The last post looked at how the Canons of Dort indicate that God regenerates people – makes them alive – with the result that they turn to Christ in faith. How do we know if it happens in us, and how can we be used by God in the process of regenerating sinners? This section of the Canons of Dort discusses those questions by noting there is mystery, but also stating that there are some things we can understand and apply to our lives.
Article 13 of Points 3 and 4 explicitly highlights that there is mystery in God’s work of regeneration. “In this life believers cannot fully understand the way this work occurs; meanwhile, they rest content with knowing and experiencing that, by this grace of God, they do believe with the heart and love their Savior” (3/4.13). While not quoting John 3 here, the Canons recall what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit and the wind — we can’t see or understand it, but we can see the results. We might not be able to understand how God regenerates sinners, but we can experience it and see its effects, which should cause us to rest assured that God has renewed us and saved us. But we also know that God works in secret ways and we are not able to discern why and how (and in whom) He works. We are reminded of this mystery in Article 7, “In the Old Testament, God revealed this secret of his will to a small number; in the New Testament (now without any distinction between peoples) God discloses it to a large number. The reason for this difference must not be ascribed to the greater worth of one nation over another, or to a better use of the light of nature, but to the free good pleasure and undeserved love of God. Therefore, those who receive so much grace, beyond and in spite of all they deserve, ought to acknowledge it with humble and thankful hearts. On the other hand, with the apostle they ought to adore (but certainly not inquisitively search into) the severity and justice of God’s judgments on the others, who do not receive this grace” (3/4.7). We can’t understand, but we can adore God for what He does.
While Article 13 points out mystery in terms of regeneration, Article 17 highlights the means by which God typically does this work. “Just as the almighty work by which God brings forth and sustains our natural life does not rule out but requires the use of means, by which God, according to his infinite wisdom and goodness, has wished to exercise that divine power, so also the aforementioned supernatural work by which God regenerates us in no way rules out or cancels the use of the gospel, which God in great wisdom has appointed to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul. For this reason, the apostles and the teachers who followed them taught the people in a godly manner about this grace of God, to give God the glory and to humble all pride, and yet did not neglect meanwhile to keep the people, by means of the holy admonitions of the gospel, under the administration of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline” (3/4.17). The Canons here note that God uses the preaching of the Word of God, the sacraments, and even discipline to regenerate people. This is the reminder that the Spirit uses God’s Word, not our techniques or ways of communication. We must never trust in methods to bring about faith in people but rather the Word of God. The Canons don’t just speak about these means but also how we should respond to knowing this is how God typically brings about regeneration and, as a result, faith. “So even today it is out of the question that the teachers or those taught in the church should presume to test God by separating what God in his good pleasure has wished to be closely joined together. For grace is bestowed through admonitions, and the more readily we perform our duty, the more lustrous the benefit of God working in us usually is, and the better that work advances. To God alone, both for the means and for their saving fruit and effectiveness, all glory is owed forever. Amen” (3/4.17).
Because this is how God brings about the work of regeneration, we should be committed to proclaiming God’s Word both in worship gatherings and in our daily living. As the Canons note , there is a real call to believe when the gospel is preached; it is to be an urgent call. “Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called earnestly. For urgently and most genuinely God makes known in the Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to God. God also earnestly promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who do come and believe” (3/4.8). At times, people will hear this truth and be “cut to the heart.” God will work in their hearts and they will respond with repentance and belief, and in so doing, they are saved.
May we be thankful both for God’s Word in our hearts and also that God can use our words in proclaiming the gospel message to bring about new life in others. May we see the Word of God not as words on a page but as God’s means to bring sinners to repentance and belief, to bring sinners to salvation. We know that discipline can also do that, as pointing out someone’s sin in a loving way can bring them to the grace of God. James 5:19-20 says, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (ESV).
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