But for the Grace of God – The Significance of the Canons of Dort for Today: Reformed Evangelism

In several previous articles on the Canons of Dort. I have referred to the implications of its confession of God’s sovereign grace in the salvation of His people for the preaching of the gospel today. However, these references were largely incidental to my purpose which was to summarize the teaching of the confession and to show its Biblical basis.

Having presented the historical background to the Synod of Dort and summarized the Canons’ five main points of doctrine. I would like in this and subsequent articles to address the issue of “the significance of the Canons of Dort for today.” How does this confession answer to the need of Reformed churches in their present circumstances?

It would be enough, of course, to argue that, because the Canons set forth Biblical truth on the fundamental points of God’s sovereign election and man’s sinful, needy condition, they are inherently of abiding significance for the church of Jesus Christ, Since the Canons are addressed to that which is most basic to the gospel, it would be adequate to conclude simply that this is the message which the church of Jesus Christ must herald to the nations until Christ comes again! This gospel does not need to be made relevant it is the only thing that answers to the sinner’s need before the face of God.



However, it must be admitted that for many, even for some who call themselves “Reformed,” the presumption is that the Canons have outlived their usefulness. Though they may be true. they do not address the questions of the present age. Furthermore. since they have a somewhat polemical cast. they do not serve the ecumenical objectives of an age which prefers peace to controversy and exalts tolerance as a virtue above commitment to the truth of God’s Word. The Canons of Dort are an antiquated confession, arising out of particular circumstances and issues which the churches confronted in a bygone period. But they no longer speak in a fresh and compelling way to the needs of the contemporary church. For this reason, it becomes necessary to comment on what I regard to be the Canons’ obvious significance for the church today.


One issue of compelling interest has to do with the significance of the Canons for the evangelistic calling of the church of Jesus Christ. As I have acknowledged in previous articles, there have been many in the history of the churches who have argued that the Canons’ emphasis upon God’s sovereign grace tends to undermine the urgency and impetus for the missionary calling of the church.

The argument goes something like this. If God is sole Author of our salvation, if redemption is His work from first to last—He sovereignly elects. provides atonement through Christ, calls irresistibly through the gospel. and preserves the believer in the way of salvation—then there is no place for human responsibility. An emphasis upon sovereign election leads inevitably to fatalism or passivism. To stress the invincible grace of God in the salvation of His people tends to minimize the Indispensable place of the church in preaching the gospel to the lost and gathering them into the fellowship of Christ’s church. If God will unfailingly secure the salvation of the elect. then the church is permitted to become complacent and inactive in the prosecution of her mission.

Though, as we shall see in a moment, this is a profound misunderstandIng of our confession of God’s sovereign grace, it must be admitted that some supposed adherents of the Canons’ teaching have lent support to this argument by adopting a passive and irresponsible approach to evangelism. I can recall well the comment of a parishioner in a Reformed congregation I served who lamented any sustained attention to and emphasis upon the church’s evangelistic calling by remarking. “But pastor. the doors of our church are not closed; if anyone wants to come, he is free to come.” The point of his remark, apparently, was that God would find a way to bring His own into the church and under the preaching of the gospel. But the church has no particular calling in this respect. The church does not have to instruct her members in the task of evangelism. or labor to bring the gospel to the lost. God would see to it that the elect were saved!

This argument—that the teaching of the Canons is a hindrance to evangelism—also appeals to their insistence that Christ died only for His own bride, not for all men without exception. As we saw in the article on “particular redemption,” this. it is alleged, prevents the minister of the gospel from genuinely calling everyone to faith and repentance. The preaching of the gospel is unnecessarily cramped and limited in its application. since Christ’s atoning work provides for the salvation of the elect alone. The evangelist, the preacher of the gospel. is therefore without authorization In saying to all men without distinction. “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” or “God loves you and Christ died for you.”1


How shall we answer this objection? I believe we should answer it by insisting that the Canons, far from being a hindrance to evangelism, are an impetus to evangelism, but an evangelism of a distinctively Reformed type. Though it is true that some Reformed churches have been disobedient to their evangelistic calling (to their shame). it is not true that this disobedience is born out of their confessIon in the Canons. The reasons for the lethargy and passivity of some Reformed churches in respect to the task of evangelism are probably many.2 It is not my purpose here to discover what they might be. But it is my purpose to defend the confession in the Canons from the false charge of those who would cite it as among those reasons.

In my judgment, the Canons provide an impetus for an evangelism that is Reformed (Biblical) in its authorship, Reformed in its method and Reformed in its aim.

Reformed in its Authorship

When I say that the Canons provide for an evangelism that is Reformed in its authorship, I mean to emphasize that the work of evangelism is not firstly the church’s or our work; it is the Triune God’s work! Typically, when we approach the subject of evangelism, preaching the gospel to the world and gathering Christ’s flock. we take an activistic posture and approach. We act as though the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has done His part, and now it falls to us to do what remains! God makes provision for the salvation of men; the church is called to do the saving! At the risk of reinforcing the charge that we Reformed people are passive when it comes to the work of evangelism, I would insist that this is a profoundly unbiblical view of evangelism. Indeed, it is an Arminian view which threatens to restrict God to the role of a hapless bystander or spectator in the salvation of His people.

