A Critical Treatise on the "Three Points" adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924
(This booklet was written early in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches and sets forth the reasons why the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema opposed "Common Grace" including the "free offer of the gospel" even when it meant ultimately that he was put out of the Christian Reformed Church.)
"A Triple Breach" is controversy. Protestant Reformed churchman and theologian Herman Hoeksema exposes the "Three Points of Common Grace," adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, as appendages to the Reformed confessions rather than interpretations of the confessions, and as departures from these confessions, rather than developments of the confessions. Hoeksema's analysis and argument are incisive and compelling. His charge of Pelagianism and Arminianism has never been answered.
"A Triple Breach" is theology - Reformed theology. In the brief compass of a popular booklet, the author sets forth and defends such essential doctrines as particular, sovereign grace; the total depravity of unregenerated man; the organic development of sin in the race; the nature of good works; the antithesis; and more. Like all good theology, this work rests on solid interpretation of a number of passages of Scripture, as well as appeal to and explanations of the creeds.
"A Triple Breach" is evangelism. As he states in his preface, originally it was Hoeksema's prayer "that our God may use this booklet as an instrument in His hands to open the eyes of many for the errors and dangers of the three points and to strengthen their hearts in the truth of His Word." At the time of this reprint (1992), the need for this enlightenment in the Christian Reformed Church is, if anything, even greater than it was when the booklet was first published. The evils of universal grace and of openness to the wicked world are rampant and well-developed in that church. These are the fruits of her doctrine of common grace. Hoeksema prophesied these fruits long ago, as the republishing of "A Triple Breach" will make plain to every reader.
But the un-Reformed teachings of common grace - the preaching of the gospel as grace to all, a restraint of sin in the unregenerated by the Spirit, the doing of good works by unbelievers are by this time embraced and promoted by much of the Reformed and Presbyterian church-world. There is need, therefore, desperate need, for the clarion call of this booklet to be sounded to Reformed and Presbyterian people worldwide, a call to return to sound, consistent, creedal Reformed orthodoxy.
"A Triple Breach" is also church history. It tells who the Protestant Reformed Churches are, whence they came, and why. It is valuable instruction of the members of these churches, what great truths they are privileged to maintain and develop.
"A Triple Breach" has long been out of print. Under the blessing of the Spirit of truth, its reprinting by the Evangelism Committee of the Southwest Protestant Reformed Church will serve the good purposes not only of evangelism but also of controversy, theology, and church history.
Prof. David J. Engelsma Protestant Reformed Seminary
For us it was a matter of conscience, when in 1924 we refused to declare ourselves to be in conformity with the three points of doctrine, adopted in the same year by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches, and also refused to refrain from making propaganda against these points in the Churches, even though on account of this refusal the Christian Reformed Churches expelled us from their fellowship.
And that it was a question of conscience with them that thus dissented and were expelled from the Churches has been amply corroborated by the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches since 1924.
Before God and our conscience it was not only impossible for us to subscribe to three doctrinal declarations whose tenets were, according to our firm conviction, in conflict with the Word of God and the Reformed Standards; but we also considered it our calling to expose before the Churches the error of the three points and warn our Reformed people against their dangerous tendencies and influence.
When, therefore, Classis Grand Rapids East, in spite of our efforts to prevent a separation, left us no other alternative than either to sign the three points and promise not to oppose their doctrine openly, or to be deposed from our office of minister of the Word in the Christian Reformed Churches, we chose the latter for the simple reason that before God and our conscience we could do nothing else.
Of this choice we never repented.
The more we make a thorough study of the doctrinal implications of the three points and of the arguments in their defense, adduced by leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches, the firmer our conviction becomes, that they are, indeed, deviations from the truth that have a far reaching effect and threaten to undermine the very foundations of the Reformed truth.
This conviction on our part may explain the publication of this booklet. It contains chiefly, with a few alterations, a quaternion of lectures on the three points, delivered by us in different parts of our country.
With, the prayer that our God may use this booklet as an instrument in His hands to open the eyes of many for the errors and dangers of the three points and to strengthen their hearts in the truth of His Word, we offer it to the interested reader.
Rev. Herman Hoeksema
No Interpretations But Appendages
In this first chapter I would submit to the interested reader a simple, fair, yet very important question. At the same time I purpose to bring before his attention all possible evidence to prove that the question can be answered in but one way.
In putting the question various assumptions must be tacitly made.
First of all it must be taken for granted that the reader is actually interested in the truth of the Word of God as expressed in the Reformed Confessions. It is also presupposed that it is his desire that the Reformed truth shall be maintained and that he is interested in the well-being of the Reformed churches.
Secondly, it will be tacitly assumed that the reader is informed about the existence of the "Three Points." He knows that in 1924 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches formulated three declarations of a doctrinal character. Especially if you are a member of the Christian Reformed Church you will probably consider this a rather superfluous assumption, for, you will ask, what member of the Christian Reformed Church does not know about the three points? Yet, one meets with astounding ignorance in this respect. Many there are, responsible members of the above mentioned Church, that know little or nothing about these points. And you must not be overly surprised if occasionally you meet one who expresses his indignation that the author of this pamphlet formulated the three points and thus departed from the line of Reformed faith.
Thirdly, it is presumed that the reader not only knows of the existence of the three points, but that he is also more or less acquainted with their contents so that he is able to give account of the doctrinal significance of these points, that he understands their tenets and has the power to discern between the true and the false, between Reformed and un-Reformed.
Assuming all this to be true, I would like to discuss with the reader this question: are the three points of 1924 an interpretation of the Reformed Confessions, the three forms of unity, or are they appendages, additions to, augmentations of the Confessions? Do the three points merely express in a different form what is virtually contained in the forms of unity or are they three doctrinal innovations?
That is the question discussed in this first chapter.
The question whether these three points are in harmony with the Reformed Confessions we leave outside of the field of our consideration for the present. It has no direct bearing upon the point we wish to discuss. It is, of course, easily understood that appendages to the Confessions may themselves be Reformed in character and that the Confessions may be augmented in such a way that the augmentation is merely a further development of the Reformed truth. Amendment of the Confessions is neither impossible nor improper, and must even be considered desirable. But for the present we do not desire to apply the criterion of Scripture and the Confessions to the three points in order to discover whether or not they are Reformed. The sole question before us now is: are the contents of the three points virtually in the Confessions, or have they been added to the three forms of unity of the Reformed Churches? Are they interpretations or appendages?
This is, indeed, an important question.
Leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches emphasize that the three points contain nothing new, that they are not three additions or amendments to the Confessions, but merely further interpretations of what is clearly implied or expressed in the forms of unity. No new confession was drawn up and adopted in 1924. Neither were the existing Standards augmented. Synod merely interpreted the Standards of the Reformed churches, or rather, it quoted them to refute various errors of the brethren H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema.1 It is thought, of course, that such a presentation of the matter is preferable for more than one reason.
In this way the three points may easily be allowed to sink into oblivion. And this is deemed desirable. Strange though it may appear, it is nevertheless a fact that the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches are not anxious to be reminded of the three points, nor to discuss them. Although they formulated them and considered them sufficiently important to serve as a basis for the deposition of ministers, elders, and deacons, yet they would now rather have them forgotten. It is considered expedient for the peace of the Churches that the three points be buried in constant oblivion. This burial of the three points is facilitated by presenting them as interpretations of the Confessions, while, if it were admitted that they were innovations, appendages, additions to the forms of unity, they would have to be brought to the attention of the people and of the Churches repeatedly.
For instance, suppose you are called to be an officebearer in the Christian Reformed Church, be it minister, elder, or deacon. In that case, according to the custom of all the Reformed churches, you are requested to sign the Formula of Subscription, and by doing so you declare yourselves to be in agreement with the three forms of unity, viz, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht.
Now, if the three points that were adopted by the Synod of 1924 are virtually new confessions, neither contained nor implied in the forms of unity, it would, of course, be necessary to require of every officebearer to sign them separately. And if such officebearer should refuse to express agreement with these points, he would have to be barred from entering upon the duties of his office. But this is never done. Even after the three points were adopted, they who are installed as officebearers sign the same Formula of Subscription, and in it reference is made to the same forms of unity as before the synod of 1924. And the argument that is used to defend their not requiring a separate signing of the three points is, of course, that these are not appendages but interpretations of the Standards.
And thus it is possible to circumvent the necessity of repeatedly requesting of Church members, at the meetings of Consistory, Classis, or Synod, to express agreement with the three points.
To do the latter would, no doubt, cause trouble.
There still are many Reformed people in the Christian Reformed Churches who would surely refuse if they should be required to sign the three points. Several I could mention by name, who do not agree with them at all.
These, however, are not molested because of their attitude.
On the contrary, even though it is well known that they disagree with the three points and voice their objections publicly, they are nominated for officebearers. When they personally bring their objections against such a nomination and express before the consistory that nominated them, that they are disqualified for service as officebearers because they are not in agreement with the doctrine of 1924, the case is easily dismissed. What difference does it make that you object to the three points? Are they not long forgotten? Who speaks of them? No one will trouble you about your attitude against them. And you are not required by the consistory to sign them, are you? All you sign is the Formula of Subscription, and that does not mention the three points, but speaks only of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht. You can, therefore, have no valid objection to your nomination and your conscience is free!2
Thus the peace of the Churches is preserved and the three points are relegated to the land of oblivion.
Such officebearers are, of course, not to be excused. I know those, who understand very well that the three points cannot be considered interpretations of the Confessions and that their doctrine is in conflict with the contents of the Reformed Standards, but who nevertheless remain with the Christian Reformed Church, even occupy the seat of an officebearer in that Church, although they know that they are held responsible for the doctrine of the Church adopted in 1924 and responsible, too, for the deposition of thoroughly Reformed ministers, elders, and deacons. Their own conscience surely condemns them. For they know that the synod of the Christian Reformed Churches in 1926 declared emphatically that the three points adopted in 1924 are interpretations of the Confessions, and as such must be accepted by all officebearers and members. And even though at their installation as officebearers they are not directly confronted with the demand to sign the three points, they understand very well that by implication they do this very thing when they declare to be in conformity with the forms of unity as they are interpreted in the three points.
Yet it is easily understood that for such officebearers it becomes less difficult to silence the voice of their conscience now that they are not constantly reminded of their personal responsibility for the doctrine expressed by the synod of 1924.
Nor must it be forgotten that there are also a number of officebearers who do not have in mind the three points when they sign the Formula of Subscription, who imagine that by signing that Formula they express conformity with the Standards of the Church pure and simple. And, naturally, it may be expected that their number will increase according as the history of 1924 recedes into the past. This could never be the case if the three points were properly considered and treated as appendages to the Standards and if at every proper occasion they were to be signed by officebearers or by candidates for the ministry.
Now, the question whether it is right and proper for the Christian Reformed Church to assume this attitude of silence over against the three declarations of doctrine they adopted in 1924 is dependent upon this other question, whether or not the three points are interpretations of the Confessions. If they are, the Christian Reformed Churches assume the proper attitude; if they are not, the attitude they assume is ambiguous and deceptive. Hence, the question that presents itself for our consideration is first of all this: are the three points interpretations of the Confessions or are they innovations and appendages to the Standards?
First of all, we may remark in answer to this question that, from a purely formal viewpoint, it cannot possibly be maintained that the three declarations of doctrine, adopted in 1924, are meant to be interpretations of the Reformed Standards. For, under what circumstances are interpretations of the Confession necessary? Only when certain parts of the Standards are not clear, or if doubt or difference of opinion should arise with some regarding the meaning of certain articles of our faith. But in 1924 this was not at all the case. There was no request before the synod of 1924 to explain or interpret any part of the Confessions. There was no difference of opinion with respect to the meaning of any particular article or articles of the forms of unity. The synod was called to consider certain protests against the doctrine of the Revs. H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema, who denied the theory of Common Grace. These two pastors maintained (1) negatively: (a) that God is not gracious to the ungodly reprobate; (b) that there is no operation of grace in the hearts of the reprobate whereby sin is restrained; (c) that there is no influence of grace outside of regeneration whereby the sinner is enabled to do good before God; and (2) positively: (a) that God's grace is always particular, for His people, the elect only; (b) that the development of sin follows the organic line of development of the human race; (c) that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.
It is true that these two pastors had appealed to the Confessions as well as to the Word of God in defense of their position. But the articles of our Confession and the Scriptural passages to which they referred were never interpreted by synod. Instead of interpreting the Confessions synod simply proposed and adopted three declarations of doctrine in which the views of the two accused pastors were denied and condemned. And to sustain these three synodical propositions synod merely referred, without any interpretation whatever, to certain articles of the Belgic Confession and of the Canons of Dordrecht and to a few texts from Scripture. Not one of the articles to which she refers she even attempted to interpret. She merely quoted. And these quotations from the Confessions were supposed to be sufficiently clear in themselves. They needed no interpretation. They were adduced to sustain the doctrine of the three points.
From all this it is perfectly evident that the three points were never intended to be interpretations of the Standards. That which is in need of interpretation is not adduced as proof for certain doctrinal declarations. The thing explained cannot serve as proof of the explanation. Yet, the passages which synod quotes to sustain the three points are merely adduced as so many proofs. It is sheer nonsense to maintain that the three points interpret their own basis.
No more can it be maintained that the three points are an interpretation of the Scripture passages quoted by synod to prove their biblical character, than it can be defended that they are interpretations of those parts of the Confessions that are quoted to prove their being in harmony with Reformed doctrine.
Formally, then, the three points are not intended to be interpretations of the Confessions.
But, are they, perhaps, materially, as to their contents?
It is, of course, perfectly conceivable that, although those who composed the three points had no intention to explain but merely to quote the Standards of the Reformed churches, nevertheless in the three points a further interpretation is offered of certain passages and articles of the Confessions and that certain truths, clearly implied in these articles, are expressed with a new emphasis. Is not this exactly what the synod of 1924 did by adopting the well-known declarations of doctrine?
Let us investigate this matter.
In order to carry out this investigation we shall quote the three points and also those passages of the Confessions which synod cited for support of the three points.
The first point reads as follows:
Relative to the first point, which concerns the question of a favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession, that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are the elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5 and III, IV, 8 and 9 that deal with the general offer of the Gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology that our Reformed fathers from ancient times favored this view.
The reader will understand that for the purpose of our present investigation we need not discuss the Scriptural passages cited by synod, neither are we now concerned with the quotations from Reformed writers.
The first quotation is from Canons 11, 5, and it reads as follows:
Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.
Let us stop at this first quotation and consider the question whether the first point may be called an interpretation of this part of the Confessions.
You will immediately concede that there is not even a semblance of similarity between the first declaration and Canons II, 5.
Let us consider, first of all, the chief proposition of the first point. It is, evidently: there is a grace of God over His creatures in general.
But the chief declaration of Canons II, 5 is: the promise of the gospel together with the demand to repent and believe, must be preached promiscuously and without distinction to all nations and persons to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.
One has only to read these two propositions to draw the conclusion immediately that what is supposed to be an interpretation of this article of the Canons is not even contained, yea, not even suggested in the latter. By creatures in general we understand God's creation in the organic sense of the word, the whole of what God called into existence at the beginning and sustains by His providence. If we take the first point literally, synod expressed merely that God is gracious over all the works of His hands understood in the organic sense, that is, without reference to the individual creature. He is good to man and beast and the green herb, to His entire creation.
And let me add at once, that we would have no objection to this first point of doctrine, that we would be in full agreement with it, if synod had confined itself to this chief proposition. But this is not the question. What we must consider in this first chapter is not whether or not we are in conformity with the meaning of the first point, but whether the latter may be called an interpretation of the Confession. Is the declaration of the first point contained in Canons II, 5? Or, if it is not literally expressed in this part of the Standards, may it be said that it is implied in it?
Your answer is, of course: not at all. The first point speaks of a grace of God; the Canons only speak of the preaching of the gospel. The first point speaks of creatures in general; the Canons in this article speak of nations and persons and, more particularly, only of those nations and persons to whom God sends the gospel according to His counsel. The very notion is absurd that Canons II, 5 should teach, literally or by implication, that there is a grace of God over His creatures in general. The thought of creatures in general was never in the mind of our Reformed fathers when they composed and adopted this article at the synod of Dordrecht. Of this we may be assured. The chief proposition of the first point, therefore, can never be considered an interpretation of the contents of Canons II, 5.
