Common Grace and Witness-Bearing
Cornelius Van Til

“Ye are my witnesses,” said Jehovah God to Israel through the mouth of His prophet Isaiah. “This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise” (Isa. 43:21). In those words is summed up the whole task of the people of God in this world.

The New Testament through Peter tells us the same: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

We Witness to the Unbeliever

But if God’s people must bear witness of God, how did they come to be equipped for this task? The answer is that they have been “formed” by God for this purpose. They have not chosen this task. They have been chosen for it. They were not of themselves ready to obey when called to this task. Their hearts too were “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” They were of a piece with those who walk “in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who being past feeling have given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:17–19).

From this vain conversation received by tradition from their fathers they have been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ.” And this Christ was Himself “foreordained before the foundation of the world” for this task of redeeming His people (1 Pet. 1:20). So they are “chosen in him before the foundation of the world.”

The Unbeliever Challenges Our Witness

The Christ chosen to redeem them, and they chosen to be redeemed by Christ! “What a neat little circle,” someone will say. Your Christ came only to save you, your own little group of Calvinists, or at best your own group of Fundamentalists. Is that to the praise of the glory of His grace? Your Christ died only for the elect; is your witnessing for God limited to telling the world this fact? Why should the world be interested in such news as that? Have you no message of salvation for the world? Will you simply tell men that they are reprobate? Will you tell them that God intends to send them to perdition regardless of what they do? A “peculiar people”! Indeed you are. You have a God who “appoints” men to eternal death or “elects” them to eternal life irrespective of their good or evil deeds. I dare you to preach on John 3:16. You are morally a Pharisee if you say that “whosoever will’ may come. You have no love for men in your hearts. Or if you have, then you flatly contradict yourself. You say that whosoever will may come but you know that they cannot will to come. You ought to try preaching in a cemetery and see what results you have.

Seeking to satisfy this objector, you assure him that God does not deal with men as with sticks and stones. According to our doctrine, you tell him, man has lost, through Adam, the first man, true knowledge, righteousness and holiness, which he originally had. He has lost what we call the image of God in the narrower sense. But he has not lost his rationality, his sense of moral responsibility and ability to will freely according to his nature. Man’s freedom and the contingency of second causes, you tell him, are not taken away by the idea of election.

But the objector is not satisfied. He asks: “Do you not hold that even Adam, though created with this true knowledge, righteousness and holiness had to sin? Was not the idea of his fall a part of the plan of God? Was not the Christ who should redeem your sinners chosen for that very purpose before the foundation of the world? And yet your Christ came only because of sin, did He not? So in order that you might be redeemed in Him from sin unto good works, your God must have planned that you should be sinners. Is that not true?”

Perhaps you will hesitate for a moment here. You know that sinners are dead and unable to come to life. You know that according to Scripture man is ethically bound to sin. He has no ethical free will by which, of himself, to accept the gospel offered him. So you say that the case of Adam was different? Adam was free not to sin and free to sin? Is it not because of his abusing this freedom that the slavery of sin has come upon all men? Yet you know that it was in accord with God’s counsel that Adam should sin.

Try as you may, you soon discover that you cannot present your position without seeming to the man to whom you are speaking to be contradicting yourself. And try as you may to avoid it, you find that in answering the seemingly limited objection of your inquirer with respect to the matter of salvation in Christ, you must bring into the picture the whole idea of the plan of God controlling all things of history and the place of man as a moral and rational creature in this plan. If you do not see this yourself, your questioner will soon force you to see it. He will push you back from the question of Christ dying for the elect only and yet being preached to all men, to the idea of this Christ as the Son of God, and the Logos, the Creator of the world, and the sustainer of it. He will say that if Christ is Himself God and if with the Father and the Holy Spirit, He has from all eternity determined whatsoever comes to pass (thus determining that only some men shall be saved) then His weeping over Jerusalem, and His bidding all that are weary and heavy laden to come to Him, is but a farce and a sham. It is ethically reprehensible for Jesus to call man to Himself, if from all eternity He has determined that they shall reject Him. He may perform miracles before them in order to prove His divinity and in order to have them believe His message and yet He is also responsible for the words: “But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them” (John 12:37–40). Christ performs miracles before their eyes so that they might believe, and yet He hath blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts so that they cannot believe. Is not that the plainest contradiction? the objector will say.

