Our beloved brother, the Rev. G.M. Ophoff, is ill in the hospital. In the early part of the week of Jan. 20-26 he will submit to surgery. We daily pray for him that the Lord may give him grace to trust in Him and to commit his way unto Him. It is, of course, our earnest desire, the desire of all our people, that he Lord may spare him and enable him to resume his labors among us. Let us all remember him in our prayers.
In the meantime, we shall try to fill the brother’s space in the Standard Bearer to the best of our ability. May I ask all our editors to help me in this respect?
The following is an essay I delivered to a ministers’ conference in 1920.
It is not without definite intention, that we state the subject to the discussion of which I am asked to offer an introduction this afternoon as we do. We defend by thus formulating our topic our conviction that the view expressed in the phrase “Common Grace” is not a Reformed Doctrine, but simply a theory. It is not confessionally reformed. It never found expression in any of the standards of the Reformed Church. It is true that Kuyper quotes from the confession and from the Canons of Dordt on page 11 of the second volume of hisGemeene Gratie. The passage quoted from the Confession by the great Dutch theologian is from the fourteenth article and reads as follows: “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.” Thus far Dr. Kuyper quotes the article. And in the Canons of Dordt III, IV, No. 4, we read: “There remain however in man since the fall, the glimmers of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.” Again we say, that thus far runs the quotation from Dr. Kuyper. On these few remains and glimmers of natural light is raised the entire structure of common grace. Let me call your attention, however, to a strange phenomenon in these quotations, a phenomenon we can hardly believe is merely accidental. It is the fact, that although Dr. Kuyper quotes from the Confession and from the Canons at length, he does not quote fully, and breaks off the quotation at a rather significant point in both instances. For upon the last sentence quoted by Dr. Kuyper from the Confession there follows the important explanation: “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 the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not, where St. John calleth men darkness!” And the article of the Canons adds to what Dr. Kuyper quotes of it: “Nay, further, this light such as it is, man renders in various ways wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.” These are important additions and, on the part of Dr. Kuyper remarkable omissions, which as I hope to make clear in this paper, swing the meaning of the Confession decidedly our way. Moreover, though the esteemed theologian would have us believe that the doctrine of common grace is actually embodied in the standards of our churches, all that have read his work on the subject know too that he himself often complains that the theory was never developed by Reformed theologians, and that it did not receive a place in the Confessions. We prefer, therefore, to speak of the theory of common grace.
I think it is even a tenable position to maintain that the theory, is not historically reformed. At least, if by historically reformed we mean that anything has for any length of time been taught and developed in Reformed circles. True, Calvin sometimes speaks of a certain general grace, but in the first place, it may safely be said that he does not at all develop the idea. In the second place he speaks of it merely to answer an objection that might be brought against his development of the truth of total depravity. And in the third place, Calvin very peculiarly sometimes calls this general grace “special graces.” That is, he holds, not to the theory of common grace, a grace which the people of the world have in common with the people of God, but to the existence of some kind of grace operating outside of the sphere of special revelation. But even if it were true, that Calvin taught common grace in the sense we understand it today, the fact remains that after Calvin for three centuries and more the theory is not developed and taught, neither received into the standards of the Reformed churches. Now, surely, the fact that Dr. Kuyper developed the theory can hardly make it historically reformed.
Now, it seems to me, this stands to reason. Common grace is no church doctrine and never will be. The matter with which it deals is in the very nature of it extra-confessional. It is a theory, a hypothesis advanced for the purpose of explaining certain phenomena in the world. I would almost be inclined to say, that it is a certain apology for the reformed doctrine of total depravity and God’s curse upon the world. Reformed theology holds upon the basis of Scripture, that man thru sin became totally depraved, that he is incapable of doing any good, that he is wholly corrupted, and corrupts even the natural light and the remnants that still are with him. Reformed theology moreover holds to the absolute righteousness of God, who demands absolute satisfaction before He can show grace and favor. But now there are certain phenomena, both with regard to the church and to the world. The regenerated are by no means perfect. And the world is by no means as bad as our confession would make it. It does not appear totally depraved, neither does it seem entirely deprived of the blessings of God’s grace. As Dr. Kuyper repeatedly states the matter: “De kerk valt tegen, de wereld valt mee.” There are a good many good things the world receives, there are a good many phenomena that attract one to the people of the world. There is a good deal of nobility, righteousness, love, sympathy, beauty of character and disposition in the world, which can hardly be interpreted in the light of the doctrine of total depravity. Now, the question, is: how must these phenomena be interpreted? Must we denythem? But this is impossible: The sun shines, the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous us alike. To set your hearts and minds at rest and remove any possible suspicion as if I should deny this flagrantly apparent truth, I will add that the wicked as a rule receive more rain and more: sunshine than the good in this world. It generally constituted a reason for complaint on the part of the people of God until they entered the sanctuary, and looked at things from a higher viewpoint. There are all the blessings of this temporal life. There are the institutions of the home, of the state, of society, of the school, there are all the products and commodities this world produces. There is all the science, all the art, all the ingenuity displayed by sinful man in this dispensation. Now; then, the question is: You hold to the doctrine of total depravity? How do you account for these facts? And very unfortunately to our mind the theory of common grace was advanced to account for them. It is this theory we are asked to discuss this afternoon. We introduce the subject by calling your attention to:
