30 May, 2016


Rev. Steven R. Key

[Originally published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 37, number 2 (April 2004), pp. 45-64]

Although it sometimes may seem as if common grace is an issue confined to the archives of Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed church history, an awareness of what is taking place in the church world today will demonstrate that it remains an issue that must be reckoned with. In recent history, not only have various departures from Scripture been based at least in part on the doctrine of common grace, but prominent churchmen in the Reformed community have again called attention to that teaching.1  

For that reason we may not forget our place in the history of this controversy. Nor may we lose sight of the horrible implications that have become manifest through the decades of development where this doctrine has been adopted. We must continue to give ourselves to the defense of the truth of sovereign, particular grace over against the error embraced by the theory of common grace.

One aspect of the common grace controversy easily overlooked today is the fact that the defenders of common grace in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) appealed to the Canons of Dordt in defense of both the First and Third Points in the synodical decisions of 1924. In fact, Scripture itself is not cited in the actual decisions of the Synod adopting the Three Points. Four articles of the Canons of Dordt, as well as two articles of the Belgic Confession, are the citations made in the decisions themselves.2 Any evaluation of the doctrine of common grace as adopted by the CRC in 1924 must take into account the Reformed confessions, and specifically the Canons of Dordt. It is fitting, therefore, that we give consideration to the subject The Canons and Common Grace.

The Canons and the First Point

The First Point of the CRC's decision concerning common grace reads as follows:

Relative to the first point which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general, and not only the elect, synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which he shows to his creatures in general. This is evident from the scriptural passages quoted, and from the Canons of Dort (II, 5, and III/IV, 8 and 9), which deal with the general offer of the gospel, while it also appears from citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our Reformed writers from the past favored this view.3

The reference to Article 5 of the Second Head clearly cannot stand by itself in support of the First Point.4 The article simply speaks of the church's mandate to preach the gospel promiscuously. It says nothing of that preaching being an offer to all who hear it, let alone an expression of God's grace to all who hear it. But it becomes evident by the reference that the Synod viewed the preaching as both an offer and an expression of God's grace to all who come under that preaching. Their interpretation of common grace, therefore, colored their interpretation of this article.

Furthermore, because this article lies in the midst of the Reformed fathers' defense of limited atonement and the Arminian charge that this doctrine prevented the gospel from being preached, it should immediately be evident that the fathershad they indeed desired to teach a general and well-meant offerwould have clearly and succinctly stated so. They did not. They did not because the whole idea of a well-meant offer of the gospel, expressing God's sincere desire that all be saved, is not in harmony with the doctrine of limited atonement. How could God desire the salvation of those whom He did not give to Christ in eternal election and for whom Christ did not die?5

The second reference from the Canons that Synod laid hold of in support of a general favor or grace of God toward all men is that of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Articles 8 and 9, where the Canons speak of the serious call of the gospel, and hold forth the truth that those who reject that serious call are themselves to blame. The fault is not to be found in the gospel "nor of Christ offered therein."

Note well, the Synod in adopting its First Point made a logical jump from the concept of the call to that of an offer, and took the position that God's making a serious call is an indication that God makes a genuine offer of salvation to all who hear the gospel and expresses His desire that they accept the offer.

Louis Berkhof, in his pamphlet defending the Synod's position, wrote: "This call of the Gospel, or this offer of salvation, is, according to Synod, general."6 He goes on to say, "In the second place, we desire to point to the fact, that the general offer of grace is well-meant."7 In this, Berkhof points particularly to Canons III/IV, 8. He proceeds to explainand notice the interchanging of the word offer with call"The call of the Gospel is earnestly meant. If we invite anyone, yet at the same time hope that he will not accept the invitation, then our request is not well-meant, but insincere. Sincere and well-meant it is only, if we mean what we say. God calls and invites sinners, and gives us the solemn certainty in His Word that He earnestly desires, that the called ones come to Him. His inviting is without hypocrisy, it is well-meant."8 In his Systematic Theology, Berkhof puts it this way: "When God calls the sinner to accept Christ by faith, He earnestly desires this."9

The articles of the Canons referred to read as follows:

Article 8
As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly shown in His Word what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him.

