EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
THIRD AND FOURTH HEADS OF DOCTRINE
OF THE CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS CONVERSION TO GOD, AND THE MANNER THEREOF The question is: how is it possible for the Gentiles to do this? The apostle explains that they have the work of the law (not the law, but the work of the law, the work that the law does, the work of drawing the fundamental lines of the will of God for our ethical life in this world) written in their hearts,—written by God Himself, by the testimony of His Spirit in and through His general revelation. That the Gentiles know this difference between good and evil, are able to distinguish, is also evidenced in their ability to formulate systems of jurisprudence, codes of law, by which they lay down the law for the individual citizen in the community. And it is evidenced, as the apostle also indicates, by the fact that their conscience bears witness, their thoughts, considerations, the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another. They reveal in their thoughts, their considerations, that they have a formal knowledge of the law of God as it distinguishes between good and evil. They reveal this officially and formally in their laws and in the judgments of their courts. They reveal it too in the expression of public opinion, in conversation, in the daily newspapers, and on the radio. The Gentiles, who had no contact with the law as it was given to the Jews could even write volumes on ethics. And, in this natural light, according to which they knew the difference between things good and evil, they judged one another, and accused or excused one another according to that work of the law that was written in their hearts.
Accordingly, the article tells us, in the fourth place, that by virtue of this remnant of natural light man even shows “some regard for virtue and external order, or discipline.” Notice that the fathers do not say that the natural’ man keeps the law. They do not say that he does good. They do not even speak of a certain “civil good.” But: “Man shows some regard for virtue and for external order.” He knows that the law of God, and that to keep the law in his earthly life is good for him. He understands right well that the way of sin is the way of destruction. And so his regard for virtue and external order, or discipline, even extends so far that he attempts in his life and walk to adhere to the outward form of the law and to maintain order in society. He attempts to conform his life and the life of his fellows to the outward form of the law. That regard is due to the fact that he fears the evil results of his sin. But his adherence to the outward form of the law is purely outward, external. His regard for virtue is not motivated by the love of God. It is a regard that has respect only to the evil effects of sin for himself and for society. His regard for external order in his individual and communal life is of the same character. For in the first place, as soon as a man imagines that he can commit a certain sin and “get away with it,” escape its results, he will do so. In the second place, he is not always equally mindful of the evil effects of sin. Or, if he is mindful of them, he will make the attempt to nullify those effects, so that he can sin freely and without the fear of those effects. And in the third place, ultimately man can never succeed to bridle his lust. Sin has dominion over him. And so he not only sins, but he has pleasure in sin, and he has pleasure in his fellow sinner.
And therefore, again, in all this there is no iota of evidence of the grace of God. Nor is there any proof whatsoever that the natural man has any capacity for good. On the contrary, the very fact that he is able to distinguish between good and evil means that man is responsible, and can properly be judged by God. Mere knowledge is no virtue. And mere outward adherence to the law, regard for virtue, out of the motive of self-seeking is an abomination to the Lord.
Hence, our fathers draw the negative conclusion, first of all, that man by this light of nature is not at all able to arrive at a saving knowledge of God or to convert himself to God. We must bear in mind that when the fathers here speak of a saving knowledge of God, and in Article 3 of saving good, they did not have in mind a non-saving knowledge that constituted a non-saving, or civil good. The Canons were written against the Arminians. And over against the Arminians the question was whether man, through the means of the remnants of natural light, which both the Reformed and the Arminians ascribe to the natural man,—whether through the means of this light man was able to come to a saving knowledge of God, to the knowledge of salvation, and whether man was able to convert himself to God. The Arminians maintained that this was possible. And the fathers, taking cognizance of these remnants of natural light, express the judgment concerning them, that man is by no means able through this light to come to such a saving knowledge of God or to convert himself to God. The fathers insist that man is far from being able by this light to come to such a saving knowledge. How far? Here we have the positive conclusion of this article. The true picture of the natural man, with all his remnants of natural light, is so far different from the picture of him that is drawn by the Remonstrants that, on the contrary,man is not even able in things natural and civil to we this natural light aright. Still more: the fathers maintain that even in things natural and civil man wholly contaminates and pollutes this natural light, and he holds it under in unrighteousness. The Remonstrants attempted to maintain that the natural man could use this light aright in the sphere of things spiritual. The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 attempted to maintain that man could use this natural light aright in the sphere of things natural and civil. Both are wrong, according to our Canons. For the fathers maintain that man is not even able to use this light aright in the sphere of things natural and civil. They contradict both the Remonstrants and the Synod of 1924. Man, such is the position of the Synod of Dordt, though he has a certain knowledge of God, though he has a certain knowledge of things natural, though he discerns the difference between good and evil, and though he is even able to show some regard for virtue and external discipline,—though he knows, therefore, Whom he ought to serve, and what he ought to be, and what he ought to do, yet sins and corrupts himself in all his life. He wholly pollutes his natural light, such as it is, and he holds it under in unrighteousness.
