Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: January 1, 2007, p. 155.
Common grace has two parts to it. One part has to do with God’s favorable attitude towards all men, expressed particularly in the gracious offer of the gospel to all. The other part has to do with God’s grace, worked by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of all men, which restrains sin and enables man to do good.
This idea of grace was first proposed by Dr. Abraham Kuyper in a massive work to which he gave the titleGemeene Gratie. Kuyper gave this title to his book because he wanted to distinguish his common grace from the common grace of the gracious offer of the gospel.
When the followers of Kuyper came to this country in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, they too, for the most part, joined the Christian Reformed Church. So there were really two camps in the Christian Reformed Church, both holding to a different view of common grace. These two camps did not get along very well, and the dissension between them was severe. But they found a compromise that restored peace and unity in the adoption of the three points of common grace. These three points of common grace were the occasion for the expulsion of Revs. Herman Hoeksema, George Ophoff, and Henry Danhof from the CRC.
The Protestant Reformed Churches were organized from Reformed people from both groups within the CRC: one group from the De Cock camp, and one group from the Kuyper camp. These were, however, united in the PRC in their mutual confession of sovereign and particular grace. They rejected both kinds of common grace as Arminian and contrary to Scripture and the confessions.
It is an interesting question why A. Kuyper developed his elaborate theory of common grace. The answer to this question lies in his view of the Netherlands and its role in the defense and propagation of the Reformed faith.
Prior to the Separation of 1834 (De Afscheiding) the only Reformed church in the Netherlands was the State Church (Hervormde Kerk). Many in the Netherlands, including Kuyper, believed that the Netherlands was destined to be the fountainhead of the Reformed faith in this world. The truth of the Reformed faith, issuing from the Netherlands as a mighty stream, would sweep through the world and have such influence on the world that all nations would themselves become Reformed or would, at the very least, come under the influence of the Reformed faith and benefit from the prosperity and national well-being that would accrue to Reformed countries. The Netherlands would be in this powerful position because it was a Reformed country with a government that supported the Reformed church.
When Kuyper saw the possibility of organizing a political party that could control the government, he resigned from the ministry and entered politics. First his party, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, gained seats in the Dutch Parliament, and then Kuyper saw the possibility that he himself could become prime minister. But he was able to become prime minister only by forming a coalition with another political party; his party did not have an absolute majority. By means of a coalition with the Roman Catholic party, he did succeed in his goal of becoming prime minister.
His coalition with the Roman Catholics was not a strange move on his part. It was obvious to all that although the Reformed Church was the government-sponsored church, not all the citizens of the nation were true children of God nor members of the Reformed Church. If, therefore, the Netherlands was to be the fountainhead of the Reformed faith as a Reformed country, it had to take into consideration the many who were not Reformed, so that all could unite in a common cause of promoting the Reformed faith throughout the world.
Kuyper found the basis for such cooperation among all the citizens of the Netherlands in his doctrine of common grace. Common grace was the one ground on which believers and unbelievers, indeed all the citizens of the Netherlands, could cooperate in a common cause of Christianizing all the world, if not making it truly Reformed. It was the ground, therefore, for Kuyper’s involvement in politics and for his coalition with Roman Catholics.
Kuyperian Common Grace
His idea of common grace worked out along the following lines.
The fall of Adam in Paradise was of such devastating severity that without divine intervention, the creation would have become a barren wasteland and man would have become a beast or a devil. God, therefore, intervened with common grace, which He bestowed on all the descendants of Adam to preserve them from bestiality or from becoming demons. This same common grace was given to the creation at the time of the flood, when God established a covenant with all creation and put the rainbow in the heavens as a sign of His common grace.
The result of this common grace was that man, through the power of it, is able to fulfill the original creation mandate: Subdue the earth. Without common grace this would have been impossible; with common grace, subduing the earth was possible.
This calling to subdue the earth is given to all the descendants of Adam, and because all are able to engage successfully in this task, common grace forms a common ground for believers and unbelievers to cooperate in the common task of earth-subduing.
The cultural mandate implies the obligation of men to discover all the earth’s powers and resources and to make use of them in ways in which these powers can be properly utilized. In subduing the earth, men discover the powers of the wind, the rain, electricity, the atom, etc. These powers are, in turn, put to use in ways that benefit mankind, make his life easier and more pleasurable, and give him leisure in which he can develop the arts: painting, sculpture, music, architecture, etc. Thus the human race progresses in the development of culture, which in turn can be used to solve the world’s problems: the problem of disease as medicine advances; of poverty, in an affluent society where there are sufficient resources to alleviate the sufferings of the poor; of war, when an equal distribution of the earth’s resources are equally shared and people live in peace; of racial and labor strife, when men learn to live together peaceably by easy access to education, and such like things.
