Until the Arminian controversy in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, Calvinism did not have five points. Calvinism summarized itself in its great confessions and catechisms and never thought to reduce itself to five points. The Arminians, however, had five attacks on Reformed teaching, which they summarized in 1610. On the fifth point they wrote, in part: “But whether they [those incorporated into Jesus Christ] can through negligence fall away from the first principle of their life in Christ, again embrace the present world, depart from the pure doctrine once given to them, lose the good conscience, and neglect grace, must first be more carefully determined from the Holy Scriptures.” The Arminians in 1610 were uncertain about the doctrine of perseverance. But in the years that followed they increasingly taught that the truly regenerate could fall from grace and be lost.
Clearly the Arminians feared that the doctrine of perseverance would make Christians negligent, lazy, and self-indulgent. They saw the teaching as mechanical and automatic. They seemed to imagine that the Reformed taught that the Christian life was like a train running downhill. Just get it started, and it will easily run on its own momentum without any further effort. (Their fears may seem to be substantiated by the unreformed teaching of some today that Christians are in a state of “once saved, always saved” — no matter what they do.)
The great Synod of Dort (1618–1619) answered the Arminian doubts and fears clearly and helpfully. It reminded all Christians that God does indeed so preserve His own that they will not fall from grace. But He preserves them through the means that He has appointed, and, by His Spirit, He ensures that they make good use of those means.
The Canons of the Synod of Dort take up the subject of perseverance in their fifth head of doctrine. In fifteen articles, the fifth head of doctrine presents a remarkable biblical and pastoral statement of the Reformed teaching. It begins by recognizing that sin remains a problem in the life of regenerate Christians. Since sin is a daily problem and affects even our best works, we must daily turn to God anew: “These [sins] are to them [Christians] a perpetual reason to humiliate themselves before God and to flee for refuge to Christ crucified; to mortify the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety; and to press forward to the goal of perfection, until at length, delivered from this body of death, they shall reign with the Lamb of God in heaven” (Article 2). Here is clearly no mechanical, or automatic, sense of preservation. Human responsibility and active turning to God are upheld as the fruit of the grace of God.
We see here, right at the opening of the fifth head of doctrine, how important means are to persevering in the faith. The Canons mention here first the cultivation of humility and faith in the Christian life. We dare not be a proud people, as if we had accomplished much by our own strength. But we must recognize our weaknesses and look away from ourselves to Christ. One of the key means of cultivating humility is prayer. In prayer, we acknowledge that God is the source of all strength and hope in our lives. Article 2 also encourages “holy exercises of piety” in addition to prayer. Here the stress falls on reading the Bible and engaging faithfully in worship with fellow believers.
The Canons recognize that even the regenerate, left to themselves and their own strength, would not persevere. Only the faithful, persevering grace of God can uphold the regenerate as they face the temptations of sin.
The Canons go on to recognize that God’s saints can fall into terrible sins of which David, the adulterer and murderer, and Peter, the denier of Christ, are very clear examples. Such terrible sins bring with them some terrible consequences: “By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favor, until, when they change their course by serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them” (Article 5). Here again we see how very personal is the relationship between the believer and his God in true Reformed theology. This article also shows that the doctrine of perseverance in no way encourages an indifference to sin. The commitment to the serious pursuit of holiness is a central tenet of Reformed Christianity. A key verse historically for the Reformed is Ephesians 5:15: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.”
Article 7 explains something of the way in which God operates in preserving His own: “By His Word and Spirit He certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” Here the Canons emphasize that God the Holy Spirit works through and with His Word to create and sustain repentance and faith in His people. Repentance and faith are the foundations of Christian living. Faith trusts in Christ for justification and the foundation of sanctification. Faith for sanctification leads to repentance and a whole new life lived out in Christ.
Next, the Canons discuss in some detail the assurance Christians may have that they will persevere in faith by the grace of God and the great blessing that such assurance affords. Again, responding to the fears of the Arminians that such assurance will produce spiritual laziness and indifference, article 12 states: “The certainty of perseverance is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God.” Here we see the sturdy realism of Calvinism about the Christian life. Life has its great joys, but it also has its many sorrows, some resulting from the consequences of our personal sins and some resulting from the misery of this fallen world. But God strengthens us in patience and constancy in every circumstance.
Article 14 turns even more pointedly to the subject of the means of perseverance in the Christian life than was done in the earlier articles. “And as it has pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, and by the use of the sacraments.”
The focus in this article is on the Word of the God and the sacraments. The Word of God helps to preserve us in the faith as we hear it preached, as we read it in church and privately, and as we meditate upon it. The article highlights what we will find in the Scriptures when we hear, read, and meditate on them. First, we will find exhortations. The Bible calls us to live the faithful Christian life and instructs us in the character of that life. Second, we will find threatenings. Even though God will surely preserve us in grace, we need to hear the warnings of God as one of the means He uses to confront us with our sin and draw us to repentance. Third, we find promises. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is full of promises and comfort. Every Christian needs to be nourished regularly with the Gospel as the true foundation and best motivation to Christian living.
The article also directs us to the sacraments. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are presentations of the Gospel in visible form. God strengthens us in His promises with the promise of sin washed away in Jesus and the promise that the salvation accomplished in His body and blood are the food of eternal life for us.
The fifth head of doctrine ends (article 15) on a sober but triumphal note. Although many reject the doctrine of perseverance, it is of great comfort to the Christian: “The carnal mind is unable to comprehend this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and the certainty thereof, which God has most abundantly revealed in His Word, for the glory of His name and consolation of pious souls, and which He impresses upon the hearts of believers. Satan abhors it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocritical abuse it, and the heretics oppose it. But the bride of Christ has always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it as an inestimable treasure; and God, against whom neither counsel nor strength can prevail, will dispose her so to continue to the end. Now to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.”