20 August, 2016

FAQ – Total Depravity and the Restraint of sin in society. How is the world not as bad as it could be? Do we not see unbelievers doing “good deeds”?



Q. 1. “What is the truth of Total Depravity?”

The Reformed doctrine of total depravity is that men who are not born again are dead in sin, unable to do any good, and inclined to all evil. The emphasis here must be this: they are spiritually dead. The cause of this spiritual death is the fall of our first parents in Paradise and their subsequent punishment by God with death: physical and spiritual. Natural man is unable to do any good.

Biblical proof for this is found throughout Scripture. In Genesis 2:16-17 the Lord says to Adam and Eve, “The day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surly die. That punishment was meted to them, according to Ephesians 2:1ff: “You ... were dead in trespasses and sins ... But God, who is rich in mercy ... hath quickened us together with Christ ...” Many more passages speak of man’s spiritual death.

Not only is natural man dead, he is actively evil. “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: For it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:6-8). This is also the teaching of Romans 3:9-12, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are all together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no not one ...” All that natural man does is sin.

Natural man is a slave to sin. His will is bound to doing nothing but evil. This is the thesis of Martin Luther’s book, The Bondage of the Will, the only book, in his own opinion, that was worth saving. Christ said in John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.”

The above is not a careless appeal to a few isolated texts, but is the Reformed faith.

In the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 5, we learn that the natural man is “prone ... to hate God and his neighbour;” in Q. & A. 6 that natural man is “so wicked and perverse ...” and in Q. & A. 8, “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?” What is the answer? “Indeed we are, except we are regenerated by the spirit of God.” “Indeed we are.” The fathers say nothing here like, “Well, let us make some distinctions. What do you mean by good? What do you mean by corrupt?” But, “Indeed we are, except for regeneration by the Spirit of God.”

The Belgic Confession has, in Article 14, that man is “become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways ... Therefore we reject all that is taught repugnant to this concerning the free will of man, since man is but a slave to sin ... For who may presume to boast, that he of himself can do any good ... for there is no will or understanding conformable to the divine will or understanding but what Christ has wrought in man; which he teaches us when he says, without me ye can do nothing.” In Article 15 of this same creed, original sin is said to be “a corruption of the whole nature ... which produces in man all sorts of sin as a root thereof.”

What is made so plain in these two confessions is explained further in the Canons of Dordt, III/IV:1, “Man was originally formed after the image of God ... but revolting from God ... he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.”

The doctrine of total depravity is confessed by all Reformed Christians. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)


“… [Man] by nature is wholly corrupt and dominated by the principle of enmity against God and the neighbour. He is alienated from God in his inmost soul, and consequently every act of his, even though it might be in harmony outwardly with certain secondary principles of justice, is corrupt in principle as the act of a rebel. Because of sin disharmony rules in the soul of man; a deep moral corruption has taken hold of his whole life. This corruption is not dormant; it develops and causes man to proceed from bad to worse.” (Louis Berkhof, “The Three Points: In All Parts Reformed” – quoted in Herman Hoeksema, “The Rock Whence We Are Hewn,” pp. 394-95)

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Q. 2. “How does ‘common grace’ undermine the doctrine of Total Depravity?”

The third point [of common grace] teaches that unbelievers who are not regenerated can do good works, not saving good, but civil good. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

[The] third point [teaches] that unbelieving, unregenerated man does something of which God approves, with which God is pleased, and which is conformable to God's will. He is able to do civil good. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

I believe that common grace undermines the Reformed Confession of total depravity … [in that it] teaches … that the Holy Spirit restrains sin in the heart of natural man, so that there is still a remnant of good in him. The Holy Spirit’s common grace preserved man after the fall so that he did not become completely wicked. But common grace [also] undermines this teaching in the third point, which teaches that natural man is able to do civil good. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

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Q. 3. “How does the teaching of the ‘well-meant/free offer of the gospel’ undermine the doctrine of Total Depravity?”

The free offer leads to a denial of total depravity because salvation is made dependent upon the will of man. The best illustration of this that we can offer is the position of the Christian Reformed Church in this matter. Already in the “Three Points of Common Grace” total depravity was explicitly denied, for these three points teach that because of a general operation of the Spirit in the hearts of all men, sin is so restrained that the sinner is capable of doing good. This denial of total depravity has often been expressed in Christian Reformed literature by a distinction that is made between total depravity and absolute depravity. The latter is intended to refer to complete depravity so that the sinner is incapable of doing any good and able to do only evil. The former, which the Christian Reformed Church professes to believe, is interpreted to mean that the sinner is depraved in all parts of his nature, though in every part are some remnants of good. By this distinction the truth of total depravity is denied. Yet it is essential for the doctrine of the free offer because the natural man must not only be able to do good, but he must also be able to respond to the gospel offer. If I offer one thousand dollars to ten corpses, people will think I am crazy. But Scripture defines the sinner as dead in trespasses and sins. Only when this spiritual death is less than death can the free offer make any sense. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, “The History of the Free Offer”—Chapter 11)

[The teaching of ‘the free offer of the gospel’ says that the preaching of the gospel constitutes a well-intentioned offer from God to all who hear. God, for His part, wants their salvation and even offers it to them in the gospel, so it is said.
Apart from the fact that the Scriptures never once speak of the gospel as an offer of salvation, and apart from the inconsistency of believing this and at the same time saying that God from eternity does not want the salvation of all who hear the gospel, there is the fact that an offer, if it is to be meaningful, must be made to people who have some power to accept or refuse that offer. If man has any power to respond to an offer of grace in the gospel, he cannot be totally depraved. An offer of assistance to a dead man is meaningless, and an offer to teach physics to a monkey would be mere mockery. God’s work is neither meaningless nor mockery.
The answer of many to this dilemma is to say that God gives all men who hear the gospel a certain preparatory grace or common grace (another version of that doctrine) to make such a choice, but this is simply the old Roman Catholic doctrine and a denial of the biblical truth that grace is always irresistible and saving. (Rev. Ronald Hanko, “Saved By Grace: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism,” RFPA, 2002, p. 52)

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Q. 3. “What is your objection to the teaching of common grace with regard to the seemingly good works of men?”

