Question Box


One of our California readers asked me to make some comments about the idea of a dialogue church, sometimes also called a modalities church. My questioner left his question general, but I assume that he desires some comments on the right or wrong of such a dialogue church, as well as on the dangers of it.


I will not comment on the whole idea of dialogue. My colleague, Prof. Hanko, made some comments on this subject not long ago in his department, All Around Us. With these comments I am in agreement, and the whole current idea of dialogue is as abhorrent to me as it is to him. 

Now, however, the subject is that of a so-called dialogue church, or modalities church. What is this? In brief, we may describe it as follows. In the first place, a modalities church is a denomination of churches in which there is an orthodox and a heterodox element, an element which adheres to Scripture and the Confessions in its preaching, administration of the sacraments, and discipline, and an element which does not do so. In the second place, these groups are rather well-defined. In such a modalities church you do not find orthodox and heterodox elements scattered throughout all the congregations, but rather entire segments of the denomination which are either heterodox or orthodox. Entire congregations will be of one or the other kind. An orthodox congregation will be exclusively so, in its constituency, as to its elders and deacons, and as to its minister. And sometimes a number of such orthodox congregations, which adhere to the confessions, will band together for the purpose of maintaining their orthodox position, and will constitute a definite wing, or modality, within the denomination. In the third place, in such a situation the so-called orthodox wing is usually, if not always, a minority of the denomination. If it were in the majority, it would be able to expel the heterodox minority. And in such a situation the orthodox minority of churches and the heterodox majority live together under one denominational roof. Either by express or tacit agreement, they live in a situation of what might be called detente. And, finally, as to motivation, not infrequently this situation is justified by the orthodox minority on the basis of the claim that they desire and strive to reform the church from within. Now admittedly the above description is brief and does not enter into detail. But broadly speaking, this is the kind of situation which has prevailed for many years already in the so-called national church of the Netherlands, the Hervormde Kerk. You will find something of the same situation in the Reformed Church in America. In fact, you will find a situation of this kind existing to a degree in many of the larger denominations in this country which once upon a time were Reformed or Presbyterian. There are signs that a similar situation is developing in the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, although it remains to be seen whether such a situation will become permanent in that denomination. There are even occasionally both signs and claims made that such a situation is developing in the Christian Reformed Church in this country. 

What is involved here, basically, is the matter of the marks of the church, of the church’s calling to manifest those marks, and of the believer’s calling to join himself to the true church wherever it is manifested. It seems to me that confessional believers and churches which live together with liberal churches under the same denominational roof are violating specifically Article 29 of our Belgic Confession, which speaks of the marks of the church. The attempt is made, of course, to justify such a situation on the basis that the local congregations, and even whole groups of congregations, are indeed manifesting the marks of the church. But this does not take into account the matter of denominational unity and denominational and corporate responsibility. I am not now speaking of Reformed believers and Reformed churches which have differences within the Confessions; this is possible. But I am referring to those who differ specifically with respect to the Confession, to those who live together under the same denominational roof with those who explicitly deny the Confessions. This, it seems to me, becomes a matter of being unequally yoked together with unbelievers. 

In the second place, this whole matter involves the calling of the church to reformation. And specifically, it involves the calling of the church to reformation by way of separation and instituting the church anew, if need be. This was done, for example, in the Netherlands. In fact, it was done twice: in 1834 and again in 1886. But there still remains an element in the Hervormde Kerk, for example, which considers its duty to be to reform the church from within. And then the question arises, of course: just how long does that process of reformation from within continue? And my answer is that when the point is reached that the heterodox element is in the majority and in control of the denomination, and when heresy is openly and officially endorsed and tolerated, then it becomes one’s calling to separate. Usually, such separation, if the orthodox element is militant and vocal, will come about through a process by which the heterodox element simply casts out the orthodox element. If, however, this does not take place, it then becomes the calling of those who adhere to the Confessions to take the initiative and to separate.