And then there is the point of the cosmic significance of Christ. Christ died only to save the elect and yet Christ died “that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth” (Eph. 1:10). “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things on earth, or things in heaven” (Col. 1:19–20). So your Christ came to save the “world” yet not to save us. Do we not count for anything? Are we not part of the world? Or are you better than we?

Such then is the nature of the objection to the message of Christianity that, as Christians, holding to the Reformed Faith, we are bound to meet. Your Christianity, the objector says, insults the intrinsic value and right of human personality. Your Christianity reduces man to the level of the machine. The God of Christianity is an arbitrary being, electing or rejecting men as He pleases, apart from the actual merits of men. Even the Christ you offer, men say, contradicts Himself when He offers Himself to all sinners, since He as God intends to save only some of them.

Humility in Our Reply

Now what shall we say by way of response to this charge?

In the first place we shall, of course, remember that all that we have received has been by grace. And if those who hold the Reformed Faith do greater justice to the idea of God’s grace in the salvation of sinners, then they ought to be the humblest of all men. They ought to enter most sympathetically into the mind and heart of him who makes this objection. Did he not himself kick against the pricks and rebel against the overtures of God’s grace?

And this attitude of humility holds over against those who with him name the name of Christ, as well as over against the unbeliever. With Bavinck let us say that all true Christians are at heart Augustinian and with Warfield let us say that every Christian who calls out unto God in anguish of heart is really a Calvinist.

Nay But, O Man

But if we must follow the examples of Augustine and Calvin on the point of humility, shall we not also follow them when, in answer to the objector, they quoted Paul saying: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Rom. 9:20). Submit yourself to God. Then you shall be saved, and your works shall follow after you. If not, you will be lost, and the profit of your labor will be given to the meek, who shall inherit the earth.

That is the central point of our witness unto men. In the pride of their hearts they worship and serve the creature—that is, themselves—more than the Creator. The natural man must be challenged in this, his assumed autonomy. He must be compelled to look into the face of God.

General Revelation: All Know God

Men must be told that the revelation of God round about them and the revelation of God within their own constitution is clear and plain, rendering them without excuse. “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse, because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:20–21).

All men know God. Every fact of the universe has God’s stamp of ownership indelibly and with large letters engraved upon it.

All men know not merely that a God exists, but they know that God, the true God, the only God, exists. They cannot be conscious of themselves, says Calvin, except they be at the same time conscious of God as their creator. This general revelation of God stays with man, whatever his attitude toward God may be. When he sins against God, he must sin against this God whom he knows. Otherwise sin would be sin in a vacuum. Even in the hereafter, the lost and the evil angels still know God.

None Know God

Yet these same men to whom we must testify that they know God, must also be told that they do not know God. They walk in the midst of this world which is an exhibition house of the glories and splendors of God, full as it is of the works of His hands, and they ask, mind you, whether God exists. They profess to be open-minded on the question. They say that they will follow the facts wherever these may lead them. But invariably they refuse to follow these facts. They constantly conclude that God does not exist. Even when they conclude that a god exists and that with great probability, they are virtually saying that God does not exist. For the true God is not surrounded by, but is the source of possibility. He could not possibly not exist. We cannot intelligently think away God’s existence.

When working in the laboratory as scientists, men act as though they are not dealing with materials that belong to God. They are like a thief who, entering into your home and exploring all kinds of things within it, claims that the question of the ownership of the house is of no concern to him. They are like those who go ahunting in a woods clearly marked “No Gunning,” without a permit from the owner.

How absurd, says the objector. Do you mean to say that men really know that they are creatures of God, and that there is punishment awaiting them if they are not thankful and obedient to Him and yet pretend to be looking for Him, if haply they may find Him? Do they know God and yet not know Him? How contradictory, how utterly absurd, is this religion which you are asking me to believe! Your Bible is full of contradiction. It says that man is made in the image of God, with freedom to choose for or against God. Yet you say that man has no freedom; he simply must do what his God has determined shall be done. You say that by virtue of man’s creation in the image of God, he knows God, and at the same time you say that these image bearers interpret all things amiss since they do not know God.

The answer is again: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” If you do not accept this God, you are like a man swinging his arms in a vacuum.

