Three Points and Four

The reader will remember that, besides the question concerning the covenant of grace, there were several other points of doctrinal controversy concerning which the Netherland Synod of Utrecht, 1942, expressed itself. They were the questions concerning common grace, self-examination, the two natures of Christ, and the immortality of the soul. There also was a controversy about the multiformity of the church. On this, however, Synod did not formulate any declaration.

Thus far we only discussed the declaration on the subject of the covenant of grace. We gave this first place because it is on this point of doctrine that the present schism occurred. The other decisions of the Synod are hardly mentioned in the old country.

To us, however, the other declarations are of interest also, and we are, of course, especially interested in the decisions concerning common grace. We will, therefore, now take up this question, and compare what the Synod of Utrecht had to say about it with the "Three Points” of 1924 that have become the official doctrine of the Christian Reformed Church(es).

We remember that the problem of so-called common grace concerns both our conception of God and that of man, more particularly that of God’s grace to all men, and of the goodness of the natural man.

Concerning the matter of God’s grace to all men, the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924 expressed itself as follows:

“Regarding the first point, touching the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect, synod declares that, according to Scriptures and the Confession, it is established that besides the saving grace of God shown only to 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 Scripture passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordt, II, 5 and III, IV, 8, 9, where the general offer of the gospel is set forth; while it is evident from the citations made from Reformed writers belonging to the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our fathers from of old maintained this view.”

On this point we find the following in the decisions of Utrecht:

“1. That God (who, immediately after the fall, began to gather His Church, which He delivers from sin, death, and the curse), even though His wrath is revealed over all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1:18), yet does not bring upon the fallen world, in this dispensation, the full punishment of sin; but, while He bears her in His longsuffering, causes His sun to rise over the evil and the good, and does good from heaven to the whole of mankind. (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17).

Then, after the Synod adopted two declarations that concern the condition of natural man, it declared:

“4. That in this God shows to (or bestows upon) the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous, unbounden goodness, which among us is denoted by the name ‘general grace’ or ‘common grace’, but which must be well distinguished from saving grace to them whom the Father gave to Christ.”

The declarations of 1924 by the synod of Kalamazoo and of 1942 by the synod of Utrecht have this in common that they attempted to express that God is gracious to the wicked reprobate. This is the implication of the term “common grace”. There is a grace of God which the wicked have in common with the righteous, the reprobate with the elect. This is very plain from the original report of the committee of pre-advice on this matter that advised the synod of Kalamazoo. According to their report, it must be regarded as established “that God is graciously disposed and shows grace to them whom Scripture stamps as ‘ungodly' and ‘unrighteous', in whom, of course, the reprobate also are included." We do not know in how far the synod of Utrecht consciously faced this problem, but we may well assume, as being in the nature of the case, that they, too, attempted to declare something about the same matter.

In view of this fact, it is striking that the terminology in the conclusions of both synods is rather ambiguous and vague. Those that were present at the sessions of the synod of Kalamazoo well know what debate and wrangling was caused by the proposition of the committee that God is gracious to the reprobate. In the final conclusion the expression was dropped. Instead, the synod adopted the formulation of the final substitute motion “that there is, beside the saving grace shown only to the elect unto eternal life, also a certain favor of grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general." In the meantime, in the introductory phrase of the first point, the expression occurs: “touching the favorable disposition of God toward mankind in general, and not only toward the elect"; and in the closing sentences the proof from the Confessions and from Scripture, offered by the committee originally, is maintained. Although, therefore, superficially considered it might appear rather harmless to accept that God is gracious “to His creatures in general," the real meaning and danger of the first point must be found in its head and tail. The synod labored under the difficulty of giving a Reformed appearance to an Arminian doctrine. Hence, the ambiguity.

