Ted and Alice and Groppi…and Grace or “Common Grace—An Encouragement to Worldliness”

Many are extremely concerned with developments in recent years within the Reformed community. We have reached such a sorry state that today, when one receives into his home a magazine as the Reformed Journal, a person is inclined to examine the magazine carefully before allowing it to lie around where his young children may read it. The movie reviews particularly in that magazine are oftentimes downright evil and a discredit to the name “Reformed” and “Christian.” Many are sincerely concerned about this and other evidences of worldliness in the church. But one hardly knows what to do. Nor do many seem to know precisely what the cause of the problem really is. 

Therefore I want to address you on the rather strange subject of this paper. In reality, this subject is a continuation of a certain series of articles which I wrote earlier for the Standard Bearer. Almost a year ago now, I gave a report in the Standard Bearerconcerning the appearance of Father Groppi at Calvin College. Subsequently, I received a letter from the three professors who were on the stage with him in which they explained Groppi’s appearance and their remarks to him. This letter I answered. These articles were rather widely reprinted in the Torch and Trumpetand in the Bulletin of the Association for Christian Reformed Laymen. 

There was, however, a second letter written by the same three professors in response to the earlier articles. This also I answered. And this was printedonly in the Standard Bearer. I want to present to you just a portion of their letter and some of my answer. 

These professors wrote:

As perhaps we should have recognized the first time we wrote to you, the real difference between us is the question of common grace. (Italics mine) This became clear from your reply to our letter. You see the antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate as so absolute that you preclude giving any hearing to any of their views. Thus you state that “hearing both sides of a question” is a “very basic error.” Consistent with your view of absolute antithesis you readily equate Groppi, agnostics, and similar speakers with “the devil and his followers,” and twice you condemn us even for praying for such men and for asking God’s blessing on them. Clearly you are judging such men to be beyond the help of God’s grace—that is that they are already irrevocably followers of the devil so that there is no good in them and that we can safely judge them to be beyond hope. 

We, of course, do not share your view that the antithesis is so absolute. We believe that God by his grace allows the unregenerate to continue to live and to do and say some relatively good things, including works of “civic righteousness,” even though these may be inconsistent with their ultimate God-denying presuppositions. Hence we feel that it is proper to converse seriously with those who may be unregenerate (as well as to read and study their works in the light of God’s Word) and we do not expect that everything they say will be absolutely wrong. 

Since you do not share our views of common grace, you apparently found it difficult to see that both in our brief questions to Groppi and in our letter to you, we could be indicating that we could approve of some but not all of what Groppi had to say. . . .

I gave a rather extensive answer to that. But that part of my answer that I am concerned with now is this:

First, I would say: if your contention is wrong; if the Father Groppi incident is not a logical fruit of common grace—then by all means let us have some conservative Christian Reformed man stand forth and show this. Let him show that you are not correctly applying the view of common grace. Let him show that your view of common grace is distorted. Let him prove this soundly and conclusively from Scripture. I will be eagerly awaiting such explanation. 

Secondly, if your contention is correct; if the Father Groppi incident is a logical fruit of common grace—then it is high time that members of your denomination demanded a reevaluation and reconsideration of the view itself. . . .

That was not reprinted in Torch and Trumpet nor in the Bulletin of the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen. I am not sure why it was not. I can only suspect that these were rather loath to drag out of the closet the skeleton of common grace and present this for open examination. I do know that there are many conservatives within the Christian Reformed Church that are convinced that there is NO relationship between the appearance of a man such as Father Groppi at Calvin College and the theory of common grace. And though I have waited several months now for any Christian Reformed writer to point out to the three Calvin professors that their application of common grace was erroneous when they use it to condone the Groppi appearance at Calvin, I have seen no such explanation. 

It was for that reason I thought it might be interesting and profitable to discuss some of these questions concerning the relationship of common grace to Groppi (and Ted and Alice too) to see whether there is a tie to or basis in the theory of common grace which would allow such worldliness to enter into the church. In discussing this, of necessity I will be referring to various things which have been happening in recent years in the Christian Reformed Church. I hesitate to do that because sometimes, I fear, this gives an appearance of a holier-than-thou attitude on my part or on the part of the Protestant Reformed Churches. I pray that this may not be the impression I leave. I too am a sinner. I know and confess it. And I know that the Protestant Reformed Churches are by no means free from error. 

However, first of all, I remind you that repeatedly in the past there have been statements from Christian Reformed leaders suggesting the advisability of studying further the idea of common grace and developing it. Yet little has been done along that line. 

Secondly, it seems to me that the Christian Reformed Synod that adopted the “three points” in 1924 seemed aware that perhaps it was opening a “Pandora’s box” of evils upon the church. That is the only explanation I can give to the “Testimony” that this Synod attached to the “three points”:

. . . Since Synod has given a declaration relative to the Three Points which were jeopardized by the denial of the doctrine of Common Grace and thereby disapproved the general denial of this truth, it feels constrained to warn our churches and especially our leaders earnestly against overemphasis and consequent abuse of the doctrine of Common Grace. That danger is real. When Dr. Kuyper wrote his monumental work on this subject he indicated that he was aware of the danger that some would allow themselves to be misled and become worldly. And history has proved that this danger is more than imaginary. In his Dogmatics Dr. Bavinck has also called attention to this danger. 

