The Reformed Worldview:
The Failure of Common Grace

by Prof. David J. Engelsma

This paper was taken from a series of four Editorials by Prof. David J. Engelsma which was published in The Standard Bearer (A Reformed Simi-monthly magazine) from May 15, to September 15, 1998

    Very much on the foreground in Reformed circles in North America of late is the subject of the "Reformed Worldview." The reason is that 1998 is the 100th anniversary of Abraham Kuyper's influential lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary on Calvinism as a worldview. Recently, a conference was held at Princeton on the theme, "Religion, Pluralism and Public Justice: Abraham Kuyper's Legacy for the 21st Century." The sponsors were Princeton Seminary, the Free University of Amsterdam (founded by Kuyper), Calvin College, and the Center for Public Justice.

At this conference, theological pygmies and apostates from Harvard, Princeton, and Amsterdam contented themselves with lambasting Kuyper for his now politically incorrect views on women and race. The Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) regard certain teachings of Kuyper as grievous errors. These errors have caused, and still do cause, the PRC real suffering. Worse still, they have corrupted the Reformed churches. But the shallow, narrow modernists at the Princeton conference who concentrated on taking Kuyper to task for alleged patriarchy and racism are not worthy to stand in Kuyper's shadow whether as a Reformed theologian or as a world-class thinker.

On March 6 and 7 of this year, the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship held a conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids on the theme, "Abraham Kuyper Revisited: The Stone Lectures Centennial." The keynote lecture was an intriguing speech by premier Christian Reformed thinker Nicholas P. Wolterstorff on "Kuyper's Significance for the 21st Century." The subject of the speech was the Reformed worldview in light of Kuyper's lectures on Calvinism at Princeton, the "Stone Lectures."

Two exceptionally fine books have already been published in commemoration of the centennial of Kuyper's Princeton lectures. One is Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, edited by James D. Bratt, professor at Calvin College (Eerdmans, 1998). This consists of many of Kuyper's shorter writings on topics related to his conception of the Reformed worldview. Most of them appear in English translation for the first time. Among them are the important articles, "Common Grace" (excerpts from Kuyper's three volumes on Gemeene Gratie); "Calvinism: Source and Stronghold of Our Constitutional Liberties"; "Common Grace in Science"; and "Sphere Sovereignty" (Kuyper's famed inaugural address at the Free University in 1880).

The other volume is a brilliant, thorough analysis of Kuyper's six lectures on Calvinism by the British scholar, Peter S. Heslam. The title makes plain that the subject is worldview: Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1998).

In this subject of worldview, particularly the Reformed worldview, and more particularly still the Reformed worldview proposed by Abraham Kuyper, the Protestant Reformed Churches have a special interest. They have rejected the worldview put forward by Kuyper in his "Stone Lectures," root and branch. Because of their rejection of the Kuyperian worldview, they are charged with espousing "world-flight."

How, after 100 years, the Reformed community evaluates the worldview that Abraham Kuyper taught in 1898 demands the closest attention of the Protestant Reformed Churches.

The Meaning of "Worldview"
Several terms are commonly used to refer to the same reality. "Worldview" is one. Others are "world-and-life-view," "life-view," and the German word, "weltanschauung." James Sire describes a "worldview," or "world-and-life-view," this way: "A worldview is a set of presuppositions (or assumptions) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously) about the basic make up of our world" (The Universe Next Door, InterVarsity Press, 1976). In his study of the worldview advocated by Abraham Kuyper in his lectures on Calvinism, Peter S. Heslam defines "worldview" as "a set of beliefs that underlie and shape all human thought and action."

By "worldview," I understand a comprehensive, unified view of the whole of creation and its history, including creation's origin, meaning, and goal and including my own life, in light of the triune, true, living God.

Every worldview, at bottom, is religious, that is, it either takes the true God into account or finds it impossible to ignore Him. It is not merely the case that every worldview has its god and is shaped by this god. The fact is that every worldview reckons with the true God. Either the worldview is formed in submission to Him (by the regenerated believer), or it is formed as rebellion against Him (by the unregenerated unbeliever). This is the teaching of Romans 1:18ff.

