Abraham Kuyper, Developer and
Promoter of Common Grace
by Rev. Charles J. Terpstra
This article is from the Stadard Bearer, "Special Issue: Abraham Kuyper",
Vol. 75; No. 2; October 15, 1998. - Rev. Terpstra is pastor of First
Protestant Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan
The legacy left by Dr. Abraham Kuyper to the Reformed faith and churches is for the most part a great and beneficial one. A significant exception to this is Kuyper's development and promotion of the doctrine of common grace. As much as we appreciate what Kuyper gave to the Reformed churches, including our own, in many areas, we must criticize, condemn, and cast away his teaching on common grace.
It is no secret that the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) have their origin in a rejection of the doctrine of common grace as it was officially adopted by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1924 (the "Three Points of Common Grace"). The PRC have always maintained that God has but one kind of grace, viz., His saving grace in Jesus Christ, and that this grace is particular, i.e., only for those whom God chose in Christ in His eternal decree of election. It is our position that God never has or shows any grace to the reprobate wicked, for they are outside of Christ and as such are the objects of the holy hatred of God and under His just wrath. The good gifts God bestows on the unbelieving reprobate do indeed reveal the inherent goodness of His being. But they are also expressions of His sovereign displeasure with and disfavor toward the ungodly, serving to leave them without excuse as they despise and abuse God's gifts, and thus to increase their condemnation.
What is of interest to us in this special issue devoted to Dr. A. Kuyper is the fact that the CRC inherited much of her doctrine of common grace from Kuyper. Not indeed all of it, for the CRC went beyond Kuyper is some aspects of its teaching on common grace. But much of her doctrine is rooted in Kuyper's development of common grace. That is of interest to us, we say, because an understanding of Kuyper's doctrine will better enable us to understand the CRC's doctrine. At the same time it will lead us to see that a rejection of the doctrine of common grace as adopted by the CRC means a rejection of its source in Kuyper.
Kuyper's Development of Common Grace
As a Reformed church theologian, Kuyper well knew and properly held to sovereign particular grace. Standing on the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions, he believed and taught that God's saving grace in Jesus Christ was only for the elect. He referred to this as God's "special" grace. He even reserved a special word in the Dutch for it - genade. He was adamant that this saving grace is in no sense common or general, i.e., for all men. It is limited to the elect by God's sovereign decree and by Christ's atoning death. And this grace is limited in the preaching of the gospel. The preaching is an expression of God's favor only to the elect, and, in fact, through the preaching God gives grace only to them. In this respect Kuyper's teaching on common grace is markedly different from that which the CRC adopted in 1924. She went beyond Kuyper in her first point of common grace, teaching that even God's saving (special) grace is common in that in the preaching of the gospel God shows His favor (grace) to all who hear, elect and reprobate, believing and unbelieving. This Kuyper rejected.
But Kuyper did believe and teach that besides God's special grace for His elect He has a common grace for all men. He used the Dutch word gratie to distinguish it from saving grace. The doctrine of this "grace" Kuyper developed in his three-volume work, De Gemeene Gratie (On Common Grace), published in 1902-1904. (Excerpts from this work have recently been translated into English and published in the fine volume Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader, edited by James D. Bratt; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998.)
Ironically, Kuyper developed his views on common grace in connection with two solid Reformed doctrines, the absolute sovereignty of God over all things and the total depravity of mankind through the fall of Adam in paradise. These, he said, form the basis for God's general favor to all men. Because God rules over all creation and all men, He gives them grace to live in His world and carry out their calling. And because man is radically and totally depraved, God shows all men favor by holding their sin in check so that they are able to live together in society and so that His church can live and grow in the world.
But Kuyper's motivation for developing the doctrine of common grace was not solely theological; it was also very practical. For one thing, he sought to answer the growing effects of modernism in the church-world. He noted that modernism had a broad vision of the world and for the world, but that this vision was grounded in humanistic rationalism. He wanted the Reformed faith to have the same broad vision, but to be grounded in the sovereign work of God. Common grace gave him the answer, he thought. Further, Kuyper had become involved in a political career in the Netherlands and needed some justification for his programs and for his cooperation with other religious and secular groups in these programs. Again, common grace provided him the support he needed, he believed. Still more, in connection with these two things, Kuyper had developed a growing aversion for what he believed was an "Anabaptist" spirit in the churches of the Netherlands. There were Reformed Christians who believed that being true to the Reformed faith meant living a godly life of separation from the world. That meant no cooperation with the world in any realm, whether it be labor, religion, or politics. Kuyper's common grace sought to reprove this narrow view of the Christian's life in this world and create a full-orbed world and life view.
The doctrine of common grace which Kuyper developed and promoted consists of two main elements, a negative element and a positive element. The negative is God's favorable restraint of sin in the wicked. Kuyper taught that because of the Fall man is totally depraved, given over to all wickedness in nature and in deed. If this sinfulness is not held in check, man will quickly destroy himself and there will be no human race. But this would make the development of creation, mankind, and the church impossible. For this reason God bestows on all men a certain grace which restrains their wickedness, preventing them from being as wicked as they could be and from walking in all the vile sins they would. This restraint of sin in man is not just external but also internal. God by His Holy Spirit works in the wicked, even in their hearts, holding them back from sin. Because of this "grace," the wicked can live together in society, creation is prevented from being ruined by mankind, and the church can live and grow in the world among evil men.