Biblically speaking, we must always act out of the confidence, even boldness, of knowing that God the Father authored the evangelistic task of the church in His sovereign decision to save His elect; that God the Son provided a sure basis for the salvation of the elect in His perfect work of atonement; and that God the Holy Spirit invincibly applies that salvation to the hearts and minds of believers through the gospel. The Triune God authors and effects salvation; the Triune God therefore authors and effects the work of evangelism.

It is striking how this is underscored in the accounts in the book of Acts of the growth of the church after Pentecost. At the end of Acts 2, in his description of the church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. Luke notes that “the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (vs. 47). In Acts 6:7, it is the Word of the Lord which is said to “keep on spreading” so that the number of the disciples “continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem” (compare Acts 12:24, “But the Word of the Lord continued to grow and be multiplied”). When the apostle Peter reported to the church in Jerusalem the repentance and faith of the Gentiles, the church “glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 13:18).3

This is the special contribution of the Canons of Dort to the church’s understanding of her evangelistic task. Nowhere in the church’s confessions do we find a more eloquent affirmation of the great evangelistic work of our Triune God who gathers His people to Himself through the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Reformed in its method

I hasten, however, to add that this great work of evangelism, authored and effected by the Triune God, is also the special responsibility and calling of the church of Jesus Christ. Christ gathers His people by His Spirit and Word in the unity of the true faith. Therefore. the church has been entrusted under Christ and empowered by the Spirit ofPentecost to discharge faithfully her stewardship of the gospel. To the whole church has been given the mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19; compare Mark 16:15). to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins to all the nations (Luke 24:47). TheTriune God uses means to bring His people to salvation. And the church of Jesus Christ is, through the ministry of the gospel, the means He is pleased to use.

All of this has profound implications for the method of evangelism. If the work of evangelism is God’s work, and if He is pleased to effect it through the ministry of the church. then the church must carry out her task in scrupulous conformity to God’s chosen means, This is the great implication of God’s authorship of the salvation of His people: evangelism must be done in accord with the design and pattern set down by God Himself.

In the Scriptures, it is clear that God is pleased to bring His people to salvation by means of the foolishness of the preaching (I Cor. 1:18–25; 2:1–5). Not by might, not by power. but by the Spirit working through the Word does God give new birth to His people (James I: 18: I Peter 1:23–25). As the apostle Paul declares in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” Or again. as he argues in Romans 10: “‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (vss. 13–14,17). Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, calling men and women to true faith and genuine repentance—this is the God-ordained instrument which is powerful to save all those whom Christ is gathering into the church. Though this might foolishness and weakness to the world (also to the church to the extent that it has been intoxicated by the world!), to the believer it is the wisdom and power of God!

Among many evangelical churches in North America, however, there has developed a kind of “method-ism” or fascination with a variety of strategies or devIces thought to be useful to effect the salvation of the lost. Just as there is an Arminianism of confession, there is also an Arminianism of method. Because the salvation of people depends finally upon some human power or means of persuasion. not the sovereign working of God through the gospel, methods have been devised which are accommodated to the desires and wishes of the natural man and are thought to hold greater promise of success than the simple preaching of the gospel unto faith and repentance. Churches therefore are frantically casting about for some new method or approach that will prove more effective in gathering people into the fellowship of the church.

The only antidote to this Arminianism of method in evangelism is a Reformed evangelism which. rooted in a confession of God’s sovereign grace, is content to carry out the task in God’s chosen manner.

Reformed in its aim

Not only do the Canons remind us of the true authorship and appropriate means of evangelism, but they also keep in proper perspective the aim or objective of Biblical evangelism.

Reading many books on the subject and observing much of what is called “evangelism” in the churches today would suggest that the sole aim is to gather as many people as possible into the fellowship of local churches by whatever means seems to work. The primary, even exclusive, aim seems to be growth in numbers.