Our objection … is simply this: The unbeliever cannot do anything for which God is pleased with him personally. There are no works that unbelievers perform which God approves, about which He says “good work,” and upon which He puts His stamp of approval. All works of unbelievers are unrighteous. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

Scripture and the Reformed confessions teach that man is totally depraved, unable to do any good, and inclined to all evil. The Heidelberg Catechism makes that plain. The only exception to this truth is regeneration. The Belgic Confession is clear: “He is corrupt in all his ways ...” “There is no will or understanding conformable to the divine will or understanding but what Christ has wrought in man.” The Canons of Dordt (III/IV:11) spell out plainly that all good works a man performs come by regeneration and regeneration alone. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

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Q. 4. “Common Grace doesn’t soften, weaken or deny total depravity. Can you name any theologians who have actually taught that?”

For a detailed response to this objection, see the following link:

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Q. 5. “Does not the doctrine of total, that is, complete, depravity makes devils out of men?”

[Every reformed theologian acknowledges that] unregenerated men and women in hell are at last completely depraved. No longer is there an operation of common grace within them causing them to be somewhat good in every faculty and part, filling them with "laudable qualities," and enabling them to perform good works in theology, ethics, science, and art. At long last, they are dead in sin. But surely [the defender of common grace] would admit that these wretched persons are still humans, and not devils. . . . Man always remains man. He remains man when he falls into spiritual death. But now he is totally depraved man. (Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Standard Bearer, Vol. 68, Issue 5)

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Q. 6 “Are you saying that man is as bad [i.e. depraved] as he can possibly be?”

Man is totally depraved apart from the work of regeneration. He is as bad [i.e. depraved] as he can be. Nothing at all alters the total corruption of his nature. He is completely incapable of doing anything morally good and pleasing in the sight of God. Everything that proceeds from his evil nature is contrary to God’s moral will. It is not only a matter of passively having a corrupt nature, but that nature expresses itself in his thoughts, words, deeds, desires and activity. All the expression of his corrupt nature is actively opposed to God. Scripture paints a picture of man that is dreadful to contemplate. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, Common Grace Considered, pp. 133)

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Q. 7. “But are there not many unbelievers in this world who live outwardly decent lives?”

[Our objection] to common grace … has never intended to deny … that many ungodly people live outwardly decent lives, or that God restrains the dissoluteness of men in its expression in society … What [we] object to is the teaching … of a restraint of sin … which maintains a gracious operation of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of the sinner, without regenerating him, so that some good is preserved in the fallen sinner. As a result of this gracious operation upon the heart of the unregenerate, it is held, he is able to perform works that are truly good, albeit only in the realm of society. This, [we think], is outright denial of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity as taught in Ephesians 2:1ff., Romans 8:5ff., and the Canons of Dordt, III/IV, art. 1-5. (Prof. David J. Engelsma, Source)

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Q. 8. “A ‘good’ action in this world is to be commended and encouraged, isn’t it? But the same action is not good in the eyes of God?”

Certain things are “useful” or “helpful” or “done well,” but not “good” ...
e.g. Ploughing a field is a useful thing, but when the wicked do it, its “sin”
Proverbs 21:4 states this explicitly: “the ploughing of the wicked, is sin.” (Rev. Angus Stewart)

Common Grace [tends] to separate material/physical/external actions from the spiritual or from the motives behind them. (Rev. Ronald Hanko, Saved By Grace: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism)

When we object to [the] third point [of common grace], our objection should not be taken to mean that unbelievers cannot do anything useful, profitable, or outwardly correct. We do not say that because an unbeliever made a pen, it is not a good pen and therefore I cannot use it; or that because he made this shirt, therefore it is not a good shirt and I cannot (may not) wear it. We do not ever say because an unbeliever wrote a book, that therefore it cannot be a useful book for the believer. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

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Q. 9. “How you define ‘good works’?”

Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 16:1)

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Q. 10. “But may we not define good works simply as ‘doing what nature teaches, showing natural affection and manifesting respect for life, property and marriage, for duly constituted authority and for the ordinances of the church’?”
                                                                           
The devising of good works is forbidden by the Westminster Confession of Faith in the opening article of chapter sixteen: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention.” (Prov. David J. Engelsma, The Standard Bearer, Vol. 69, Issue 4)

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Q. 11. “Are you saying that absolutely everything an unbeliever does is sin?”

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 16:7)

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Q. 12. “But are not some sins more heinous in the sight of God than others? Are there not variations or degrees of wickedness?”

[Yes, but this does not] imply that some deeds of the unregenerate are good in the sight of God.

Degrees of wickedness among unregenerated persons are to be explained in terms of greater and lesser knowledge; the circumstances of their lives; their own more or less intense development of their sinfulness; and the degree to which God hardens them and gives them over to their reprobate mind.


The spiritual difference among the unregenerated is a difference in degree of wickedness. It is not a difference in extent of goodness.


The doctrine of total depravity … does surely allow for “progression or variation.” There is development of sin in both individual and society. But this development is not development from partial depravity to complete depravity, that is, from more goodness to less goodness or no goodness at all. Rather, it is development of sin.


