01 February, 2017

Chapter 4

Perverse in All His Ways

The appendage of the third point of 1924 to the confessions can be briefly expressed as follows: the natural man is able to do good in civil things by virtue of an influence of God upon him that is not regenerative.

There is a close relation between this point and the first two points. The first point lays the foundation of all three declarations. It postulates a general operation of grace in the hearts of all men, a gracious attitude of God toward the elect and reprobate alike, which becomes manifest especially in the promiscuous preaching of the gospel. Point two further develops and applies this general, or common, grace. It consists of an operation of the Holy Spirit whereby man’s nature is guarded against total corruption; remnants of good in man from paradise; and a seed of outward righteousness preserved in man’s fallen nature, which seed germinates and bears fruit. It was to be expected that those two declarations would be followed by a third that definitely expresses that the natural man, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, actually performs good works in this world in natural and civil things.

Because of this intimate relation among the three points, and considering the conclusions reached with respect to the first two, an investigation of the doctrinal content of the third point is not likely to lead to the conclusion that it is Reformed. If the first two points cannot be regarded as in harmony with Scripture and the confessions, it follows from the inseparable connection between these two and the third point that the latter cannot be in accord with Reformed truth. Nevertheless, we will separately test the truth of the last appendage. It will bring out more clearly how untenable is the position of those who would maintain the Reformed doctrine of total depravity as taught in the confessions and at the same time hold that natural man is able to do good.

I inquire of the leaders of the Christian Reformed Church, what according to their own interpretation is the implication of the third point? Especially with respect to this point, it is expressly difficult to obtain a definite answer regarding the correct interpretation of this synodical declaration. Again you meet Janus, the Roman two-faced idol. But especially this time, if you inquire of this strange oracle what good natural man does, he begins to spin around so swiftly that you get the impression he must be shamed of both his faces, the Reformed and the Pelagian.

The Reformed confessions teach in a very clear and concise language that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any good. They even declare that he entirely corrupts and pollutes his natural light and holds it in unrighteousness, even in natural and civil things. But the third point declares the very opposite, namely, that through an influence of God on him the natural man is able to do civil good. No wonder Janus blushes and is wholly embarrassed and begins to revolve so swiftly that you cannot distinguish either face clearly.

Let me give you a few illustrations of this. I quote from the court record of Kent County Circuit Court. Dr. Beets is in the witness chair and is answering in direct examination.

Q. It is the claim of Herman Hoeksema, and he so states on the stand, that he does not agree with these three points, and as to the third point he says: “The question is simply whether natural man also in performing that civic righteousness is performing good before God, or whether he sins. That is the question. And then I maintain, whatever the natural man may do, no matter what he may do, as long as he assumes the attitude of hatred over against his God and does not love his God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, as long as that love of God is not the deepest motive of all he does, that it is sin before God, no matter what he does, absolutely.” Would you say that that is Reformed doctrine?

A. We distinguish between different kinds of good, sir.

Q. Well, I ask you whether or not you would say that is Reformed doctrine?

A. I would not assent to all his qualifications, no, sir.

Q. Why is it not Reformed doctrine, that which I have read?

A. Because he goes too far in some of the statements, not sufficiently differentiating.

Q. Is it the Reformed doctrine that the unregenerate, no matter what he does, that is sin before God?

A. I was going to …

Q. No, just follow that question.

A. Why will you not allow me to state? …

Q. Well, I will later on, but can that be answered? Maybe I did not make myself sufficiently clear.

A. Well, not all questions can be answered by just yes or not, sir. I should like to qualify.39

From this part of the examination it is perfectly clear that Dr. Beets refused to give an unqualified answer to the question, do the unregenerate always sin? The question was a very definite one. There is nothing in the question to indicate why it should not be answered by either yes or no. In fact, there is no conceivable third way of answering it. Not to answer the question by yes or no is evading the issue. This is exactly what Dr. Beets did.

Dr. Beets having explained to the court that we distinguish between four kinds of good—natural, civil, moral, and spiritual—the examination continued.

Q. But on the first three points, if an unregenerate man does do those first three points that you have mentioned, whether or not that is sin?

