We must still investigate the significance of this article in as far as it touches on the common grace question. As we said before, this is the only place where our Reformed confessions use the term common grace. And this, of course, at once attracts the attention. As we also indicated previously, it must at once be granted that in this article the matter of common grace enters in rather incidentally. The article as such deals not with the common grace doctrine, but with the general grace doctrine of the Arminians. However, this does not mean that we can learn nothing from this article as to the doctrine of common grace. On the contrary, the very fact that in this sole instance of the term in our confessions it is placed in the mouth of the Arminians already indicates that we can learn something of importance as to the view which our confessions maintain as to this doctrine.
At the outset we may observe that not all find in this paragraph a contradiction of the common grace theory. This is not surprising, but it is a fact worth noting as we investigate this, matter. There are those who find in our Canons no contradiction of the common grace theory whatsoever, but who find, in fact, that the Canons maintain the doctrine of common grace. We have had occasion to note this previously in c8nnection with Canons III, IV, A, 4. And. it might be expected, therefore, that also with regard to this fifth article of Canons III, IV, B, the claim is made that the fathers do not oppose the common grace theory, but on the contrary, grant its validity. And this is exactly the claim that is made. It is maintained that our Canons do not condemn the theory of common grace as such, but rather condemn the wrong use of this doctrine. Thus, for example, T. Bos writes in his “The Canons of Dordt Explained,” the following comments concerning this very article, p. 157:
“Er liggen op het veld der theologische wetenschap over de gemeene gratie voetangels en klemmen, zoodat er met een oordeel des onderscheids over gedacht en gelezen moet worden. De leer der Remonstranten, door de Gereformeerden verworpen, kan ons daarin van nut zijn. Zij toch spreken ook van ‘de gemeene genade,’ of de gaven, na des menschen val hem nog gelaten. Daar over is dan ook geen verschil. Er zijn van het beeld Gods, in ruimeren zin genomen, tiog enkele sporen over gebleven. Dat zegt onze Belijdenis ook.
“Dat die gemeene genade van groot belang is, wordt ook door de Gereformeerden niet ontkend; zelfs niet, dat zij in verband staat met des menschen zaligheid.
“Ook staat de gemeene genade in verband met de mogelijkheid om maatschappelijk samen te kunnen leven, en dat maatschappelijk samenleven staat weer in verband met het christianiseeren van volken en staten.
“De vraag is echter, of de gemeene gratie een gave is, door den mensch zoo te ontwikkelen en te gebruiken. dat hij er door komt tot zaligheid. En dan verwerpen de Gereformeerden de dwaling der Remonstranten, die beweren van wel. Neen, noch de ware kennis van den waren God, noch de kennis van den eenigen Zaligmaker, noch de,genade der rechtvaardiging, noch een beginsel van de heiligmaking ontwikkelt zich uit clie gaven, den mensch na den val nog overgelaten, omdat het geen zaligmakende genade is. Die gaven zijn wel oorzaak dat de mensch niet te verontschuldigen is en ontwikkelen den natuurlijken aanleg in den mensch; doch omdat de grond dier gaven niet ligt in het nieuwe leven, brengen zij ook nooit vruchten voort van geloof en bekeering waardig. Als natuurlijke gaven laten zij den natuurlijken mensch in den staat der ellende; waarin hij van nature neerligt: &bekwaam tot eenig goed, en geneigd tot alle kwaad.”
By way of a brief summary for our readers who do not understand the Holland language, the author maintains the following in the above paragraphs:
1) That in the field of theological thought concerning common grace there are pitfalls to be avoided, necessitating a discerning judgment in our thinking and reading on the subject, and that the Arminian doctrine rejected by the Reformed can serve a useful purpose in this regard.
2) That both Arminians and Reformed speak of common grace, or the gifts left to man after the fall, and that concerning this point there is no difference, as the Confession speaks of this too.
3) That this common grace is of great importance is not denied by the Reformed, and that it is not even denied that it stands in connection with man’s salvation.
4) That common grace stands in connection with the possibility of living together socially, and that this social living together-stands again in connection with the Christianizing of peoples and states.
5) That the question is whether this common grace is a gift so to be developed and used by man that by it he comes to salvation, and that while the Arminians maintain this, the Reformed reject it emphatically, and maintain that all man’s natural gifts leave him after all in the state of misery in which he lies by nature: incapable of any good, and inclined to all evil.
Now we may note at once that this is a far cry from the position of the Three Points of 1924, and especially from the position of the First Point. But we shall return to this matter presently. At this juncture we want to investigate the question whether the above position is actually in harmony with the position of our Canons. And then we would call attention to the following.