Article 9
It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves; some of whom when called, regardless of their danger, reject the word of life; others, though they receive it, suffer it not to make a lasting impression on their heart; therefore their joy, arising only from a temporary faith, soon vanishes and they fall away; while others choke the seed of the Word by perplexing cares and the pleasures of this world, and produce no fruit. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13).

When we examine Article 8, we find the idea of a general, well-meant offer contrary to the teaching of the article and that especially as this article has its place in a creed that consistently holds the particular nature of salvation. Here also the promise of God is set forth as particular. Though proclaimed to all to whom God in His good pleasure brings under the hearing of the gospel, the promise itself is plainly limited "to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him." Their identity, and how it is that they "come to Him and believe on Him," is established in Articles 10 and following. They are those whom God "has chosen as His own from eternity in Christ" and upon whom He confers faith and repentance, accomplishing His own good pleasure in them.

But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their mind by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions (Article 11).

Thus God works His own perfect work through the preaching of the gospel, accomplishing His own good pleasure in the salvation of those whom He has chosen from eternity in Christ. And because it would be impossible to preach the gospel only to the elect, that preaching must go forth promiscuously. That is also according to God's sovereign purpose.

But that promiscuous proclamation of the gospel is not a well-meant offer or invitation to all, expressing God's desire to save all. That is clear in the light of the First Head of Doctrine, Articles 6 and 15, where the fathers at Dordt rejected the idea that God willed to save all and expressed such a desire by the gospel call. The fact that God has sovereignly decreed to leave in their common misery those whom He has not chosen, thus making righteous discrimination between men, ought to give clear indication that He does not will the salvation of the reprobate.

Rather, the preaching of the gospel is the proclamation that serves God's sovereign purpose, even as set forth by the inspired apostle in II Corinthians 2:15-17:

"For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ."

It is noteworthy that the sovereign hardening element that takes place in preaching to the reprobate is not expressed in these articles cited by the Synod of 1924.10 But we may say that although it would be possible to strengthen the exposition of these articles by a biblical treatment of the truth set forth in II Corinthians 2:15-17, I Peter 2:8, and other like passages, the lack in these articles does not detract from the fact that any idea of a well-meant offer of the gospel as expressed in the First Point of 1924 is out of harmony with the teaching of the Canons.

When we tum to Article 9 as cited by the Synod, there are especially two elements that need our examination.

The first is the use of the term offer, a term that seemingly fits very well with the Synod's first point and its reference to the "general offer of the gospel." It can be noted immediately, however, that the term offer has an entirely different connotation today from its original Latin definition. In the Canons, the term offer simply means to present or to set forth. The idea is that of Acts 13:46, where Paul and Barnabas addressed the Jews, and said, "It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken11 to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we tum to the Gentiles." To take the simple concept, well understood by the fathers at Dordt, and to add the baggage associated with the idea of a well-meant offer is unwarranted. Indeed, the preaching of the gospel may not be called an offer if by that term is meant that through the preaching of the gospel God earnestly desires and seeks the salvation of all who hear it. Such is a denial of gospel preaching as the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).

The second matter that deserves our attention is the reference to the "various gifts" God confers upon those who are called by the gospel but who refuse to come and be converted. The fathers apparently had in mind such passages as Romans 9:4-5 and the opening verses of Hebrews 6. Those gifts referred to, therefore, are not gifts of grace. But, as those passages make clear, they are the spiritual gifts given to the church, which are tasted only naturally by those who eventually fall away. In some cases, men come into very close contact with the truth and the gifts that belong to the kingdom of God. They see its beauty and goodness, and all that is associated with life in God's kingdom. But they taste and see only with their natural senses, not having received the grace to receive them spiritually. In fact, God does not bestow those outward gifts upon them out of grace, but most assuredly to bring to manifestation their own wickedness and hardness of heart, and this according to His own sovereign decree (Canons I, 5-6).

Having considered the teaching of these two articles, III/IV, 8-9, in the light of their context, are we to conclude that the Reformed fathers actually taught that in His sovereign and eternal decree God determined that not all should receive the gift of faith and conversion, and that Christ's death covered God's elect only, but that nevertheless God well-meaningly offers salvation as an expression of His grace to all who hear the preaching and desires that everyone accept the offer?