The particular, comprehensive view of creation that people hold, and that holds them, demands a certain life in the whole of creation. A worldview moves those who hold it to live in accordance with the worldview. Inasmuch as it is a worldview, it warrants and requires life of a certain kind in the wide world. The whole of earthly life, work as well as worship, is determined by the worldview.

When we speak (as I do) of a "Reformed" worldview, we maintain that the Reformed faith taught by John Calvin, developed by orthodox Calvinistic theologians, and authoritatively set forth in the Reformed creeds calls believers and their children to live distinctively in all the spheres of earthly life, and shows them how to do so.

The Reformed faith is not only a body of doctrines to be believed and confessed, although it certainly is such a body of doctrines. It does not only command a certain worship on the Lord's Day, although it certainly does command this. The Reformed faith is a view of the whole, wide world. It is an outlook on all of life. It opens up to Reformed believers all of creation and impels them to live enthusiastically in all of creation's ordinances.

The Reigning Worldview in Reformed Christendom
The reigning worldview among Reformed Christians, especially (though not exclusively) in the Netherlands and North America, is that proposed by Abraham Kuyper in his lectures on Calvinism at Princeton in 1898. These lectures have been published many times in several languages. They are in print still today. The English title is Lectures on Calvinism.

The worldview of the Lectures on Calvinism, and therefore the reigning worldview in Reformed Christendom, may be called, "the worldview of common grace."

Kuyper's purpose with the lectures was to put forward Calvinism as a worldview that would successfully challenge the threatening worldview of modernism. That doctrine which serves as the basis of Kuyper's Calvinistic worldview is common grace. The doctrine of common grace, according to Kuyper, is not only genuinely Reformed but also one of the main pillars in the Reformed temple, a veritable Jachin or Boaz. In the opening lecture, "Calvinism a Life-System," when he comes to explain the Christian's attitude toward the world, Kuyper says:

(Calvinism) has at once placed to the front the great principle that there is a particular grace which works Salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammelled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator (Lectures on Calvinism, Eerdmans, 1953, p. 30).

That the worldview advocated by Kuyper is basically a worldview of common grace is recognized by all. In his exposition of Kuyper's lectures on Calvinism, Heslam writes:

Kuyper's idea that common grace allowed for the development of the powers God had invested in human culture provided the foundation for his discussion of the vocation of the Christian in the world outside the church (p. 119, emphasis added).

Summing up, in the section headed "Conclusion," Heslam states that for Kuyper Calvinism

was the very means by which culture could be transformed according to God's ordinances. Common grace served as the theological justification for this argument, providing as it did the necessary bridge across the gap created by the antithesis between the world corrupted by sin and Christ's work of re-creation (pp. 268, 269, emphasis added).

According to Abraham Kuyper, common grace is the basis of the Calvinistic worldview inasmuch as this alleged grace of God, supposedly shared by all men and women, regenerate and unregenerate alike, does several things. First, it restrains sin in the ungodly, so that they are not totally depraved. Second, it enables the ungodly to see and approve the truth made known by general revelation and to do what is good and right in natural life. Thus, by common grace they can develop the creation positively, that is, according to God's standard and toward God the Creator. The ungodly, whether helped by the saints or by themselves, are able to create a good culture. And, third, common grace permits Christians, indeed calls them, to join hearts and hands with the ungodly in this positive development of culture.

Kuyper did not hesitate to claim that the effect of common grace is the positive development of the world of ungodly men and women and their system of life to the glory of God the Creator. Common grace realizes the carrying out by unbelievers of God's mandate to Adam in Paradise to have dominion over the earth. In his lecture, "Calvinism and Art," having asserted (apparently without embarrassment) that the Renaissance was not a "sinful effort," but "a divinely ordered movement," Kuyper denies that humanity is an "aimless mass of people which only serves the purpose of giving birth to the elect." He then states:

On the contrary, the world now, as well as in the beginning, is the theater for the mighty works of God, and humanity remains a creation of His hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation, here on earth, a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God (Lectures on Calvinism, p. 162; see also p. 30).

This is the glorification of God by a "development" that is ethically good, a "development" that is praiseworthy, a "development" that has its source and impetus in grace, a grace of God.

Kuyper's worldview of common grace prevails in Reformed circles today. It has captured much of the mind also of non-Reformed, evangelical Christianity in North America, especially in the strategic educational centers, the colleges and the universities.

