Herman Hoeksema was the first editor of the Standard Bearer.
Essay read at a Conference of some Christian Reformed and Protestant Reformed Ministers
(Translated from the Dutch by Rev. H. Veldman)
With regard to what I have said thus far there can be but little, if any, difference of opinion.
In the rest of this essay I now offer you an introduction, from our viewpoint, to the discussion of our doctrinal differences, submitting this introduction, of course, to your free discussion and criticism. I would consider it advisable if also one of the Christian Reformed brethren would present such an introduction. This makes the discussion definite. Besides, then we also have something black on white, so that any misunderstanding will be avoided which might arise concerning that which is discussed by us. And, finally, thereby it will be easier for our people to remain informed concerning the course and the results of our discussion. In this introduction I offer you our view of what is called common grace. I will first speak about the so-called common grace in general, then about the three points, and conclude by submitting twenty propositions for discussion.
The problem of so-called common grace concerns the question of God’s attitude over against and influence upon the whole of created things in their mutual connection and their development in time, in connection with and in harmony with God’s counsel in general, predestination with election and reprobation, the realization of God’s eternal covenant, grace and sin, favor and wrath, nature and grace, creation and redemption, Adam and Christ. It inquires into the place and calling of God’s people in and over against the present world. Viewed thus it is a question of great importance with respect to both doctrine and life.
We proceed from the scriptural idea that all creatures are one. God did not create in the beginning an aggregate of creatures, loose, independent of one another, but a world, a cosmos, a harmonic, organic whole. God is one. The world is also one. In the midst of the earthly creation stood man. God had formed him after His own image, so that in a creaturely sense he resembled God in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This man stood at the head of creation as king over the earthly world. And he stood in God’s covenant of friendship from the beginning. In that covenant-relation God would be his sovereign Friend and would cause him to taste the blessedness of the communion of His friendship, in which is life. In that covenant-relation man stood as friend-servant of the Most High, to represent Him in the earthly creation and take up in his own heart the praise and honor of all creatures, to interpret and express that praise and honor before the face of God, love the Lord his God with all his heart, and in the name of and according to the will of God rule over all creatures. He was officebearer, prophet, priest, and king, with the commission, the command and also the right, the power but also the authority, to subject creation unto himself and to cultivate it. In his heart lay the spiritual-ethical center of God’s creation. Through that central point the entire creation was united in love with God Himself. Also the creatures, each according to its nature, were taken up in God’s covenant of friendship and shared in the good favor of the Lord. Also those creatures, sustained by God’s omnipresent power, stood, through man and each in its own place and according to its own nature, in the service of God. And also now, according to our confession, the Lord God sustains and governs all creatures, that they may serve man in order that man may serve His God (Art. 12, Confession of Faith).
In this harmonic relation of all things to God a breach was struck by sin. Only, we must immediately emphasize that the breach was struck in the spiritual-ethical center of the earthy cosmos, in the heart of man. Man violated God’s covenant. The break is, therefore, spiritual-ethical in character. An essential change in the relation of things was not brought about by sin. Sin can never have as its result that creation would be annihilated, neither that the mutual relation between the creatures and the relation of the creatures to man would be essentially changed, so that, e.g., the creation would have been turned into a chaos, if common grace had not intervened. To be sure, the creature bears temporally in connection with man the curse, is subject to vanity, but the unity of creation was not broken, the natural, organic affinity (Dutch: saamhoorigheid) continued undisturbed. To be sure, fallen man became very limited in his gifts and powers and natural light, so that he has retained merely remnants of natural light, but even in his fallen state he retained his position at the head of creation. And although it cannot be said that he is still officebearer of God, and that he therefore has the right to serve in God’s House, he certainly continues to stand before the demand, in his position in creation and with all his gifts and means, to serve his God in love.