But they that composed the three points will object that we do not present the matter correctly and fairly. You see, they say, synod never meant to affirm that in Canons II, 5 we have the doctrine of a grace of God over all His creatures. It merely cited this article of the Confession to prove that the Canons teach a grace of God over others than the elect, that is, over other men. Even though it may be granted that the article cited does not speak of a favor of God over all His creatures, we maintain that it does affirm a grace of God over a wider circle of men than merely the elect.
To this we may reply, first of all, that synod must be held responsible for what it actually declared. And if it is the intention of synod merely to express that God is gracious over other men than the elect, the first point is a poor piece of composition.
But for the sake of argument let us grant that it is the real purpose of the first point to declare and teach that God is also gracious over the reprobate. If we understand it in that sense, can it be considered an interpretation of the article quoted?
Again we answer: in no wise!
Taken in that sense, the first point teaches a grace of God over men promiscuously, without distinction, and not only over the elect. But Canons II, 5 does not mention a grace of God over all men, but merely deals with the preaching of the Gospel to all men with out distinction.
But, the authors of the three points will say, the very preaching of the gospel is grace of God to all that hear the preaching. And thus the first point is an interpretation of Canons II, 5.
We reply that this is not interpreting but augmenting the Confessions.
Such a would-be interpretation proceeds from the tacit assumption that the preaching of the Gospel as such is grace for all that hear. This surely is not expressed in the article of the Canons. And it is evident from the rest of the Canons, as we hope to show in the next chapter, that such an interpretation is not in harmony with the purpose of the fathers of Dordrecht. The Canons are composed for the very purpose of opposing the doctrine of the Remonstrants. And, therefore, we may be assured that our fathers were very much afraid to speak of the preaching of the gospel as a general or common grace. Besides, if this had been the intention of Canons 11,5, how easy it would have been to express the idea clearly and without ambiguity by declaring: "moreover, God manifests His grace to all men without distinction in this, that He wills that the promise of the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe, shall be preached to all nations and persons promiscuously, to whom in His good pleasure He sends the gospel"!
This, however, they intentionally avoided. I say intentional, for we may depend on it, that the fathers of Dordrecht were perfectly able to express their thoughts in clear language. Instead, they merely affirmed that, although God's grace is particular and is bestowed only on the elect, it is, nevertheless, the will of God that the gospel shall be preached to all without distinction.
We conclude, therefore, that the first point is no interpretation of Canons II, 5.
But synod also referred to Canons III, IV, 8 and 9. The articles here follow in full:
8. As many as are called by the gospel, are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly declared in His Word, what will be acceptable to Him; namely, that they who are called should come unto Him.3 He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest, to as many as shall come to him and believe on Him.
9. It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ, offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel, and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word, refuse to come. [Thus far the synod quotes the article. But the article continues:] "the fault lies in themselves; some of whom when called, regardless of their danger, reject the word of life; others, though they receive it, suffer it not to make a lasting impression on their heart; therefore, their joy, arising from a temporary faith, soon vanishes, and they fall away; while others choke the seed of the Word by perplexing cares, and the pleasures of this world, and produce no fruit. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower ( Matt. 13).
That in these articles we have no semblance of an interpretation of the chief proposition of the first point, that there is a grace of God over His creatures in general, needs no further elucidation. Also these passages do not deal with a grace of God over all His creatures, nor even with God's grace toward mankind in general, but with the preaching of the gospel to those to whom God sends the gospel in His good pleasure. Article 8 refers to all that hear the gospel, article 9 to those that come under the ministry of the gospel but reject it. And, therefore, it goes without contradiction that the first point, understood literally, is no interpretation of these articles. The only question that remains to be considered is whether these articles teach, directly or by implication, that the preaching of the gospel is grace of God to all that hear the preaching.
Let us examine the contents of these articles.
In article 8 we easily discover the following elements. 1. That the calling of the gospel is unfeigned and serious on the part of God for all that come under its ministration. Everyone that hears the gospel may be assured that God seriously and unfeignedly means what He causes to be proclaimed in the gospel. But what does God proclaim in the gospel? Does He affirm that He is gracious or will be gracious to all that hear? Does He command His ministers to preach that it is His intention to save all the hearers? On the contrary. No preacher of the gospel can claim any authority to bring such a message. He who nevertheless presents the gospel in that light does not bring the call of the Word, but his own philosophy. He corrupts the gospel and makes God a liar. No, but the calling of the gospel is: "turn ye, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest! Ho, every one that is thirsty, come ye to the waters!" This calling is unfeigned on the part of God. He that hears this gospel has no reason to doubt that he is seriously called. 2. That it is acceptable to God that this calling is heeded and obeyed. To reject the gospel, to disobey the calling is not acceptable to Him. On the contrary, He is terribly displeased with everyone that refuses to turn to Him and live, with all that despise and reject the gospel. 3. That God promises to all that come and believe in Him rest for their souls and life eternal. This is no general promise to all without distinction, but to those, who will come and believe. No one needs entertain any doubt as to the sincerity of this promise. He that cometh unto Him shall in no wise be cast out. All, that come unto Him receive grace and eternal life. For God certainly realizes His promises.
That is, in brief, the contents of article 8. Does all this signify that the serious and glorious gospel, which contains the promise of eternal life to all that believe, rest of the soul to everyone that cometh to God through Jesus Christ, is grace of God to all that bear the preaching of that gospel and not only to the elect? In other words, can this article be interpreted to mean that the proclamation of the gospel is grace also for them that reject it, for the reprobate and ungodly? You admit that there is not the faintest suggestion of such a doctrine. The declaration of the first point can never be called an interpretation of Canons III, IV, 8.
But how about article 9?
This simply teaches that the fault of rejecting the gospel, the sin of refusing to turn, to come to God through Christ and believe, cannot and may not be attributed to the gospel, to Christ, or to God. The calling of the gospel is sufficiently clear. It speaks unambiguous language. It reveals very plainly what is acceptable to God. If anyone refuses to turn to God he can never blame the gospel, as if it were not sufficiently clear and rich to lead him to repentance. Nor can the unbeliever blame God for his unbelief, for the Most High clearly reveals to him in the gospel that disobedience and unbelief displease Him most terribly and justly. And Christ is fully and richly proclaimed, presented (offered) in the gospel, so that the fault of unbelief cannot be sought with Him. No, but the responsibility is all the sinner's own. The fault lies in his own wicked and unrepentant heart, the evil nature of which appears all the more terrible under and through the preaching of the gospel. The guilt of the sin of unbelief is only his own. Such is the teaching of article 9. But is all this the same as the doctrine that they who reject the gospel were ever the objects of God's grace in and through the preaching and ministration of the Word to them? Does this article even suggest such a thing? The very contrary is true. If the gospel serves to bring to manifestation the perversity and darkness of the sinful heart and mind, it certainly does not serve this purpose as a revelation of God's grace to that particular heart. It were better, indeed, according to Scripture, that they who reject the gospel had never known the way of righteousness and life! The gospel is to them a fearful judgment. It aggravates their guilt and punishment. They shall be beaten with double stripes. For they revealed plainly that they do not will what is acceptable to God!
And, therefore, also article 9 does not teach that there is a certain grace of God in the preaching of the gospel, not only for the elect, but also for the ungodly reprobates.
We conclude, therefore, that the first point is no interpretation of the Confessions, but an appendage. Whether this appendage is in harmony with Reformed truth is a question that must be answered in the second chapter. Our aim now is only that it be clearly established that the claim made by the Christian Reformed leaders and authors of these three points, that this first point is a further explanation of what is implied and expressed in the Confessions, is absolutely false. A new doctrine was adopted in the first point. It is an addition to the Standards. And this new doctrine may briefly be formulated as follows: God manifests a certain grace in the preaching of the gospel not only to the elect unto eternal life, but to all that hear the preaching of the gospel without distinction.
Or, to put it in its briefest form: the preaching of the gospel is common grace!
We must now consider the second of the three points.
It reads as follows:
Relative to the second point, which is concerned with the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community, the synod declares that there is such a restraint of sin according to Scripture and the Confession. This is evident from the citations from Scripture and from the Belgic Confession, Articles 13 and 36, which teach that God by the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin, by which human life in society remained possible; while it is also evident from the quotations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology, that from ancient times our Reformed fathers were of the same opinion.
The passages of the Confession to which synod refers in proof of this declaration read as follows:
The Belgic Confession, article 13: "in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded, that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies, that without his will and permission they cannot hurt us."
Article 36: "willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained."
The question that must be considered also in this connection is: May the second point be considered an interpretation of the parts of the Confession quoted by Synod?
The real implication of the declaration synod made in the second point will be pointed out in the third chapter of this treatise. But even now we must call attention to a possible wrong understanding of this point. It might easily be understood as teaching only that God by His providence also governs the devils and the ungodly, so th at they cannot accomplish ought against His will. Yet, this is not the teaching of this second declaration at all. If it were, we would, of course, not object to its doctrine. But the view expressed and adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches in the second point is that there is an operation of the Holy Spirit in the heart of every man, whereby he is, indeed, not regenerated, yet so kept from total corruption of his nature, that he is not as ungodly in his outward life as might otherwise be expected. This is the true meaning of the theory of the restraint of sin as developed in the doctrine of common grace. This also was the question that was before synod in 1924. And that this is the implication of the second point is also evident from the wording of this second point itself. By the general operation of the Holy Spirit there is a certain reforming influence upon the heart of every man, outside of the work of regeneration.
This being understood, the question is, whether this second point is an explanation of articles 13 and 36 of the Belgic Confession.
You will readily admit that this question must be answered in the negative.
It is very evident that article 13 does not speak of an operation of common grace by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the ungodly whereby these are somewhat reformed and improved. It speaks of God's providence, in connection with this blessed truth of God's power and dominion even over the instruments and agents of darkness. The very fact that this part of the Confession speaks in one breath of the devils and the ungodly ought to have been sufficient to keep synod from the error of thinking that the article referred to an internal and gracious operation of the Holy Spirit. If the so-called interpretation of the synod of 1924 were correct, the Confession would also teach in this article that there is a reforming influence of the Holy Spirit upon the devils, which is, of course, absurd. But if synod will not accept such an operation of grace upon devils, it will have to admit that article 13 does not refer to such a gracious operation of the Holy Spirit at all, but simply to God's almighty dominion, whereby He rules over and governs all things according to His eternal counsel. And this government of the Most High over all things, according to the presentation of article 13, is divinely motivated, not by a certain grace or favor over the ungodly, but by His grace and love over His people. Article 13 refers to a very particular grace. And, therefore, the second point certainly is no interpretation of this part of the Confession.
The same is true of the quotation synod offers from article 36 of the Belgic Confession.
It is well known that this article does not speak of a certain restraint of the power and corruption of sin in the heart of the natural man by a certain general operation of the Holy Spirit, but of an external restraint of certain public sins by the power of the law supported by police-power. The plain teaching of this article is even this, that without the power of the magistrates men are not restrained at all but are dissolute. If there were such an operation of the Spirit as is taught in the second point, the police, the sword-power of the magistrates would not be necessary. But now it is different. Article 36 does not proceed from the assumption of such an operation of grace upon the heart of natural man at all, and, therefore, professes the need of laws and police. It is too plainly far fetched when the leaders of the Christian Reformed churches would present the second point as an explanation of article 36.
And, therefore, we conclude that also in the second point we have an addition to the Confessions of the Reformed churches, an appendage which may be formulated as follows: there is a general operation of grace, of an ethical nature, by the Holy Spirit, by which all men apart from regeneration are improved and reformed to such an extent that they do not break out in all manner of sin.
Lastly, we wish to call attention to the third point, which we here quote in its entirety:
Relative to the third point, which is concerned with the question of civil righteousness as performed by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confessions and the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good. This is evident from the quotations from Scripture and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, IV, 4, and from the Belgic Confession, article 36, which teach, that God, without renewing the heart so influences man, that he is enabled to perform civil good; while it also appears from the citations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology, that our Reformed fathers from ancient times were of the same opinion.
The passages of the Confessions to which synod refers in support of this statement are the following:
Canons III, IV, 4: "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 difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment."
Belgic Confession, article 36: "Wherefore, we detest ... all those who confound that decency and good order, which God hath established among men."
The last of the three points teaches: 1. That the natural man can do good works before God in the sphere of civil life. This is exactly what synod means when it speaks of civil good. 2. That the natural man is able to perform such civil good by virtue of an influence of God upon him which has nothing to do with regeneration. The second and third points, therefore, are very closely related. Both speak of an operation of God and His Spirit upon the natural man outside of the work of regeneration. The second point declares that man's nature is somewhat improved by this operation; the third, that by virtue of this operation he is enabled to do good.
Now, it will be self-evident that article 36 does not speak at all of such an influence of God upon the sinner, whereby he is enabled to do civil good, but of the power of the magistrates, whereby sin is restrained in the domain of public life. We wish to emphasize once more that this article proceeds exactly from an assumption opposite from that upon which the third point is based. If the declaration of synod were true, that an influence of God urges the natural man to do good, the police might be abolished. But since that declaration is untrue the sword-power is peremptory in society.
Concerning the quotation from Canons III, IV, 4 it may be remarked that it is very deceiving, because it contains only half of the article to which it refers, a fact which is all the more deplorable because the second half of the same article makes it very evident that synod by its partial quotation is corrupting its meaning and changing it into the very opposite from what it actually teaches. This second half of the article reads as follows: "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." From this it will be evident:
1. That this article certainly does not teach a certain influence of God upon the natural man by which the latter is somewhat reformed and improved, but merely of natural light and natural gifts that remained in him after the fall. The third point of 1924 speaks of something the natural man receives from God after the fall; the Canons merely refer to remnants left after the fall.
2. That this article of the Canons denies most emphatically that the natural man is able to do good with these remnants of natural light and, on the contrary, maintains that he is incapable of using it aright, yea, renders it wholly polluted, even in things natural and civil! The third point, however, teaches that the natural man can do good in things natural and civil.
We conclude, therefore, that also this third point is no interpretation of but an addition to the Confession. And the appendage in this case is briefly: "the natural man is able to do good in things civil by virtue of an influence of God upon him which is not regenerative.
The Christian Reformed Churches, then, formulated and adopted three appendages to the three forms of unity.
1. The first is that the preaching of the gospel is general or common grace.
2. The second teaches that there is a general operation of grace, of an ethical nature, by the Holy Spirit, by which all men apart from regeneration are improved and reformed to such an extent that they do not break out in all manner of sin.
3. The third declares that the natural man is able to do good in the sphere of things civil and natural by an influence of God upon him that is not regenerative.
To asseverate that these points are in part plainly expressed and in part clearly implied in the Confessions is a false representation of the matter, for they are not interpretations but augmentations of the Standards. And, therefore, we may even now draw the conclusion that the three points, even apart from the further question whether or not they are in harmony with the line of Reformed faith and thinking, are deceptive and, therefore, dangerous declarations.
By adopting them without seeking the advice and the consent of the churches in general, Synod assumed a position of hierarchical power and authority above the Standards and greatly impaired the force of the Confessions as a bond of unity joining together all that profess and love the Reformed truth. The three forms of unity purpose to be a clear expression of the faith of the Reformed churches and as such to serve as a basis upon which those churches can and do unite into a denomination. But is not this basis deprived of all force and stability if Synod possesses the authority at any time to "interpret" the Confessions in the most arbitrary manner, so that the interpretations (?) of Synod declare doctrines that are wholly foreign to the contents and intention of the Standards? If the broadest gathering of the churches may deal with the Confessions so arbitrarily that at any time they may impose upon the churches appendages to the forms of unity, these have been debilitated and rendered impotent to serve as a firm basis of union. Then a few theologians are in position to distort the Confessions as they please, and the churches are placed under the oppressive and accursed yoke of Roman Catholic hierarchy once more!
Deceptive these three points are as alleged interpretations of the Confessions and, therefore, dangerous, because every officebearer is compelled to sign these points by implication, although formally and officially he merely declares conformity with the Standards of the churches. For, according to the Formula of Subscription, he merely pledges himself to be loyal to the three forms of unity that are mentioned by name in that formula. Honesty on the part of the Christian Reformed Churches would require of them to augment also that Formula of Subscription in such a way that the three points of 1924 were clearly mentioned therein. Now, however, under the pretext that the three points are not additions to but interpretations of the Confessions, every officebearer, whether he is conscious of the fact or not, declares himself to be in harmony with the three points as often as he expresses agreement with the Standards of the Reformed churches.