God’s Attitude

Once more: Not only do all facts reveal God but they, in revealing Him, manifest His attitude toward men. God is love. He loves Himself above all else. He loved Himself from all eternity when He had as yet made no creatures to love. But when He made creatures, He made them lovable like Himself. He loved them because in loving them, He loved Himself above all else. He made man perfect. And loving mankind, He offered them eternal life. It was seriously meant. It was no farce. All men disobeyed God. All came under His wrath and curse. God continued to love Himself; He therefore had to punish every insult to His holiness.

The Common Curse

To be sure, He had from all eternity chosen for Himself a people in Christ and He had from all eternity chosen Christ to redeem a people for Himself. Yet when those who are the elect of God, together with all men, were disobedient to God, they were under His wrath. So real was this wrath and so serious the threat of eternal punishment, that, if they were to be saved, Christ had to be punished in their stead.

Those then whom God loved with an everlasting love, He at the same time regards as objects of wrath because of their sin.

How absurd, says the objector! How contradictory! Your witness for Christianity makes no sense to a self-respecting, intelligent person.

The objector has the same objection all the time. It is to the effect that we are insulting the dignity of human personality. We are running roughshod over his moral sensibilities and over the legitimate claims of his power of reason. Is he to be asked to believe that human personality is thus absolutely determined by the creation and the all-controlling providence of God?

Law Written in Hearts (Rom. 2:14–15)

To add insult to injury, the Bible tells us that all men as they know God, in that knowledge know the difference between good and evil. The requirement of God comes dearly home to the consciousness of man. In this sense the law of God is written in his heart. For every fact in revealing God requires man to use it to the glory of God. If the world is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof, then God wants man to own His sovereign sway over all things. He wants him not to act at any point as though he did not need to recognize God’s ownership.

Law Not Written

At the same time the Bible says to these men that they do not have the law of God written in their hearts. According to the promise of God to Jeremiah (31:31) He will write His law upon the hearts of His people. Then they will be able to say: “O, how love I thy law.” Man the sinner is told that he cannot know the truth and cannot love righteousness. Sinners are said to have their understanding darkened and to be enemies of God at the same time that they are told that they do know God and that they have the knowledge of right and wrong. And each time, the natural man is challenged to forsake his own judgment and submit to the judgment of God as He speaks in Scripture.

Common Grace

But what, you ask, does the question of common grace have to do with all this? Most of you will anticipate the reply. In the question of common grace there confronts us the same sort of situation that we have with respect to all other teaching of Scripture. Common grace presents us with a teaching that seems to contradict other teaching of Scripture.

Let us take the first and main point of the pronouncement made by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. In this first point mention is made of a favorable attitude of God to mankind as a whole, without distinction between elect and reprobate. As God was favorably disposed to the human race before the fall and offered the race as a whole eternal life, so even after the fall God gives His good gifts to men everywhere, thereby calling them to repentance and to performance of their task. The Christian view of God in relation to man must always begin, as Berkouwer has emphasized, from this idea that God at the beginning of history was favorably disposed to mankind. And then in amazement we note that even after the fall, when mankind as a whole has become the object of His wrath, God still continues to give good gifts unto men and by these gifts He calls them to repentance. “Or despiseth thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee, (that is, is calculated to lead thee) to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4).

Now how can this universal call to repentance be harmonized logically with the doctrine of election? God did not intend that all men should repent. Instead He intended from all eternity that some should not repent. How could they repent unless they heard the gospel of salvation through Christ? And to many millions of men this gospel was never offered. Many never heard of that only name by which they must be saved; and that is surely God’s doing. The church is, no doubt, at fault if it is not zealous in its missionary enterprise. Ultimately, however, it was God’s doing that millions of men lived in the darkness of heathendom and never heard the word of Life.

But you say: “Paul does not assert that they were called to repentance in the sense that those who are confronted with the gospel are called to repentance unto eternal life.” Even so, the problem remains: How can God have any attitude of favor unto those men whom He so obviously has not included in the number that could possibly be saved through the gospel of the blood of Jesus Christ?

Well, the answer is that we cannot comprehend how it is possible but that the Scriptures reveal it to be true. And so we must learn to say to ourselves and to take seriously the words that, in following Paul, we say to the unbelievers: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?”