The completely depraved person, in whom is no good from birth, develops and works out all the possibilities of his depravity during his lifetime, according to his circumstances. Baby Judas was as completely depraved as was adult Judas at the moment that he betrayed Jesus. But the adult traitor had made "progress" in the intensity and expression of his depravity.


The development of sin in the world throughout history is similar. Things do not go from good to bad but from bad to worse. What is now taking place in Western civilization is not the becoming bad of a society that formerly was somewhat good but the increase of lawlessness.


The figure that accurately pictures the development of sin in the unregenerated sinner and in the world outside of Christ is not that of the sick man who gradually dies. But it is that of the dead man who gradually decays and stinks more and more.  (Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Standard Bearer, Vol. 68, Issue 5)


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Q. 13. “What is meant by the so-called distinction between “Total Depravity” and “Absolute Depravity”?”

[The distinction is intented to teach that] man is depraved in all parts of his nature (total depravity), [but] he is not completely depraved in any part of his nature (absolute depravity). (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, PRTJ, Nov. 1992, p. 60)

The distinction between "total depravity" and "absolute depravity" is the invention of the theologians who have advocated common grace. They invented it in order to discredit Hoeksema's teaching of total depravity and in order to promote their own denial of total depravity in the doctrine of common grace.
The distinction did not originate with Herman Hoeksema. He did not accept "absolute depravity" as the description of his doctrine of the depravity of the natural man. He positively rejected the notion of "absolute depravity," that is, as Macleod describes it, "such a degree of hostility to God as admits of no progression or variation."
The PRC today repudiate the distinction between "total depravity" and "absolute depravity." It is not biblical. It is not confessional. It is not part of the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. It is not even useful for understanding the real issue at stake in the controversy over the spiritual condition of fallen man. The great conflict for the Reformed faith in history has not been between "total depravity" and "absolute depravity." In fact, no one has ever taught "absolute depravity." "Absolute depravity" is a fiction. It exists only in the minds of the advocates of common grace. (Prov. David J. Engelsma, The Standard Bearer, Vol. 69, Issue 5)

Some make a distinction between what they call total depravity and something they call absolute depravity. Absolute depravity, so they say, is the doctrine we have been describing: that man is utterly bad, without any good or possibility of good to be found in him. That teaching, according to them, is neither Calvinistic nor biblical. Total depravity, in their opinion, means that men are wicked in every part—heart, soul, mind, and strength—but not completely wicked in any part. One writer uses the example of a few drops of ink in water. Every drop is discoloured, but none is completely black. That, supposedly, is total depravity and the teaching of Scripture. Apart from the fact that this is mere sophistry (What is the difference between total and absolute?), it cannot be said to be the doctrine of total depravity, since it is not total. Nor is it the doctrine of depravity that has been taught by Reformed and Presbyterian churches from the time of the Reformation. Absolute depravity, if it refers to anything, refers to the depravity of the fallen angels for whom there is no hope of salvation. (Rev. Ronald Hanko, “Saved By Grace: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism,” RFPA, 2002, p. 53)

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Q. 14. “There are two positions on the topic of man’s sinful condition after the fall. Which one do you prefer?
(1) unregenerated sinners are defiled in every part of their being, although they also remain somewhat good in every part of their being by virtue of common grace. Or,
(2) every unregenerated sinner is as developed and hardened in evil as he can possibly be.”

The refutation of [this] argument [is] simple. There is a third alternative: All unregenerated sinners are completely defiled by sin in every part of their being, although there are degrees of wickedness among them and although there is development of wickedness both in the individual and in society.

Total depravity holds that all sinners are alike completely wicked and wholly devoid of all good. As respects the extent of inherited corruption, there is no difference among unregenerated sinners. Gandhi was as completely sinful as Hitler. On the supposition that George Washington was unregenerated, he lacked all goodness as much as did Pharaoh. The Bible says so: "There is none that doeth good, no, not one" (Rom. 3:12).

But it is perfectly in harmony with the doctrine of total depravity, and certainly the truth, that one sinner is worse than another, even as one sin is worse than another sin. The apostate from the faith is far more wicked than the pagan (cf. Matt. 11:20-24). The professing Christian who abandons his wife and family is worse than an unbeliever (I Tim. 5:8). Both the unregenerated husband who faithfully loves his own wife and the unregenerated husband who commits adultery against his wife are completely depraved. Both the faithful love and the adultery are sin, and nothing but sin. But the adultery is worse sin, and the punishment of the adulterer will be more severe. (Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Standard Bearer, Vol. 68, Issue 5)

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Q. 15. “What did Dr. Abraham Kuyper teach with regard to common grace in the fall of man?”

[Kuyper] explains that such a restraining, checking, and preserving operation [had] taken place on the nature of man from the moment of the fall in paradise [and that if] there had not been such a restraining operation of common grace immediately after the fall or concomitant with the fall of Adam and Eve, man’s nature would have been totally corrupted then and there. Adam would have turned into a devil, and the earth would have been changed into hell. The life and development of human society would have become impossible. But the Spirit intervened at once by restraining grace. He did not permit human nature to become wholly corrupt. He left a seed of original goodness in man’s heart. Man did not become wholly darkness. He did not fully die. Some light was left him. Some life remained in him. Thus man lives a relatively good world-life in natural and civil things and strives for truth, justice, and righteousness. He is able to do good in this present life. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

Kuyper employs the well-known figure of a person who swallows [the poison] Prussian blue and is given an antidote. When God said in paradise, “The day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17), that must not be understood as a threat and an announcement of judgment, but as a friendly warning. Man, however, ate of the tree. As someone gives his friend—whom he warned but who nevertheless swallows Prussian blue—an antidote to save his life, so the Lord gave man the antidote of common grace, so that he partly vomited out the corruption of sin and death and did not become wholly depraved. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 16. “Dr. Abraham Kuyper asserted that the fall would have resulted in Adam and his posterity becoming beasts or devils if God had not intervened with His common grace. What are your thoughts on that?”