A. I have told you that the doctrine of the Reformed churches is that we can do natural good, civic good or civil good, and moral or ecclesiastical.40

The reader will notice that Dr. Beets still tries to avoid the question whether the unregenerate man always sins. But the attorney persists. He was surely convinced that such a medieval doctrine of total depravity as would hold that the man of the world cannot do anything but sin was not the doctrine of the Reformed churches. Hence he pursues the subject.

Q. Well, who can do that?

A. Through common grace we all can do these things.

Q. Whether they are saved or unsaved?

A. Yes sir.

Q. That means that the unregenerate can do these things and not be guilty of sin?

A. Of course, all our good, even our natural and civic and moral and ecclesiastical good, is all tainted with sin before a holy God.

Q. But can the unregenerate do good?

A. That is what our church declares, sir, civic good.

Q. Civic good?

A. Yes, sir.41

Still the lawyer is unsatisfied, and no wonder. He wanted an answer to the question, do the unregenerate always sin? He feels that he did not receive it, no matter how he urged his witness. Hence he presses on.

Q. And would you say that the claim of Herman Hoeksema, as I have read it here, is in conflict with that which synod laid down?

A. I said a while ago that I would not accept all of his qualifications. His statement has been rather sweeping.

Q. That is, he maintains that whatever the natural man may do, no matter what he may do, as long as he assumes an attitude of hatred over against God, as long as he does not love his God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, as long as that love of God is not the deepest motive of all he does, that it is sin before God, no matter what he does, absolutely.  Would you say that that is … that you would agree with that?

A. What does absolutely mean, sir?

Q. Well, I don’t know; I am using his language.

A. I thought I had been plain enough in stating that I do not accept all his qualifications.42

Obviously Dr. Beets still had not answered the question whether everything the unregenerate does is sin before God. I will trouble Dr. Beets no more for an answer to this question regarding the real and exact meaning of the third point. However, the above bit of conversation is too interesting to allow it to be relegated to oblivion.

Let us interrogate Berkhof and try to obtain an answer to this question from his booklet on the three points.

Question 1: According to your conception, professor, is the natural man wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil?

Answer: Indeed he is. “The natural man is wholly incapable of doing what is truly good. For this always proceeds from the root of faith and love to God, is not merely external, but in its deepest motives in accord with the law of God and finds its ultimate aim in the glory of God. It is good in the full sense of the word. And because man by nature is dead in sin and trespasses he is unable to perform it.”43

This is not bad. One may feel somewhat suspicious because the professor speaks of “what is truly good,” as if one could also speak of what is falsely good, and because he modifies the idea of “the good” by the phrase “in the full sense of the word,” as if good in the half sense of the word were conceivable too. Therefore, we remain on our guard. However, the professor here certainly maintains the truth that the natural man is of himself and by nature incapable of doing good.

Question 2: But is natural man, who is dead in sin and trespasses and incapable of doing true good, able to do what is good before God in the sphere of civil things, in the different spheres of natural life?

Answer: Indeed he is, for “in a positive sense synod declared that the unregenerate is capable of performing civil righteousness or civil good.”44

Question 3: Can you define this good that a totally depraved man is able to do?

Answer: “It is not easy to define the good the unregenerate man can do. His works may be called good (a) in a subjective sense, insofar as they are the fruit of inclinations and affections touching the mutual relations of men, which are themselves relatively good, and by virtue of the remnants of the image of God that are still operating in man; and (b) in an objective sense, if in regard to the matter as such they are works prescribed by the law and in the sphere of social life correspond to the purpose that is well-pleasing to God.”45

Question 4: But if you attribute to the natural man works that have their source in good inclinations and affections in harmony with the law of God and for a purpose that is acceptable to God, do you then not deny the total depravity of the human nature?

Answer: By no means. “While we acknowledge civil good, it is not denied that this relative good is at the same time sinful, if we consider it from another viewpoint. It is not good in the full sense of the word, but is only relatively good. It resembles somewhat the withered fruit one may find sometimes on a tree or shrub that is cut off from its root … Even the best works of the ungodly are from a formal viewpoint and with respect to the manner in which they are performed, entirely sinful … At the same time it is good in a relative sense. The mere assertion that all the works of the unregenerate are sinful, without any qualification, fails to distinguish properly, contains only a partial truth, and is characterized by an absolutism that is condemned by the analogy of Scripture, by our confessions and by Reformed theology.”46

Question 5: Professor, do you want to teach that sin can be relatively good and that good can be relatively sinful? Are you in this way not undermining the very foundations of all ethics and morality?