In the first place, there is the fact that this is the only place in our Reformed confessions where the termcommon grace is used. What is the significance of this fact, however? It certainly means that it is nothing but loose talk to maintain that both Reformed and Arminians speak of common grace, if by Reformed you mean the Reformed fathers speaking officially in our Reformed creeds. It is, of course, true that Reformed theologians have spoken of common grace. And it may be granted that their speech has a certain weight, and that it must be considered. But if you have in mind the official expression of the Reformed faith, then it must be maintained that the confessions do not mention common grace with so much as a breath. And the reasoning that would make of the confessional speech concerning the remnants of man’s original gifts (not: remnants of the image of God) a confessional reference to common grace is entirely faulty. In fact, it is not even true, as the Rev. Bos asserts, that the Confession also says that there are remnants left of the image of God in the broader sense. This is not confessional language. In this we heartily agree. Therefore, that concerning the subject of common grace one must think and read with a discerning judgment.
Now this may be an argument e silentio (out of silence), but it is nevertheless a striking fact that while several Reformed theologians spoke rather freely of common grace, this idea did not find a place in any of our creeds. And this is especially striking in regard to the Canons, which are of a later date than our other confessions. One would say that the fathers had several opportunities to speak of common grace in the Canons without going out of the way to do so,if they had wanted to, and that they could very easily have expressed, if such was their view, that they did not disagree with the Arminians as to common grace and as to the significance of man’s natural gifts. But they did not do so.
In the second place, in close connection with the above, we should note that not only is the termcommon grace placed in the mouth of the Arminians in this one instance in which it appears in our creeds, but the definition of this common grace is also attributed to the Arminians. The fathers do not say, as they could have if they agreed with the Arminians: “by which we understand the light of nature.” But they say very pointedly: “by which they understand the light of nature.” Hence, it is the Arminian understanding of this light of nature that it constitutes common grace. This is very telling. It is telling, first of all, because while it may be true that the fathers nowhere in our confessions expressly state that this light of nature is not common grace, it is equally true that they nowhere state that it is common grace, and, on the contrary, everywhere indicate that there is no element of grace in this natural light whatsoever. We stated previously that in this fifth article the fathers say nothing about the common grace aspect of the Arminian error. But we emphasized that while elsewhere they do not mention the term common grace, they nevertheless make it abundantly plain that the common-grace man is pure fiction. Think how they emphasize that not the favor of God, but the wrath of God is upon man outside of Christ. Think of the fact that they emphasize even in regard to the light of nature that the natural man cannot use it aright even in the sphere of things natural and civil, III, IV. A, 4. Consider too how they steadfastly reject in III? IV, A, 1-4, and B, 1-4, the idea that there is any capability of good left in man whatsoever after the fall. In this light it becomes indeed important that they say in the present article, “. . . . common grace, which to themselves is the light of nature ‘. . . .” But in the second place, this is important because there is exactly a striking similarity between the so-called Kuyperian common grace and the Arminian theory of common grace on this point. There may be a difference of understanding, in a degree, as to the contents of this natural light. But on this they agree, that common grace, becoming operative at the moment of the fall, preserved in man a remnant of original goodness.
And this, in the third place, stands in close connection with the fact that the Arminian and so-called Calvinistic theories of common grace both agree ultimately in their denial of total depravity: They may disagree, again, as to the significante of this common grace, as to the question whether common grace is a starting point and a connecting link for saving grace. But they agree on this, that “total depravity” is only a description of what man would have been had not God’s common grace intervened. And if it is true, as the Rev. Bos avers in his comments on this article, that these natural gifts (which he also calls common grace) leave the natural man in the state of misery in which he lies by nature, that is incapable of any good, and inclined to all evil then he would be hard-pressed indeed to show where there is any element of grace, favor, in this so-called common grace.
Finally, we must give our attention to the matter of the First Point, with its general, well-meant offer of salvation, in connection with this article. This, after all, is much more serious than the whole matter of common grace. Here the question is not whether man by using his common grace can climb to the level of saving grace, but the question is exactly the main one of the Rejection of Errors in this article. The Arminians maintain that “God on his part shows himself ready to reveal Christ to all men.” And on this matter the First Point of 1924 tragically agrees. The question is not that of the external preaching of the gospel. The question is as to the significante of that preaching. Point One teaches that its significante is that God on His part is ready to save all to whom the gospel is preached, that the preaching of the gospel is a general, gracious offer of salvation. The Arminians also teach that God shows Himself ready to reveal Christ to all. And our Reformed fathers tell us: “For the experience of all ages and the Scriptures do both testify that this is untrue.” 1924, therefore, stands condemned by 1618-19.