However, he cannot, will not, and cannot will to serve his God in love. For a spiritual-ethical breach was made in the relation of man to God. The life of his heart was subverted into its very opposite. The working of the image of God, whereby he with mind and will and all his strength went out to God in the state of rectitude, was turned about into its reverse. Upon this, all emphasis must be laid. It is not sufficient to say that man through the fall lost the image of God; far less correct is it to say that he lost that image only in part. If this last thought is the result of the distinction of the image of God in the narrower and broader sense, it is better to abandon this distinction. But the image of God turned about into its reverse. His light became darkness, his knowledge changed into the lie, his righteousness became unrighteousness, and his holiness became impurity and rebellion in all his willing and inclinations. His love changed into enmity against God. Sin is not merely a defect or lack, but privatio actuosa. And the servant and covenant-friend of the Lord became a friend and covenant-ally of the devil. Also thus, however, the Lord continues to sustain and govern creation by His providential power. And the entire organic existence of things remained essentially unaffected. If now in this state of things no further change is brought about, then the final result of history will be that the completed spiritual-ethical fruit of the life of creation is the opposite of that which it should be according to God’s creation ordinance.
All this, although effected through the willful disobedience of the first man, took place, however, according to the counsel and the will of God. Accidents, from the viewpoint of God, never occur. God is God. He is in heaven and does all His good pleasure, not merely in spite of the attempts of Satan and sin, but also through those attempts. At all times He proceeds directly to His goal. Never is He hindered by the creature. There is with Him no change or shadow of turning. Also the fall is wholly according to the counsel of His will and it serves Him in the realization of His purpose. He had provided something better for us. His objective was not attained with the rest of the seventh day. That rest was but a figure of the eternal rest in the eternal and heavenly tabernacle, in the eternal kingdom, in which all things will be united in Christ as their Head, when all things in heaven and upon earth will eternally be concentrated in the heart of Christ. For He is the Image of the invisible God, the First-born of all creatures, and that, to be sure, as the First-born from the dead, the Head of the body, the Beginning, in order that He in all things should be the First. Through Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him. For it pleased the Father that in Him all fullness should dwell (Col. 1:15-19). Thus it is according to God’s eternal decree. The eternal covenant of friendship of God must be established in Christ and be realized by Him unto its final eternal and heavenly destiny, when the tabernacle of God shall be with man. Therefore God, immediately at the fall of man, maintains His covenant, in spite of Satan and sin, but that covenant now as eternally and firmly established in Christ. Through the realization of that covenant immediately at the fall, the friendship with Satan in the heart of man is brought to nought, and through the operation of grace enmity is wrought in the heart of man against Satan.
Here, however, we face the decree of predestination. For not all the children of Adam have been predestined to enter into the eternal covenant of God’s friendship. Grace follows the line of election. Only the kernel is affected by grace; the shell or bolster is rejected. It is exactly through this that the antithesis is realized in the midst of the world. Fact is, also now the creatures in the natural sense continue to exist in organic connection. Also grace, even as sin, does not bring about an essential change in the temporal existence of things. Out of one blood God created the entire human race. From a mere natural viewpoint all men are one. And man ever continues to stand in organic connection with the cosmos, in the midst whereof he moves and develops. There is, therefore, no dualism. Nature and grace are no contrasts. Even now we may remark that grace can never become the cause for man who becomes partaker of it to go out of the world. To be sure, the antithesis of sin and grace is called into being by the breach of sin and the entrance of grace, the latter developing along the line of election. All things continue to exist and develop according to their own nature, sustained by God’s almighty power, in natural affinity. But amidst this temporal existence of things there arises and develops the spiritual-ethical antithesis of sin and grace, of light and darkness, of the love of God and enmity against Him, of life and death, of heaven and hell. And through all this God does all His good pleasure, and He leads all things to their eternal destiny, the eternal separation of chaff and wheat, the eternal realization of the covenant of His friendship.
Grace is, therefore, never common.
The word “grace” has a variety of meaning in Holy Writ. We lack time to enter into these details. But allow me to present to you the line which we believe to find in Scripture relative to this concept. The [Hebrew] word chen has in Scripture the meaning of bending, inclining, attraction, beauty, charm, favor. The derivation of the [Greek] word charis is less certain, although it is plain that also in the New Testament the word has a great variety of meaning. It signifies pleasantness, favor, forfeited favor, operation of grace and benefits of grace, thankfulness. In the epistles of the apostle Paul the word is often used in contrast with merit and work.
A comparison of many scriptural passages where the word “grace” appears teaches us the following. God is in an absolute sense the Gracious One. He is gracious irrespective of any relation to the creature. Grace is a virtue of God. He is in Himself gracious. For He is the absolute and infinite good and glorious God, the implication of all perfection. Therefore, He is also the charming, the attractive, the gracious God. At His right hand there are pleasures for evermore. As the triune God He beholds and knows Himself perfectly, He is attracted to Himself, loves Himself, has pleasure in Himself.
