What really is the significance of the Canons of Dort for the church today? This article shows that it has much to contribute to the life and ministry of the church: it is unswervingly biblical, it gets at at the heart of the Reformed worldview (namely, the sovereign ini­tiative and grace of God), it encourages a God-centred faith, and it points to God as the only comfort for the believer.

Source: The Outlook, 1993. 4 pages.

The Significance of the Canons of Dort for Today: Concluding Observations

Now that we have come to the end of our journey through the Can­ons of Dort, it is time to draw some conclusions regarding their contin­ued usefulness and importance for the Reformed churches today. This will enable us to tie up some re­maining loose threads in the previ­ous articles, and to underscore what has been one of my major theses throughout: Reformed believers need to rediscover and benefit from their rich confessional inheritance in the Canons of Dort. Though often neglected and misunderstood, as we have seen, this confession of faith has much to contribute to the life and ministry of the church.

Unswervingly Biblical🔗

The first observation concerns the unswervingly Biblical character of this confession of faith.

In the Westminster Confession of Faith, a Reformed confession that comes from a period of history and an ecclesiastical context in many ways different from that which occasioned the Synod of Dort in 1618-­1619, there is a beautiful statement of the Reformed view of the su­preme authority of the Word of God in determining the truth. Found in the first chapter, Article X, this state­ment declares that

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be exam­ined, in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in Scrip­ture.

When the dispute over election arose in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the earliest debate focused upon Article XVI of the Belgic Confession. Does this article truly express the Scrip­tural teaching of God's sovereign, unconditional election of His people in Christ? Or, is it an un-Scriptural article of faith? When Arminius challenged the confession of elec­tion in the Reformed churches, his challenge required the Reformed churches to determine whether their confession was based upon the Word of God. The Reformed churches were confronted with a test case, in other words, as to whether they were willing to live by their own confession of the supreme authority of the Word of God.

It has been the burden of my argument in the preceding articles to demonstrate how, on each contested point of doctrine, the Canons admirably meet this test. With­out swerving either to the left or to the right, the Canons consistently adhere to the line of Biblical truth.

Since the Scriptures teach that God elects His people to salvation by grace alone, and not upon the condition of foreseen faith and re­pentance, the Canons confess this truth. Since the Scriptures teach that some, though not all, are chosen, while others are passed by in God's electing purpose, the Canons affirm particular election as well as non-election. When the Arminians al­leged that this would make God the Author of sin and unbelief, or un­dermine the serious call of the gos­pel, promising life and salvation to everyone who believes, the authors of the Canons steadfastly refused to draw this conclusion. Why? Be­cause the Scriptures teach both par­ticular election and a universal gos­pel summons. That the Scriptures teach both was enough; and so both found their echo in the affirmations of the Canons.

Similarly, since the Scriptures teach that Christ's work of atone­ment was provided on behalf of those whom the Father purposed to save and give to Him, the Canons resist the Arminian view that the universal summons of the gospel requires a universal atonement. And, since the Scriptures teach the preservation of the believer in the way of salvation and the urgent ob­ligation to persevere in the way, the Canons likewise affirm both empha­ses with equal vigor.

Many more examples of the Scrip­tural faithfulness and balance of the Canons could be cited. What is re­markable is how the Canons consis­tently resist the temptation of rationalism. Rationalism, or the reli­ance upon human reason to compe­tently determine and measure the truth without being submissive to the Scriptures, more than meets its match in this confession. Without attempting to delve into the mys­tery of God's electing purpose be­yond the boundaries of Scriptural revelation, and without attempting to effect an easy resolution of Bibli­cal emphases that may appear to us incapable of harmonization, the Canons follow the Scriptures wher­ever they lead, while refusing to go further than the Scriptures go. In so doing they are a model of the Reformation's commitment to sola Scriptura; by the standard of the Word of God alone we are to judge and determine what is true.

A One-Sided/Focused Confession?🔗

A second observation regarding the Canons of Dort relates to what might be termed the one-sidedness or specific focus of this confession.

