Before proceeding with our exposition of this article, we want to call attention to the fact that this, accusation, that Reformed doctrine makes of man a stock and block, has come to be used as a sort of bogey-man and that too, rather successfully in some cases. For some reason, possibly because of a faulty understanding of this accusation and of the truth over against it, there are those who are rather easily frightened out of their Reformed position by this charge. Instead of standing their ground and gainsaying the charging of the enemy, they give up the battle when this charge is brought against them rather easily, and soon acknowledge that after all there remains some good in man and that this good is a contributing factor in his salvation, more specifically in his regeneration and conversion. They admit then that natural man can seek, desire, long for, and even pray for his salutation. They will grant that man must walk in the covenant way in order to be received into God’s covenant, and that the former is prior to the latter. Thus they beat a hasty retreat from the sound Reformed position. And thus they adopt the Arminian position, which, of course, is the very purpose of those who bring this accusation.
Let us notice, however, by way of general comment on this article, that it is not the purpose of our fathers whatsoever to retreat from their Reformed position. They neither change their teaching concerning the corruption of the natural man, nor compromise their doctrine concerning the strictly sovereign and efficacious operation of the grace of God unto the conversion of the totally depraved sinner. And on the ether hand, they refuse to grant that there is any truth whatsoever in the accusation that they by their doctrine make of man a stock and block. They completely deny that the charge has any validity at all. In fact, at the very basis of the fathers answer to this charge in Article 16 is the fact that the charge is an impossible one. The terms “man” and “stock and block” are in the fathers’ view mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as a man that is a stock and block: And finally, the fathers make it plain that anyone who brings such a charge either against the Reformed doctrine of man’s total depravity or against the Reformed doctrine of regeneration and conversion is guilty of a misunderstanding and misconstruction of those doctrines, either willfully or inadvertently. With that in mind, let us look at some of the details of this paragraph a bit more closely.
Probably the first question we ought to ask is: what is meant by the expression “stock and block”? The very expression has come to carry a certain derogatory connotation when applied to one’s doctrine concerning man. And while it may be granted perhaps that the meaning of the term is rather self-evident, it is nevertheless well that we give careful account of its meaning. The expression, as is also plain from this article by inference, denotes a creature without intellect and will, one without any self-consciousness and without any self-determination. A creature that is utterly and passively subject to the will of another, so that it is in its very nature incapable of any rational and volitional activity, incapable of thinking and willing, incapable of any self-determined activity,—that is a stock and block. The terms that are used in the Latin refer in the first instance to a log or trunk or stem of a tree. Hence, we may conclude that when this charge is registered against the Reformed truth concerning man’s fallen state and his conversion, it means that according to the Reformed view, fallen man is really without intellect and will, without the power to think and to determine and to choose, without the power of any self, conscious activity, just as a log is without such power or just as a tree is devoid of any such power. And it also means that in the whole work of his regeneration and conversion man is also incapable of any self-conscious activity and self-determination, any thinking and willing action, just as such a log or tree. When man,—such is the idea, or rather, the caricature of the Reformed truth which this charge intends to, convey,—is translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, that whole work is to be compared in every respect to the moving of a log from one place to another. When man is converted and brings forth the fruit of faith and repentance and good works, then he does that just as a tree brings forth fruit, without any conscious and volitional and purposeful activity.
Now what is the fallacy of this charge?
It is this, that it simply assumes that the creature man can be changed as a creature into a stock and block. Or rather, it assumes that such a change of man from one kind of creature (rational and moral) into another kind of creature (non-rational and non-moral) is even conceivable. And it wildly charges our Reformed fathers with that same impossible assumption. That, in the first place. In the second place, it simply assumes that a creature upon whom God operates sovereignly and efficaciously must needs be a stock and block,—that a stock and block is the only kind of creature that can be the object of grace that is absolutely sovereign and efficacious. It is indeed passing strange that men will grant that the existence and activity of a stone or a tree or any other brute creature can be subject to God’s sovereign control and direction, but that a man, just because Le is a creature with mind and will, cannot be subject to such sovereign control and direction of the Almighty. But such is indeed the assumption of this charge of the Arminians. And in the third place, it is obvious that the Arminians willfully confuse man’s essential nature as creature with the spiritual, moral state and condition of that nature. They confuse the formal with the spiritual. In their view, it is impossible that a thinking and willing creature can be a creature of totally evil mind and will, a creature incapable in that very mind and will of thinking, willing, or doing the good. In their view, it is also impossible that a creature with mind and will can be so totally corrupt in his mind and will that the only way out for him is that his totally corrupt mind and will be sovereignly and efficaciously changed into a good mind and will. But we may well ask: where is the conflict in the Reformed conception? Where is the problem? If it is conceivable that a tree, a creature without mind and will, exists, grows, produces fruit, and undergoes all the changes attendant upon a tree’s existence should exist and develop strictly within the confines of God’s sovereign determination and operation, why should that not also be conceivable of a man, a creature with mind and will? Why should that be thought a thing impossible,—except it be, of course, that sinful man -does not want the absolutely sovereign God? This is the very crux of the matter. This charge of the Arminians is as sinful as it is absurd! And in this case the fathers answer the fool according to his folly.