I. The Theory and its weakness.
II. Our view of the matter.
I. No doubt I can afford to be very brief in presenting or recalling to you the theory of common grace as developed by Dr. Kuyper. In the first place because you are all thoroughly acquainted with the theory, and in the second place, for the simple reason that there is but very little to be said about it. It is true, there are three heavy volumes under the title De Gemeene Gratie, together covering approximately two thousand pages. But it is surprising how little the three volumes contain on the subject of Common Grace. And, therefore, I can be very brief. What, then, is meant by common grace?
In the first place, it may be said, that it is a grace shown by God to the world outside of Christ. It is a grace outside of Christ as the Mediator of redemption. The presentation is, that common grace flows from the Mediator of Creation, and, therefore, directly from the Logos. In his Dictaten Dogmatiek, Lot de Foedere, p. 129, Dr. Kuyper speaks as follows: “Nog kan de vraag worden gedaan of het leven der Gemeene gratie buiten Christus staat. Let wel, niet of er ook wel ethische invloeden op inwerken, maar of ze er principieel mee samenhangt. En dan meet het antwoord zijn: ongetwijfeld. Ook geheel die helpende redding komt uit den Christus. Doch dan niet uit Christus als verlossingsmiddelaar, maar uit hem als scheppingsmiddelaar. Het scheppingsleven zelf heeft vati den middelaar niet zijn essentie, maar wel de modaliteit van zijn existentie ontvangen. Het is het Eeuwige Woord, door ‘t welk alle dingen geschapen zijn en tot op dezen oogenblik in stand gehouden worden.” Thus, then, is the view. Common grace does not flow from Jesus, but from the Logos. Even as before the fall all things in creation were made and were sustained through the Logos, so all that is of common grace comes to men and to the world through the same Eternal Word. What is of importance here is to note that the obedience of Christ, his atoning suffering has nothing to do with the bestowal of this grace. It is a grace outside of atonement and satisfaction.
In the second place, we may notice that all the good things of this present life find their origin in this common grace. Why is it, that the human race is not instantly destroyed after the fall? It is because of the common grace of God. Repeatedly the idea is expressed and emphasized that, if common grace had not intervened immediately after the fall, Adam and Eve and all the world would have been instantly sent to utter ruin and destruction. That Adam and Eve are spared, that they are promised life and a seed and development that the curse does not immediately destroy the world, the cosmos; that the rain falls and the sun shines, that seasons and years follow in regular succession that nature still offers its wonderful powers and forces to the service of man, and that man possesses the power and the ingenuity to bring them to light and subject them to, himself; the development of man in the world of the life of science and art, commerce and industry; the continuance of the institutions of the home, society, the state; civil righteousness, law and order,—all these, and whatever good things you may further be able to enumerate as blessings of this present life and as bestowed on man in general, are the outflow of common grace. They are good gifts of God reaching all men and coming to them as sinners outside of Jesus Christ.