And what does this mean for us as Christians of the Reformed Faith?

Not What It Means to Barth

In the first place it means that we cannot join Karl Barth in reducing God as He is in Himself to a relation that He sustains to His people in the world. Barth virtually seeks to meet the objector’s charge that Christianity involves a basic contradiction by rejecting the idea of God as He is in Himself and of God’s counsel as controlling all things in the world. He says that Calvin’s doctrine of God’s counsel must be completely rejected. Only when it is rejected is the grace of God permitted to flow freely upon mankind. And that means that God’s love envelops all men. To be sure, for Barth there is reprobation but it is reprobation in Christ. The final word of God for all men, says Barth, is Yes. It matters not that men have not heard of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus of Nazareth is not, as such, the Christ. All men are, as men, of necessity in Christ. All grace is universal or common grace.

From the historic Christian point of view this is simply to say that the concept of grace is so widened as no longer to be grace at all.

How truly Herman Bavinck anticipated, as it were, this most heretical of heresies of our day when he pointed out that in the last analysis one must make his choice between Pelagius and Augustine. The grace of God as Barth presents it is no longer distinguishable from the natural powers of man. All men to be men, says Barth, must have been saved and glorified from all eternity in Christ.

This is how Barth would meet the objection against the idea of the sovereign grace of God. There is no longer any sovereign God and therefore there is no longer any grace.

Common Grace According to Romanism

In the second place there are the Roman Catholics. To be sure they have not gone to the extremes of Barth or modern liberal Protestantism. They have not wholly reduced the being of God to a relationship to mankind. They have not, in modern Kantian style, made of God a projection into the void. Even so, they have no sovereign God. Their God does not control whatsoever comes to pass. For in their view man has ultimate freedom to set at naught the purposes of God. God, therefore, cannot reach the individual directly and determine his will and destiny. God can only reach toward the individual by means of classes.

God cannot, on the Romanist view, unmistakably make His imprint of ownership upon man. The image of God in man does not reach down into the penetralium of the consciousness of the individual. If it did, the Romanist holds, man would lose his freedom. For freedom, in the Romanist sense of the term, means a bit of ultimacy or autonomy; a sharing in the freedom of God. The idea of man’s participation in the being of God or his participation with God in a common being, precludes the idea of man’s being truly made in the image of God.

It follows from this that Romanist theology speaks of Adam as being originally in need of grace. Man then needs grace because he is finite. Accordingly, after man fell into sin he needed the same grace, but still only the same grace. Thus, the concept of nature and grace takes the place of sin and grace. And the meaning of both sin and grace is thereby changed.

Thus, once more the attempt is made to satisfy the objection against the sovereign grace of God and His electing sovereign power, by reducing the difference between special and common grace.

It is then not necessary to say: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” For the idea of grace is largely made over to his taste. And though very vague on the subject, Romanist theology therefore, like Barthianism and liberal Protestantism, holds that man’s being lost is ultimately determined by man himself. Man is lost, Roman Catholic theologians often say, because he has not lived up to the light of nature that God has given him. And so the light that God gave unto the heathen for their conversion was really meant for their eternal salvation. And it is only because by their sins they live out of accord with that light, that God gives them over to eternal death. Thus it is again man, not God, who ultimately decides his eternal destiny. And thus the problem of “contradiction” is solved by removing one of the horns of the dilemma.

Common Grace According to the Remonstrants

Then thirdly come the Remonstrants or Arminians, who teach that “there are various kinds of election of God unto eternal life: the one general and indefinite, the other particular and definite; and that the latter in turn is either incomplete, revocable, non-decisive and conditional, or complete, irrevocable, decisive and absolute. Likewise: there is one election unto faith and another unto salvation, so that election can be unto justifying faith, without being a decisive election unto salvation.”

The central point of these words and similar ones from the Five Articles Against the Remonstrants (First Head of Doctrine, Rejection of Errors, 2) is that the final determination of the destiny of individual men is still left in the hands of men instead of in the hands of God. Again God cannot reach the individual except through a general invitation. God may begin the process of salvation by offering general grace to all. But this must mean that God in a general way intends to save all. No answer is given to the question that if God intends to save all men, why did He not make salvation known to all through the spreading of the gospel news? There is reference to the idea that they have not used the light of nature aright and thus have made themselves unworthy of the better news of the gospel.

