What about those who do believe and repent—who are converted—at the preaching of the gospel? Are they to be credited for their faith and repentance as though these were their own accomplishments? The authors of the canons answer this question first by denying that such faith and repentance are to be credited to the believer and second by affirming that faith and repentance are the fruit of the Spirit’s working through the gospel. The conversion of those who are called through the ministry of the gospel must not be credited to them, “as though one distinguishes himself by free choice from others who are furnished with equal or sufficient grace for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains)” (article 10). Not at all. For just as God from eternity chose His own in Christ,
so within time He effectively calls them, [and] grants them faith and repentance, . . . in order that they may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called them out of darkness into this marvelous light, and may boast not in themselves, but in the Lord, as Apostolic words frequently testify in Scripture.
In the following articles of the third and fourth points, the canons provide a biblical account of the manner of the Spirit’s working in the heart and life of the believer. Speaking of the Spirit’s work in applying the gospel, the canons affirm that God, by the Spirit, powerfully enlightens the minds of believers “so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God” (article 11). Furthermore, by “the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit,” God also “penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised.” This work of the Spirit includes giving to the sinner’s will, otherwise captive to sin, the readiness to do good; making the will, otherwise dead and lifeless to the things of God, begin to live and become receptive to the gospel’s call; making the will, otherwise unwilling because it is unable, begin to desire the right; and activating and enlivening the will, otherwise inactive and lifeless, to produce the good fruits that come from a tree that has been made good. In so doing, the Spirit of God effectively enables the sinner, by nature spiritually dead and in bondage to sin, to turn willingly in repentance and faith to God:
As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe. And then the will, now renewed, is not only activated and motivated by God but in being activated by God is also itself active. For this reason, man himself, by that grace which he has received, is also rightly said to believe and to repent. (Article 12)
fifth point: perseverance of the saints
The opening articles of the fifth main point acknowledge that believers continually struggle with sin and temptation, and even on occasion fall into grievous sin (e.g., Peter’s denial). Within the setting of this biblically realistic view of the ongoing struggle with remaining sin, the canons affirm the triune God’s gracious preservation of true believers. If left to their own resources, believers “could not remain standing in this grace” for a moment (article 3). Only as God, being faithful and merciful, strengthens and enables them are believers able to continue in that state into which God has brought them through fellowship with Christ. The good news of the gospel is not only that God has provided an atonement through Christ and brought us by the Spirit through the gospel into fellowship with Christ. The gospel also promises that God will prove faithful and merciful by preserving His people within that fellowship.
For God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election does not take His Holy Spirit from His own completely, even when they fall grievously. Neither does He let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by Him, into eternal ruin (John 10:27–30; 17:11–12; Rom. 8:35–39; Phil. 1:6). (Article 6)
god’s glory and the believer’s comfort
A number of years ago, J.I. Packer memorably summarized these five points, the doctrines of grace, in a pithy statement: “God saves sinners.” The biblical teaching of election preserves the truth that salvation is God’s work from first to last. Contrary to the Arminian view, which ultimately rests the salvation of sinners on their choice to believe and to persevere in faith, the Bible teaches that the triune God saves by granting to believers what is required for their salvation. In accordance with His purpose of election, the Father gives the Son, whose atoning sacrifice effectively procures the salvation of those for whom He died. Through the effectual ministry of the Holy Spirit, believers are unfailingly granted the gift of faith and repentance by which they are united to Christ and become beneficiaries of His work on their behalf. For this reason, those whom God sovereignly and graciously saves can echo the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Because God alone saves sinners, all whom He saves may properly ascribe all praise to God for their salvation. At the same time, they may confidently believe that Christ will save them to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25). In the stirring words of the canons, they can confess that God’s
plan cannot be changed, His promise cannot fail, the calling according to His purpose cannot be revoked, the merit of Christ as well as His interceding and preserving cannot be nullified, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be invalidated nor wiped out. (V.8)
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2019.