Most of our readers know no doubt that Torch and Trumpet, a periodical published by a group of ministers in the Christian Reformed Churches, has decided to review the matter of Common Grace. It purposes to do this by publishing a series of articles written by representative men in various church groups who will express their views on this subject. We understand that even the Rev. H. Hoeksema has been asked to write an article in this series.
Torch and Trumpet presents the first of this series of articles in Vol. 3, No. 5, written by Dr. W.H. Rutgers of Calvin Seminary and is supposed to present the “Christian Reformed Opinion.” The article is much too long to present in our department of the Standard Bearer. We can give you only a general survey and a few quotations of what Dr. Rutgers has to say on the so-called “accepted view of Common Grace.”
At the beginning of his article Dr. Rutgers makes three or four observations. He notes first of all the “rather significant fact that even though the teaching of common grace has been confessed by the orthodox Christian church from the earliest times, it has never been elevated to a doctrinal standard, nor has it been given precise formulation and definition.” He says there are “suggestive hints in the confessional standards” such as Belgic Confession 13, 14, 36, Canons of Dordt II, 5, 6; III, IV, 4, 8, 9 and Westminster Confession V, 6. But there is no precise formulation and definition of this doctrine. Secondly, he observes “that there is no unanimity of opinion relative to this doctrine among Reformed thinkers.” He says there is “ a wide area of fundamental agreement.” But, he continues, “we do not find that specific, precise definition which determines the exact bearing and delimitation on such an important question as, for instance, the extent and validity of the knowledge of unregenerate man who has the light of general revelation, or even of such an individual who is privileged to consult the infallible disclosure of God’s will as deposited in the Bible.” Thirdly, he notes that there is no “agreement as to the blessings that common grace gives.” And lastly, he states that “there is a difference of opinion as to whether common grace operates mediately or immediately, as to the relationship of common grace to the atonement wrought by Jesus Christ on Calvary, and as to the precise relationship between common grace and saving, sanctifying grace.”
Dr. Rutgers is willing to admit that the last word has not been spoken on this doctrine of Common Grace. He claims that “just because Christianity makes the claim to be the one, final, true religion, and just because Christianity, at its best, i.e., Calvinism, has championed the implications of this fact namely, the sola gratia (by grace only) gospel, man’s spiritual incapacity, his total depravity, the firm decree of predestination with its two parts of election and reprobation; just because it champions particular grace and strictly maintains with emphasis and in the focal point of teaching and preaching the antithesis, just for that reason the question of common grace, a grace not saving and sanctifying which extends beyond the circle of the elect, a grace common to elect and reprobate alike, poses a real problem.”
The professor then proceeds to define the word “Grace”. He claims that the word is capable “of a more narrow and of a wider interpretation, that is, we can employ it in a more absolute or in a more relative sense.” But no matter how it is used, whether in the absolute or in the relative sense, it is always unmerited favor. If grace is meant to signify salvation or any grace pertaining thereto, then the reprobate do not share grace, “and the term common grace would be misleading and erroneous. Grace, however, in its radical sense is defined as unmerited favor. With this connotation the term allows of wider latitude than saving, sanctifying grace. In the radical sense grace stands opposed to merit.” Man cannot be saved by any merit of his own, as the Romish theology teaches, but he is saved by grace alone. The Calvinist draws a sharp line of distinction between common grace and saving grace therefore. He would not have the antithesis go into eclipse, and have the church end up in the arms of liberalism and modernism or pure rationalism. He says: “Our controversy with those who deny common grace has at least alerted us and forcibly reminded us of such a danger. Calvinists who maintain their faith in the teaching of common grace can hardly be said to be sailing in Arminian waters and thus heading towards liberalism. This can hardly be true so long as they emphatically preach and teach salvation solely by sovereign, irresistible grace, that the core and essence of the gospel is grace; that Christianity is the one true religion and so long as they maintain the absoluteness of Christianity, and, hence, the antithesis.”
