(Taken from What is a Reformed Church by Malcolm Watts)
The Way of Salvation
In 1618–1619, a General Synod was held at Dordrecht, with representatives (eighty-four in all) from the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, and Switzerland. The Synod began its sessions on November 13, 1618, and, after careful consideration of the Scripture, it dealt with the five articles of the Remonstratns (followers of Arminius), setting forth under five heads the true doctrine of God’s Word. The Synod’s five leading doctrines later became known as the five points of Calvinism. They are usually presented as follows.
As a result of the Fall, people are totally alienated from God, subject to the corrupting power of sin, and in a totally helpless position: “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Such is the human state that people cannot will or do anything spiritual; they certainly cannot believe or repent. Christ said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44), and early Jewish believers recognized that “God [hath] also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). This doctrine does not mean that people are as bad as they can possibly be. Rather, it means that we have been corrupted in the totality of our beings, so that every fac- ulty has been impaired. Mind, heart, and will have all been adversely and tragically affected by sin. We are evidently therefore “without strength” (Rom. 5:6). As Paul made clear in Romans 9, this means that in the matter of salvation, “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (v. 16).
God’s electing of a people is the eternal expression of His mercy and grace. God, who willed to permit the Fall, deter- mined to rescue some from their sin and misery. Had He not done so, the whole human race would have perished under divine judgment like Sodom and Gomorrah (Rom. 9:29). It was therefore an election to salvation. That is exactly what Paul said in his letter to the Thessalonians: “We are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation” (2 Thess. 2:13). This was according to God’s own good plea- sure, not according to anything foreseen in men and women. This is taught in passages of Scripture such as Ephesians 1:5. Elsewhere, the apostle categorically denied that God chooses sinners on the grounds of works foreseen. In Romans 9, for example, he said concerning Jacob and Esau that “the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,” God showed His sovereign preference for Jacob in order that “the purpose of God according to election might stand” (v. 11).
Election is gracious. It is never deserved. God did not foresee that certain individuals would repent and believe, and then upon that basis, elect them to eternal life. That would make His choice dependent upon merit, whereas election is by God’s free favor: “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace” (Rom. 11:5–6). In His eternal decree, God viewed mankind as fallen and ruined. He determined, in His own mind, to show mercy to multitudes, while justly leaving others to the conse- quences of the Fall. Instead of questioning this doctrine, we should fall before the throne in praise and thanksgiving, for if God had not elected some, every single soul would face a dark and fearful eternity. As it is, multitudes upon multitudes will be in the kingdom of heaven, to the glory of sovereign grace!
This point, sometimes called particular atonement, teaches that the Son redeemed those elected by the Father. In other words, Christ did not die for everyone, but only for the chosen people of God. Christ’s own statement was “the good shep- herd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11; see also v. 15). He would never have said that He gives His life for the goats. In Acts 20:28, Paul told the Ephesian elders to look after God’s church, “which he hath purchased with his own blood.” So, what has been bought? What now is the Lord’s special pos- session: the whole human race, or the chosen part of it? The answer to all these questions is—the church!
We are told that the glorified in heaven sing this new song: “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Let me state the obvious. They are not singing that He redeemed every kindred, tongue, people, and nation, but that he redeemed us out of every kindred, tongue, people, and nation. Christ died to save the elect. His was particular redemption.
Since by reason of sin we have lost the ability to will and do any spiritual good, we cannot even answer the call of mercy in the gospel. God therefore calls us not only by His Word, but also by His Spirit, who powerfully draws us to Christ that we might be saved. “No man can come to me,” Jesus said, “except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). As Paul was careful to explain, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling” (Eph. 4:4).
Is the Spirit’s work always effectual? Yes, it certainly is. There is a great verse in Romans which says, “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glo- rified” (8:30). Who, then, are the “called”? Are they all those people who hear the gospel of Christ? No! Looking back, they are those who were predestinated; and looking forward, they are those who will be justified, and ultimately glorified. This calling, peculiar to the elect, is God’s way of saving people in time and for eternity. Accordingly, we find that to be called (in this sense) is nothing more nor less than to be saved. The words are used interchangeably, as in 1 Corinthians 1, where the gospel is said, on the one hand, to be “the power of God” to the “saved,” and on the other hand, “the power of God” to the “called” (vv. 18, 24). The calling is viewed as all one with being brought into a state of salvation, and so the apostle can write in another place: “[God] hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9). How indebted we all are to this sovereign and irresistible call, which does not simply invite, but graciously brings us to Christ!
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress contains a help- ful little illustration. In the Interpreter’s House, Christiana encounters a hen and its chicks. The Interpreter points out that the hen “had a common call, and that she hath all day long”; but he goes on to say that she also “had a special call, and that she had but sometimes” (italics added). We have all observed a mother hen clucking in such a way that her chicks come run- ning to her. This shows us the different ways in which the Lord deals with men and women. When He calls in a general way in the gospel, sinners will not come to Him, but when He calls them effectually by His Spirit, they come running, to find their refuge under the shadow of His wings. As Bunyan’s Interpreter says, “by his common call he gives nothing,” whereas “by his special call, he always has something to give.”1
Perseverance of the Saints
True believers will never totally or finally fall away. They will continue in faith and holiness to the end of their lives. “The righteous also shall hold on his way, and he that hath clean hands shall be stronger and stronger” (Job 17:9). This is not because of anything in them. Rather, it is because God will carry on the work of grace to completion: “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day ofJesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). God has no intention of abandon- ing His people, nor of forsaking the work of His hands. “The author” of their faith will also be its “finisher” (Heb. 12:2). Why? Because “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). God does not bestow grace for a temporary purpose. He will never withdraw it and leave a soul to perish. Believers are therefore eternally safe and secure. Christ said, “I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
God’s Covenant of Grace
A Reformed church understands that a covenant is at the heart of God’s relationship with man. Therefore, Reformed churches emphasize the unfolding and developing of God’s covenant of grace. John Murray called covenant theology “a distinguishing feature of the reformed tradition.”16
Biblically speaking, a covenant is an arrangement into which God enters for the benefit of men and women. The Reformers recognized the importance of this concept, and made free use of it in their sermons and writings.
The Covenants of Works and Grace
There are two covenants that relate to eternal life. They are usually referred to as the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, the former being that bond established with Adam, the representative of mankind, and the latter being the bond established from eternity with the Son of God, the representative and surety of God’s elect.
Read Part 3 next week.