Finally, the argument is sometimes made that such reformation by way of separation is no better than the attempt at reformation from within, and no more successful. In fact, there is some discussion going on about this very subject in the Netherlands at present. And those who are in favor of a modalities church and who claim to be in favor of reformation from within point to the alleged uselessness and failure of reformation by way of separation. In fact, they are pointing at present to the Gereformeerde Kerken as an example. The question is raised: what is the use of reformation through separation? After all, it is claimed, ultimately the church which separates will again itself become corrupt; and then a new separation becomes necessary. And so the chain of separations becomes endless, and the church becomes fragmented. Historically, of course, there is an element of truth in this. But I would call your attention to the fact that this is strictly a utilitarian argument. We must not judge our calling by the results or possible results. But we must consider our calling in the light of the question what is right and what is wrong before the face of God and in the light of Scripture and the Confessions. And then there can be no question about the fact that it is the calling of God’s church in the world to adhere to the truth of the Word of God and not to make common cause with unbelievers and deniers of that truth.


A Christian Reformed reader wrote in some time ago with a problem about common grace. He did not specifically write in to Question Box, but hoped that the matter mentioned in his letter could be cleared up in an editorial some time. However, I will try to say a few words in this department about the problem which he raises. He writes, in part, as follows: 

“I asked for a definition of common grace, and Rev. . . ., who leads the group, stated something like this : ‘Common grace is the source of all order, refinement, culture, common virtue, etc., which we find in the world; and through it the moral power of the truth upon the heart and conscience is increased and the evil passions of men are restrained. It does not lead to salvation, but it keeps this earth from becoming a hell. It arrests the complete effectuation of sin, just as human insights arrest the fury of wild beasts. It prevents sin from being manifested in all its hideousness, and thus hinders the bursting forth of the flames from the smoking fire. Like the pressures of the atmosphere, it is the universal and powerful though unfelt.’ 

“What confuses me is this: if the unbeliever, unconverted, reprobate is accountable to Almighty God on the day of judgment for all of his earthly blessings, and his punishment will be more severe, how can this be called grace. If it was called the restraining power of God, that I could understand. I can see where it is grace for the believer, but how can it be for the unbeliever. It seems to me if this was grace, it would be more grace if they had never received these blessings.”


I can very well understand that my correspondent is confused by what is presented above. I must confess that I am also rather confused. And the chief reason for this confusion lies in the fact that there is absolutely no proof either from Scripture or from our Reformed Confessions for the above view. And yet I detect in the description of “common grace” which is offered above basically the view of the Second Point of 1924, which teaches a restraint of sin by common grace, according to which “God by the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin, by which human life in society remains possible.” 

Concerning this, we must remark, in the first place, that the idea of the Second Point, in its teaching of a restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community by virtue of common grace, is not merely the teaching that the sinner is restrained, limited, and controlled in his outward actions, so that he cannot fully execute and always carry out his evil intentions. The latter is a thoroughly Reformed doctrine. It is Reformed to confess that God holds in His power and completely controls by His providence all the deeds of the wicked, both of devils and of men, so that they can accomplish nothing against His will. God does this directly by His power, frequently frustrating the counsels of the ungodly in a way which is even beyond our comprehension: for the very thoughts and desires of the wicked are in His hand and under His control. However, God also controls and restrains the wicked indirectly and mediately. The ungodly are dependent upon and are limited by time and occasion and circumstances, by their place and position in life, by their talents and power and means, and by their own ambitions and fears, as well as by the power of the magistrates. In fact, the ungodly are limited in their sinful deeds by their own character and disposition. All this, however, constitutes an outward restraint of the sinner which has nothing to do with an operation of grace. And it is not this external restraint of the sinner in his sinful deeds to which the Second Point of 1924 refers. What I have described above is taught, for example, in Art. 13 (and in part in Art. 36) of our Netherland Confession. 