Answer: “We remember that synod did not give any definition of civil good, and therefore it cannot be held responsible for any definition or qualification. It only declared that the unregenerate is capable of performing civil righteousness.”47

Question 6: Very well, professor, but you certainly do interpret the third point. According to you civil good is a sinful good or a good sin. Can you explain how the natural man performs this sinful good?

Answer: It appears from the declaration of synod that “it explains this civil good from an influence God exerts on man without renewing the heart. If man were left to himself, he could not perform civil good. It must be attributed to the bridle by which God governs man and to the general operations of the Holy Spirit upon the intellect, will, and conscience. For this reason natural good does not entitle man to any claim of reward.”48

Question 7: Professor, would you ascribe the withered fruit of a sinful good or a good sin to an operation of the Holy Spirit that improves man?

Answer: I insist that “civil righteousness cannot be denied, unless one closes his eyes to the reality of life. Reformed people find the explanation of this in a working of God’s common grace.”49

Clearly we gain nothing if we allow Janus to keep on spinning around. If you say the unregenerate do nothing but sin, the reply is, “You are altogether too absolute, for the natural man does perform good in civil things.” If you conclude that man is then not wholly depraved, the answer comes, “He is, for also this good is sin.” Do we not become hopelessly entangled in a network of contradictions? We will do well to force Janus to come to a dead stop and to show us only the face portrayed in the third point, in order to determine whether its features are in harmony with Reformed lines as drawn in Scripture an the confessions.

What does the third point imply? It has the following tenets.

First, the natural man is incapable of performing saving good. He can do no spiritual good; that is, he cannot attain to those works that the regenerate perform through the Spirit of Christ. Of himself he cannot come to conversion, cannot love God, and cannot in all things aim at the glory of God. He is incapable of performing saving good. God does not renew his heart.

Second, however, this natural man performs many good works in the domain of this life. Many things he does in the domain of family, social, and political life that are really good before God—morally if not spiritually good. In fact, by the good he does the child of God is often put to shame.

Third, this good does not properly proceed from the depraved man as such. Were he left to himself he could not perform civil righteousness. It does not proceed from the heart as its deepest source. The good works of the ungodly are not fruits of his corrupt nature. Therefore the natural man who does good really has no part with his own works; he has no right to any reward.

Fourth, this good is properly the work of the Holy Spirit, the fruit of an influence of God on the natural man. He so influences the corrupt nature that in the case of the natural, unregenerated man, the evil tree brings forth good fruit. The Spirit does not penetrate to the heart of the natural man who brings forth fruits of good works in civil things. Yet he improves the nature, mind, will, conscience and directs the thoughts, desires, affections and inclinations of the ungodly so that with a heart opposed to God and filled with enmity against him, the ungodly nevertheless lives according to the law of God and pursues after purposes that please him. The Spirit forces, or compels, the operations of his wicked nature in the right direction as a helmsman forces a vessel against the wind.

Thus the natural man, in whom by the restraining power of the Holy Spirit much good remains from paradise, and who constantly is preserved by the Spirit’s morally and ethically compelling influence, finally comes to the performance of actual good works, although only in natural and civil things. He lives a good world-life before God. He does not necessarily sin in his walk of life; he performs much good that is real good before God. Like the good works of the elect, his deeds are tainted with sin, but they are good nevertheless. Through the magic influence of common grace the corrupt tree brings forth good fruit. Regeneration is a wonder, common grace is magical. The same fountain brings forth sweet and bitter water!

Thus the world of darkness is changed into light. It is full of men who are totally depraved by nature, but who are actually good. In actual practical life you find no totally corrupt men. In this life the difference between the righteous and the ungodly is completely obliterated.

How emphatically our opponents intend to maintain that the natural man is really able to do good before God by virtue of the compulsory influence of the Holy Spirit is more evident from a comparison between the doctrine of the synod of 1924 and the views Danhof and I expressed on this subject before synod held its sessions.