But again on this basis, the answer to the objector against the sovereign grace of God is not voiced in the words: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?”

It is not till we assert that the ultimate destiny of all men everywhere, and therefore of each man individually, is, in the last analysis, determined by God, that the problem of common grace comes clearly before us. For only when it is seen that according to Scripture God controls all of history and all the deeds of all men, evil deeds as well as good deeds, that the question is squarely before us as to how then God can have any attitude of favor to those whom He has from all eternity intended not to redeem.

Reprobation Must Rest on the Will of God

We, therefore, cannot avoid taking note of a point of view sometimes advocated by those who are committed to the Reformed Faith. I refer to the idea that reprobation rests ultimately upon the sin of man as the final cause. Reprobation is then said to be an act of punishment of God upon sin as committed by man. In this respect reprobation is said to differ from election. Election is said to proceed from God’s eternal plan directly. But reprobation is not thus directly an act of the eternal plan of God. Reprobation is thus said not to be equally ultimate with election.

But surely it is apparent that such a point of view leads us off the highway of the Reformed Faith and tones down our witness to the world. The world needs the sovereign God of Scripture. Hence we must say that reprobation is not ultimately an act of justice with respect to the sin of man. It is rather an act of the sovereign will of God. The fully biblical, and therefore, fully Reformed position is not reached till God in His sovereign decree is made the ultimate cause of all that comes to pass in this world through the deeds of men, whether these deeds lead to their final destruction or by God’s grace to their final glory. Hence, too, we dare not say that Adam could, in the last analysis, have chosen to be obedient just as well as disobedient. The fall of man is the proximate cause of reprobation (propinqua reprobationis causa). But, says Bavinck, and again: “For that reason the fall of Adam, sin in general and all evil, is not only seen in advance but also in a sense willed and directed by God. There must therefore be, though hidden from us, a reason why God willed the fall: There is an altius Dei consilium which precedes the fall” (ibid.). Once more: There is but one, and that an all-comprehensive, plan of God.

Quite properly Bavinck refers in this connection to the reply that Calvin gave to Pighius when the latter objected to the counsel of God as the final source of the determination of the destinies of all men. In dealing with the 9th chapter of Romans and, therefore, with the difference between Esau and Jacob, Calvin says:

“Now if this being ‘afore prepared unto glory’ is peculiar and special to the elect, it evidently follows that the rest, the non-elect, were equally ‘fitted to destruction’ because, being left to their own nature, they were thereby devoted already to certain destruction. That they were ‘fitted to destruction’ by their own wickedness is an idea so silly that it needs no notice. It is indeed true that the wicked procure to themselves the wrath of God, and that they daily hasten on the falling of its own weight upon their heads. But it must be confessed by all, that the apostle is here treating of the difference made between the elect and the reprobate, which proceeds from the alone secret will and counsel of God” (Calvin’s Calvinism, p. 76).

Then Calvin goes on to treat of the passage from Isaiah already quoted in which he speaks of the blinding of man’s eyes. He points out how utterly destructive of the idea of the sovereign grace of God it would be if anything that is done by men is made the ultimate or final cause of their destiny. All men were corrupted in their nature by the fall of Adam. If this their corruption were the ultimate cause of their reprobation, then God Himself would be confounded when seeking to save men. For all would then be bound to be reprobate. “If the wickedness of man be still urged as the cause of the difference between the elect and the non-elect, this wickedness might indeed be made to appear more powerful than the grace of God which He shows toward His elect, if that solemn truth did not stand in the way of such an argument: ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy’” (idem, p. 81).

Of the words of John, who also quotes the passage from Isaiah, Calvin says: “Now, most certainly, John does not here give us to understand that the Jews were prevented from believing by their sinfulness. For though this be quite true in one sense, yet the cause of their not believing must be traced to a far higher source. The secret and eternal counsel of God must be viewed as the original cause of their blindness and unbelief” (p. 81).

Proximate and Ultimate Cause

In answer to all objections made by those who seek the ultimate issues of life and death in man, Calvin distinguishes between proximate and ultimate causes. Man is the proximate and responsible cause of his eternal punishment. Men must be told that they will be eternally lost if they persist in their rebellion against God. They must be called to repentance. Even so, back of their belief or unbelief is the sovereign will of God. It is of that God that we must witness. If men object and disbelieve we yet reply: “Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do right?”

