In the November 2000 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal (CTJ), journal of the seminary of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), Professor John Bolt raises anew the issue of the CRC’s third point of common grace. He does this in an article titled, “Common Grace, Theonomy, and Civic Good: The Temptations of Calvinist Politics (Reflections on the Third Point of the CRC Kalamazoo Synod, 1924).” At the end of his reconsideration of the third point, Bolt proposes a reformulation of the third point that he thinks might be acceptable to both the CRC and the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC).
The third point teaches that the unregenerated can do works in everyday life in society that are good. The cause is a working of grace within them by the Holy Spirit, as is the teaching of the second point of common grace. Ultimately, the explanation is a favorable attitude of God toward all unregenerated people, reprobate as well as elect, as the first point affirms. There is good in the souls and deeds of the unregenerated because of the grace of God to them and in them.
Although the purely theological issue is not the Christian Reformed theologian’s main concern in the article, Dr. Bolt does examine the theological issue. Correctly, he notes that the theological issue is the doctrine of total depravity and that this was the main issue, if not the only issue, for Herman Hoeksema and Louis Berkhof during the controversy in the 1920s.
The PRC object to the third point as a departure from the biblical and confessional doctrine of total depravity. The doctrine of total depravity holds that the unregenerated sinner—the “natural man”—is spiritually corrupt. His nature, what he is—body and soul—is corrupt. The corruption is complete. Body and soul are wholly sinful. There is no good in him. The power of sin reigns in him so that there is no possibility of any good appearing in him—not a good thought, not a good desire, not a good affection, and, therefore, not a good word or deed.
This is the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in Question 8; of the Belgic Confession in Articles 14 and 15; and of the Canons of Dordt, III, IV. This is the teaching of Scripture in Psalm 51:5, Romans 3:9-20, Ephesians 2:1-3, and other places.
This is the meaning of “total.” This is the meaning of “total” in the English language. “Total” does not mean partial. Everyone is clear as to the meaning of “total” in economic matters. If I tell my creditor that the check is total payment of my debt, whereas in fact it is only 95% of the amount that I owe, he will let me know in a hurry what “total” means.
The cause of the total depravity by nature of every member of the human race, Jesus Christ only excepted, is the transgression of Adam, covenantal head of the race. His disobedience rendered him and all of us guilty and, therefore, worthy of the judgment of the spiritual death of total depravity. Descending from our fallen father and mother as from a foul source, we inherit their depraved nature through natural conception and birth.
The third point of common grace denies total depravity. The third point teaches that, with the possible exception of an Adolf Hitler, unregenerated men and women are able to perform good works. The reason is given in the second point of common grace: a work of the grace of God within them restraining sin in them. By virtue of this operation of the Spirit within them, the unregenerated can think some good thoughts, desire some good desires, and entertain some good motives. Out of these good thoughts, desire, and motives come some good deeds.
The good in the souls and works of these unregenerated people is a goodness in the judgment of God. Although not a good produced by saving grace in their hearts (they are and remain unregenerated) and although a good only in everyday, earthly life, it is good in the eyes of God. For it is the fruit of His own grace in these people.
In their third point, the CRC did not purpose to deny total depravity. Rather, they purposed to defend total depravity. In the discussion about the third point, no one should suppose that the PRC overlook, or ignore, this. Louis Berkhof insisted that the third point is a defense of total depravity in his explanation of the three points in 1925, “The Three Points in All Parts Reformed.”
The defense goes like this.
It is obvious to everyone that, with the possible exception of an Adolf Hitler, unconverted people do many good deeds in everyday life. Mozart writes glorious music. Winston Churchill courageously stands alone for liberty in the face of the Nazi juggernaut. A Muslim mother sacrifices her own life for the child she loves. A worldly truck driver stops to help the Christian whose car has broken down on the expressway.
If we do not recognize God’s work of common grace in these unbelievers, so runs the CRC’s defense of total depravity, we will have to conclude that the doctrine of total depravity is false. Our own eyes see and our own minds perceive that ungodly people do good deeds. But if we confess common grace, we attribute the good that is obvious in the lives of the ungodly to the grace of God.
In his “The Three Points in All Parts Reformed,” Berkhof wrote this (I translate):
If we deny the working of God’s common grace, we must necessarily come to the conclusion that [unregenerated] man performs that external good of himself. Then we very definitely run the risk that we deny the total depravity of man.
The PRC are well aware of the claim by the CRC to be defending total depravity by their doctrine of common grace.