But God also has pleasure in the creature. That creature, especially man, who is formed after His image, and in the highest sense of the word His church in Christ, He has willed as beautiful. Therefore, He also has pleasure in the creature for His name’s sake, and it finds grace in His eyes. He lavishes upon that creature the evidence of His favor and draws it unto Himself with chords of love into His eternal covenant of friendship. When that creature lies in guilt and sin, so that in itself it cannot be an object of God’s pleasure and favor, but, on the contrary, of His wrath and aversion, and if that creature then in Christ is from eternity beheld, elected, foreordained by God’s sovereign grace to become conformed unto the image of the Son, justified and glorified, found precious in His eyes and engraved in both the palms of God’s hands, and when then that eternal grace goes out to the creature, that grace is, first of all, forfeited favor and stands wholly in contrast with work and merit. That grace blots out all our transgressions, justifies us in the blood of the cross, grants us the adoption unto children, the right to eternal life.
But, secondly, that grace is also a power and operation within us, whereby we are redeemed from the repulsiveness and domination of sin, become conformed unto the image of the Son, become pleasing to God, formed according to the image which He has engraved of us in the palms of His hands. Then, finally, God once more becomes for that sinner redeemed by grace, in his consciousness and experience, the only Good, the attractive and charming God, whose loving kindness is better than life and who is alone worthy to receive all praise and adoration and thanksgiving. In adoration he falls down before God and gives Him charis.
Thus in general we would draw the lines.
We, therefore, are convinced that there is essentially no distinction between such concepts as grace, love, goodness, mercy, and whatever related concepts may otherwise appear in Scripture. Some have thought that they came closer to the truth when the last word in the expression “common grace” would be replaced by another, such as favorable inclination, goodness, or mercy, but essentially this makes no difference. Fundamentally all these concepts have the same meaning and are one.
It can readily be understood that, in the light of the above definition, we can never speak of common grace. The sinful and corrupt creature can qua talis never be pleasing to God, but is the object of His dislike, wrath and indignation, hatred and curse. Only as that creature has been incorporated into and is eternally beheld in Christ can it be pleasing to God and be an object of His sovereign favor. Only from that eternal counsel of election can the grace of God in Christ go out to him. And this is indeed the case. There proceeds out of the eternal good pleasure of God in Christ an operation of grace upon the elect kernel of our race in connection with the organic whole of all creatures. By that wonder of grace that elect kernel in Christ, always in connection with the whole of things, is redeemed, saved, liberated, glorified, lifted up out of darkness and guilt and sin and death and curse and vanity into the state of the heavenly glory of God’s covenant of friendship. But likewise the wrath of God abides upon the reprobate shell outside of Christ, and an operation proceeds from God’s aversion and wrath, indignation and repulsion and hardening whereby this reprobate shell becomes ripe for destruction.In all this God proceeds directly to His goal. He never takes a detour. He never retraces His steps. His work is never frustrated. His purpose is never thwarted at any moment in history. This development and operation of God’s grace and aversion, drawing and casting off, blessing and curse, softening and hardening, continues constantly according to His eternal good pleasure and in connection with the operation of His providence and the organic development of our race. In the actual sense of the word one can, therefore, never speak of a checking of this process. To be sure, the end does not appear immediately at the beginning. The development or, if you will, the process of grace and sin is according to God’s good pleasure and connected by His providential management with the organic existence of all things. But that process is not restrained. It proceeds as rapidly as it possibly can. For Christ comes quickly, and His reward is with Him to give unto every man according as His work shall be.
This is our conception of the attitude and operation of God with respect to the organic whole of temporal things, in connection with the counsel and the good pleasure of God, the covenant of His friendship, sin and grace, creation and redemption, Adam and Christ, the natural and the spiritual. We have, therefore, this will be understood, indeed no individualistic, particularistic conception of the tremendous work of redemption by the grace of God. Neither do we involve merely the church as the body of Christ, as the new mankind, in the organic conception.