There is not a shred of evidence in Scripture for such a supposition, not even in the narrative of the fall of Adam and Eve as it is described in Genesis 3. But let us take a look at this supposition. It is obvious, first of all, that man would not and could not have become a devil. Man is of this creation, a part of the material world, made from the dust of the earth. It would be impossible for him to become a creature who is not material nor made from the stuff of this world. His very essence would have to be changed to something like the essence of angels, in which event he could no longer live in this world. Or, if as Kuyper sometimes said, man would have become a beast when he fell if God did not intervene, I think I would consider this preferable to remaining a man. A beast cannot go to hell. When a beast dies, that is the end of it: it has no existence beyond death. Adam remained a man; that is the tragedy of the fall.

In any case, the Canons of Dordt repudiate such speculation when in Head III/IV, article 16, the fathers write: “But as man by the fall did not cease to be a creature endowed with understanding and will, nor did sin, which pervaded the whole race of mankind, deprive him of the human nature, but brought upon him depravity and spiritual death; so also this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks . . .”

It is difficult if not impossible to imagine how Dr. Kuyper, sworn to loyalty to the Confessions and fully aware of this article, could teach what he did. The terrible part of the fall is that man remains man. He is still a rational and moral creature, answerable to God for what he does, subject to terrible punishment when he, by a choice of his own will, defies God. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, Common Grace Considered, pp. 128-129)

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Q. 17. “What does common grace say about a ‘restraint of sin’?”

Part of the modern, contemporary teaching of common grace speaks of an inner restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the ungodly reprobate that changes their natures for the better, mitigates somewhat the devastating power of total depravity, enabling the man thus blessed with grace to do good in the sight of God, but nevertheless fails to save him, so that eventually he goes to hell in spite of all these gracious influences. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, Common Grace Considered, 149)

The second point of common grace teaches that God restrains the unimpeded (unhindered) breaking out of sin, by the general operation of the Holy Spirit. He does that in their hearts without regenerating them. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

[It says that] there is such an operation of the Holy Spirit that influences the nature of every sinner and that is not regenerating but restraining, checking the power of corruption in the nature of the sinner, and thus preserving the good in him. This operation of the Spirit is the efficient cause for the corruption of sin not working through, not totally despoiling the nature of fallen man of all the good still left in it. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “The Rock Whence We Are Hewn,” p. 398)

If through the fall the nature of man had become wholly corrupt, if no good had been left in it there would have been nothing to preserve and to restrain. The corruption of sin would have finished its work. But this is not so. There is a remnant of original goodness in the sinner. This remnant would soon be corrupted and these glimmerings of light would quickly be extinguished by the darkening power of sin if the general operations of the Holy Spirit did not exert a restraining and preserving influence on man’s depraved nature. Quickly the corrupting influence of sin would have accomplished its work. But according to the second point there is a restraining general operation of the Holy Spirit through which that good in man—original good that man retained from the first paradise and that is no spiritual good, no fruit of regenerating grace—is preserved from total corruption. This is what the restraint of sin means.
This is not all the Holy Spirit accomplishes by the Spirit’s general operation on every man. He does more, according to [common grace theorists]. The Spirit brings outward righteousness and good to development. He causes the seed of righteousness in man, the remnant of original goodness that is still in him, to bear fruit. He does this by moral persuasion. He appeals to the good inclinations and desires in the soul, he presents good motives to the will, he operates on man’s conscience. Thus the seed of righteousness develops and bears fruit.
This fruit is the good which fallen man performs in his present natural and civil life. He does not come to faith. He does not receive eternal life. He does no spiritual good. He is not engrafted into Christ. He really lives the life of paradise the first, although in a weakened form, a life that is maintained and quickened by the general operations of the Holy Spirit. Thus the natural man apart from Christ can and does perform good works in the world. To a certain extent he lives a good world-life. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 18. “But if that theory is true, how then is it explained that ‘original good,’ that remnant of his original condition in paradise, remains in man since and through the fall?”

Berkhof does not answer this question, nor is the answer found in the second point. The answer is supplied by [Abraham] Kuyper in his [three volume work,] Common Grace. He explains that such a restraining, checking, and preserving operation has taken place on the nature of man from the moment of the fall in paradise. If there had not been such a restraining operation of common grace immediately after the fall or concomitant with the fall of Adam and Eve, man’s nature would have been totally corrupted then and there. Adam would have turned into a devil, and the earth would have been changed into hell. The life and development of human society would have become impossible.

But the Spirit intervened at once by restraining grace. He did not permit human nature to become wholly corrupt. He left a seed of original goodness in man’s heart. Man did not become wholly darkness. He did not fully die. Some light was left him. Some life remained in him. Thus man lives a relatively good world-life in natural and civil things and strives for truth, justice, and righteousness. He is able to do good in this present life. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “The Rock Whence We Are Hewn,” pp. 399)

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Q. 19. “What is your objection or disagreement with the common-grace theory’s restraint of sin as outlined in 1924?”

Against this view I have several very serious objections on the basis of Scripture and the Reformed standards. First, I call attention to certain fundamental principles adopted in the second point that directly conflict with the truth of the entire word of God and with the fundamental line of Reformed thinking. This view is contrary to the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty over the powers of sin and death and corruption. It proceeds from a dualistic conception of God and the world, or more particularly, of God and the power of darkness. It represents sin and death as powers next to God, to a certain extent independent of him, powers that can of themselves work corruption. But God checks this power. He restrains a power that exists and works outside of and apart from him.

