Tag Archives: Canons of Dort

Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would be too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.

 


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience

Romans-5.19

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.

 


Clearing the Confusion on Regeneration

With my preconfession students I’ve been surveying what we call the Order of Salvation — theologians usually use the Latin term Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps involved in salvation.  The Reformed Order of Salvation looks like this:

  • Election
  • Effectual Calling
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

I’ve been devoting a class to each of these.  Last week, we looked at the topic of regeneration.  Unfortunately, there’s often a bit of confusion in our Reformed churches on what regeneration involves.  In this post, I briefly want to address that.

It’s always important to begin with a definition.  We are speaking here about regeneration in this basic sense:  God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  A more thorough definition can be found in chapter 3/4 of our Canons of Dort, particularly article 12.  It is the “new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…which God works in us without us.”  It is a “supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious and inexpressible work.”  If we look at Canons 3/4, article 11, we find that this regeneration or conversion is a comprehensive act of God upon the human subject.  It includes the enlightening of the mind, as well as the opening, softening, and circumcising of the heart.  It also instills the will with new qualities, makes it come alive, makes it good, willing, and obedient.  It is a radical change in a person which leads onward to faith and a transformed life.  From all this, it is clear that the church confesses that regeneration is not a process, but an event which takes place logically prior to God bringing a person to saving faith.  After all, “raising from the dead” is not a process.  Either you’re dead or you’re alive.  At one point Christ was dead in the tomb, and the next moment he was raised to life.  The same thing happens in regeneration as described in chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort.

This is precisely the point where confusion often sets in.  We have sometimes been taught that being born again/regenerated/converted is not an event, but an ongoing daily process for believers.  We’ve heard things like, “We must be born again every day.”  Is that wrong?  Is regeneration a process throughout our lives or an event that takes place prior to saving faith?

The misunderstanding partly arises because there is some overlap with the terminology used for our progressive sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification is most definitely an ongoing affair.  We are always works in progress, until the very moment we are called to glory.  Now sometimes our confessions use the terminology of regeneration to describe sanctification.  You could think of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 88:  “What is the true repentance or conversion of man?  It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  Notice the word “conversion,” the same word used in Canons of Dort 3/4, article 11 as a synonym for regeneration.  But in the Catechism it’s being used to describe the process of sanctification.  It’s the same word, but used in a different sense.  Notice how the Canons use “conversion” to describe an event that “God works in us without us.”  However, the Catechism in QA 88 uses “conversion” to describe a process that includes our actions — QA 89 speaks of us hating sin and fleeing it.  We are to apply ourselves to these things and work with God in them.  In other words, we are passive in our regeneration, but active in our sanctification.

But, to be clear, the Catechism also speaks of regeneration as a definite one-time event.  We find that in QA 8, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  There regeneration is viewed in terms of the Order of Salvation — this is regeneration as an event in which we are passive.  That’s evident from the fact that the proof-text for the second part of the answer is from John 3:3-5, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about being born again.  Being born again there is an event — just as you are physically born once from your mother, so the Spirit gives spiritual birth but once as an event.

Perhaps the clearest place in Scripture that speaks of regeneration as an event is 1 Peter 1:23, “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”  “You have been born again” are the key words here.  In Greek, this is written in the perfect tense, which means that the action is completed, but has effects into the present.  Peter’s readers are not being spoken of as being born again as a process day after day, but as people who have had a radical change in them by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

In terms of Reformed theology, nothing I have written above is anything new or innovative.  For centuries, Reformed theologians have properly distinguished regeneration as an initial sovereign act of God which has renewed the mind, will, and heart from sanctification as a continuing action in the life of the Christian.  Understanding the Reformed Order of Salvation helps keep this important distinction clear.


Now Available: To Win Our Neighbors For Christ

To Win Our Neighbors for Christ

Now available from Reformation Heritage Books!

In many modern histories of Christian missions, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is depicted as a movement lacking missionary zeal. It has virtually become a given that the Reformation was not oriented to the church’s missionary task. In To Win Our Neighbors for Christ, Wes Bredenhof answers these charges, proving that it is a mistake to say the Reformation and the confessional documents it produced have nothing to say about missions. The author demonstrates that the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort — properly understood, have much to offer the study of missions. More importantly, they encourage us to care about a world lost in unbelief, making us more mission-oriented and outward-looking.

Endorsements

“To Win Our Neighbors for Christ is a helpful tool for every Reformed Christian seeking to understand and use our confessions in a missional way. It gives the historical background for each of the three forms of Unity and shows that the original intent of our confessions was indeed to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel. It also shows how we as a church need to have that same desire to clearly articulate these truths to our own generation of souls today.” — Richard Bout, missions coordinator, United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

“Full disclosure: Dr. Wes Bredenhof is my family’s enthusiastic pastor, through whom we are fed with pure gospel preaching. His heart pulses with true love for the biblical, Reformed faith and with a deep desire to reach the lost. In this book he shows us that these two things belong together— indeed, that the Reformed confessions themselves encourage mission. I pray that many more believers would see the intricate interconnections of these two pulses, and I’m sure that this book will help them.” — Dr. Theodore Van Raalte, professor of ecclesiology, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

YOU CAN PURCHASE THIS BOOK HERE