But for the Grace of God – The Significance of the Canons of Dort for Today: Sovereign Grace, Human Responsibility and “Cheap Grace”

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1–2)

As these well-known words of the apostle Paul imply, it is possible to conclude wrongly from the teaching that we are saved by grace alone, that it doesn’t matter then how we live. If God’s grace fully answers to our need as sinners, if we do not have to add anything to it to complete our salvation, then we are free to revel in salvation as God’s gift, without worrying about how we live in response to this gift. We can bask safely in the sunshine of God’s favor and grace, without having to live in obedience to His commandments. Indeed, we can continue to sin with impunity, knowing that this will only magnify the largeness of God’s grace. The greater our sin, the greater God’s grace!

Not only were there apparently some in the church at Rome whom the apostle feared would wrongly draw this conclusion, but there have also been those who have done so throughout the history of the church. In the period of the Reformation, one of the most common complaints against the Reformer’s teaching of salvation by grace alone was the alleged consequence of this teaching for the Christian life. Luther and Calvin were frequently charged with undermining any legitimate motive for or interest in pursuing a godly, sanctified life. After all—so it was alleged against their teaching—what good are good works, when they do not purchase so much as an iota of our salvation! If good works do not contribute anything, if they do not merit even the slightest part of our salvation, then the sinner will be inclined to sin that grace might abound.



This common complaint against the Reformer’s teaching has also been leveled against the teaching of the Canons of Dort. Sometimes it takes a rather general form, and it is argued that God’s sovereignty in grace is incompatible with an emphasis upon human responsibility. At other times it takes a more specific form, and it is maintained that an emphasis upon the sovereign grace of God makes the believer irresponsible and careless in the Christian life. Sovereign grace easily becomes “cheap grace,” a grace that comes free of charge and without any corresponding obligation to obedience.


Most Reformed believers have a first-hand acquaintance with the argument that, to stress God’s sovereign initiative and work in the salvation of His people, threatens to undercut the need for a proper human response to the gospel. This argument was certainly prominent in the Arminian position, to which the Canons of Dort sought to provide a Biblical answer.

In its extreme form; this argument likens the Canon’s position on unconditional election, particular redemption, irresistible grace, total depravity and the perseverance of the saints, to treating sinners like “blocks of wood” pushed and pulled about by God’s sovereign will. In this caricature of the Canons, it is suggested that they teach a doctrine in which sinners are either compelled to enter or, alternatively, prevented from entering the kingdom against their wills! Furthermore, sinners are kept within or excluded from the grace of God, regardless of their conduct or walk before the Lord. This reduces the role of the believer to that of a mere puppet in the hands of God.

Because the Canons ascribe the whole of our redemption to God’s gracious initiative and provision in Christ, Arminians have insisted that they do not leave room for the free and lively involvement of sinners in their coming to and continuance in the way of salvation. In their view, unless God’s election is “conditional” upon the believer’s own self-willed response to the call of the gospel to faith and repentance, we cannot escape a kind of determinism which removes the seriousness of the gospel’s call and undermines the responsibility of the believer.

What, advocates of this claim ask, prevents the Canons’ insistence upon God’s sovereign election and grace from belittling the responsibility of sinners to answer the gospel call in faith and repentance? Doesn’t this insistence reduce the believer’s role to that of a passive bystander in the work of salvation? Just as the authors of the Canons feared the Arminian position would make God an inactive bystander at the critical juncture of the believer’s response to the gospel, so the Arminians feared the Calvinist position would reduce the sinner to an inactive recipient of the grace of God.


This argument often takes the specific form that an emphasis upon sovereign grace cheapens the grace of God by treating it as though it were a gift, freely given and without strings attached. Since the whole of our salvation is God’s doing, and since there is no place for merit in the obtaining of God’s free gifts, there is really no incentive for responsible Christian conduct. The authors of the Canons of Dort were well aware of this charge against their teaching. In the conclusion of the Canons, “Rejection of False Accusations,” they acknowledge that there are those who insist:

…that this teaching makes people carnally self-assured, since it persuades them that nothing endangers the salvation of the chosen, no matter how they live, so that they may commit the most outrageous crimes with self-assurance; and that on the other hand nothing is of use to the reprobate for salvation even if they have truly performed all the works of the saints.

