Is Common Grace Still The Issue? (3), Exhibit No. 1: The “Dekker Case”

Some weeks ago we began our discussion of this subject—a discussion which was interrupted by necessary editorial attention to other matters. At that time we promised to demonstrate that common grace is indeed still the underlying issue, the issue which lies at the basis of many ills which plague the Christian Reformed denomination today—ills of which many complain though they do not seem to see their cause. While we recognize the fact of almost fifty years since the Three Points of Common Grace were adopted by the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924, and while we recognize the fact of the attendant progress and doctrinal development which have taken place since that time, it is our contention that there is a definite connection, a connection of cause and effect between 1924 and the state of affairs today. And it is, therefore, our contention that those who are or who claim to be interested in reformation in the Christian Reformed Church today must recognize this connection; and if they would achieve genuine and successful reformation, they must go to the root of the difficulties and repudiate the errors of 1924 and return to the true Reformed position with respect to the sovereign, particular grace of God. One may attempt to turn the clock of history back a couple of decades to a more conservative era in the Christian Reformed Church, when the fruits of the errors of the Three Points had not yet become as evident as today. One may attempt to ignore the issue and may imagine that somehow reformation may be achieved without going to the heart of the problems. Neither of these courses of action will make the problem go away. 

For not only is there an intrinsic doctrinal connection between 1971 and 1924, and not only is there a clear line of development from 1924 to the present; but there is also a spiritual, ethical connection. God, the God of His church, the God Who calls His church to be His witnesses, the God Who calls His church to reformation, will not be mocked. He calls His church not to partial obedience to the truth of the gospel. He calls His church not to partial reformation. He calls His church not to partial repentance—and remember, reformation always implies repentance! But He calls His church to full and complete reformation and obedience to the truth of His Word. Nothing less will do before the face of God, Who is righteous in all His ways, also in His dealings with the church. This is precisely the seriousness of these matters. As long as you view doctrinal differences as mere differences between man and man, between theologian and theologian; as long as you view complaints concerning ills in the church as legitimate or less than legitimate “gripes” against a human institution; as long as you consider the church to be man’s; so long you can take half-way measures, or you can find a solution that will satisfy all, and you can make accommodations. But as soon as you stand coram Deo, before the face of God, things are altogether different! 

From this point of view, we must remember that there was fundamental departure from the Reformed faith in 1924. There was church political corruption perpetrated in 1924. There was ecclesiastical injustice committed in 1924. The Christian Reformed Church has never made the slightest move to correct this. And the Christian Reformed Church has continued down through the years to reap the evil fruits of its wrongdoings ever since. Be not deceived: what a man soweth, that shall he also reap! 

From this same point of view, it is high time that those who are concerned about the present tendencies in the Christian Reformed denomination and who are interested in reformation should face up to the reality that no half-way measures will do, and that should half-way measures be attempted, the church will only find itself afflicted by the same sickness and paralysis which makes it impossible to keep out the poison of Arminianism and universalism and world-conformity which has for so long been eating at the vitals of the Christian Reformed denomination. 

Whom do I have in mind when I write thus? 

In general, first of all, whom the shoe fits, let him put it on. 

More specifically, I have in mind a movement like the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen, a group who have recently come in for severe and fundamentally unjust criticism from The Banner and for whom I have deep sympathy, but whom I must nevertheless sympathetically criticize and counsel to change their ways. I have in mind, too, the movement of the Christian Reformation Church, which, as I suggested before, did not really accomplish reformation in the full sense. I have in mind, further, a considerable group of people (and these are from various denominations of the Reformed tradition) who are seeking refuge in the working toward a kind of conservative fellowship of a generally Reformed and Presbyterian brand, who are satisfied to be evangelical, but who are not concerned to be purely and specifically Reformed. I do not know whether they are working toward or at least keeping the options open for the eventual formation of a new denomination, which would then be an amalgam of concerned and conservative elements from various apostatizing denominations of the Reformed and Presbyterian household. But I do know that I have seen no evidence of a willingness to return completely and wholeheartedly to the Reformed faith. These, too, I would warn that they should not be satisfied with half-way measures—especially not for the sake of size and numbers. 

But now let me turn to my subject proper. 

