Sovereignty of Grace
OF THE THEOLOGY
1 of 8
The Canons of
Dort (1618�1619) were the response of the Synod of Dort to
the Five Points of the Remonstrants. They formed an extended
Statement of Faith under the following headings: Divine Election
and reprobation; the Death of Christ and the redemption of man
thereby; the Corruption of man, his conversion to God, and the
manner thereof; and the Perseverance of the saints. Each of these
headings was treated by a series of Articles numbering fifty-nine
in all with additional comments on errors which were to be rejected.
This statement of faith has since been greatly simplified for
ordinary teaching purposes into five points which correspond
in substance but not in the order of presentation to the Five
Points of the Remonstrants. These are now widely known under
the acronym T U L I P, each letter standing for a simple descriptive
phrase. These five descriptive phrases together summarize the
Calvinist position. They are spelled out as follows:
T . . . . .
U . . . . .
L . . . . .
I . . . . .
P . . . . .
Perseverance of the Saints
Each of these
requires a word of explanation and clarification.
Total Depravity is not intended to signify that unregenerate man
is wholly evil in everything he does, but rather that nothing
he does is ever wholly good. In so far as motive determines the
moral character and spiritual significance of an act, every deed
has something of sinfulness about it because man's will is fatally
corrupted by his fallen nature. Not all motives are equally sinful,
but no motive is wholly pure. Hence, from a moral and spiritual
point of view, human activity is always poisoned as to its motive,
to a greater or lesser extent. This fundamental impurity of motive
reason for saying that
man is totally depraved. This depravity is reflected in man's
entire impotence towards any spiritual good; in this respect
unregenerate man is not merely sick but dead. Consequently the
salvation of man is altogether a work of God, initiated and carried
through by Him without the help of man, man being able neither
effectively to resist nor to assist the elective purposes of
God directed towards his salvation.
Unconditional Election means
that the Election of an individual to salvation in no way hinges
upon foreseen merit in that individual. The Election of one as
opposed to the by-passing of another rests entirely with God,
and is according to his own good pleasure. Moreover, this choice
was made before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).
It is a sovereign act, predetermined without respect to the merit
or demerit of the individual either before or after regeneration.
Limited Atonement signifies
that the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, though sufficient for
all men, is efficacious only for the elect. In the purposes of
God, a full, perfect, and sufficient penal satisfaction for sin
was provided and will be effectively applied only against the
sins of those elected to a saving faith. The sufferings of Christ
were not needlessly expended on behalf of those who the Father
foresaw would not avail themselves of their benefits.
Irresistible Grace indicates
that because the grace of God in electing some to salvation is
sovereign, it is not possible that the elect will effectively
resist his grace. Nevertheless, for reasons known only to Himself,
God may sometimes allow this work of grace seemingly to be delayed.
Perseverance of the Saints denotes
what today is commonly referred to as the eternal security of
the believer. A more suitable expression might be the "Preservation
of the Saints" since this is more precisely what is involved.
The security of the believer is bound in with the sovereignty
of God, the unchangeableness of his purpose, and the constancy
of his good pleasure. It is the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus
Christ and not the faithfulness of the believer that guarantees
Now these Five Points form an organic
unity, a single body of truth. They are based on two presuppositions
which Scripture abundantly supports. The first presupposition
is the complete impotence of man, and the second is the absolute
sovereignty of the grace of God. Everything else follows. The
meeting place of these two foundation truths is the heart of
the Gospel, for it follows that if man is totally depraved, the
grace of God in saving him must of necessity be sovereign. Otherwise,
man will inevitably refuse it in his depravity, and will remain
That man is wholly impotent to
save himself does not signify, however, that he cannot be redeemed.
He is redeemable: he has a capacity for salvation. Man is a redeemable
creature such as no other creature appears to be, whether animal
or angel. He was designed for this. He was fashioned of the
dust of the ground in
human form as an appropriate vessel for the housing of a redeemable
It is clear that as man's body
lay on the ground, awaiting the infusion of a spirit when God
would breathe into his nostrils the breath of life, his body
was wholly unconscious of any need of any such infusion and quite
incapable of either preparing itself to receive it or refuse
it. His inanimate body had an aptitude for spiritual animation
but it was a passive not an active aptitude. This also is the
position of the spiritually dead who thus await the infusion
of new life by a process of re-creation. The spiritually dead
are recipients of a process of re-animation which must be as
wholly a work of God as the infusion of spirit into Adam's body
was. Adam's body could no more prepare itself to become the receptacle
of an animating spirit than the man who is dead in trespasses
and sins can prepare himself as a receptacle for the grace of
God in salvation.