It cannot possibly be. For such an interpretation cannot possibly fit these articles. If such were indeed the correct interpretation, Article 9 would not even be necessary. For if the gospel comes as a well-meant offer to all, with God's desire that they accept the offer, and yet many reject it, there would be no question at all about the culpability. Of course the blame would lie entirely upon those rejecting the offer! But it was because the fathers maintained God's absolute sovereignty also in regard to the unbelief of those who reject the command of Christ in the gospel call to repent and believe, that the Arminians came with the accusation that the Reformed make God the author of the sin of unbelief. So the Reformed fathers respond.

Noteworthy too is the fact that one searches the Canons in vain for any hint of a plea holding to a double-track theology and hiding behind the term "mystery."

The doctrine of common grace attempts to maintain an untenable dualism. Not many years after the controversy of 1924, D. Zwier, a minister in the CRC, wrote a series of articles entitled "God's General Goodness" in De Wachter, the Dutch language periodical of the CRC. Herman Hoeksema responded by his own series of Dutch articles in the Standard Bearer, a series that was later translated into English and published in 1939 in a book entitled God's Goodness Always Particular. In this book, Hoeksema pointed out that Rev. Zwier "holds not only that God loves the ungodly always and everywhere and in all things of this present life, but also that He hates them always and everywhere and in all things. He not only teaches that temporally His favor is upon the wicked, but also that from eternity to eternity His wrath abideth on them. His view is not only that God blesses the workers of iniquity through the things of this present time, but also that He curses them through these same things and prepares them for eternal destruction."12

Over against these contradictory propositions, Hoeksema insisted that while "the truth may far transcend our comprehension, it is never in conflict with the fundamental laws of logic. If it were, it could not even be apprehended. A truth that would be contrary to our understanding would simply elude our grasp."13

Living several decades later, and having seen the deterioration of wholesome doctrine in the churches that adopted this theory of common grace, we have witnessed on the part of many a rejection of the second part of Zwier's propositions. After all, it is certainly distasteful to the natural mind to think that God hates the ungodly always and everywhere and in all things, and that from eternity to eternity His wrath abides on them. If one is going to cling to the love of God for everyone, it is a natural development that he clings to the love of God for everyone always and everywhere, and even forever.

It is also simply a fact that it is impossible to reason from Scripture with those who will steadfastly hold to the possibility of logical contradictions in the revelation of God's truth. They have an entirely different hermeneutical principle, which prevents any fruitful discussion. Fruitful discussion is possible only after the doctrine of revelation and sound principles of Bible interpretation have been dealt with.

It is true, we demonstrate those sound principles of Bible interpretation from Scripture itself. Scripture interprets Scripture. We demonstrate from Scripture that God's Word is never contradictory, and when we find in Scripture what first appear to be contradictory texts or statements, we have cause to sit back and look at the context and at Scripture itself for the proper interpretation.

But it is only after we have worked through and established the correct hermeneutical principles that we can have any fruitful discussion about God's grace, and any other principle doctrine of Holy Scripture. Hoeksema took exactly that approach in God’s Goodness Always Particular. He addressed the dispute, and immediately pointed to the question of exegetical method. That issue he expressed as a fundamental difference. It remains such today.

After examining the First Point of 1924 and its adoption of the well-meant offer of the gospel as an example of God's common grace toward all men, we state this simple fact: lf it is true that God loves every human being who comes under the gospel and desires to save them all, the Canons must be rejected. If it is true that there can be no promiscuous preaching without a universal grace and the possibility of salvation for anyone to whom the gospel is addressed, the doctrine of the Canons must be rejected.

But we insist that the Canons are faithful in expounding the truth of the Scriptureswith no allowances made for a well-meant offer of the gospel, with no offer of salvation for all, and with no expression of grace for all. Grace is particular. We preach promiscuously a particular promise. We do so in established congregations as well as on the mission field. And by that "foolishness of preaching" (I Cor. 1:21), Christ gathers His elect. God remains God, sovereign in the work of salvation, even from beginning to end.

The Canons and the Third Point

While the Second Point of Synod's formulation of common grace does not refer to the Canons, the Third Point does.