By this practice of self-deception, however, the Christian Reformed Churches cannot effectively relegate the three points to the realm of oblivion. Neither can they prevent them from asserting their influence upon the life and faith of the churches. For, though in the disguise of alleged interpretations of the Confessions, they exist nevertheless as very real appendages to the Standards. And, as we shall see in the following chapters, they are also distortions and corruptions of the Reformed faith. Secretly, and for that reason all the more effectively, they will complete their work of corruption in the churches, till it is too late to save them from drowning in the Arminian waters into which they have been plunged in 1924 by their own Synod. They were immersed while in a state of anesthesia produced by the application of a triple dose of doctrinal morphine, from which, if God does not prevent, they will not be aroused till it will prove too late to swim to the safe shore of Reformed truth.
Finally, let it never be forgotten, that in 1924 faithful officebearers were deposed from their offices as ministers, elders, and deacons in the Christian Reformed Churches, because they could not conscientiously sign the three points and refused to declare themselves in agreement with the declarations of 1924. These officebearers had promised to be loyal to the Reformed Standards, to teach them and defend them against all heresies. And they still are loyal to these Confessions, as no one in the Christian Reformed Churches, be he layman, minister, or theological professor, is able to deny. They were deposed, not because of their non-conformity with Scripture and the Reformed Standards, but solely because they purposed to defend the Standards and keep them pure from foreign elements and heretical influences.
And thus the Christian Reformed Churches themselves are the cause of a serious breach among the brethren and have become the occasion for the organization of a separate denomination on the basis of the three forms of unity without the appendages of 1924.
The three points served as an excuse to commit unrighteousness over against the deposed officebearers. And they have served their purpose well!
And they will very effectively serve their further purpose of destroying the churches.
For, as we hope to see, they are a triple breach in the foundation of Reformed truth!
Only For the Elect
The fact that a certain confession of faith is augmented does not necessarily imply that it is corrupted.
It is self-evident, that in the course of the true, spiritual development of a church, the need may be felt and begin to assert itself for enlargement of the confessions. Such a development and expansion of the confessions of a certain church may take place in entire harmony with the fundamental principles enunciated in the original confessions may even be a decided improvement and purification of them. This is of force, too, with application to the Reformed Standards. When therefore, the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 adopted three declarations of doctrine that are alleged to be mere interpretations of the Confessions but are clearly appendages thereto as we have shown in the first chapter of this booklet, the possibility presents itself that these three declarations, though not embodied in the original Standards, are nevertheless in harmony, in perfect agreement with the fundamental principles of our Reformed Faith as expressed in the three forms of unity.
If this possibility would prove to be a fact, we would still have serious objections against the way of procedure followed by the Christian Reformed Churches in adopting the three points. For, they should certainly have been submitted to the judgment of the Churches in general before they were finally adopted as of the same value and force as the original Standards. But our chief objection, namely, that these appendages are so many corruptions of the Confessions, would be removed.
Hence, it is the purpose of this present chapter to investigate whether or not this possibility is a reality with respect to the first point. That the first point is an augmentation of, an addition to the Standards, we have shown. The question now before us is whether this first appendage is in harmony with the principles of the Standards or whether it must be considered a deviation from the line of Reformed faith.
The appendage adopted in the first point is: God is, in the preaching of the gospel, gracious to all that hear. Or, more briefly, the preaching of the gospel is common grace.
In order to be entirely fair in our judgment, it is proper and expedient that we first of all consider the question: what do the Christian Reformed Churches themselves accept as the meaning of this first appendage?
We must warn the reader, however, that he will be greatly disappointed if he expects to obtain a concise and definite answer to this question from the leaders of the Christian Reformed Church. Their answers are rather ambiguous and evasive. This would not be the case if the first point had been adopted by churches that are avowedly Arminian. Then it would be comparatively easy to obtain an answer to our question. Now, however, it is different. The first point originated in a church-denomination that is professedly Reformed. And the leaders of that denomination most emphatically deny that the doctrine of Arminius is at all embodied in it. They emphasize that the Christian Reformed Churches believe firmly in the doctrine of predestination, in the truth of sovereign election and reprobation, of particular atonement in Christ, and of irresistible and efficacious grace in the application of all the blessings of salvation to the elect only. They plead not guilty to the indictment of Arminianism. They even claim that they fail to understand how we can honestly accuse them of this heresy in as far as they maintain the doctrine expressed in the first point. Writes Prof. L. Berkhof:
The controversy that was carried on had the very usual effect that the very air became impregnated with various false conceptions. Some busy themselves to spread the tale that the three points are three bullets from Arminian canons that shot a terrible breach in our fortifications. The question whether they do so in good faith, we will not discuss. But the fact is, that many good people believe that presentation of the matter, while others, confused thereby, ask the question: what is truth? (De Drie Punten in Alle Deelen Gereformeerd, p.3).
Again he writes:
Our Church stands as firm as ever in the conviction that Christ died with the intention to save only the elect, though she recognizes at the same time the infinite value of the sacrifice of Christ as being sufficient for the sins of the whole world. He who alleges that Synod here seeks to introduce covertly the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement becomes guilty of false representations (Idem, p.8).
It is even emphasized that Synod plainly declared in the first point that the saving grace of God is shown only to the elect unto eternal life.
Is all this not thoroughly Reformed and free from the taint of Arminianism?
We answer affirmatively. What Prof. Berkhof writes in the above citation is undoubtedly Reformed. And the same is true of the first point in as far as it declares that the saving grace of God is bestowed on the elect only.
But let us not be deceived by these declarations of soundness in the truth.
For, the fact is, that the first point reminds one of the two-faced head of Janus. Janus was a Roman idol, distinguished by the remarkable feature of having two faces and looking in two opposite directions. And in this respect there is a marked similarity between old Janus and the first point. The latter is also two-faced and casts wistful looks in opposite directions. And the same may be asserted of the attempts at explanation of the first point that are offered by the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches. Only, while the two faces of old heathen Janus bore a perfect resemblance to each other, the Janus of 1924 has the distinction of showing two totally different faces. One of his faces reminds you of Augustine, Calvin, Gomarus; but the other shows the unmistakable features of Pelagius, Arminius, Episcopius. And your troubles begin when you would inquire of this two-faced oracle, what may be the exact meaning of the first point. For, then this modern Janus begins to revolve, alternately showing you one face and the other, till you hardly know whether you are dealing with Calvin or Arminius.
The quotations cited above from Prof. Berkhof's booklet on the three points show you only one of the faces, the Reformed face of this Janus; and if you inquire of him when he turns this face towards you, he speaks: the saving grace of God is only for the elect unto eternal life and is bestowed on them alone!
But now compare the following from the same booklet: "The general and well-meaning offer of salvation is an evidence of God's favor toward sinners, is a blessing of the Lord upon them" (page 21). Lest we should misunderstand the professor and imagine that he has reference only to elect sinners, he adds in the same paragraph: "Scriptures teach us without doubt, that we must consider the offer of salvation a temporal blessing also for them that do not heed the invitation," that is, therefore, for them that are designated by the Word of God as reprobate ungodly.
To prove this assertion the professor continues on the same page of his booklet: "That God calls the ungodly to repentance is presented in the Holy Scriptures as a proof of His pleasure in their salvation." Of course, this may pass, as long as you demand no further definition of "the ungodly." No one, to be sure, denies that God has pleasure in the salvation of ungodly men. But as soon as you generalize this and say that God has pleasure in the salvation of all the ungodly, that on His part He is willing to save all sinners, you depart from the plain Reformed line of faith and thinking. I am confident that no Reformed man will deny the truth of this statement. And yet, Prof. Berkhof departs exactly in this way from the Reformed truth. Just read on:
In the prophecy of Ezekiel we may listen to the voice of the Lord in words that bear testimony to His mercy: "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways and live?" And again: "For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth (that is, of him that perisheth in his sins), saith the Lord God; wherefore turn yourselves and live ye." These passages tell us as clearly as words can tell, that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; note, that He does not say: "of the elect sinner but "of the sinner" entirely in general; and the tender calling we hear therein witnesses of His great love for sinners and of His pleasure in the salvation of the ungodly (Idem, page 21).
Now, the professor declares in another part of his booklet, that it must be evident for anyone that is able to read Dutch, that the first point is not tainted with Arminianism. But we add that it must also be very clear to anyone who can read Dutch (the professor, the reader will understand, wrote his booklet in that language), that Prof. Berkhof in the above quotation teaches that God's love for sinners is a love to all the ungodly, that on His part He is ready to bestow the grace of Christ upon all sinners. He even emphasizes this, when he adds that the Lord in the prophecy of Ezekiel is not speaking of elect sinners but of sinners entirely in general. And according to the presentation of the professor, this general love of God and desire to save sinners is declared in the gospel. If any other meaning can possibly be elicited from Prof Berkhof's words I will be glad to receive instruction. The entire argument of the professor purposes to show that the grace of God, the love of God for sinners, the pleasure He evinces to save them, does not apply to the elect only, but to all men! If this is not the meaning of his words in the quotations cited, I cannot see that they have any sense at all. And however indignant the professor may appear to be when we accuse him of Arminianism, he certainly proves by his own words that the indictment is well founded.
Other passages in the same booklet are entirely in harmony with his defense of a general love of God for sinners and His pleasure to save them all. Thus he writes on pages 27, 28, commenting on Romans 2:4: "The explanation of this (i.e., of the riches of God's goodness, HH) must be found in the purpose God had in view with this revelation of His love. And what was this purpose? Was it to cast the ungodly Jews more deeply into perdition? No, but to lead them to repentance.... But in the case of the Jews the result does not correspond to the intention. They hardened themselves against this revelation of God's goodness."
I confess, if this is no Arminianism and Pelagianism, then I cannot read Dutch; neither do I understand in opposition to what false doctrine our fathers at Dordrecht formulated the Canons. For, in the last quoted passage from this booklet, the professor teaches that God will lead men to repentance, that men do not want it and harden themselves, and that in this case God's purpose fails, the result does not correspond to God's intention! If this is not a defense of the error of resistible grace, language must be extremely elusive and deceptive. But this presentation of the matter is wholly in harmony with the view of the professor regarding the general love of God toward the ungodly.
The same view is expressed once more in connection with the professor's explanation of the second point on pages 42, 43 of his booklet. He is interpreting Genesis 6:3: "The Holy Spirit resisted the ungodliness and perversity of those generations, that lived before the flood. He sought to check their ungodliness and to lead them to repentance.... But the Spirit strove in vain; sin increased rapidly." I am confident that if before 1924 I should have voiced such opinions from a Christian Reformed pulpit under the auspices of a good Reformed consistory, the latter surely would have refused to shake hands with me as a sign of their approval.
We may, therefore, consider it established that the first point teaches that in the preaching of the gospel God evinces His general love to all the ungodly, His pleasure in their life, and His willingness to save them all.
Besides, according to Prof. Berkhof, the same point also purposes to teach that in the preaching of the gospel there is a temporal blessing for all men, also for them that are not saved. He points to the examples of Ahab, who repented and whose punishment was postponed as a result of the preaching of Elijah; and of Nineveh, that repented upon the preaching of Jonah and was temporarily saved from destruction. This is a minor point and we may dismiss it with a few remarks. First of all, it may be remarked that this presentation of the influence of the gospel upon the reprobate ungodly is certainly not in harmony with our Confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that by nature we daily increase our debt, that God is terribly displeased with our original as well as our actual sins and that He will punish them in His just judgment temporally and eternally. Nor is this contention in harmony with the teaching of the Word of God. Temporal blessings under the preaching of the gospel for the ungodly reprobate? May I remind the professor of the terrible curse that was threatened upon the people of Israel if they refused to walk in the way of Jehovah? Will he read, for instance, Deuteronomy 28? And were not these curses literally carried out upon the ungodly nation?
The professor may remark, perhaps, that these curses were threatened upon the people of Israel under the law, and that they had a typical significance. And I admit it. But are not the examples of the professor taken from the Old Testament? True, judgment, final judgment, was postponed in Ahab's case. But note, please: 1) That this was not under the preaching of the gospel, but under the announcement of most terrible judgment. 2) That this was not a postponement of judgment for one that utterly refused to listen to the Word of God, but for Ahab in as far as he trembled still for God's terrible wrath. 3) That all that took place in his case was, not that he was blessed, but that the final execution of judgment was transferred to the next generation. Ahab's house was not destroyed in his own time. And thus postponement was entirely in harmony with God's righteousness. Final judgment cannot come till the sinner has shown himself to be utterly hard. Ahab still fears and trembles under the announcement of God's judgment. He assumes the appearance of repentance. Hence, that God may appear as perfectly just and righteous when He judges, this final judgment is postponed till the next generation. 4) That Ahab did not personally escape his punishment at all, for he died and the dogs licked his blood. 5) Finally, that all such examples clearly show how desperately the fathers of the three points are in need of some real scriptural proof for their contentions.
Regarding the case of Nineveh, I remark that there is certainly nothing in the Word of God to contradict the view that the men of that city were really converted - not all, but the elect, which God for His own prophetic purpose had in the city at that time. On the contrary, everything is in favor of such an interpretation of what happened in Nineveh. 1) The words of Scripture that describe to us the conversion of the Ninevites, Jonah 3:5-9. 2) The fact that the Lord refers repeatedly to the sign of Jonah the prophet, a sign of Jesus' death and burial, and His leaving of the nation of Israel to turn to the world with the gospel of salvation. Nineveh is, evidently, an old dispensational type of the world from which Christ calls His elect, and gathers His "other sheep, that are not of this fold." 3) The fact that the Savior, in words that leave no doubt as to their meaning, asserts that the men of Nineveh repented upon the preaching of Jonah, while the men of His own generation refused to repent upon the preaching of one much greater than Jonah. Sound interpretation certainly would require us to take the word repentance each time in the same sense. So we would maintain that, at the time of Jonah, the Lord, for His own sovereign purpose, chiefly of creating the prophetic sign of Jonah the prophet, had some of His elect in the city of Nineveh, that these repented through the preaching of Jonah, that for a time the city was spared for their sake, while eventually, not long after, it actually was destroyed.
These brief remarks may suffice to dismiss the minor question of temporal blessings as a result of the preaching of the gospel. Of much greater import is the assertion of Professor Berkhof, as an explanation of the first point, that through the preaching of the gospel God earnestly seeks the salvation of all, not only of the elect and that thus He shows them all grace. For, this is the heart of the question. Is such teaching in harmony with Scripture and with the Confessions of the Reformed churches? Let us consider this question from two different aspects:
1. Is it in conformity with Scripture and the Confessions to teach that in God there is the gracious purpose to save all that hear the gospel?
2. Do Scripture and the Confessions teach that such a graciously seeking operation of God proceeds from Him through the preaching of the gospel upon all that hear?
It ought to be superfluous for any Reformed believer to prove to him, with respect to the first question, that Scripture and the Confessions teach exactly the opposite, viz., that it is God's gracious purpose to save the elect only; that it is also His righteous and sovereign purpose to leave others in their misery unto damnation; and that they who offer a different presentation of this matter seek to instill into people the destructive poison of the Pelagian errors. To substantiate these statements we refer the reader to the following passages from the Confessions:
Canons II, 8:
For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God, the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation and language, all those and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.
The point here is that, according to this article, the Confessions teach very plainly that God has pleasure in the salvation of the elect only; that He purposes to save them and them only; and that He accomplishes that salvation objectively and subjectively for them and in them alone. If the first point of 1924, therefore, must teach that God is earnestly seeking the salvation of all and that He reveals this general grace in the preaching of the gospel to all that hear, it must be evident that it stands in direct conflict with this part of the Confessions.
Further, I call the attention of the reader to Canons I, 15:
What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election, is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but permitting them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at last, for the declaration of His justice to condemn and to punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof.
The well-informed reader will notice that in the above circumscription of reprobation the infra-lapsarian view is maintained. Yet, it is very clearly taught here that there is in God also the righteous and sovereign purpose, for the manifestation of His justice, to leave others in their misery, not to save them, but to condemn them forever and punish them for their sins. This is a direct condemnation of the teaching of the first point as explained by Prof. Berkhof, for that point is interpreted as teaching that there is in God the gracious purpose to save all that hear the preaching of the gospel, and not only the elect, and that this gracious purpose of God is plainly declared in the gospel.
Canons II, B, 6 reject the errors of those:
Who use the difference between meriting and appropriating to the end, that they may instill into the minds of the imprudent and inexperienced this teaching that God, as far as He is concerned, has been minded of applying to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ; but that, while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life, and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception, and that it is not dependent on the special gift of mercy which powerfully works in them, that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace. For these, while they feign that they present this distinction in a sound sense, seek to instill into the people the destructive poison of the Pelagian errors.