Thus in man's fallen state he is
truly without strength (Romans 5:6), and in no position to prepare
himself for the grace of God. The Westminster Confession
(Article XI.2�5) describes man's situation thus:
Man, in his state of innocence, has freedom
of power to will and to do that which is well pleasing to God.
. . .
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, wholly
lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation;
so that a natural man is dead in sin and is not able by his own
strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself hereunto
When God converteth a sinner and translateth
him into the state of grace he freeth him from his natural bondage
under sin, and by his grace alone enableth him freely to will
. . . that which is spiritually good; yet so as that, by reason
of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only,
will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.
The will of man is made perfectly and immutably
free to good alone, in the state of glory only.
Here we see four
stages. Unfallen man was free to choose either good or evil. Fallen man's
will has become free in one direction only, uni-directionally towards
evil. By his grace, God undoes this uni-directionality of the will and
sets it free again to choose either good or evil. This is the third stage.
But it is not the final stage, for in heaven we shall have a will constitutionally
equipped with the capacity only of willing good. The human will
therefore is capable of operating under four
different conditions: bi-directionally to good or evil as unfallen,
uni-directionally to evil as fallen but unredeemed, bi-directionally to
good or evil as redeemed, and uni-directionally to good only as glorified.
None of us can recover Adam's innocence
even in our redeemed state, for the bi-directionality of our
will is not the same as the bi-directionality of Adam's unfallen
nature. We, the redeemed, still have a bent towards evil in
spite of the liberating
effect of our redemption, a bent which Adam did not have to begin
with. So profoundly has Adam's Fall affected human nature that
even regeneration does not entirely undo it. Not until these
mortal bodies are laid aside, and we are re-housed in a new and
glorious body like the Lord's resurrection body (Philippians
3:21), shall we be finally free. As Paul said in Romans 8:23:
"Ourselves also which have the first fruits of the Spirit,
even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption,
that is, the redemption of our bodies." And Paul has already,
in chapter 7 of Romans, made it clear how much of our spiritual
defeat originates through this defective housing.
We may suppose therefore that the transmission
of the effects of the Fall in Eden has resulted primarily through
the acquisition by natural generation of a defective, corrupted,
mortal body which early in life infects the spirit which it was
designed to house.
Now one's view of the nature of
Original Sin determines one's view of the nature and extent of
man's depravity. For if sin is an inherited disease which is
inescapable and which inevitably bears fruit in the form of sins,
then man is lost indeed so long as he is naturally born. There
is no natural way in which the course of events can be circumvented.
By his disobedience one man, Adam, made human nature sinful;
thereafter human nature has made every man a sinner. We do not
inherit an active sinfulness but we inherit a fatal disease,
the morbid symptoms of which inevitably find expression if we
survive childhood. On the other hand, if, as Pelagius held, sin
is not an inheritable disease but an alien condition acquired
sometime later in life in the process of growing up and as a
result of yielding to temptation, then some men will not be sinful
as soon as others are, because they have been hedged in during
the growing-up process and protected against some of the temptations
which have brought about the downfall of other men. Pelagius
believed that man could be educated into a highly cultured being,
and thus so preserved against failure that, with God's help,
human nature could be humanly perfected. He admitted that God's
help was needed, but he did not mean that this help came by divine
intervention. It came by the illumination of the mind by which
a man would be enabled to emulate the example of Christ and obey
his instructions for living. For this purpose, God had sent his
Son into the world as an example and not as a sacrifice for sin.
Pelagius' thesis was in effect a Christianized humanism. Sin
was thus to be kept out, not merely kept down.
Pelagius viewed each child that
was born as being like unfallen Adam, and that child's subsequent
growth in experience as being like Adam's subsequent temptation
and fall. As Adam might have turned innocence into virtue but
failed to do so by yielding to temptation, so every newborn child
faces the same possibility. Education and culture are the means
whereby innocence might become righteousness. In this sense the
child that sins and
fails to achieve this
desirable goal has sinned "after the similitude of Adam."