Quite in accord with Calvin, Bavinck asserts that the difference between the Reformed and other approaches to the doctrine of grace is that they—following Augustine—did not stop with secondary causes but dared to climb up to God as the first and ultimate cause and therein found rest for their thought (op. cit., II, 393).

But in finding rest for their thought did they think that they could logically penetrate the mystery of the relation of this ultimate will of God to the will of man as the secondary cause either of obedience or disobedience? Not at all. With Calvin they would say: “Here let human reasonings of every kind that can possibly present themselves to our minds cease forever.”

Shall we not say this to ourselves, and mean it, with respect to the problem of common grace? How can God have an attitude of favor unto those who are according to His own ultimate will to be separated from Him forever? The first and basic answer is that Scripture teaches it. But then we can see that in order to be disobedient and, therefore, to be punished for their own sin, they must be confronted with God in all that they do. Historical causes have genuine meaning just because of God’s ultimate plan. God reaches down into the self-consciousness of each individual. If the heathen are adding to their sins and to their punishment, and if for additional sin they are, as Paul tells us, given over unto still further sin by God, we can see that they must have the face of God, as longsuffering and as calling them to repentance, before them. And we can also see that, therefore, the restraint of God by which men are kept back from greater sin and from greater punishment is something that is an unmerited favor unto them.

We have not come into full sight of this problem till with Calvin and Bavinck we trace all things back to the sovereign will of God. Only then does the problem appear of how such a God, who ultimately has fixed the destinies of men, yet promises or threatens what is opposed to this destiny. And the problem is as acute in the case of the elect as it is in the case of the reprobate. How are good deeds of men called their good deeds if they are gifts of God?

Moreover, when I add with Bavinck that though sin and its eternal punishment for some men is a part of the plan of God and, therefore, in a sense willed by God, yet they are not willed in the same sense and in the same manner as are the grace and salvation of the elect—I have not thereby met the objection of him who charges the Christian religion with contradiction (idem, p. 405). We shall need simply to hold both to the genuine meaning of historical causes and to the all-inclusiveness of God’s will as the ultimate cause.

On the other hand, I cannot meet the objector by trying to show him that God is quite consistent with Himself since He, by His will, has determined to elect some and not elect others. If I say that God’s work in the direction of reprobation and in the direction of election differs not at all then I am merely saying to the objector, in effect, that I would solve his problem by denying the meaning of secondary causes altogether. I must then wipe out the distinction between the revealed and the secret will of God. And I must say therefore that God’s eternal election of men implies that He had no attitude of disfavor unto them even for their sins. Thus I would wipe out the necessity for their atonement in history through the redemptive work of Christ. Says Calvin: “Let no one deceive himself by vain self-flattery. Those who come to Christ were before sons of God in His divine heart, while they were, in themselves, His enemies” (op. cit., p. 84).

Let us, rather than try to meet the objector’s desires for supposed consistency in logic, not deny the fact of God’s revelation of His general favor to mankind or the fact of God’s wrath resting upon the elect. To meet the objector and satisfy him we should have to deny the meaning of all history and of all secondary causes. We should need to wipe out the difference between God and man. To the objector it is contradictory to say that God controls whatsoever comes to pass and also to say that human choices have significance.

All Teaching of Scripture Is Apparently Contradictory

Rather let us say with Calvin: “And most certainly there is nothing in the whole circle of spiritual doctrine which does not far surpass the capacity of man and confound its utmost reach” (idem, p. 82). If we are really to witness to men for God, then it must be the God of Scripture, the sovereign God of whom we testify. This God demands that we submit our whole man, with all its powers, to Him. This God, therefore, wants us to tell men that they have really met Him; that they are really confronted with Him; that they really know Him; that their deeds of obedience or disobedience have genuine meaning in His sight; that if they believe they will be saved and that if they do not believe they will be lost. They must be shown that they are kicking against the pricks always and everywhere since they do not submit their thoughts captive to the obedience of God or of Christ. And we do not thus witness if we ourselves reduce history to something that is meaningless.

