From Dort to Today: A History of the Reformed Faith – The Protestant Reformed Churches

We have called attention to some aspects of the history of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, a history which resulted in the establishment of our own Protestant Reformed Churches.  At the very end of that article we quoted both the decisions of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church concerning the dogma of common grace, and the testimony which that Synod attached to the three points.

Before we enter into our discussion of the doctrinal implications of these three points, there are a few loose ends which we ought to tie up.

In the first place, the testimony which was appended to the three points was intended to be sent to all the churches.  The reason why Synod wanted this is obvious.  The testimony spoke of the fact that “dogmas are not made but are born out of the conflict of opinions, and, therefore, it is desirable that the establishment of a certain dogma be preceded by a lengthy exchange of opinions.  Participation in such a discussion must be as general as possible and must not be limited to a single group or church.” Besides this, Synod also said that “a certain truth must live clearly in the consciousness of the Church in general, or in the consciousness of a particular group of churches, before the Church is able to profess such a truth in her Confession. It cannot be said, that this indispensable condition exists at the present or will exist after two or four years.” Thus Synod urged “the leaders of our people, both ministers and professors, to make a further study of the doctrine of Common Grace; that they give themselves account carefully of the problems that present themselves in connection with this matter, in sermons, lectures and publications.  It is very desirable,” Synod added, “that not a single individual or a small number of persons accomplish this task, but that many take part in it.”

The remarkable part of this is that this testimony was never sent to the churches at that time.  Nor, as far as I know, was this ever done in succeeding years.  As desirable as Synod considered a further discussion of the question to be, it was never brought to the attention of the churches that this was Synod’s anxious wish.  Why this failure occurred I have no way of knowing.  Why it was not sent is lost in the misty past.

However, one thing is certain.  Thirty-five years after Synod decided this, there was still nothing like Synod wanted.  A deep and strange silence about common grace hung over the churches.  There were rare occasions when a small pamphlet appeared discussing the matter.  There were times when one author or another made a passing reference to the three points in some article appearing in a church periodical.  There was a discussion of common grace in the “Dogmatics” of the late Prof. L. Berkhof.  But there never was anything approaching a “lengthy exchange of opinions…as general as possible” which Synod called for.

This may be, in part, because the testimony itself was never sent through the Churches.  It is however, doubtful whether this is a major contributing factor since the entire history of 1924 and the doctrinal issues involved soon became a topic for discussion in almost every Christian Reformed congregation throughout the entire land.

It is also possible that the Church itself was somewhat ashamed not only of the doctrine that was so hastily formulated into the three points of common grace, but of the wretched history which produced the three points.  The result would then naturally be that those involved in the whole matter would just as soon forget about it and bury it in the archives of history.

It is also possible that there never was any general discussion or any attempt made through “conflict of opinions” to develop this doctrine because it just can’t be developed.  It just isn’t possible—except that development take the way of increasing error.

This latter is worth a pause.  I said above that for thirty-five years there was pretty much silence about the whole business.  But we are now about forty years removed from 1924.  The point is that within the last few years there has suddenly been a revival of interest in the three points of common grace.  There are leaders today (especially on the staff of the Reformed Journal which is an independent Christian Reformed publication; but also in the Torch and Trumpet and The Banner) who are taking up the discussion of the three points once again.  They pointedly refer to the testimony of the Synod of 1924, remind the Churches that Synod called for such a discussion, remark that this has never been done, and launch into their views on the whole matter.  They use this testimony as a basis upon which to reopen the discussion and begin a serious evaluation of that decision.

But (and here is the hitch), they use the decisions of 1924 as a springboard to jump off into all kinds of other heresies which have never been maintained in the Reformed Churches, which in fact, have been explicitly condemned, and which is stirring up no end of trouble within that denomination today.

We shall have opportunity, the Lord willing, to return to this.

While we are busy tying up loose ends, we ought also to notice that the Synod which adopted the three points issued a warning.  They wrote: “Now synod expressed itself on three points that were at stake in the denial of Common Grace and thereby condemned the entire disregard for this doctrine, she feels constrained at the same time to warn our Churches and especially our elders earnestly against all one-sided emphasis on and misuse of the doctrine of Common Grace.  It cannot be denied that there exists a real danger in this respect.  When Doctor Kuyper wrote his monumental work on this subject he revealed that he was not unconscious of the danger that some would be seduced by it to lose themselves in the world.  And even now history shows that this danger is more than imaginary…” (For the remainder of this warning, cf. our last article.)

In these words, Synod proved to be very prophetic.  They, gazing ahead, with extraordinary accuracy were able to predict the consequences of their own decisions.  For today a terrible spirit of worldliness has indeed seized their denomination.  And, worse, a growing spirit of cooperation between the church and the world has manifested itself so that the church seems prepared, at the drop of a hat, to join hands with the world in the pursuit of worldly goals,  The stand of the Christian Reformed Church on the unions is evidence enough of this.

But the Synod made one mistake.  In their testimony they warned against what they called “a one-sided emphasis on and misuse of the doctrine”.  The spirit of worldliness against which Synod warned, was not due to a misuse of the doctrine; nor even a one-sided emphasis of it.  Rather the doctrine of common grace was itself responsible for this worldliness that, as a matter of fact, has settled upon the church.  The very evil which frightened Synod was inherent in the doctrine which they accepted.  The fact that a warning, in Synod’s opinion, was necessary seems to indicate that Synod sensed this.  After all, the truth has no dangers in it.  It’s the doctrine itself which causes all the trouble, not a misuse of it.  The reason is obvious.  The doctrine of common grace builds a bridge across the chasm of the antithesis which separates the church from the world.  It builds a bridge over which it is easy for the world to walk into the Church, and over which it is easy for the Church to walk into the world.  The bridge is there.  It has never been knocked down.  In fact, in recent discussion it is being buttressed.  The consequences are inevitable.