Exhibit Number 1 in evidence of the fact that the common grace doctrine of the First Point of 1924 is still the underlying issue is the “Dekker Case.” Perhaps I should not say the “Dekker Case,” but the sad conclusion to the “Dekker Case,” the failure and inability of the Christian Reformed Church, after long study and debate, to condemn the rank Arminianism and universalism taught by one of its seminary professors, Prof. Harold Dekker, and supported by many others. 

It may be well, in this connection, that we remind ourselves of the First Point. It reads as follows:

Relative to the first point, which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5 and III, IV, 8 and 9, which deal with the general offer of the Gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our Reformed writers from the past favored this view. 

Note: The Scripture passages quoted in support of this point were

Psalm 145:9Matthew 5:44, 45Luke 6:35, 36Acts 14:16, 17I Timothy 4:10;Romans 2:4Ezekiel 33:11Ezekiel 18:23.

Let us remind ourselves further, in this connection, that actually this First Point of 1924 contains two errors. The first is the error of the Kuyperian theory of common grace. For when this point declares. that “apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general,” it intends to express the Kuyperian view that God is gracious to all men in common, elect and reprobate, godly and ungodly, when He bestows on them the things of this present life, such as rain and sunshine, life and health, wealth and possessions, gifts and talents—all the good things of this present time. And let me hasten to add that no one will deny that they are in themselves good things.’ All these good things of this present time, according to this view, are a manifestation of God’s gracious attitude to all men. 

But we must not forget that when the Synod of 1924 attempted to support its view from the confessions of the Reformed churches, it unwittingly fell into the Arminian error of general grace. When in its reference to Canons II, 5 and Canons III, IV, 8, 9 and its appeal to such passages as Romans 2:4Ezekiel 33:11; and Ezekiel 18:23the Synod speaks of the “general offer of the gospel” as a manifestation of the grace of God to all the hearers, without distinction, then this First Point lapses into the Arminian conception that the saving grace of God is intended for all men individually. For it is evident that the gospel involves saving grace. 

Hence, there are two theories involved in this First Point. The first we may designate by the term common grace. This is supposed to be a grace, not saving, which is common to godly and ungodly, elect and reprobate, manifested in the bestowal upon men in common of the good things of this present time. The second is the error of general grace, a grace of God which is saving and which is intended for all men individually, or at least for all men who hear the preaching of the gospel. 

Both of these views are clearly implied in the First Point. And it would not be difficult to demonstrate from many writings subsequent to 1924 that this was indeed the way the defenders of the First Point understood matters. What they would never admit, of course, was that either of these teachings was erroneous and that neither of them finds support in Scripture and the confessions. 

The opponents of the Three Points, particularly the late Revs. Herman Hoeksema and George M. Ophoff, not only criticized the explicit errors of these pronouncements; but they also repeatedly predicted that the Arminianism with respect to the preaching of the gospel which is expressed in the First Point would eventually lead to more Arminianism. More than once they prophesied that ultimately the error of the First. Point would ultimately lead to a denial of particular atonement and the teaching of general atonement, for example. This can be shown from their writings. 

What happened after 1924? 

The Synod had directed that these doctrines be further studied and spelled out. However, after the initial post-1924 flurry of writings, Christian Reformed theologians were virtually silent about common grace. They avoided further polemics. They also failed to heed the injunction of their own synod to develop these doctrines. The Christian Reformed Church began to follow a two-track theology; and when confronted by the inconsistency of these two tracks, refuge was sought in the “mystery.” Even the discussion with the De Wolf group in the late 1950s showed no fundamental change in position, either for better or for worse. 

Then in 1962 Prof. Harold Dekker threw the denomination into mild turmoil by maintaining that God loves all men with a redemptive love and that Christ died for all men, so that it was proper to say to any man, “God loves you,” and, “Christ died for you.” In other words, he taught the errors of a universal redemptive love of God and of general atonement. I say “mild turmoil” because it is simply amazing that in an officially Reformed denomination a seminary professor could get away with such Arminian and universalistic pronouncements and not be promptly suspended and deposed. Instead, you will recall, discussion, debate, an study went on for several years. The conclusion in 1967 was that the Synod refrained from adopting certain recommendations of its own Doctrinal Study Committee which condemned Prof. Dekker’s position and gave the professor an official light tap on the knuckles, not, mind you, for false doctrine, but for making ambiguous and abstract statements, (cf. Acts of Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, Articles 144, 177.) In other words, it has now become possible in the Christian Reformed Church to make pronouncements which are of the rankest Arminian character, and to do so with impunity. Prof. Dekker’s doctrinal position concerning the love of God and the atonement stands today uncondemned! 

