In our preceding article, calling attention to Article III of Heads III and IV of the Canons of Dordrecht, we noted that, according to this article, man is not only born in sin but also conceived in sin. And we also called attention to how and what man actually has become because of his having been conceived and born in sin. We now conclude our brief discussion of this article.
According to this article, all men, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation. He cannot change or improve, reform himself. He cannot and will not and cannot will to return to God. And he is neither able nor willing to reform his nature. He can do nothing in his own behalf.
Moreover, man cannot dispose himself to reformation. This was the heresy of the Arminians. O, they would declare themselves as maintaining that God must do it all, but man must also be willing that God should do it. How often this is proclaimed today! God can do nothing for man unless man does something first. Man can even pray for his own regeneration!
Finally, this article also declares that man can be delivered only by the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit.
Article IV reads as follows:
There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings 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 and 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. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.
This is the article which the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 quoted only in part. And it is certainly worthwhile to call attention to this article a little in detail.
In Art. 14 of our Belgic Confession we read that man lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof. In this article the word “remains” is used, and this word must be understood in the sense of “tracks,” as indicating’ that whit he once had is now lost and gone. The tracks of a vehicle, for example indicate that the vehicle had been there but had passed on. In this third article of the Third and Fourth Heads of the Canons, however, we read of glimmerings.”
This article speaks of natural light which sinful man has retained after the fall and of the consequences thereof. He retained some glimmerings or remnants of this natural light. By natural light we understand that man also after the fall is a rational, moral creature, who can think and will. His natural gifts did not remain undamaged. Man, also from a natural point of view, surely did not remain the creature after the fall that he was before the fall. Sin certainly affected his natural life. Physically he was made subject to the power of disease and death. His soul was also affected. His original brilliant ability to see and think and will was certainly unaffected by the entrance of sin into the world. Also his knowledge was seriously affected. He retained only glimmerings of his original natural light. However, although his natural gifts did not remain undamaged, neither were they lost. He retained some of them. He did not become an irrational animal.
And what does man today have because of these glimmerings of natural light? First, he has some knowledge of God. Every man has an awareness of God. Because of this knowledge of God, under the influence of God’s revelation, man can to a certain extent know who and what God is, so that he also knows that God is to be served and thanked. This is held before us in Romans 1:19-20. Secondly, he has some knowledge of natural things. He knows many things. One does not need the Spirit of regeneration to know how to build a house, how to bake wholesome bread, .how to operate as a mechanic, how to build ships, airplanes, submarines, or even how to travel to the moon and land men upon the moon. All the human discoveries and inventions are evidences of this fact. And we are seeing wonderful things taking place before our very eyes in the days and times in which we live. All this the sinner is able to do because he has some knowledge of natural things. In the third place, man has some knowledge of the difference between good and evil, between what is proper and improper. Generally speaking, he knows the difference between the good and the evil. He knows that it is wrong to disobey traffic rules and regulations, to commit robbery and murder, to have more than one wife, etc. It is true that many of these laws are being violated openly and publicly today. Today the rule governing the chastity of a virgin is openly and publicly ridiculed. But the fact remains that man has some knowledge of the difference between good and evil. And, fourthly, man also discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. He knows, for example, that it is wrong for him, that it has bad consequences for him, and for society if he does evil things. From this follows his “regard.” O, it is true in our present day and age that this regard is sadly on the decrease. We live today in a day and age of terrible lawlessness and recklessness. Respect for law, and order are decreasingly in evidence today. People today do not hesitate to make of courtrooms, of law and order a caricature and a mockery. Lawlessness and disregard for all virtue are much in evidence in our present day. Yet, he does succeed partially, to some extent, in walking in this orderly external deportment, although it must be emphasized that it is only partially; and even then, when he does walk orderly, there is, of course, absolutely no good in this before the face of the living God. Man is and remains a hater of God and of his neighbor; he is not subject to the law of God, neither can he be.
In the second place, this article emphasizes that by his natural light man can never bring himself to conversion or to a saving knowledge of the living God. This is emphatically stated in this article. This, we may say, was the main issue at the Synod of Dordt. The Arminians maintained that the natural man was able to do this. Conversion and attainment unto a saving knowledge lay within the capability of the natural sinner. But the Reformed fathers opposed this. Over against this they maintained that it was not so. There is in the natural man no point of contact for the saving knowledge of God and for true conversion. We read in this article: “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.”
However, there is another matter which is stated in this article. In the third place, and this is surely a fact for which we may be very thankful, our fathers also maintain here that the natural man can also do no good in things natural and civil .with his natural light. And this was surely the issue in Point III of 1924. The Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 maintained that the natural man was able in things natural and civil to do good in the sight of the Lord. The Arminian claimed that the natural man can come through his natural light to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion. Now the Christian Reformed Church, when drawing up its Three Points in 1924, quoted from this fourth article of these Canons. This synod did not quote the entire article, only the first part of it which reads: “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings 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.” As Protestant Reformed Churches we reject both positions, and maintain that the sinner, as apart from the regenerating grace of God in Christ Jesus, can never please the Lord, can never do anything good in the sight of the Lord, and that this also applies to things civil and natural.
It is, of course, understandable that the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 should quote only the first half of this article. It would be impossible for them to quote the rest of the article in support of a contention that the natural man is able, in things civil and natural, to please the Lord. Of course, the fathers surely condemn this good that sinners are able to do already in the articles that precede Art. 4 in this fourth head of the Canons. But in this fourth article they declare, with great decisiveness that also in things natural and civil man is incapable of using his natural light aright. In fact, the fathers also declare, in addition to his incapability of using it aright even in things natural and civil, that this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God. And the purpose of all this is that he should be made to stand guilty before the Lord. If man were an animal, devoid of natural light, then he would have no sin. But now he has retained some glimmerings of his original light, and he has no excuse for his sin.
This, we understand, is in complete harmony with the Scriptures. Romans 14:23 teaches us that whatever is not of faith is sin. In Hebrews 11:6 we read that without faith it is impossible to please Him. And in Romans 8:6-8 we read: “For to be carnally minded death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” And this truth is substantiated by all of Scripture and surely experienced by every child of God.
This concludes our treatment of the doctrine of sin. The denial of the absolute character of sin is characteristic of Pelagianism and Arminianism. The former denies the Scriptural doctrine of original sin, guilt and pollution, and the Arminian would maintain that the natural man, through the natural light that is in him, can come to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion. The Christian Reformed Church, in its Three Points of 1924, has also departed from the Scriptural doctrine of man’s utter and complete depravity. We maintain that the natural man is wholly dead in his sins and miseries, can never do anything good in the sight of the Lord, and this is surely in harmony with the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. This truth of the Scriptures is surely being confirmed more and more by all of life around us in our present day. May our Protestant Reformed Churches ever remain faithful in the proclamation of this testimony of the Word of God and continue to set forth the truth that all salvation is wholly of the Lord.