If the seeming good of the unregenerated is not the fruit of a gracious operation of the Holy Spirit within them, as the previous editorial argued it is not, how must this seeming good be judged? What must the Reformed church say of the works of unbelievers that glitter with the apparent glory of righteousness; mercy; love for family, neighbor, and country; and goodness? That there are such works is undeniable. Defenders of the teaching of the third point of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1924 appeal to these works in defense of the teaching. These defenders are as numerous outside the CRC as within it.
It should be noted in passing that the avowed foes of the gospel of grace have always appealed to the seeming good of the ungodly in defense of their denial of total depravity and their affirmation of free will. Erasmus appealed to this seeming good in his historic controversy with Luther over the bondage of the will. This is ominous. It is a warning to Reformed churches and theologians who call the deeds of the ungodly good to beware lest they find themselves with semi-Pelagian Erasmus opposing the gospel of grace.
We must not think to expose the real wickedness of the seeming good of the unregenerated by attributing base motives to all who perform the glittering deeds. This is sometimes done. Then Churchill stood during England’s and the West’s dark hour only for personal glory. Every unbelieving husband is faithful to wife and children only because the peace of marriage and family is more comfortable for him. Philanthropists give large sums of money to hospitals only to get their name on public buildings. Worldly people stop to help a stranded motorist only so that one day others may help them.
This is not true. Nor will such a judgment on the seeming good of the ungodly ever convince the defender of the third point of common grace that the third point, with its roots in the first and second points, is false.
There is much of ignoble selfishness in the seeming good of the ungodly, as, alas, there is too much of it in the works of the godly. There are philanthropists who give only to see their name prominently displayed and to assure that their name will be known long after they die. There are politicians whose motive in serving their nation is the service of themselves, as there are ministers in the churches whose motive is the same. There are husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers whose outwardly exemplary behavior disguises purely selfish interests. The father dotes on his son simply because the son reflects well on the father, whether in sports, education, business, or some other way.
But this does not account for all of the seeming good of the wicked. There is natural love—natural love for wife and children; natural love for the neighbor; natural love for country. This natural love can sacrifice self for the object of love. The Muslim mother gives her own life for her child. Natural love can also detest evil in the world. In love for his own nation and for earthly liberty, a Churchill could hate Hitler and Nazi Germany.
We recognize this. We too see the glitter of a certain glory in many of the deeds of unbelievers.
But it is the judgment of God in the gospel that inasmuch as this natural love, which at its highest and noblest is man’s love for man, does not include love for Him, indeed is not rooted in love for Him, this natural love is sin. It is only sin. It is sin as regards the thought, desire, and feeling in the soul. It is sin as regards the deed.
This is the issue in the common grace controversy with specific reference to the third point. Can a desire, for example, the desire of a Churchill to destroy Nazi tyranny and preserve freedom, be good that does not desire the triune, one, true, living God? Can a deed be good that does not take Him into account, that does not aim at Him and His glory, that, in fact, aims away from Him toward other gods, including the god, Humanity; the god, Family; the god, Freedom; and the god, Nation?
One of the main biblical words for sin has the meaning, ‘to miss the mark.’ The mark is the glory of the God and Father of Jesus Christ revealed in the gospel. Whatever in men and devils misses the mark is sin. It is sin for this reason.
To leave God out is vice.
To leave God out in everyday, earthly life is civic vice.
The plowing—not the worship, but the plowing—of the wicked is vice (Prov. 21:4).
The seeming good works of the ungodly glitter with the beauty and glory of man. But “all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” (Is. 40:6). The seeming good works of the ungodly are glittering vices.
The question in the controversy over the third point of common grace is our Reformed judgment of the seeming good performed by the unregenerated. This question is raised anew by the article, “Common Grace, Theonomy, and Civic Good: The Temptations of Calvinist Politics (Reflections on the Third Point of the CRC Kalamazoo Synod, 1924)” in the November 2000 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal. The question is answered clearly and authoritatively by the Reformed confessions.