Let the reader judge in how far Prof. Berkhof must plead guilty to the indictment that he instills into the minds of the imprudent and inexperienced this destructive poison of the Pelagian errors under the pretext of making a certain distinction in a sound sense. I freely admit that he does not teach, in so many words, that the difference between meriting and appropriating must be explained from the free will of man; but I do maintain that materially he teaches exactly this when he writes that it was God's purpose to save the ungodly Jews but that in their case the result did not correspond to the purpose of God; and when he asserts that it was the purpose of the Holy Spirit to lead men to conversion but that the attempts of the Spirit were frustrated. But it ought to be plain from our citations of the Confessions that the first point, as explained by Prof. Berkhof, stands condemned. According to the Standards we may not present the matter of salvation in such a way as to leave the impression that God is graciously purposing the salvation of all that hear. Yet, this is exactly the teaching of the first point according to Berkhof's interpretation.
The Confession, therefore, condemns unambiguously the conception of Prof. Berkhof as Pelagian and is certainly not in sympathy with the view that God reveals in the preaching of the gospel His gracious purpose to save all the hearers.
And Scripture is no less explicit in its condemnation of this teaching.
In proof of this last statement we may almost quote the Word of God at random. Let us, however, limit ourselves to a few passages which plainly deny that the preaching of the gospel, according to God's intention, is grace to all that hear.
First of all I refer to Isaiah 6:9-13: "And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye, indeed, but understand not; and see ye, indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and convert and be healed. Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate. And the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land. But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten; as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves; so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof."
This passage can stand without comment, for it is perfectly clear. Prof. Berkhof considers it a terrible doctrine that the gospel should be proclaimed merely as a judgment and curse to the ungodly reprobate. And the first point teaches that the preaching of the gospel is always grace according to God's intention. But the cited passage from the prophecy of Isaiah emphasizes, nevertheless, that the gospel is actually preached unto a curse and hardening of the heart of the reprobates, and this according to God's definitely expressed purpose. Isaiah is called to preach the Word of God to the men of his generation, in order that their eyes may be blinded, their ears may be made heavy, their hearts may become fat, and they do not turn and be healed. The chaff must become fully ripe unto rejection through the very preaching of the prophet, in order that the wheat may be saved. The captivity of the people and the destruction of the land and of the city is the end of Isaiah's preaching, in order that he might proclaim salvation and restoration and glory to the remnant according to the election of grace.
Thus also the Savior instructs His disciples according to Mark 4:11, 12: "And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables, that seeing they may see and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them." No one will deny that the parables belong to the preaching of the gospel. Was it the gracious purpose of God by means of these parables to save all? Did He, in these parables, earnestly aver that He purposed to bring all to repentance? The very contrary is true. The Lord plainly teaches that all these things are done in parables for a judgment and condemnation to them that are without.
And these very explicit declarations of the Word of God are not contradicted by the texts to which Synod appeals in support of the teaching of this first point (see Acts of Synod 1924, pp. 126, 127). The passages from Scripture that, according to Synod, substantiate this teaching of the first point, areEzekiel 33:11 and 18:23. The texts are analogous in meaning and are well known, so that it may be considered superfluous to quote them here in full. It is a patent fact, however, that these passages do not speak of the preaching of the gospel at all, as is the case with the texts we quoted above. InEzekiel 33:11 and 18:23 we find an oath of the Lord God. Jehovah swears by Himself, that He hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but therein hath He pleasure that the ungodly or wicked turn and live. There is in these passages surely no offer of salvation, neither do they declare what is the purpose of God with the preaching of the gospel with respect to elect and reprobate. God simply speaks here and swears by Himself. And surely, His word is absolutely true and unchangeable. And the contents of this oath of God are, negatively, that He hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked; and, positively, that He does have pleasure in the conversion and life of the ungodly. It is really unnecessary to add anything more.
The question (although it might even be answered from the context) whether the Lord here refers to the elect or to the reprobate wicked, may be left out of our discussion altogether. God hath pleasure in conversion and life. No one denies this. He hath no pleasure in impenitence and death. On the contrary, He is terribly displeased with the impenitent state of the wicked. No one objects to this. In the same sense that God hath no pleasure in the impenitence of the wicked, He hath no pleasure in his death. Conversion and life are inseparably connected. That it is God's purpose through the preaching of the gospel to bestow the grace of conversion upon all that hear is certainly not implied in the passages. And if Synod imagines that there is a general offer of grace in these passages, it is most certainly mistaken, for there is no offer whatever.
Our first question, therefore, whether through the preaching of the gospel God reveals a gracious purpose to save all that hear, may be considered as settled. From this viewpoint the first declaration of Synod 1924 is in conflict with Scripture and with the Confessions. The first appendage is not in harmony with the fundamental principles of the Reformed Standards.
But we must still consider the second question: Do Scripture and the Confessions teach that through the preaching of the gospel a gracious operation of God proceeds upon all that hear the Word?
Also this question is an important one in connection with the subject we are discussing. It has always been considered Reformed to maintain that the means of grace have no power in and of themselves. They are means of grace only through an operation of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of those that receive them. This is true of both the Word and the Sacraments. Without the gracious operation of the Spirit the Word is not efficacious unto salvation. No grace and no blessing can possibly proceed from that Word as such. In the light of this truth it will be evident that the question we are now considering is closely related to the first point. The latter declares that God, in the general preaching of the gospel or offer of salvation, is gracious to all that hear. The question, therefore, presents itself: but if the operation of the preaching upon the hearts of the hearers depends upon the gracious operation of the Spirit of Christ, is there, then, according to Scripture and the Confessions, such an operation of grace concomitant with the preaching of the gospel upon the hearts of all the hearers? If the Confessions deny this and the Scriptures declare the very opposite is it, then, not evident, that the first point must be considered a product of the vain imaginations of mere men?
The Confessions teach as follows:
Canons III, IV, 11:
But when God accomplishes his good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, he not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruit of good actions.
The point of this passage is that, when it is God's good pleasure to bestow grace upon the sinner and show him His lovingkindness, He not only causes the gospel to be preached externally, but He actually accomplishes the grace He wants to bestow in the hearts of men and thus efficaciously brings them to salvation under the preaching of the gospel. And this He accomplishes only in the elect.
This is emphasized, too, when the Canons reject the errors of those:
Who teach: That the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they - the Remonstrants, HH - understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, viz., the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. And that in this way God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since He applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion. For the experience of all ages and the Scriptures do both testify that this is untrue. "He showeth His Word unto Jacob and His statutes and ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for His ordinances, they have not known them," Ps. 147:19, 20. "Who in the generations gone by suffered all the nations to walk in their own way," Acts 14:16. And: "And they (Paul and his companions) having been forbidden of the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia, and when they were come over against Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit suffered them not," Acts 16:6, 7 (Canons III, IV, B, 5).
The heart of this passage is that the Lord is not ready on His part to reveal Christ to all. Without such a revealing, gracious operation of God the natural man can never more attain to salvation; for he is by nature darkness, and even though he comes into contact with the preaching of the gospel, he cannot receive the grace of God by means of his natural light and gifts. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness comprehendeth it not. But such a revealing operation of God does not proceed with the gospel upon all that hear, but only upon the elect unto eternal life. On this operation, however, all depends. How, then, can the first point maintain that the preaching of the gospel is grace to all the hearers and that God purposes to bestow grace upon every one of them that come into contact with the gospel? It is evident, from whatever point of view one may consider this first of the three declarations of Synod, that it stands in direct conflict with the Standards of the Reformed churches. It can never become an integral part of them.
The Word of God is much more emphatic and explicit on this point. For, it speaks not only of a saving, illuminating, revealing, converting, and quickening operation of God through the preaching of the gospel upon the hearts of men, but no less emphatically of a hiding and hardening operation of God's righteous wrath under and through the preaching of the very same gospel. This may be proven by many texts. The Savior Himself gives thanks to the Father that He, according to His good pleasure, hath hid these things from the wise and the prudent and revealed them unto babes. And the context shows very clearly that He is referring to the actual fruit of His preaching and labors till that moment, particularly in the cities of Chorazin, Betbsaida, and Capernaum. He had preached to them the gospel of the Kingdom. The result had been that the wise and the prudent had rejected it, and the babes had received it with joy. And how does the Lord explain this twofold result of His preaching? Does He say that God had been gracious to all through His preaching, but that the wise had rejected it? On the contrary, the Savior ascends to the heights of God's good pleasure, and explains that His good pleasure was accomplished by God in those that believed not, as well as in those that believed. God had hid these things from the wise and the prudent, though the gospel had been preached to them as well as to the others (Matthew 11:25, 26). John 12:39, 40 teaches explicitly that the wicked Jews could not believe, because God had blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, in order that they should not be converted and healed. Romans 9:18asserts emphatically that God is merciful to whom He wills and that He also hardens whom He wills. And does not the Word of God plainly teach that God also, under the ministry of the Word, gives a spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear (Rom. 11:7-10)? The apostle glories that the ministers of the gospel are at all times a sweet savor of Christ unto God, both in them that are saved and in them that perish, whether they be a savor of life unto life or a savor of death unto death (II Cor. 2:14-16).
But we need not quote more. Scripture is full of similar testimonies. The proof is more than sufficient to show that the first point is an error and that it is surely an evident untruth that it is a mere interpretation of the Confessions. It is neither explicitly taught in the Standards of the Reformed churches, nor implied therein. Nor can its contents be fitted into the whole of the Confessions and become an integral part of them. On the contrary, it is a denial of the truth that has always been maintained by the Reformed churches and embodied in their Standards that the grace of God in and through the preaching of the gospel is for the elect and for them alone.
In conclusion let us recall to our minds the Scriptural and Reformed line of the truth. God, in sovereign mercy, chose His people from before the foundation of the world, unto eternal glory. In their stead and in their behalf He sent His only begotten Son, that He might suffer and die for them vicariously and reconcile them with God. These elect become partakers of the blessings of salvation merited by Christ, and that only through efficacious grace. These He blesses and keeps by the power of His grace, so that they persevere even unto the end and no one may take their crown. On the other hand, God rejected others to become vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. Some of these He also brings under the preaching of the gospel, yea, even within the pale of the historical development of His covenant, not in order to be gracious unto them, but that in and through them sin may become manifest in all its horror and God may be just when He judges. They shall be beaten with double stripes, and it would have been better for them had they never known the way of peace and righteousness (II Pet. 2:20, 21).
The first point of 1924 is an appendage to the Confessions. It stands in glaring contradiction to the fundamental principles of the Reformed faith. And it is well adapted to instill into the minds of the imprudent and inexperienced the destructive poison of the Pelagian errors.
And, although the leaders of the Churches bear the greater sin, all the members of the Christian Reformed Churches are responsible for these three points and in duty bound to reject them as repugnant to sound doctrine!
Continuous Development of Sin
In this chapter it is our purpose to examine the second point, in order to determine whether or not it may be considered to be in conformity with Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.
That the contention is untenable according to which it must be received as a mere interpretation of the Confessions, as the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches maintain; that, on the contrary, also this second point is an addition, an appendage to the Confession, we plainly proved in the first chapter of this booklet. And we formulated the addition as follows: "there is a general operation of grace, of an ethical nature, by the Holy Spirit, by which all men apart from regeneration are improved and reformed to such an extent, that they do not break out in all manner of sin." In no part of the Reformed Confessions do we find a presentation of the truth as expressed in this appendage. Synod, indeed, appealed to Articles 13 and 36 of the Belgic Confession, but without more than a mere semblance of justice.
However, it is not sufficient to prove that this second point is no interpretation of the Confessions.
For, appendages, as we stated before, may themselves be in harmony with the Confessions and, therefore, Reformed. The Reformed Confessions may be so enlarged that they are not at all corrupted. And if it should appear that the second point, though neither expressed nor implied in the Confessions, is nevertheless Reformed in contents, we would have no objection to accepting its declaration of truth, though we would still protest against the way in which it was adopted and imposed upon the Churches.
We now therefore confront the question, in respect to this second point, whether or not this appendage is in harmony with the Word of God and the Reformed Standards. This we propose to investigate in the present chapter.
To realize this purpose it will be necessary, especially with regard to this second addition to the Confession, that we form a correct conception of its real meaning. We must understand clearly what really is the teaching of this second declaration of 1924, before we draw a conclusion as to its being Reformed or un-Reformed.
In order to avoid the very appearance of evil and to intercept a possible accusation that we arbitrarily impose our interpretation upon the second point, we will not confine ourselves to an examination of this declaration as such, but turn to the Christian Reformed Churches for light upon the question: what is the meaning of the second point? No one dare say that this is not fair. Only, as we do so, we meet with disappointment. For, the same ambiguity and duplicity that characterized the explanation the leaders of these Churches offered us of the first point, they also reveal in their interpretation of the second. Once more one is placed before the ever-revolving head of Janus, the two-faced idol of the old Romans. On the one hand, these leaders would maintain the Reformed principle that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil, unless he is regenerated by the Spirit of God; on the other hand, they would make it plain to us that this totally depraved man is after all not wholly corrupt. The result is that their explanations are necessarily ambiguous and two-faced. No man can serve two masters; no man can successfully hold on to two contradictory doctrines.
For proof I refer the reader to the best that is on the market on the three points, the booklet of Prof. L. Berkhof. Notice how, on the one hand, he abhors the Pelagian doctrine that there is any good left in the natural man:
It is really ridiculous that in this connection Arminianism is mentioned. More and more it seems that Arminianism must serve as a bugbear, needlessly to frighten the people. The impression has been created that this second point actually teaches that by common grace man is somewhat improved spiritually. This would, indeed, be Arminian. But it is surely puzzling how anyone can read this in the declaration of synod. For, synod attributes the restraint of sin to the general operations of the Holy Spirit, and these according to Reformed belief, never cause a change in the state of spiritual death of the natural man. They not only fail to quicken him that is spiritually dead, but they do not bring him one step nearer to life. But something must be added to this. Emphatically synod declared, that God restrains sin through the general operations of the Holy Spirit, without renewing the heart. The heart, therefore, is not renewed, in other words, man in this way is not regenerated. This naturally excludes all thought of spiritual improvement. Reformed people do not acknowledge a spiritual improvement preceding regeneration. They must have nothing of the notion of preparatory grace. Yet, without any semblance of proof, it is alleged that synod adopted the doctrine of such a grace. No, the restraint of sin does not bring man one step nearer to life, it only has reference to the maintenance and improvement of our natural life (page 38).
The professor is indignant. And I know not who had the sad courage so to arouse his anger as to present a view of the second point which he considers ridiculous. But I can assure the professor that there is no reason for him to blame us. We always understood quite clearly that the second point does not refer to a spiritual change in the sinner. Spiritual improvement and spiritual good are such as are being wrought in us only through the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we always understood quite well that the second point does not refer to this at all. The good that is supposed to be in natural man is outside of Christ, has nothing to do with regeneration, is not wrought by the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. There is no misunderstanding on our part in this respect at all. In fact, it is our chief objection that the second point teaches a certain goodness in man outside of Christ and apart from the work of regeneration. The professor, therefore, may be appeased. For the rest, however, it is evident that he maintains the Reformed truth of the total depravity of man in the above paragraph.
More emphatically he defends the Reformed view in his description of the natural state of man on page 35. There he even maintains that the second point proceeds from the assumption, is based on the presupposition, that man by nature is wholly corrupt and dead in sin. Writes he:
This point proceeds on the basis of a very definite presupposition, to which we would call the attention first of all. The supposition is that man by nature is wholly corrupt, and that he is dominated by the principle of enmity against God and the neighbor. He is alienated from God in his inmost soul, and, consequently, every act of his, even though it might be outwardly in harmony with certain secondary principles of justice, is corrupt in principle as the act of a rebel. Because of sin disharmony rules in the soul of man, a deep moral corruption has taken hold of his whole life. And this corruption is not dormant; it develops and causes man to proceed from bad to worse.
Now, I would challenge the professor to make clear to us the truth of the statement that the second point presupposes this total depravity of the natural man. The second point speaks of a restraint of sin, of a checking of the process of corruption. But how can the process of corruption be still checked in anything that is already wholly corrupt? Is it of any avail to add salt to a piece of meat that is thoroughly spoiled and rotten? How, then, can corruption be checked in a human nature that is wholly depraved? Surely, the second point cannot rest upon that presupposition.
For the rest, however, from these words of the professor we would obtain the impression that the second point is thoroughly Reformed in doctrine, for it appears to maintain the total depravity of man in strongest terms. We would feel inclined to accept it and give the professor our confidence.