Natural Theology and Common Grace

But there is another side to the story. If we are to witness to the God of Scripture we cannot afford to deny common grace. For, as noted, common grace is an element of the general responsibility of man, a part of the picture in which God, the God of unmerited favor, meets man everywhere. But neither can we afford to construct a theory in which it is implicitly allowed that the natural man, in terms of his adopted principles, can truly interpret any aspect of history. For the natural man seeks to interpret all the facts of this world immanentistically. He seeks for meaning in the facts of this world without regarding these facts as carrying in them the face and therewith the claims of God. He seeks to determine what can and cannot be, what is or is not possible, by the reach of human logic resting on man himself as its foundation.

Now surely, you say, no Reformed person would have any commerce with any such view as that. Well, I do not think that any Reformed person purposely adopts such a view. But we know how the Roman Catholic conception of natural theology did creep into the thinking of Reformed theologians in the past. And the essence of this natural theology is that it attributes to the natural man the power of interpreting some aspect of the world without basic error. Even though men do not recognize God as the Creator and controller of the facts of this world, they are assumed to be able to give as true an interpretation of the laws of nature as it is possible for finite man to give. It is admitted that man as a religious being needs additional information besides what he learns by means of his own research. But this fact itself indicates that on this basis the knowledge of God about salvation has no bearing upon the realm of nature. The realm of nature is said to be correctly interpreted by the natural man.

On this basis it is quite possible for Christians to join with non-Christians in the scientific enterprise without witnessing to them of God. The Christians and non-Christians have, on this basis, a certain area of interpretation in common. They have common ideas in the sense that they agree on certain meanings without any difference. It is not merely that they are together confronted with the natural revelation of God. It is not merely that men are, all of them together, made in the image of God. It is not merely that they have in them the ineradicable sense of deity so that God speaks to them by means of their own constitution. It is not merely that, as Kuyper stressed, all men have to think according to the rules of logic according to which alone the human mind can function. It is not merely that all men can weigh and make many scientific discoveries.

Witness-Bearing in the Laboratory

All these things are true and important to maintain. But it is when in addition to these it is said that there are common notions, common reactions, about God and man and the world to all this speech of God, on which there is no basic difference between Christians and non-Christians, that natural theology is confused with natural revelation. And it is allowed that those who assume that the facts of this world are come from chance and those who presuppose that the facts of this world are created and controlled by God, have essentially the same interpretation of these facts. Thus the Christian scientist and the non-Christian scientist could work together in the laboratory for days, for weeks and years and the Christian would have no other witness to give to his friend than to invite him to the prayer meeting or the Sunday service.

The Christian would on such a basis only reap the reward of his little faith were his friend to refuse to be interested in his religion. This friend, more consistently than the Christian, gives witness to his own faith. He will insist that he cannot believe in such a God as the Christians want him to bow unto since this God has created and determined all things. This God, he will say, does not allow men to experiment freely in the laboratory. The non-Christian may give witness to his faith in such words as these: “Your God hampers me in the making of my hypotheses. If I believe in Him I may make only such hypotheses as are in accord with the doctrines of creation and providence. I could not then think of evolution as a legitimate hypothesis with respect to the origin of man. Does not your God say in your Bible that man has not come from animal ancestry but is directly created in the image of God? Moreover your God, besides taking away from me the idea that any hypothesis may be taken as on a par with any other at the outset of an investigation, insists that I shall accept the contradictory position that supernatural things may happen and influence the order of the natural. That, he says, makes the realm of natural law itself something that can be arbitrarily interfered with at will.

Thus the Christian working in the laboratory is confronted with the necessity of leaving the laboratory, giving it over entirely to the unbeliever or witnessing to the fact that only if Christianity is true is science possible and meaningful.

Are we then to fail to witness for our God in the field of science? Is it only because the unbeliever has never been confronted with the full implication of Christianity for the field of science that he tolerates us in his presence still? And are we to have a theory of common grace that prohibits us from setting forth the witness of God before all men everywhere? Is not the Christ to be set forth in His cosmic significance by us after all? Is it not true that there could be no science if the world and all that is therein is controlled by chance? Is it not true that the non-Christian does his work by the common grace of God? A theory of common grace based on a natural theology is destructive of all grace, common or special.

