remonstrants do not make clear whether this spiritual inability is a death or a sickness, whether the remedy is monergistic, that is the working of one God to regenerate us, or whether it is a grace-filled cooperative empowerment. The Arminians never saying we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Of course, not. Any Roman Catholic who understands their theology wouldn’t say that. But the Arminians were, even as they exalted grace, exalting a cooperative grace.
We see in point four that the Arminian grace was not sovereign grace as traditional Reformed theology had understood it, but rather, “A prevenient or assisting awakening consequence and cooperating grace.” So there’s their definition. The Remonstrants believed in grace. Don’t be unfair to the Arminians. You don’t believe it? No. Grace is all over their documents. They have affirmed that all our good works must, “Be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ.” Well, that sounds very good, but this was a coming alongside of you grace instead of a unilaterally bringing you back from the dead grace. Prevenient grace is the grace that comes before human decision and makes it possible, but not certain for men and women to choose God. Prevenient grace is the grace that comes before human decision and makes it possible, but not certain that men and women will choose God. For this reason, Arminians denied that saving grace was irresistible.
Now, I’m just gonna ruin something for you right here. But it’s surely the case that Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be” was about prevenient grace. Thine I diffused a quickening ray. I rose, went forth and followed thee. I sing it in my heart as sovereign, unilateral, bring me back from the dead Calvinist grace. It’s surely not what Wesley meant. He was thinking a prevenient grace that I diffused a quickening ray, the grace that comes before human decision and now makes it possible, but not certain that I would believe. I rose. I went forward, equipped by cooperating prevenient grace to now follow thee.
Point five of the Arminian articles teaches that those, “Who are incorporated into Jesus Christ have abundant strength to strive against Satan’s sin in the world and that in this struggle, the believers are helped by Christ and by the assistance of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Now, that sounds like the preservation of the saints, but if you read on, there is an if. The Arminian said Jesus Christ assists believers through this spirit, “If only they are prepared for warfare and desire his help and are not negligent.” So it is a preserving grace with a conditionality attached. In the end, “The Remonstrance” of 1610 left the door open that believers might, “Through negligence, fall away from the principle of their life in Christ and again, embrace the present world.”
In response then to “The Remonstrance” of 1610 Gomarus and others formed a counter Remonstrant party, sometimes called the Gomerists, that’s catchy, to oppose the Arminians. Representatives of both sides met to see if they could resolve their differences. With a publication in 1611 of the counter Remonstrance, it became increasingly clear to everyone that the two sides were only getting farther apart. The controversy then further escalated when the University of Leiden appointed Arminius’s successor, a man by the name of Conrad Vosrtius, who was not only an Arminian but was practically a Sicilian, which is several steps worse. And then when the Arminian, Simon Episcopius was named Gomerez’s replacement at Leiden, the Arminians got further support and it looked as if the tide was turning.
So do you see what’s happening there? Arminius died. You have Arminius and Gomarus at Leiden. Arminius dies. Another Arminian’s appointed. Okay, well, we got one of each. Well, now replacing Gomarus is another staunch Arminian and then comes along the statesmen, a man by the name was very important in Dutch history, Oldenbarnevelt. There’s also at the time the jurist theologian, you may have heard of Hugo Grotius. All of these important figures were taking the sides of the Remonstrants and so it looked like the Arminians were gaining the upper hand.
To be fair, as happens often in the history of the church with theological conflict, the disputing factions were disputing more than just theology. The Netherlands had recently won its independence from Spain and some were still leery of the Spanish while others welcomed a closer relationship with the Spanish. In general, you had on one side, the merchants for economic and trading reasons, they desired improved relations with Spain. This is going to help our business. Let’s have a closer relationship with Spain. You had on the other side, the clergy who feared having contact with Catholic Spain and there were many of the lower classes who despised the merchant class and for national reasons, we just got independence from them sided with the clergy. So it’s a theological debate, but it’s also geopolitical class warfare, all sorts of things that none of us could possibly understand today, right? But it was at its heart, a theological concern.
In 1617, Oldenbarnevelt and the states general, the sharp resolution, rejecting the call for a national synod. Oldenbarnevelt was heralded by some as a champion of toleration, but the party of the counter Remonstrance, worried that without a national Synod and with the state’s general exercising control over the church, they had authorized soldiers to defend the remonstrance but the conflict was only going to get worse. That same year, the reformed Prince, Maurice, he was the son and the heir of the beloved, William of Orange. Some of you know this, the first church I served was in Orange City, Iowa. They were no oranges there. It was named after William of Orange. And the little town next door was Morris, but it spelled like Maurice, I think they just didn’t wanna pronounce it to sound French. But Maurice, named after his son, all these little Dutch reformed pockets, he refused to worship in the church because and Wtenbogaert was preaching. So the Prince, Maurice, had taken the side of the anti-Remonstrants. Oldenbarnevelt, and I know you’re getting the names mixed up, that’s fine. But he threatened a civil war, which led to his arrest by Prince Maurice. In response, a number of the Remonstrants fled the country and with Maurice now in charge, the states general finally approved the calling of a national assembly.