What then is civil righteousness? In our opinion the sinner notes the God-instituted relations, the given laws, means of fellowship, and the like. He notes the propriety and usefulness of them. He makes use of them for his own sake. If he succeeds fairly well in this, an action will result that formally appears to be in harmony with the laws of God. Then you have civil righteousness, regard for virtue, and an orderly external deportment. If this attempt fails, as is often the case, then also civil righteousness falls away; then the opposite is true. His fundamental error is, however, that also in striving for external deportment he does not seek or purpose God. To the contrary he seeks himself also in fellowship with other sinners and tries to maintain himself in his sin against God, with the entire world in whatever he does. And that is sin. This also actually has evil results for him and his fellow-creatures. His action with respect to his neighbour and fellow creatures takes place according to the same rule and with the same results. It therefore happens that sin always develops and that corruption continues, and yet there remains relatively a formally just behavior according to the laws laid down and instituted by God. Yet the natural man never performs ethical good. This is our view.50

We wrote that before the synod of 1924. Synod was acquainted with this fact. It condemned our view and substituted its own as expressed in the third point. Because of our view of the so-called civil righteousness it expelled us from the Christian Reformed Church (in 1926 the synod approved of the action of Classis Grand Rapids East). This proves how strongly the Christian Reformed Church intends to emphasize that the natural man does not always sin in all his ways but is really able to do what is good before God in the sphere of this present life by virtue of God’s common grace.

Against this view I have many objections of a general, doctrinal nature.

First, this view certainly lowers the moral, ethical standard of life, of what is good and evil. The attempt to maintain that man is wholly depraved and yet able to perform good works leads to the view that good can be evil and evil can be good at the same time. It leads to the conception of the relativity of good and evil. Berkhof speaks of a good that is at the same time sinful and of sin that is relatively good. He speaks of good “in the full sense of the word” and of “what is truly good,” implying that an ethical act can also be half good and half evil. He even considers the view that the natural man can only sin to be an “absolutism” that is to be condemned.

I consider the introduction of relativity into the sphere of ethics and morality positively pernicious, and the evil effects of this view are plainly observed in the actual lives of the people of God. All lines of distinction are being obliterated on the basis of this philosophy. It creates a sphere of transition, a common sphere of life, a domain where the righteous and the ungodly have fellowship with one another and live the same life. This philosophy of relative good and evil forms a very superficial conception of what is good before God. True consciousness of sin is well-nigh impossible in the light of this conception, and the true fear of the Lord is rooted out. When one considers this view in its real and fundamental tendencies, one cannot help but shudder with horror and fear for the future of a church that follows in its direction.

It is exactly the view that Berkhof condemns as “absolutism” that Scripture everywhere upholds as the truth. Something is good or evil not relatively but absolutely. Sin is unrighteousneuss. Good is what proceeds from faith, is performed according to the law of God, and aims at the glorification of his name. All the rest is sin. Light and darkness are not relative conceptions. God is the only criterion for what is good, and he is the absolute. Only what is in harmony with his will is good, not relatively but absolutely. Such is the testimony of Scripture.

The third point lowers the ethical standard of life, amalgamates light and darkness, and causes the church to be swallowed up by the world. It is detrimental to the fear of God in life. The effects of this common grace theory are already plainly visible in the life of the church.

Second, insofar as this good performed by the ungodly is ascribed to an operation of the Holy Spirit on the natural man, it is deterministic and an attack on the holiness of God.

What else is it than an attack on the holiness of God when the sinful good of the natural man, the withered fruit of the uprooted tree, is presented as the effect of an operation of the Holy Spirit? Yet it is emphatically declared that the good works of the natural man are not his own but are the fruits of the Spirit’s operation. Man of himself is dead in trespasses and sins; he is like a tree cut off from its root; he is certainly incapable of bearing good fruit. Therefore, the good he does proceeds not from his heart but from the Holy Spirit, who brings forth good fruit from an evil tree. However, these fruits, which are the direct result of the operation of the Spirit of God, are rooted not in the love of God but in the love of self; they aim not at God’s glory but at the maintenance of sinful man over against God. Berkhof admits this. Yet the Holy Spirit produces these fruits; he is their real and sole author. From this viewpoint the third point is a denial of and an attack on the holiness of God.

