28 January, 2017

Chapter 3

Continuous Development of Sin

The purpose of this chapter is to determine whether the second point conforms to Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The contention that the second point is an interpretation of the confessions, as the leaders of the Christian Reformed Church maintain, is untenable. The second point is also an addition, or appendage, to the confessions. I proved this in the first chapter of this booklet and formulated the addition as follows: there is a general operation of grace of an ethical nature by the Holy Spirit, by which all men, apart from regeneration, are improved and reformed to such an extent that they do not break out in all manner of sins. In none of the Reformed confessions is there a presentation of the truth as expressed in this appendage. Synod appealed to articles 13 and 36 of the Belgic Confession, but without more than a mere semblance of justice.

However, it is not sufficient to prove that the second point is no interpretation of the confessions. As stated before, appendages can be in harmony with the confessions and therefore be Reformed. The Reformed confessions may be enlarged in such a way that they are not corrupted. If it should appear that the second point, although not expressed or implied in the confessions, is nevertheless Reformed, I would not object to accepting its declaration of truth. I would still protest, however, against the way it has been adopted and imposed on the churches.

We now confront the question, does the second point harmonize with the word of God and the Reformed standards? To answer this it is necessary to have a correct conception of the real meaning of the second addition to the confessions. We must understand clearly the teaching of the second declaration of 1924 before determining if it is Reformed or un-Reformed.

To avoid the appearance of evil and to intercept a possible accusation that I arbitrarily impose my interpretation on the second point, I will not confine my examination to the declaration itself, but turn to the Christian Reformed Church for light on the meaning of the second point. No one will dare to say that this is unfair.

But I meet with disappointment, for the same ambiguity and duplicity in the explanation the leaders of that church offered concerning the first point are also revealed in their interpretation of the second. Again we are before the ever-revolving head of Janus, the two-faced idol of the Romans. On the one hand these leaders would maintain the Reformed principle that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any god and inclined to all evil, unless he is regenerated by the Spirit of God. On the other hand they would make plain that this totally depraved man is not wholly corrupt. The result is that their explanations are necessarily ambiguous and two-faced. No man can serve two masters; no man can successfully hold to two contradictory doctrines.

For proof I refer the reader to the best that is on the market on the three points: the booklet of Berkhof. Notice how he abhors the Pelagian doctrine that there is any good left in the natural man.

It is really ridiculous that in this connection Arminianism is mentioned. More and more it seems that Arminianism must serve as a bugbear to frighten the people needlessly. The impression has been created that the second point actually teaches that by common grace man is somewhat improved spiritually. This would indeed be Arminian. But it is surely puzzling how anyone can read this in synod’s declaration. Synod attributes the restraint of sin to the general operations of the Holy Spirit, and these, according to Reformed belief, never cause a change in the state of spiritual death of the natural man. They not only fail to quicken him who is spiritually dead, but also they do not bring him one step nearer to life. But something must be added to this. Emphatically synod declared that God restrains sin through the general operations of the Holy Spirit, without renewing the heart. The heart therefore is not renewed; in other words, man in this way is not regenerated. This naturally excludes all thought of spiritual improvement preceding regeneration. Reformed people do not acknowledge a spiritual improvement preceding regeneration. They must have nothing of the notion of preparatory grace. Yet without any semblance of proof, it is alleged that synod adopted the doctrine of such a grace. No, the restraint of sin does not bring man one step nearer to life. It only has reference to the maintenance and improvement of his natural life.25

The professor is indignant. I know not who had the sad courage so to arouse his anger by presenting a view of the second point that he considers ridiculous. But I can assure the professor that there is no reason for him to blame me. I always understood quite clearly that the second point does not refer to a spiritual change in the sinner. Spiritual improvement and spiritual good are wrought in man only through the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. I always understood quite well that the second point does not refer to this at all. The good that is supposed to be in the natural man is outside of Christ, has nothing to do with regeneration, and is not wrought by the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. In fact, my chief objection is that the second point teaches a goodness in man outside of Christ and apart from the work of regeneration. The professor can be appeased. Clearly he maintains the Reformed truth of the total depravity of man.

More emphatically he defends the Reformed view in his description of the natural state of man. He even maintains that the second point proceeds from the assumption and is based on the presupposition that man by nature is wholly corrupt and dead in sin.

This point proceeds on the basis of a very definite presupposition … that 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.26

I challenge the professor to explain clearly the statement that the second point presupposes the total depravity of the natural man. 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 cannot rest on that presupposition.