This is dualism and is contrary to the fundamental conception of the word of God, which always presents God as absolutely sovereign, also over the powers of sin and death and corruption. The corruption of the sinner is spiritual death. This death is no power that operates of itself in man’s nature but is God’s servant, the execution of God’s condemning sentence in man. God inflicted the punishment of death on the guilty sinner in paradise. Death and corruption are powers that can work only through God. But if this is maintained, one cannot speak of a restraining power of the Spirit, for how can God check a power that operates only by his will and through him? The theory of a restraining grace is fundamentally a denial of God’s absolute sovereignty. It is dualistic.

Second, this entire conception implies a denial of God’s justice. Those who maintain this view want to emphasize that the light, the remnants of good, the outward righteousness that remained in man since the fall, is unmerited grace of God. It is therefore common grace. Very well, but on what basis of God’s unchangeable justice does fallen man receive light and life and goodness, this common grace? In paradise God threatened, “The day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). If God did not execute this sentence then and there, if he even prevented it, what becomes of the justice of God? To be sure, when the child of God receives remission of sins, redemption, and eternal life, these blessings are unmerited grace. But it must never be forgotten that these blessings have been merited by Christ. To what basis of justice can they point who maintain that natural man outside of Christ receives the blessing of unmerited grace?

Third, the second point is based on the serious error of resistible grace. The operation of the Holy Spirit whereby he would restrain sin is not irresistible. The fact is that corruption and sin are not actually checked but continuously make progress and develop. This was evident in the history of the prediluvian world. This becomes very evident in all history, also in the new dispensation, for the entire development of the world tends toward the realization of antichrist, the final manifestation of the man of sin, the son of perdition.

If you ask how the progress and development of sin are possible if the Holy Spirit restrains sin’s corrupting power, those who maintain this view answer that the Holy Spirit finally releases his restraining hold on the sinner and gives him over in unrighteousness. If you ask for what reason the Holy Spirit gives the natural man over in sin, the answer is inevitable: because the sinner resists the restraining operation of the Spirit and goes from bad to worse. The checking power of the Spirit is not efficacious. Man is stronger than God. The Spirit loses the battle with natural man. Or, as Berkhof expresses it, “The Spirit strives in vain. He attempts to check the power of sin and to lead men to repentance, but he strives in vain, he fails.”29 With respect to all these fundamental principles the second point is a deviation from the truth of Scripture and the line of Reformed thinking.

But there is more. My chief objection against the second point as interpreted by Berkhof and understood by the Christian Reformed Church is its denial of the total depravity of the fallen human nature. This second point is related to the third as cause and effect. It opens the way; it creates the possibility for the third point. The third declares that the natural man can do good works, although only in this present life and in the natural and civil sphere; the second points to the good left in human nature through common grace as the source of good works. The second point teaches that the human nature since the fall is not wholly corrupt if the restraining power of common grace had not intervened. Therefore, the second point is a denial of the total depravity of natural man.

… [The] second point always presupposes that some of the original righteousness of paradise is left in man, some moral integrity remains in him, some element of good is preserved, some love of the neighbor, some receptivity for the truth is still discovered in him. If this is not presupposed, there is nothing to keep, to preserve, and to check. For that reason the second point, in which the theory of common grace as expounded by Abraham Kuyper was fully adopted, implies a denial of the total depravity of fallen man. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 20. “You maintain that the doctrine of Arminius and of Pelagius was in principle adopted in the second point in connection with the first?”

The first declares that the grace of God is a matter of a well-meant offer to all men, that the preaching of the gospel is common grace. That is Arminian. The main tenet of Pelagianism is the denial of total depravity. Man is inherently good. He did not become wholly corrupt, dead in sins and trespasses through the fall. You can call him ill or dangerously sick but not dead. Pelagianism must have nothing of the doctrine that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. This is also the doctrine of the second point. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “The Rock Whence We Are Hewn,” pp. 402-403)

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Q. 21. “But isn’t there a huge difference between Pelagianism and the common grace teaching of a restraint of sin?”

I admit that there are some points of distinction … Pelagianism expressly teaches that the natural man by a proper use of his fundamentally good will can attain to the higher and saving knowledge of God. The second point does not teach this in so many words, although the case is left open to suspicion. This will be evident in a comparison of the first point—a general offer of salvation—with the second—a certain receptivity for the truth. I grant that the second point does not expressly maintain that the natural man of himself can attain to spiritual knowledge of God and Christ. But the fact remains that it emphatically maintains that the natural man, by the good remaining in him from paradise since the fall, can live to a certain extent a good world-life before God.

Pelagianism attributes the good left in man since the fall to the character of the fall. Through the fall man did not cast himself wholly into darkness and corruption and spiritual death, so that nothing good remains in him. On the contrary, the will of man remained fundamentally intact, good, and sound. The second point explains the good left in man after the fall by a restraining and preserving operation of the Holy Spirit. The result, however, is in principle the same in both cases: man is not wholly corrupt. Pelagianism explains the good found in every man by an individualistic conception of the race; every man stands and falls as his own master. It denies original guilt and corruption. The second point explains the good in natural man, in the race, by a continual preserving and restraining operation of the Holy Spirit. The fact remains, both have in common a postulation of goodness in fallen man and a denial of his total depravity. The second point is in principle Pelagian. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 22. “But does not God restrain sin in the world in some sense?”

