Merely to state that the natural man does not use remnants left to him after the fall and his natural light aright, leaves room for the possibility that he might use them aright, if he would.
The Canons, however, exclude even this possibility.
The natural man is so corrupt that he cannot, that he is incapable of using this natural light aright, even in things natural and civil. There is no good left in his nature. He is, indeed, totally depraved.
It is plain, therefore, that the formulation as found in the Canons is to be preferred, and that the declaration of Utrecht definitely weakens the Confessions on this point.
Let us now turn our attention to the third of the declarations of Utrecht under Common Grace.
It defines the purpose of the remnants and of the natural light left to man after the fall. According to this third point, their purpose is three-fold: 1. To render man without excuse. 2. To bridle the working through of sin; and 3. To cause that possibilities, given in the original creation, may still be developed in the sinful world.
To the first of these statements concerning the purpose of the remnants, we have little objection. The Confession also speaks of it that the sinner is left without excuse. However, here, too, it may be remarked that the statement in the Canons on this point is more correct than that of the declarations of Utrecht. For it is not so much the remnants and the natural light as such that renders the sinner inexcusable before God, as the fact that he wholly pollutes his light, and holds it under in unrighteousness. But we may let this pass.
It is to the second and third of these points that we have serious objections.
First of all, let us note that in making these declarations the Synod of Utrecht left the basis of our Confessions. Nowhere do the latter state that the remnants of natural light serve the purpose of bridling the course of sin. It is true, the Canons state that by the “glimmerings of natural light” the sinner retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But did the fathers of Dordrecht mean to declare thereby the same thing as what is meant by the restraint of the course (doorwerking) of sin? Did they mean that the “knowledge of God” which the sinner has induces him somewhat to love Him, or to bridle his hatred of God; that his knowledge of the difference between good and evil causes him to do good; that his regard for virtue renders him virtuous? Did they mean to deny that even good order in society may be the channel in which the course of sin moves? Was there no good order in society under the Nazi regime, and will not the Antichrist introduce the perfect order? Or is it not true, according to our fathers of Dordt, that even though the sinner may have regard for an external orderly deportment, he camouflages this orderly deportment whenever he sees fit, and, moreover, the things he does in secret are a shame even to mention?
The last part of the same article of the Canons that speak of these “glimmerings of natural light” ought to be sufficient answer to all these questions: “Nay further, this light such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”
And how could it be different?
How could the natural remnants and the natural light possibly serve to restrain the working through of sin?
After all, these remnants are natural, are they not? They imply that man still is a rational and moral being, that he still has a mind and is able to think and reason; that he still has a will, and is able to act is a moral being. It means that he is capable of knowing that God is, and that He must be glorified and served; that he is able to distinguish between good and evil, and to know that he is obliged to do the good; that he is in a position to discern that the precepts of the law of God are good for him, and that to violate them leads him to destruction. But whatever else one may say about these remnants, the fact remains that they are natural. They are not spiritual. There is no power of ethical good in them. They are not at all remnants of his original righteousness or goodness. Nor did our Reformed fathers ever intend to intimate that there is any remnant of positive good in fallen man.
How, then, could these natural remnants act as a restraining power upon sin which is spiritual and ethical corruption? Sin means that the whole nature of man is perverse, is motivated by enmity against God, that all man’s light, such as it is, is change into darkness all his righteousness is perverted into unrighteousness, his holiness into corruption.
Now, then, let this be noted clearly: this perversion of sin, this ethical corruption, operates exactly in and through the remnants of natural light.
The natural light does not restrain the ethical corruption, nor even the operation and expression of it. It is foolishness to even state such a thing.
On the contrary, the perversion of sin corrupts the remnants.
If man had no remnants of natural light he could not be sinner. If, in his natural light, he could not have some knowledge of God, he could not hate Him. If he could not discern the difference between good and evil, he could not possibly sin as a moral being. If he had no regard for virtue, he could not wickedly trample it under foot. If he did not know his obligation to do righteousness, he could not hold the truth in unrighteousness.
His natural light is ethical darkness.
How, then, could it possibly be said that the remnants serve the purpose of restraining the course or working through of sin? The declaration is based on misunderstanding, on a confusion of conceptions.
And the only thing a sinner can do with his remnants is to wholly pollute them, and hold them in unrighteousness, thus rendering himself inexcusable before God.
This our fathers clearly saw. And this Utrecht failed to discern.