The Canons of Dort and Missions

Dr. Cornelis Venema

The lazy-bones of our orthodox churches cry, ‘God will do His own work’; and then they look out for the softest pillow
they can find, and put it under their heads, and say, ‘The eternal purposes will be carried out: God will be glorified’.” - Charles Spurgeon

Donald MacGavran, the dean of the “church growth” movement in the latter part of the twentieth century, often argued that the Reformation confessions lacked a missional focus. In his estimation, the confessions tended to emphasize the preservation of an established church. The church’s calling to go into the world in order to disciple the nations was muted at best, absent at worst.

In my recent series of articles on the Canons of Dort, I have had occasion to reflect upon the question of their implications for the church’s missionary calling. Are the Canons of Dort liable to the charge of being insufficiently focused upon the church’s mission in the world? By focusing upon the work of the Triune God in the salvation of sinners—the Father who mercifully elects in Christ before the foundation of the world, the Son whom the Father sends to make atonement for the sins of His people, and the Holy Spirit who effectually calls believers into union with Christ by the ministry of the gospel Word—could the Canons be guilty of failing to emphasize the church’s responsibility in proclaiming the joyful message of the gospel to the nations? This is a question that has to be honestly confronted. And, as the quote above from Spurgeon suggests, there is certainly anecdotal evidence that some Reformed believers have drawn the wrong conclusion from the Canons’ emphasis upon God’s sovereign and gracious initiative in saving His own. We can scarcely deny that we sometimes are found among those “lazy-bones” who say that, because salvation is God’s work, we will leave to Him the task of doing what only He can do!

Though the question whether the Canons properly stress the church’s responsibility in missions is a legitimate one, there are two points that I would make by way of reply.

The first, and most obvious point, is that the Canons were written to address the unbiblical teachings of Arminius and his followers, the Remonstrants. Because the Arminian party taught that the salvation of sinners is ultimately grounded upon their free (indeterminate) choice to believe and to persevere in believing, the Canons rightly insist that salvation is the work of the Triune God from beginning to end. The church’s mission is ultimately the triune God’s mission (missio Dei). The “God of our salvation” is a Missionary God: the Father who chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world; the Son who entered the world to make atonement for our sins; and the Holy Spirit who draws us into fellowship with the Father through the Word of the gospel. This is the great truth that the Canons properly defend in the face of the Arminian challenge. The mission of the church is in every sense God’s mission, not ours.

However, there is a second point that also needs to be made. According to the Canons, God’s mission is carried out in time through the ministry of the church. Ordinarily, God’s mission is effected through the means of grace that He has appointed. For this reason, the Canons begin by stressing the church’s task to proclaim the joyful gospel message to the whole world. Because God will not be thwarted in His saving purpose, the church may carry out the work of gospel proclamation with utmost confidence that all those for whom Christ shed His blood will be saved. Furthermore, the Canons stress that the joyful message of the gospel must be preached indiscriminately to all the nations and peoples of the earth. Through the sincere and serious call of the gospel, the church should compassionately seek the salvation of all those to whom the gospel is proclaimed. And as the church does so, she may confidently rely upon and pray for the work of Christ’s missionary Spirit, who alone is able to open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and soften the hearts of those who are at enmity with God.

In short, the Canons have tremendous implications for the missionary calling of the church. Gospel proclamation that is born out of the teaching of the Canons will resound with the joyful message of the gospel. But it also proceeds from the settled conviction that God will unfailingly cause such proclamation to accomplish His saving purpose. Rather than falling prey to a kind of evangelistic “legalism” (we can save ourselves and others, if only we try harder and do more), the church’s mission will be undergirded and emboldened by the gospel promise that God will have His house filled with men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Luke 14:23; Rev. 5:9).

One of our tasks as a seminary is to remind our students of these missiological implications of the church’s confessions, including the Canons of Dort.

This article was adapted from the December 2019 issue of The Messenger