So the controversy certainly had national political-economic overtones, but at the heart, it was a theological disagreement. The differences centered on the doctrine of predestination, but confessional subscription was also a big part of the dispute with the Remonstrants arguing for full doctrinal freedom and the contro-Remonstrants, we would call the Calvinist, insisting that the Dutch reform church was a confessional church and they ought to preserve their theological and unity and purity from the pulpit. So then for the first time since 1586, the Dutch government called for a national city, this time in the city of Dordrecht. The Synod met from November 13, 1618 until May 29, 1619. There were 84 members present. Twenty-six were from Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, and the rest were Dutch. So it was an international Synod. The Dutch contingent was comprised of roughly an equal number of ministers, professors, laymen, and members of the states general, so Congressman or assemblyman, or Lords and aristocrats.
On Friday morning, November 16, the Synod voted to call the Remonstrants to appear, that is the Arminians, to appear before the assembly within two weeks. On December 13 and 17, the Arminians presented their opinions of the Remonstrants, also called the Sentences. And they’re crucial for understanding Dordt was about and what Dordt was aiming to criticize. There’s several good books out on Dordt. There’s one by Matthew Barrett that’s several years old and then for the anniversary, I have a book out and so does Danny Hyde and Bob Godfrey who did his dissertation on Dordt, so he knows much more than I do. And I think most of the books out there will include some of these historical documents in the appendices, which are helpful for understanding what the dispute is about. By January, the Arminians were dismissed from the Synod by the Synod’s precedent. Now, here’s a great name, the Synod’s president, Johannes Bogerman. Great name. Probably pronounced Bogerman, but just for the kids, it sounds better. The president at Dordt was Bogerman.
Around the same time, the States general granted the Synod official status as an ecclesiastical court and by the end of March, all the written opinions had been reviewed and as I said at the beginning, on April 22, 1619, the Synod adopted the Canons and settled for the Netherlands and for all subsequent churches who had subscribed to the Canons settled what constituted authentic reformed faith on these points of soteriology. The Canons were published in an official Latin edition on May 6 with approved translations into Dutch and French. In addition to the Canons, we tend to think of it just as a theological controversy issuing these statements, but the Synod did much more than that. They also approved an official edition of the Belgic Confession. They adopted a church order and they appointed a commission to draw up a new Dutch translation of the Bible. So the Synod was involved in a number of activities.
In rejecting the five points, the Canons came up with the five points of their own concerning divine election and reprobation, Christ’s death and human redemption through it, and then interestingly, you may know the third and fourth points actually come together under one head, human corruption and how we convert to God and then a final point on the perseverance of the saints. The Canons did not try to give everything that Calvinism teaches, let alone a full-orbed system of doctrine taught in the Bible, rather they sought to declare what was, “In agreement with the word of God and accepted till now in the reformed churches concerning divine predestination.”
So where does this leave us? What should we think? Just a couple of closing remarks and then you’re probably hungry and won’t mind leaving a few minutes early. It’s easy to think that the two sides in the Netherlands should have found a way to work out their differences. Oldenbarnevelt, remember, he was one of the political leaders, he was ready to go to civil war over this religious dispute while Prince Maurice, sadly, though he was on the side of the Calvinist, he ended up condemning Oldenbarnevelt to death and he had some Arminian pastors in prison. Now, we cringe to see the political meddling in the name of theology, not to mention the threat of violence and imprisonment that marked out both sides as people of their own age. But if we don’t care about theological precision and definition, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not because we are so wonderfully inclusive and loving much more than they, but rather, we too are a people of our own age and we tend to settle for generalities and ambiguities, and we wonder why anyone else would care so much to be precise. The stereotype of old confessions like the Canons of Dordt is that they take the theology of God’s Word and they make it shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried, boxed up, or to mix our metaphors, as I’ve heard a number of times, you Calvinist, you turn theologizing into nothing more than dissecting a dead frog and there it is. You just lay it open and it’s just a humorless, lifeless entity that you’re cutting apart to dissect. That’s not what a living faith, breathing faith means.
Well, what if another analogy were more appropriate? What if the truth is we are not talking about what is cold and dead, but truth that is very much alive? What if instead of thinking, “Well, your theology types are all into dissecting your dead frogs.” What if we think of it as defining and defending our child? If someone mistook your child for someone else or someone ran off with your child, wouldn’t you care very much about definitions? You know, say, “Go find my boy.” “Well, who is he?” “He’s sort of boyish.” “What does he look like?” “I don’t know. Me but different and shorter.” You’d say, “Here’s his picture. Here’s his name. He’s this tall. He weighs this much. His hair is this color. His eyes are that color. He sounds like this. He’s wearing that.” You would care very deeply about definition and precision. Why? Because you’re not just looking for any child out there, you’re looking for your child. You would be precise about her name, her height, her hair, her eyes, her voice. Likewise, if someone misunderstood your child, attacked your child, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to defend your child, to stand between you and your child? Of course, you would. Why? Because your child is for you ultimately precious. And so it is or so it ought to be with the truth of God’s word.
