Under this title the Rev. Adam Persenaire wrote a guest editorial for the Banner of March 20, 1953. It appears that the Reverend is alarmed by what others in his churches are saying and writing relative to the Antithesis and Common Grace. He writes: “Now all this, if it is not the result of loose thinking, but of a conviction on the part of those who hold such views, is very dangerous reasoning, and could easily lead to utter frustration, as far as the application of our Calvinistic principles is concerned.” He is afraid of Anabaptism and Barthianism. And he claims that “much that is being written and said recently in our circles about the relationship of the Christian to this world and the movements and organizations that are found therein leaves the impression that the Calvinistic doctrine of the antithesis and the doctrine of common grace are not complementary, but rather, paradoxical or apparently contradictory.”
Persenaire insists that the antithesis and common grace are complementary truths. The one calls for the other. One cannot speak of the antithesis, in the Reformed sense, unless he also posits the existence of common grace, and one cannot maintain the concept of common grace unless he also holds that there is an absolute antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate, between the kingdom of Christ and that of the world. He therefore tries to prove two propositions : The Antithesis is Absolute, and, Common Grace is also Necessary.
We can agree with Reverend Persenaire when he tells us that the Reformed conception of the antithesis is opposed to the Roman Catholic, Anabaptistic and Barthian conception. We also agree when he maintains that the very idea of the antithesis presupposes that the Christian must be in the midst of the world, in order that there he may live his distinctive life as a Christian out of the principle of regeneration. The Christian must be a savory salt, a shining light, a witnessing witness, a willing servant of Christ, a pure temple of the Holy Spirit. All neutrality is excluded. All his relationships in this world are determined by his primary relationship to Christ. And this relationship to Christ does not cover a part of his life, as the Anabaptists teach, but, according to our Reformed conception, the whole of life.
But we disagree when he says that the Christian “to prevent total corruption of the whole of life must be a salt.” It is revolting to think of myself, a Christian, whose calling it is to preserve a piece of rotten meat. Neither can we agree that the “Christian must claim the whole world for Christ, his King.” We are convinced that Christ isn’t too much interested in how much of this world we can salvage for Him. We believe that Christ teaches us to look for another world.
But what about that Common Grace business? The Reverend of course seeks to prove that common grace complements the antithesis. He asks: “And what about certain types of cooperation between Christians and non-Christians? If we hold to the absolute antithesis, must we then deny common grace, and is then all cooperation between Christians and non-Christians impossible?” His answer is: “On the contrary the very idea of the antithesis calls for the positing of common grace, and makes a certain amount of cooperation between Christians and non-Christians possible.” Persenaire’s view of the actual situation in the world is this: The unregenerate man is as Paul says, “dead in trespasses and sin” and therefore, “incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil.” The “good” referred to here is spiritual good, the good which the Heidelberg Catechism explains is “done out of faith, in accordance with God’s law, and to his glory.” This good the unregenerate cannot perform. But in spite of the unregenerate condition of his heart, the non-Christian often does things that can be called “good” in a sense. He does natural civil and moral good. Moreover, he does not break out into all sin, as might be expected if he were left entirely to the imagination of the thoughts of his evil heart. This, the Reverend says, we account for on the basis of the doctrine of God’s common grace. This grace does not change the unregenerate heart; but it checks the sinner, and enables him to do what we call natural good and civil righteousness. From this it follows that the non-Christian can also desire to do those things which are outwardly in conformity with God’s law, and which are, to that extent, for the common welfare of humanity.
The Reverend warns, however, that common grace has reference only to the unregenerate. It is not common in the sense that it forms a common basis upon which both the Christian and the non-Christian can stand. The non-Christian never lives by special grace, and the Christian never lives by common grace. The latter must always live out of the principle of regeneration. Hence, there is never a situation wherein a Christian can step out of the realm of special grace and enter into that of common grace, and thus form a common, neutral ground of action with the non-Christian. The non-Christian lives out of the principle of sin, checked and corrected by the influence of God’s common grace upon him. It is this latter checking and correcting influence of God’s common grace that allows for a certain amount of cooperation between Christians and non-Christians. But this co-operation must always be on an “as if” basis. It can never be a full cooperation. The temporary aims may be the same, but the underlying principles from which these aims are pursued will always differ. “To put it succinctly,” he says, “Christians may cooperate with non-Christians in the pursuit of certain aims which are in harmony with the law of God; but only when such cooperation does not endanger their relationship to Christ, and thereby would make their Christian witness in word and deed, virtually impossible. In other words, a Christian can cooperate as long as in this cooperation he may remain different.”
Persenaire believes that “someday, when God will withdraw more and more of this grace from the world, the antichrist will be revealed, who will virtually make it impossible for the people of God to dwell on the earth.” “But as long as God’s common grace is still operative in this world, there is an opportunity for collective Christian action and for Christian activities on this earth. Moreover, then there can also be a certain amount of cooperative action between Christians and non-Christians.”
What shall we say about all this? It seems to me that Persenaire does not tell his readers anything they have not heard or read many times before. I fail to see how those who do not believe in the doctrine of common grace, or who misunderstand the doctrine as set forth in the Christian Reformed Churches, or who misuse the doctrine, are going to be corrected by this editorial.
When he writes about the good that the unregenerate may perform, he leaves the impression that if God would only give him a little more common grace he might be able to gain the full approval of God. He writes: “The good that the unregenerate may perform, due to the influence of God’s common grace, is not good enough for the Christian, nor sufficient in the sight of God to obtain his full approval. It is not saving good.”
When Persenaire, following Dr. A. Kuyper, writes about the checking influence of common grace on the depravity of natural man, and he tells us that if common grace were not present, we would not be able to dwell on the earth, he must mean too that this common grace began immediately after the fall of man. And if this is the case, it follows that if common grace had not come, the world would have reached its end at the beginning. How could that ever be? It means that hell would have been realized before all the lost had even been born or filled their cup of iniquity. This I could never believe.
I am also interested in that “good” that sinners do, according to his common grace theory. If he would be consistent, must he not do as Kuyper did, deny the total depravity of man? Surely he wouldn’t say that common grace works only on the fingers, the ears and feet of the unregenerate. He must say that it works on his heart also. If he says this, must he not also say with Kuyper that man died only in principle when he ate of the forbidden tree? Surely he is not as dead as Paul makes him, is he?
It grieves me when I read an editorial like this. Why doesn’t Rev. Persenaire simply leave off the whole philosophy of common grace, and tell his readers that as Christians they are not, according to the Word of God, to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, and in the midst of the world they are to live antithetically in every department of life, to let their light shine, live out of the principle of regeneration, and be a savory salt to God? Then, I believe, his people will no more be guilty of “loose thinking” and “dangerous reasoning”, but they will know the truth, and the truth will make them free.