For Reformed and Presbyterian defenders of common grace, it has always been a huge embarrassment that the confessions do not teach common grace. The total absence from the Reformation creeds of a doctrine of common grace is especially a problem in view of the importance that these Reformed and Presbyterian theologians and churches attribute to common grace. With reference to the Old Testament temple, one Christian Reformed zealot called common grace one of the two pillars of the Reformed faith. Although contemporary defenders of common grace are not so picturesque in their praise of common grace, they too regard common grace as a prominent, even fundamental, doctrine of the Reformed, Christian faith.
Common grace largely accounts for the development of the human race and its culture. Common grace largely determines the relations of believers and unbelievers and of the church and the world. Common grace powers the Christian’s involvement in everyday, earthly life in society.
Such a gracious work of God in history, in the human race, and even in the lives of Christians is no inconsiderable matter.
Why are the Reformed and Presbyterian creeds perfectly silent about this important matter? Why do neither the “Three Forms of Unity” nor the Westminster Standards breathe a word about this pillar in the New Testament temple of God?
But it is not merely the case that the confessions are silent about a common grace of God. In certain of the doctrines that most distinguish the Reformed confessions, these confessions evidently reject and condemn the theory of common grace. Common grace teaches the partial depravity of the unregenerated; the confessions teach the total depravity of the unregenerated (Heid. Cat., Q. and A. 8). Common grace teaches that some works of the unregenerate are good; the confessions teach that all the works of the unregenerate are sinful (West. Conf., 16.7). Common grace teaches that God has a favor toward all men without exception; the confessions teach that “the wrath of God abideth upon those who believe not this gospel” (Canons, I/4). The very notion that grace is common contradicts the teaching that is central in the confessions: the particularity of grace (Canons, I; West. Conf., 3).
It is exceedingly strange, therefore, that Reformed and Presbyterian churches and theologians put the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) outside the camp because of these Churches’ rejection of common grace. The Christian Reformed Church did this in actual fact by ecclesiastical discipline in 1924/1925. The Reformed and Presbyterian community is still doing this in effect today. This came home to me again as recently as March of this year. Reviewing a book by a Protestant Reformed author (never mind that it was mine), the minister of a reputedly conservative Presbyterian church in Scotland told his readers, “I do not feel that this book could be recommended.” Why not? “This book is written by a minister of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America…. Two of the distinctives of this church are a denial of Common Grace [note the capital letters! The reviewer regards common grace with the reverence that I have for the Trinity of God—worthy of capitalization—DJE] and a high view of baptism [the sacrament of Baptism, though instituted by the Lord and taught openly and at length in the creeds is not, like ‘Common Grace,’ deserving of capitalization—DJE].”
One cannot imagine that a “high view of baptism” disqualifies a book from being recommended to Presbyterians in Scotland by a Presbyterian magazine. But the book’s rejection of “Common Grace”—with capital letters—is the reason. Regardless that the creeds, which after all determine what is Reformed and Presbyterian, say nary a word on behalf of common grace, much less “Common Grace,” denial of common grace puts the PRC, their writers, and their works beyond the pale.
This is puzzling.
To his credit, Dr. Richard J. Mouw calls into question this knee-jerk rejection of the PRC by the defenders of common grace: “The passion with which many of the defenders of common grace have rejected the views of Hoeksema and other critics of their position is on the face of it somewhat puzzling” (He Shines in All That’s Fair, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 20). Mouw endorses Reformed theologian Henry Van Til’s hesitancy to call common grace, which Van Til embraced and promoted in a big book, grace:
Henry Van Til raises the important question of whether common grace is indeed “grace” in any straightforward sense of the word. He decides that it is best “to place the term ‘common grace’ in quotation marks” [rather than to capitalize it—DJE], because it seems a little odd to equate what he considers to be the very real “beneficent goodness of God to the non-elect sinners” with the redemptive “blessings which God bestows upon elect sinners in and through Jesus Christ, the Mediator.” Van Til is right to raise this caution (He Shines, p. 48; emphasis added).
Nevertheless, Dr. Mouw thinks to find the teaching of common grace in two places in the Reformed confessions. These articles of the creeds are not the real reason for his belief of common grace, as I showed in an earlier editorial. But we who, like Dr. Mouw, take the confessions seriously as the authoritative definition of Reformed Christianity must consider his appeal to the confessions. His first reference is to the phrase “saving good,” in Article 3 of the third and fourth heads of the Canons of Dordt:
Therefore 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 (Canons, III, IV/3, in P. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, Baker, repr. 1966, p. 588).
Mouw supposes that the mention of “saving good” implies a non-saving good, which the natural man is able to perform by virtue of a common grace of God. Writes Mouw concerning his understanding of the phrase, “saving good,” in the Canons:
While the Heidelberg Catechism makes the unqualified judgment that apart from the regenerating grace of God we are incapable of “any good,” the Canons of Dort introduce an appropriate nuance, telling us that we are all “by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good”—thus leaving open the possibility of deeds that are morally laudable without meriting salvation (He Shines, p. 38).
From the Canons’ denial that the unregenerated man can do saving good, Mouw infers that the Canons allow for an ability of the unregenerated man to do non-saving good. Even if this inference is sound, it proves absolutely nothing for a common grace of God. Neither this article of the Canons nor any other attributes this supposed ability of the natural man to do non-saving good to any grace of God in him. If the Canons do indeed imply that the natural man is still capable of doing non-saving good, the explanation must be simply that fallen man remains human, retaining “glimmerings of natural light,” as the next article will teach, by virtue of creation and providence. To introduce grace as the explanation is completely unwarranted both as regards the article itself and as regards the whole of the Canons. Creation and providence are one thing; grace is quite another.