When we take note of present-day trends, it is apparent that there is more danger of conformity to the world than of world-flight. Today’s liberal theology virtually erases the boundaries between the Church and the world. Evermore the great significance of the Church is considered to he in the social sphere. The consciousness of a spiritual-moral antithesis is being increasingly weakened in the minds of many and has made room for a vague sense of a universal brotherhood. To a great extent preaching touches on the things that belong to the periphery of life and does not reach its spiritual center. The doctrine of Special Grace in Christ is neglected. There is a strong tendency to bring theology in agreement with a science that is in the service of unbelief. By means of the press and through various inventions and discoveries, which in themselves are to be appreciated as gifts of God, much of the sinful world is brought into our Christian homes. 

Because of these and similar influences which crowd in upon us from every side, it is urgently necessary that the Church be on guard, and that she, while holding the above-mentioned points, tenaciously maintain the spiritual-moral antithesis. She may never allow her preaching to degenerate into treatises and discourses on social issues and literature. . . .

It does not take great discernment, I believe, to recognize that the very evils against which the Synod of 1924 warned, have arisen within the Christian Reformed Church—and I am convinced that this is indeed a direct fruit (not a misapplication) of the view of common grace. 

But the fact is that when one discusses the question of common grace and its relationship with worldliness, one can most profitably study that issue in the light of the recent developments within the denomination which has officially adopted that view. That is why I shall be touching upon various incidents of worldliness that have been seen within the Christian Reformed Church. Of course, I am aware that worldliness is also evident in most other denominations today as well. 

Also, when I speak of the Christian Reformed Church, I am speaking of that church which I still regard as our “mother church”—but a “mother church” which departs from the right way. It deeply grieves “children” to see their “mother” walk in sin. So it has been our desire also for “mother church” to recognize their sin and repent of it. We pray that this may yet happen under the direction of the Holy Spirit of God. 

As I discuss this particular subject of the relationship of common grace to worldliness, I am going to give a rather large number of quotations. I will do this to substantiate that which I state. 


I said earlier: many people are deeply concerned about developments in the church. And I know this is the case within the Reformed community. I have heard many people object strenuously to evils which arise within the churches. 

Fact one: movie attendance 

There is, first of all, the evil of movie attendance. You are probably aware of the fact that the Christian Reformed Church reversed itself in 1966 when it took a new and changed stand on what it calls the “film arts.” There is a lengthy document in the 1966 Acts of Synod of the C.R.C. which treats this subject of “film arts.” I would only quote one short part of its concluding paragraphs. After approving the principle that the Christian can attend “good” movies, the Christian Reformed Synod added this:

Since the film arts is a cultural medium that can be used for good or evil, the products of the film industry must be judged on their merits in the light of Christian standards of excellence. 

D. 1) In keeping with the directives enunciated above, it is incumbent upon the mature Christian to exercise a responsible personal freedom in the use of the film arts. 

D. 2) Recognized that the film arts are largely under the control and administration of non-Christian agencies, the Christian must exercise a Spirit-guided and enlightened discrimination in the use of the film arts. 

D. 3) The Christian must reject and abstain from the use of those film arts products which tolerate sin or propagate it as a normal aspect of human life, or which portray and interpret life in a way that does violence to the only valid explanation of life as declared in God’s revelation of sin and redemption.

Eph. 5:3, 11, 12

D. 4) A Christian may witness a dramatic presentation of the realities of life which portrays a redemptive struggle between good and evil when such a portrayal helps him in his struggle to overcome evil with good

Rom. 12:21

and thus makes a contribution to a more fully oriented citizenship in the Kingdom of God. . . . 

E. 1) There is a large educational task that must be initiated by responsible agencies at the various levels of life in the Church. 

a. The membership of the Church must become more sensitive to what is good and what is evil in the film arts so as to come to a meaningful evaluation and a discriminate use of the same. 

b. It is imperative that the Christian community should engage in the constructive critique of the film arts, being led by those who are specialists in art and in Christian ethics. 

c. The fruit of this effort (b) should be presented to and shared with our modern society and the Church in general as a cultural and moral witness: for we are the “salt” of the earth and “light” in a secular world. (Pp. 360-361)

The above decision of Synod was made, in part, as answer to an Overture of Classis Eastern Ontario whose argument was summarized as follows:

Finally, with respect to the weaker brother, Classis argues that an endorsement of acceptable movies will not harm the weak and immature since it is precisely they who are attending movies. The argument is not without some relevance but it would seem more cogent to insist that a more realistic rejection of demoralizing film products and an endorsement of the acceptable productions would be a positive step in helping the immature to escape the snare of evil in the area of the film arts. (p. 319)

