THE PIETY OF (THE SYNOD OF) DORT by Joel Beeke

Calvin, Calvinism, and, by extension, the premier Reformed confession that codifies a cogent summary of the Reformed doctrine of salvation—the Canons of Dort––are often regarded by the uninformed as cold, harsh, and sterile. Such people view ideas such as depravity, election, reprobation, and “limited” atonement as burdensome and fatalistic teachings that hinder believers from enjoying their relationship with God. Such doctrines are alleged to destroy human responsibility, promote false security, hinder evangelism and missions, and discourage good works and genuine piety.

Those who take the time to read Calvin, the Reformers, and the Canons of Dort know these charges are false. Piety (pietas) is one of the major themes of Calvin and Calvinism. Calvin states in the preface of his Institutes of the Christian Religion that his purpose in writing this systematic theology was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched by any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness [pietas].” John McNeill rightly argued that Calvin’s theology is “his piety described at length.”

For Calvin, the best Old Testament description of piety is “the fear of the Lord,” and the best New Testament word is “godliness.” In sum, for Calvin, piety designates a reverential attitude of the heart toward God, which involves true knowledge, saving faith, heartfelt love, thankful adoration, filial fear, and self-denying submission to His will. From this attitude toward God flows a host of additional fruits in the lives of the truly pious.

We will examine five of these marks of true piety as presented in the Canons of Dort: relishing theocentricity, cultivating assurance of faith, exercising Christ-centered doxology, practicing daily humility and thanksgiving, and pursuing comprehensive holiness.

THEOCENTRICITY

True piety is God-centered, not man-centered. That theocentricity is abundantly evident in the Canons of Dort. The canons place God at the center of the whole of theology and at the center of life itself. God is the eternal and almighty Lord of all, and especially Lord over life’s primary concern: deliverance or redemption from our sins and misery. The canons present the work of redemption in a Trinitarian form.

The Father is the focus of the first head (or chapter) of doctrine, “Of Divine Predestination,” which treats election and reprobation. God’s justice and mercy are at the center of His plan of salvation. God would have been just to condemn everyone to hell, since we are all sinners, but in His love and mercy, He determined to save those sinners whom He “chose . . . to redemption in Christ” (article I.7). “Others are passed by . . . whom God . . . hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves” (article I.15). Both election and reprobation are sovereign decrees, but the former is always gracious and undeserved while the latter is always just and well deserved. On judgment day, those condemned to hell will be compelled to agree that they deserve this punishment, while those received into heaven will freely confess that they do not deserve this redemption. Since all the issues of salvation are entirely worked out in God’s eternal plan, the canons encourage us to praise God for the certainty and comprehensiveness of our salvation in Christ.

Relishing the triune God’s work of salvation for us and in us ought to move us to genuine piety.

The incarnate Son of God and His atoning work are the focus of the second head of doctrine. This head asserts the infinite value of Christ’s atoning death and affirms that to redeem the elect, He has fully satisfied God’s justice. Since Christ has fulfilled all righteousness through His active obedience to the law and His passive obedience in suffering and dying for hell-worthy sinners, the salvation of the elect is fully accomplished in Him and His redemptive work, so that “we might be made the righteousness of God in [Christ]” (2 Cor. 5:21, KJV here and throughout).

The Holy Spirit fulfills the Father’s plan by applying the Son’s saving work to the elect. The combined heads III and IV unpack the Spirit’s work in making the elect sinner a new creation in Christ Jesus through regeneration and sanctification. The fifth head shows the Spirit’s work in enabling the elect to persevere in faith and grace all their lives and to grow in personal assurance of salvation.

Relishing the triune God’s work of salvation for us and in us ought to move us to genuine piety, as we thank, praise, and glorify Him for such a “great salvation” (Heb. 2:3). The triune God is the friend (not the enemy) of sinners. Without His saving work, none would ever be saved.