The professor’s words give the impression that the second point is doctrinally thoroughly Reformed, for it appears to maintain the total depravity of man in strongest terms. We would feel inclined to accept it and give the professor our confidence.

But beware! Janus will presently turn around and show you his other face.

In the restraint of sin the general operations of the Holy Spirit are fundamentally important. [It is deplorable enough for the maintenance of the second point that neither Scripture nor the confessions mention this fundamentally important element.] They maintain the glimmerings of natural light that remain in man since the fall and through which 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” [which, however, the natural man, “even in things natural and civil … wholly pollutes, and holds … in righteousness.” It is strange that the professor seems so averse to quoting Canons III/IV:4 in its entirety.] They cause the seed of external righteousness to bear fruit, but do not implant into the heart the seed of regeneration. This operation of the Spirit is not a creative operation, but is moral persuasion. It makes man to a certain extent receptive for the truth insofar as it still influences him from his consciousness. It presents motives to the will, impresses his conscience, makes use of inclinations and desires in the soul, and causes to develop the outward good that still remains.27

According to the first presentation, the natural man is totally corrupt and wholly depraved and entirely dominated by the principle of enmity against God and the neighbour. The second point was supposed to be based on the truth of total depravity, but it seems that the professor understood that he cannot do anything with a restraining operation of the Spirit on a totally depraved nature. Now the second point must evidently proceed from an entirely different assumption: man’s nature is not wholly corrupt; several good elements remain in it since the fall. In that supposedly corrupt nature the professor discovers the following remnants of good: a seed of external righteousness, receptivity for moral persuasion, receptivity for the truth that operates on him from his consciousness, a will that still can be impressed by good motives, and a conscience that is receptive to good influences and inclinations and desires that the Holy Spirit can use in the restraint of sin—and a remnant of outward good.

I will not attempt to define these terms, but the professor must admit that he does not begin his process of restraining sin and corruption with a nature as entirely corrupt as he first tried to make us believe. Undoubtedly he felt that this would be impossible. Corruption in a wholly corrupt nature cannot be checked. If a totally depraved nature cannot somehow be improved and changed, the case is hopeless.

The professor now gives a different evaluation of the natural man from what he first professed to be the true characterization. He considerably improves the natural condition of the human nature before he allows his process of restraint to commence. He no more proceeds from the presupposition that the natural man is totally corrupt and wholly depraved, but he discovers in man, apart from regeneration, a seed of outward righteousness that can generate and bear fruit, a certain receptivity of the truth, and good inclinations and motives and desires. He finds considerable good in the natural man. With such a nature, with these remnants of good, these receptivities, inclinations, motives, and desires, the professor can begin his wonders of restraint. The general operation of the Holy Spirit preserves all this good in the natural man, causes it to develop and bear fruit, and presently you can witness the magic performance of a totally depraved sinner doing good works!

Taking all of the professor’s different statements into consideration, we reach three conclusions regarding the real meaning and teaching of the second point. First, the general, restraining operations of the Holy Spirit on natural man are not regenerating, nor conducive to regeneration. The second point, apart from any explanation, emphasizes this very plainly. The professor labored under the impression that I misunderstood the second declaration of 1924 and discovered in it the doctrine that the natural man is spiritually improved without regeneration. He will now see that he is mistaken. He can be assured that 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.

Second, there remained in man since the fall many good elements, which the professor comprehends under the term “glimmerings of natural light.” There is in man’s fallen nature the seed of righteousness. The reader will understand that this figurative expression can mean almost anything, is very ambiguous and obscure, and would be extremely difficult for the professor to define. What is “outward righteousness”? Is it merely outward conformity to the law of God, without truth in the inward parts? Is it Pharisaism? If it is, must it be considered corrupt? And what is the seed of outward righteousness? Where is it found? In the heart? Then the outward righteousness is also inward. All these remained in man since the fall: the remnant of outward good, the conscience, good inclinations, desires, and motives, and receptivity for the truth. They are called the remnants of the image of God in man, and the Holy Spirit appeals to all this good by an operation of moral persuasion.

Third, 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.

We must understand this point clearly. 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 Berkhof. 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.

Thus, according to Berkhof’s interpretation, we must understand the meaning of the second point. The professor will admit that I represent his view correctly and clearly. Neither is another interpretation of this point conceivable.