The fact remains that the third point is a denial of the doctrine of total depravity. The third point denies that unregenerated people are totally depraved. They would be totally depraved, if it were not for common grace. But because of common grace, they are not totally depraved. In the CRC and in every other denomination that embraces this doctrine of common grace, total depravity is a mere abstraction. No matter that the doctrine is part of the church’s official documents and no matter how loudly the church declares that it maintains total depravity, total depravity in that church merely describes what the race would have become, had not God intervened with His common grace. Real flesh-and-blood people, the genial unbeliever next door and the decent pagan on the mission field, are not in fact totally depraved. No one is totally depraved, except perhaps Adolf Hitler. All flesh-and-blood people are somewhat good and do some good by the grace of God. They are partially depraved.
This, charge the PRC, contradicts the biblical doctrine of total depravity. The biblical doctrine does not intend to be an abstraction. It does not intend to describe what would have been. It is the searing judgment upon living, flesh-and-blood people. It is the gospel’s indictment of real people—my genial, unbelieving neighbor, the decent pagan on the mission field, and myself as I am by nature, apart from the regenerating grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is the gospel’s judgment upon every person to whom the gospel comes.
Total depravity is the gospel’s judgment of us all, not as a “might-have-been” but as a reality in Romans 3:9ff.: “They are all under sin … there is none righteous … there is none that doeth good, no, not one … there is no fear of God before their eyes … that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”
This is the gospel’s—and Calvinism’s—offense. The world knows that the gospel—and Calvinism—pronounce this humbling judgment. This is why the world hates the gospel—and genuine Calvinism (to be redundant).
To insert the third point of common grace, with its roots in the first and second points, right after Romans 3:20, as a kind of mitigating footnote to the devastating judgment passed upon the fallen race of mankind inRomans 1:1-3:20, is incongruous. Try it. Mentally, make a large space in the Bible between verses 20 and 21 ofRomans 3. In that space visualize the three points of common grace adopted by the CRC in 1924:
Nevertheless, fallen, unregenerated men and women, Gentiles and Jews, are able to do many works in everyday life that are good in the sight of God. Indeed, by their good works some of them put regenerated believers to shame. This is because there is a grace of God working in them, a power of the Holy Spirit Himself in their souls restraining sin in them and making them somewhat good. And the source of it is a favorable attitude that God on His part has toward them—a real love, a real grace—altogether apart from the cross of Jesus Christ (which, of course, modifies significantly the truth of predestination that will come up in chapters 8-11).
To attach this modifying and mitigating footnote to the gospel’s judgment on fallen men and women in Romans 1-3and elsewhere is fatally to soften and compromise the judgment of the gospel. Since the gospel sounds this judgment in order thus, by the saving grace of the Spirit of Christ, to humble the elect sinner, so that he abhors, renounces, and abandons himself, that is, repents, and casts himself in faith on the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone, common grace opposes and undermines the gospel.
To leave anything good in unregenerated man is to cater to the sinner’s self-flattery and self-reliance. It is to open the door to the notion of the sinner’s cooperation with the grace of God in the gospel in salvation—the heresy of free will.
The avowed enemies of the Reformed faith see, and gleefully point out, that the doctrine of a common grace that produces good in the unregenerated is concession on the part of Reformed churches that do not dare maintain in reality the doctrine of total depravity that they profess. Common grace is a concession that jeopardizes the Reformed repudiation of free will. Not long ago, Clark Pinnock edited a book that is an all-out, vicious assault on the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace, which Pinnock calls Calvinism. Explaining why he has abandoned Calvinism and why now he damns it as monstrous false doctrine, he wrote:
The depth of human sinfulness was another matter that soon demanded my attention. Calvinists, like Augustine himself, if the reader will excuse the anachronism, wanting to leave no room at all to permit any recognition of human freedom in the salvation event, so defined human depravity as total that it would be impossible to imagine any sinner calling upon God to save him. Thus they prevented anyone from thinking about salvation in the Arminian way.
Then Pinnock added these words:
Leaving aside the fact that Augustinians themselves often and suspiciously qualify their notion of “total” depravity very considerably and invent the notion of common grace to tone it down, I knew I had to consider how to understand the free will of the sinner in relation to God (The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, Zondervan, 1989, p. 21).
The third point of common grace has another evil effect, although this has been ignored in the debate. It wreaks havoc with the Christian’s assurance of salvation. The Spirit of Christ assures the believer of his salvation, perseverance, and election in connection with evidences of grace in his own experience and life. Canons, V/10 mentions that the “desire … to perform good works” is such an evidence. The importance of this “solid comfort” must not be minimized. If we are robbed of this, to live in perpetual doubt and uncertainly, we are “of all men the most miserable.”
According to the third point of common grace, the desire of soul to perform good works is no evidence of salvation. For also the unsaved and perishing have such a desire, and they have it by the grace of God.
If the glittering deeds of the ungodly are not the good product of common grace, what are they? What about the seeming good in the lives of the unregenerate?
(to be continued)