All men are totally depraved. It is not the case that some men are something less than totally depraved. Instead of saying that God restrains sin, it is more correct to say that God restrains the “manifestation” of sin. God’s restraint of the manifestation of sin is not by a gracious work in the reprobate sinner, as the 2nd Point of 1924 teaches. God’s restraint of the manifestation of sin includes the fear of punishment by the state, a desire to avoid the unpleasant feeling of a guilty conscience, concern over loss of face to other people, etc. (Rev. Angus Stewart)

Scripture most emphatically teaches a restraint of sin. [Our] opposition to this doctrine of common grace is not that God never restrains sin. He does. [Our] quarrel is with the idea that the restraint of sin is a gracious operation of the Spirit of Christ in the heart of the natural man that changes the moral character of a man’s depraved nature, but does not save him. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, Common Grace Considered, pp. 133)

Our objection … is not that God restrains sin. God does restrain sinners from doing every conceivable wicked deed. It that were not the case, the world would be chaos. Our objection to the second point is that it teaches that God restrains sin by a gracious operation of His Spirit and in an attitude of favour toward them. If this is not the teaching of common grace, then I have no problem with the second point [of 1924]. All by itself, the second point can be true. (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

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Q. 23. “If there is no such thing as common grace, how is the world not as bad as it could be?”

All men are Total Depraved. For various (always sinful) reasons, people don't always choose the worst sins - e.g. to avoid societal shame, to pretend to themselves that they are good, to avoid a bad conscience, not enough money to indulge in the sin, it would cause more grief with one's friends or spouse than pleasure derived, etc. (Rev. Angus Stewart)

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Q. 24. “Why do not men commit every sin imaginable?”

[Some of the reasons include] lack of time, lack of resources, fear of the consequences, instinct to self-preservation [etc.]. (British Reformed Journal, Issue 9 [January - March 1995], p. 19)

There are other explanations, though, (besides the operation of the Holy Spirit in their hearts) why men do not commit every sin imaginable. The church father Augustine gave one. He explained that the wicked were so busy pursuing one lust that they did not commit all of them. If they were lovers of money, for example, they would forgo all kinds of other sins (drunkenness, drug use, gluttony) in order to pursue this one lust of theirs—to get as much money as possible. Other explanations can be given why men do not commit every possible sin. An obvious reason is that men do not desire to suffer the evil consequences of evil. According to the Canons of Dordt, they still have regard for good order and decency in society. But they have regard for this because they see it is profitable for them. A man refrains from murder, but not because God restrains him; he refrains from sinning because he knows the miserable consequences if he murders; he wants to save his own hide (this is Calvin’s explanation; see Institutes: 2.3.3). As the Belgic Confession teaches, God ordained the magistrate, “to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose he hath invested the magistracy with the sword ...” (Prof. Barry Gritters, Grace Uncommon: A Protestant Reformed Look at Common Grace)

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Q. 25. “How does God restrain sin in the wicked, if not by an operation of grace in the heart of the natural man?”

God restrains sin by providentially controlling the circumstances of people in their life in the world. A poor man with little possessions cannot sin as a Rockefeller can sin. A man who works on an assembly line cannot sin as much as a man who owns ten prosperous companies. A mere citizen cannot sin as much as a politician. A quadriplegic cannot sin as much as a Tiger Woods. A man in the jungles of Mindanao cannot sin in the same way that an inhabitant of New York City can sin. God determines all the circumstances of a man’s life, including every detail. And so, while all men are equally depraved, the expression of their depravity is limited by God’s providential determination of the circumstances of their life. The time and age in which they live (whether the fifth century or the twenty-first century), the country of which they are citizens, the position of power that they hold in politics, the economy (whether prosperous America or poverty-stricken Zimbabwe) and in the use of their earthly possessionsall outside their controldetermine the sins they commit.
God also restrains sin because He gives all men a knowledge of right and wrong … Romans 2:14, 15 […] clearly teaches that all men know what is pleasing to God and what is displeasing to Him. This knowledge of right and wrong that the wicked possess is not an evidence of God’s grace to them (why should it be?), but is God’s way of leaving the wicked without excuse. They sin and know that they sin. For this they go to hell.
But in the lives of some in the world these wicked men see clearly that law and order ought to be maintained in the world, because without it society cannot survive. And man sees too that an outward observance of the ten commandments is the way to maintain law and order. This is unsanctified common sense and it does not require regeneration or common grace for anyone to see this. If the sixth commandment is not enforced by the magistrate and murder becomes commonplace, society disintegrates and becomes a jungle. Even an unregenerated child can see that. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, “Common Grace Considered,” pp. 134-135)

[God restrains the manifestation of iniquity] by various gifts and talents, by disposition and character, and by times and circumstances. All men do not commit the same sins; everyone sins according to his place in the organism of the race and in history. The sin of apostate Jerusalem is greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sin is determined by various, often contradictory, motives in the deceitful heart of the sinner, such as fear of punishment, shame, ambition, vainglory, natural love, carnal lust, love of money, jealously, envy, malice, and vengeance. These various motives often conflict with one another, but they remain sinful, although one sinful desire or motive will often prevent the sinner from satisfying another. Sin is directed in certain channels by the different forms of life and social institutions, the home and the family, the economic years, the state, and even the church. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 26. “Does not the preaching of the gospel also serve as a protection from all kinds of sins for those who are not saved by it? Are they not to that extent are still spared from a greater eternal punishment? Does not the calling, through the law and the gospel, restrain sin, and check the corruption and the misery of mankind to some extent?”