This charge is really a different form of the issue considered in our previous article, whether an emphasis upon the gracious work of God in the salvation of His elect people undermines the missionary activity and calling of the church.

Perhaps the force of this charge is best illustrated by a story told about a certain Lutheran minister of the gospel.1 This minister of the gospel, when asked on his death bed whether he had the assurance of salvation, is said to have replied triumphantly, “Oh yes, I cannot ever remember having done a single good work!” The point of the story seems to be that an emphasis upon salvation by grace alone is a kind of double-edged sword. On the one hand, it permits the believer to found all of his confidence upon God’s grace alone and not on his good works. And on the other hand, it removes any real urgency to live a life of good works. Why not sin, in order that grace may abound! Why not “sin boldly,” even recklessly, since God’s grace is freely given and freely received!


It is interesting to observe that a controversy has arisen among the evangelical churches in North America, sometimes termed the “lordship salvation” controversy, that has striking parallels with these historic debates about God’s sovereign grace and human responsibility, particularly the debate whether sovereign grace “cheapens” the gospel’s demand to respond in faith and repentance.

This “lordship salvation”  controversy involves a dispute between those who advocate a radical doctrine of free grace and those who insist that God’s grace does not remove, but accentuates, the responsibility of the believer to repent and live in obedience to God’s commandments. Though this is not the place to provide a comprehensive summary and evaluation of this controversy, the respective positions taken in this controversy serve to highlight the questions of divine sovereignty, human responsibility and “cheap grace.”

On the one side of this controversy, there are those who advocate the position that grace is purely a gift and may not be made “conditional” upon the repentance of the sinner. Any language which treats repentance and submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ as an indispensable condition for the reception of the promise of the gospel and fellowship with God. in Christ is regarded as a threat to the graciousness of God’s grace. When repentance is treated as an inevitable and necessary component of any saving response to the gospel, then it becomes impossible to preserve the sovereignty of God’s grace and the assurance that it gives. Any emphasis upon the obligation to obey God’s commandments, as an inseparable component of a saving response to the gospel call, is considered tantamount to a new form of salvation by works. This emphasis, moreover, robs the believer of his eternal security, the comfort which comes from receiving salvation as an irrevocable gift.2

On the other side of this controversy, there are those who advocate the position that, though grace is a gift freely imparted through the gospel, it demands the response of faith and repentance. Without a believing and obedient response to the call of the gospel, it is not possible to be saved. No believer may receive Christ as Savior without also receiving Christ as Lord. This position considers the first a form of “easy believism” in which the believer need only assent to the gospel promise without becoming subject to the lordship of Jesus Christ. This position also insists that the comfort of the gospel promise may not be treated in a presumptuous manner, as though God. in the gospel throws a security blanket of acceptance over His people, irrespective of their perseverance in faith and repentance.3

Without wanting to defend everything that has been written by those defending the second side of this controversy, it is apparent that the first side, the advocates of a radical doctrine of free grace, seems to have fallen prey to a view which diminishes human responsibility and threatens to cheapen the obligations of discipleship. And, since advocates of this view typically cite the Reformer’s teaching of salvation by grace alone m theIr defense, it becomes necessary to ascertain whether their view is indeed in the line of the Reformation. Is it possibly the kind of position authorized by the Canons of Dort? Don’t the Canons teach a similar view of the radical graciousness of the gospel promise, and the eternal security which this promise grants to believers?