Notice the development, both in corruption of doctrine and in perversion of discipline: 

1) In 1924 officebearers were deposed and expelled because they refused to subscribe to the First Point, insisted that God’s grace is always sovereign and for the elect only, both in the things of this present time and in the preaching of the gospel, while Synod itself gave testimony that those who were so disciplined were Reformed in the fundamentals.

2) In 1967 Synod not only failed to discipline but refused even to condemn the doctrinal statements of a seminary professor who proposed doctrines which are literally Arminian and directly in conflict with the Reformed confessions. 

But is there a connection between 1924 and 1967? 

Consider the following facts: 

1) No one who wrote about the so-called “Dekker Case” could do so without reference to 1924. Everyone would expect, of course, that from the Protestant Reformed direction reference would be made to 1924. But Prof. Dekker himself and those who supported him (notably Dr. James Daane, but also others) argued cogently that they were only carrying to its proper consequence the position of 1924. And Prof. Dekker’s opponents immediately felt bound to defend the traditional, but inconsistent interpretation of 1924.

2) The Synod itself, in appointing a study committee and giving it a mandate, was aware that the pronouncement of the First Point was inevitably involved. 

3) The Doctrinal Study Committee explicitly referred to 1924 at length, was at pains to defend the idea of a general well-meant offer of the gospel (without any general atonement basis), and maintained, too, the idea of universal, non-saving benefits of Christ’s atonement (something which 1924 did not do: it failed to relate so-called common grace to the cross!), and even tried, but failed dismally, to present in harmonious relationship the general offer and the election of God. 

4) Whenever, on the floor of Synod—and I was present,—the discussion turned to the doctrinal issues involved, 1924 and its doctrine of the general offer of grace inevitably became involved. 

5) At the conclusion of the “Dekker Case,” the Rev. Wm. Haverkamp wrote concerning Synod’s decision: “One thing became indeed very plain from the entire history, namely, that among the participants in the discussion and in the reports about the case there was never any disagreement about the question whether Scripture teaches the well-meant offer of grace.” 

But is the connection between 1924 and 1967 an intrinsic connection? Was 1967 an inevitable doctrinal development of 1924? 

To this question also the answer must be affirmative. Consider, in the first place, that the principle of the First Point is that of universalism. True, in 1924 the attempt was made to say “both . . . and.” But 1924 and its First Point principally contradicted the fundamental distinction of election and reprobation. It made God’s grace common and general. From that point, once the principle of particularism was fundamentally contradicted, it was but a matter of time before it would be flatly denied. And when the time came, there was no way of stopping it. Principles work through, you see! 

Consider, in the second place, that 1924 left a void which cried out to be filled. With respect to the error of the well-meant offer of salvation, the question was repeatedly asked: how can God offer to all men that which He does not have, namely, salvation? For in 1924, of course, no one yet wanted to say that Christ died for all men. But the question was left without an answer, except the wholly unsatisfactory answer that this is a mystery. Again, it was but a matter of time before someone would frankly face up to that question and fill that void, accepting the consequence of the Arminianism of the First Point with respect to the preaching of the gospel. This, in effect, is what Prof. Dekker did. He said, in effect: the general, well-meant offer of the gospel is possible because Christ died for all men. “There is neither need nor warrant for retaining the concept of limited atonement, as it has been traditionally used among us.” And again, no one could possibly stop Prof. Dekker! Principles work through! 

Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am concentrating on Prof. Dekker. I am not!

My point is that the Christian Reformed Church today is impotent and even unwilling to do anything at all about Arminianism. In fact, Arminianism is defended and supported. And there is little sensitivity for the beautiful Arminian pseudo-gospel. This is, of course, also the reason why both officially and unofficially the churches can support all kinds of wildly Arminian evangelism movements such as that of Billy Graham and Campus Crusade. In fact, recently the Reformed Journal, by carrying an article by a non-Christian Reformed writer, openly propagated not only Arminianism, but complete universalism. And to date no one has raised a voice against it!

What is the answer?

Repudiate 1924 and its First Point! Unless you do, you are fundamentally impotent to maintain the Reformed faith over against complete Arminianism, and, ultimately, total universalism.