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. . John Robinson really was the Moses through whom God gave the newly born nation commandments
that should be their strength and glory in a new country which he himself never saw.
— Daniël Plooij, The Pilgrim Fathers (1969)
But we can learn to offer thanksgiving for adversity and trials if we know that
an all-wise, an all-powerful, sovereign God is making use of our adversities for the sake of our maturing and our perfecting.
—Greg Bahnsen, “Unnatural Thanksgiving”
The Pilgrims’ Faith
At this time of the year, we remember the Pilgrims. We think of their courage and faith. We remember, perhaps, the hardships they endured—the hunger, disease, privation, and death. We understand, perhaps dimly, that they persevered on the shores of the American wilderness because they wanted to worship God on His terms and because they were deeply and covenantally committed to one another.
Most Americans still respect the Pilgrims and many Christians even revere them. Surprisingly few know what they actually believed. Something about liberty of conscience and trusting God and being thankful. That about covers it, surely.
Actually, there’s a lot more to what they believed, and those beliefs informed all of their choices and empowered them to face a wilderness for the sake of freedom of worship.
Of course, the Pilgrims believed the Bible. They received it as the inspired and infallible word of God. They believed in special creation and the doctrine of the Trinity. They believed in the deity of Christ and in His incarnation and virgin birth. They believed in justification by faith alone. They preached a gospel of sovereign grace through the blood atonement made by Christ on the cross. But, note, “sovereign grace.” The Pilgrims were Calvinists.
Their pastor in Holland for more than a decade, John Robinson, was a convinced Calvinist, except perhaps in matters of church government. He preached sovereign grace, predestination, and election. In fact, he wrote a book defending these doctrines. It was titled, A Defence of the Doctrine Propounded by the Synod at Dort (1624).
The Synod of Dort
Not everyone has heard of Dort. The Synod of Dort met in Dordrecht, Holland, on November 13, 1618. It consisted of 86 pastors, elders, and professors from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and England. These men met to consider five doctrinal points put forward by the followers of Jacob Arminius (d. 1609). Arminius had emphasized human choice in salvation, what we often call “free will.” He and his followers taught that a man’s salvation ultimately rested on the sinner’s own autonomous choice rather than on the decree of God and the sovereign work of His Spirit.
After much deliberation and discussion, the Synod of Dort rejected the five points of Arminianism and set forth in their place five points they believed were taught in Scripture. These five points, often represented by the acrostic T-U-L-I-P, are often called “The Five Points of Calvinism,” though there is much more to Calvinism than these doctrines of sin and grace.
Now, before we go any further, it’s important to understand that for John Robinson and the Pilgrims, the Synod stood firmly for the gospel, for evangelical Christianity. For example, the Decrees of the Synod say:
The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world (2:III).
Moreover the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel (2:V).
The wrath of God abideth upon those who believe not this gospel; but such as receive it, and embrace Jesus the Saviour by a true and living faith, are by him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them (I:4).
The point where Dort differs from much of American Christianity is the nature of grace or, put differently, the source of faith. Is faith in Christ something that arises naturally in the human heart? Or is faith the sovereign gift of God? Does the sinner choose Christ, or does Christ graciously choose to save His people by giving them faith to believe the gospel?
The Synod, following Scripture, rooted the believer’s faith in God’s sovereign decree: “That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree” (2:6). This is the biblical doctrine of election.
Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath, out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation (2:VI).
“This election was not founded upon foreseen faith” (1:IX); rather, “The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election. . .” (1:X).
The Father elected; the Son died for the elect; the Holy Spirit works faith in the hearts of the elect. That some men should believe while others don’t doesn’t come from any natural or spiritual superiority in those who believe, “but results wholly from the sovereign good pleasure and unmerited love of God.”
John Robinson on Dort
There are sincere and godly Christians, men and women who love the Pilgrim Fathers, who will have a hard time believing that John Robinson embraced such a doctrine of election. The doctrine of election has always brought disagreement in the church. So it would be good for us to review some of his own words on the matter.
First, speaking of God’s eternal purposes, Robinson writes:
…to conceive that God doth anything, in time, which he did not from eternity purpose to do as he doth it, is derogatory to his infinite wisdom and power: and, indeed, to deny him to be God, and to make him finite: in whom there is a change wrought, and a beginning, and growth of counsels.
In other words, God doesn’t change His mind. He doesn’t make up His plan as He goes. He doesn’t react in surprise to our actions. More specifically, God purposed from all eternity to save a people unto faith and holiness. His choice in eternity and time springs from His own purposes, not from anything He foresees in those whom He chooses. Robinson writes:
As God from eternity purposed to choose men, so he chooseth them actually in time: but he purposed, from eternity, to choose men that they might be holy, and unblameable before him: and therefore not because they are holy, or believe and obey. God’s actual choosing therefore goes before our actual faith, holiness, repentance, and obedience as the cause; and follows them not as an effect . . . .
