In 1924, the Christian Reformed Synod of Kalamazoo made the striking claim that the Canons of Dordt support the theory of common grace. The synod did not merely claim that the theory of common grace did not conflict with the Canons, but also that the theory of common grace was actually to be found within the Canons.1 This article will briefly examine the portions of the Canons that the synod cited in support of the theory of common grace. It will reveal that common grace is not to be found in the Canons.
The first place that the Synod of Kalamazoo claimed to find common grace in the Canons was in Head II, Article 5. Here the Canons were quoted to support the first point of common grace, which teaches that God reveals his “favorable attitude…toward humanity in general and not only to the elect,” in (as the Canons say) the “promiscuous[ly]” preached gospel message “that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”2 The synod noted that the Canons speak of God’s good pleasure in commanding that the preaching of the gospel be brought to all nations, including many men who are not elect.
Though Canons II, 5 does indeed speak of God’s good pleasure in sending the gospel to all nations, a common grace to those nations makes no appearance in this article.3 Notice that the object of God’s “good pleasure” is not humanity (“all persons…without distinction”), but rather the promiscuous sending of the gospel itself. In response to the false charge that Calvinism cripples the basis for mission work, the fathers at Dordt were reasserting that God’s church must preach the gospel to as many as we are able, for it is God’s will, his good pleasure, to send out the gospel promiscuously.4 If common grace is to be found within the Canons, Canons II, 5 does not contain it.
The second place in the Canons that the Synod of Kalamazoo spotted common grace was in Heads III/IV, Articles 8 & 9. In these articles, the statements that those who hear the gospel are “unfeignedly called” and that what is “acceptable” to God is “that they who are called should come unto him” were taken by the synod to be expressions that the preaching of the gospel is grace to the hearers and (significantly) that it is God’s desire that all those who hear the gospel respond positively to it; the offer of the gospel is a well-meant offer.5 In Canons III/IV, 9 the statements that the fault for the rejection of the gospel does not lie in the gospel, Christ, or God, and that in addition to the gospel, God “confers upon [men] various gifts” were interpreted to the same end.6
As with Canons II, 5, the Synod of Kalamazoo did not demonstrate how Canons III/IV, 8 & 9 point to a favor of God upon all those who hear the gospel. It is true that the will of God’s command is that every man who hears the gospel repents and believes. This is what is pleasing, or “acceptable,” to God. The fact that not all men are able to do this does not make God’s command unreasonable or feigned. Man is like a servant who has committed suicide, thereby removing his ability to obey his master’s orders. God’s command still remains, and it is serious, but as Prof. Hoeksema notes, the Synod of Kalamazoo “calmly change[d] ‘seriously’ to ‘well-meaningly’…”7
The third place that the Canons were used to support the theory of common grace was in Heads III/IV, Article 4. This article was cited in connection with the third point of common grace, which teaches that through a non-saving operation of the Holy Spirit, the unregenerate can perform civil good in God’s eyes. The portion of Canons III/IV, 4 that the Synod of Kalamazoo quoted was as follows: “There remain, however, in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.”8 According to the proponents of common grace, these “glimmerings of natural light” in natural man are what account for his ability to perform “good” in God’s eyes and are manifestations of God’s common grace.9
Notably, in their official declaration of the three points, the Synod of Kalamazoo failed to include the second half of Canons III/IV, 4, instead referencing only the first half of the article.10 This choice is strange, because the portion of the article that was omitted gives the reader some important information about the nature of the glimmerings of natural light:
“…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.”11
Given its broader context, the article is saying in essence: “Make no mistake, man is dead in sin. Don’t confuse ‘some retention of the knowledge of God’ with goodness done ‘aright’ in his eyes, and don’t confuse ‘some regard for maintaining an orderly external deportment’ with goodness done ‘aright.’” Nowhere do the Canons suggest that these retained characteristics in natural man are pleasing to God. How can they be? Rather than being used to reflect a life of true knowledge, righteous, and holiness, “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.”12
The Canons of Dordt do not contain common grace. Instead, they illustrate the comforting, timeless message of God’s sovereign, particular grace. In Jeremiah 6:16, the Lord commands, “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” Those who twist the words of the confessions and depart from them say, “We will not walk therein.” Young people, will you walk therein? Read the confessions. Know the confessions. Love the comforting truths of the confessions. In those paths you will find rest for your souls.
The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005.
Engelsma, David J. Common Grace Revisited. Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2003.
Hoeksema, Herman. A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth. 4th printing. Grandville, MI: Evangelism Committee of Southwest PRC, 2001.
Hoeksema, Homer C. The Voice of Our Fathers. Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980.