Several months ago in the course of a conversation concerning the need and the possibility of a reformation in the Christian Reformed denomination the above question arose. It arose not in my mind: for to me this has never been a question. But it arose when I and a colleague insisted to a non-Protestant Reformed brother that a basic requisite of reformation in the Christian Reformed Church would be the repudiation of the common grace doctrine of the Three Points of 1924. My colleague and I insisted that without a reformation with respect to the Three Points, there could be no real reformation in the Christian Reformed denomination, but only a temporary turning back of the clock with respect to certain liberal tendencies and a beginning anew of the cycle of deformation. You see, it had been emphasized to us that we Protestant Reformed had a calling and an opportunity to call the Christian Reformed constituency to reformation. When we agreed to this and then insisted that this call to reformation would necessarily be a call to repudiate the Three Points of 1924 and to return to the doctrine of sovereign, particular grace, the reaction was: “You fellows are spinning your wheels about common grace.”
Obviously, the meaning of that rather vivid figure of speech is that to testify against the errors of common grace and the Three Points of 1924 is futile and fruitless. It is like running in a treadmill. One can expend a great deal of energy, but it is all in vain. When your car is stuck in a snow bank or mired down in the mud or in beach-sand, you can floor the accelerator and apply full power; but it will all be in vain. All that will be accomplished is that you become more deeply mired down.
And the intent of our conferee, let me hasten to add, was not to express that it was futile to testify concerning common grace because we would get no hearing or would not be understood. The intent was to emphasize that the Three Points of 1924 and their doctrine(s) are not the real issue, and that to talk about them is to talk beside the issue, to ignore the real issue(s). He meant to emphasize that we ought to “get with it,” to realize what are the real issues and the real problems and not futilely and vainly keep on testifying about some thing which is not an issue and which is not at all related to the issues of the day.
Now at the time of the conversation referred to, my colleague and I stood our ground. We insisted that any attempt at reformation in the Christian Reformed denomination—and I am assuming for the moment that such reformation is indeed necessary—would necessarily flounder and miscarry, unless it would go back to the basic problem and the basic departure from the line of the Reformed faith which took place officially in 1924. It is no secret that this has long been my position, and not mine only, but ours. We do not call merely in general for reformation, and even for reformation by way of separation; but we call positively for such reformation as involves standing where we stand as Protestant Reformed Churches. And this, in turn, involves, negatively, the repudiation of the error(s) of common grace, and, positively, the acceptance of the truth of God’s sovereign, particular grace.
And this is still my position.
The question posed at the head of this editorial does not intend to say that I am personally questioning this and in doubt about it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the more I observe and the more I read, the more I become convinced, both with respect to the Christian Reformed Church in this country and theGereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, that the theory of common grace has probably had a much more far-reaching and much more insidious and much more devastating effect than either its original proponents or its original opponents ever dreamed—though, I hasten to add, those original opponents had some prophetic insights when years ago they predicted the results, predictions which are being fulfilled in our times.
No, I pose this question for the sake of discussion and elucidation. And it is my intention to demonstrate by argument and evidence that the answer to the question is indeed a Yes-answer.
About this, a few words of introduction are in order.
First of all, when I speak of “common grace,” I am referring to the doctrines set forth in the Three Points of 1924. I am referring not only to what has come to be called the doctrine of the general well-meant offer of salvation, set forth by the First Point. This was the partly unintentional teaching of the First Point, the Arminian aspect of it, which turned out to be the sharp point of the First Point. But I am referring also, and especially, to what has sometimes been referred to as “Kuyperian” common grace, that is, that God is gracious in this present time and in the things of this present time to all men, with a non-saving grace. I am referring, in the second place, to the theory of a restraint of sin, that is, to an operation of the Holy Spirit, non-saving, non-regenerating, in the sinner, whereby the power of sin is restrained in human life. And I am referring, in the third place, to the theory that as a result of this operation of common grace, the natural man is enabled to do true good in the sight of God.
In the second place, I must point out that the issue is not merely negative. This is never the case. It has sometimes been asserted that the Protestant Reformed Churches are built on negatives, that is, merely on the denial of common grace and the Three Points. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is indeed true, of course, that there is always a negative side to reformation and to the need for reformation. But always involved in the negative is the positive. And always involved in reformation is both the repudiation and turning away from error and the return to the truth. And if you ask what, in brief, is the issue from a positive point of view, my answer is: the truth of sovereign particular grace.
In the third place, I want to call special attention to the fact that my question is: is common grace still theissue? I am not asking whether it is an issue. I am not asking whether it is one issue among many. I am asking whether it is the underlying issue. One could undoubtedly mention several items which are at issue, both within the Christian Reformed Church and between us and them. One could mention more than one doctrinal issue and also more than one practical issue. The Standard Bearer is certainly not alone in claiming that there are issues which need clearing up and which are causing dissension and dissatisfaction. But my question is: is common grace (the Three Points) the issue which is at the root of all the other issues which may be mentioned? My answer to that specific question is affirmative. Perhaps the Standard Bearer stands alone when the question is thus formulated; but whether it stands alone is not the issue.
In the fourth place, I want to call attention to the fact that the question is not whether common grace is still the issue in the same way and in the same form as in 1924 and the years immediately thereafter. I do not believe it would be realistic to hold that it is. Fundamentally, of course, the issue of the doctrine, or theory, is the same. But neither the Christian Reformed Church nor the Protestant Reformed Churches have stood still. No one ever stands still. There has been development. There has been progress along our respective doctrinal and ecclesiastical paths. And this is to be expected. And so at least part of the question is also this: in what way is common grace the issue, and how and in how far has the Christian Reformed denomination followed the path chosen in 1924?
In the fifth place, I also wish to call attention to the fact that the question is an objective one. It is not whether some, or many, or few, or none realize or admit that it is the issue. I have no doubt that there are many who do not realize it whatsoever. In fact, I have no doubt that there are not a few who do not even know what common grace is, and who certainly do not know what the Three Points are. On the other hand, there are certainly those who do know and admit it and who freely appeal in their thinking to the doctrine of common grace. But this is not the question. I want to face the question objectively and adduce objective evidence also.
Finally, I call attention to the fact that I have more than one party in view in this discussion. I have our own Protestant Reformed Churches and people in view—particularly, let me say, our youth. I have, in general, the Christian Reformed denomination in view. For I am mindful of our history and of our separation. And I am also mindful of the fact that there is some discussionwithin the Christian Reformed denomination of the need of reformation; I may mention both the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen and theChristian Reformed Outlook (formerly Torch and Trumpet) in this connection. I have also in view the position of the Rev. Vincent Licatesi and the Christian Reformed Church: for this is indeed an issue for them also, whether they like it or not.