But beware! Janus will presently turn around and show you his other face!
The professor writes on page 37:
In the restraint of sin the general operations of the Holy Spirit are fundamental in importance. (It is deplorable enough, for the maintenance of this second point, that neither Scripture nor the Confession mentions this fundamentally important element! HH). They maintain the glimmerings of natural light, that remain in man since the fall and through which he 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," (which, however, the natural man, even in things natural and civil, wholly pollutes and holds in unrighteousness. Strange that the professor seems so averse to quoting the entire article, Canons III, IV, 4. HR). They cause the seed of external righteousness to bear fruit, but do not implant into the heart the seed of regeneration. This operation of the Spirit is not a creative operation but assumes the character of moral persuasion. It makes man to a certain extent receptive for the truth in as far as it (the truth) still influences him from his own consciousness. It presents motives to the will, impresses his conscience, makes use of inclinations and desires that are present in the soul, and causes the outward good that is still remaining to come to development.
In these words you may see the other face of Janus.
According to the first presentation the natural man is totally corrupt and wholly depraved and entirely dominated by the principle of enmity against God and the neighbor. And the second point was supposed to be based upon this truth of total depravity. But it seems that the professor understood that he cannot do anything with a restraining operation of the Spirit upon a totally depraved nature. Now, evidently, the second point must proceed from an entirely different assumption, from the assumption, namely, that man's nature is not wholly corrupt. Several good elements remained in it since the fall. In that supposedly corrupt nature the professor discovers the following remnants of good
1. A seed of external righteousness.
2. Receptivity for moral persuasion.
3. Receptivity for the truth, which operates upon him from his own consciousness.
4. A will that still may be impressed by good motives, and a conscience that is receptive for good influences.
5. Inclinations and desires of which the Holy Spirit can make use in the restraint of sin. Good inclinations and desires, therefore.
6. A remnant of outward good.
We will not attempt to define all these various terms. But it must be admitted by the professor himself that he does not begin his process of restraining sin and corruption with a nature that is entirely corrupt as at first he tried to make us believe. Undoubtedly he felt that this would prove quite impossible. Corruption in a wholly corrupt nature can no more be checked. If a totally depraved nature cannot somehow be improved and changed, the case is hopeless. The professor now therefore gives a description and evaluation of the natural man rather different from what he first professed to be the true characterization. He improves upon the natural condition of the human nature considerably before he allows his process of restraint to commence. He no more proceeds upon the basis of the presupposition that the natural man is totally corrupt and wholly depraved, but he discovers in man, apart from regeneration, a seed of outward righteousness that may generate and bear fruit, a certain receptivity for the truth and good inclinations, motives, and desires. He finds considerable good in the natural man. With such a nature, with all these remnants of good, these receptivities, inclinations, motives, and desires, the professor can begin his wonders of restraint. And the general operation of the Holy Spirit preserves all this good in the natural man, causes it to develop and bear fruit, and presently you are witness of the magic performance of making a totally depraved sinner do good works!
If we take all these different statements of the professor into consideration, we may reach certain conclusions as to the real meaning and teaching of the second point. They are the following:
1. The general, restraining operations of the Holy Spirit upon natural man are not regenerating, nor conducive to regeneration. The second point itself, apart from any explanation, emphasizes this very plainly. The professor labored under the impression that we misunderstood the second declaration of 1924 and discovered in it the doctrine that the natural man is spiritually improved without regeneration. He will now see that he is mistaken. He may be assured that we never understood the second point as referring to any spiritual good in the natural man, that is, to that good which is the fruit of the Spirit of Christ. We understand very well that the second point attributes to the fallen nature a good that is not of the Spirit of grace. It is this element that constitutes exactly our chief objection against the second point.
2. There remained in man since the fall many good elements, which the professor comprehends under the term "glimmerings of natural light." There is in fallen nature the seed of outward righteousness. (The reader will understand that this is a figurative expression, that may mean almost anything, is very ambiguous and obscure, and would be extremely difficult for the professor to define. For, what is outward righteousness? Is it a mere outward conformity to the law of God, without truth in the inward parts? Is it Phariseeism? If it is, must it be considered corrupt? And what is the seed of this outward righteousness? Where is it to be found? In the heart? Then the outward righteousness is also inward.) There is the remnant of an outward good, there is the conscience; there are the good inclinations and desires and motives; there is the receptivity for the truth - all these remained in man since the fall. They are called the remnants of the image of God in man. And the Holy Spirit appeals to all this good by an operation of moral persuasion.
3. There is such an operation of the Holy Spirit, influencing the nature of every sinner, which is not regenerating, but in the first place restraining, checking the power of corruption in the nature of the sinner and thus preserving the good that is in him. This operation of the Spirit is the efficient cause of the fact that the corruption of sin does not work through, does not totally despoil the nature of the fallen man of all the good that is still left in it. We must understand this point clearly. If through the fall the nature of man had become wholly corrupt, if no good had been left in it, there would have been nothing to preserve and to restrain. The corruption of sin would have finished its work. But now it is different. There is a remnant of his original goodness in the sinner. Also this remnant would soon be corrupted, however, these glimmerings of light would quickly be extinguished by the darkening power of sin, if the general operations of the Holy Spirit did not exert a restraining and preserving influence upon man's depraved nature. Quickly the corrupting influence of sin would have accomplished its work. But there is, according to the first point, such a restraining general operation of the Holy Spirit, through the which this good (this original good which man retained from the first Paradise, and that, therefore, is no spiritual good, no fruit of regenerating grace) is being preserved from total corruption in man. This is meant by the restraint of sin. But this is not all the Holy Spirit accomplishes by this general operation on every man. He does more, according to Prof. Berkhof. He also brings this outward righteousness and outward good to development. He causes the seed of righteousness in him, the remnant of original goodness that is still in him, to bear fruit. He does this by means of moral persuasion. He appeals to the good inclinations and desires present in the soul, He presents to the will good motives, He operates on man's conscience. And thus the seed of righteousness develops and bears fruit. And this fruit is the good which fallen man performs in this present natural and civil life. He does not come to faith. He does not receive eternal life. He does no spiritual good. He is not engrafted into Christ. He really lives the life of Paradise the first, though in a weakened form, a life that is being maintained and quickened by the general operations of the Holy Spirit. Thus the natural man, apart from Christ, can and does perform good works in this world. To a certain extent he lives a good world-life.
Thus, according to the interpretation of Prof. Berkhof, we must understand the meaning of the second point. The professor will admit that we represented his view correctly and clearly. Neither is another interpretation of this point conceivable.
One question remains. How is it to be explained that this original good, this remnant of his original condition in Paradise, remained in man since and through the fall? Professor Berkhof does not answer this question, nor is the answer to be found in the second point. But the answer is supplied by Dr. A. Kuyper, Sr., in his work: De Gemeene Gratie. He explains that such a restraining, checking, preserving operation took place upon the nature of man from the moment of the fall in Paradise. If there had not been such a restraining operation of common grace, immediately after the fall or concomitant with the fall of Adam and Eve, man's nature would have been totally corrupted there and then. Adam would have turned into a sort of a devil, and the earth would have been changed into hell. The life and development of human society would have become an utter impossibility. But the Spirit intervened at once by His restraining grace. He did not permit human nature to become wholly corrupt. He left a seed of his original goodness in man's nature. He stemmed the tide of corruption in man's heart. Man did not become wholly darkness. He did not fully die. Some light was left him. Some life remained in him. And thus it is to be explained that, in things natural and civil, man lives a relatively good world-life, that he strives for truth, justice, and righteousness. He is able to do good in this present life.4
Thus the meaning and implication of the second point will be clearly understood, and is set forth according to the very explanation Prof. Berkhof offers us. He will no longer be able to say that we did not understand the meaning of this second declaration of synod, nor that we represented his view of it incorrectly. By adopting this second point the synod of the Christian Reformed Churches simply raised the Common Grace theory of Dr. A. Kuyper Sr., to a Church-dogma.
And against this view we have several very serious objections on the basis of Scripture and of our Reformed Standards.
First of all we wish to call attention to certain fundamental principles that have been adopted in this second point, and that are in direct conflict with the entire presentation of the truth in the Word of God and with the fundamental line of Reformed thinking. In the first place, it must be observed that this view is contrary to the truth of God's absolute sovereignty, also over the powers of sin and death and corruption. It proceeds from a dualistic conception of God and the world, more particularly of God and the power of darkness. It represents sin and death as powers next to God, to a certain extent independent of Him, powers that can of themselves work corruption. But God checks this power. He, therefore, restrains a power that exists and works outside of and apart from Him. But this is dualism and contrary to the fundamental conception of the Word of God, which always presents God as absolutely sovereign also over the powers of sin and death and corruption. The corruption of the sinner is death, spiritual death. And this death is no power that operates of itself in man's nature, but is God's servant, the execution of God's condemning sentence in man. God inflicts the punishment of death upon the guilty sinner in Paradise. Also death and corruption are powers that can work only through God. But if this is maintained, one can no longer speak of a restraining power of the Spirit, for how could God check a power that operates only by His will and through Him? The theory of a restraining grace is fundamentally a denial of God's absolute sovereignty. It is dualistic.
Secondly, we must remark that this entire conception implies a denial of God's justice. They that maintain this view are wont to emphasize that this light, this remnant of good, this outward righteousness that remained in man since the fall, is unmerited grace of God. It is, therefore, common grace. Very well, but on what basis of God's unchangeable justice does fallen man receive this light and life and goodness, this common grace? In Paradise God threatened: "The day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die." If God did not execute this sentence there and then, if He even prevented it, what becomes of the justice of God? To be sure, when the child of God receives remission of sin, redemption and eternal life, these blessings are, on his part unmerited grace; but it must never be forgotten that they have been merited by Christ. But to what basis of justice can they point who maintain that natural man, outside of Christ, receives blessings of unmerited grace?
Thirdly, it will be very evident that the second point is based on the serious error of a resistible grace. The operation of the Holy Spirit whereby He would restrain sin is not irresistible. For, the fact is that corruption and sin are not actually checked, they make progress and develop continuously. This was evident in the history of the predeluvian world. This becomes very evident in all history, also in the new dispensation; for the entire development of the world tends toward the realization of Antichrist, the final manifestation of the man of sin the son of perdition. If you ask: how is this progress and development of sin possible if the Holy Spirit restrains its corrupting power? they that maintain this view answer: the Holy Spirit finally releases His restraining hold on the sinner and gives him over in unrighteousness. If you ask again: but for what reason does the Holy Spirit give the natural man over in sin? the answer is inevitably: because the sinner resists this restraining operation of the Spirit and goes from bad to worse. The checking power of the Spirit is not efficacious. Man is stronger than God. The Spirit loses the battle with natural man. He is defeated. Or, as Professor Berkhof himself expresses it, literally, "the Spirit strives in vain. He attempts to check the power of sin and lead men to repentance, but He strives in vain, He fails" (The Three Points, etc., p.43). With respect to all these fundamental principles the second point is evidently a deviation from the truth of Scripture and from the line of Reformed thinking.
But there is more.
Our chief objection against the second point as interpreted by Prof. Berkhof and understood by the Christian Reformed Churches is, after all, that it is a denial of the total depravity of the fallen human nature. This second point is related to the third as cause and effect. It opens the way, it creates the possibility for the declaration of the third point. The latter declares that the natural man can do good works, even though it be only in this present life and in the sphere of the natural and civil; the former points to the source of these good works in the good that is left in human nature through common grace. And, in fact, this second point simply teaches that the human nature since the fall is not wholly corrupt and totally depraved; it implies that it would have been totally corrupt if the restraining power of common grace had not intervened. And, therefore, we repeat, the second point is most assuredly a denial of the total depravity of natural man.
Let our opponents show us, if they can, that we are in error. They surely cannot object that we did not interpret the second point correctly, according to its real meaning and implication. We doubt sometimes whether the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches themselves understand the implications of this point. Consider it how you will, the second point always presupposes that some of the original righteousness of Paradise is left in man, some moral integrity remained in him, some element of good, which may be preserved, some love of the neighbor, some receptivity for the truth is still discovered in him. If this is not presupposed there is nothing to keep, to preserve, to check. And for that reason the second point, in which the theory of common grace as expounded by Dr. A. Kuyper, Sr., was fully adopted, implies a denial of the total depravity of fallen man.
Prof. Berkhof and other leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches consider it an insult that we accuse them of Pelagianism. The former complains repeatedly about this injustice over against those that maintain the three points. He even assures his readers somewhat spitefully that such an accusation is ridiculous, and he suggests that we do not make it in good faith. But I openly challenge Prof. Berkhof or anyone else to clear himself of the indictment. To be sure, we frankly admit that this accusation would be unjust if we would maintain that this second point expressly declares that man of himself can attain to salvation and to saving good. This, however, we never asserted. Yet, although this is true, we maintain that the doctrine of Arminius and of Pelagius is in principle adopted in the second point in connection with the first. The latter declares that the grace of God is a matter of a well-meaning offer to all, that the preaching of the gospel is common grace. And that is Arminian. And what is the peculiar tenet of Pelagianism? The denial of total depravity. Man is inherently good. He did not become wholly corrupt, dead in sin and trespasses through the fall; you may call him ill, dangerously sick, if you please, but not dead. Pelagianism must have nothing of the doctrine that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. This is also the peculiar doctrine of the second point.
I admit, there are a few points of distinction between rank Pelagianism and the second declaration of 1924. The former expressly teaches that the natural man can attain of himself to the higher and saving knowledge of God by a proper use of his fundamentally good will; the latter does not teach this in so many words, though the case is left open to suspicion, as will be evident if you consider the first point, which speaks of a general offer of salvation, in connection with the second, which implies a certain receptivity for the truth. But we grant that the second declaration does not expressly maintain that the natural man can attain to spiritual knowledge of God and Christ of himself. The fact remains, however, that it does maintain emphatically that the natural man, by virtue of the good that remains in him from Paradise since the fall, can live to a certain extent a good world-life before God. Pelagianism attributes the good that is left in man since the fall to the character of the fall itself. Through the fall man did not cast himself wholly into darkness and corruption and spiritual death, so that nothing good remains in him. On the contrary, the will of man remained fundamentally intact, good and sound. The second point, however, explains the good that is in man after the fall, from a restraining and preserving operation of the Holy Spirit. The result, however, is principally the same in both cases: man is not wholly corrupt. Pelagianism explains the good that is still found in every man by an individualistic conception of the race; every man stands and falls his own master. It denies original guilt and corruption. The second point, however, explains this good in natural man, in the race, by a continued operation, preserving, and restraining of the Holy Spirit. But the fact remains, that both have this in common, that they postulate a certain goodness in and deny the total depravity of fallen man. The second point is Pelagian in principle.
And, therefore, it is simply untrue, when Prof. Berkhof writes on page 35 of his booklet: "This point proceeds on the basis of a very definite presupposition, to which we would call attention first of all. The supposition is that man by nature is wholly corrupt, and that he is dominated by the principle of enmity against God and the neighbor." This presentation of the matter is simply false. We challenge the professor to substantiate this statement, to make clear how corruption can possibly be checked in a nature that is already wholly depraved. He will find it an impossible task. As we have seen, the professor flatly contradicts this statement when on another page he writes that the seed of outward righteousness, outward good, receptivity of the natural man for the truth, good inclinations and desires, in short, that many good elements remain in man since the fall, of which the Holy Spirit makes use by His general operations. No, the second point is not based on the presupposition which Prof. Berkhof mentions, but on the directly opposite supposition, that the natural man did not become wholly corrupt through the fall. And only on that supposition can there be room for the theory of a general operation of the Spirit by which this good is kept from further and final corruption.
We are now in a position to define more correctly the real significance and implication of this second appendage to the Confession, as follows: "there is a general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby the progress of corruption and sin in the human nature is being checked in such a way that the fallen nature was preserved in Paradise and is constantly being preserved against total depravity." 5
And for this declaration or appendage to the Confession synod offers no item of proof.