Common grace teaches that there is an inwardly restraining operation of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of the natural man—an operation which is not regenerating—whereby the progress of the corruption of sin in the human nature is checked and restrained in such a way that a remnant of the original goodness of man in the state of righteousness is constantly preserved and also caused to bear fruit in many good works in this present life. There are especially the following elements in this theory: 

1) That there is in the sinner a remnant of natural good. This “natural good” is distinct from spiritual good, by which is meant the good that is wrought in the depraved nature by the Spirit of Christ and which is rooted in regeneration. Natural good is supposed to be a good that is not wrought by regenerating grace, but remains in man since the fall. It is supposed to be a remnant of his original goodness or righteousness. This “natural good” is said to include such important elements as a seed of external righteousness, receptivity for moral persuasion, receptivity for the truth, a will that is susceptible to good motives, and a conscience that is receptive for good influences, good inclinations and desires, of which the Holy Spirit can make use in restraining sin. You will recognize some of these elements in the description quoted above by my correspondent. You see, common grace is said to have operated immediately after the fall of man, preventing and restraining the corrupting power of sin. If there had not been such an immediate restraining operation of common grace upon the nature of man, so it is said, he would have become utterly corrupt then and there. Man would have changed into a devil, the development of mankind would have become an utter impossibility, and this earth would have become a hell. But the restraining power of the. Holy Spirit operated upon man as soon as he had sinned, so that he did not fully die, did not become completely corrupt, but retained some light and life, a remnant of his original goodness. 

2) The second element in this theory is that of the operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby that original good that remains in man since the fall is continuously guarded against further corruption by the checking and restraining of the progress of sin. Even that remnant of good in man, so it is said, would have become corrupted long ago if there had not been a constantly restraining operation of grace in the heart of man, an operation, however, which is not regenerating but preserving in nature. 

3) The third element is that there is an operation of the Holy Spirit by which this remnant of natural good in the sinner becomes active. The seed of external righteousness brings forth fruit, so that the natural man performs good works in the sphere of natural and civil life. This is especially the teaching of the Third Point of 1924. The practical result of this restraining operation of the Holy Spirit is then said to be that the natural man is able to live a naturally good and morally sound life in this world. He is not regenerated, is not ingrafted into Christ by a true and living faith. He performs no spiritual good. But by virtue of the remnant of good that is in him and by virtue of the constant operation of the Holy Spirit upon him, this natural man really lives a weakened form of his original Paradise-life. He can perform good works in this world and live a good world-life. 

Now there are many objections that can be raised against this theory. 

In the first place,—and this is always the chief objection—this whole theory is a very evident denial of the total depravity of the natural man. For the simple fact is that according to this theory there never has been a totally depraved man in the world since the fall of Adam and Eve. For from the moment. of the fall until the present day there is supposed to have been the operation of this restraining grace in the heart of man, preserving in him the remnant of his original goodness, according to which he is able to live a tolerably good world-life. 

In the second place, this alleged restraint of sin by common grace implies the error of resistible grace. In the description cited by my correspondent mention is made of the idea that the evil passions of men are restrained, that this earth is kept from becoming a hell, that the complete effectuation of sin is arrested, that sin is prevented from being manifested in all its hideousness, etc. But if all this were true, there would be no development of sin whatsoever. However, it is an undeniable fact of history, and plainly revealed in Scripture, that sin and corruption do continuously develop and increase in the world until the measure of iniquity is full and the man of sin can appear. In fact, it strikes me that the whole idea of a restraint of sin by common grace in our present world is a very unrealistic idea. We live in a time when sin increasingly develops and breaks out in all its foul corruption. Increasingly the signs are there that we are moving rapidly toward the end and toward the time when the Anti Christ shall appear in his final manifestation. But how is this possible in the light of the theory of common grace? This can only be due to the fact, then, that the Holy Spirit releases His restraining hold upon the sinner and gives him over in unrighteousness. And if you inquire how this must be explained, then the answer is that the sinner resists this restraining influence of grace, and thus goes from bad to worse. But this, you understand, is the error of resistible grace. The power of the Spirit in such a case is not efficacious. Man is stronger than God! 