In the third place, as to its subjective operation in the hearts of men, this common grace is a check upon the development of sin. If you ask, how it must be explained that total depravity does not appear in all its horror in the world outside of special grace, Kuyper answers, that God checks the development and manifestation of sin. He does so partly thru the means of these outward blessings of His common grace. But he also halts the progress and prevents the full manifestation of sin directly thru an operation of His spirit. This is so often expressed that it has become the chief element in the theory of common grace. Common grace is the power that prevents the full manifestation of sin in the individual sinner, and that halts the progress of sin in its organic development in the world. And the result of this operation of common grace as a check upon the power of sin is not only that man does not reveal himself in all the hellish horror of his corrupt nature, but also that he performs a good deal of good, that there is much in his life and accomplishments that attracts and appeals. “‘Ook bij San alle geloof veryreeemde menschen, bij wie we met geen wedergeboorte rekenen mogen, ontmoeten we velerlei levensuiting die liefelijk aandoet, en wel verre van tot het kwaad te neigen, er veeleer tegen ingaat.” Vol. II, 48. “Dat nu nochtans, niettegenstaande ‘s menschen zondige natuur hen prikkelt, om de menschelijke orde prijs te geven, en in een dierlijke orde lust te hebben, tech zekere menschelijke orde tusschen de menschen in het gemeen in stand bleef en zich zelfs in toenemende mate ontwikkeld beeft, is Godes gemeene gratie. Niet de mensch heeft zichzelven van de vernieling gered; maar die hem ook voor het wereldsche leven tegen hemzelven beschermd heeft is God de Heere. Deze reddende daad der gemeene gratie Gods loopt ten deze nu langs twee wegen: de eene in den mensch, de andere onder de menschen; de eene inwendig, de andere uitwendig. Die inwendige weg in den mensch bestond hierin, that God hem in zijn wilden hartstocht intoomde, behoefte aan vrede en rust in hem prikkelde, en zachter gezindheden in hem deed opkomen.” p. 159. The power of common grace serves, therefore, as a check upon the power of sin. And this check on the power of sin bears this fruit, that the sinner performs something positively good. More than once Dr. Kuyper emphasizes this. On p. 303 he concludes a discussion of this difficult question, how a check on total depravity can be productive of positive good with the statemeAt: “Vergissen we ons nu niet dan is hiermede de zoo moeilijke vraag beantwoord, hoe, als de gemeene gratie niets doet dan de zonde stuiten, ze tech leiden kan tot iets positief goeds.” And that the theory actually leads to this conception is evident from the notable illustration of Melchisedec. According to Dr. Kuyper’s view in Melchisedec we have one of the grandest products of common grace. He was a carnal man, totally depraved. He possessed no redeeming grace. Yet, sin was checked in him to such an extent and so effectively, that he was serving the true God in priestly consecration, was a king of righteousness, and type of Christ Jesus who is priest after his order!
Lastly, it is a grace that is common to all men. It is not thus, that the people of the world that live outside of Christ live under the influence of this common grace, while the saints in Christ Jesus possess special or saving grace. No, all possess this common grace. The people of the world, all that are outside of Christ live from only one kind of grace; God’s regenerated people live from a double, from a two-fold grace, from two kinds of grace. They live partly from common, partly from special grace. “Gemeenlijk stelt men hkt zoo voor, alsof de gemeene gratie alleen werkt in de niet wedergeborenen, en alsof alles wat in de geloovigen ten goede uitkomt vrucht ip van de particuliere genade. Maar het kost weinig moeite om in te zien dat dit niet opgaat. . . Wie de zaak helder wil inzien zal moeten erkennen, dat er twdeerlei genade in den geloovige werkt, zoowel de particuliere genade uit het zaad Gods dat in hem is, als de gemeene gratie, die hem met de wereld gemeen it. Niet met een maar met twee genadefactoren heeft men by den geloovige te doen, en daar bovendien zijn natuur in hem werkt, moet zijn verschijning en zijn optreden begrepen worden als een complex van drieErlei werking: ten eerste van zijn natuur, ten tweede van zijn kindsgenade, ten derde van zijn gemeene gratie . . .”
We may summarize, therefore, by saying: Common grace is the name for a theory that holds, that God outside of Christ and his atoning blood reveals His good favor to all men in general; that from this grace must be explained all the present existence of the world, with all the temporal blessings and institutions for the present life, as well as all the power and ingenuity man still displays; that this grace serves subjectively to check the development and prevent the full manifestation of the totally corrupt nature of man and is productive of much good; that the power of this grace works in regenerated and unregenerated alike, so that the child of God lives from two kinds of grace, one of which is peculiar to himself, the other of which he has in common with the world.
Now, in the way of negative criticism we wish to remark in the first place; that the theory does by no means solve the problem it promised to solve. The problem was that the children of the world did much good and the children of God much evil. The church disappointed the careful observer, and the world was much better than we would expect on the basis of the doctrine of total depravity. But we fail to see how this theory offers an explanation bf this sad contrast. True, it apparently explains the good there is in the world. The power of common grace operating in the sinful heart checks the development of sin, and for that reason the world appears not as bad as we would expect. But, this does not explain why the church should be so much worse than the world, and why much of the attraction and graces that adorn the children of the world should not also beautify the regenerated. For according to Dr. Kuyper the believers also are under the influence of this common grace. If it were thus, that believers lived from special grace alone, and the children of the world only under the operation of common grace, the problem raised might probably be regarded as solved. But now it is a different story. Fact is, that believers live under the power of a double grace, common and special, while the children of the world live from the former only. And, therefore, we would still expect that the children of God would display a much more virtuous life and character than the children of the world. It will, I think, be evident, that the problem is not solved by this theory.