The PRC, however, repudiate this worldview.


And does this imply that they reject the very idea of a Reformed worldview, a Calvinistic "world-and-life-view"?

The Failure of Common Grace
In the previous part of this editorial, I described the worldview that Abraham Kuyper proposed for Reformed Christians. This is a worldview of common grace. According to the Dutch Reformed theologian, all men and women receive a certain grace from God during this life. This grace restrains the power of sin in the unregenerated so that they are not totally depraved, as otherwise they would be. It enables them to love, seek, and do what is good and right in natural life. By this grace they can, and often do, create a culture that is good, that is, a culture that glorifies God and that God approves. This common grace permits, indeed requires, Christians to cooperate with unbelievers in their positive development of culture.

Common grace is the foundation and driving force of the life and work of the Reformed Christian in the world. It determines how the Reformed Christian lives in the various ordinances and spheres of creation and how he relates to the ungodly in everyday life.

Kuyper laid out this common grace worldview in six lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898. The lectures have been published as Lectures on Calvinism.

Through Kuyper's powerful influence, the worldview of common grace dominated in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The Christian Reformed Church made the worldview of common grace official, binding doctrine in her synodical decisions of 1924 adopting common grace. Conservative Presbyterians also embraced it. Kuyper's lectures were given at Princeton in 1898, then a conservative Presbyterian seminary. B. B. Warfield was in Kuyper's audience and enthusiastically approved the worldview advocated in the lectures. Over the years, many non-Reformed, evangelical schools and theologians also made the worldview of common grace their own.

Kuyper's worldview of common grace prevails in Reformed circles still today. This was evident at a conference commemorating the centennial of Kuyper's Stone Lectures this past March. The conference was held at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. The sponsor was the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. The theme of the conference was "Abraham Kuyper Revisited: The Stone Lectures Centennial."

Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff, a leader in the Christian Reformed Church, especially in the area of Christian education, gave the keynote address. His speech was titled, "Kuyper's Significance for the 21st Century." The philosopher and teacher correctly observed that the topic of Kuyper's Stone Lectures was the vital, perennial issue, "How shall the Christian live in the world?" Wolterstorff frankly acknowledged that Abraham Kuyper showed Reformed Christians the way and that Wolterstorff could not improve on Kuyper's instruction in 1898. Common grace remains the foundation of the Reformed worldview and the power of the Reformed life in the world.

Since 1924 the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) have taken lonely exception to the worldview proposed by Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper's worldview of common grace was the real subject of the three points of common grace adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, points which the PRC repudiate.

Relative to the first point which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general….
Relative to the second point, which is concerned with the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community, the Synod declares that there is such a restraint of sin according to Scripture and the Confession…. 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.
Relative to the third point, which is concerned with the question of civil righteousness as performed by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confessions the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good…. God without renewing the heart so influences man that he is able to perform civil good…. (cited in Herman Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2nd ed. 1947, pp. 317, 354, 377).

In view of the fundamental importance of a church's and individual's worldview and in view of the popularity of the Kuyperian, common grace worldview, it is necessary to remind ourselves why we say no, and must say no, to the worldview of common grace. First, of a grace of God that restrains sin in the unregenerate; that enables the ungodly outside of Christ to know, love, seek, and do the good; that empowers the wicked to develop a good culture; and that permits, and even requires, the holy people of God to cooperate with the world that hates God in carrying out the mandate of Genesis 1, Scripture knows nothing.

The complete lack of biblical basis for the grace that Kuyper taught in his lectures at Princeton is reflected in the lectures themselves. They are not biblical. The contents of the six lectures are totally lacking in explanation of Scripture. Indeed, they are virtually void of references to Scripture. I urge all to whom this is important to re-read the lectures from this viewpoint. In what admittedly was not a scientific study, I scanned the lectures page by page to note quotations of Scripture, as well as Scriptural exposition. There are only a few quotations of Scripture with exact reference-as few as two or three, perhaps 20 allusions to or quotations of Scripture without reference, and no explanation of Scripture whatever. The lectures are theoretical and philosophical, not biblical. The worldview of common grace of Abraham Kuyper in the Lectures on Calvinism is a theory spun out of the magnificent mind of Kuyper. It is not the mind of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture.