Relative to the third point, which is concerned with the question of civil righteousness as performed by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good. This is evident from the quotations from Scripture and from the Canons of Dort, III/IV, 4 and from the Belgic Confession, Article 36, which teach that God, without renewing the heart, so influences man that he is able to perform civil good; while it also appears from the citations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology, that our Reformed fathers from ancient times were of the same opinion.14

The Third Point adopted by the Synod in 1924 was strongly influenced by Kuyper's perspective, as was the Second Point.15 It is interesting to note that Kuyper distinguished between two distinct operations of common grace, which do not develop in harmony with each other.

One common grace aims at the interior, another at the exterior part of our existence. The former is operative wherever civic virtue, a sense of domesticity, natural love, the practice of human virtue, the improvement of the public conscience, integrity, mutual loyalty among people, and a feeling for piety leaven life. The latter is in evidence when human power over nature increases, when invention upon invention enriches life, when inter-national communication is improved, the arts flourish, the sciences increase our understanding, the conveniences and joys of life multiply, all expressions of life between more vital and radiant forms become more refined, and the general image of life becomes more winsome.

But in the end it will not be these two operations which flourish to perfection in "Babylon the great." The glory of the world power which collapses in the time of judgment will consist solely in the second kind of development. Enrichment of the exterior life will go hand-in-hand with the impoverishment of the interior. The common grace that affects the human heart, human relations, and public practices will ever diminish, and only the other operation, the one that enriches and gratifies the human mind and senses, will proceed to its culmination. A splendid white mausoleum full of reeking skeletons, brilliant on the outside, dead on the insidethat is the Babylon which is becoming ripe for judgment.16

Kuyper himself, as did the Synod of the CRC some twenty years later, cited the Canons of Dordt, III/IV, Article 4 in support of his teaching. However, he quoted only a portion of it.

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.

The omitted section goes on to read as follows:

Nay, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.17

The reference to the Canons, III/IV, Article 4, was treated by a young Christian Reformed minister, the Reverend Herman Hoeksema, very early in the common grace controversy as he wrote in The Banner under the rubric "Our Doctrine."

Although not stating so specifically, Hoeksema in his treatment of this article of the Canons was apparently reflecting on the teachings of common grace especially by Abraham Kuyper.18 Hoeksema understood that implicit in the teaching of the Third Point was a denial of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. The proposition that common grace enables a man apart from Christ, an unregenerate man, to perform genuine good works pleasing to God, and the doctrine of total depravity, which holds that all men are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness, are of necessity mutually exclusive.

Because those writings are not so readily accessible, I will quote a lengthy section from Hoeksema.

The facts which are commonly referred to as manifestations of "common grace" we do not deny. To do this would mean to contradict Scripture; it would mean to stand diametrically opposed to a reality in the world that is too real to be denied; it would to a certain extent bring us into contradiction with some expressions in the Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dordt. In the Confession we read that man "has retained a few remains thereof," that is, of his original excellent gifts (Art. XIV); and in the Canons it is stated that "there remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society and for maintaining an orderly external deportment" (Chapters III/IV; Art. 4). As we have emphasized before, and as must be clear without any argument to all, when Adam and Eve were saved from utter ruin and death, not only the elect but the whole human race from a natural point of view was preserved for the time being. The members of this human race all possess the same natural life of soul and body, manifest the same power of intellect and will. They live in the same world and enjoy the same outward privileges. They move in the same spheres of life, in state and society and to an extent even in the church. From this point of view elect and reprobate, those that are and that are not in Christ Jesus, may live in the same house, be born of the same parents, receive the same education, move about in exactly the same surroundings and enjoy the same environments. Still more. In the Christian world, they may be baptized with the same baptism, live under the same preaching of the Word, partake of the same Lord's supper. The nearer anyone lives to the outward sphere of Christianity, the more he receives of these outward gifts, free for all and, in that sense, common. Yet, Scripture emphasizes this still more strongly, when it wants us to understand, that even the seed of the devil may be enlightened, may taste of the good Word of God, taste of the heavenly gift, taste of the powers of the world to come, and, what is more, be partaker of the Holy Spirit, and yet show by his irretrievable falling away, that he belonged to the reprobate! Hebrews 6:4, 5; cf. Hebrews 10:28, 29.