We’re not dissecting a frog or identifying a gift. We’re defending what is precious. Before the Synod of Dordt conducted its business, each member took a solemn oath, “That I will only aim at the glory of God, the peace of the church, and especially the preservation of the purity of doctrine.” Each member took that oath and they ended it with a prayer, “So help me my savior, Jesus Christ. I beseech him to assist me by his Holy Spirit.” See, the delegates at Dordt were joyfully serious about defending gospel doctrine. So I wonder, do we care as much about defining and defending doctrine? This reformed resurgence, if it is still a thing that’s happening, has sometimes been called big God theology. And I like that on one level. It is about a big sovereign God, and yet, if reformed theology is truly to be sustained, past on, celebrated, we must have more than big, grand, ambiguous generalities. We must be willing to get into careful, precise definitions. Don’t you want to glory in the particularities of your faith?
It’s like that story about J. Gresham Machen is preaching in North Dakota, got flu or the cold or pneumonia and died there all alone in his last recorded words in a telegraph where, “Thank God for the active obedience of Christ, no hope without it.” Who thinks to praise God in your last days for the active obedience of Christ? We should. Don’t you see that if you want to feel deeply, learn to think deeply? And we don’t do our people any favors when we give them shortcuts.
I have nothing against new songs. I love new songs. I love old songs. I want affections, and emotions, and worship, but not bypassing the mind, but working through deep thoughts in the mind. Not to bypass, that’s sort of the Skittles. And believe me, I eat a lot of Skittles. They’re good, but it’s not a healthy diet. It’s easy to get that sweet sugar, but if you want to be sustained, if you want to grow, if you want a people who are going to die well, who are gonna sing well, who are gonna worship and feel deeply, they must be nurtured in these deep, profound, precise truths of the faith.
It isn’t that we all need to be experts on the Canons of Dordt by any means or you need to have a level of sophistication of Bervin, Kretoriton, or Berkoff, but it is to say whether you are a pastor or a Bible study leader or you are a layperson just learning more about your faith, we ought to have a hunger and a desire to see the specifics. Isn’t it the case that if you were climbing through the mountains, you were thrilled to see each new mountain peak? You think of that. When you’re a baby Christian and you know Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so, that’s a sweet, precious truth. Never take it away. And you know deep things about how God’s in control and He loves you. That’s a certain mountain vista. And as you grow and as you learn, you understand that all of these things have deeper wells to them and there’s terms and definitions and words that you didn’t even know were out there and categories to fill your mind, and that’s another peak and another peak, the more you know, the more you can see of God and His glory. It’s not to puff up, it’s to fill us up with worship.
Let me finish with Romans 11. Paul, in Verse 5 is urging, he says, “So too, at the present time, there is a remnant chosen by grace.” Remember, in these chapters he’s dealing with the question of well, what happened to the promises to Israel? Where did it go? And he explains predestination and he explains justification by faith and he explains that the promises had not failed because not all Israel is Israel. There is still a remnant. There is a remnant chosen by grace. Verse 6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Do you see how words mattered to Paul? He was never content to casually speak the same vocabulary as his opponents. You know that at the council of Nicea where they divided over a diphthong was Christ homoousia of the same essence or homoiousia of a similar essence, a diphthong, one letter, iota in the Greek. There was the Orthodox party and there was the Arian party and they could have come up with a compromised document that both could agree on. And at times we do that depending on the issue. But on that issue, to find something that both sides could agree on would have been a catastrophic compromise because a Christ by any other name would not be the same Christ.
And so, Paul says, “I know you’re all about grace. Everyone’s about grace, but grace, by your definition,” Paul says, “It’s not grace anymore.” They were using the same words from different dictionaries. He understood that people can champion grace, laud grace, celebrate grace while still losing all that makes grace, grace. And at the very heart of the Canons of Dordts is this debate about the nature of grace, supernatural, unilateral, sovereign, effecting, redeeming, resurrecting grace with all of its blessed angularity, all of its offense to human pride and all of its comfort to the humble, weary soul. That’s what Dordt wanted to settle. That’s what they were jealous to protect. Some words are worth the most careful definitions, just like some truths are too precious not to defend. So I hope somewhere in your house or church, or even just in your heart, there will be a little celebration, not so much for the Canons of Dordt, but for the grace that they meant to define, and defend, and protect, and proclaim.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your word. We know that these documents, as important as they are, are infallible, written by imperfect men, but we thank you for the truth that you have seen fit to preserve through them, nonetheless. And whether this is a part of our doctrinal heritage, where we are just learning of these things for the first time, would you make us men and women who care deeply about grace, care deeply about defining grace, not to keep people out, but to welcome in the fullness of your abundant, sovereign, irresistible mercy to us. We thank you for these precious truths in Jesus’ name. Amen.