God doth not . . . choose, upon condition of faith and repentance going before; but doth by the very bestowing of these graces of faith and repentance . . . choose, select, and sever actually from others, the elected from eternity in his decree.
And so, Robinson concludes with Dort, salvation is wholly the work of the sovereign, Triune God of Scripture to which man contributes nothing.
We therefore conclude with the apostle, that God works in us both the will and the deed: not only by his word working on us, but by his Spirit working in us: not only by sending Paul to plant, by propounding strong arguments of persuasion, but also by giving the increase by the most effectual work of his Spirit, enlightening the eyes of the understanding to see the force of those arguments, opening the heart to attend to them, and so writing them in the same heart, and most inward parts, as they cannot be blotted out.
…And so the same Christ our Lord, and Head, partly by his mediation and intercession with the Father; partly, by the continual supply of his Spirit assisting us in our weaknesses, and recovering us in our falls; and partly, by his Divine power restraining the enemies of our salvation most faithfully perseveres us in the grace of God; not suffering the living members of his body to be plucked from it . . . .
Christ our Lord keeps us from falling away, rescues us when we stumble, and preserves us in God’s grace.
Hence they to whom so great and so gracious a blessing is communicated, above their desert, or rather notwithstanding their demerits, are bound to acknowledge it with humble and grateful hearts . . . (3-4:7).
This doctrine of sovereign election brings with it the assurance that God, having begun a good work in His people, will surely perform it until the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). God will orchestrate all of human history, all of created reality, to conform His people to the image of Jesus Christ and bring them to glory at last (Rom. 8:28-29). Does such a doctrine make the true believer arrogant or careless in his faith? No, the Decrees say;
. . . on the contrary, it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God . . . (5:XII).
Proper consideration of God’s grace should lead us to the “serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works.” Note the words the Decrees use:
“Serious.” Thanksgiving requires a serious and realistic evaluation of our own need and of God’s amazing grace in Christ.
“Constant.” Thanksgiving isn’t something God’s people should do once or twice or year. It doesn’t belong to the celebration of good and happy things, but to a recognition of the goodness of God in all things.
“Practice.” Thanksgiving shouldn’t be left to our own spontaneity or flashes of enthusiasm. It ought to be a discipline, a carefully cultivated habit, so that in all things we are regularly and constantly giving thanks to God, even in hard times. This brings us to a topic very appropriate for this season of the year—that of unnatural thanksgiving.
It is easy and natural for the Christian to be thankful in prosperity. Thankfulness in adversity is a different matter. It’s “unnatural”—to borrow a word from Dr. Greg Bahnsen. It is hard to thank God for trials and tribulations, for hardship and suffering. And yet the doctrines of sovereign grace compel us to do exactly that.
First, the doctrines of sovereign grace teach us that God’s plans and concerns are bigger than our personal comfort or happiness. We are not the center of God’s universe. What God does, however difficult it may be for us at the moment, inevitably forwards God’s kingdom and glory in the Earth, and in that we ought to rejoice.
Second, the doctrines of grace teach us that our sovereign God uses all of life’s circumstances to forward our spiritual growth and sanctification as well. Tribulation and suffering call us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. When we do, we find that His strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). When we are weak, He is strong in us and for us.
And so, Bahnsen reminds us, “We rejoice in trials . . . because we know those trials, those hard times, make our faith pure and strong and enduring” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). For a Christian who “has nothing but blessing and prosperity,” is an immature Christian (Jas. 1:2-4).
The Pilgrims were mature Christians. They stood fast in the sovereign grace of God. We remember them for their one formal day of Thanksgiving, but they were a people who lived thanksgiving in the midst of suffering and death. They trusted a sovereign God who made all things work together for their good (Rom. 8:28-29). And so they were fearless, intrepid, and steadfast. As a result, they changed the world and built a foundation for freedom we still enjoy today.
Now, my point on this Thanksgiving isn’t to create division or make anyone angry. (Most of my friends are Arminians after all.) And, I have no intention of “proving” a soteriology system in this short article. However, I do think it’s important to know the truth about what the Pilgrims actually believed and to know what “fueled” their very existence.
Finally, no matter what your beliefs about such matters are… it’s my firm belief that we can all learn from these brave souls who fought, struggled, suffered and did all they could to survive and, at the same time… trusted their future completely to God.
For Further Reading and Listening:
John Robinson, A Defence of the Doctrine Propounded by the Synod at Dort (1624).
Stephen M. Johnson, “The Soteriology of John Robinson, Pilgrim Pastor and Advocate of the Reformed Faith,” Westminster Theological Journal (Spring, 1982).
Otto Scott, The Great Christian Revolution, How Christianity Transformed the World (Windsor, NY: The Reformer Library, 1994).
Greg L. Bahnsen, “Unnatural Thanksgiving,” sermon on CD, GB411, Covenant Media Foundation.
 Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited (or Definite) Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.