The last question and answer of this fourth Lord’s Day of the Catechism is concerned with the extent of the depravity of the human nature. Our corruption as a fact was stated in Question 5: “I am prone to hate God and my neighbour.” In the following two questions the problem of the origin of this corruption was discussed: it is not to be traced to creation, for God created us good and after His own image; but its cause must be found in the first sin of Adam and Eve in paradise. That sin was a fall. And by that fall not only their own individual natures, but the entire human nature became corrupt, so that we are conceived and born in sin. Now, in Question 8, the Catechism touches upon the matter of the degree or extent of our depravity, and insists that it is total. “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness? Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”

Now, it would seem that this is the only possible position to take, if we would maintain that the human nature became corrupt at all through the fall and disobedience of our first parents in paradise. For by ethical corruption is meant corruption of the heart, and from the heart are all the issues of life. An apple may be rotten in part; you may cut out the rotten spot and eat the rest. But this is quite impossible in an ethical sense. Either the human nature is sound in heart, and in that case it is wholly good; or it is corrupt in heart, and then it is entirely depraved. Total depravity, then, means, first of all, that the whole man is depraved, and not merely a part of him. It does not mean that his mind is somewhat darkened, but that his will is sound; or that the desires are impure but that the mind is ethically good. But it implies that the heart is corrupt, and that, therefore, the whole nature is depraved. And, in the second place, total depravity signifies that the corruption itself is complete. It is not a certain weakness of character; it is ethical perversity. It is not a moral sickness; it is death. It is not a mere lack of righteousness; it is opposition to the law of God. It is not a want of love; it is enmity against God. And it is all this constantly, all the time, unchangeably, unless a wonder is performed upon that corrupt nature: the wonder of regeneration. This, I say, is the only possible position one can take, if he would maintain depravity of the nature at all. The only other position conceivable is that of Pelagianism. According to the latter, the human nature is never depraved, the heart is never corrupt, the will is never in bondage: sin remains a matter of the act only; the will, therefore, must always be free to choose in favor of good or evil. The nature may be weakened (by the sinful deed once performed, by the temptation to which one has yielded; the will may be hampered by an evil environment, so that it would be easier for it to yield to the seductions of evil than to that which is good, but it always remains free: man is inherently good. A third position is fundamentally impossible. To speak of total depravity may be expedient for practical purposes, it is really tautologous because ethical depravity of the human nature is necessarily total.

It follows that all deviating views, all theories that deny to any degree the totality of depravity of the human nature, stand opposed to the doctrine of depravity itself, are Pelagian. This is true of what is known as semi-Pelagianism, a term that is really a misnomer. It attempts to attribute some good to man by making a distinction between the “natural” and the “spiritual.” These it really separates. Man was created naturally good, good “in puris naturalibus.” As such he was able to do that which is good in the natural, earthly sense of the word; in these he could walk according to the ordinances of God, his Creator. But without something additional he could not perform “spiritual” good, he could not seek the higher, the heavenly things and attain to them. However, he was endowed originally also with this additional power that enabled him to seek the things above and to perform the spiritual good. That power is the image of God. When he sinned and fell, he lost this image of God, so that he has no longer the power to perform spiritual good. But “in puris naturalibus” he can still do that which is good. It is easy to discern that this is fundamentally Pelagian. After all, though man lost something, his nature is sound and good; and his will and mind, though not capable of seeking the heavenly things, are free to do good with respect to things earthly and temporal.

The “common grace” theory, as developed by Dr. A. Kuyper, and as adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924, as their official doctrine, reaches the same conclusion, though it travels a different way to arrive at it. It, too, is Pelagian. We must not say that it denies total depravity, for partial depravity is a contradiction in terms, by the same token that “total depravity” is a tautology: it denies depravity. It is true, of course, that the official doctrine of the Christian Reformed Churches is still that man is depraved, for this is the teaching of the “Three Forms of Unity”; it is true, too, that in connection with the question of the Catechism we are now discussing, preachers in those churches will proclaim this truth sometimes; but in as far as they adhere to and preach the truth of the depravity of the human nature, they deny the doctrine that was declared in the second and third points of 1924, and exactly in the measure that they attempt to maintain the latter they deny the doctrine of the depravity of the human nature. This flagrant contradiction also explains the fact that in 1924 they could condemn and ultimately depose ministers of the gospel of whom they testified that they were reformed with respect to the fundamental doctrines of the confessions. All this shows that the doctrine that was adopted in 1924 stands opposed to what is plainly taught in the standards of the Reformed Churches: it is Pelagian. The second and third points of 1924 arrive at the conclusion that the human nature is not really depraved. It would have been, had not God administered the preventive of “common grace” as soon as man fell; and it would be, if God did not continue to administer this antidote of common grace. By the operation of common grace ethical and spiritual corruption was and is checked. The result is that man can still do good “in puris naturalibus.” He is not depraved.