That the preaching safeguards from all sort of sins is only true in the sense that it causes sin to develop in a different manner. In other words, it may safeguard from some forms of sin, only to cause the sin to be revealed in another and worse, be it a more refined form. A very refined professor in an unbelieving university probably does not bow before wood and stone, but he tears the Scriptures to shreds and mocks the cross of Christ. That is worse than gross idol worship. Otherwise, how is it possible that someone’s judgment could ever be increased by the preaching of the gospel? Scripture also gives us a different picture of the influence of the preaching of the gospel upon those who perish. Matters become continually worse with them and they gather unto themselves treasures of wrath.  (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, "A Power of God Unto Salvation," pp. 69-70)


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Q. 27. “Is not the preaching of the gospel a ‘blessing’ for mankind in general in that it activates religion and morality, restrains sin, and checks corruption and misery, and decreases guilt?”

This is certainly not in harmony with God’s Word, which teaches plainly that the guilt of those who reject the gospel is increased and they in due time will be beaten with double stripes. Nor is this in harmony with the history of Israel, which makes a point to teach us that no nation is so wicked as the one that in a historical sense abides under the covenant, and yet is rejected. Nor is this in harmony with Christendom, which offers us the same spectacle as that of Israel. Nor is it in harmony with our experience. Sin may take on another form, may present itself to us in a more refined form, but never can we speak of improvement or a restraint of sin through the preaching of the gospel. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Power of God Unto Salvation,” p. 83)


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Q. 28. “We maintain that the doctrine of a restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit doesn’t ‘destroy’ the doctrine of total depravity, but in actual fact ‘proceeds from’ the assumption and is ‘based on’ the presupposition that man by nature is wholly corrupt and dead in sin.” (Louis Berkhof)

The second point speaks of a restraint of sin, of a checking of the process of corruption. But how can the process of corruption be checked in anything that is already wholly corrupt? Is it of any avail to add salt to a piece of meat that is thoroughly spoiled and rotten? How then can corruption be checked in a human nature that is wholly depraved? Surely, the second point (the doctrine of a gracious restraint of sin) cannot rest on that presupposition. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “The Rock Whence We Are Hewn,” p. 395)

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Q. 29. “The second point of 1924 attributes the restraint of sin to the general operations of the Holy Spirit, and this is not referring to a change in the state of spiritual death of the natural man. These operations of the Spirit not only fail to quicken him who is spiritually dead, but also they do not bring him one step nearer to life. The second point declares that God restrains sin through the general operations of the Holy Spirit, without renewing the heart. In other words, man in this way is not regenerated. This naturally excludes all thought of spiritual improvement preceding regeneration.” (Louis Berkhof)

I never understood the second point as referring to any spiritual good in the natural man, that is, to the good that is the fruit of the Spirit of Christ. I understand very well that the second point attributes to the fallen nature a good that is not of the Spirit of grace. This element constitutes exactly my chief objection against the second point. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “The Rock Whence We Are Hewn,” p. 397)

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Q. 30 “Can you cite passages of Scripture that directly contradict the doctrine of a general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby the progress of corruption is curbed in man’s fallen nature?”

Scripture constantly declares that the natural man is wholly darkness, corrupt and evil, and dead through trespasses and sins. God’s evaluation of the natural man is that the imaginations of his heart are only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of men to see if there are any who understand and seek God, but he finds none. They are all gone aside, they are altogether become filthy, there is none who does good, no not one (Ps. 14:2–3; 53:2–3).

Scripture teaches that even though the light shines in the darkness, the darkness does not comprehend it (John 1:5). The word of God emphatically declares concerning all men without distinction that their throats are open sepulchres; with their tongues they use deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness; and their feet are swift to shed blood (Rom. 3:9–18). It teaches that the natural mind is enmity against God; it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be (Rom. 8:5–8).

Scripture judges that we are by nature dead through trespasses and sins, that we also walk in these, according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:1–2). It condemns us as being by nature children of wrath as others, having our conversation in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (v. 3). It emphasizes that by nature our understandings are darkened, we are alienated from the life of God through the ignorance in us because of the blindness of our hearts, and we are given over unto lasciviousness and work all uncleanness with greediness (Eph. 4:18–19). It declares that by nature we are darkness and it is a shame even to mention the things we do in secret (Eph. 5:8, 12).

Scripture teaches that we are foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another (Titus 3:3). It speaks not of a general operation of the Holy Spirit whereby sin is checked in its progress of corruption, but of an operation of wrath from heaven whereby sin is developed Rom. 1:18–32). It finally calls out loudly, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still,” for the righteousness of God must be manifest over all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, and sin must become fully revealed as sin, that God may be just and that every mouth be stopped (Rev. 22:11). (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 31. “Can you cite any material from the confessions that directly contradict the doctrine of a general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby the progress of corruption is curbed in man’s fallen nature?”

[The confessions] emphasize that in paradise our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin; this corruption is so great that we are incapable of doing any good and are inclined to all evil (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 7–8). They describe this corruption of our nature as “blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment,” and picture fallen man as “wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in [all] his affections” (Canons of Dordt III/IV:1). Of the race the confessions say it is “a corrupt stock” producing a “corrupt offspring.” Of this corrupt offspring they further say that “all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation” (Canons of Dordt III/IV:2–3).

True, there remain in man the glimmerings of natural light, but even natural light is so corrupted by sin that man wholly pollutes it and holds it under in unrighteousness, even in things natural and civil (Canons of Dordt III/IV:4). He retained a few remains of his natural gifts, but still all light in him is darkness (Belgic Confession 14). (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 32. “You maintain that in paradise man’s nature became wholly corrupt and depraved, so that there is no remnant of his original goodness, or righteousness, internal or external. But wasn’t man’s nature preserved at the fall? After all, he didn’t become a beast or a devil, but remained a man.”