That all sounds good and pious, does it not? Yet if this guidance was so absolutely necessary, why has theBanner, the official church paper of the Christian Reformed Church, not yet presented any movie reviews in harmony with Synod’s decision? I have not seen any movie reviews there yet. But I have read movie reviews in other Reformed magazines and periodicals, specifically in The Reformed Journal and in Calvin College Chimes. I have in my possession a whole series of quotations from some of these reviews. I shall present only two. The first is a movie review by Roger Verhulst in The Reformed Journal of March 1970 on “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”. (And incidentally, if you were curious about my subject, here is its origin. The “Ted & Alice” is the last half of this particular movie title.) This is what the movie review inThe Reformed Journal states:

. . . We have to do here, first of all, with what is a very funny movie. Come to it with anything like an open mind and a detectable degree of detachment, (Mind you: a Reformed man can go to a movie as this with an “open mind” and a “detectable degree of detachment?” But that is what is says.—G.V.B.) and you’ll spend most of the evening laughing. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is, first of all and beyond any doubt, comedy. 

. . . Still, there’s sex enough: Bob has an affair; Carol has an affair; then Ted has an affair; and Alice chats with her psychiatrist. Eventually they all get into bed together, creating a situation which embarrasses us almost as much as it embarrasses them; but accomplishes little else. . . . 

. . . All that remains to be asked is whether granting that it’s funny—this is a movie worth seeing, worth thinking about. 

The answer, I think, is yes. This is a movie that effectively challenges the convictions both of those who think that sexual freedom is the cause of all the world’s ills, and those who imagine it as the cure. . . .

It is rather interesting, I think, that Time magazine reviewed that same movie, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. That review states:

B&C & T&A is a sniggering Hollywood send-up of infidelity, wife-swapping and other variations on the theme of modern marriage. . . . 

The dialogue remains flaccid throughout, badly in need of the kind of cutting edge that Billy Wilder could have given it. What Mazursky and Tucker obviously had in mind was a sophisticated, controversial comedy, but their work suggests that sex is too important to be left to Hollywood . . . (Time, Sept. 26, 1969, p. 94)

The Reformed Journal reviewed also the movie, “M*A*S*H” in the May-June issue of 1970, a review written by Daniel DeVries, who was at that time a senior at Calvin College:

M*A*S*H is the service comedy to end all service comedies. It is high-spirited, wildly irreverent, crazier than life, and thoroughly engrossing. To boot, it is a film precisely of our moment. None of that old love the Army despite its faults’ stuff in which the lovable country hero comes one up on the brass because he happens to be slightly stupider than his superiors. M*A*S*H hates the Army with an exquisite, eloquent, and perfectly just hatred, and features some bright (drafted) surgeons who beat it, not by playing its silly games, but by defying it and laughing at it. 

They laugh, and we laugh—continuously and uproariously, through two of the funniest hours ever put on film. . . . 

This makes the success of M*A*S*H all the more remarkable: so many people, including a great many unknown actors, combined their talents to produce it. Not only are many of those people immensely talented, somehow the talents of all complement and supplement each other and the result is a wildly funny, absolutely brilliant film, which, although not perfect, is close enough so that its minor flaws don’t matter much. . . .

Time magazine reviewed M*A*S*H also. They wrote:

. . . Not infrequently they shatter the wrong objectives; a parody of the Last Supper, for example, is utterly without wit or point. But most of the time the film is a moon reflecting the sun of battle. War assaults taste, language, sense itself. . . . So does M.A.S.H., animated with a dangerously robust sick humor and a highly civilized savagery. An audience should approach this film as it would a field of live mines. (Time; Jan. 26, 1970; p. 78)

Now you will notice in the first place, Time, a worldly magazine, more closely reaches the objectives set up by the Christian Reformed Synod in 1966 than do the reviews of a magazine such as The Reformed Journal. Is that not frightening? 

In the second place, not only these two reviews, but every review I have seen in The Reformed Journal or the Calvin College Chimes, evaluates these movies not in the light of spiritual, moral standards, but in the light of what is called “art.” And almost invariably, it seems, the norm for “art” is far (lower than that found in such a magazine as Time.

In the third place, I have found that almost invariably the worst sort of movies are reviewed in these Reformed periodicals; and in many instances these evil movies are approved and the reading audience is encouraged to see them. 

No wonder people have asked, “What’s wrong in the church?” Is this part of that general trend seen within the churches towards worldliness? Or is there perhaps some basic underlying false philosophy which isinevitably leading the churches in this direction of worldliness? 

Fact two: rock music 

A second example that I give you of worldliness within the church is that desire to enjoy such things as rock music—music and words which are used rather freely lately within church services too, as well as that which is presented within Christian schools for the entertainment of covenant seed. There was a report in the Grand Rapids’ Press of Sept. 26, 1970 listing some of the rock bands which were scheduled at Calvin College field house:

The Byrds will open this year’s Calvin College entertainment series, sponsored by the Student Senate, with a concert at Knollcrest Fieldhouse at 8 p.m. Friday. 

