400 years after Dort: Why does the human-centric view of salvation persist?


At the beginning of this survey, we posed the question, “Why does the human-centric view of salvation persist?” The use of the word “the” before “human-centric view of salvation” is calculated. Now that we’ve considered the history surrounding the Synod of Dort, the philosophical antecedents of Arminianism, and the proof texts in Scripture for the Doctrines of Grace, we have as the best answer the one that the Bible itself provides: our Adamic nature.

Though it’s insightful to philosophically trace the idea of libertarian “free will,” we didn’t need Epicurus and the Atomists to theorize it for us. We didn’t need Arminius and the Remonstrants to organize it into points for us. It’s been branded into the psyches of most people by secular culture that each person is autonomous, and that theory of autonomy has permeated Christian culture for millennia. We can call it Arminianism or Pelagianism, but when we distill such systems to their essence, they all reduce to human-centered salvation. Its basic cause is the inextinguishable proclivity of fallen human nature to insist that the person is primarily and ultimately in control over his own life and his destiny. The only antidote to the toxins from within us and around us is the truth which God has revealed about salvation in his own Word.

This advice is just as important for Calvinistic believers to hear, for our fallen nature is always in combat with our new Spiritual nature, and the lesson of God’s sovereignty must be learned anew every day. Just as we can’t reasonably expect a synod in 17th-century Europe to cure human-centric salvation permanently for the rest of history, we can’t expect ourselves to be spiritually impervious to it on an individual level. We can know God’s sovereignty in all things to be intellectually true and yet in our hearts and minds lapse into practically denying it. We often revert back into various forms of unfaithfulness, including trying to contribute something to our salvation or earn God’s favor through some obedience, good works or striving. This makes the truths of the Canons of Dort as pertinent for us now as they ever were.

W. Robert Godfrey, a prominent Dutch Reformed theologian, reflects:

“For many Christians today, the teachings of the Canons of Dort seem narrow and irrelevant. In a world where many reject Christ altogether and where Christian cooperation in missions and cultural endeavors seems so important, some Christians think that we can ignore or at least marginalize such theological concerns. Such a position appeals to many. But is it right? The Canons of Dort proclaim a God-centered, Christ-centered religion that is more needed today than in the seventeenth century. God’s sovereignty and Christ’s perfect atonement are our only hope and confidence. Truly, the Synod of Dort preserved the Reformation. Luther had said that he would rather have his salvation in God’s hands than in his own. Dort reiterated and clarified that truth. Christ alone and grace alone indeed. Here is something truly to celebrate.” (“The Synod of Dort,” Tabletalk, June 2018)

In his commentary on the doctrine of election and reprobation of human souls, John Calvin cautioned,

“Let us, I say, allow the Christian to unlock his mind and ears to all the words of God which are addressed to him, provided he do it with this moderation, i.e., that whenever the Lord shuts his sacred mouth, he also desists from inquiry.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21.3, trans. Beveridge)

R.C. Sproul famously paraphrased Calvin’s caveat, “‘Where God closes His holy mouth, I will desist from inquiry.’ Now to translate that into modern nomenclature, we would say something like this, ‘The hidden will of God is none of your business. That’s why it’s hidden.'”

Calvinists do not claim, nor have we ever claimed to be fluent in the clandestine mechanics of how the Lord decides his salvation. When we affirm Scripture’s teaching that God loved Jacob and he hated Esau from the womb (Romans 9:13), we stop short of saying we know exactly why. We have no biblical reason to think that there was anything that inhered within Jacob to make him more favorable in the Lord’s eyes — Genesis recounts Jacob before his conversion as a selfish man who sometimes lied, cheated and swindled to further his own interests. In God’s eternal purposes, he found it fitting to forgive Jacob’s sin and choose him instead of Esau, and God somehow is glorified in that choice. We who submit to God’s sovereign choice in salvation don’t presume to have all the ultimate answers, yet we do know we’ve been given all the answers we need.

On the delicate matter of God’s superintendence in salvation, we simply affirm what Scripture clearly puts forth, and we strive to carefully deduce by good and necessary consequence any correlating truths based on the information he has given us. Why God elects whom he does for salvation is only for himself to know. To try to answer any questions where Scripture itself is silent is to skate on thin theological ice. If God wanted us to know why he chooses whom he chooses, he would have told us. It’s sufficient to know that he has done so, and that it’s incumbent on us to seek assurance of our own calling and election by seizing upon God’s promises and affirming them in the way we live our lives striving for God-glorifying obedience.

In humility and respect for the Lord, we strive to stand upon the firm ground of what is revealed, and we refrain from speculating about what is not revealed. This is what it means to be subjects of a Lord who keeps his own hidden counsel within the Pactum Salutis, the eternal “covenant of redemption” between the three Persons of the Trinity.

Calvin also taught that the chief end of theology, which literally is “the study of God,” should end with doxology, literally, “a word of glory,” when he wrote,

“Whenever then we enter on a discourse respecting the eternal counsels of God, let a bridle be always set on our thoughts and tongue, so that after having spoken soberly and within the limits of God’s Word, our reasoning may at last end in admiration.” (Commentary on Romans, John Calvin, Romans 11:33-36)

Someone said, “Theology that doesn’t make us sing has failed in its mission, no matter how correct it may be,” so there is no more fitting way to close a discussion of God’s mystery of salvation than the praise that Paul proclaimed in his election discourse:

(Romans 11:33-36) “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

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church history, epistemology, Reformation, soteriology