I understand that his nature was not destroyed, that he remained a rational, moral creature, and that he retained a remnant of his original gifts from a natural viewpoint. He was not changed into another creature. He is still a being with mind and will. But in the nature–the mind and will of the natural, fallen man–all is perverse from an ethical, spiritual viewpoint. His knowledge is changed into darkness, so that he believes the lie; his righteousness is changed into unrighteousness, and his holiness is changed into corruption. His whole nature is subject to the rule and power of sin, which is enmity against God. There was no check on this corruption. His nature is exactly as corrupt as it could become. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)


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Q. 33. “Can you explain what you mean by the ‘organic development’ of sin in mankind? If there are no restraints upon the corruption of sin, are there no ‘limitations’ on the manifestation of sin in the world?”

I also maintain that the corruption and sinfulness of fallen nature come to manifestation in all their horror of darkness in the actual sins of every man, but only in keeping with the organic development of the human race. According as the race develops and life becomes more complex and gives rise to more and various relationships, sin also reveals itself as corrupting the whole of life in all its phases and relations, and the depravity of human nature comes to fuller manifestation. The root sin of Adam bears fruit in all the actual sins of the whole race until the measure of iniquity will be filled. There is no check on the corruption of the human nature, nor is the organic development of sin restrained in history.

Do not overlook that the organic development of sin is limited by various factors and influences. It is subject to the all-dominating rule of God, who gives man over in unrighteousness and punishes sin with sin in his righteous judgment, but who so directs the development of the sinful world that his counsel is fulfilled. This development is limited and determined by various gifts and talents, by disposition and character, and by times and circumstances. All men do not commit the same sins; everyone sins according to his place in the organism of the race and in history. The sin of apostate Jerusalem is greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sin is determined by various, often contradictory, motives in the deceitful heart of the sinner, such as fear of punishment, shame, ambition, vainglory, natural love, carnal lust, love of money, jealously, envy, malice, and vengeance. These various motives often conflict with one another, but they remain sinful, although one sinful desire or motive will often prevent the sinner from satisfying another. Sin is directed in certain channels by the different forms of life and social institutions, the home and the family, the economic years, the state, and even the church.

But in all these channels and under all these determining and directing influences and factors, the current of sin moves irresistibly and uninterrupted onward, never stemmed or restrained, constantly emptying itself into the measure of iniquity determined by the Host High, until that measure will be filled. Then the judgment will come, God’s righteous wrath. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 34. “Scripture speaks concerning the world of the Gentiles of their knowledge of the law and their conformity to its external demands (e.g., Rom. 2:14-15). Is this not evidence of a ‘common grace’ of God working in the hearts of unbelievers to perform good?”

It is not grace that enables them to live lives in conformity with the law of God externally, but simply that even wicked man can see the social benefit of keeping the law outwardly. Society and life in society would be impossible if people stole and murdered without any restraint. It does not take regeneration or grace to see that laws defining what is right and what is wrong are necessary and that society is better preserved when law enforcement agencies are given the authority to punish violators of the law.
Dr. A. Kuyper and his followers claim this outward conformity to the law is common grace. But such is not the case … Scripture speaks indeed of a general knowledge that all men have of God and of morality … [but] this knowledge is not common grace, for its sole purpose is to leave men without excuse; and that only by faith in Christ is there salvation. (Prof. Herman Hanko, “Common Grace Considered,” pp. 101-102)

[Man,] by nature and by the light in him as a moral and rational creature, tries to adapt himself in his life and walk externally to the law of God. He is able in a general way to discern the law of God and to acknowledge that the way of this law is good for him and for the community in which he lives.
In the state of righteousness man stood in the world as God’s viceroy, as king-servant over the earthly creation, in order that all creatures might serve man and that with them he might serve his God. But man’s relation to God was subverted through sin into its very opposite. From being a friend of God man changed into God’s enemy. Man’s knowledge became darkness; his righteousness became unrighteousness; his holiness became corruption and hatred of God. But man’s relation to the creature, although marred and disturbed, was not destroyed. Hence the sinner constantly attempts to maintain himself in the midst of and in connection with the earthly creation, as a servant of Satan and an enemy of God. Man wills the creature to serve him, and with that creature he wants to serve sin.
The creation is also subject to the ordinances of the Lord. Insofar as man by natural light can discover these ordinances of God in creation and insofar as he discerns and acknowledges that it is expedient for him to regulate his life externally according to these ordinances, there is in him outward regard for virtue and an orderly deportment. In this attempt to adapt himself outwardly to the laws of God, man sometimes succeeds in part and for a certain length of time. Ultimately, however, his sinful heart and darkened mind deceive him and lead him astray, so that he tramples underfoot even the ordinances of God that are for the benefit of his life.
As long as man succeeds, he lives temperately and chastely, maintains peace and order in the home and in his social and political life, and prospers in the world. When he fails and the lust of the flesh deceives his wistful heart, his life is characterized by intemperance, gluttony, adultery, dissipation, and drunkenness. He destroys the home, works for the downfall of social life, and causes wars and revolutions. But whether he succeeds or fails, always he lives and works from the principle of enmity against God, and he never attains to what is good before God.
Only when man is converted, changed in the depth of his heart by the divine wonder of grace called regeneration, does he know and in principle perform that which is acceptable to God, for then all his delight is in the law of the Lord. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth”)

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Q. 35. “Do the unregenerate do nothing but evil?”

I answer with the word of the apostle Paul, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23) and with the word of the author of Hebrews: “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (11:6) (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, Dec. 1968)




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