I have taken the trouble to summarize the usual form in which the position of the Canons is criticized and provided a brief sketch of the present debate concerning “lordship salvation,” to set the stage for evaluating the Canons’ position. Do they emphasize divine responsibility at the expense of human responsibility? Do they give an occasion for a cheapening of the gospel obligations of faith and repentance? Furthermore, do they contribute anything to the dispute over “lordship salvation”? To these questions, I would answer that the Canons do present a Biblically balanced view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. They also vigorously oppose any misunderstanding of the working of God’s grace through the gospel which would “cheapen” God’s grace, or diminish the necessity of a responsible perseverance in the way of obedience to the gospel.

Responsibility to the grace of God

To appreciate the Canons’ Biblical balance on the relation between God’s sovereign grace and human responsibility, it is important to remember that the Canons are, by their own admission, a somewhat one-sided and focused summary of Biblical teaching. The authors of the Canons did not intend their confession to provide a complete summary of Biblical teaching in the way that the Belgic Confession and other Reformation confessions do, for example. Their focus was dictated by the five points of doctrine of the Remonstrants or Arminians. Since the Remonstrant position diminished the sovereign grace of God as the single foundation of the salvation of God’s people, the authors of the Canons were obliged, in defense of the Scripture’s teaching of unconditional election, to accentuate the graciousness of God in saving His people. The vigor and force of the Canons’ affirmation of the Triune God’s initiative and sovereign provision of salvation for His people can only be understood against the background of the crisis among the Reformed churches brought about by the Arminian party. The grand theme of the Reformation’s rediscovery of the gospel—sola gratia, “by grace alone”—was at stake.

It is all the more remarkable, then, that the Canons, though vigorously defending the sovereign grace of God at every point it faced attack, refused to succumb to the kind of determinism described earlier. They simultaneously affirm unconditional election (those only are saved whom the Father elected in Christ from before the foundation of the world) and conditional condemnation (those only are condemned who have sinned in Adam and refused to serve God in faith and repentance). They simultaneously teach particular redemption (Christ provided atonement for those whom the Father purposed to give to Him) and universal gospel preaching (seriously calling all men, without exception, to faIth and repentance, promising life to all who respond accordingly). They spontaneously insist upon the sinner’s total depravity (his inability to answer the gospel call in his own strength) and the sinner’s real obligation to respond to the gospel’s call to faith and repentance. They simultaneously speak of God’s gracious preservation of His people in the way of salvation and His people’s urgent perseverance in the way of salvation.

Now to some this may only seem to be a series of paradoxes, even contradictions. How may we simultaneously affirm what appear to be a series of contrary teachings? However, as G.K. Chesterton, the well-known English writer, once remarked, a paradox may only be “the truth stood on its head to gain our attention.” A paradox need not be an .actual contradiction; it might be, as is the case with the Canons, a deliberate holding to both sides of the Biblical truth without letting go of either and thus losing one’s balance. This is precisely what we have in the Canons: the authors refused to lose their Biblical balance, even when faced with the Arminian challenge. They were willing to hold tenaciously to both sides of the Biblical picture, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, without falling prey to the temptation of resolving the apparent contradiction in favor of one side or the other.

This is the strength of the Canon’s testimony to God’s sovereign grace. The authors of the Canons were willing to live with the apparent conflict or tension between these two Biblical emphases, but refused to grant that this conflict was real. They were willing to follow the Scriptures wherever they led, leaving to the Triune God the resolution of what within His counsel must be a perfect consistency and harmony. In so doing, they are a model of humility in summarizing the total teaching of Scripture, leaving to God the resolution of these differing emphases. They stand in marked contrast to the rationalism of the Arminian position which, in order ostensibly to protect human responsibility, compromises the dear Biblical testimony to God’s sovereign grace.