Appearing with the popular English group will be Zaranthustra, a Minneapolis-based band in the Chicago tradition that will be playing in West Michigan for the first time. . . . 

. . . Plans for the rest of the year still are very indefinite. A few names have been mentioned, including Melanie, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Chicago.

There was strong objection, of which some of you may have heard, to the appearance of a rock band that entertained the youth at the Young Calvinist convention last summer. 

And in more recent months there has been considerable stir about the rock opera entitled “Jesus Christ Superstar.” You may have heard of it. It has been played in the Fine Arts Auditorium at Calvin College on March 4, 1971 (instead of chapel, I understand) with hardly any word of criticism. Some of this music has been used in a Christian Reformed Church as prelude and postlude to the service with the statement in the bulletin:

We use “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a prelude and postlude with the hope of showing a more realistic and yet Biblical interpretation of a suffering Savior.

The Banner of April 16, 1971 presents also two reviews of this rock opera, reviews which, to say the least, are not unfavorable. 

I wondered about this, and therefore obtained a copy of the words of the recording “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Now some have suggested that this recording is really not so bad. It is “modern music,” true; but musical tastes do change. It has been said that this opera is presented for the most part from the viewpoint of Judas Iscariot, and therefore it is to be expected that he speaks of Christ from his distorted viewpoint. But I found in the recording also songs sung by Jesus. I would like to quote some of these to you. At one point, Jesus says to those who are seeking to be healed by Him:

There’s too many of you—don’t push me 

There’s too little of me—don’t crowd me 

Heal yourselves!

Is this the Jesus that Reformed people could appreciate? Or, at the Last Supper Jesus sings: 

The end. . .

Is just a little harder when brought about by friends 

For all you care this wine could be my blood 

For all you care this bread could be my body 

The end! 

This is my blood you drink 

This is my body you eat 

If you would remember me when you eat and drink. . . 

I must be mad thinking I’ll be remembered—yes 

I must be out of my head! 

Look at your blank faces! 

My name will mean nothing 

Ten minutes after I’m dead! 

One of you denies me 

One of you betrays me—

Is this the Jesus of Scripture that Reformed people, young or old, confess? Or the Jesus who sings in Gethsemane as follows:

In the Garden of Gethsemane 

I only want to say 

If there is a way 

Take this cup away from me for I don’t want to taste its poison 

Feel it burn me, I have changed I’m not as sure 

As when we started 

Then I was inspired 

Now I’m sad and tired 

Listen surely I’ve exceeded expectations 

Tried for three years seems like thirty 

Could you ask as much from any other man? 

But if I die 

See the saga through and do the things you ask of me 

Let them hate me bit me hurt me nail me to their tree 

I’d wanna know I’d wanna know my God 

I’d wanna see I’d wanna see my God 

Why I should die 

Would I be more noticed than I was ever before? 

Would the things I’ve said and done matter any more? 

I’d have to know I’d have to know my Lord 

I’d have to see I’d have to see my Lord 

If I die what will be my reward? I’d have to know 

I’d have to know my Lord 

Why should I die? 

Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain? 

Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain 

Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die 

You’re far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why 

Alright I’ll die! 

Just watch me die 

See how I die! 

Then I was inspired 

Now I’m sad and tired 

After all I’ve tried for three years seems like ninety 

Why then am I scared to finish what I started 

What: you started—I didn’t start it 

God thy will is hard 

But you hold every card 

I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to the cross and break me 

Bleed me beat me kill me take me now—before I change my mind.

To Pilate Jesus says:

I have got no kingdom in this world—

I’m through, through, through . . . 

There may be a kingdom for me somewhere,—if I only knew

It makes shivers go down your spine, doesn’t it? It is blasphemy; a denial of the divinity of Christ; a denial of Christ’s consciousness that He was performing the work of atonement; a scoffing of the idea of the Lord’s Supper. Is it any wonder that many ask, “What’s wrong in the church?” 

Is this part of a general trend towards worldliness? Or is there some underlying, evil philosophy which inevitably leads in this direction of worldliness? 

Fact three: Groppi’s appearance at Calvin 

The third example that I give to you is the incident of Groppi’s appearance at Calvin College. I wrote about that in the Standard Bearer. I was present when Groppi spake there. It is very hard to forget the standing ovation given to Groppi as he ended his speech. It is hard to get out of one’s mind the applause which interspersed this speech, particularly the applause after some of the most evil statements. It is rather difficult to get out of one’s mind some of the remarks that Groppi made. I recall distinctly yet how he described some of the rioting and looting and burning that took place in Milwaukee. He described black people who took furniture and clothing from the stores. I recall how he spoke of one young black man with a piece of stolen furniture under his arm, passing by Father Groppi. This young man raised his fist in salute to Groppi and said, “Black Power, Father!” Groppi said that he responded by raising his fist, saying, “Black Power, Joe! Be sure, you don’t get caught!” There has been no acknowledgement by college officials that they erred in allowing Groppi at Calvin. There has been no statement of apology. There has been no acknowledgement that the appearance of such a man could evilly influence covenant youth. But there was an editorial in the Jan. 15, 1971 issue of theBanner in which Dr. L. De Koster rather scoffed, I think, at those that opposed the appearance of Groppi. He wrote:

All right, then, some among us deplored the appearance of Groppi, and let that be known. Now let’s go on from there: what, in such matters, are we for? 