Now I do not wish to minimize the importance of “saving the lost” or reaching as many as possible with the gospel. Clearly, these are, in proper Biblical perspective. legitimate aims of the church’s evangelistic work. Christ Himself followed by the example of the apostle Paul, was clearly moved with compassion toward the multitudes who were like sheep without a shepherd (compare Matt. 10:36; Rom. 9:3). Christ’s heart was not indifferent to the unbelief and impenitence of the people of Israel. Furthermore, the gospel makes clear that God’s purpose includes the provision of an atonement for a great multitude who are being saved (Rev. 5:9). It is a misreading of Scripture to treat God’s love for His people and provision in Christ for their redemption as though it were narrowly constricted in its extent. There is no place in Reformed churches for the idea that failure in gathering believers into the church is an evidence of faithfulness! Nor is there any place for churches composed of believers who are smugly content with the gospel “for themselves,” but neglect to see to it that it is communicated to others. Nor is there place for a neglect of emphasis upon the genuine growth of the congregation, both in numbers and in depth of knowledge and insight. However, missing from much of the contemporary discussion and approach to evangelism is an emphasis upon the chief, the primary aim—the glorification of God in the salvation and service of His people. This is why the end never justifies the means in evangelism! How is God glorified in an evangelism which minimizes the preaching of the whole gospel, the call to faith and repentance, and employs a laundry list of gimmicks and strategies which may be effective in drawing a crowd but woefully inadequate to the conversion of sinners! The purpose of evangelism is to gather men and women into the fellowship of the church, making disciples of the nations, bringing them under the dominion of Christ and His Word. And in so doing God is glorified: His saving grace is magnified; His kingdom comes.

Reformed evangelism, accordingly, is always careful to preach the gospel in the manner God has prescribed. It will never succumb to expediency in order to be “effective” in reaching large numbers, certainly not when this dishonors the majesty and glory of God.

What about “seeker” services?

In order to make more concrete the significance of the Canons for a Reformed approach to evangelism, one contemporary example of a non-Reformed and unbiblical approach may be useful.

Among the myriad of methods and devices fashioned by the modern evangelical church in North America to reach the lost. one of the more recent and influential is what is termed the “seeker service.” Developed initially by Rev. Bill Hybels, pastor of one of the largest and most rapidly growing churches in America. this method uses a special service geared particularly, even exclusively, to the needs and circumstances of “seekers.” “Seekers” are people who are not committed disciples of Jesus Christ and members of a local fellowship of believers. They may or may not be well acquainted with the teaching of the gospel or the Word of God. They are often distrustful of “organized religion,” and may be turned off by the traditional ways of the church. Nevertheless, they are still open to the gospel and the ministry of the church to some extent; they are “seekers” who may be attracted to a special service of the church, provided it is especially sensitive to their needs and circumstances.

“Seeker’s services,” in this setting, are not worship services so much as special gatherings in which everything is done so as to present the gospel in a non-offensive or threatening fashion. The songs sung are typically contemporary choruses; the use of contemporary instruments. gospel singing troupes, and the like, is prevalent; “sermons” are not preached, but something called a “teaching” is presented; the “seeker” is not offended by being told he is a sinner in need of Christ, who must believe on His name and turn in repentance from sin; the sacraments are not administered; often evangelical celebrities are given a place of prominence: the service is offered at a convenient time and place; and every feature of the church’s traditional worship that might be uncomfortable or difficult or liable to “turn off” the visitor Is scrupulously avoided. This, in a general sort of way, is one of the newest methods being touted as an effective evangelistic tool.

What are we to make of this? Is this an approach which is in keeping with the evangelistic calling and work of the church of Jesus Christ?

In my view it is clearly not an approach that fits within the Biblical and Reformed understanding of evangelism. However praiseworthy the motive and however legitimate the desire to remove any unnecessary obstacle to the hearing of the gospel, this method, like so many others, does not act in good Biblical faith. That is to say, it does not proceed from the confident conviction that the Triune God who is pleased to save His people Is able and willing to do so only through the faithful ministry of the Word of the gospel! This approach substitutes for the preaching of the gospel the titillation and entertainment of the seeker. Or, to put it differently, this approach proceeds from the assumption that the seeker knows what he wants and needs, and it is the duty of the church to provide him the same.

However, in a Biblically Reformed evangelism, the church proceeds upon the assumption that only God knows the sinner’s need and only God has provided an answer for that need. In a Biblical setting, the church Is never afraid to preach the gospel promiscuously to every one, with the same message and the same requirement of faith and repentance. Patiently, confidently, prayerfully—a Reformed church will preach the gospel. She will do so, without apology, knowing that God will achieve His saving purpose by these means—to His glory, not ours!


1. This was the argument of Professor Harold Dekker of CoMn Seminary in the so-called “love of God” controversy in the Christian Reformed Church In the 1960’s. As I have previously noted, the first of these two declarations is Biblical, the second is not.

2. Though it is permissible to look for a possible cause of this neglect of evangelism in the confessions of the Reformed churches, the connection needs to be demonstrated. In my Judgment, the connection has not been demonstrated, and the reasons for some churches’ neglect of the work of evangelism must be sought elsewhere. Moreover, it is not true that the Reformed churches throughout their history hove been slack in fulfilling the Great Commission; many of them hove been in the forefront of proclaiming the message of salvation to the nations.

3. Harry Boer, in his book, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmons, 1961), rightly argued that, in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit Is the primary Author of the evangelism of the church. The Great Commission, without the empowerment and working of the Spirit through the ministry of the Word, was not a sufficient basis of the church’s mission. This is also well expressed in Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “That the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life….”

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Orange City. lA.