Total Depravity and “Common Grace”—in the Light of the Confessions

The truth of total depravity has always been difficult to maintain. There are two reasons for this—one spiritual, the other theological. The Scriptural teaching concerning total depravity is difficult to maintain spiritually because it is entirely contrary to our pride-filled nature. This doctrine makes us nothing, nothing at all in the sight of God. We rebel against that because we want desperately to retain some bits and pieces of our pride. The Scriptural truth of total depravity is difficult to maintain theologically because it stands inseparably connected to such doctrines as sovereign predestination, particular atonement, irresistible grace, etc. The five points of Calvinism are not, after all, five unrelated and disconnected doctrines. They stand or fall together. Deny one and you lose them all. Total depravity must be maintained and can be maintained only within the context of all the five points of Calvinism.

While the doctrine of common grace has a relatively long history we are concerned in this article with a view of common grace of more recent times which has also led to a denial of total depravity. We refer to the teachings of Dr. A. Kuyper and of the Christian Reformed Church in her officially adopted position on this matter. While Dr. A. Kuyper’s view never was officially adopted by his own denomination in the Netherlands, but remained his private opinion, his views were incorporated into official Christian Reformed doctrine by the decision which this denomination made in 1924. 

In developing his views (see especially Dr. Kuyper’s three-volume work entitled, De Gemeene Gratie, orCommon Grace) Kuyper spoke of the punishment of death which came upon the human race at the time when our first parents ate of the forbidden tree in Paradise. Kuyper distinguished between two kinds of death: a death which is visited upon man as a result of a threat of death—as the threat of the electric chair which is carried out upon a man who commits a capital crime; and a death which is a natural consequence of an act—such as the death which comes upon a man because he eats poison. It is, says Kuyper, the latter kind of death which came upon Adam and Eve when they ate of the forbidden tree. There was something in the tree itself which brought death as a natural consequence of eating of it. So, if God had not intervened, Adam and Eve would have dropped dead at the foot of the tree, dead now, both physically and spiritually. But God’s intervention prevented that from happening. God gave Adam and Eve a massive dose of “common grace” which served as an antidote to the poison they had taken and which enabled them to vomit up a large measure of this poison—although not all. The result was that, while they did indeed die, the power of death was mitigated somewhat. That is, as far as physical death is concerned, they did not die immediately, but only after a long period of time; and, as far as spiritual death is concerned, they died only partially. 

You must understand, in this connection, that spiritual death is synonymous with total depravity. Kuyper taught, therefore, that, spiritually, if God had not intervened with the antidote of common grace, man would have become an animal. The antidote of common grace prevented this. It served to enable man to remain man, but it also served to enable man to do good which is truly good in the sight of God. 

This idea of common grace, which was promoted by Kuyper, was incorporated into official doctrinal standards made by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. The Synod made two decisions which related especially to this question. The first statement committed the Christian Reformed Church to the position that God restrains sin in the unregenerated man by an operation of His Holy Spirit within the sinner’s heart, without, in fact, regenerating him. The Holy Spirit is the common possession of all men. He operates in men in such a way that He, from within their hearts, restrains the full outbreak of sin. That is, the Christian Reformed Church essentially adopted the position of Kuyper, only adding to it the statement that this restraint of sin was accomplished by the operation of the Holy Spirit. 

The second statement said that, because of this operation of the Holy Spirit, the unregenerated man is able to do good in things natural and civil. By this the Christian Reformed Church meant to express that the natural and unregenerated man is able to do such good in the world which is pleasing in the sight of God and which is of value and benefit to the child of God. It is because of this good that there is a broad area of cooperation possible between the righteous and the wicked, between the elect and the reprobate, between the children of God and the children of this world. The two share a common area of endeavor in which there is possibility for mutual respect, common labor, and close cooperation in seeking to make this world a better place to live.

Especially the Christian Reformed Church appealed to the Confessions in support of this view; and this article must deal especially with the teachings of the Confessions on this matter. 

We quote, first of all, those articles in the Confessions which were directly appealed to by the Christian Reformed Church in support of their doctrinal utterances. We will not quote the articles in full in every case, but only those parts of the articles which were of particular concern.