The third point is also strictly deterministic. The operation of the Spirit that compels the natural man to do good literally destroys his moral nature and makes him a mere tool in the power of the Spirit. Remember that by the operation of the Holy Spirit the natural man is not renewed. His heart is not changed. He is supposed to remain wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. Even his supposedly good works are not from his heart. He does not purpose to do good. He does not love the good but hates it. He really does not do the good; the Holy Spirit does it. His acts are not his own.

Berkhof does not bring out this aspect of the theory, as Abraham Kuyper did in his Common Grace. Kuyper literally and emphatically expressed that the ego of the natural man is exactly like the ship directed by the will of the helmsman: he is ethically dead, and he is not a moral agent at all. That this is also Berkhof’s view is clear when he writes, “[The good of the natural man] must be attributed to the bridle by which God governs man and to the general operations of the Holy Spirit upon intellect, will, and conscience. For this reason natural good does not entitle man to any claim of reward.”51 He is not rewarded for his good works. This conception is possible only if one proceeds from the assumption that the natural man is really not the ethical subject of his good works. The Holy Spirit compels him, determines him and his works. Hence man has no reward but with all his good works is cast into eternal perdition.

Third, the third point is positively immoral and an attack on the righteousness and justice of God, a perversion of the moral order, when it teaches that the natural man performs good works that are never rewarded. God is just, and the justice of God implies and demands that he punishes the evil and rewards the good. He who denies this or tampers with it subverts the moral order. Yet to defend the third point and theory of common grace this becomes necessary.

Emphasized in the third point is that the natural man performs much good. He often surpasses the child of God in good works and puts him to shame. Judged by the standard of the third point and the theory of common grace, it should not be difficult to discover men in this world who do nothing but good all their lives. They commit no gross sins; they live temperately and chastely; they even sacrifice themselves for the well-being of the world and humanity. Their walk in the world is good before God. The Lord stamps their works as good. They are even fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Yet these men do not receive any reward for all their good works. When they have spent their lives doing good, they are cast into eternal perdition. Where then is the justice of God? Is God changeable? Does he approve the works of the ungodly in this life and condemn them as corrupt in the judgment day? In this way the righteousness of God is attacked and denied, and the moral order of the world is subverted. What is good before God is good forever and must surely be rewarded with good.

My chief objection against this entire theory is that it is fundamentally Pelagian. It is a denial of the total depravity of man. Setting aside all sophistical reasoning and hopeless attempts to show how a totally depraved man can do good works and a wholly corrupt tree can bring forth good fruit, the bare fact remains that according to this theory man as he actually reveals himself in this world is not totally depraved and wholly corrupt. The real view of the third point, in connection with the second, can be briefly expressed by saying that man would have been wholly depraved and incapable of doing any good if there were no influence of common grace. However, he is not wholly corrupt.

 One may maintain that this view is not Pelagian because it clearly teaches that the natural man is incapable of doing any spiritual good; but the fact remains that according to this theory he lives a good life before God, just as good a life as the regenerate, if not better. The antithesis is obliterated, the chasm between church and world is removed, and the church is justified in making common cause with the world in the things of this life. Even as in principle the first point denies the truth that grace is particular, so the second and third points deny the Reformed truth that man by nature is wholly depraved, incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil. Only by a good deal of sophistry can this real implication of the third point be denied.

There is no basis for this view in the confessions of the Reformed churches, not even in the few citations made by synod, as I clearly showed in the first chapter of this booklet. The confessions mention remnants of natural good, but never do they speak of an influence of God on the natural man whereby he is improved or reformed. The confessions teach that by natural light men retained some knowledge of God and of natural things, of the difference between good and evil, but never do the confessions state or even imply that the natural man actually performs the good. The confessions declare that by natural light fallen man shows some regard for virtue and an orderly external deportment, but nowhere do the confessions express or imply that he can do good works.

The term civil righteousness is not only absent in the Reformed confessions, but also they deny the very idea. This is evident when Canons III/IV:4, which synod partially quoted, is read in its entirety, for it declares that the natural man is incapable of using natural light aright even in natural and civil things. Further, in various ways man renders this light, such as it is, wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness. The confessions do not teach an influence of God on man whereby an orderly deportment is maintained in public life, but they teach that the magistrates and the power of the police are necessary for this purpose.52

The confessions plainly declare that all the light within us, even natural light, is ethical and spiritual darkness.53 The confessions declare without qualification that the unregenerated man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.54 Not a single passage of the forms of unity can be cited as proof of an influence of God, an operation of the Holy Spirit outside of the work of regeneration that improves the sinner. I openly challenge Berkhof or anyone to point out where the confessions do speak of such operations.