But the same ambiguity characterizes the conclusions of the Synod of Utrecht 1942. In fact, we receive the impression that they felt the difficulty more keenly than the synod of Kalamazoo, and that they were still more careful to find a formulation that would appear to be in harmony with Reformed truth. Notice the following: 1. They do not speak at all of a grace, or favor, or a gracious disposition of God to the reprobate, or to mankind in general. 2. They are careful to remind us that God's wrath is revealed over all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. 3. They declare that God does not yet bring upon the fallen world the full punishment of sin. 4. They speak of it that God bears the fallen world in His longsuffering, an expression which is itself ambiguous. 5. And in their main statement they do no more than literally refer to Scripture: God causes His sun to rise over the evil and the good, and does good from heaven to the whole of mankind. 6. In the fourth point, they declare that God shows unbounden (ongehouden) goodness to the evil and the good, but still they will not be responsible for the terms “general grace” and “common grace”.

All this is rather vague and ambiguous. It leaves many questions, too many for a synodical decision that is supposed to be binding upon a whole group of churches.

What, for instance, is the relation between the wrath of God that is revealed over all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men and the “longsuffering" and “unbounden goodness" of which the synod speaks. Surely, the wrath of God of which Rom. 1:18 speaks is revealed in this world, in the things of this present time, in God’s dealings with men here and now. It is, moreover, revealed over all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. And if we read the rest of the first chapter of the Romans, we learn that it is revealed in a most dreadful way: God gives the wicked over from foolishness to greater folly, from corruption to deeper corruption. Where, then, does His “unbounden goodness" come in?

Again, what does the synod mean by the statement that God does not yet bring the full punishment of sin upon the fallen world? Does it merely imply that the final judgment is not yet revealed? Does it simply mean to express the platitude that the world is not yet in hell? Or is the meaning that, in this present time, God does not judge and execute a just judgment according to the measure and character of the present dispensation? If the former, the synod expressed a mere commonplace truth. If the latter, the synod should have confronted the problem how this is to be brought in harmony with the teaching of Scripture that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven over all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

And what does the synod mean by “longsuffering”? Perhaps, it had in mind the idea of “forbearance”. But they are not the same. God is longsuffering over His people, in love. He is forbearing with respect to the wicked, in wrath. If the synod meant the latter, it should have used the term “forbearance”, in a declaration that is supposed to be binding upon the churches. In that case, however, there is no favor or grace or goodness in the term. If the synod took the term in its specific sense, however, as a revelation of God's love, it could not, in the light of Scripture, use it with respect to the wicked.

Finally, what does synod mean when it declares that God shows unbounden goodness to the evil and the good? Does it mean merely that he bestows good gifts and talents upon all men, and thereby does not leave Himself without witness, showing that He is good? Or does it refer to a favorable disposition in God toward the wicked as well as toward the righteous?

The synod of Utrecht certainly offered no solution of the problem of common grace, and came to no definite conclusion. The problem as a whole they did not even see, or, at least, they avoided it. And this is all the more striking in view of the fact that they could have profited by what had been developed in respect to this question in the course of the controversy in America about this matter; and in view of the fact also that they had been studying the problem since the synod of Amsterdam in 1936.

There is, however, also a striking difference between the conclusions of the synod of Utrecht, 1942, and those of Kalamazoo 1924.

The synod of Kalamazoo made a desperate attempt to prove that God's grace toward “His creatures in general”, and His favorable disposition toward mankind in general, is taught in the Reformed Confessions. Desperate, I say, because this question is not even touched upon in the Confessions. The synod of Utrecht, however, did not even make this attempt. There is, with respect to this particular point, not a single reference to the Confessions in the decisions of Utrecht 1942.

And this led to an important difference in doctrinal contents between the declarations of Kalamazoo and those of Utrecht.

The former, in trying to base its “favorable disposition of God toward mankind in general” on the Confessions, fell into the serious error of the Arminian view that the preaching of the gospel is grace, on the part of God, to all that hear it. God's gracious disposition toward the reprobate is manifest in the well-meaning offer of salvation to all. This is the very heart of the “First Point”. And although the theologians of the Netherlands were well acquainted with the “First Point”, and also clearly understood that this grace of God toward the reprobate in the well- meaning offer is the chief point of controversy between the Christian Reformed Church(es) and us, they did not follow their sister church in this respect, but confined themselves to God's manifestation of “unbounden goodness” in the things of this world.

Silence, in this case, therefore, virtually amounts to repudiation.