The Confession does, indeed, speak of God's absolute sovereignty and control over devils and ungodly men. God always holds the reins. He directs, controls, dominates also the sinner, in such a way that the latter, even in his sinful deeds, can only fulfill God's sovereign counsel. He cannot do as he pleases. He is not independent. The Most High holds him in His power. The Confession, as quoted by the synod, also refers to the sword-power of the magistrates. But nowhere does the Confession suggest a general operation of the Holy Spirit whereby the progress of corruption in human nature is checked. Man is, indeed, constantly bridled by the Most High, mediately and immediately, in all his actions, but he is always wholly corrupt. And it must be considered more than ridiculous when Prof. Berkhof writes on page 37 of his booklet: "The second thought we find expressed in the declarations of synod is that God restrains sin by the general operations of His Spirit. This is not expressed in so many words in our Confessions, but may be easily deduced therefrom." (I underscore the last words, H.H.) Why does not the professor point out to us, how this theory of the general operations of the Spirit may be deduced from the Confessions? Though he considers it an easy matter, he fails to make the deduction for us, though he was well aware of the fact that members of the Synod of 1924 had protested against this very expression! However this may be, we may safely state, without fear of contradiction, that the Confessions contain no shadow of a suggestion that the fallen nature of man is preserved from entire corruption by the general operations of the Spirit.
Neither do the passages from Scripture, to which synod refers, sustain the declaration of the second point. Synod appeals to Genesis 6:3: "And the Lord said, my Spirit shall not always strive with man." The tacit and supposed exegesis of Synod is: "My Spirit shall not always check the progress of corruption in man's nature." But without any sound basis. The exegesis of synod leads to an absurdity, as Berkhof himself shows plainly on page 43 of his booklet. For, the fact is that the Spirit before the flood had not restrained the development of sin at all; the whole race had fast become ripe for destruction. And, secondly, the word "strive" certainly does not mean the same as "check" or "restrain." The simple and self-evident explanation is that the Spirit had striven through the Word, by the mouth of the pre-deluvian saints, with the ungodly generation that lived before the deluge. The result, however, had not been a check upon corruption, but a hardening of the heart and further development of sin. This "strife" of the Spirit would not last forever. The end was approaching. The world would be judged and destroyed in the flood.
Further, synod refers to a triplet of texts (Ps. 81:12, 13; Acts 7:42; Rom. 1:24, 26, 28), all of which teach that God "gives over" the sinner unto all manner of evil and iniquity and corruption. Now, no manner of exegesis can possibly deduce from these passages the doctrine of a general operation of the Holy Spirit whereby the progress of corruption is checked in the fallen human nature. Directly the texts teach exactly the opposite, for "to give over" is the very opposite of "to restrain." Nor do the texts presuppose such a restraint by the Holy Spirit necessarily prior to the "giving over." For, Romans 1teaches very clearly that there is a constant and general manifestation of the wrath of God over all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men who hold the truth under in unrighteousness (verse 18). And this wrath of God over and against the wickedness of men becomes manifest especially in this, that God gives the ungodly over into worse corruption and deeper mire of sin (verses 24, 26, 28). And this wrath of God manifested in the "giving over" of the sinner into more sin and more corruption is revealed throughout all history, from its very beginning, according to the chapter, for it has its reason in the fact that man, knowing God, would not glorify Him as God, neither would be thankful, and this is true from the beginning of history to the present day. Hence, the chapter teaches exactly the opposite of the declaration of synod. The latter declares: that there is a general operation of grace by the Holy Spirit whereby corruption is checked in the nature of man. But the first chapter of Romans teaches: That there is a general operation of wrath, revealed by God from heaven, whereby man is given over from corruption to deeper corruption. Anyone may verify the truth of this explanation by following the reasoning of the apostle Paul in this chapter from verse 18 to the end.
Lastly, the synod refers to II Thessalonians 2:6, 7: "And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way." The tacit assumption of synod, in referring to this passage, is, of course, that "he that letteth" is the Holy Spirit, who restrains sin so that the man of sin cannot yet be revealed. But this explanation is utterly impossible, because Scripture would not write of the Holy Spirit: "until it be taken out of the way." Yet, this refers to the same person as the expression: "he who now letteth." Prof. Berkhof in his booklet forgets to mention this text and offers no explanation. It is my conviction that the apostle had in mind a definite person, known to the Thessalonians, that stood in the way of the full realization of the anti-christian power and kingdom. We know not, neither need we conjecture, who this particular person "who now letteth" was. But this particular person of Paul's time is a type of all those persons and powers and circumstances, that throughout history prevent the realization of the anti-christian kingdom before God's own time. However this may be, it may be regarded as certain that the text does not refer to the Holy Spirit and a general operation whereby He checks the progress of corruption in man's nature.
Other proof synod does not adduce.
Scripture and the Confessions, however, are full of passages that directly contradict the declaration of synod concerning the general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby the progress of corruption is curbed in man's fallen nature.
As far as Scripture is concerned, we already pointed to Romans 1 as teaching the very opposite from the declaration of synod in this point. Furthermore, it constantly declares that the natural man is wholly darkness, corrupt and evil, dead through trespasses and sins. God's evaluation of the natural man is that the imaginations of his heart are evil, only evil continually (Gen. 6:5;9:21).The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did understand and seek God; but He finds none. They are all gone aside, they are altogether become filthy, there is none that doeth good, no not one Ps. 14:2, 3; 53:3, 4). Scripture teaches that, even though the Light shineth in the darkness, the latter does not comprehend it (John 1:5). The Word of God emphatically declares of all men without distinction, that their throat is an open sepulcher; that with their tongues they use deceit; that the poison of asps is under their lips; that their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness and their feet are swift to shed blood (Rom. 3:9-18). It teaches us that the natural mind is enmity against God, that it is not subject to the law of God, neither, indeed, can be (Rom. 8:5-8).It judges that we are by nature dead through trespasses and sins, that in these we also walk, according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:1, 2). It condemns us as being by nature children of wrath as others, that we have our conversation in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (Eph. 2:3). It emphasizes that by nature our understanding is darkened; that we are alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in us because of the blindness of our hearts; that we are given over unto lasciviousness and work all uncleanness with greediness Eph. 4:18, 19). It declares that by nature we are darkness, and that it is a shame even to mention the things that are done by us in secret (Eph. 5:8, 12). It teaches us that we are foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another (Tit. 3:3). It does not speak of a general operation of the Holy Spirit whereby sin is checked in its progress of corruption, but of an operation of wrath from heaven whereby it is developed (Rom. 1:18-22). And it finally calls out loudly, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still," for the righteousness of God must be manifest over all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, and sin must become fully revealed as sin indeed, that God may be just and every mouth be stopped (Rev. 22:11)!
But why quote more? Scripture always bears the same testimony. And who does not know it? Who does not feel that it is not the testimony of the Word of God but of mere human philosophy, that speaks of a certain goodness of the natural man through the general operations of the Holy Spirit?
And do the Confessions ever speak a different language?
The very contrary is true.
They emphasize that in Paradise our nature has become so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin; and of this corruption it is said that it is so great that we are incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil (Heidelberg Catechism, questions 7, 8). They describe this corruption of our nature as "blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment" and picture the fallen man as "wicked, rebellious, and obdurate of heart and will, and impure in all his affections" (Canons III, IV, 1). Of the race they say that it is "a corrupt stock" producing a "corrupt offspring." And of this corrupt offspring they further say that 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 III, IV, 2, 3). It is true, that there remain in man the glimmerings of natural light, but even this natural light is so corrupted by sin that he wholly pollutes it and holds it under in unrighteousness, even in things natural and civil (Canons III, W, 4). He retained, indeed, a few remains of his natural gifts, but this does not alter the fact that all the light that is in him is darkness (Belgic Confession XIV). But why multiply these quotations? It is a generally acknowledged fact that the Reformed Confessions emphasize the total depravity of the human nature. And nowhere do they even suggest any improvement or reformation of this nature by a general operation of the Spirit.
We maintain, therefore, over against the second point, on the basis of the Word of God and our Confessions, that in Paradise our nature became wholly corrupt and depraved, so that there is no remnant at all of his original goodness or righteousness, internal or external. We understand, indeed, that his nature was not destroyed, that he remained a rational moral creature, and that, therefore, he retained a remnant of his original gifts from a purely natural point of view. He was not changed into another creature. He is still a being with mind and will. But in this nature, in this mind and will of the natural, fallen man, all is perverse from an ethical-spiritual viewpoint. His knowledge is changed into darkness, so that he believes the lie; his righteousness is changed into unrighteousness; his holiness into corruption. His whole nature is subjected to the rule and power of sin, which is enmity against God. There was no check upon this corruption. His nature is exactly as corrupt as it could become.
We maintain, in the second place, that the corruption and sinfulness of this fallen nature comes to manifestation in all its horror of darkness in the actual sins of every man, but only in keeping with the organic development of the human race. According as the race develops and life becomes more complex and gives rise to more and various relationships, sin also reveals itself as corrupting the whole of life in all its phases and relations, and the depravity of human nature comes to fuller manifestation. The root sin of Adam bears fruit in all the actual sins of the whole race, until the measure of iniquity shall be filled. There is no check upon the corruption of the human nature, nor is the organic development of sin restrained in history.
In the third place, it must not be overlooked that this organic development of sin is limited by various factors and influences. It is subject to the all-dominating rule of God, who, indeed, gives men over in unrighteousness and punishes sin with sin in His righteous judgment, but who so directs the development of the sinful world that His counsel is fulfilled. It is limited and determined by various gifts and talents, by disposition and character, by times and circumstances. All men do not commit the same sins; everyone sins according to his place in the organism of the race and in history. The sin of apostate Jerusalem is greater than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is determined by various, often contradictory motives in the deceitful heart of the sinner, such as fear of punishment, shame, ambition, vainglory, natural love, carnal lusts, love of money, jealousy, envy, malice, vengeance. These various motives are often in conflict with one another, but they remain sinful nevertheless, even though one sinful desire or motive will often prevent the sinner from satisfying another. It is directed in certain channels by the different forms of life and social institutions, the home and the family, the economic system, the state, and even the church. But in all these channels and under all these determining and directing influences and factors, the current of sin moves irresistibly and uninterruptedly onward, never stemmed or restrained, constantly emptying itself into the measure of iniquity determined by the Most High, till that measure shall be filled. Then may the judgment come, and the lovers of iniquity be eternally condemned to perish under God's righteous wrath. And only when we are regenerated by the Spirit of God are we delivered from this awful power of sin and restored to God's favor, that we might be holy and without blemish before Him in love!
Perverse In All His Ways
In the first chapter of this booklet we found that the appendage to the Confessions contained in the third point of 1924 may be briefly expressed as follows: that natural man is able to do good in things civil by virtue of an influence of God upon him which is not regenerative."
There is a very close relation between this declaration and the two that precede. Point I lays the foundation of all three declarations. It postulates a general operation of grace in the hearts of all men, a gracious attitude of God toward elect and reprobate alike, becoming especially manifest in the promiscuous preaching of the gospel. Point II further develops and applies this general or common grace as consisting in an operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby man's nature is guarded against total corruption, remnants of good remain in him from Paradise, a seed of outward righteousness is preserved in his fallen nature; and whereby this seed of righteousness also germinates and bears fruit. It was to be expected that these two declarations should be followed by a third, in which it is definitely expressed that the natural man, under this influence of the Holy Spirit upon him, actually performs good works in this present world, in the domain of things natural and civil.
Because of this intimate relation between the three points, and considering the conclusions we reached with respect to the first and second of these synodical declarations, we naturally do not expect that our investigation of the doctrinal contents of the third point will lead us to the conclusion that it is Reformed. If the first two points cannot be regarded as in harmony with Scripture and the Confessions, it follows from the inseparable connection between these and the third point that the latter cannot possibly be in accord with Reformed truth. Nevertheless, we will also test the truth of this last of the three appendages separately. It will bring out all the more clearly how untenable is the position of those that would maintain the Reformed doctrine of total depravity as taught in our Confessions, and at the same time hold that natural man is able to do good.
Let us, then, first of all inquire of the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches what, according to their own interpretation, is the implication of the third point.
Especially with respect to this third point it is extremely difficult to obtain a definite answer to the question: what is the correct interpretation of this declaration of synod? Again you meet with Janus, the old Roman two-faced idol. But this time, especially if you inquire of this strange oracle what good it is that natural men do, he begins to spin around so swiftly that you get the impression that he must be ashamed of both of his faces, the Reformed and the Pelagian. You see, the Reformed Confessions teach in very clear and concise language that the natural man is wholly incapable of doing any good. Still more. They even declare that he corrupts and pollutes entirely his natural light and holds it in unrighteousness, even in things natural and civil. But the third point declares the very opposite, viz., that through an influence of God upon him the natural man is able to do civil good. No wonder Janus blushes and is wholly embarrassed and begins to revolve so swiftly that you can distinguish neither face clearly anymore.
Let me give you a few illustrations of this.
I am quoting from the Court Record of Kent County's Circuit Court. Dr. Beets is in the witness-chair and is answering in direct examination as follows:
Question. It is the claim of Herman Hoeksema, and he so states on the stand, that he does not agree with these three points, and as to the third point he says: "The question is simply whether natural man also in performing that civic righteousness is performing good before God, or whether he sins. That is the question. And then I maintain, whatever the natural man may do, no matter what he may do, as long as he assumes the attitude of hatred over against his God and does not love his God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, as long as that love of God is not the deepest motive of all he does - that is sin before God, no matter what he does, absolutely." Would you say that that is Reformed doctrine?
Answer. We distinguish between different kinds of good, sir.
Q. Well, I ask you whether or not you would say that is Reformed doctrine?
A. I would not assent to all his qualifications, no, sir.
Q. Why is it not Reformed doctrine, that which I have read?
A. Because he goes too far in some of the statements, not sufficiently differentiating.
Q. Is it the Reformed doctrine that the unregenerate, no matter what he does, that is sin before God?
A. I was going to...
Q. No, just follow that question.
A. Why will you not allow me to state?...
Q. Well, I will later on, but can that be answered? Maybe I did not make myself sufficiently clear.
A. Well, not all questions can be answered by just yes or no, sir. I should like to qualify.
From this part of the examination it is perfectly clear that Dr. Beets refused to give an unqualified answer to the question: do the unregenerate always sin? The question was a very definite one. There is nothing in the question itself why it should not be answered by either yes or no. In fact, there is no third way of answering it conceivable. Not to answer the question by yes or no is simply evading the issue. And this is exactly what Dr. Beets did.
Then, Dr. Beets having explained to the Court that we distinguish between four kinds of good - natural, civil, moral, and spiritual - the examination continued as follows:
Q. But on the first three points, if an unregenerate man does do those first three points that you have mentioned, whether or not that is sin?
A. I have told you that the doctrine of the Reformed Churches is that we can do natural good, civic good or civil good, and moral or ecclesiastical.
Still, the reader will notice, Dr. Beets tries to avoid the question whether the unregenerate man always sins. But the attorney persists. He was surely convinced that such a medieval doctrine of total depravity as would hold that the man of the world could never do anything but sin was not the doctrine of the Reformed churches. Hence, he still pursues the subject:
Q. Well, who can do that?
A. Through common grace we all can do these things.
Q. Whether they are saved or unsaved?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. That means that the unregenerate can do these things and not be guilty of sin?
A. Of course, all our good, even our natural and civic and moral and ecclesiastical good, is all tainted with sin before a holy God.
Q. But can the unregenerate do good?
A. That is what our church teaches, sir, civic good.
Q. Civic good?
A. Yes, sir.
Still the lawyer is not satisfied, and no wonder. He wanted an answer to the question: do the unregenerate always sin? And he feels that he did not receive it, no matter how he urged his witness. Hence, he presses on:
Q. And would you say that the claim of Herman Hoeksema, as I have read it here, is in conflict with that which synod laid down?
A. I said a while ago that I would not accept all of his qualifications. His statement has been rather sweeping.
Q. That is, he maintains that whatever the natural man may do, no matter what he may do, as long as he assumes an attitude of hatred over against God, as long as he does not love his God will all his heart and mind and soul and strength, as long as that love of God is not the deepest motive of all he does, that is sin before God, no matter what he does, absolutely. Would you say that that is ... that you would agree with that?
A. What does absolutely mean, sir?
Q. Well, I don't know; I am using his language.
A. I thought I had been plain enough in stating that I do not accept all his qualifications.
From which it will be perfectly evident that Dr. Beets still had not answered the question whether all the unregenerate do is sin before God. I will trouble Dr. Beets no more for an answer to our question as to the real and exact meaning of the third point. Only, the above bit of conversation is too interesting to allow it to be relegated to oblivion.
Let us interrogate Prof. Berkhof on this point and try to obtain an answer to our question from his booklet on the three points.
Question 1. According to your conception, professor, is the natural man wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil?
Answer. Indeed, he is; "the natural man is wholly incapable to do what is truly good. For, this always proceeds from the root of faith and of love to God, is not merely external but in its deepest motives in accord with the law of God, and finds its ultimate aim in the glory of God. It is good in the full sense of the word. And because man by nature is dead in sin and trespasses he is not able to perform it" (p.50).