But Kuyper did not stop with this merely negative element. He went on to teach that there is a positive element in God's common grace to all men. By means of common grace the natural man can also do good and positive things in this world. He becomes creative and can develop the powers in God's creation for good and useful purposes. He uses his God-given abilities and God's creation gifts for the benefit of mankind. He is able to fulfill the original "cultural mandate" of Genesis 1:26-28. He can develop a culture that is good before God, approved by Him and pleasing to Him. This is, to be sure, not saving good but only civil good. Nevertheless, it is real good, because it is the fruit of God's general grace working in him. It is another irony in Kuyper's teaching that he believed that man's ability to develop himself and his world under God's common grace would nevertheless ultimately result in the development of the antichristian kingdom. The fruit of God's general grace to men is the greatest kingdom of evil in the history of the world!
An important implication of this common grace teaching of Kuyper is that the Christian who is saved by God's special grace can and ought to cooperate with the wicked who is benefited by God's common grace. There is a close relation between these two graces according to Kuyper. Not only does common grace make it possible for believers to live among the wicked, but it also makes it possible, even obligatory, for them to join with the wicked and work together for the development of a creation culture that glorifies God. This was in fact the vision that Kuyper had for the Netherlands in his political career. And it was the vision he had for the whole world, as God's common grace worked universally in every nation among all peoples.
Kuyper's Influence on the Reformed Churches
Kuyper's teaching on common grace has had a powerful and wide influence on the Reformed church-world. This influence is not restricted to the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, where Kuyper's work and writings were obviously known and widely accepted. It has spread throughout the world, wherever Dutch Reformed churches have been established and have done mission work, and wherever those in the Kuyperian tradition have established Christian schools. Perhaps especially in North America (the U.S. and Canada) Kuyperian common grace has had a major impact. Many of those who immigrated to North America from the Netherlands during this century came with a firm belief of common grace as defined and developed by Kuyper. These immigrants further disseminated his views when they arrived in these new lands. Ministers promoted it via the pulpit and catechism room. Church members advanced it via discussions and the spread of his writings. And Christian school teachers taught it and applied it to the children in the classroom.
This is how the common grace of Kuyper found its way into the CRC. In her three points of common grace adopted in 1924 the CRC reflected the influence of Kuyper. Particularly in her second and third points is this revealed. In her second point the CRC stated her belief that there is a "restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community.... 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 remains possible." This is Kuyperian common grace pure and simple. Thus also in her third point the CRC expressed her belief that "the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good." This too is nothing but Kuyper's doctrine. And the CRC has continued to develop and promote this teaching throughout her history. It is the doctrine that dominates her theology and practice. And, sad to say, it has borne an evil fruit in her midst. Because of her adoption of common grace the CRC has steadily departed from the historic Reformed faith and practice. Due to her belief in God's general favor toward and good work in the world she has imported the "blessings" of higher criticism of the Bible, evolutionism, feminism, unbiblical divorce and remarriage, rock music, and movies.
But the influence of Kuyper's common grace was made in North America also through a personal visit he made to the U.S. in 1898. That year he was invited to present the Reformed worldview in a series of lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. He gave six lectures, known as the "Stone Lectures on Calvinism." In these lectures Kuyper defended a Calvinistic worldview based on his doctrine of common grace. Not only were these lectures influential when he gave them, but they have continued to be so due to their publication and wide distribution in this country and beyond. This year, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of these lectures, Kuyper's worldview of common grace was celebrated and praised by many in the Reformed camp (see Prof. D. Engelsma's recent editorials in the Standard Bearer).
Because of this wide acceptance and appreciation of Kuyper's doctrine of common grace, it has become the prevailing view in most Reformed and Presbyterian circles. This is the doctrine that accounts for the efforts to redeem all of culture for Christ, including the most pagan parts of it. This is the teaching that accounts for the efforts to bring the kingdom of Christ here on earth and make this world a better place for all. This is the doctrine that accounts for the efforts to cooperate with the world of unbelief to achieve these goals. This is the doctrine that prompts Christian college graduates to teach in public schools to help unbelievers be good citizens, to infiltrate Hollywood to make better movies, and to enter politics to work for the improvement of society. This is the doctrine that accounts for the church's attempt to make herself more relevant to the world by importing drama and dancing and contemporary music into the worship of God.
Indeed, Kuyper's doctrine of common grace has had a tremendous impact on Reformed faith and practice. But not for good, we are convinced.
Our Rejection of Kuyperian Common Grace
Subjecting Kuyper's doctrine of common grace to the test of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, we believe that it fails miserably and must be rejected. We cannot in this article demonstrate this contention, but the PRC have repeatedly pointed this out in her writings. (If our readers are interested in reading more on this, we will be happy to send materials on request).
It is our firm conviction that this doctrine of common grace usurps a position above the truth of sovereign particular grace, burying it and destroying it in those churches that hold to it. We believe that Kuyper's doctrine carries with it a blatant denial of the truth of the antithesis between the church and the world and leads inevitably to full-blown worldliness in practical living. It creates a dualism in the work of God, teaching that God really has two great works going on in the history of the world: the work of the redemption of the church by special grace and the work of the redemption of society by common grace.
The weight of history also supports this criticism. The one hundred plus years of Kuyperian influence by means of this doctrine have not resulted in the strengthening of the Reformed faith and practice but in its severe weakening and demise. The Reformed churches are not better because of Kuyper's teaching, but worse. Reformed Christians are not spiritually richer because of Kuyper's views, but profoundly poorer. There has been no solid development of Reformed doctrine due to the doctrine of common grace. There has been no real growth in spiritual godliness because of the teaching of common grace. Quite the opposite. There has been departure from the most fundamental of Reformed doctrines. There has been a growing worldliness and ungodliness in Christian living.
Which is also why the PRC reject Kuyperian common grace. It is a serious error which has produced corrupt fruits. Instead of being praised and promoted by Reformed Christians, the doctrine of common grace needs to be rebuked and rooted out of the Reformed faith and practice. Who will stand with us in doing this as we strive to be faithful to the God of sovereign, particular grace?