That this is, indeed, the implication of the theory of “common grace” may be proved by many passages from De Gemeene Gratie of Dr. Kuyper, as well as by the declarations of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches of 1924. From the former we quote the following:

“‘The Reformed churches confess in harmony with Holy Scriptures, that by what happened in Paradise our nature is become so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin’; and that, too, in this sense, ‘that we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil’. A condition that cannot be changed, ‘unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.’

“Now, one cannot assert of this confession that it is in accord with our personal experience, nor even with much that we read elsewhere in Scripture. Not with our personal experience, for even with people that are complete strangers to the faith and by whom we ‘certainly cannot suppose regeneration to exist, we meet with all sorts of life-manifestations that make a lovely impression, and that, rather than to be inclined to evil, oppose it. And similarly, not with what we find elsewhere in Scripture. Abimelech seems to put to shame even Abraham, the friend of God. The contradiction implied in this is completely solved by the confession of common grace. The phrase ‘inclined to all evil and incapable of doing any good’ then declares how every man, apart from regeneration, would actually reveal himself, if common grace did not restrain his evil passion; and experience shows us how the power of the Lord makes ‘the evil nature’ largely harmless behind the bars of common grace. In that case, the expression ‘incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil,’ does not indicate what we find in ‘the regenerated’, nor of what we may discover in the life of all the unregenerated; but is the acknowledgement of what is hid in the passion of our corrupt nature, and of what would actually come forth from it, as soon as God would cease from restraining this evil inclination by His common grace” II, 49, 50.

It is evident that, according to Kuyper, our confession in the eighth answer of the Heidelberg Catechism does not declare what actually exists, but merely what would be, if there were no common grace. Actually men are not wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. What the power of this “common grace” actually accomplishes in fallen man, may become evident from the following:

“If in this spirit we ask concerning the condition of man before regeneration, that is, not of man in general, but of an adult man of integrity, then we learn that he is ‘dead in sins and trespasses’, but that there are, nevertheless, a few ‘remains’ or ‘sparks’ of good left in him, and that he, being supported and strengthened by common grace, is capable, not of doing any saving good, but surely of what is called ‘civil righteousness.’ This gives rise to numerous questions, of which this is the most important: how anyone that is dead can still be active in works, and how the restraint of common grace can have the result, not merely that sin fails to reveal itself or is decreased, but that he performs something that is positively good, even though it be only in the sense of civil righteousness” II, 299, 300.

Here we learn, that the power of common grace does not merely act upon the sinner as a restraint, but enables him to do that which is positively good. It does not merely act as the bars that keep the wild beast in its cage in the zoo, but it positively improves his nature. How far this improving or reformatory influence of common grace goes may be gathered from what Dr. Kuyper writes on p. 306 of the same volume. There he makes a distinction between the center of our being, which is our I or Ego, according to him, and the circumference of our existence: the actual manifestations of our life. And again, he distinguishes between the Ego in the narrower sense on the one hand, and our inclinations, our mind and our will. And once more he tries to distinguish in the Ego between the center (“kern”) of the Ego and its activity. And then he draws the conclusion that, apart from regeneration but under the salutary influence of common grace, only the inner center of the Ego remains corrupt, all the rest is improved. “When it (common grace) takes hold of the line (of our inner life) at whatever point that may be, and bends its further course to the right, the result is a tension or pressure downward toward the center, which can never affect the inner center of our Ego, but which, nevertheless, exerts its influence on the inclinations, the consciousness, and the will of man. And thus it is explained that the unconverted can undergo the influence of common grace even in his inclinations, in his consciousness, and in his will.”

From this it should be evident, that after common grace has exerted its influence upon the sinner, he is no longer depraved. His inclinations, his mind and will are his nature. And it is that nature that is improved, regardless of what may become of the “inner center of the Ego.” And, surely, the Heidelberg Catechism does not teach us, that this “inner center of the Ego” (whatever that may be) is corrupt, but that “our nature has become so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin”, and that “we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil.” Nor does the Catechism here refer to a mere abstraction, to man as he might have been without the influence of common grace, but to the actually existing man, as he is born of woman, and as he lives and acts in the present (world. It requires considerable “hocus pocus” of sophistic reasoning to prove that this philosophy of common grace is in accord with the teaching of the Reformed Churches as contained in their standards. But one who reads intelligently, and who is acquainted with the Reformed truth, cannot be deceived by this sophistry, but soon discovers that it is the doctrine of Pelagius that is seeking entrance in the Reformed Churches, disguised in the cloak of ambiguity.

