How can the believer be sure of his election? This article looks at election, faith, assurance, and the Canons of Dort Chapter 1, Article 12.

Source: Wegwijs, 1993. 5 pages. Translated by Wim Kanis.

Election and Assurance

Introduction: God’s Unchangeable Purpose in Election🔗

We speak of “election and assurance”. By “election” we refer in this article to God’s eternal decree of election unto eternal salvation. That decision is in itself fixed and certain! We confess this with conviction. We ourselves are unstable: one day this, the other day that — even in our life of faith. Therefore, anyone who attaches election to man, so to speak (as, for example, the Remonstrants did), can never speak of a firm and fixed decision of election. But the church of the Reformation confessed God and his immutability, especially as it shines forth in his eternal, electing love. For example, the Belgic Confession of Faith speaks in article 16 of God’s mercy “in rescuing and saving from perdition those whom in his eternal and unchangeable counsel he has elected in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness”. And the Canons of Dort speak in par. 7 of the first chapter of God’s “unchangeable purpose” whereby before the foundation of the world “he has chosen in Christ to salvation a definite number of specific persons”.

Election — Divine and Therefore: Fixed and Certain!🔗

But: is this certainty and immutability not frightening to us, who are small and unstable people? Just as frightening as a massive outcrop of a mountain, towering above a small and insignificant person? He does not feel safe there, but rather very insecure and lost! Is this “massive” immutability of God’s decision not a threat to the security of his salvation?

We will attempt to address this question. In doing so, we want to listen especially to the teaching of the Canons of Dort.

First we will say a few words about the certainty or assurance of faith. Then we will listen to the “yes — but” that threatens this certainty. In a subsequent paragraph we will pay attention to the flow of the argument in the Canons and to the path of faith. In conclusion we will see that the “fruits of election” which the Canons confess, are the fruit of the Spirit.

Faith is Certainty🔗

Faith knows the temptations and the believer sometimes has his doubts, yet by its very nature faith is certainty for it clings to God’s Word, to the promise of grace. Thus, in the Heidelberg Catechism, LD 7, QA 21, faith is described as a sure knowledge and a firm confidence. Faith has the character of the “amen”; compare the conclusion of the Catechism, QA 129: “It is true and certain”. This “amen” through faith is worked by the Lord in the church (2 Cor. 1:20). He calls himself the Amen, “the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 3:14). His Word is completely reliable. Faith derives its assurance from this certainty-in-God’s-own-Person: a faith that extends to him and seeks everything in him.

The reader may now be thinking: That might all be true but is this certainty of faith not buried under the deep shadow of that eternal decree of election, which is as solid and as hard as granite? Does the firmness of the decree of election not actually swallow up the certainty of faith? Here we are right in the middle of the (often anxious!) questions about the relationship between election and assurance. Doesn’t the immutability of the election consume the certainty of faith? We can also formulate it in another way, and then we think of how precisely among the reformed people the certainty of faith has often languished in the shadow of the certainty of election (or rather, what one considered this to be!): is the reformed confession of election not the reason that it feels like there is a worm gnawing at the root of the certainty of faith? That is the root of the “yes — but...”!

The ”Yes — But...” of “reformed” Subjectivism🔗

”Subjectivism” — that is a difficult word. It means, in the context in which we are now writing, that man, as the subject of faith, is looking for the certainty of faith in himself, i.e., in the faith-subject, rather than in Christ, who is the Amen.

This subjectivity was indeed very widespread among the reformed people at the time of the so-called Pietism, which found a great following in the 17th century, and after that it remained, as it were, a standard component in the reformed world.

People often reason as follows: it is undoubtedly true that faith finds security in God’s promise. But — and here comes the objection! — ...the question is: is this promise really for me personally? Because surely the true, real promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation is for the elect only? Therefore I first need to be sure of my eternal election, before I can be sure of God’s promise in Christ, personally to me. So, how do I become certain that I am the addressee of this promise? That is, how can I be assured that I am an elect person? The answer: when I notice the marks or characteristics of God’s election in my life. On the basis of those, I am sure of my election and therefore of God’s personally-addressed promise and so I can and may cling to it in faith.

So here is the proper order of the way of a child of God: characteristics of election — knowledge of those characteristics — God’s promise — the appropriation of the promise.

Now we encounter the crux of our uncertainty! For how do I know that the characteristics that I notice in myself are in fact reliable? This is a question that can never be answered definitively. Because here the person seeking certainty — and how the heart yearns for it! — is a seeker ahead of faith and thus outside of faith. That is why in this schematic we encounter a hard and cold doctrine: a fatalistic way of thinking about election, which deprives the challenged souls of all comfort. One may attempt to soften this hardness, for example, by placing in the scheme next to the promise of salvation, which is only for the elect, a “common offer of grace” which man first encounters in the preaching of the gospel. But then the big question remains: is God really speaking to me with the full and the actual promise of salvation? And then we have come back again to the schematic that we represented above. Here faith is included in a system that breaks the certainty of faith by a constantly recurring of “yes — but...”

But: do the Canons of Dort not teach this “yes — but...”? Look at the twelfth paragraph of the first chapter that deals with “divine election and rejection”. Here, after all, we read that the elect “are made certain of this their eternal and unchangeable election...when they...observe in themselves...the unfailing fruits of election”!

Even if the first fruit mentioned is “true faith in Christ” this does not alter the fact that this is the first in a series of characteristics through which there is certain knowledge of personal election! Is it not for this reason that the Canons dare to speak so little about this certainty of election? After all, they state that this is not present with everyone equally strong and in equal measure.

With these questions in mind, let us follow the line of thought that the Canons present in the first chapter. 