It is not the facts, therefore, concerning which there is any controversy on our part. It is the explanation of these facts from the point of view of a "common grace" which we wish to dispute. For once more, the question that must be answered first of all is this: Is there grace, in the real sense of the word, for those that are not in Christ Jesus, the Head of the Covenant of Grace?19

Hoeksema then goes on to point out that the creeds not only give us nothing to justify the phrase "common grace," but show an emphasis entirely contrary to the common grace teaching of a natural goodness in man.

What they emphasize very strongly is not this natural goodness but the natural corruption and depravity of human nature because of sin and man's incapability even of receiving the blessings of grace unless he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit. That this is true you may be able to judge for yourselves if we quote the whole of the paragraph where these expressions occur. Art. XIV of the Confession has it: "For the commandment of life which he had received he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying, The light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not, where John calleth men darkness" etc. Surely, it must be admitted that the "remains" are not over-emphasized in this article! And in the same strain the Canons speak in Chapters III/IV, Art. 4: "There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things and of the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this natural light from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God." ...And as far as the very term "common grace" is concerned it must be observed that it occurs only in the negative part of the Canons Chapters III/IV, Art. V, where the phrase is laid in the mouth of the enemy of Reformed Doctrine. For there we read that the Synod rejects the errors of those who teach: "That the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understand the light of nature) or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use, a greater, viz., the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself."

Reflecting then on what later would be adopted in the First Point of 1924, Hoeksema writes:

In the second place, it must be clear that the term "common grace" implies that in some way God is graciously inclined to all men, without distinction, regardless of their relation to Christ Jesus, that He assumes an attitude of favor and love to those too, that are not in Him, whom God has not foreknown from all eternity. I am well aware of the fact that no one ever asserted that this "common grace" was saving in power, and that it is always maintained that it results in blessings only for this present time. But principally this makes no difference. The fact remains, that in some way, to a certain extent, in a certain measure all men partake of grace, and hence God must be graciously inclined to all. Now it must be said, that in the light of Scripture, and in the light of the fundamental conception of our Reformed Doctrine such an attitude of God is utterly inconceivable. From the Arminian or Semi-Pelagian point of view this were possible. If you will deny that God in Sovereign grace chose His own people from before the foundation of the world; if you will deny, therefore, that God knows with Divine certainty who are to be saved and who are not; if you will deny that from eternity God considers His people in Christ and others outside of Christ; this conception of an attitude in God of universal grace, through which He is favorably inclined to all for a time, is, indeed, conceivable. In that case God must first assume the attitude of watchful waiting. He sent Christ into the world, as far as He is concerned for all men indiscriminately. And now He watches to see who of men might haply accept Him. In the meantime He cannot but assume an attitude of general grace toward all without distinction. But, surely, he who stands with us foursquare on the basis of the Reformed View of life will not thus surrender his conception of God and deprive Him of His absolute Sovereignty.

God has His own people in the world. These He knew with divine love in Christ from before the foundation of the world. To them He assumed an attitude of grace in our Redeemer from eternity.

But as well as He knows the elect He knows the reprobate. They are not in Christ. They stand before Him in all their sin and transgression. They are guilty. They have forfeited all. For time as well as for eternity they have lost the right to any of the blessings of grace. They are, in a word, objects of His wrath.

To maintain that, objectively speaking, God can assume an attitude of grace to them, say for six thousand years, is to make an attack upon God's holiness and righteousness. No sinner can stand in any relation to the holiness of God without being deprived of all grace. No naked sinner can maintain himself or be maintained as an object of love in view of God's righteousness. And principally it makes no difference whether you assume such an attitude of love and favor in God over against the sinner outside of Christ for an endless eternity or for a single minute. The fact remains the same.

And thus it is according to Scripture. Jacob and Esau are both children of Isaac. To a large extent they enjoy the same blessings. Esau even enjoying the privilege that he is first-born. But Jacob is the child of election, Esau of reprobation. And what saith the Scripture? Does it say: Esau I loved but Jacob I loved more? Does it say: Esau I love for the time being, but Jacob for eternity? No, most positively it says: “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated" (Rom. 9:13).

Hence, we deny that in any way or to any extent, for time or eternity God assumes an attitude of positive favor or grace over against the reprobate. The seed of the serpent are objects of His wrath.20

Hoeksema's exposition of Scripture and the confessions notwithstanding, the Synod of the CRC laid claim to Canons Ill/IV, 4 in their adoption of the Third Point. They did so, repeating the error of Kuyper in conveniently deleting the concluding portion of the article.