Can we be for an educational institution hermetically sealed against the views of Groppi and the like? Then we must be for shutting off radio, television, newspapers and magazines, and books from the college campuses. In no other way can the Groppi’s, or rock music, or whatever is alive in the mind of the day, be shut out from the schools to which we commit our children. And this, in fact, we know to be impossible. But what, then, having been opposed to Groppi, is one to be for?. . . . 

Ask yourself: how would I go about producing graduates who will not wilt under the harsh winds of modernity the moment they leave the campus? How would I give our fine young people the trust and freedom essential to responsible development? How would I deal creatively with the mistakes all human beings make? What, in short, are critics of Groppi, or of rock musicians for?. . . .

Is it any wonder that people ask, “What’s going on in the church?” Is this simply a part of the overall trend toward worldliness? Or is there, perhaps, an underlying philosophy which inevitably leads towards such worldliness? 

The culprit: Common Grace? 

Now I am aware, as you doubtlessly are, that there are evil trends towards worldliness evident within all denominations today—and I do not exclude the Protestant Reformed Churches. One reads of it in any church periodical he may pick up. But the question I wish to face with you is this, “Does common grace have anything to do with this?” 

Now you know that in the past years, and even today, members within the Christian Reformed Church felt that the Protestant Reformed people had some sort of hang-up on the issue of common grace. Every time something went wrong in the C.R.C., every time some new and erroneous position was adopted, writers from the Protestant Reformed Churches took the occasion to point out that these errors were the fruits of common grace. Do P.R.’s have some sort of “hang-up” on this issue? 

I think that it is rather interesting to discover that within the Christian Reformed Church, increasingly so in recent years, common grace is used as a basis for much of what the conservatives call “worldliness” within their church. I think that was rather strikingly true with regard to the appearance of Groppi at Calvin. When I wrote about this particular appearance, and after I answered the first letter of the three professors to me, I mentioned not one word about common grace. And I did that intentionally because I feel too that there are many in the Christian Reformed Church that do think we have some sort of “hang-up” on that issue. 

However, the second letter these same professors addressed to me, they introduced the idea of common grace. They were the ones that wrote,

As perhaps we should have recognized the first time we wrote to you, the real difference between us is the question of common grace . . . . (italics mine)

I begin to wonder who has the “hang-up” on common grace! These professors use it to defend their action of having Groppi appear on their stage. 

One finds the same thing to be true in synodical decisions of the Christian Reformed Church. Most striking, I think, is the document presented to Synod in 1966 on the “film arts.” The report in that Acts of Synod is very lengthy. It includes many grounds for their decision. But it is striking that there are several references in it to common grace. In support of their contention that the “film arts” must be recognized by the church (and this deceptive term “film arts” is theirs; not mine), they say this:

Concerning the third general principle of Spiritual Separation from the World, the report states that the word “world” can be understood in more than one sense, including an unfavorable and an essentially neutral sense. Therefore Christians should not form separate communities or shun all association with ungodly men. How can Christians have fellowship with unbelievers? (Scripture says in

II Cor. 6:14

that they can not!—G.V.B.) The solution is found in the doctrine of common grace. Spiritually the believers and unbelievers have nothing in common, but morally they have. The basis of our fellowship with unbelievers should never be the sin which we have in common with them, but the grace (common) which they have in common with us!. . . . God has given certain joys, diversions, pleasures to man. . . . He restrains sin in the hearts of the ungodly so that the diversions, and amusements which they devise are not always and necessarily tainted with sin. (p. 324) 

This world has not returned to absolute chaos, however, for God restrains the power of sin and bestows many good gifts and talents upon man in general. These gifts are common to both the regenerate and unregenerate man. God “giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.”

Acts 17:25


Acts 14:17

we are told that He falls our hearts with gladness. This is “a kind of favor or grace of God which He manifests toward His creatures in general.” (Acts of Synod 1924, Article 132) It would be highly ungrateful to God to despise or reject these gifts and their results in human society. Sinful man, in his effort to be autonomous, may boast of his accomplishments and idolize his culture; but the Christian will accept whatever God has made possible with gratitude and will dedicate it to God’s glory. (p. 332)

So you see, within the Christian Reformed Church itself, common grace is repeatedly used to support much of what I consider to be (and conservatives within the C.R.C. also consider these things to be) worldliness. 