And the same is true of the doctrine that was officially adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924. Point II, and III of the doctrinal declarations of that Synod read as follows:

“II. Regarding the second point, touching the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and of society, Synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession there is such a restraint of sin.

This appears from the passages of Scripture that were quoted, and from the Netherland Confession, Art. 13 and 36, which teach, how God, by a general operation of His Spirit, without renewing the heart, restrains the unbridled manifestation of sin, through which life in human society remains possible; while quotations from Reformed authors of the best period of Reformed Theology prove moreover, that our fathers in the past maintained this view.

“III. Regarding the third point, touching the performance of so-called civil righteousness by the unregenerated, Synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession the unregenerated, though incapable of doing any spiritual good (Canons of Dordrecht III, IV, 3) are able to do such civil good. This is evident from the passages of Scripture that are quoted, and from the Canons of Dordrecht, III, IV, 4, and the Netherland Confession, Art. 36, which teach that God, without renewing, the heart, exercises such an influence upon man, that he is enabled to perform civil good; while it is moreover evident from the quotations made from Reformed authors of the best period of Reformed Theology, that our Reformed fathers from of old defended this view.”

Now, it is at present not our purpose to criticize these declarations and refute their doctrine, nor to expose how utterly incompetent are the references to Scripture and to the Confessions to sustain them. What we do wish to point out is, that these declarations are a denial of the doctrine of depravity, and, therefore, are fundamentally Pelagian. They teach: 1. That, apart from the wonder of regeneration, there is a gracious operation of the Holy Spirit on fallen man restraining the manifestation of sin. 2. That, however, this operation of the Holy Spirit is more than a mere restraint, for it is an influence of God upon man whereby he is able to live a good life in this world. This is the same view of man as that of the so-called semi-Pelagians, only arrived at from a different direction. The latter maintain that man has lost only the power to do spiritual good, while his nature remained intact; and so he can do good “in puris naturalibus.” The declarations of the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 teach that man has really become corrupt through the fall, but that his nature is so changed by common grace that he can live a good life in the world, can do good “in puris naturalibus.” But what is the difference? In principle there is no difference. Both teach that man’s nature is capable of doing good. Both deny the depravity of the human nature. If the natural man does evil “in puris naturalibus,” in civil and natural things, he does so, not because by nature he could do no different, but because by an act of his free will (free to perform civil and natural good) he chooses to violate the law of God and to resist the influences of the Holy Spirit. And all the sophistry of those who, after 1924, have exerted their powers to prove that these declarations are in harmony with Reformed doctrine, cannot suffice to deceive the truly Reformed heart and mind. They are Pelagian.

Over against all these Pelagian doctrines and tendencies the Reformed Confessions teach in language that is free from all ambiguity, that man is depraved. This depravity implies that his nature, is ethically corrupt. His nature is his heart, his mind, his will, all his desires and inclinations as they function through his present corrupted body, and thus constitute “the members that are upon the earth” Col. 3:5. If his mind is corrupt, i.e. so perverted ethically that it cannot conceive the good; if the will is corrupt, i.e. so in the bondage of sin, that it can never determine to do good; if the desires and inclinations are corrupt, i.e. so defiled and impure that they can only lust after evil; if the heart is perverse, so that it can only hate God and is incapable of loving Him, then, it is evident even to the most simple that a man who has such a nature, can never perform anything good, either in the saving sense, or “in puris naturalibus.” This does not mean, that he cannot do natural things, but it does mean that performing them he cannot do good. And this is the doctrine of the Reformed Confessions. The answer of the Heidelberg Catechism to Question 8 is very plain and specific: “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness? Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” Rut the language of the rest of our Confession is no less unambiguous and to the point. Art. 14 of the Netherland Confession teaches the following:

“We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God. Rut being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin, and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed, and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not: where St. John calleth men darkness. Therefore, we reject all that is repugnant to this, concerning the free will of man, since man is but a slave to sin; and has nothing of himself, unless it is given him from heaven. For who may presume to boast, that he of himself can do any good, since Christ saith, No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him? Who will glory in his own will, who understands, that to be carnally minded is enmity against God? Who can speak of his knowledge, since the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God? In short, who dare suggest any thought, since he knows that we are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but that our sufficiency is of God? And therefore what the apostle saith ought justly to be held sure and firm, that God worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. For there is no will nor understanding, conformable to the divine will and understanding, but what Christ hath wrought in man: which he teaches us, when he saith, Without me ye can do nothing.”