Much less does Scripture support such a theory. Synod placed itself in a pitiable position by its alleged proofs from Scripture to support its third point. First, synod discovered in Scripture three examples of men who were unregenerated and of whom Scripture declares that they did what was right in the sight of the Lord. The three examples are Jehu, the general who became king of Israel, and Jehoash and Amaziah, kings of Judah.

The good Jehu did was to exterminate the entire house of Ahab, as God had commanded him. Scripture says that he did well in executing that commandment. At the same time we read that Jehu did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam and did not walk and took no heed to walk in the law of the Lord with all his heart (II Kings 10:29–30). His extermination of the house of Ahab is later reckoned as blood guiltiness that will be avenged on the house of Jehu (Hosea 1:4).

Did Jehu perform any moral or ethical good before the Lord by exterminating Ahab’s house? Did he perform moral or ethical good under an influence of the Holy Spirit? Was his sinful nature somewhat reformed or improved before he could begin exterminating Ahab’s house? The contrary is true. Jehu did not care about Jehovah and his service. That he did not depart from the ways and sins of Jeroboam makes this clear.

His motive for executing God’s command to exterminate Ahab’s house was radically different. Jehu was ambitious. Love of power and glory and a desire for distinction and superiority controlled him. The command of Jehovah to destroy the house of Ahab was the way to realize his ambition. The hope of the royal crown inspired him, and Jehu’s natural ability matched his ambition. Hence we need not be surprised that he did well in thoroughly and quickly executing the command of the Lord. But there was no positive ethical value in his command work. No matter how well he executed Jehovah’s word, his work was ethically sinful; it was rooted in self-love and aimed at his own glory and the realization of his ambitions. A special operation of the Holy Spirit in Jehu’s heart to restrain sin certainly was wholly unnecessary for that purpose, and Scripture does not speak of it even with a word.

Nor do we read of such an operation of common grace in Jehoash and Amaziah. In both cases the kings outwardly adapted to the law of the Lord in their reigns. They showed regard for orderly external deportment in ruling their people. Regarding Jehoash, Scripture distinctly says that he did right in the sight of the Lord as long as he was under the influence of the powerful priest, Jehoiada. Scripture does not imply or suggest that there was an operation of the Spirit upon these kings, an influence of God that improved their sinful natures and caused the evil trees to bring forth good fruit.

The fact that synod referred to these examples shows how hopeless the case of the third point is. Does it not teach that there is an influence of God on all men whereby they can do civil good? Granted for the sake of argument that the illustrations of Jehoash and Amaziah suggest an operation of common grace, where is proof for a similar working of the Spirit on all the other wicked kings of Israel and Judah? The operation of the Spirit of the third point does not appear to be very common or general. All these and similar illustrations show that fallen man by natural light—without any operation of common grace and while remaining wholly sinful in all his deeds and perverse in all his ways—may show for various reasons and from different motives that are always sinful some regard for orderly external deportment and may adapt himself in his outward life to the law of God.

Synod also referred to some direct scriptural expressions that are supposed to teach that the natural man can do good.

First, synod referred to Luke 6:33: “And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same.” The citation of this passage again reveals how weak the case of the third point is, because the Lord in these words does not speak of any ethical or moral good that sinners do before God, but only of the general practice of sinners to favor one another. They do good to one another, that is, they favor those who do good to them. Further, it is Jesus’ purpose to point out to his disciples that there is no ethical or moral value in this practice of sinners, for they do good only to those who favor them, which is pure selfishness and therefore ethically wrong. This morally and ethically wrong practice certainly cannot be ascribed to an influence of God on these sinners, nor is there in the text the faintest suggestion of such an influence. The text therefore offers no support of the third point.

The second passage to which synod referred appears to be more weighty. It is Romans 2:14: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.” Berkhof offers a brief interpretation of this text: “The things contained in the law” (“the things that are of the law” according to the Greek) are things demanded by the law. Berkhof appeals to Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 to support his interpretation: “Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5). “The law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3:12). According to Berkhof, both passages clearly teach that the man who does the things demanded by the law is righteous and shall live. He acquires the righteousness that is of the law.