This is not bad. We may probably feel somewhat suspicious because the professor speaks of "what is truly good," as if one could also speak of "what is falsely good"; and because he modifies the idea of "the good" by the phrase "in the full sense of the word," as if a "good in the half sense of the word" were conceivable too. And, therefore, we remain on our guard. However, the professor here certainly maintains the truth that the natural man is of himself and by nature incapable of doing good.
Question 2. But is this natural man, who is dead in sins and trespasses and incapable of doing what is truly good, able to do what is good before God in the sphere of things civil, in the different spheres of natural life?
Answer. Indeed, he is; for "in a positive sense synod declared that the unregenerated is capable of performing civil righteousness or civil good" (p.50).
Question 3. Would you be able to define this good which a totally depraved man is able to do?
Answer. "It is not easy to define the good the unregenerate man can do. His works may be called good, (a) in a subjective sense, in as far as they are the fruit of inclinations and affections touching the mutual relations of men, which are themselves relatively good, and by virtue of the remnants of the image of God that are still operating in man; and (b) in an objective sense, if they in regard to the matter as such are works prescribed by the law, and in the sphere of social life correspond to a purpose that is well-pleasing to God" (pages 50, 51).
Question 4. But if you attribute to the natural man works that have their source in good inclinations and affections that are, moreover, in harmony with the law of God and for a purpose that is acceptable to God, do you, then, not after all deny the total depravity of the human nature? Answer. By no means; for, "while we acknowledge this civil good, it is not denied that this relative good is, at the same time, sinful, if we consider it from another point of view. It is not a good in the full sense of the word, but only relative good. It resembles somewhat the withered fruit one may find sometimes on a tree or shrub that is cut off from its root.... Even the best works of the ungodly are, from a formal point of view, and with respect to the manner in which they are performed, entirely sinful.... At the same time it is good in a relative sense. The mere assertion that all the works of the unregenerate are sinful, without any qualification, fails to distinguish properly, contains only a partial truth and is characterized by an absolutism, that is condemned by the analogy of Scripture, by our Confessions and by Reformed theology" (p.53).
Question 5. But, professor, do you want to teach us, then, that sin can be relatively good and that the good can be relatively sinful? Are you, in this way, not undermining the very foundations of all ethics and morality?
Answer. "We must bear in mind that synod did not give us any definition of this civil good; and, therefore, she cannot be held responsible for any definition or qualification. She only declared that the unregenerate is capable of performing civil righteousness" (p. 52).
Question 6. Very well, professor, but you certainly do interpret this third point. And according to you this civil good is a sinful good or a good sin. Would you be able to explain to us how the natural man performs this sinful good?
Answer. It appears from the declaration of synod, "that she explains this civil good from an influence God exerts upon man without renewing the heart. If man were left to himself he would not be able even to perform this civil good. It must be attributed to the bridle by which God governs man, and to the general operations of the Holy Spirit upon intellect, will, and conscience. For this reason this natural good does not entitle man to any claim of reward" (p. 52).
Question 7. But, professor, would you ascribe this withered fruit of a sinful good or a good sin to an operation of the Holy Spirit improving man?
Answer. I insist "the civil righteousness cannot be denied, unless one closes his eyes to the reality of life; and Reformed people find the explanation of this in a working of God's common grace" (p. 53).
It is evident that we gain nothing if we allow Janus to keep on spinning around. If you say that the unregenerate do nothing but sin, the reply is: "you are altogether too absolute, for the natural man does perform the good in things civil." If, again, you conclude: then man is not wholly depraved, the answer comes: "he is, for also this good is sin." Do we, then, not become hopelessly entangled in a network of contradictions? We will, therefore, do well that we force Janus to come to a dead stop and show us only the face that is portrayed in the third point, in order that we may determine whether or not its features are in harmony with Reformed lines as drawn in Scripture and the Confessions.
What, then, does the third point imply? We may find the following tenets:
1. The natural man is incapable of performing saving good. He can do no spiritual good, i.e., he cannot attain to those works which the regenerate perform through the Spirit of Christ. Of himself he cannot come to conversion, he cannot love God, he cannot in all things aim at the glory of God. This is clearly expressed in the third point. Saving good he is incapable of performing. God does not renew his heart.
2. However, this natural man performs many good works in the domain of this present life. Many things does he do in the domain of family life, social life, and political life that are really good before God, morally if not spiritually good. In fact, by the good he does, the child of God is often put to shame.
3. This good, however, does not properly proceed from the depraved man as such. Were he left to himself he would not be able even to perform this civil righteousness. It does not proceed from the heart as its deepest source. The good works of the ungodly are not fruits of his own corrupt nature. And, therefore, the natural man, who does this good, has really no part with his own works; he has no right to any reward.
4. Properly this good is the work of the Holy Spirit, the fruit of an influence brought to bear upon the natural man by God. He so influences the corrupt nature that in the case of the natural, unregenerated man, the evil tree brings forth good fruit. The Spirit does not penetrate to the heart of this natural man who brings forth fruits of good works in the domain of things civil, and yet He so improves the nature, the mind, the will, the conscience, He so directs the thoughts, the desires, the affections, and inclinations of the ungodly, that, with a heart that stands opposed to God and is filled with enmity against Him, he nevertheless lives according to the law of God and pursues after purposes that are pleasing to Him. The Spirit forces, compels the operations of that wicked nature in the right direction as the helmsman forces a vessel even against the wind. And thus the natural man, in whom by the restraining power of the Holy Spirit much good remained from Paradise, and who is constantly preserved by the same operations of the Spirit, finally, by this morally and ethically compelling influence of the Spirit, also comes to the performance of actual good works, even though only in the domain of things natural and civil. He lives a good world-life before God. He does not sin necessarily in his walk of life. He performs much good that is really good before God. Like the good works of the elect his deeds are tainted with sin, but they are good nevertheless. Through the magic influence of common grace the corrupt tree bringeth forth good fruit. Regeneration is a wonder; common grace is magical. The same fountain bringeth forth sweet and bitter water!
And thus the world of darkness is changed into light. It is full of men that are as to their nature totally depraved, but that are actually good. In actual, practical life you find no men that are totally corrupt. The difference between the righteous and the ungodly is, as far as this life is concerned, completely obliterated.
How emphatically our opponents mean to maintain that the natural man is really able to do good before God by virtue of this compulsory influence of the Holy Spirit will be all the more evident from a comparison between this doctrine of the synod of 1924 and the views we expressed on this subject before said synod held its sessions. We had written as follows: "And what, then, is civil righteousness? According to our view, the natural man discerns the relationships, laws, rules of life and fellowship, etc., as they are ordained by God. He sees their propriety and utility. And he adapts himself to them for his own sake. If in this attempt he succeeds, the result is an act that shows an outward and formal resemblance to the laws of God. Then we have civil righteousness, a regard for virtue and external deportment. And if this attempt fails, as is frequently the case, civil righteousness disappears and the result is exactly the opposite. His fundamental error, however, is that he does not seek after God, nor aim at Him and His glory, even in this regard for virtue and external deportment. On the contrary, he seeks himself, both individually and in fellowship with other sinners and with the whole world, and it is his purpose to maintain himself even in his sin over against God. And this is sin. And in reality his work also has evil effects upon himself and his fellow creatures. For, his actions with relation to men and his fellow-creatures are performed according to the same rule and with similar results. And thus it happens, that sin develops constantly and corruption increases, while still there remains a formal adaptation to the laws ordained of God for the present life. Yet, the natural man never attains to any ethical good. That is our view (Langs Zuivere Banen, pp. 72, 73).
This we wrote before the synod of 1924. Synod was acquainted with this fact. She condemned our view and substituted her own as expressed in the third point. And because of our view of this so-called civil righteousness she expelled us from the Christian Reformed Churches (in 1926 the synod approved of the action of Classis Grand Rapids East). This proves clearly how strongly the Christian Reformed Churches mean to emphasize that the natural man does not always sin in all his ways, but is really able to do what is good before God in the sphere of this present life by virtue of the influence of God's common grace.
Against this view we have many objections of a general doctrinal nature.
First of all it may be observed that this view certainly lowers the moral, ethical standard of life, of what is good and evil. The attempt to maintain, on the one hand, that man is wholly depraved and, on the other, that he is able to perform good works leads to the view that good may be evil and evil may be good at the same time. It leads to the conception of the relativity of good and evil. Prof. Berkhof speaks of a good that is at the same time sinful and of sin that is relatively good. He speaks of good in the full sense of the word and "what is truly good," implying naturally that an ethical act may also be half good and half evil. And he even considers the view that maintains that the natural man can only sin, an absolutism that is to be condemned. I consider this introduction of the notion of relativity into the sphere of ethics and morality positively pernicious, and the evil effects of this view are observed but too plainly in the actual life of the people of God in the world. All lines of distinction are being obliterated on the basis of this philosophy. A sphere of transition, a common sphere of life, is created by it, a domain where the righteous and the ungodly have fellowship with one another and live the same life. And a very superficial conception is formed by this philosophy of relative good and evil, of what is good before God. True consciousness of sin is well-nigh impossible in the light of this conception, and the true fear of the Lord is rooted out.
When one considers this view in its real and fundamental tendencies, one cannot help but shudder with horror and fear for the future of a church that follows in its direction. It is exactly the view which Berkhof condemns as characterized by absolutism, that Scripture everywhere upholds as the truth. Something is good or it is evil, nto relatively, but absolutely. Sin is unrighteousness. Good is that which proceeds from faith, is performed according to the law of God, and aims at the glorification of His Name. All the rest is sin. Light and darkness are not relative conceptions. God is the only criterion for what is good. And He is the Absolute. Only that which is in harmony with His will is good, not relatively but absolutely. Such is the testamony of Scripture. But the third point lowers the ethical standard of life, amalgamates light and darkness, causes the Church to be swallowed up by the world. It is detrimental to the fear of God in life. And the effects of this common-grace theory are already plainly visible in the life of the church.
Secondly, in as far as this good that is performed by the ungodly is ascribed to an operation of the Holy Spirit upon the natural man, it is both deterministic and an attack upon the very holiness of God. It is the latter, for what else is it than an attack upon the very holiness of God, when this sinful good of the natural man, this withered fruit of the uprooted tree, is presented as the effect of an operation of the Holy Spirit? Yet that the good works of the natural man are not his own but are the fruits of the operation of the Holy Spirit is emphatically declared. Man of himself is dead in trespasses and sins; he is like a tree that is cut off from its root; he is certainly incapable of bearing good fruit. And, therefore, the good he does do proceeds not from his own heart, but from the Holy Spirit, who brings forth good fruit from an evil tree. These fruits, however, which are the direct result of the operation of the operation of the Spirit of God, are not rooted in the love of God but in the love of self; they do not aim at God's glory, but at the maintenance of sinful man overagainst God. Prof. Berkhof himself admits this. Yet, the Holy Spirit produces these fruits! He is really their sole author!
Surely, from this viewpoint the third point is a denial of, let me rather say, an attack upon, the holiness of God. But it is also deterministic in the strict sense of the word. For this operation of the Spirit, compelling the natural man to do good, literally destroys his moral nature and makes him a mere tool in the power of the Spirit. Remember that by this operation of the Holy Spirit the natural man is not renewed. His heart is not changed. He is supposed to remain wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. Even his supposedly good works are not from his own heart. He does not purpose to do good. He does not love the good, but he hates it. He really does not do the good, but the Holy Spirit does it. His acts are not his own. Prof. Berkhof does not bring out this aspect of the theory as does Dr. A. Kuyper in his De Gemeene Gratie. The latter expresses it literally and emphatically that the Ego proper of the natural man is not involved in his good works at all. With him the natural man is exactly like the ship that is directed by the will of the steersman, that is, he is ethically dead, he is no moral agent at all. And that this is also the view of Prof. Berkhof one realizes when the latter writes: "therefore (i.e., because this good of the natural man must be attributed to an influence of God upon him), this natural good does not give to man any claim of reward." He is not rewarded for his good works. But this conception is possible only if we proceed from the assumption that the natural man is really not the ethical subject of his own good works. The Holy Spirit compels him, determines him and his works. Hence, he has no reward, but with all his good works he is cast into eternal perdition!
And this constitutes our third objection. The conception of the third point is positively immoral and an attack upon the righteousness and justice of God, a perversion of the moral order, when it teaches that the natural man performs good works that are never rewarded. God is just. And the justice of God implies and demands that He punishes the evil and rewards the good. He that denies this or tampers with it, simply subverts the moral order. Yet, to defend the third point and the theory of common grace this becomes necessary. The natural man performs much good. This is emphasized. He often surpasses the child of God in good works and puts the latter to shame. Judged by the standard of the third point and the theory of common grace it ought not to be difficult to discover men in this world who do nothing but good all their life They commit no gross sins; they live temperately and chastely; they even sacrifice themselves for the well-being of the world and humanity. Judged in the light of the common grace theory, such people actually do nothing but good throughout their whole life. Their walk in the world is good before God. The Lord stamps their work as good. It is even a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Yet, these men do not receive any reward for all their good works. When they have spent their whole life in doing good, they are cast into eternal perdition! Where, then, is the justice of God? Is God changeable? Does He approve the works of the ungodly in this life in order to condemn them as corrupt in the day of judgment? In this way the righteousness of God is attacked and denied and the moral order of the world is subverted. For, what is good before God is good forever and must surely be rewarded with good!
Yet, our chief objection against this entire theory is, after all, that it is fundamentally Pelagian. It is really a denial of the total depravity of man. For, when we set aside all sophistical reasonings and hopeless attempts to show how a totally depraved man is able to do good works and a wholly corrupt tree may still bring forth good fruit, the bare fact remains that by this theory man, as he actually reveals himself in this world, is not totally depraved and wholly corrupt. The real view of this third point, in connection with the second, may be briefly and correctly expressed by saying that man would have been wholly depraved and incapable of doing any good, if there were no influence of common grace. Now, however, he is not wholly corrupt. One may, then, still maintain that this view is not Pelagian because it clearly teaches that the natural man is incapable of doing any spiritual good; but the fact remains, that according to this theory he lives a good world-life before God, just as good as that of the unregenerate, if not better. The antithesis is obliterated and the chasm between the church and the world is removed, and the former is justified in making common cause with the latter in the things of this present life. Even as in principle the first point denies the truth that grace is particular, so the last two points deny the Reformed truth that man by nature is wholly depraved, incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. And it is only by a good deal of sophistry that this real implication of the third point can be denied.
That there is no basis for this view in the Confessions of the Reformed churches, not even in the few citations made by synod, we clearly showed in the first chapter of this booklet. The Confessions make mention of remnants of natural good, but never do they speak of an influence of God upon the natural man whereby he is improved or reformed. The Confessions teach that by virtue of this natural light man retained some knowledge of God and of natural things, of the difference between good and evil; but never do the Confessions state, or even suggest by implication, that the natural man actually performs the good. The Confessions declare that, by virtue of this natural light, fallen man shows some regard for virtue and for an orderly external deportment (aliquod virtutis ac disciplinae externae studium ostendit) but nowhere do the Confessions express or imply that he can do good works. And with regard to this so-called civil righteousness it may be observed not only that the term does not occur in the Reformed Confessions, but even that they deny the very idea. This is evident as soon as the same article that is quoted only partly by synod is read in its entirety. For it declares that the natural man is incapable of using this natural light aright even in things natural and civil (Ut ne quidem eo in naturalibus ac civilibus recte utatur),nay further, that in various ways man renders this light, such as it is, wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness (quinimo qua lecumque id demum sit, id totum variis modis contaminet, atque in injustitia detineat).
The Confessions do not teach that there is an influence of God upon man whereby an orderly deportment is maintained in public life, but that the magistrates and the power of the police are necessary for this purpose (Art. 36). The Confessions declare plainly that all the light that is within us, even the natural light, is darkness ethically and spiritually (Art. 14). The Confessions declare without qualification that the unregenerated man is wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil (Heid. Cat., Q. 8). And not a single passage of the forms of unity can be adduced in proof of the contention that there is an influence of God, an operation of the Holy Spirit, improving the sinner, outside of the work of regeneration. And I openly challenge Prof. Berkhof or anyone to point out where the Confessions do speak of such operations.