Scripture teaches the very opposite. Only the elect, renewed, believing saints have learned Christ so that, by grace, they put off the old man and put on the new man and live rightly in every sphere of earthly life. The unregenerated 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, giving themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness (Eph. 4:17ff.). Those outside of Christ are ignorant of the good (which is God, always and only God!), hate the good, despise the good, and are incapable of doing the good (Eph. 4:18; Rom. 1:18-32; 3:11; John 15:5). The culture that the wicked are developing in history, as willing slaves of Satan, is a culture of the glory, pleasure, and advantage of man; a culture of lawlessness; a culture of death; a culture of the kingdom of the beast (I John 2:15, 16; Matt. 24:12; Rev. 13, 18). Rather than oneness in worldview and cooperation in carrying out the calling implied in worldview, Scripture teaches radical difference, separation, and antithesis (Psalm 147:19, 20; Deut. 33:28; II Cor. 6:14-18; Rev. 18:4).

Second, the Reformed confessions do not so much as mention the common grace that is supposed to be the very foundation of the Christian worldview, much less emphasize and extol it as the vital doctrine that Kuyper made of it. In fact, the only reference to "common grace" in the "Three Forms of Unity" is a condemnation of it as part and parcel of the Arminian heresy:

The Synod rejects the errors of those … who teach that the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, viz., the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. And that in this way God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men … (Canons of Dordt, III, IV, Rejection of Errors/5).

Is it unreasonable that Reformed churches and Christians expect that a truth so basic as to be the foundation of their worldview be found in the creeds? Is it unworthy of Reformed churches and Christians to note with alarm that the proposed foundation of their worldview-common grace-contradicts the fundamental doctrines of their faith as set forth in the creeds? Whereas the creeds teach particular grace, the proposed foundation of the Reformed worldview teaches common grace. Whereas confessional Calvinism teaches the total depravity of the unregenerated, the proposed foundation of the Reformed worldview teaches the restraint of sin in the unregenerated, so that they can do works that are good and thus develop culture to the glory of God. Whereas the confessions teach the radical spiritual separation of the elect church from the reprobate world, a holy people in an unholy world, the proposed foundation of the Reformed worldview teaches a oneness in divine grace and a cooperation in obedience to a divine calling.

The doctrine of common grace as put forward by Kuyper on behalf of the Reformed worldview conflicts with the confessional Reformed doctrine of predestination. At the very least the theory of common grace rudely shoves the truth of predestination into the background. Let no one dismiss this charge as merely a piece of Protestant Reformed logic-chopping. In his superb analysis of Kuyper's lectures at Princeton, the British scholar, Peter S. Heslam, calls attention to this very thing, namely, that in the interests of common grace Kuyper deliberately downplayed predestination.

Although the doctrine of election, or predestination as Kuyper preferred to call it, is often considered to be the most characteristic element of Calvinistic theology, Kuyper gave no special attention to it in his exposition of Calvinism in the Stone Lectures. This doctrine did not in fact feature as prominently in his writings as might be expected, not only because of his commitment to Calvinist theology, but also because he considered it to be the cor ecclesiae ("heart of the church"-DJE), and central to the Reformed confession. His De gemeene gratie (Kuyper's three-volume work, Common Grace-DJE) provides an indication as to why this was the case. There he criticized Reformed theologians for having made predestination the chief focus of their attention, paying only scant regard to the workings of God's grace in the world outside the church, expressed in the doctrine of common grace (Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, Eerdmans, 1998, p. 116).

This is implicit admission by Kuyper himself that his theory of common grace conflicts with Reformed predestination. Predestination threatens Kuyper's common grace. Therefore the only thing to do when proclaiming common grace is to ignore predestination.

This is a damning indictment of common grace.

Predestination may never be ignored, that is, really, denied by silence.

Predestination may not be ignored in the matter of the Reformed worldview.

Whatever supposedly Christian worldview can make its way and hold its own only by ignoring predestination is thereby exposed as false.

The Reformed, Christian worldview is in perfect harmony with God's election and reprobation from eternity. It has its source and foundation in predestination. The power of the Christian life that flows from and expresses the Christian's worldview is the particular grace of election.