One question remains. How is it to be 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 Kuyper in his 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.28

Thus the meaning and implication of the second point is clearly understood and is set forth according to Berkhof’s explanation. He cannot say that I do not understand the meaning of synod’s second declaration, and that I incorrectly represent his view of it. By adopting the second point, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church raised the common grace theory of Abraham Kuyper to a church dogma.

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.

Let my opponents show, if they can, that I err. They surely cannot object that I did not interpret the second point correctly and according to its real meaning and implication. I doubt sometimes whether the leaders of the Christian Reformed Church understand the implications of this point. Consider it how you will, 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.

Berkhof and other leaders of the Christian Reformed Church are insulted that I accuse them of Pelagianism. Berkhof complains repeatedly about this injustice against those who maintain the three points. He even assures his readers somewhat spitefully that such an accusation is ridiculous and suggests that I do not make it in good faith. But I openly challenge Berkhof or anyone else to clear himself of the indictment.

I frankly admit that this accusation would be unjust if I maintained that the second point expressly declares that man of himself can attain to salvation and saving good. This, however, I never asserted. Yet I 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.

I admit that there are some points of distinction between rank Pelagianism and the second declaration of 1924. 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.

Therefore, what Berkhof writes is untrue: “This point proceeds on the basis of a very definite presupposition … that man by nature is wholly corrupt and dominated by the principle of enmity against God and the neighbor.”30 This presentation is false. I challenge the professor to substantiate his statement and to make clear how corruption can be checked in a nature that is wholly depraved. He will find it an impossible task.

As I have proven, the professor flatly contradicts his statement later when he writes that the seed of outward righteousness and outward good, receptivity of the natural man for the truth, and good inclinations and desires—in short, many good elements—remain in man since the fall, which the Holy Spirit uses by his general operations.31 The second point is based not on the presupposition Berkhof mentions, but on the directly opposite supposition that the natural man did not become wholly corrupt through the fall. Only on that supposition can there be room for the theory of a general operation of the Spirit by which good is kept from further and final corruption.

I can now define more correctly the real significance and implication of the second appendage to the confessions, as follows: there is a general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby the progress of corruption and sin in the human nature is being checked in such a way that the fallen nature was preserved in paradise and is constantly being preserved against total depravity.32

For this declaration, or appendage to the Belgic Confession, synod offered no proof. Article 13 speaks of God’s absolute sovereignty and control over devils and ungodly men. God always holds the reins. He directs, controls, and dominates the sinner so that even in his sinful deeds he can only fulfil God’s sovereign counsel. He cannot do as he pleases. He is not independent. The Most High holds him in his power. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession that synod quoted refers to the sword power of the magistrates. But nowhere does it suggest a general operation of the Holy Spirit whereby the progress of corruption in human nature is checked. Man is constantly bridled by the Most High, mediately and immediately, in all his actions, but he is always wholly corrupt.

It is more than ridiculous when Berkhof writes, “The second thought expressed in the declarations of synod is that God restrains sin by the general operations of his Spirit. This is not expressed in so many words in our confessions, but may be easily deduced therefrom.”33 Why does not the professor point out how the theory of the general operations of the Spirit can be deduced from the confessions? He considers it an easy matter, yet he fails to make the deduction, although he is well aware that members of the synod of 1924 protested against this expression. However, I safely state without fear of contradiction that the confessions contain no shadow of a suggestion that the fallen nature of man is preserved from entire corruption by the general operations of the Spirit. Neither do to the scriptural passages to which synod referred sustain the declaration of the second point. Synod appealed to Genesis 6:3: “And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man.” The tacit and supposed exegesis of synod is, “My Spirit shall not always check the progress of corruption in man’s nature,” but this has no sound basis. The exegesis of synod leads to an absurdity, as Berkhof shows plainly on page 43 of his booklet. The Spirit before the flood had not restrained the development of sin at all; the whole race had fast become ripe for destruction. Further, the word strive certainly does not mean the same as check or restrain.

The simple and self-evident explanation is that the Spirit had striven through the word, by the mouths of the prediluvian saints, with the ungodly generation living before the deluge. The result, however, had been not a check of corruption, but hardening of the hearts and further development of sin. The strife of the Spirit would not last forever. The end was approaching. The world would be judged and destroyed in the flood.

