From a Canadian reader I received the following letter which contains some questions which touch directly on our Reformed position and witness. I shall quote the entire letter both because it furnished background for the questions and because of its significant observations; and in this issue I will make a beginning with answering the questions. Here is the letter:
For some time now I have been a reader of your paper, the Standard Bearer. let me say that I like yourpaper very much for its exposition of sound, Reformed, Biblical truth. As a member of the Christian Reformed Church I must say that our church “stood” for the same truths at one time, but not any more; and I know from the Standard Bearer that you are well aware of this.
Since our church has: begun to debate the infallibility of the Word of God, it has gone down very fast; and according to human reckoning it has gone past a point of no return. This all is so very sad. How did our Christian Reformed Church and also theGereformeerde Kerken in Holland bask in the sunshine of God’s favor, and how much light did He give us from His Word!
In spite of all the heresy going on in our church, I still believe that our creeds do represent an explanation of Bible truths in their present form. Especially the doctrine of the sovereignty of our God “who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11) is so very dear to us who are still truly Reformed by the grace of God. Is it not so that a sinner “dead in trespasses and sins” needs a sovereign God to pull him out of his misery from beginning to end?
Since I began reading the Standard Bearer, I have also read “Therefore Have I Spoken” and “Door U Alleen, Twaalf Leerredenen” door Ds. H. Hoeksema. It has all been very refreshing, and I thank my God that in His grace He has given us this, that we may once again steer a straight course through all the “tossing waves” of our present “leadership” (?) in our Christian Reformed Churches.
But there remain a few questions. This is not meant as criticism, not at all. I only like some clarity on a few points, two to be exact.
Number one is: the common grace question. According to one of your contributors—I think the Rev. G. Van Baren—all our present troubles in the Christian Reformed Church are because of our views on common grace. But there are so many churches which never heard’ of common grace, and they are going the same way as our churches. How do we have to see this?
I am well aware that at the present time the A.A.C.S. is playing havoc with what Dr. A. Kuyper called “common grace”; and especially when they preach their so-called “cultural mandate.” I have written something about these things which I will send you; I do not think for a moment that what I wrote is the final word in this matter, but I felt something had to be done; and since very little was forthcoming, I put in some of my “farmer latin” in the hope that the Lord may open the eyes of some.
In view of I Tim. 4:10, can we not say that there is common grace, or a favor from God for all men, believer and unbeliever alike? In the second place, when we speak of predestination, must we go as far as to say that the Lord from eternity has loved His own—with this I can agree—but also that the Lord hatedthose who are rejected, from eternity? I know that the Bible says: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”
On the other hand, is it not so that the atoning work of our Lord and Savior is “sufficient” for all men? See Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 15, Answer 37; Canons of Dordt, II, 3; and I Tim. 2:6, where we read, “Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
These things are deep, and we seem to be on the verge of going beyond-the Lord’s revealed will, and our finite minds will not be able to grasp and reconcile as a rational whole (what is for us rational) the Lord’s absolute sovereignty in electing sinners to salvation, and our responsibility on the other hand; and therefore we must tread very carefully here, and with the greatest reverence, or so it seems to me.
P.S. To my consternation I see that I have asked you three questions instead of two; I hope this will not deter you from answering all three.
Let me begin with your postscript. There is no need for consternation. I will gladly try to answer your questions—and ten more besides, if they are of this caliber and if they arise out of a sincere concern about the truth of God’s Word and our Reformed confessions. But you will have to be a little patient; I cannot very well answer all these questions in one issue.
In the second place, let me not forget to thank you for your kind words about our magazine and our other publications. Nowadays responses like this are coming to us rather frequently and often from altogether unexpected sources. This is encouraging, not only to us who write, but also to those who sponsor and publish our literature. Would to God that we could reach many more of His people who have a heart for the Reformed faith and who are concerned about modem trends in the Reformed community. This is an important part of our aim in sending forth our Reformed testimony through the printed page. I am convinced that there are many more of such “concerned” people of God in many places. Our problem is how to reach them. And if you, my questioner, or our other readers, can help us with this problem, by all means do so!
But now let me make a beginning with these questions.
How can we say that the present trends to apostasy in the Christian Reformed Church (and I may add: in theGereformeerde Kerken) are due to “common grace” when many other churches “which never heard of common grace” are going the same way?
This is a perceptive question, and well worth consideration. For the present issue, I will limit myself to a few observations about this.