The “early warning” of Rev. H. Hoeksema 

I hesitate to state for the churches I represent, “I told you so!” Yet I must remind you that the late Rev. H. Hoeksema had exactly pointed out that this worldliness would develop as a result of the adoption of common grace. He stated in a pamphlet he wrote many years ago (“Why Protestant Reformed?”):

The above mentioned ministers, who were later to find themselves deposed, turned their attention to this theory and made a very careful study of it. Thereto they were compelled by the undeniable facts that the application of the doctrine of common grace in practical life led to an alliance of friendship and to conformity of the church with the world. 

And their study brought them to the discovery that the doctrine of common grace is a thoroughly false doctrine, in conflict with the Scriptures, in conflict with reformed faith and confession, and is dangerous for our practical calling of life. (p. 6, 7)

And in another pamphlet, written early in the history of the common grace controversy, and entitled, “The Triple Breach,” he wrote:

I consider this introduction of the notion of relativity into the sphere of ethics and morality positively pernicious, (and I am going to call your attention to this later again—G.V.B.) and the evil effects of this view are observed but too plainly in the actual life of the people of God in the world. All lines of distinction are being obliterated on the basis of this philosophy. A sphere of transition, a common sphere of life is created by it, a domain where the righteous and the ungodly have fellowship with one another and live the same life. And a very superficial conception is formed by this philosophy of relative good and evil of what is good before God. True consciousness of sin is well-nigh impossible in the light of this conception and the true fear of the Lord is rooted out. When one considers this view in its real and fundamental tendencies, one cannot help but shudder with horror and fear for the future of a church that follows in its direction. (p. 76, 77)

That, I am convinced, was very prophetic.


But what is this issue of “common grace” that Protestant Reformed people oftentimes mention? What was adopted by the Christian Reformed synod in 1924? I am not going to discuss this evening the first two of those “three points.” In this paper I want to consider with you specifically the “third-point” adopted by the Synod of 1924. That “third point” reads:

Relative to the third point, which is concerned with the question of civil righteousness as performed by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confessions the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good. This is evident from the quotations from Scripture and from the Canons of Dordrecht, III, IV, 4, and from the Netherland Confession Art. 36, which teach that God without renewing the heart so influences man that he is able to perform civil good; while it also appears from the citations from Reformed Writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology, that our Reformed Fathers from ancient times were of the same opinion.

Now perhaps you have never made a thorough study of the third “points. “And perhaps it is time you did. If you want information from a Protestant Reformed viewpoint, you can find a very clear explanation of all three points in the book, The History of the Protestant Reformed Churches ($2.00); or there is also an explanation found in the booklet, “The Triple Breach” (25 cents); or an interesting presentation can be found in the booklet, “The Reunion of the Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed Churches” (10 cents). The above literature was written by the late Rev. H. Hoeksema. But in this paper I ask you only, what is the error of the “third point” of common grace? And why should this lead toward worldliness? 

There is outward conformity to God’s law 

Before I go further, I would point out that we as Protestant Reformed Churches do not state that the wicked never conform outwardly with some of God’s laws. We do state that the unregenerate never do good. The late Rev. H. Hoeksema himself, even before 1924, pointed out that he understood clearly, and taught, that the wicked will observe externally some of God’s laws when it is to their own advantage. They can produce inventions in harmony with certain laws which God laid down in creation. They can observe some of God’s moral laws in an external way when they realize that it is for their own safety or for their own physical benefit. I have a quotation from a Dutch booklet written by Rev. H. Hoeksema before 1924, in which he writes:

And what then is civil righteousness? In our opinion the sinner notes the God-instituted relations, the given laws, means of fellowship, etc. He notes the propriety and usefulness of them. And now he makes use of them for his own sake. If he succeeds fairly well in this, an action will result which formally appears to be in harmony with the laws of God. Then you have civil righteousness, regard for virtue, and an orderly external deportment. If this attempt fails, as is of course often the case, then also civil righteousness falls away; then the opposite is true. His fundamental error is, however, that also in striving for external deportment, he does not seek . . . God. To the contrary he seeks himself also in fellowship with other sinners and tries to maintain himself in his sin, with the entire “world” in whatever he does. And that is sin. This also actually has evil results for him and his fellow-creatures. His action over against his neighbors and fellow-creatures takes place according to the same rule and with the same results. It therefore happens that sin always develops and that corruption continues, and, yet, there remains relatively a formally just behavior according to the laws laid down and instituted by God. And yet the natural man never performs ethical good. This is our view. Who now will venture another explanation? (“Langs Zuivere Banen”, p. 72, 73)

We, then, in the Protestant Reformed Churches agree that the wicked can and do observe outwardly certain of the laws of God. But when these do that, they sin; for what is done is not in harmony with the law of God, nor to His glory, nor out of a living faith. Incidentally, I believe that those things which the unregenerate produce in outward conformity to God’s law (whether moral or physical), can be used also by Christians for spiritual advantage. An unregenerate man, in obeying physical laws, can invent and produce a good automobile. I can use that to the glory of God. An unregenerate man can pass laws forbidding murder, adultery, stealing—and I can profitably observe these because they were made in outward conformity to the moral law of God. I can enjoy music produced by the unregenerate—provided this is written in outward conformity to the laws God has established concerning harmony. The unregenerate produce all these things in sin; their action is evil; but the regenerated child of God can use some of this to God’s glory. However, the wicked also produce much in open violation of God’s laws (corrupt movies; evil songs; etc.); these, by the very nature of the case, I can not use to God’s glory. 