In the third place, this theory conceives dualistically of sin in relation to God. It implies a denial of the absolute sovereignty of the Most High even over the powers of sin and death. It presents sin and death as powers next to God and operating independently of Him. These powers are able to work corruption in the heart and nature of man. But God checks this power, restraining a power that operates independently of Him. This is dualism. Scripture teaches, however, that sin and death are not powers which work independently of God, but that they are the result of His own cursing wrath against the sinner. 

There is much more that can be said about this theory. But let the above suffice. 

Over against this, we maintain that the natural man, ever since the fall of our first parents in Paradise, is wholly darkness and foolishness, corrupt before God in all his ways, incapable of doing anything that is pleasing to God, always inclined only to evil, unless and until he is regenerated by the Spirit of Christ. This is Reformed. Surely, there is left in him a remnant of natural light. He remained a rational, moral being, endowed with reason and will, able to distinguish between good and evil. This has nothing to do with any so-called common grace, however. And by the way, we must remember that sin and the fall did not change things essentially. The whole idea that man would become a devil or a beast, that this earth would become a hell, were it not for common grace, is nonsense. Sin did not change the nature of things. Man remained man. The devil remained a devil. The animal remains an animal. The earth remains. earth. But sin changed things spiritually, ethically. Man, a rational, moral being, became a depraved man. There is nothing left in him of the light and knowledge according to which he may know and love that which is good, nothing left in him of righteousness and holiness, nothing left of his original moral integrity. From the moment of the fall he became totally corrupt. His knowledge of God changed into darkness, his righteousness into unrighteousness, his holiness into corruption. At the fall his nature became exactly as corrupt as it could become. This is the teaching of our Confessions, particularly of Canons III, IV, 1-4. 

Nor do we deny that there is development of sin in the world throughout history. But we maintain that the manifestation of this corruption of the human nature in the actual sins of the human race goes hand in hand with the organic development of the human race and follows this development. Adam’s sin was a root sin, which bears its fruit in all the actual sins of the entire race until the measure of iniquity is filled. As the human race developed and as life with its many and various relationships becomes more complex, sin also reveals itself as corrupting the whole of life in all its relationships. And this organic development of sin takes place exactly as fast as possible. However, this progress of sin is controlled and limited by many factors. First of all, there is the all-overruling power of God, Who, in His providence indeed gives men over unto unrighteousness and in His righteous judgment punishes sin with sin, but Who also in this very process controls the progress of sin and leads it into those channels which are conducive to the realization of His counsel. In this connection, in the second place, there is the limitation that is imposed upon every man by the measure of his gifts, his powers and talents, his time and place in history, by occasions and means and circumstances, by character and disposition. Every man does not commit the same sins. Each person sins according to his place in the organism of the race and in history. This is not difficult to understand. Cain, for example, could not commit the same sins as did Pharaoh at the time of Israel’s bondage: the circumstances and opportunities and means were not the same. In the third place, sin is determined and limited by various and often conflicting motives, such as fear and shame, ambition and vain-glory, natural love and carnal lusts, malice and envy, hatred and vengeance. It is also influenced by the power of the magistrates and by the fear of the sword-power. But in all these channels and under all these controlling and determining factors, the current of sin and corruption moves onward without restraint and interruption, until it shall have served God’s purpose and the measure of iniquity shall be filled and the Man of Sin shall be revealed. 


From a California reader I received this question some time ago: 

“Are editors supposed to have a facility with words and able to put ‘handles to meaning’? We have heard, ‘Motion is not always action,’ and, ‘If the job is not worth more than the pay, it will never pay more,’ and, ‘The grace of gratitude,’ and, ‘Particular grace,’ etc., etc. 