It is to combat this vain hope implicit in Pelagianism that Calvinists
are careful to include a statement to the effect that each man
becomes a sinner but not after the similitude of Adam.
We become sinners because we inherit a fatal disease which inevitably
exhibits its characteristic symptoms. We are born with the disease,
or, to put it slightly differently, we are born in SIN
(singular). But we are not born in SINS � an accusation which
the Pharisees wrongly made against a certain man (John 9:34).
On the other hand, the Lord spoke with precision when He told
these same Pharisees that they would die in their SINS (John
8:21). The difference between these two terms, though they look
so similar, is really profound, and it is a difference which
is consistently recognized throughout the New Testament and emphasized
in Paul's epistles. Calvin put the matter this way:
We are not corrupted by an acquired
wickedness but do bring an inborn corruption from the very womb...All
of us, therefore, descending from an impure seed come into the
world tainted with the contagion of sin. (Institutes,
It is noteworthy
that Augustine in his Anti-Pelagian Writings said, "Original
Sin is derived from the faulty condition of the human seed"*
It is even more remarkable that Luther himself attached this
inheritable factor to the male seed, when he wrote: "Through
the fall of Adam SIN entered into the world and all men have
as a result sinned. For the paternal sperm conveys the corruption
from generation to generation". ** It is interesting also
to find that Karl Barth in his Credo claimed that the "sin-inheritance
is transmitted through the male parent only." (1)
My object in
this introduction has been to show that human nature has been
corrupted at its source in such a way that it is incapable of
any kind of self-help. Man is not merely lost and searching consciously
for a way out of his predicament: he is lost so completely that
he can no longer recognize the nature of his lost condition for
what it is.
There are only two basic positions
that one can take in this matter. The first is that man's lost
condition, though severe, is nevertheless only partial, leaving
him with some hope of self-redemption. This self-help may take
the form of active good works, or it may take the form merely
of an earnest desire to be helped, or it may take the form only
of a spirit of non-resistance towards the help that is provided.
But always there is some supposed faint glow in the embers of
man's heart which God uses to fan into a new flame. In the other
view the fire has simply gone out. There is nothing which can
be fanned alight. Which of these two positions one takes determines
* Augustine: "On Marriage and Concupiscence",
Book II, chapter 20 in Anti-Pelagian Writings, vol.5 of
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church,
Buffalo, Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887 , p.290.
** Luther: Luther's Theology, Theodosius Harnack, 1st
edition, Erlangen, 1826-1857; English translation by J. N. Lenker,
1903, vol.10, p.304.
1.Karl Barth: quoted in R. G. Gromacki, The Virgin Birth.
Doctrine of Deity, New York, Thomas Nelson Inc., 1974, p.119.
virtually all else in
one's theology. Do we start with man and some imagined potential
for goodness or do we start with God who must be the author of
salvation in its entirety? Do we start with the effectiveness
of evangelism in generating a responsiveness in man's heart which
then becomes the entree for the grace of God, or do we start
with the sovereign grace of God as the only basis for man's hope?
The Arminian view, and also the view of much modern evangelism,
takes as its starting point the ability of man to respond, making
the assumption that he has at least this much goodness upon which
God can then act. The Calvinist position is that man is completely
dead spiritually and all the initiative must be of God. This
position, I believe, is the biblical one.
It is in this
light that we must consider how and why the Five Points of the
Remonstrance were ordered and arranged as they were, and how
the order of the Calvinist reply differed in its emphasis. The
difference reflects the contrasting importance attached to the
starting point, which in turn reveals much about the attitude
of the two parties in their view of the potential of human nature.
The Arminian Remonstrance attaches prime importance to man's
freedom of will, and insists that he is only partially debased
in his nature. There is a contribution which man must make and
can make before God will act. The Calvinists saw this as a basic
fallacy: man is not free to make such a contribution, being spiritually
dead. Hence while Election was freely admitted by both parties,
it was given first place in the Remonstrance and was presumed
to be based upon God's foreknowledge of man's ability to respond
out of the residual goodness of his heart. For the Calvinist
the starting point for man must always be recognition of his
own total spiritual impotence. The rest of the Points in each
statement are ordered accordingly. In the tabulation which follows
the arrows indicate which Points on each side are actually in
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
Previous Chapter Next Chapter