In the next division of his article Dr. Rutgers wants us to know that we have not said enough when we declare that the antithesis must be maintained and that man is saved by sovereign irresistible grace alone. He wants us to see and “acknowledge that there is in this world among the enlightened non-regenerate and even among pagans a rich stream of natural life. There are culture, government, a social organism, the development of the arts and sciences, shining and commendable virtues and actions.” He then asks: “How can we account for all this?….How can we account for the fact that even the non-regenerate have a sense of justice, of right and wrong, have some regard for virtue, good behavior in society? How can we explain the special gifts that men possess in the arts and sciences? How is it to be explained that some unregenerate men do good to others, speak the truth, lead outwardly virtuous lives? Are the material blessings of rain and sunshine, prosperity and the enjoyments of the inventions of science, which are shared by elect and reprobate alike, are these a blessing, favor to the reprobate, or a curse? Are these manifestations a demonstration that God is favorably disposed even to those outside the circle of the elect?…What is it that curbs, restrains, checks the mad rampage of sin in this world, which if left to itself would lead to anarchy and swift destruction?”
The answer to all these questions, according to the professor, is common grace. This is also, according to him, the answer of Calvin, Hodge, Kuyper and Bavinck.
He then uses quite a bit of space to point out what especially Bavinck and Hodge teach on the matter of common grace, which I pass up now. The next paragraph he devotes to the Christian Reformed view. Says he, “The views of Kuyper, Bavinck and Hepp and the position held generally by the membership of our church is more in line with that of Calvin. The sphere of operation of common grace is as extensive as is sin in this sin-cursed world. By common grace sin is curbed, in the heart of the individual and no less in this world. By common grace we explain the relative good accomplished by the unregenerate, the virtues found among the pagans. God still witnesses to all men through nature and reason, in heart and conscience; sparks of divine glory glimmer in every part of the world; the semen religionis (seed of religion—M.S.) is ineradicable in man’s heart. Man’s natural gifts have certainly been corrupted, but they have not been entirely withdrawn. Reason and judgment have not been wholly lost; man still distinguishes between good and evil, truth and error, the divine logos still gives a measure of illumination to every man, leaving him without excuse; the arts and sciences are developed and these are good and necessary gifts. Due to common grace the institutions of the family and the state are maintained….God even allows men to share material blessings beyond the measure of bare necessity….We would contradict all of human experience and we would be guilty of grossest ingratitude if we did not recognize these things as precious boons, gracious favors, grace, unmerited favors coming to sinful man from the father of lights above, the giver of every good and perfect gift.”
Dr. Rutgers posits, finally, what he calls: “The Central Critical Question.” Writes he: “In the debate about common grace the central critical question is this: Is there besides particular grace and sin, a third principle or power operative in this world, a second kind of grace creating a sphere where the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman meet on common ground and are really one? Or to restate this in other terms: Can God in any sense be graciously inclined to the reprobate? Are not the reprobate always subjects of God’s wrath?”
The professor’s answer to these questions is: If you narrow “down the concept of grace to favor received and enjoyed in Jesus Christ, that is, forgiveness of sins, adoption, the title to eternal life—in a word, salvation; and secondly, reasoning entirely from the viewpoint of God’s secret decree of predestination with its two parts of election and reprobation, the only answer that could be given to the above questions is negative. Such a position logically leads to a denial of the bona fide offer of the gospel and the practical issue is that mission endeavor and enthusiasm becomes a rarity.” The professor continues: “Biblical preaching and teaching recognizes the firm, unalterable decree of God as the ultimate and final ground for all that is and how it is; but it no less recognizes that here much is secret, known only to God. It recognizes moreover that there is a revealed will of God too, and that revealed will emphasizes man’s responsibility.” This divine sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not to be reconciled as far as man is concerned. And he concludes with a warning that though the doctrine of common grace is important, it should never “supplant the proper and focal emphasis of the gospel and the central strand of Reformed witness, namely, particular grace, etc.”
We have some questions we would ask of Dr. Rutgers. Would you consider the Three Points of 1924 a precise formulation and definition of the doctrine of common grace? In the light of the fact that “there is no unanimity of opinion relative to this doctrine among Reformed thinkers,” how do you explain that your church nevertheless took it upon herself to cast out Reformed thinkers who did not agree with her? Why didn’t you explain “the precise relationship between common grace and saving, sanctifying grace”? Why does common grace pose a real problem because of the sola gratia gospel? Does not the word “grace” have another meaning besides unmerited favor? And will you please explain how you arrived at the conclusion that one who teaches common grace can hardly be said to sail in Arminian waters because he also emphatically preaches and teaches salvation by grace alone?
I have many more questions but no more room to ask them. Professor, next time, a little exegesis please. We would rather hear from Scripture and the Confessions than from the theologians who believe in common grace.