The Synod's adoption of the Third Point of common grace is closely connected to its teaching in the Second Point, namely, that God restrains sin in the unregenerated man by a gracious operation of the Holy Spirit within the sinner's heart. It is because of this restraining operation of the Holy Spirit that the unregenerated man is viewed as able to do good in things natural and civil.

The appeal to Canons III/IV, 4 in support of this point is an appeal to the "glimmerings of natural light" of which the article speaks, "whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment."

What then are those "glimmerings"? They refer to the remnants of the excellent gifts God bestowed upon man in creation. When man fell, he did not completely lose his gifts of thought and will. That which belongs to his human nature, though devastated through sin, was not lost. His depravity is not a matter of intellectual ignorance. For God would hold him accountable as a thinking, willing creature.

The article itself explains those glimmerings in terms of the remnants of some knowledge of God. That is the truth set forth in Romans 1:18-32. By that knowledge man is left without excuse before God. Man also retains some knowledge of natural things. He continues in his created position as king of the earthly creation, able to use the earth and its resources, and even to discover relationships between various elements of creation and to make earthly advancements by way of many inventions. Man retains some knowledge "of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment." That is so, as Romans 2:14-15 explains, because they have "the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another."

But any appeal to this article in support of common grace is unfounded. The Arminians insisted that man, by those natural gifts, could come to a saving knowledge of God. Over against this the Synod of Dordt maintained that it was not so. In the portion of the article omitted by Abraham Kuyper, as well as by the CRC, the Reformed fatherscontinuing to develop the biblical doctrine of total depravityinsisted that this "light of nature" is not sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion. But then the fathers make a positive conclusion. So different is the biblical picture of the natural man from that drawn by the Remonstrants, that man is incapable of using these glimmerings aright "even in things natural and civil. Nay, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God."

By the use of the Canons in support of the doctrine of common grace the Synod of 1924 very really overthrew the teachings of Dordt. In the Second and Third Points in particular they denied the biblical doctrine of total depravity. Abraham Kuyper discovered what he was looking fora broad area of cooperation in things natural and civil by the children of God and the children of this world. The CRC affirmed it by adopting this doctrine in the Three Points.

In doing so, they established a common playground for believers and unbelievers alike. The playground is named "Farewell Antithesis."

The result has been devastating.

It continues to wreak havoc to the antithesis in spite of all the warnings to the contrary by the Synod of 1924. Richard Mouw is one common grace theologian who recognizes this. In spite of his desire to hold to some form of common grace, he recognizes that the doctrine has had destructive consequences on the antithesis. He has even attempted, in writing and speaking, to defend and restore the doctrine of the antithesis. We would that he could understand the impossible position in which he stands. To maintain the antithesis while clinging to a doctrine that fundamentally undermines the truth of total depravity is an impossibility.

The doctrine of common grace adopted by the CRC in 1924 is fundamentally flawed. There is a reason why the Canons mention common grace once, and that in a negative light.21 It was a doctrine held by the Arminians, a doctrine that undermined the truth of Scripture. Even though the Arminians took it farther than a mere restraint of sin and the ability of man to perform civic good, and taught that man could achieve salvation by use of the abilities given him in common grace, nevertheless, their error was fundamentally the same as that of those in the Reformed camp who adopted their own version of common grace in 1924 and defend it today. They watered down the biblical truth of total depravity, and gave a real ability to the natural man to do good in God's sight by virtue of His work of grace in them. And they affirmed that God's grace was revealed in a desire on God's part to save all, a desire expressed in the well-meant offer of salvation to all.

We are careful to point out that it was Abraham Kuyper's view of common grace and not the view of the Arminians that was adopted in the Three Points. But the Kuyperian error ended up taking the church down a side path that connected with Arminianism. And as we look at the 1924 Synod's creedal defense from the Canons, we may say that even though our defense of sovereign, particular grace over against any idea of common grace is primarily an exegetical defense, we also insist that common grace is a fundamental rejection of several principle truths set forth in our Reformed creeds.

The Canons of Dordt leave no room for a common grace of God, but uphold the truth of particular grace. May God give us grace to continue to stand upon that foundation of our Reformed creed, and ardently to oppose all doctrine contrary to it, while maintaining the glory of God's grace, which is always particular.