Because the unregenerate are striving for the same goals as the regenerate, cooperation is possible between both kinds of people, and the result is a huge area of mutual interest and concern in which wicked and righteous work side by side to put the whole creation and all society’s institutions in the service of Christ (pro rege).
It all sounds a bit like a postmillennial dream. Although Kuyper would claim to be an amillennialist, post-mil people have claimed him as one of their own, and rightly so. Reformed churches have followed the Kuyperian dream in many instances, and the making of this world a better place to live, subduing all things to Christ the king, putting everything in the creation in the service of Christ are slogans of institutions and schools that still cling to the name Reformed.
A greater problem is that this cooperation between godly and ungodly can take place in the world of ideas as well. In the early 1920s, Dr. Ralph Janssen, professor in Calvin Seminary, appealed to Kuyperian common grace in support of his higher criticism of the Bible. He found many good ideas in the pagan worship of the nations surrounding Israel, and it was because of common grace that Israel’s religion could be formed and molded by pagan thought.
Evolutionism, openly taught in Reformed and Presbyterian schools, is justified on the grounds that unbelieving scientists, by the power of common grace, are able to determine how the world came into existence.
Morally the same is true. Worldly music, instead of being consigned to the generations and moral rot of Jubal, is viewed as God’s fruitful work of grace in the hearts of otherwise wicked men. Any act or deed that in any outward way seems to have some mercy about it (a philanthropic gift of a multi-millionaire), some benefit for mankind (the erection of a hospital), some enjoyable or skillful deed (a forty-foot putt by Tiger Woods), is ascribed to the common grace of God, without any regard for God’s own verdict: “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”
Kuyper himself claimed that the good deeds of the regenerate, because they were worked by grace, would be preserved for heaven, and that we would find also the fruits of the pagans in glory. I find it difficult to imagine that hard rock will be played in heaven, and that the walls of the new Jerusalem will be decorated with paintings by modern artists. Heaven would lose much attractiveness if such were indeed the case.
Objections to It
Apart from the fact that Scripture is very clear on the crucial point that grace is always sovereign, the defenders of sovereign and particular grace, especially the PRC, launched successful attacks against the theory.
The theory of common grace proposed by Dr. Abraham Kuyper, not only is not found in Scripture, but is also completely hostile to Scripture. One reads Kuyper’s Gemeene Gratie with amazement that there are so few scriptural passages quoted. Even Kuyper was hard pressed to find biblical support for his position. But worse, the view is hostile to Scripture, for it goes against God’s own pronouncement upon the “good” deeds of the unregenerate. All that is not of faith is sin. That passage is unequivocal, all-embracive, and decisive for any evaluation of every deed of man. One gets the impression that the ungodly, in Kuyper’s judgment, are capable of far more good than the humble child of God who daily struggles with his sin, confesses that all his works are nothing, knows that even his very best works are corrupted and polluted by sin, and flees daily to the cross for forgiveness.
Herman Hoeksema predicted at the very outset of the common grace controversy that, if the theory of Kuyperian common grace were ever adopted, it would be the end of the antithesis between the people of God and the wicked. So it has proved to be. Common grace has been a hole in the dike of the antithesis, which hole grew larger with the passing of the years until it became a yawning breach through which poured a tidal wave of worldliness and evil. Look at the church about us today and weep. The antithesis is not between the Reformed country of the Netherlands and the rest of the world—or America and the rest of the world; it is between the elect and the reprobate in the Netherlands and in America, and throughout the world.
The antithesis is marked by the fact that the totally depraved unbeliever, capable as he is to do mighty deeds with the powers of God’s world, uses everything he discovers and invents to promote the wicked kingdom of Antichrist. He sins in everything he does, for his works are not out of faith, but are in opposition to God and in the service of Satan.
The elect and regenerate child of God lives also in the world, the same world as that in which the wicked live. But he lives in the world as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. He thus uses God’s world insofar as he has any control over a part of it to seek the kingdom of heaven. He seeks that kingdom, as it is manifested here in the world, in his church, in his covenant schools, in his walk as a faithful citizen who serves the Lord Christ, and as one who witnesses by word and life to the truth of the gospel. He seeks that kingdom by condemning all wickedness in the world about him and testifying of the certain judgment of God upon evil. And he seeks that kingdom by pursuing his earthly pilgrimage faithfully as it leads him ever nearer his eternal destination, the house of many mansions.