The Structure of the canons and the way of Faith🔗

Quite often it is said that CoD I, 12 is the key document of the preaching of the characteristics of reformed pietism. And if we would separate this article from the rest of chapter I, then that thought might easily arise, although you then always remain stuck with that somewhat miraculous saying that “true faith in Christ” is mentioned here as the first fruit of election!

But I am convinced that the important thing is that the course of the argument is being undermined by those who claim: this is pietistic preaching of characteristics, and the doubt that accompanies it overtakes in the Canons the joyful certainty of faith, to which the reformers gave such a powerful testimony in the 16th century.

For what is the outline and structure of the first chapter of the Canons?

God sent his Son to a world lost in guilt (1), so that for everyone who believes in him there will be eternal life (2). To that end, God causes this glad tidings to be proclaimed along all the ways of his good pleasure (3). That is the promise of the gospel, which the CoD discusses in chapter II, art. 5. He who does not believe, the first chapter continues, remains in his guilt. But everyone who embraces this Saviour in faith is redeemed and receives eternal life (4). This faith is a gift of grace (and not, as the Remonstrants taught: a human effort that has merit with God (5).

Note well: not a single word yet about election! Guilt and destruction and, in contrast, the glad tidings (gospel) of the right to grace and eternal life and the call to repentance and faith!

There is full certainty already, see John 17:3. For this reason the same Canons speak in the fifth chapter, when dealing with of the perseverance of the saints, more extensively about the certainty of faith “in God’s promises, which he has most abundantly revealed in his Word for our comfort”, see especially CoD V, 9, 10. This is specifically addressed against the Remonstrants who refused to believe the perseverance of the saints because they turned it into a human effort (see in ch. V the rejection of errors par. 5). This knowledge is therefore a knowledge of faith and is characterized by the certainty of which we spoke at the beginning, although at the same time we should be aware that this knowledge is included in the living relationship with the Lord and therefore is marked by growth and deepening. We must also guard against stagnation and regression!

Just as the Remonstrants tied perseverance to man’s will and efforts, and therefore could not give any certainty, so it was also with their doctrine of election. God’s election was based on human faith (as foreseen by God). Just as man is subject to change, so God is also — of necessity! — in his decision of whom to choose.

This is what the Canons now oppose in the first chapter, when they speak in articles 6 and 7 about the unchangeable election, which is evidenced in faith, which in turn is entirely a gift of grace!

It is in this context that the Canons confess in I.12 the certainty of the election, after first having spoken of faith. They say: faith in God’s promises is merely a gift. Therefore you may see in that faith the fruit of God’s electing love. You do not have to climb up to heaven on your own for the personal knowledge of that electing love (that is dangerous, do not do it!), but you need to see that when you hold on to Christ in faith, you are then brought to him, as the Lord himself says: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” John 6:44. With this word of our Saviour we are not being pushed into any uncertainty! It does, however, help to shake away any arrogance of the proud self and leads us to humility and thanksgiving, even for our faith: the gift of electing love!

And then there are so many more gifts by which we may perceive with amazement the power of election in our own lives. The Canons mention (by way of example): a childlike fear of God, godly sorrow for our sin, a hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Canons do not list these to make us trust in characteristics, instead of the promise of the gospel. But they want to show us that in faith we may know that the electing God is near. Election is not simply a cold or dead decision, stored away in a heavenly vault.

It is God working his election in my life. Him whom I know from his Word, I also know in my life’s journey. It is faith-experience, through which we know the Father in Christ, as he is at work in us through the Spirit of the Lord. The Son causes us to know the Father. The Father works in the Son through the Spirit.

In doing so God leads each of his children in his own way. The Canons speak of this very delicately in speaking of “in due time”, “in various stages”, “in different measure". For each of God’s children the Holy Spirit lays down his and her own way to where we are assured of eternal love. But it is and remains: the way of faith!

Fruits of Elective Love — Fruit of the Spirit🔗

The Canons speak of “the unfailing fruits of election” in the twelfth article of the first chapter in the plural. The apostle Paul speaks in Galatians 5:22 in the singular about “the fruit of the Spirit”. We shall be allowed to see in this the unity of the Spirit’s work in the lives of God’s elect. Therefore the main point of art. 12 is the assurance of God’s electing love! Just as God the Father has loved us and the Son has reconciled us, so the Spirit brings about the miraculous work of God’s love in our lives: we may know the Triune God in the riches of his work of salvation — up close!

The singularity of the Spirit-fruit shows itself in the many fruits of a godly life. That is plural! Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23 “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. The one work of the Spirit is manifested in the many “good works” of believers. This causes the certainty of election to be even more concrete: the more you see the Lord at work in your life, the more you come to understand the intention of his heart. Faith enters into fellowship with the Triune God through the gate of promise and celebrates the feast of that fellowship in the assurance of election.

This is then indeed a situation of “more and more”! The assurance of election is inseparable from the assurance of faith. It is the deepest dimension of it. Therefore, with the growth in the life of faith there is also growth in the certainty, the assurance of election! But that is why, when we resist and grieve the Spirit in our sins, there is also the obscuring of this assurance. The feast gives way. A life without repentance, of not breaking with sin, barricades the work of the Spirit. Then joy will disappear. The certainty of God’s love ebbs away. We can try to mask this — even from ourselves! — by emphatically stating that we are believers. But we no longer have access to God’s fatherly heart. Then we need to return to him — in repentance. This is the way of Psalm 32: as a sinner we return to the Christ and will find forgiveness of sins in him.

This is even a daily walk: the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for each and every day with that petition: “and forgive us our debts...” And then God’s face shines on us again and we find more and more the access to the secrets of God’s heart (see CoD V, 12 and 13). We do not find this in the way of vain contemplation or “inquisitive prying”, but in the Son, who was sent to us by God’s love, and in the fruit of the Spirit’s work.

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