“Now there are other graces and blessings to men and animals, Jew and Gentile alike, of which Jesus Himself speaks in Matthew 5:45

“What, in one short sentence, could these be called?”


We have written about this passage several times of late. But in reply to this question I wish to point out: 

1. That the text itself does not call rain and sunshine graces, blessings, or tokens of God’s love and favor. This is the mistake which is commonly made in interpreting this passage. The text does indeed say that God sends rain and sunshine upon the just and the unjust. It does not say that rain and sunshine are blessings, or manifestations of God’s love to all alike. 

2. We may indeed call these gifts of God. Moreover, they are in themselves good gifts, too. Scripture itself speaks such language, Acts 14:17: “Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” 

3. Whether these gifts which are bestowed upon the just and the unjust constitute blessings or curses is another question. We must remember, that neither blessing’ nor cursing resides in things as such. The question of blessing and cursing is a question which is one of the attitude of God. And this question, in turn, is inseparably connected with God’s counsel of election and reprobation. The Lord our God bestows all things upon His elect people in Christ in His favor, blessing them. He bestows all things upon the repro bate in His eternal hatred and wrath, cursing them, setting them in slippery places, and bringing them down unto destruction.


From the same California reader I received the following: 

“Could you explain some day the difference, if any, between God’s love and God’s grace. 

“‘It is fun to be saved’ is a common expression in our days among some. Is not fun something you make yourself? So you save yourself. I can only make myself say: ‘It is a blessing to be saved’ (by Christ, from death and hell). 

“Now one may be able to wish a blessing upon someone, but only God can bless or give a blessing. Right? 

“Returning to the first question, we can say that God islove, and that (sometimes) we have love. Also: God is grace; but can any of us extend grace?”


First of all, I can agree with my questioner concerning the expression, “It is fun to be saved.” This kind of language is heard not infrequently from a certain type of very shallow “happiness evangelists.” But it is neither Biblical nor correct. My questioner is certainly correct in speaking of salvation as a blessing bestowed by God in Christ Jesus. And Scripture uses this language very, very often. And in this connection, we must remember, too, that this blessing of being saved, according to Scripture, involves pain, anguish, sorrow, because of our sins and misery. And he who thinks that salvation is “fun” has not learned the a-b-c of salvation. 

In the second place, my questioner is correct as to the matter of blessing. It is certainly correct that we may be able to wish a blessing upon someone, but that only God can bless or give a blessing. God’s word of blessing is efficacious: it effects the very blessedness which it pronounces. Our word of blessing is not efficacious, that is, it cannot effect that which it states. 

In the third place, without going into great detail let me say a few words about the question of the distinction between God’s love and God’s grace. All such ideas as that of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s goodness, and God’s compassion are closely related in Scripture. In general, we may say that love is that spiritual bond of perfect fellowship that subsists between ethically perfect, personal beings, who, because of their ethical perfection have their delight in, seek, and find one another. And the attribute of the love of God is the infinite and eternal bond of fellowship that is based upon the ethical perfection and holiness of the divine nature, and that subsists between the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Grace, as an attribute of God, is that divine virtue according to which God is the perfection of all beauty and loveliness, and contemplates Himself as such with infinite delight. For a more complete explanation of these ideas, I refer the reader to H. Hoeksema’sReformed Dogmatics, pp. 103-112. 

Finally, with regard to the last question on this subject, my questioner is correct, on the basis of Scripture, when he states that God is love, and that we have love. To this I would add: we have love, when the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by His Spirit. In this same connection my questioner asks whether any of us can extend grace? To this my answer is: no. God alone can and does extend grace to His people in Christ Jesus. We can, of course, wish one another God’s grace, or pray for God’s grace upon one another, in the same sense in which we can wish a blessing upon someone. 

The above answers are very brief, and they deal with important Scriptural concepts, as anyone will understand. If my questioner is not satisfied, he may call again.