This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation (the doctrine of God’s providence, H.H.), since we are taught thereby. . . .that He so restrains the devil and all our enemies, that without His will and permission, they cannot hurt us.. .( Belgic Confession, Article XIII). 

We believe that our gracious God, because of, the depravity of mankind, hath appointed kings, princes and magistrates, willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. . . (Belgic Confession, Article XXXVI). 

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. . . (Canons of Dordt, III & IV, 4).

It is interesting to note in this connection that the rest of this article from the Canons contradicts the position of the Christian Reformed Church:

But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. 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.

Now, there are several points at issue here. And we ought to be clear on all of them. 

In the first place, some theologians who have defended the views of common grace have made a distinction between what they call “total depravity” and “absolute depravity.” The latter term is intended to describe the unregenerated man as he is apart from common grace. He is totally and thoroughly corrupt in his entire nature, incapable of doing anything good, perhaps even bestial in his nature. The former, on the other hand, means that man is not wholly incapable of doing any good, but is only wicked in all parts of his nature, although he is also “good” in all parts of his nature. 

This distinction is neither Biblical nor Confessional, and ought not to be used among us.

In the second place, it is striking that the part of Article 4 of Canons III & IV, which Synod of the Christian Reformed Church failed to quote, specifically mentions that the natural man is not even capable of doing good in things “natural and civil”—an idea specifically set forth in the theory of common grace. Common grace is anti-confessional.

In the third place, all our Confessions teach the doctrine of total depravity. We quote a few instances.

Canst thou keep all these things (of God’s law) perfectly? 

In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 5). 

Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness?

Indeed we are; except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 8). 

We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after His own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will, agreeably to the will of God. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin, and consequently to death, and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, Who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts. . . (Belgic Confession, Article XIV). 

Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation (Canons of Dordt, III & IV, 3).

Our Confessions teach clearly and unmistakably the truth of man’s total inability to do any good. Of this there can be no doubt. Any doctrine which teaches the contrary is at odds with our historic Reformed Confessions. 

In the fourth place, both the Canons (III & IV, 4) and the Belgic Confession (Article XIV) speak of “glimmerings of natural light” and “remains of excellent gifts.” However, in no sense of the word is this intended to teach what the proponents of common grace teach. There is not so much as a breath in our Confessions which speak of a general operation in the hearts of all men which restrains sin and enables the unregenerated sinner to do good. The only place where common grace is mentioned in the Confessions is in the mouth of the Arminians who were condemned (III & IV, B, 5). Specifically rejected is the view that apart from regenerating grace the natural man can do good. 

What then are these “glimmerings”? Kuyper and those in the Christian Reformed Church who have followed him are as wrong as wrong can be when they claim that the fall would have resulted in man’s becoming a beast if it had not been for the intervention and operation of common grace. There is no proof for this either in Scripture or in the Confessions. It simply is not so. In fact, on the face of it, it is absurd. Man remains man after the fall. How could he possibly lose his humanity as a creature of God? But he becomes a sinner. And when death and depravity come upon him, even the natural powers of his humanity are vitiated so that he retains only glimmerings or remnants of them. He remains, therefore, according to the Confession, a man with mind and will who still knows the difference between good and evil, who is still accountable before God and who is justly punished for his sin. But, as all Scripture and the Confessions teach, he uses even these natural powers to sin against God. He is totally depraved, wholly inclined to evil and sin, unable to do any good in the sight of God.

Finally, it is of crucial importance that this doctrine be maintained. It must, of course, be maintained because it is the clear teaching of Scripture. The difficulty of maintaining it is exactly because it runs counter to all our pride. It requires a work of sovereign grace within our hearts even to confess this truth that we are by nature incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. But it must also be maintained because this is essential to the truth of sovereign grace. Only when the truth of total depravity is confessed and believed by the church can the church also hold fast to the sovereignty of God in the work of salvation. If man is not totally depraved, then he contributes something—be it but a little—to the work of salvation. And the salvation is not of grace alone, and then God no longer receives all the glory that is due His Name. Against the background of total depravity stands the glorious truth of salvation by grace alone that all glory may be to Him of Whom and to Whom and through Whom are all things—the God of our salvation.