The “third point” and “relative good” 

The third point of common grace makes “good” to be relative. That is one chief complaint we have against it. If you have read any Christian Reformed writers on this subject, you will discern that this is exactly their position. The “good” which the wicked do is termed a “relative good.” It is at the same time good in the eyes of God—yet it is sin. The third point itself suggests this idea of relatively when it distinguishes between “civil righteousness” in distinction from spiritual good. There is a contrast made between that which is truly good, i.e., that which is in harmony with the three-fold standards which God set forth; and that which is civil or relatively good. 

I have a number of quotations from various Christian Reformed writers that emphasize the idea of a “relative good.” One of these quotations is from Prof. L. Berkhof who was himself deeply involved in the adoption of the three points. In a little booklet on the “Three Points” which he wrote at the time of the common grace controversy, he stated:

. . . While we acknowledge this civil good, it is not denied that this relative good is, at the same time, sinful, if we consider it from another point of View. It is not a good in the full sense of the word, but only relative good. It resembles somewhat the withered fruit one may find sometimes on a tree or shrub that is cut off from its root. . . . Even the best works of the ungodly are, from a formal point of view, and with respect to the manner in which they are performed, entirely sinful. . . . At the same time it is good in a relative sense. The mere assertion that all the works of the unregenerate are sinful, without any qualification, fails to distinguish properly, contains only a partial truth and is characterized by an absolutism, that is condemned by the analogy of Scripture, by our Confessions and by Reformed theology (p. 53). (italics mine)

So, the “good” that the wicked perform is a “relative good.” Precisely at that point, one opens the door to all kinds of worldliness, don’t you see? What is “relative good” that is at the same time good in the eyes of God and yet is sinful? I am actually at a loss to understand myself what that must be. I suggest it to be a contradiction in terms to speak of “relative good.” How many of you would buy a “relatively fresh” dozen of eggs? How much less would the Sovereign God, looking down upon the unregenerate, say, “But they are doing a relative good, pleasing in my sight—though it does not measure up to the standards I give in My Word.” There is no indication whatsoever in God’s Word that He would say that. I realize that there is reference often made to Jehu who did “right” in God’s sight and received a “reward” of the Lord. If you are interested in reading an explanation of this passage of Scripture, I would recommend the pamphlet, “The Curse-Reward of the Wicked-Welldoer” by Rev. H. Hoeksema. 

But the fact is that when one speaks of a “relative good,” there is, in the first place, no absolute standardof good with respect to the wicked. One then can not judge the actions of the wicked according to some absolute standard that God’s Word presents, but one must judge them according to what his own idea of a “relative good” must be. As soon as one insists that the wicked do “relative good,” he has even lost the right to oppose such things as the appearance of Father Groppi at Calvin College. Why? If there is such a thing as “relative good” in the wicked, then why should not Calvin College bring speakers, unregenerate speakers, radical renegade Roman Catholic priests, in their stage? Does not one have the right to enjoy that “relative good” to be found also in Groppi? Why not? If there is a “relative good” yet to be found in those unregenerate producers of godless, lustful movies, then why should not one enjoy their corrupt productions—deriving benefit from that degree of “good” which can be found in them? Why not? 

You see, the difficulty between “conservatives” and “liberals” in the Christian Reformed Church is usually not that one denies “common grace” and the other approves of it, but rather that one has a higher standard for “relative good” than the other. And as soon as one speaks of “relative good,” each will determine for himself what he will judge to be good. And inevitably one’s standard of what is “relatively good” declines over a period of years. The standard of what was “relatively good” was comparatively high in 1924; but from that point on, one sees a rapid decline. And now anyone can accept almost any form of worldliness with the claim that he sees in it some evidences of the gracious operation of the Spirit which he can term “good.” Therefore we, in the Protestant Reformed Churches, have been so strongly opposed to this view of common grace. I believe it to be impossible to maintain a “relative good” with respect to the evil deeds of natural man—and continue to keep worldliness out of the church. 

The “third point”—a common ground for fellowship 

In the second place, the third point of common grace establishes definitely a common ground of fellowship and communion with the wicked. I quoted to you earlier a statement from the document presented to the Christian Reformed Synod of 1966 on the “Film Arts.” There the question is asked, “How can we have fellowship with the world?” The answer, they say, is, “On the basis of common grace.” This means that if the Holy Spirit graciously operates upon the wicked (though not in their hearts), he is the selfsame Spirit Who operates in my heart. And though the unregenerate are not changed spiritually, they also have the gracious effects of the Holy Spirit seen in them. Why then can I not join hands in any field of endeavor with them and claim that on the basis of common grace, we can have fellowship? Light and darkness now CAN unite! Christ and Beliel can work together. Why not? And so the theory of common grace abrogates II Corinthians 6

When I began, I suggested that there is an underlying philosophy which allows for an introduction of worldliness within the church. That philosophy, I am convinced, is “common grace.” And when that underlying philosophy is officially adopted by a denomination, that means that its members are not in a position anymore to fight effectively worldliness. 