ASSURANCE OF FAITH

The canons set forth another hallmark of piety: cultivation of personal assurance of faith. Article I.12 shows the intimate link between divine election and human assurance: “The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election.” Election is God’s pledge to the believer that he is safe in God’s arms. That persuasion is buttressed by faith in God’s promises, the Spirit’s testimony, and gracious fruits in believers’ lives (article V.10). Such assurance affords unspeakable comfort and gives rise to spiritual joy, holy delight, profound humility, and renewed desires to be more holy and to work at cultivating that holiness (article I.13).

CHRIST-CENTERED DOXOLOGY

Under head II, the canons maintain that while Christ’s death is of “infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” (article II.3), God determined that Christ’s death would efficaciously atone only for the sins of the elect (article II.8). The canons ground this important “sufficiency/efficiency” distinction in the Bible’s assertion of the freedom and good pleasure of God: “The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election” (article I.18). Hence, “To those who murmur at the free grace of election and just severity of reprobation, we answer with the apostle: ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?’ (Rom. 9:20)” (article I.18).

The elect believer responds to Christ’s costly and efficacious atonement with Christ-centered doxology and heartfelt worship, adoring the Bridegroom as an unworthy bride. This precious doctrine of limited atonement or particular redemption comforts the members of the living, invisible church by reassuring them that Christ has purchased His bride with His very own blood. Therefore, as Cornelis Venema writes, the key notes of the canons are “praise toward the Triune God for His amazing, undeserved grace in Christ, and a remarkable confidence in His invincible favor” (article I.17).


DAILY HUMILITY AND THANKSGIVING

The believer’s assurance of his election instills abiding and ever-increasing humility and promotes thankfulness: “The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him, who first manifested so great love towards them” (article I.13). The canons allege that if election were conditioned even in part on something the believer accomplished in his own strength, humility would be lost and pride would gain the upper hand. But since salvation is entirely of God’s sovereign, electing grace, and not based on anything God foresaw in man, humility and thanksgiving are the only appropriate responses (article III–IV.15).

COMPREHENSIVE HOLINESS

The canons present sin as life’s greatest problem. Natural, sinful man is born with “blindness of mind” and is “impure in his affections” (article III–IV.1). As natural as it was for man to be holy pre-fall, so it is natural for him to be unholy post-fall. As a blind, impure sinner by nature, he cannot believe and be saved.

Happily, the canons also present God’s sovereign remedy for man’s utter ruin in sin: the Holy Spirit’s renewing a person’s will in regeneration, which results in returning to God in faith and repentance. From the moment of regeneration to the end of his days, the believer pursues holiness in every area of his life, despite his ongoing battles against sin. The canons recognize, especially in head V, that this battle is severe, and there are no shortcuts from sin to glory and no promises of freedom from tribulations in this life.

Happily, the canons also affirm that the Christian is not alone in his arduous pursuit of comprehensive holiness. The Holy Spirit enables him to persevere in faith and holiness, for He uses “the Word, sacraments, and discipline” to restore God’s erring children and build them up in grace by making them more holy (articles III–IV.17; V. 14). All of this is supported by constancy “in prayer and other exercises of godliness” (rejection of error V.6). Over time, their increasing assurance and ongoing perseverance in faith encourage this comprehensive pursuit of holiness (articles I.13; V.12), which in turn makes them active in evangelizing and witnessing for Christ’s cause.

Church history affirms the truth of the canons’ evangelistic impulse for the cause of Christ. As W. Robert Godfrey concludes:

The theology of the Canons did not bludgeon the Reformed community into inaction but rather armed the Reformed church with the whole counsel of God. Strengthened with a confidence in God taught in the Canons, Reformed Christians became the most dynamic and effective witnesses to Christ in Europe.

TRUE PIETY

The Canons of Dort show consistently, painstakingly, and persuasively that the doctrines of the Reformed faith promote rather than hinder authentic Christian piety. This is summarized well in article V.13:

This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary, it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God; [and serves] as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works.

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