Surely the witness to the God of the Scriptures must be presented everywhere. It must be, to be sure, presented with wisdom and with tact. But it must be presented. It is not presented, however, if we grant that God the Holy Spirit in a general testimony to all men approves of interpretations of this world or of aspects of this world which ignore Him and set Him at naught.

The non-Christian scientist must be told that he is dealing with facts that belong to God. He must be told this, not merely in the interest of religion in the narrower sense of the term. He must be told this in the interest of science too, and of culture in general. He must be told that there would be no facts distinguishable from one another unless God had made them and made them thus. He must be told that no hypothesis would have any relevance or bearing on these same facts, except for the providence of God. He must be told that his own mind, with its principles of order, depends upon his being made in the image of God. And then he must be told that if it were not for God’s common grace he would go the full length of the principle of evil within him. He would finish iniquity and produce only war. His very acts of courtesy and kindness, his deeds of generosity, all his moral good is not to be explained, therefore, in terms of himself and the goodness of his nature but from God’s enabling him to do these things in spite of his sinful nature. “Will you not then repent in order to serve and worship the Creator more than the creature?”

Infra- and Supralapsarianism

Our conclusion then on the problem of common grace may, I hope, be along the lines marked out by Bavinck on the issue of infra- and supralapsarianism. Bavinck sought to avoid extremes in either direction. And how avoid extremes? How attain a balanced view? By not allowing our logic to dominate over the teachings of Scripture.

Supralapsarianism, when held without full regard for all Scriptural data, led to a stressing of the final destiny of men through election and reprobation to such an extent as to render the means by which that end is attained of little value. It led to a virtual denial of second or historical causes.

Infralapsarianism, when held without full regard for all Scriptural data, so stressed the significance of the historical fact of sin as the cause of the lost condition of men, as to endanger the basic importance of the fact that back of all the historical choices of men is the one all-controlling plan of the sovereign God. It led, sometimes, to a virtual denial of God’s plan as the first or last ultimate cause as controlling all finite causes.

We shall not thus, argues Bavinck, permit our reason to legislate with respect to Scriptural data. Ours is a sovereign God. His glory is the end of all things. But we cannot say that this glory, in the case of the reprobate, is manifested only and exclusively in the righteousness of their punishment. There is, while they are in this world, proceeding from them that which cannot be explained exclusively in terms of their reprobation. So also we cannot say that God’s glory, in the case of the elect, is accomplished exclusively in God’s grace to them in Christ. There is much of sin in them that displeases God. That which proceeds from their “old man” is not from, but against the grace of God. So in the case of the reprobate; their doings are better than their principle of evil, if not governed by God’s common grace, would lead one to expect.

Supra- or infralapsarianism, taken as some advocates of these views have taken them, were faulty in their imposing of the reach of human logic upon the data of revelation.

Is it not thus with us who love the Reformed Faith today? Do we not need to come to an “agonizing reappraisal” with respect to the whole matter? Our witness must come clearly before the world. We all love to honor God for the work of the Reformers. That work found its climax in the idea of the sovereign grace of God freely proclaimed unto men.

Shall we, the sons of that Reformation, bedim its challenge to men by going off on tangents in order to satisfy the illegitimate objections of sinful men?

A Balanced View of Common Grace

There lies before us the highway of the Christian Faith.

May we ever drive upon it, without veering either to the left or to the right. If the wheels of an automobile are out of line the car will gradually tend to run off the pavement. You cannot drive an automobile effectively with one wheel on the pavement and the other on the soft shoulder next to the road. Let us, in all kindness, warn one another not to go off the highway either to the left or to the right.

Going off to the right by denying common grace or going off to the left by affirming a theory of common grace patterned after the natural theology of Rome is to fail, to this extent, to challenge the wisdom of the world.

In neither case is the call of God to man made truly universal. In denying common grace we say, in effect, that God does not really call some men to repentance at all. In affirming a natural theology type of common grace, we fail to show that God calls all men everywhere and in all dimensions of life.

In neither case do we show man the full glory of the gospel and of the Christ, the Savior of the world.

Ye are my witnesses!


Published by Lewis J. Grotenhuis, Belvidere Road, Phillipsburg, New Jersey
Reprinted by permission from Torch and Trumpet, December 1954–January 1955