We have other objections to the third point, but these are sufficient now for our purpose in this paper. 


What is the remedy? How does one work out the problem of removing worldliness from the church? 

Get rid of common grace 

I suggest that the error of common grace must be rooted out of the official decisions of the church and must be rooted out of the minds of those that use such a philosophy as their guide. I would remind you that not only has the Christian Reformed Church officially adopted the “Three Points” of common grace, but that the Reformed churches in the Netherlands are yet much influenced by the teachings of Dr. A. Kuiper on common grace. And most other denominations assume as fact (though they may not have officially adopted such a position) what the third point teaches. Therefore I insist, this idea of “relative” or “civil” good must be rooted out—otherwise worldliness will continue unabated in the midst of the church. 

I believe, however, that the Christian Reformed Church will not rescind those “three points.” They emphasized in their Synod of 1960, in no uncertain terms, (when trying to bring back into their fold the De Wolf element that had left the Protestant Reformed Churches) that the position on common grace was just as essential in 1960 as it was in 1924.

Reflecting on the synodical decisions of 1924 respecting the Three Points, we believe that an outright and official setting aside of them is unwarranted for the following reasons: 

a. The serious situation in 1924 which called these Three Points into being. 

b. The salutary effect of these Three points in producing rest and peace in the churches. 

c. The fact that such setting aside of the Three Points would run counter to and virtually nullify a large measure of agreement which had been achieved. 

We are of the opinion that such a simple discarding of the Three Points, as well as of the elucidations and interpretations of these given in the letter of our Synod of 1959, is not desirable. We would rather point out to you a more positive basis upon which we may seek for unification. This positive approach is not to be sought by requesting our Synod virtually to discard what it deemed to be necessary to state in 1924, and what is still necessary to maintain at the present time . . . (p. 114)

These churches have in no way amended that position in subsequent years. I, frankly, have no hope that they will. Yet I am convinced that if worldliness is to be stemmed, it must be by means of rooting out this underlying philosophy. 

Maintain the antithesis 

What must be the position of the church of Jesus Christ? Not only must that church deny any so-called relative or civil righteousness, but the church must positively (and this is what we are “for”) insist on the fact of the antithesis: the difference between right and wrong; between good and evil. 

The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 33, question 19 asks, “What are good works?” (It does not ask what are “relatively good” works; but, what are good works?) The answer is, “Only those that proceed out of true faith, are performed out of the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men.” Would that all Reformed churches still held firmly to that! And that is also Scripture—not simply the teaching of this one Confession of the church. For Scripture declares:

Romans 14:23

“. . . For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” 

I Samuel 15:22

“And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” 

I Corinthians 10:31

“Whether therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”

Do you see now the calling of the church—and yourcalling? It is to maintain absolutely that standard of goodness without compromise. We must recognize that which is good when it is in harmony with the three-fold standard of Scripture; and when it does not measure up, we must say, “That’s evil; it proceeds out of sin.” We may not praise these works of unrighteousness, but must condemn them. 

When one maintains that absolute Scriptural standard of that which is good, then he has a firm basis upon which he can stand to say, “Evil men such as Groppi may not appear in Christian colleges to influence adversely covenant youth.” (And, by the way, that is not the same as “hermetically sealing” a college against every reference to Groppi as Dr. L. De Koster of theBanner implies.) When one maintains that absolute standard of what is good, he is not going to write aboutBob & Carol & Ted &Alice, saying, “Now that’s a worthwhile movie to see!” He does not write aboutM*A*S*H, saying, “It’s hilariously funny.” Though it presents a parody of the Lord’s Supper, though it contains cursing and swearing, though it plainly violates the seventh commandment on adultery, that one should still say, “It’s hilariously funny.” But he rather says, “It is evil. It proceeds out of wickedness. Such works must be condemned and shunned as the proper works of the devil.” 

And if I can bring it right to you, I’d say this. You, confessing children of God, must maintain this principle of antithesis in your own life and walk. Do not acknowledge it simply as part of the confession of the church, but maintain it as that which governs you in your conversation, in your deeds. There are many temptations about us: temptations to watch the evil dramatizations on TV; temptations to listen to the songs of this world and see nothing wrong with them. Rather we must evaluate all this according to the standards of God’s Word and ask ourselves, “What does God say is good.7” Such I will want to maintain. “What does God’s Word say is evil?” Such I must condemn. And I must shun and denounce as a plague every evil philosophy that tries to water down this truth of antithesis. 

I leave you, now, with a warning—and an encouragement. The warning comes from the prophet Jeremiah to an apostatizing Judah (Jer. 7:9-10), “Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?” 

The proper guidance for us comes from Psalm 119:11, “Thy Word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” 

Is that Word of God in your heart too?