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.
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.