The Canons of Dort: No Line Between 'Deserving' and 'Undeserving'

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You might think that the Canons of Dort would be very barren ground indeed for this series. Our other standards range widely across many topics, so issues of doing justice arise more readily, both directly and by inference. The Canons, though, are focused on just one thing: combatting the five points raised by the Remonstrants, the followers of Jacobus Arminius, on the doctrine of election. If you are looking for an article in the Canons that says very directly, ‘Here is what it means for us to do justice!’ you won’t find one. I also suspect that many folks might think that the only ‘justice’ issue in the Canons is not about us doing justice, but whether God is doing justice in his eternal electing decree. Unpacking that would be another post for another time, but there is more than we might think in the Canons to help us to reflect on why and how believers are called to do justice.

This means that sin – and therefore injustice — runs through each one of us and our church communities too.

For a start, the Canons are very clear and forthright about why this is necessary in the first place: sin. Sin infects and affects every human being and everything that human beings do (III/IV, 1-3). Injustice is the inevitable consequence of that, on an individual level and in our systems and structures. We are born into the web of everyone else’s sinful choices, and our own inclination away from God means that we will inevitably contribute to that web. Believers are not exempt. We will not be free from the effects of sin until we are with the Lord (V). This means that sin — and therefore injustice — runs through each one of us and our church communities too, and through all of our attempts to discern injustice in our world and how to combat it. It’s rather depressing, but it’s the reality. The sober realism about sin in the Canons helps to keep us very honest about ourselves, as well as about justice issues, and helps to explain why discerning what doing justice means, actually seeking to do it, and then encouraging others to join us, can be such hard work a lot of the time.

But the Canons also indicate that the desire to do what we might call ‘civic good’ is planted deep in what it means to be human. Unbelievers and believers alike share some sense of right and wrong, and want to at least appear to be doing the right thing. No surprises that the Canons are also predictably — and scripturally — pessimistic about the extent of this. For a start, civic good is not saving good, and then, everything that any person attempts will be tainted by sin and misdirected to some extent (III/IV, 4). Even so, a shared awareness of injustice can be common ground for Christians and non-Christians as we seek to discern and do what is right.

The scriptures are clear that God requires us to seek justice, even when it involves those who might appear to us to be ‘aliens’ or ‘enemies.’

And here’s another inference we can draw from the Canons when it comes to doing justice. The Canons remind us that election is founded on God’s sovereign grace and not based on who might seem (to us) to be ‘better’ or ‘more deserving’ (I, 7). We can never, ever say of any individual, or of any particular group of people, that they cannot be saved. This is why the Canons insist that we must proclaim Christ indiscriminately to everyone (II, 5). I think that this can help us to realize that neither are we allowed to decide for ourselves that this kind of person but not that kind of person deserves justice. Justice isn’t only for those who are Christians, or those who belong to communities that make us feel comfortable. The scriptures are clear that God requires us to seek justice, even when it involves those who might appear to us to be ‘aliens’ or ‘enemies.’

Election in the Canons is never an excuse for an apathetic superiority complex, and it is never simply seen as a ticket to eternal life.

The Canons only focus on a few disputed issues. There are many other aspects of the biblical witness to election that encourage us to do justice for all people (and also, for that matter, to do right by the whole of God’s creation). But here’s one final encouragement specifically from the Canons. They are clear that those who, by the gracious gift of God, come to saving faith in Christ, are also being transformed by the Spirit in Christ-likeness, and are earnestly seeking to live accordingly (V, 12-13; Rejection of Errors VI). Election in the Canons is never an excuse for an apathetic superiority complex, and it is never simply seen as a ticket to eternal life. Election in Christ by the Spirit means a lifetime of working out what it means to honor and glorify the Father. We have the strong mandate of the word of God written and the Word of God incarnate that doing justice is not an optional extra in that regard, but is one essential aspect of what it means to live in step with God and for the coming kingdom.

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Thanks Suzanne, for your interesting article on the Canons of Dort.  You are right, that there is little in the Canons that teach us about human justice.  The subject is about God, and not so much about whether he is just, but whether he has a right to choose some for salvation and not others.  Even being image bearers of God, according to the Bible, the Canons do not give humans a good example of justice to follow in the example of God.

What surprises me about the Canons is that they say little or nothing about a double predestination but if anything take an infralapsarian view of God’s electing purposes.  The Canons take a position that God did not cause the non elect to fall, but that he simply allowed the fall according to his permissive will rather than his decretive will.  So although he allowed the fall and its results, he did not cause it. 

But that is playing loose and free with the Bible’s teachings.  Doesn’t the apostle Paul, in Romans, teach that God credited all of Adam’s posterity with Adam’s original sin, as well as his sinful nature?  If everyone comes to life with Adam’s sin already credited to them, isn’t that in effect God determining all of humanity to be sinners before they are born or have acted?  If all people come into human existence with a fallen human nature, a natural inclination to sin, doesn’t that insure that all will reach God’s determined destination of eternal damnation?  That hardly seems to be an expression of justice, but rather a miscarriage of justice.  So if as you say, “Sin infects and affects every human being and everything that human beings do,” then it is God who has caused humans to act in such a sinful way, part of his predestined plan.  Double predestination is clearly taught in the Bible. The authors of the Canon, simply could not bring themselves to acknowledge the Bible teaching a God that is both the author of good and evil.