Costly grace

Consistent with their simultaneous emphasis upon God’s sovereign grace and the responsibility of the believer to answer to that grace in faith and repentance, the Canons resist every attempt to “cheapen” the grace of God. This is evident in at least two important ways. First, though the grace of God in Christ is freely given to the elect, this grace exacted an infinite cost of Christ through His atoning work. Whenever we affirm that salvation is God’s free gift, an expression of His sovereign and boundless mercy toward His people in Christ, we may not forget that it is a salvation purchased for us through Christ’s work of satisfaction on our behalf. As the Canons describe it, “This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” (Second Main Point of Doctrine, Article 3).

This means that, though the Canons resolutely oppose any hint of human merit or works done to satisfy God’s justice and purchase our salvation, the grace of God is always a costly grace. It may be freely given to the believer, but it was not purchased without the price of the precious blood. of the Savior! God the Father does not relinquish His holiness or righteousness in granting salvation to the elect. He satisfies His own holiness in the satisfaction made through the atoning work of His Son. Those who too quickly complain against the Canons’ insistence on the free and sovereign grace of God toward His elect in Christ, often neglect to acknowledge this.

Here the Canons offer a similar reply to the one Calvin offered to those who complained that he offered God’s grace too cheaply to sinners. Though the gospel freely promises salvation to those who accept this promise with a believing heart, this does not mean the gospel comes cheap. As Calvin retorted to his critics, the grace of God purchased His for us by Christ comes at a much higher cost than the pittance of any of our supposed “satisfactions”!

Second, in their description of the believer’s perseverance in the way of salvation, the Canons provide absolutely no room for the idea of “cheap grace,” as we have described it in the foregoing. Not only do the Canons use language, “perseverance,” that places a great deal of emphasis upon the believer’s responsibility to “work out his salvation with fear and trembling,” but they also characterize this perseverance in terms which dearly resist the idea that the believer could trifle with the promise of God or seize upon it as an occasion to sin!

There is, in this respect, a decided difference between the Canon’s teaching of perseverance and what often today is meant by “eternal security.” Whereas the language of “eternal security” suggests a safe haven of inactivity and passive receiving of God’s promise, the language of the Canons suggests a dynamic walk in communion with the Lord, marked by a diligent use of the means of grace and response to the admonitions and warnings of the gospel to stay the course. The former language intimates that the Christian life is akin to resting in a gift received; the latter intimates that the Christian life is akin to a marriage relationship, in which husband and wife pledge to walk with each other in “constant faithfulness and abiding love.”

Therefore, no one who reads the Canons of Dort carefully and appreciatively should conclude that they, by exalting God’s sovereignty, diminish human responsibility. This is a false dilemma that the framers of this confession studiously avoided, even at the risk of being charged with inconsistency. Furthermore, no one should confuse their emphasis upon God’s sovereign grace with any doctrine of cheap grace. God’s sovereign grace works in the life of the believer to produce the obedience of faith and repentance at the preaching of the gospel. It is granted to those alone who receive it in faith and repentance, acknowledging Christ as Savior and Lord. There is no place, then, in this confession for “easy believism” or an irresponsible use of the gospel.


1. Whether fictional or not, it is evident that this story has been told to illustrate the way an emphasis upon free grace can be abused. Its use by critics of the Reformer’s teaching resembles the way Luther’s comment to Melancthon, “sin boldly,” has often been twisted to make Luther appear to have advocated a doctrine of “cheap grace.”

2. Many, though by no means all of the advocates of this view are dispensationalists. The position takes various forms, one of which is to draw a sharp distinction between “carnal” and “spiritual” Christians, the former only acknowledging Christ as Savior, the latter also actively submitting to His lordship. The best representation of this view is given by Zane Hodges in the following: The Gospel Under Siege: A study on Faith and Works (Dallas, TX: Redencion Viva. 1981); Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Dallas, TX: Redencion Viva, 1989; co-published and co-distributed by Zondervan).

3. John MacArthur defends this position and critically evaluates the former position in his The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988). Though he defends a pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology, MacArthur attempts to affirm both God’s sovereign grace in salvation and the indispensable conditions of discipleship in the Christian life.

Dr. Venema, editor of this department, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Orange City,lA.