This latter is done by Dr. Kuyper. He does, indeed, have an eye for the fact that God did not elect a number of individuals, to redeem them as the severed branches of the tree of our race, but that the organism, as the body of Christ, as the actual mankind, is saved and glorified by God. But he does not further apply this thought to the organic whole of all creatures. Therefore, he speaks of an original creation-idea. It is because of this that he always presents the matter as if a breach, an essential breach, was made by Satan in the work of God and that sin and death would actually hinder God in the realization of His original creation-idea, were it not for the fact that at this juncture common grace intervened restrainingly. Unto this end he presents God as concluding a covenant of friendship with the godless world outside of Christ, in order that sinful man may choose God’s side against Satan. Thus, he has man living a relatively good world-life from the principle of a certain righteousness which was left him by common grace, and he has made possible a conception of sinful man who by the grace of God practices culture. All of history actually thereby becomes an interim. God carries out the covenant of His election and saves the new mankind, but parallel runs a certain line of common grace, along which God realizes His original creation-idea.
We, however, include all creatures in mutual connection within the circle of the organic conception and make the distinction between the elect kernel and the reprobate shell. And we maintain that upon the whole of created things, in organic connection with each other, an operation of God’s grace but also of His aversion, of His favor but also of His wrath, of election but also of reprobation proceeds, according to the counsel of His will and according to the nature of the creatures, each in its own place in the whole.
In that sense we understand that God loves the world, in its elect kernel, so that whosoever believeth shall be saved, but the wrath of God abideth upon whosoever believeth not. Thus, we understand that Christ is the Head of the church, but also the Beginning of the creation of God and, therefore, also the End, the First-born of all creatures and the First-born from the dead, in whom all the fullness should dwell, and by whom and for whom all things were created. In that sense we understand that God purposed by Himself to gather together in one in Christ all things, both which are in heaven and which are on earth. Then we can also understand the covenant with Noah, which certainly is no separate covenant with the world outside of Christ, but God’s eternal covenant of friendship, revealed to the church as recently delivered by the flood, with the elect kernel in Christ in connection with the whole of eternal created things. Noah becomes heir of the world by the grace of God. The sign thereof we have in the all-embracing rainbow, painted by the sunlight upon the dark clouds. Thus, we also understand that an operation of God’s grace issued through the preaching of Jonah upon Nineveh, a figure of the world, in which the resurrected Christ will presently celebrate His triumphs, and that Nineveh repented upon the preaching of Jonah. Fact is, there were also thousands of children, who could not discern between their right and left hands, and, besides, much cattle!
In the light of the preceding it will be understood that we have nothing in common with the Anabaptists, who would avoid the world. To be sure, we would not be of the world. We know of no synthesis whatever. We do not join Athens in wedlock with Jerusalem. We do not cultivate culture in the name of common grace in cooperation with the godless world. We recognize the antithesis. We do acknowledge the natural affinity of our entire race in connection with all things. We would not go out of the world. We have all things in common. We work with the same means, gifts, talents, and powers as the world. We must deal with and make use of the same institutions, of the home, society, church, and state. Neither can it be the calling of the Christian to improve the world as such, which is impossible. But it surely is his calling to live, throughout his life, in connection with all things and with all possible means, out of the new life-principle of regeneration, and over against that life which comes up out of the principle of sin. And it is surely also his calling to represent in the midst of the world the cause of Christ, the cause of the Son of God, in word and walk. To that purpose he subjects as much as possible all things, and unto the realization of that purpose he uses all means and institutions which may be in His service.
We would be in the world but not of the world. We desire the Christian home, the Christian society, the Christian government and state, Christian school, Christian science, and Christian culture in general. It lies in the nature of the case that the realization of these things in concreto does not always and everywhere succeed. The world is powerful and often deprives us of our means and position. It may be possible to a certain extent in a small country as the Netherlands, with a relatively strong Christian population, e.g., to maintain Christian politics and speak of a Christian government, but in our country this is well-nigh impossible. Some periods in history are thereunto more conducive and favorable than others. God does, indeed, at times give unto His people the power and the means to assume control in various phases of life. Then again almost everything is denied them. Nevertheless, whether we have power or not, never may we become of the world and affiliate ourselves with that world. If we do adopt this procedure to exercise power we are lost. At all times we must represent the cause of Christ, even if we do so only by witnessing of the Word. And if then we must suffer, we will remember the Word of Scripture, that it is given us of grace, in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also with Him to suffer! And the victory is always ours. We have therefore good courage, knowing that Christ has overcome the world!
(… to be continued)