The only possible conclusion, therefore, concerning man as he is apart from Christ, is that in all his sin and in all his corruption there is no single fact to be found which might mitigate his judgment before the bar of the Judge of heaven and earth. He stands without excuse. He is by nature a child of wrath, prone to evil, dead in sin, in bondage thereto. And without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, conversion is an utter impossibility for him.
Article 5. In the same light are we to consider the law of the decalogue, delivered by God to his peculiar people the Jews, by the hands of Moses. For though it discovers the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet as it neither points out a remedy, nor imparts strength to extricate him from misery, and thus being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace.
The above English translation fails to do justice to the origin Latin version of this article. In the original the first sentence introduces an element of comparison that is important for the understanding of this article, and which is not expressed in the English. For those who can follow the Latin, we quote it here: “Quae luminis naturae, eadem haec Decalogi per Mosen a Deo Judaeis peculiariter traditi est ratio.” It is a bit difficult to give a smooth-flowing English translation of this, but the idea is as follows: “What (is true) of the light of nature, this same is the reason (explanation, accounting, ratio) of the Decalogue, delivered by God through Moses peculiarly to the Jews.” From this it will he evident that the accepted English version goes rather far astray with its “In the same light . . .” The Dutch is more accurate, although it fails to translate the Latin ratio: “Gelijk het met het licht der natuur toegaat, zoo gaat het ook in dezen toe met de wet der Tien geboden, van God door Mozes den Joden in het bijzonder gegeven.”
It must be evident at once that here again the fathers deal with one of the many Arminian corruptions of the truth. That fundamental error was in this case that the Arminians made separation between the law and the gospel, and taught that through the law man could obtain the saving grace of God. Implied in this teaching is, of course, the error that the natural man can also keep the law, at least in part, that is, at least in so far as is necessary to obtain the promise of eternal life, in so far as God demands such obedience in order to connect with it the promise of eternal life. And they denied that the natural man neither can nor will keep the law unless he is first regenerated and receives that small beginning of the new obedience according to which he delights in the law of God and strives to walk according to it. The comparison indicated in the opening sentence of this fifth article sheds some light also on the Arminian view that is opposed in it. Just as the Arminian taught that man through the use of his natural light was able to come to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, so the same Remonstrant taught that God revealed His law as a means by which man might come to the saving knowledge of God and to true conversion. He would not be saved by the keeping of the law in perfection. But if man revealed that he was not opposed to the law of God, that on the contrary it was his desire and striving to keep it, then God would show that man grace and bestow upon him all the necessary grace to be saved. But notice, please, that while this is not purely a doctrine of salvation by works, it is a doctrine which begins with man, begins with man’s works, which makes the grace of God unto salvation dependent once again upon the will of man to receive that grace not only, but dependent upon the worthiness of man to receive it.
Nor is this such a strange error,—not strange in our day. Not infrequently the error is committed of making separation. between the law and the gospel, of taking the law out of its proper context as a part of the revelation of the gospel, of ignoring the fact that the law was imposed upon the promise for one reason, namely, to be a school-master, to lead us unto Christ. Not infrequently the law and its demands are preached with the implied, if not the open, claim that the responsibility to keep the law implies theability to keep it. Not seldom the law is preached in such a manner even to converted Christians that its obedience is presented as a condition unto salvation and that salvation is after all in some degree to be obtained by works, be they then the good works of faith. Well, therefore, may we take warning from this article.