An overflow audience greeted Dr. K. Schilder, when on the 8th of February he entered the auditorium of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids to deliver his lecture on the subject of Common Grace.
The large auditorium had been filled to capacity with numerous extra chairs. Loudspeakers had been installed in the basement for those that could find no room upstairs. In the auditorium every seat was taken, and many remained standing during the entire lecture. And more than one hundred made use of the loudspeakers downstairs. Without a doubt it was easily the largest audience the professor will address in this country.
As many that had occupied seats in the rear of the church had not been able to understand Dr. Schilder, when he spoke in the same building on the multiformity of the Church, there was this time a scramble for the front seats. And even before six o’clock that evening people began to come to church.
Christian Reformed as well as Protestant Reformed people were present.
The subject aroused interest.
And it was probably also one of the tensest audiences Dr. Schilder will ever address.
No doubt, many, if not most, of those present had come to listen to the speaker with the question in their soul, with which of the two views, the Christian Reformed or the Protestant Reformed, the speaker would express agreement.
Under the circumstances it was not exactly an easy audience to address!
Undersigned introduced the speaker.
He made the remark that he usually dislikes the formality of introductions, but that on this occasion a few remarks might not be superfluous. He reminded the audience of what he had written in the Standard Bearer concerning our attitude as Protestant Reformed people towards the visit of Dr. Schilder. The fact that the board of the Reformed Free Publishing Association had invited the professor to speak on the subject of Common Grace was not at all based on the supposition that he was in agreement with our conception of the matter. The very fact that his subject was “Common Grace” would point to the contrary. Undersigned would not speak on that subject, if he were the speaker, but simply on “Grace.” Nor did Dr. Schilder’s acceptance of our invitation put him under any moral obligation to cater to our view. He was perfectly free to express his own views, free even to give the Standard Bearer a thrashing, if he were of a mind to do so.
And he invited the audience to give the speaker their honest attention and not to listen with the question in their heart and uppermost in their mind, whether the speaker’s views were in agreement or disagreement with their own.
These remarks were intended to clear the way for Dr. Schilder freely to express his honest convictions, regardless of the views of the audience.
And also to ease the tension and cause the audience to relax.
Of the lecture I took no written notes.
I gave the speaker my undivided attention, however, and although the brief resume of the contents of Dr. Schilder’s lecture is here given from memory, I can safely guarantee its correctness.
After a few observations that did not pertain to his subject proper, the speaker began by emphasizing that he who speaks of common grace must define what he means. For instance, you cannot simply state that you believe in common grace and, therefore, agree with the Reformed fathers. The latter sometimes made a threefold distinction, and spoke of general, of common, and of particular grace. Texts from Scripture that were frequently quoted as proof in favor of common grace, such as Rom. 1:19, 20; 2:14 are capable of a different interpretation, as is shown by the explanation Dr. Greydanus offers of these passages.
The question concerning “common grace” deals with the problem of “nature and grace,” a problem that in our day attracts universal attention and is worthy of our earnest consideration and study. The antithesis is not one between “nature and grace,” but between “sin and grace.”
Scripture abundantly testifies that God loves and preserves His creature. He loves the works of His hands, sun, moon, and stars, the trees of the forest, and flowers, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea. And also what is His own work in man, even after the fall, the “remnants of His image,” the “natural light,” man as His own creation, He loves. This does not mean that He loves man as a sinner, outside of Christ. For, He is gracious to the sinner in Christ only. But His own work in man He loves.
The fact that, after the fall, man still exists, is not yet in hell, receives many things, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, gifts and talents, does not warrant the conclusion that there is a gracious disposition in God towards him. Things are not grace. The speaker used the illustration of a man that is condemned to death, but the execution of whose sentence is delayed because things are not yet ready for the severe form of punishment that is intended for him. Such a man cannot justly conclude from the fact, that he still has a few days to live, to a gracious disposition towards him on the part of the judge. The same is true of the sinner, that receives many things, but who is prepared for eternal damnation. Common grace cannot mean that there is a gracious disposition in God towards the reprobate ungodly. This truth was emphasized more than once in the lecture.
There is a reining, retardation, restraining of sin, even as there is a retardation of grace. The end does not come at the beginning. Beginning and end are separated by a historic process, in which God preserves all things to serve as understructure for the realization of His purpose of election and reprobation, salvation and damnation, sin and grace.
In this historic process man, even fallen man, is confronted by the “common mandate,” to multiply and fill the earth and develop the powers of creation and to do this in the love of God.
There is no objection to speak of an “offer” of grace, provided we understand by it that in a pedagogical sense the gospel, with its promise and demand, is presented to the rational, moral consciousness of all men promiscuously. However, this is no ground for the conclusion that in the preaching of the gospel there is a gracious disposition in God. Through it God accomplishes His own purpose, both of election and reprobation, salvation and damnation, life and death.
The speaker closed with a plea for peace and unity. It is his conviction that there is no just cause for the breach between the Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed Churches, and he harbors the hope that a colloquium on the question of common grace would have blessed results.
I am sorry that Dr. Schilder offered no opportunity for questions and discussion after the lecture.