In a previous article, I referred to this feature of the Canons when I observed that they address one par­ticular aspect of Scripture's teach­ing which was being contested among the Reformed churches of the Netherlands in the post-Refor­mation period. It was not the pur­pose of the authors of the Canons to provide a comprehensive statement of Scriptural teaching in the same fashion as a confession like the Bel­gic Confession or the Heidelberg Cat­echism. The focus of the dispute in the Netherlands was quite limited; it had to do with the confession of election, particularly whether this election was in any way founded upon the condition of faith in the gospel.

This historical occasion and limited focus of the dis­pute among the Reformed churches in the Netherlands are often forgotten by critics of the Canons when they charge them with narrowing the scope of the Reformed faith. It is simply unfair to compare the Can­ons directly with the broader and more wide-ranging confessions of the Reformation period, or to judge that they have inappropriately nar­rowed the focus of an earlier Reformed or Calvinistic "world and life view" by reducing the compass of the Reformed faith to what are sometimes termed the doctrines of grace. Such criticism neglects to ap­preciate the deliberate focus and ac­knowledged limitation of this confession of faith. The Canons were never intended to serve the churches as a substitute for the more full con­fession of faith provided in the other creeds. They were intended to supplement and clarify the Reformed faith, at precisely that critical point where this faith was being severely tested.

Perhaps this can be illustrated by considering a picture of a landscape scene that encompasses a wide pan­orama within its range of vision. Such a landscape could be surveyed or viewed in its broadest possible scope. However, it would be pos­sible to fix one's attention or sight upon an object that, upon closer scrutiny, has a central place and prominence in the landscape. If one looks at the landscape comprehen­sively, this item might escape initial notice. However, if one examines the landscape more carefully, this otherwise unnoticed item comes into bold relief.

Something like this is true of the broad confession of faith, or world and life view that Reformed Chris­tianity or Calvinism represents. Seen comprehensively, it covers a range of vision that cannot be lim­ited to the Biblical teaching concern­ing election.1 It includes a perspec­tive not only upon the life and min­istry of the church, but also upon the vocation or calling of God's people to exercise a responsible stewardship of God's gifts, the civil order and task of the magistrate, the ordering of a just economy, an approach to Christian scholarship in the academy, and the like. The Reformed faith is as broad as the Biblical faith, comprising the whole of God's revelation of Himself in the creation of the world, the re­demption of His people and the con­summation of His kingdom.

The Canons represent what lies at the heart of the Reformed world and life view, namely, the sovereign ini­tiative and grace of God in the res­toration of a people to communion with Himself and to the glorifica­tion and service of His great name. But they do not encompass the whole of this world and life view. Consequently, when the Canons are evaluated, they should not be charged with restricting the com­pass of the Reformed faith too nar­rowly. They do not claim to set forth the whole of the Reformed faith. Nor do they claim to provide the answer to questions to which they are not addressed. They aim only to confess salvation by grace alone in terms of the Biblical teach­ing of election. With respect to this aim, they are on target.

A God-Centered Faith🔗

Perhaps the single most impor­tant reason the Canons of Dort are not as popularly known or appreci­ated as they should be, has to do with their God-centeredness. Or, to state the matter negatively, be­cause the Canons of Dort are anti-humanistic through and through, they do not find a congenial home in an age which has inherited an Enlightenment spirit which empha­sizes man's autonomy and liberty.

It is not possible to underestimate the extent to which the spirit of the Enlightenment has made its inroads in Western culture and societies, and in the churches as well. This spirit chafes under the Biblical teaching that all men are constituted sinners in Adam, born and conceived in sin, worthy only of con­demnation and death. The Biblical teaching that all men are wholly incapable of doing any saving good — spiritually blind to the truth of God's Word, spiritually enslaved to the domin­ion and principle of sin, spiritually dead in trespasses and sins — is re­garded by many as an intolerable assault upon the dignity of man and his place under the sun.

Furthermore, it is regarded as sac­rilege that man should not be free to determine his own destiny, to "pull himself up by his own boot­straps," and to forge for himself a future of his own making. If God should have any role to play in all this, it can only be that of a co-la­borer or fellow-traveler, not that of the sovereign Creator and Lord of history who administers all things in accordance with His holy will (Ephesians 1:11). If credit is to be as­signed, God will receive His due, but only if He is regarded as One who helps us along the way but leaves to us the initiative in begin­ning as well as finishing the course!