Much less does Scripture support such a theory. Synod places itself in a pitiable position by its alleged proofs from Scripture to support this third point. First of all, she discovered in Scripture three examples of men that were unregenerated and of which Scripture declares that they did what was right in the sight of the Lord. The three examples are those of Jehu, the general who became king of Israel, and of Jehoash and Amaziah, kings of Judah. Of Jehu we read that the good he did consisted in the extermination of the entire house of Ahab, as God had commanded him. We read that he did well in executing God's commandment in this respect. But at the same time we read that Jehu did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam and that he did not walk, and took no heed to walk, in the law of the Lord with all his heart (II Kings 10:29, 30). And his extermination of the house of Ahab is later reckoned as bloodguiltiness that will be avenged upon the house of Jehu (Hos. 1:4). What, then, was the case? Did Jehu, in exterminating Ahab's house, perform any moral or ethical good before the Lord? And did he perform this moral or ethical good under an influence of the Holy Spirit? Was his sinful nature somewhat reformed or improved before he could enter upon the task of exterminating Ahab's house? Not at all! The very contrary is true. Jehu did not care about Jehovah and His service. This is evident from the fact that he did not depart form the ways and the sins of Jeroboam. His motive in executing the command of God to exterminate Ahab's house was radically different. Jehu was ambitious. Love of power and glory, a desire for distinction and superiority, controlled him. And the command of Jehovah to destroy the house of Ahab was for him the way to realize his ambition. The hope of the royal crown inspired him. And Jehu's natural ability matched his ambition. Hence, we need not be surprised that he did well, that is, that he thoroughly and quickly executed the command of the Lord. But there was no positive ethical value in all his work. From an ethical viewpoint, no matter how well he executed Jehovah's word, his work was sinful, rooted in love of self and aiming at his own glory and the realization of his ambition. A special operation of the Holy Spirit in Jehu's heart to restrain sin certainly was wholly unnecessary for this purpose, and Scripture does not speak of it with even a word.
Nor do we read of such an operation of common grace in connection with the cases of Jehoash and Amaziah. In both cases the kings adapted themselves outwardly to the law of the Lord as far as their reign was concerned. They showed a regard for an orderly external deportment in ruling over their people. In the case of Jehoash we are told distinctly that the king did right in the sight of the Lord as long as he was under the influence of the powerful personality of Jehoiada the priest. But in neither of these cases do we read, nor is it at all implied or suggested, that there was an operation of the Spirit upon these kings, an influence of God improving their sinful nature and causing the evil tree to bring forth good fruit.
Besides, the very fact that synod refers to these examples shows sufficiently how hopeless is the case of the third point. Does it not teach that there is such an influence of God upon all men, whereby they are able to do civil good? Granted, then, merely for the sake of argument that the illustrations of Jehoash and Amaziah suggest such an operation of common grace, where is the proof for a similar working of the Spirit upon all the other wicked kings of Israel and Judah? The operation of the Spirit of which synod speaks does not appear very common or general. But all these and similar illustrations simply show that fallen man by his natural light, without any operation of common grace and while remaining wholly sinful in all his deeds and perverse in all his ways, may show, for various reasons and from different motives that are always sinful, some regard for an orderly external deportment and may adapt himself in his outward life to the law of God.
Synod also refers to some direct expressions in Holy Writ that are supposed to teach that the natural man is able to do good. First of all she calls our attention to Luke 6:33: "And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same." But in regard to this passage, the very citation of which again reveals how weak is the case of synod, we may remark: (1) That the Lord in these very words does not at all speak of any ethical or moral good which sinners do before God, but of the general practice of sinners to favor one another. They do good to one another, that is, they favor them that do good to them. (2) That it is the very purpose of Jesus to point out to His disciples that there is no ethical or moral value in this practice of sinners, for they only do good to them by whom they are themselves favored, which is pure selfishness and, therefore, ethically wrong. (3) That this morally and ethically wrong practice certainly cannot be ascribed to an influence of God upon these sinners, nor is there in the text the faintest suggestion of such an influence. The text, therefore, offers no support for the third point at all.
The second passage to which synod refers, however, appears to be of more weight. It is Romans 2:14: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law, are a law unto themselves." Prof. Berkhof, in his booklet on the three points, offers a brief interpretation of this text. It is his contention that by "the things contained in the law" (literally: "the things which are of the law," according to the original; as the Dutch translation renders it: de dingen, die der wet zijn) must be understood the things that are demanded by the law. In support of this interpretation he appeals to Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12. In Romans 10:5 we read: "For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, that the man which doeth those things shall live by them." And in Galatians 3:12: "And the law is not of faith: but, the man that doeth them shall live in them." Both these passages clearly teach that the man that doeth the things demanded by the law is righteous and shall live. He acquires the righteousness which is of the law. If, therefore, the contention of Prof. Berkhof is correct, that in Romans 2:14 the phrase "the things which are of the law" signifies the things which the law demands, as in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12, it also follows with rigorous logic, that Paul teaches in the first passage that the Gentiles are righteous and live by the works of the law. For, he declares that the Gentiles do by nature the things which are of the law. But this interpretation refutes itself, for it is evident from the context in chapter 2 that the apostle purposes to prove the very opposite, viz., that no man is justified by the works of the law. All have sinned and are condemned. All perish, whether they have sinned with or without the law. The Gentiles have not the external proclamation of the law. Yet, they sin and are accountable. And in verses 14 and 15 the apostle does not contradict this statement by saying that the Gentiles keep the law and do good, but he simply explains how it is possible that they that have not the law can nevertheless sin, be held responsible, and be judged. In all their life and walk they show that they have the work of the law written in their hearts (verse 15).
What is the work of the law? To declare what is good and what is evil. To draw the lines of demarcation between light and darkness. To proclaim the will of God concerning our life. This work of the law, this natural light, by which they can discern between good and evil, the Gentiles have in their hearts. They are a law unto themselves (verse 14). And thus they do by nature the things of the law, i.e., they do the things which the external law does among Israel: they draw the lines of demarcation between good and evil. Yet, although they show the work of the law written in their heart and clearly reveal that they discern between righteousness and unrighteousness, between light and darkness, yet they follow after darkness and wallow in the most terrible iniquity, as the apostle has set forth in the first chapter (verses 18-32). And, therefore, they are responsible, for they sin consciously, as moral beings, and they shall perish without the law. The interpretation of Prof. Berkhof must surely be rejected as wholly contrary to the meaning of the apostle. And synod errs seriously when it offers this passage as proof of the contention that there is a general operation of the Holy Spirit upon men, whereby they are enabled to do good.
Besides, what weight of argument is there in these few passages of synod when viewed in the light of the overwhelming testimony of the Word of God declaring that the natural man never does any good? Scripture never speaks of a relative good or a relative evil. It is absolute. It never teaches that the natural man is only incapable of doing saving good but capable of doing moral, natural, or civil good. It always declares the very opposite, viz., that all men, Jew and Gentile, are under sin and at all times perverse in all their ways. If any man will but believe and accept this truth, he does not have to search Scripture for a few isolated passages in support of this faith. Nor is there any need of distorting the meaning of texts in order to elicit from them a meaning they do not convey. On the contrary, he will discover that all of the Word of God supports him in this belief, and that by a clear testimony that leaves no doubt as to its meaning.
I will refer the reader to only a few passages, selected at random. "They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy, there is none that doeth good, no not one" (Ps. 14:1-3). "And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient. Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful. Who, knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them" (Rom. 1:28-32).
Notice especially in this last passage the influence of God upon the wicked of which it speaks, whereby they are given over to a reprobate mind, the very opposite of the influence of which the third point speaks.
"What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise; for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles that they are all under sin. As it is written, There is none righteous, no not one. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher, with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes" (Rom. 3:9-18).
But why quote more? These passages have no uncertain sound; they bear a clear testimony concerning the ways of natural man; they are in no need of interpretation unless you would distort them to harmonize them with a man-made theory of the good that sinners do. For the rest the reader may be referred to Romans 8:5-8;14:23; Ephesians 2:2, 3;4:17-19; Titus 3:3; James 3:11; I Peter 4:3, and many other passages. And you must be convinced that the synod of 1924 in its third declaration contradicted and condemned not only us, but also the Holy Scriptures themselves. The constant testimony of Scripture is that the natural man is perverse in all his ways.
Finally, we deny most emphatically that there is an influence of God upon the natural man outside of regeneration, whereby he is enabled to do good before God in an ethical and moral sense. We deny that the natural man ever does what is good before the Most High. By this we do not deny that man by nature and by the light that is in him as a moral and rational creature does not try to adapt himself in his life and walk to the law of God in an external sense. He is able in a general way to discern the law of God and to acknowledge that the way of this law is good for him and for the community in which he lives. In the state of righteousness he stood in the midst of the world as God's viceroy, as king-servant over the earthly creation, in order that all creatures might serve him and with them he might serve his God. But his relation to God through sin was subverted into its very opposite. From being a friend of God he changed into His enemy. His knowledge became darkness; his righteousness unrighteousness; his holiness corruption and hatred of God. But his relation to the creature, though marred and disturbed, was not destroyed. Hence, the sinner's constant attempt is to maintain himself in the midst of and in connection with all the earthly creation, as a servant of Satan and enemy of God. He wills that the creature shall serve him, but with that creature he wants to serve sin.
Also that creation, however, is subject to the ordinances of the Lord. And in as far as man is able by his natural light to discover these ordinances of God in creation, and in as far as he discerns and acknowledges that it is expedient for him to regulate his life externally according to these ordinances, there is in him regard for virtue and an externally orderly deportment. In this attempt to adapt himself to the laws of God outwardly he sometimes succeeds in part and for a certain length of time; ultimately, however, his sinful heart and darkened mind deceives him and leads him astray, so that he tramples even these ordinances of God, that are for the benefit of his own life, under his feet. As long as he succeeds he lives temperately and chastely, maintains peace and order in the home, in his social and political life, and he prospers in the world. When he fails, however, and the lust of the flesh deceives his wistful heart, his life is characterized by intemperance and gluttony, by adultery and dissipation and drunkenness; he destroys the home, works for the downfall of social life and causes wars and revolutions. But whether he succeeds or fails, always he lives and works from the principle of enmity against God, and never does he attain to what is good before God. Only when he is converted, changed in the depth of his heart, by that divine wonder of grace that is called regeneration, he knows and in principle performs that which is acceptable to God, for then all his delight is once more in the law of the Lord!
The Three Points of Common Grace
Adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church 1924
(and Hoeksema 's formulations of the new doctrines taught therein)
1. Relative to the first point, which concerns the question of a favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession, that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are the elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5 and III, IV, 8 and 9 that deal with the general offer of the Gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology that our Reformed fathers from ancient times favored this view.
(God manifests a certain grace in the preaching of the gospel not only to the elect unto eternal life, but to all that hear the preaching of the gospel without distinction.)
2. Relative to the second point, which is concerned with the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community, the synod declares that there is such a restraint of sin according to Scripture and the Confession. This is evident from the citations from Scripture and from the Belgic Confession, Articles 13 and 36, which teach that God by the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin, by which human life in society remained possible; while it is also evident from the quotations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology, that from ancient times our Reformed fathers were of the same opinion.
(There is a general operation of grace, of an ethical nature, by the Holy Spirit, by which all men apart from regeneration are improved and reformed to such an extent that they do not break out in all manner of sin.)
3. Relative to the third point, which is concerned with the question of civil righteousness as performed by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confessions the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good. This is evident from the quotations from Scripture and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, IV, 4, and from the Belgic Confession, article 36, which teach, that God, without renewing the heart so influences man, that he is enabled to perform civil good; while it also appears from the citations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology, that our Reformed fathers from ancient times were of the same opinion.
(The natural man is able to do good in things civil by virtue of an influence of God upon him which is not regenerative.)
1. This is evident, for instance, from what prof. L. Berkhof writes: "In the first place we would call attention to the fact, that in these points we have no material addition to our Confessional Standards.... Our people may be assured that the Synod of 1924 by adopting the three points added nothing to the essential contents of our Confessions. She only brought forward and formulated a triplet of truths that are clearly implied in our Confessional Standards and that are partly emphatically expressed therein" ("The Three Points, Reformed in All their Parts," page 5).
"In connection with the controversy that has arisen among us Synod only brought forward certain truths that are clearly contained in our Confessions, or even are emphatically professed therein" (Idem, p.62).
I confess not to be able to understand the courage of the professor to write these bold statements. They are a mystery to me especially when I consider that in his little book on the Three Points he does not substantiate these statements at all. Nowhere does he offer any proof for the declaration of Synod that the preaching of the gospel is common grace, nor does he begin to point out where in our Confessions such a doctrine might even be suggested. When he would show his readers where the Confession speaks of a general operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby sin is restrained, he boldly faces the difficulty and passes on; and to substantiate his statements with respect to the third point he wisely quotes Canons III, IV, 4 only half . He must have realized that the second half of the same article would certainly disprove his contentions.
In direct examination Dr. C. Bouma testified the following before the Circuit Court of Kent County:
"Question. We have read them over and over here (the three points, HH). What did Synod do? What was the action of Synod? What I am getting at is whether it was an interpretation of the confessional standards?
"Answer. Most assuredly.
"Q. That is what it was?
"A. Most assuredly.
"Q. And after synod had made this interpretation what became the duty of all members of the Christian Reformed Church and especially these ministers?
"A. To submit."
Before the same court Prof. Volbeda was cross-examined. The attorney inquired into the attitude of the four professors over against the decision of Synod in the Janssen-case in 1920. He wanted to know whether they submitted to the decision of Synod in that case. Part of the examination here follows:
"Q. As I understand it, the Janssen-case first came up for consideration by the synod of 1920?
"A. As far as the synod is concerned, yes, sir.
"Q. And at that time synod made a decision in the Janssen-matter?
"A. Yes, sir.
"Q. And in that decision interpreted and passed upon certain matters of the teachings to the students by Dr. Janssen with relation to doctrine?
"A. Yes, sir.
"Q. Was that decision of synod in 1920 binding all members of the denomination?
"A. Yes, sir.
"Q. Well, I will ask you, doctor, if following that decision of the synod, you, with certain other professors of the college or seminary, joined in publishing a pamphlet protesting against that decision of synod in 1920?
"A. We did not protest.
"Q. What did you do?
"A. If you take that in the technical sense of the term.
"Q. Well, what did you do in this pamphlet?
"A. We laid the case open, as it had so far progressed before the Church at large.
"Q. Did you criticize the action that synod had taken in 1920?
"A. We expressed our opinion in regard to that decision, yes, sir.
"Q. You expressed the opinion that synod's decision in 1920 was not the correct decision?
"A. Yes, sir.
"Q. Was that submitting to the decision of synod?
"A. Yes, sir."
Then, later in the examination the professor testified concerning our case as follows:
"Q. How do you distinguish between the position taken by you in your pamphlet and your position in the Hoeksema matter?
"A. For one point, in the case of 1920 synod did not interpret the confession.
"Q. What did it interpret?
"A. It did not expound the meaning of the confession. In the case of 1924 that is the thing that was done; the confession was interpreted, and the sense of the confession as taken by the church was laid down in these three propositions that by this time are familiar. This is one point."
From these quotations it is very evident that Profs. Bouma and Volbeda present the three points as interpretations of the Confessions.
2. I could mention names in this connection, for such cases are historical facts.
3. This is the correct rendering of the original Latin: Serio enim et verissime ostendit Deus verbo suo, quid sibi gratum sit, ut vocati ad se veniant. The Dutch has the correct rendering. The official English translation is a corruption.
4. Dr. Kuyper employs here the well known figure of a person who swallowed a dose of Prussian blue and who is given an antidote. When God said in Paradise, "the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," this must not be understood as a threat and announcement of judgment, but as a friendly warning. Man, however, eats of the tree. Now, as someone gives his friend, whom he warned, but who nevertheless swallowed the Prussian blue, an antidote to save his life, so the Lord gave man the antidote of common grace, so that he partly vomited out the corruption of sin and death and did not become wholly depraved.
5. It will be evident to the reader that this view tends to obliterate the antithesis and constitutes a very proper basis for worldliness. If natural man can actually live a good world-life before God by virtue of the remnants of natural light and goodness that are left him from his original state, then we must not separate ourselves in things natural and civil from the world to live from a different principle than does natural man but it is our calling to join him and unite ourselves with the world, to elevate its life. Then indeed, you can have no objections to the worldly unions but ought to join them; then you must also close your Christian schools and unite in improving the public schools. For, in all these various domains of life the world also lives a good life before God.
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer
Notes: You may also find many sermons of "H.H." at the RFPA website. And you may find copies in print of an entire set of "H.H.'s" catechism sermons here.