Before the lecture I attempted to persuade him to give the audience such opportunity, but without avail. He stated that he was not afraid of discussion, but it might leave a wrong impression if, while no such opportunity was offered in connection with his other lectures, he would open a discussion at this particular occasion.
He tried to make me see his point, but I was not convinced.
And after the lecture I was more than ever convinced of the expediency of a discussion. A few questions might have brought out the truth more clearly and definitely than was actually done in the lecture.
Yet, Dr. Schilder was our guest, and it was certainly his privilege to refuse questions and debate, if, he considered it more expedient under the circumstances.
We are thankful that he was willing to accept our invitation.
As the matter stands now, I can give my opinion of the lecture in a few remarks.
First of all, it may be said without fear of contradiction, that the view of common grace, as presented in Dr. Schilder’s lecture, differs on important points from that of the Christian Reformed Churches as expressed in the “Three Points.”
First of all, and this is the main point, Dr. Schilder denies that one may conclude from the fact, that the ungodly have many things in common with the godly, to a gracious disposition in God toward the ungodly.
To my mind, this is the very heart of the question.
It certainly is the very heart of the First Point of 1924.
Take “gunstige gezindheid” out of the First Point and there is really nothing left of it.
Secondly, when Dr. Schilder speaks of “offer”, it is very evident that he means something quite different from “the well-meaning offer of grace on the part of God to all” of which the Christian Reformed Churches speak. To them also this “offer” is proof of the gracious disposition in God to all that hear the gospel. To Dr. Schilder it means no such thing.
Thirdly, it is also evident that when Dr. Schilder speaks of “beteugeling,” retardation, restraint of sin, and also of grace, he has in mind something quite different from a general operation of the Holy Spirit outside of regeneration in virtue of which the natural man is enabled to do good in this world.
I consider these differences fundamental.
It is reported that the Rev. D. Zwier, also the Rev. Van Baalen, made the statement, after having listened to the same lecture in Holland, Mich., that they were fully in agreement with it.
If this is true, I confess that I never understood the views of these brethren, nor of the Three Points. In that case it would seem highly desirable that we do arrange for a colloquium to review the entire question.
I feel that in substance I can agree with the main thoughts of Dr. Schilder’s lecture.
There are, indeed, differences.
I would not speak of common grace at all; he still does.
I prefer to adhere to the term “preaching of the gospel” rather than use the ambiguous term “offer of grace.”
I would rather speak of “organic development” than of “retardation,” though I have a vague notion that we mean the same thing.
Besides, it still remains a question whether we would agree on what Dr. Schilder left unsaid.
Things are not grace. This is putting the matter negatively. But what are they to the ungodly?
God loves His work even in the ungodly. But we maintain, too, that He hates the actually and concretely existing ungodly person. Agreed?
The “offer” is no reason to conclude to a gracious disposition in God toward the ungodly that hears His Word. But we maintain, that according to God’s purpose and intention the preaching of the gospel is a savor of death unto death unto the reprobate. Agreed?
On Dr. Schilder’s standpoint is it not better to speak of “preserving” and “renewing grace,” rather than of “common” and “special grace,” as Dr. Dooyeweerd suggests in his “Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee,” Deel III, 468, 469?
These and other questions I would certainly have liked to ask Dr. Schilder, had there been opportunity.
But in substance I could agree with what was actually said.
Certainly the antithesis is not “nature and grace,” but “sin and grace,” as we have always taught.
And we have always maintained that God is gracious to all His work, if only it is understood that the actually existing ungodly is not the object of His grace, but of His wrath.
And we, too, believe that the natural man has a remnant of natural light, which he holds under in unrighteousness.
Also in the Netherlands the hope was expressed that Dr. Schilder’s visit to our country might be conducive to a healing of the breach between the Christian Reformed and the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Rev. Datema wrote in this strain in “De (Nederlandsche) Wachter”.
And, reflecting on this article in De Wachter, the Rev. Vreugdenhil in Pro Ecclesia spoke of “beautiful perspectives”!
Dr. Schilder also emphasized our calling to be one.
At our ministers conference at my home he asked us the question, whether on our part we would be willing to have a colloquy with the Christian Reformed brethren and open the entire matter of common grace once more for discussion.
And we answered in the affirmative.
Any time we are willing to discuss the matter with them.
Provided, however, that such a discussion be based on Scripture and the Reformed Confessions just as if the Three Points had never existed.
If they, on their part, insist on the Three Points, a discussion would be useless. It would be finished before it was ever commenced!
And do not forget, that there are other matters that need discussion and settlement in the way indicated in Scripture, before the breach could ever be healed.
We have been slandered as heretics.
We have been cast out of the Church.
We have been deprived of our property and built new churches and parsonages.
O, it is true, these things can be overcome, if we could agree on the truth. We are willing to overcome them. But they must not merely be forgotten. Confession and forgiveness,—that is Christ’s way!
Beautiful perspectives, indeed! I agree with the Rev. Vreugdenhil. “That they may all be one!”
But the perspectives are also deep!
Deep and distant!