But Dr. Mouw’s inference is mistaken. If the phrase in question were all that the Canons said about the ability for good of the unregenerated man, the inference might be allowed. But the Canons say more than only the phrase “incapable of any saving good.” And what they say more is an explicit denial of Dr. Mouw’s inference. His inference is that all men by nature are capable of performing deeds that, although not the fruit of the saving work of the Spirit of Christ and done outside the sphere of salvation, are yet good. These would be the works of the unbeliever that show regard for virtue, good order in society, and maintaining an orderly external deportment.
Exactly about these works of the unregenerated, the immediately following article of the Canons states:
But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him [unregenerated man] to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay farther, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it [back] in unrighteousness; by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God (Canons, III, IV/4, in Schaff, Creeds, p. 588).
Those deeds of the natural man that impress the defenders of common grace—deeds that show regard for virtue, deeds that bring about good order in society, deeds of orderly external deportment—are not “non-saving good.” Even the life and deeds of the unregenerated man in the sphere of the “natural and civil,” supposedly the terrain of a common grace goodness, are unrighteous and “wholly polluted.” These deeds are not pleasing to God. They do not give evidence of a favor of God upon the natural man. Rather, “by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”
The reason why the natural man is incapable of “non-saving good,” as he is incapable of saving good, Article 3 of the Canons gives in the words that follow the phrase, “incapable of saving good”: “prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto.” One who is dead in sin is incapable of any good, “non-saving” as well as saving. One who is a slave to sin—a slave—can do nothing, absolutely nothing, except sin.
The second reference by Dr. Mouw to the Reformed confessions on behalf of common grace is even less convincing than the appeal to the Canons. Dr. Mouw appeals to a passage in the Westminster Confession of Faith that speaks of the works done by unregenerate men:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and can not please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God (West. Conf. of Faith, 16.7, in Schaff, Creeds, pp. 635, 636).
Mouw thinks that this implies that some works of the unregenerated are pleasing to God and thus good.
In spite of the decidedly negative tone of these comments, the Westminster divines are actually making room for a measure of divine approval regarding deeds performed by the unregenerate that nonetheless conform to God’s revealed standards. Since the “neglect of [such deeds] is more sinful and displeasing to God,” such good works at least are less displeasing to God. The implication here is that there is a category of moral acts performed by the unregenerate that are more pleasing to God than their non-performance would be (He Shines, p. 39; emphasis is Mouw’s).
No such implication exists. No such implication is possible. The express testimony of the article rules out the implication that Dr. Mouw likes to see in the article. The article rules out this implication, decisively. Regarding those very works of the unregenerate that the defenders of common grace view as proof of common grace—works that as to their “matter” are commanded by God, works that are of “good use” to mankind—Westminster says that they are “sinful, and cannot please God.” When Westminster goes on to say that the neglect of these works by the unregenerated is “more sinful and displeasing unto God,” it is by no means implying that the performance of these works by the unregenerated is a good work. Westminster has just said that the doing of these deeds is sinful and displeasing to God. But the failure to do them would be even worse sin on the part of the unregenerated. Performing these deeds displeases God; not performing these deeds displeases Him even more. The comparison in the creed is between sinful and more sinful, not between good and bad. It is between displeasing God and displeasing God even more, not between pleasing Him and displeasing Him. There are degrees of wickedness.
When an unregenerated husband lives faithfully with his wife and cares devotedly for his children, he sins. Westminster explains why: “because [his faithfulness and care] proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God.” If he commits adultery and abandons his children, he sins even more greatly.
The confessions do not teach common grace. They do, however, mention that theory. It does not escape our attention that in their discussion of common grace defenders of that theory never refer to the one article in the confessions that mentions common grace by name. This is Article 5 in the “Rejection of Errors” section appended to Heads III and IV of the Canons of Dordt:
The true doctrine having been explained, the Synod rejects the errors of those who teach that the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, namely, the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. And that in this way God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since He applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion (Canons, III, IV, Rejection of Errors/5, in “The Three Forms of Unity,” Mission Committee of the PRC, repr. 1999, p. 64; Schaff does not include an English translation of the “Rejection of Errors” sections of the Canons).
The Arminians taught common grace. It is true that their purpose with it was not merely a restraint of sin in the unregenerated in order to produce a good culture. The Arminians were playing for higher stakes: man’s achieving his own salvation by the use of his common grace ability for good. Nevertheless, common grace in the Arminian scheme was just what it is in the scheme of the Reformed defenders of common grace today: a weakening of total depravity; the ascription of real ability for good to the natural man; and the affirmation of a favor of God to all men without exception—a favor that then inevitably expresses itself in this, that “God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men!”
The one time that the creed mentions common grace, it rejects it as an error opposed to the truth of the gospel.
There is no basis for common grace in the Reformed creeds. On the contrary, the Reformed creeds condemn the theory both by name and in all its main elements.
The Reformed and Presbyterian churches worldwide may take counsel together to banish the PRC from the camp of the Reformed for their rejection of common grace. The truth is that insofar as they embrace common grace, those churches place themselves outside the sphere of the Reformed faith. It is the PRC and other churches repudiating common grace that are Reformed on this issue, even though they be outside the camp.