Further, synod referred to a triplet of texts, Psalm 81:12–13; Acts 7:42; and Romans 1:24–26, 28, which teach that God gives the sinner over to all manner of evil, iniquity, and corruption. No exegesis can possibly deduce from these passages the doctrine of a general operation of the Holy Spirit whereby the progress of corruption is checked in the fallen human nature. Directly the texts teach exactly the opposite, for to give over is the very opposite of to restrain.

Nor do the texts presuppose a restraint by the Holy Spirit prior to the giving over. Romans 1 teaches very clearly that there is a constant and general manifestation of the wrath of god over all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men, who hold the truth under in unrighteousness (v. 18), and that the wrath of God against the wickedness of men becomes manifest especially in God’s giving the ungodly over into worse corruption and deeper mire of sin (vv. 24, 26, 28). The wrath of God manifested in his giving the sinner over is revealed throughout history from its very beginning, according to the chapter, for its cause is that man, knowing God, would not glorify him as God and be thankful.

Hence the chapter teaches exactly the opposite from the declaration of synod. The synod declares that there is a general operation of grace by the Holy Spirit whereby corruption is checked in the nature of man. But the first chapter of Romans teaches that there is a general operation of wrath, revealed by God from heaven, whereby man is given over from corruption into deeper corruption. Anyone may verify the truth of this explanation by following the reasoning of the apostle Paul in verses 18–32.

Last, synod referred to II Thessalonians 2:6–7: “Now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” The tacit assumption of synod was that “he who now letteth” is the Holy Spirit who restrains sin so that the man of sin cannot yet be revealed. This explanation is impossible, because Scripture would not write of the Holy Spirit, “until he be taken out of the way.” Yet this refers to the same person as the expression “he who now letteth.” Berkhof in his booklet forgets to mention this text and offers no explanation.

My conviction is that the apostle had in mind a definite person known to the Thessalonians, who stood in the way of the full realization of the antichristian power and kingdom. We know not, neither need we conjecture who that particular person “who now letteth” was. That person of Paul’s time was a type of all those persons, powers, and circumstances that throughout history prevent the realization of the antichristian kingdom before God’s time. However, the text certainly does not refer to the Holy Spirit and his general operation whereby he checks the progress of corruption in man’s nature.

Other proof synod did not give.

Scripture and the confessions, however, are full of passages that directly contradict the declaration of synod concerning the general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby the progress of corruption is curbed in man’s fallen nature. I already pointed to Romans 1 as teaching the very opposite from the declaration of synod in the second point. Furthermore, 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).

Why quote more? Scripture always bears the same testimony. Who does not know it? Who does not feel that it is the testimony not of the word of God but of mere human philosophy that speaks of a certain goodness of the natural man through the general operations of the Holy Spirit?

And do the confessions ever speak a different language? The contrary is true. They 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.34 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.”35 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.”36

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.37 He retained a few remains of his natural gifts, but still all light in him is darkness.38 But why multiply these quotations? It is a generally acknowledged fact that the Reformed confessions emphasize the total depravity of the human nature. Nowhere do they even suggest any improvement or reformation of this nature by a general operation of the Spirit.

Over against the second point I maintain, on the basis of the word of God and the Reformed confessions, 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. 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.

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.

Only when we are regenerated by the Spirit of God are we delivered from this awful power of sin and restored to God’s favor, that we might be holy and without blemish before him.


25. Berkhof, Three Points, 38–39.

26. Ibid., 35.

27. Ibid., 37.

28. 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.

29. Berkhof, Three Points, 43.

30. Ibid., 35.

31. Ibid., 37.

32. It will be evident to the reader that this view tends to obliterate the antithesis and constitutes a proper basis for worldliness. If natural man can actually live a good world-life before God by virtue of the remnants of natural light and goodness left in him from his original state, we must not separate ourselves from the world in natural and civil things to live from a different principle than natural man, but it is our calling to join him and unite with the world to elevate its life. Then you can not object to the worldly unions but ought to join them; then you must close the Christian schools and unite in improving the public schools, for in all these various domains of life the world also lives a good life before God.

33. Berkhof, Three Points, 37.

34. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 7–8, in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:309–10.Ed.

35. Canons of Dordt III/IV:1, in ibid., 3:587–88.—Ed.

36. Canons of Dordt III/IV:2–3, in ibid., 3:588.—Ed.

37. Canons of Dordt III/IV:4, in ibid.—Ed.

38. Belgic Confession 14, in ibid., 3:398–99—Ed.

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