If Berkhof’s contention is correct—that the phrase “the things contained in the law” in Romans 2:14 signifies things that the law demands, as in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12—it follows by rigorous logic that Paul teaches in the first passage that the Gentiles are righteous and live by the works of the law, for he declares that the Gentiles do by nature the things of the law, for he declares that the Gentiles do by nature the things of the law. But this interpretation refutes itself, for it is evident from the context in Romans 2 that the apostle purposes to prove the very opposite, namely, that no man is justified by the works of the law. All have sinned and are condemned. All perish, whether they have sinned with or without the law. The Gentiles do not have the external proclamation of the law, yet they sin and are accountable.

In Romans 2:14–15 the apostle does not contradict this statement by saying that the Gentiles keep the law and do good, but he explains how it is possible that those who have not the law can nevertheless sin, be held responsible, and be judged. They show in their lives and walk that they have the work of the law written in their hearts (v. 15). What is the work of the law? To declare what is good and what is evil, to draw the lines of demarcation between light and darkness, and to proclaim the will of God concerning our lives. The Gentiles have in their hearts the work of the law, natural light by which they can discern between good and evil. They are a law unto themselves (v. 14). Thus they do by nature the things of the law, that is, they do things that the external law does among Israel: they draw the lines of demarcation between good and evil.

Although they show the work of the law written in their hearts and clearly reveal that they discern between righteousness and unrighteousness, between light and darkness, yet they follow after darkness and wallow in the most terrible iniquity, as the apostle sets forth in Romans 1:18–32. Therefore, they are responsible, for they sin consciously as moral beings, and they will perish without the law. Berkhof’s interpretation must be rejected as wholly contrary to the meaning of the apostle, and synod erred seriously when it offered Romans 2:14 as proof of the contention that there is a general operation of the Holy Spirit on men whereby they are enabled to do good.

Besides, what weight of argument is there in these few passages of synod when viewed in the light of the overwhelming testimony of the word of God, which declares that the natural man never does any good? Scripture never teaches that the natural man is incapable of doing saving good but is capable of doing moral, natural, or civil good. It always declares the very opposite: all men, Jew and Gentile, are under sin and at all times perverse in all their ways. If any man will believe and accept this truth, he does not have to search Scripture for a few isolated passages to support this faith. Nor is there any need to distort the meaning of texts to elicit from them a meaning they do not convey. On the contrary, he will discover that all of the word of God supports him in this belief, and it does so by a clear testimony that leaves no doubt as to its meaning. I refer the reader to only a few passages, selected at random, in support of the truth.

They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one (Psalm 14:1–3).

Notice that especially the following passage speaks of the influence of God on the wicked, whereby they are given over to a reprobate mind—the very opposite of the influence of which the third point speaks.

And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Rom. 1:28–32)

What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; 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 together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes (Rom. 3:9–18).

Why quote more texts? These passages have no uncertain sound; they bear a clear testimony concerning the ways of natural man; they are in no need of interpretation unless you would distort them to harmonize with a man-made theory of the good that sinners do. The reader can find additional proof in Romans 8:5–8, Romans 14:23, Ephesians 2:2–3, Ephesians 4:17–19, Titus 3:3, James 3:11, I Peter 4:3, and many other passages. The synod of 1924 in its third declaration contradicted and condemned not only myself and Danhof, but also the holy Scriptures. The constant testimony of Scripture is that the natural man is perverse in all his ways.

Finally, I most emphatically deny an influence of God outside of regeneration on the natural man whereby he is enabled to do ethical and moral good before God. I deny that the natural man ever does good before the Most High. By this I do not deny that 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.


39. Record of “State of Michigan … No. 26695,” 217–18.

40. Ibid., 218–19.

41. Ibid., 219.

42. Ibid.

43. Berkhof, Three Points, 50.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., 50–51.

46. Ibid., 53.

47. Ibid., 52.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid., 53.

50. Danhof and Hoeksema, Along Pure Paths, 7273.

51. Berkhof, Three Points, 52.

52. Belgic Confession 36, in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:432–33.—Ed.

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

54. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 8, in ibid., 3:310.Ed.

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