In the first place, they maintain that man through the fall did not cease to be, hut remained man, a creature endowed with intellect and will. Sin is a spiritual, ethical reality. And therefore sin, when it pervaded the entire human race, did not deprive man of his essential nature as man. All that sin could do was to affect man from a spiritual, ethical point of view. And this it did: that man, with a man’s nature, sin depraved and spiritually slew, so that he, with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, was changed from a good and righteous and holy man to an evil and guilty and corrupt man. The result was therefore not, that man could no more think and will and act at all, but that he could only think and will and act the evil. All this we have observed before, even as the Canons have treated this subject in connection with man’s natural light.
Hence, the first proposition in the answer of this article may be briefly formulated as follows: Sin indeed operates in men as a spiritual, ethical power unto depravity and spiritual death; but it operates as in men, not as in stocks and blocks.
From this the second proposition follows: The divine grace of regeneration operates in elect men efficaciously (irresistibly) and sovereignly; but when it operates, it operates as in men, not as in stocks and blocks.
The principle is that through all the spiritual, ethical changes which a man undergoes he always remains a man. When he stands in original righteousness in Paradise, he does so as a rational, moral creature. When he falls, into total depravity and spiritual death, he does so as a rational, moral creature. And when he is restored and raised unto life in Christ through sovereign grace, also this change comes upon him as a rational, moral creature.
What is implied in this operation as far as man’s rational, moral nature itself is concerned? The following:
1. The will and its properties are not taken away. When God’s grace operates; man is not deprived of his will. Nor is he deprived, even temporarily of the properties of his will, that is, the power to determine and to choose. The very opposite is true. Man’s will and its properties remain very much in the picture. It is exactly that will that is the object of God’s gracious and efficacious work. And because it is the will itself that is the object of God’s operation, it can never be said that God forcibly compels the will of man against its own desire. The power of God’s grace is not compelling, impelling. God’s grace does not act as an obstruction or blockade on the path of man’s will; it operates internally, changing the will.
2. The nature of that change is such that in the spiritual, ethical sense of the word that will is quickened, healed, corrected, and powerfully turned from within. Hence, the change of conversion is never unpleasant, though it is efficacious. Unpleasant it would indeed be if God’s grace treated man as a creature without will and intellect when he had a will and mind. Unpleasant in the extreme would conversion be if man’s will were not touched by the power of God’s grace while he was nevertheless forced to go in the way of God’s commandments. But now God changes the sinner out of his unwillingness and perverseness into a willing and docile and humble and obedient and believing child of His. Mark you well, God changes him. And He does it alone! Man contributes absolutely nothing toward that change. But God always deals with His creatures according to the nature which He Himself gave that creature in creation. He deals with man as with a man, whether in the state of rectitude, or in his fallen state, or in grace. And when in absolutely sovereign grace God deals with the rational, moral creature, man, and converts him, then he attains to the true and spiritual renewal and freedom of the will. In deed, if one would speak of a free will, then he must not only speak of that formal and psychological freedom of the will which is spiritually bondage, but he must speak of the true spiritual freedom, the liberation from the power of sin and death.
Finally, the article calls attention to the crucial importance of this truth. It as it were places us before the alternative of this blessed truth of free and sovereign grace or utter hopelessness as far as any way out of the bondage of sin and death is concerned. In other words, one may talk about stock and blocks, and bring all kinds of objections against the truth of God’s sovereign grace. But when he stands face to face with the stark reality of his own total depravity and the hopelessness of his spiritual death, then there is only one way out, and he shall have to acknowledge it. He plunged himself into ruin through a free will. But he can never extricate himself from that ruin by the same free will. Unless the admirable Artificer of every good deals in this manner with us, there is no hope.