1. Especially John Bolt and Raymond Blacketer, in articles written in the Calvin Theological Journal, April 2000, and Richard Mouw in his book He Shines in All That's Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), have attempted to bring the doctrine of common grace to the fore again, pleading for further consideration of this doctrine and its implications.

2. Acta der Synode 1924 van de Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk, Gehouden van 18 Juni tot 8 Juli, 1924 te Kalamazoo, Mich., U.S.A., Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids Printing Co., pp. 145-147. While several passages of Scripture, Calvin's Institutes, Van Mastricht, and Ursinus were cited by the study committee, those citations were not attached to the decisions taken by the Synod.

3. Acta der Synode 1924, English translation from Synodical Decisions on Doctrinal and Ethical Matters, Grand Rapids, MI, Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976, p. 16.

4. The Article reads: "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." For a full exposition of this article, confer Homer C. Hoeksema, The Voice of Our Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980), pp. 349-358.

5. In a controversy that shook the CRC in the late 1960s, Harold Dekker, a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, tied the well-meant offer of the gospel as adopted in the First Point of 1924 to the atonement, and maintained that the offer could be sincere only if Christ died for all. He quoted Canons II,5 to maintain the availability of salvation to all. He wrote in The Reformed Journal, January 1964, under the title "Redemptive Love and the Gospel Offer," "Is not this precisely what the sincere offer of the gospel says to all men about the redemption in Christ? For if something which is offered is not available, evidently there is no genuine offer” (Quoted by Herman Hoeksema, Standard Bearer, vol. 40, p. 247).

6. Louis Berkhof, De Drie Punten in A/le Dee/en Gereformeerd (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1925), p. 13. Citation taken from a translation by Marvin Kamps, October 1997.

7. Ibid., p. 17.

8. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

9. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), p. 462.

10. It is possible that the failure of the Canons to address this issue was a matter of compromise, due to the differing opinions expressed by various delegates to the Synod of Dordt. Cf. H.C. Hoeksema, Voice of Our Fathers, p. 487.

11. The verb comes from λαλἐω, to sound forth or to proclaim.

12. Hoeksema, Herman, God's Goodness Always Particular, Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1939, pp. 23-24.

13. Ibid., p. 24.

14. Acta der Synode 1924, English translation from Synodical Decisions on Doctrinal and Ethical Matters, Grand Rapids. MI, Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976, p. 16.

15. It is true that the First Point was also of Kuyperian influence insofar as Kuyper taught that God's good gifts to all men were tokens of His common grace. It departed from Kuyperian thought, however, with its adoption of the well-meant offer as evidence of that, common grace.

16. Abraham Kuyper, "Common Grace," in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p. 181.

17. George M. Ophoff calls attention to this omission of Abraham Kuyper and exposes the seriousness of it. (Cf. Standard Bearer, January, 1925, vol. I, No.4, p. 28.) Richard J. Mouw, in quoting the entire Article 4, apparently finds discomfort in the fact that this article has been used to support the concept of common grace, seeing the sharp limitation the second part of the article places on the first part. (See He Shines in All That's Fair, p. 92.) Mouw, however, still clings to the creeds as supporting common grace, stating that, "While the Heidelberg Catechism makes the unqualified judgment that apart from the regenerating grace of God we are incapable of 'any good,' the Canons of Dort introduce an appropriate nuance, telling us that we are all 'by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good'thus leaving open the possibility of deeds that are morally laudable without meriting salvation" (He Shines... , p. 38). His reference to the Canons is to the Third and Fourth Head, Article 3. For rebuttal of this claim that the Canons introduce such a nuance, confer Homer C. Hoeksema's The Voice of Our Fathers, p. 463.

18. Kuyper developed his doctrine of common grace over a six-year period in De Heraut. The material was then collected and published in the three volumes De Gemeene Gratia (Amsterdam: Hoveker & Wormster, 1904). Hoeksema began reflecting on Kuyper's view in earlier articles, but did not refer to him by name in the particular article I quote.

19. Herman Hoeksema, The Banner (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Reformed Publications, April I7, 1919), p. 248-249.

20. Ibid., p. 249-250.

21. Heads III/IV, Rejection of Errors, Article 5.

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