Whatever else the Christian worldview may be, it is a view of life and work in all of creation as holiness unto the triune God. Making this worldview known to Israel and calling Israel to the life that expresses it, Moses grounded the worldview in God's election: "the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth" (Deut. 7:6).

The apostle did the same to the church of the new covenant: we should be holy and without blame before Him, "according as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4).

Explaining why the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) repudiate Abraham Kuyper's worldview of common grace, the previous part of this editorial contended that the worldview of common grace is neither biblical nor confessional.

A third reason is that, although there are scattered, ambiguous references to a "common grace" in the writings of John Calvin, common grace in Calvin does not have the meaning, the prominence, or the role ascribed to it by Kuyper. This is to say that for the Reformer common grace is not the foundation and impetus of the Christian worldview.

In his fine study of Kuyper's Princeton lectures on a Calvinistic worldview, Peter S. Heslam repeatedly calls attention to this remarkable fact. Heslam states that at Princeton Kuyper wanted to confront the Presbyterians with "the traditional teachings of the Reformed faith." He then adds, "the one exception to this pattern was the doctrine of common grace, which was not normally considered one of the essential or fundamental doctrines of Calvinism, and does not occupy a prominent position in Calvin's theology" (Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, Eerdmans, 1998, p. 140). In fact, Calvin spoke of God's common grace only "occasionally" (p. 178).

When Heslam comes to his "final conclusions" concerning Kuyper's efforts at establishing a Calvinistic worldview in the lectures at Princeton, wittingly or unwittingly he passes a devastating judgment, not only upon Kuyper's common grace and the worldview of which it is the foundation but also upon the entire body of Reformed theology that has been affected by Kuyperian common grace. As for the common grace of Kuyper's lectures, Heslam says:

The doctrine of common grace, which is not a major element in traditional Calvinistic theology, became, under the influence of Kuyper's objectives, a doctrine of overriding and central importance. His insistence on the centrality of this doctrine in the Calvinistic worldview was an attempt to make explicit an element that was implicit in Calvin's thought, and to give systematic expression to an aspect of Calvin's theology that had none of the coherence Kuyper ascribed to it (pp. 259, 260).

This is bad enough: the very foundation of the supposedly Calvinistic worldview is constructed from what is at best merely a minor element in Calvin himself. Or, as another contemporary student of Kuyper has recently put it, Kuyper built his elaborate theory of common grace out of mere "hints and pieces" in earlier Reformed theology (James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, Eerdmans, 1998, p. 165).

That the doctrine of common grace as taught by Abraham Kuyper is not to be found in Calvin, or in traditional Calvinistic theology, is widely recognized today. The liberal Dutch Reformed theologian Hendrikus Berkhof has written, "In theology-apart from his broad development of the doctrine of common grace-Kuyper closely followed the Calvinistic tradition, even in its scholastic form" (Two Hundred Years of Theology: Report of a Personal Journey, Eerdmans, 1989, p. 109; emphasis added).

The Christian Reformed Church, however, thinks that common grace is an essential, fundamental, and major dogma of the Reformed faith. She has made it official, binding dogma in her fellowship and has deposed consistories for refusing subscription to it.

What is far worse, indeed intolerable, is the effect that Kuyper's theory of common grace had on the whole body of Reformed theology. In the words of Heslam: "Kuyper's treatment of traditional Reformed doctrine amounted to a radical reinterpretation and reapplication of its central tenets" (p. 259). Kuyper set about to modernize Calvinism mainly by means of his doctrine of common grace. The result, says Heslam, agreeing here with critics of Kuyper within Reformed circles, who charged that Kuyper broke with traditional Calvinism, "may justifiably be called 'neo-Calvinism' and cannot be taken as an accurate and reliable guide to the theology of John Calvin" (p. 260).

Mind! The theology that Kuyper reinterpreted and reapplied by means of common grace is not Calvinism, but "neo-Calvinism," and is not "an accurate and reliable guide to the theology of John Calvin."

Why do the Protestant Reformed Churches repudiate Kuyperian common grace and the worldview of which it is the foundation? Apart from any other reason, because Kuyper's common grace is not the teaching of Calvin or the Calvinistic tradition and because it corrupts the whole of Calvinistic, Reformed theology.