It is nothing less than amazing that the CRC officially confessed that the works of the ungodly are good—real good, the fruit of the grace of the Holy Spirit in the soul—and then cast out ministers and churches that objected, in the face of the clear, decisive testimony of the confessions.
It is nothing less than amazing that to this day a majority of Reformed and Presbyterian churches agree with the CRC and dismiss the objection of the PRC—and the PRC themselves—as Anabaptist, hyper-Calvinist, and what not else, in the face of the clear, decisive testimony of the confessions.
“Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?” asks the Heidelberg Catechism in Question 8. To this question, the answer of the universal Reformed faith is: “Indeed we are, except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” Neither here nor anywhere else in all of the Reformed confessions, whether Reformed or Presbyterian, is there any mitigation or qualification of total depravity, as described in Question 8, by a “common grace.”
Nor is the Catechism proclaiming a theological abstraction: “This is what unregenerated men and women would be if … (it were not for common grace).” The Catechism is as little interested in abstractions as is the gospel. Like the gospel the Catechism is judging real, flesh-and-blood people with a judgment that lays bare our real misery. Apart from regeneration we and every human are so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and are inclined to all wickedness. Such is our misery that the only deliverance from it is regeneration. And this misery we must know, if we are to know our redemption and gratitude and if we are to enjoy the only comfort in life and death.
The CRC’s abuse of the Canons of Dordt, III, IV/4 in its effort to prove the third point of common grace is notorious, as indeed it should be. In his article on the third point in the November 2000 CTJ, Dr. John Bolt acknowledges this abuse. Hoeksema, he says, “rightly observes that the Kalamazoo Synod in citing this passage in defense of common grace distorted matters by omitting the nuanced negations of the second half of the article” (p. 229). The synod of 1924 quoted only the first half of the article, where Dordt recognizes the seeming good of the unregenerate. Even here, however, Dordt refuses to speak of the good that the wicked do, though it be merely earthly, or of their righteousness, though only civic. Convinced as it was of the truth of total depravity, Dordt will only speak of fallen man’s having “some regard for virtue, good order in society, and … maintaining an orderly external deportment.” This, it attributes, not to grace but to “the glimmerings of natural light” that remain after the fall.
But in the second half of the article, Dordt explicitly states that the unregenerated man is “incapable of using [the glimmerings of natural light] aright even in things natural and civil” (emphasis added). Dordt goes further: “This light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”
The judgment of the Reformed confessions of the seeming good of the unregenerated is that these deeds are nothing but glittering vices.In Question and Answer 91 the Heidelberg Catechism defines a good work. To be good a work must meet a threefold test. Its source must be faith; its standard must be the law of God; and its aim, or goal, must be the glory of God. This definition weighs with Professor Bolt. In his article on the third point, he reformulates the third point so that it will no longer ignore the definition of a good work given by the Catechism.
This move is heartening. But it must be understood that the Catechism’s definition of a good work derives from the Reformed conviction that God alone is good. He is goodness. Goodness in the works of men and women, therefore, must be from Him (“from a true faith”), according to Him (“according to the law of God,” the heart of which is “love the Lord your God!”), and unto Him (“to His glory”). So is God good, that whatever deed a man may do that does not originate in Him, accord with Him, and end in Him is sin. It is sin, though it be a mother’s selfless love for her child, or a patriot’s courageous dying for his country, or a man’s altruistic devotion to mankind.
In the controversy over the third point, the issue finally is not Anabaptism, world-flight, civic righteousness, theonomy, politics, or even total depravity, although all of these issues are involved, especially the last. The issue is God. The issue is God as Jesus knew Him and revealed Him when Jesus said, “There is none good but one, God” (Matt. 19:17).
What then of the seeming good done by unbelievers?
Many deeds of the ungodly seem good to men. They seem good to us. At least, they seem good to us as long as we too leave God out of the picture. But we do not determine what is good. We have neither the right nor the ability. It was a mistake of the CRC in 1924 to call works good on the basis of human observation and opinion. In its definition of good works, the Catechism adds a warning against this very error: “… and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.”
The rightful and righteous judge of the deeds of men is God in the gospel.
God is not impressed with glitter.
His judgment is: glittering vices.