First of all, of course, the mere fact that there may be other reasons and occasions for apostasy in other denominations does not affect the fact that in the Christian. Reformed Church (and the Gereformeerde Kerken) “common grace” has been at the root of the problems. Each denomination has its own history, its own course of development, and its own specific reasons and occasions for development in a certain direction. But that “common grace” has played a key role will be evident to anyone who has an eye for the history of doctrine and the history of the church. I do not recall at the moment to what article of Rev. Van Baren my questioner refers; perhaps it was the articles on the Father Groppi incident? But that makes no real difference; I agree with this evaluation and want to underscore it. First of all, there have been instances in which direct appeal was made to the doctrine of common grace as justification for some stand. Think, for example, of the Film Arts decision and of the devastating results of that decision for the Christian life. Today they even plead for the introduction of all the corruptions of the movie industry (even to films involving nudity) on the campus of Calvin College. And to what did the Film Arts decision appeal? Common grace’s restraint of sin. Or, to mention one more development, think of the involvement of the First Point of 1924 in the Dekker Case. My questioner himself makes mention of the A.A.C.S. And I think that organization itself would claim that they emphasize much more Kuyper’s idea of the antithesis than Kuyper’s common grace. And yet, the more I study what the A.A.C.S. produces and the more I study the Dooyweerdian philosophy, the more convinced I become that the root of the problem is common grace. Nevertheless, let no one think that the maladies of common grace are limited to the A.A.C.S.-ers. Here is a, thought to ponder: perhaps no one in the Christian Reformed Church can successfully combat the A.A.C.S. exactly because they all stand on the basis of common grace. Secondly, I would remind you that prophecies are being fulfilled. How often—if you go through their earlier writings—men like the late Revs. Herman Hoeksema and G.M. Ophoff (and, originally, the Rev. Henry Danhoff) predicted and warned that the common grace theory would have devastating results with respect to the antithetical walk of the Christian. And how often they warned that the consequence of the “well-meant offer” theory would be that some day someone would teach general atonement (as Prof. Harold Dekker did). Is it not striking, and does it not speak loudly to us, that these predictions are being fulfilled today? Thirdly, I would point you to the fact that also in the Netherlands the ideas of “medembselijkheid” (co-humanity), horizontalism, social involvement, an anonymous “word of promise,” and a “latent kingdom of God” among the non-church people in the world,—all these are the outgrowth and the development of common grace. Even the latest and most miserable decision in the Kuitert affair still made reference to the so-called good of the natural man. Is this not striking?
In the second place, I think investigation will show that “common grace” is not nearly so uncommon in other denominations as is sometimes imagined. We know, for example, that already at the time of the Synod of Dordrecht the Arminians held to common grace; in fact, the only time our confessions refer to common grace, it is put in the mouth of the Arminians. Besides, you will find many churches where the idea of common grace has long been present as a matter of traditional doctrine which no one exalted to confessional status or even to tremendously prominent status. It did not become a controversial issue. This does not mean, of course, that the idea did not bear fruits; it did so indeed, but in a more gradual and unnoticed manner. And the same is true of (related) Arminian ideas: they have often been present and borne their fruits without being matters of much controversy. This is true, for example, of many Presbyterian groups. This accounts in part also for the fact that the drift in doctrine and life in many of the other churches has been considerably more gradual. In the third place, I believe that the explanation of the apparent difference to which you refer in your question lies in part in viewing these things in the light of broader trends and underlying principles of doctrine. If you look for a common denominator in all the drift in doctrine and life of our present age, then I would suggest that this is at least one common factor in all of it: a favorable, or optimistic, view of the fallen world and of the natural man. In other words, a denial of total depravity. This, you know, is the philosophy at the basis of the world’s welfare state. But it is also at the basis of social gospelism Man and the world are good. Yes, there are problems. And there are some bad trends and bad habits. But the main problem is his environment. Clean up the slums. Get rid of the ghetto districts. Exorcize the devil of racial segregation. Put him on his feet financially. Give him an education. Get involved in social improvement. And you can build a good world of good men, and even bring in the kingdom of God. Church and world, light and darkness, believer and unbeliever, Christ and Belial can even cooperate. Out in the world there are even men (who do not articulate this in terms of the Christian faith) who are even interested in and working for the same kingdom of heaven for which we strive. And there is even an anonymous word of promise from God (whatever that may mean?)—some kind of favorable word and operation of God—which goes out to that world of men outside the church. Yes, believe it or not, this is the new theology! Do you not see that at the basis of all this is the old Pelagian notion of a good man? And principally, this is also the man of common grace. Sin is restrained in him by the Holy Spirit. He is able to do good. He is the object of God’s favor. (Along with that, God also well-meaningly offers him salvation, desires to save him—even though He has predestinated him to destruction, mind you!) You see, this is the principle. It is the, age-old conflict: God? or man? Now different-churches may have arrived at the wrong view of man in different ways and through different courses of development. But the underlying principle is the same. And, of course, when you see all this development in terms of God-or-man, then you can readily understand, too, that the more loudly the church begins to say “MAN” the more the age-old Reformed doctrines of: sovereign grace and predestination and the antithesis are silenced.
But there is another aspect to all this. Why has the decline been so terrifyingly rapid, both here and in the Netherlands? For after all, the over-all decline has taken place in approximately the last fifty years—roughly, since the end of World War I. And indeed, in the past decade or two the decline has been even more rapid! In fact, when one looks back over the past ten to fifteen years, the pace of the decline is simply frightening! Can we say anything about the reasons for this? I think we can. But this and some answers to the other questions must wait for the next issue.
I hope you will excuse me for the length of this little excursion into the history of doctrine. But the question raised is a pertinent one, the subject is close to my heart; and I did want to furnish a thorough reply. Till next time: think about it!