Sadly, this spirit also enjoys a warm reception within many churches. In an age of "consumer religion," which tailors the gospel to the tastes of the religious public, many of the Biblical notes sounded in the Canons of Dort are muted at best, wholly silenced at worst. In an age devoted to "church growth," not so much by the simple preaching of the Biblical gospel, calling sin­ners to true faith and genuine re­pentance, but to those methods which will attract a crowd and gar­ner the most traffic, the sober em­phases of the Canons do not appear particularly attractive. Won't the preaching of sin and grace be too threatening to many contemporary seekers? Won't the gospel sum­mons to repentance put off more than it attracts? Won't the empha­sis upon God's gracious provision for needy sinners through the aton­ing work of Christ and the working of the Spirit through the gospel tend to displace and diminish the reli­gious desires and interests of many contemporary people?

I raise these questions to illustrate again how different is the emphasis and approach of the Canons to the proclamation of the gospel. Accord­ing to the Canons, the chief end and fruit of all gospel preaching is the glorification of the living God, the Triune Creator and Redeemer. The first, middle, and last word of this confession of faith addresses the re­ality of the Triune God's gracious initiative, provision, application and preservation of His people in the way of salvation in Christ. This con­fession does not speak first of man and his aspirations for God, but of God and His free decision to choose a people whom He gives to Christ, His Son. This is a confession that speaks not of man's initiative and action, but of God's. It is a confes­sion that begins and ends, celebrat­ing the grandeur of God in His sov­ereign purposes and works, whether in the merciful election of His people or just condemnation of the sinful and unbelieving.

The "God of All Comfort"🔗

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul blesses God by saying, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction..." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). In this blessing, the apostle describes the God and Father of our Lord Jesus as the "God of all comfort," as the One who encourages and sustains the believer in all circumstances.

A sympathetic reader of the Can­ons of Dort will notice that this too lies at the heart of this Reformed confession: only the Father who sov­ereignly elects His people in Christ, His Son, can provide the comfort, the solid joy and lasting treasure which sinners need. Were the be­liever to find his comfort in his own faith, in his own "choice" for God, in his own ability to continue to run the race with perseverance — what an empty comfort or consolation this would be! Believers who know themselves in the light of the Word of God have no desire to place their hope and prospect for salvation in their own hands. Much better to place their hope in the capable and faithful hands of God the Father who, for the sake of Christ, His Son, will permit nothing to snatch His people from His hands (John 10:28)!

Here it needs to be observed that the Canons' God-centeredness does not diminish their comfort. For the believer's true comfort resides not in himself but in His God! When our salvation is made to depend, even in the slightest measure, upon our own initiative and persistence in the course, it hangs not from the thin­nest of threads but from nothing at all! Nothing could more certainly steal from the believer his hope and confidence, whether in this life or the life to come, than to rest upon or place his trust in his own re­sources, pluck or self-determination. The only solid comfort, by compari­son, is to be found in God the Father's gracious election of His people, God the Son's perfect pro­vision and atonement on their be­half and God the Spirit's calling them into and preserving them in fellowship with Christ through the gospel.

The God-centeredness and solid comfort of the Canons, then, are two sides of a single coin. Calvin was correct when he opened his Insti­tutes by remarking that all Chris­tian wisdom is comprised of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. The one always influ­ences and shapes the other. What we believe concerning God has eve­rything to do with what we know about ourselves. What we know about ourselves must derive from what we know of God. Consequently, when Reformed believers confess that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has loved His own with a perfect love from all eternity, they seek to live to the praise of His matchless grace, know­ing that in Him they have the full­ness of joy.

The authors of the Canons understood this correspondence between emphasizing God's sovereign grace and finding solid comfort in the gospel. They remind us of it in the words of their conclusion, a conclusion which is fitting for us as well.

May God's Son Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God and gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth, lead to the truth those who err, silence the mouths of those who lay false accusations against sound teaching, and equip faithful ministers of his Word with a spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all they say may be to the glory of God and the building up of their hearers. Amen.


  1. ^ See H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (6th ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), for a read­able and concise statement of a Cal­vinistic world and life view. Meeter argues that the sovereignty of God is the "basic principle" of Calvinism. Though this principle comes to magnificent expression in the doctrine of election, this doctrine, while expres­sive of what might be termed "soteriological Calvinism," does not comprehend the whole of Calvin­ism's application of this principle.

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