Fourth, it is the fatal flaw of the common grace worldview that it calls regenerated children of God, who have the new life of the risen Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to live their earthly lives on the basis and in the power of common grace, the grace that they supposedly share with unbelievers. This monstrous evil of the worldview of common grace is seldom recognized. Kuyper himself, so far as I can tell, did not explicitly state this, or even address this issue, in his lectures. But this is the impression that very definitely is left by the lectures, as it is the clear and necessary implication of the thrust of the lectures. Believers and unbelievers share God's common grace. This common grace is the basis of their cooperation in developing culture. In the ordinances and spheres of creation, therefore, as regards developing culture, believers must live and work by common grace.

If there were no other objection to Kuyper's worldview than this, this would be sufficient to expose Kuyper's worldview as erroneous and condemnable. If one thing characterizes the life of the Christian in the world according to Scripture, it is that the believing child of God lives his life on the basis of and by the power of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus Christ, that is, in the power of (particular) regenerating, sanctifying grace. He lives his one, entire life in the power of regenerating grace, not only his life of worship on the Lord's Day but also his life of "culture" throughout the week. If there were another kind of grace than the grace of God in Christ Jesus (and there is not), the believer would spurn it as useless and dangerous for his holy life. By the quickening grace of Christ, and only by the quickening grace of Christ (Eph. 2:1-10), do the Ephesians live the holy life in the church, in society, in marriage, and in labor to which they are called in chapters 4-6. By the sanctification of the Spirit, and only by the sanctification of the Spirit (I Pet. 1:2), do the elect strangers manifest an excellent behavior in the various ordinances of creation as they are exhorted to do in I Peter 2:11ff.

To choose another grace for life and work in the world is to choose another Lord and Savior than Jesus Christ.

Where does the Bible instruct the elect believer that, in addition to the regenerating grace of Christ that raised him from death to life, he also possesses common grace and that this common grace is to be the power of his cultural life? By regenerating grace, he believes, worships, prays, and loves his fellow-saints. By common grace, he builds a family, does his job, submits to civil government, gets an education, and plays the piano. In the "spiritual" realm, he lives out of Christ. In everyday, "earthly" life, he lives, not out of Christ but out of common grace that he shares with Socrates, members of the Teamsters Union, Thomas Paine, John Dewey, and Liberace. This is not only false doctrine, with dangerous consequences; it is nonsense.

Fifth, the PRC reject the Kuyperian worldview in 1998 because, after 100 years of the implementation of the Kuyperian worldview by Reformed churches, groups, and individuals in the Netherlands, North America, and other places, the worldview of common grace has proved to be a colossal failure.

Common grace has failed! It has failed obviously! It has failed miserably! It has failed disastrously!

Where is the transformation of culture in the Netherlands by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, by the Free University, and by all the societies that adopted and carried out Kuyper's common grace worldview? The culture of the Netherlands has the distinction of being one of the most corrupt, lawless, God-dishonoring cultures in the world.

Where is the transformation of culture in North America by the Christian Reformed Church, by Calvin College, by the Institute for Christian Studies, by all the other Christian Reformed schools, by Princeton Theological Seminary, and by other organizations devoted to the worldview of common grace? North American culture is not far behind the depraved way of life in the Netherlands.

The worldview of common grace has not made Dutch society or North American culture Christian and Reformed. Not one whit! But it has made the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and the Christian Reformed Church in North America and their schools thoroughly worldly.

Kuyper intended his theory of common grace to be a bridge between the Reformed church and the world over which the Reformed believers would move into the world to "Christianize" the world. Kuyper forgot something about bridges. Bridges allow for two-way traffic. Over the bridge of common grace, during the past 100 years, the world has poured into the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Free University of Amsterdam, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Calvin College, and the other organizations that espouse the worldview of common grace.

Common grace has driven out or silenced the gospel-truth of particular grace. Predestination, limited atonement, and irresistible grace are a dead letter. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have got rid even of the letter (the Reformed creeds). Universalism in various forms prevails. Universalism is the mind of the world.

Opened up to the world's way of life by common grace, the churches, their people, and especially their schools adopt the world's explanation of origins (evolution); accept the world's demolition of the family (feminist denial of the headship of the husband in the home and church); and approve the world's adultery (divorce on any ground and remarriage for guilty and innocent parties alike). The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have sunk away into the deepest, filthiest depths of the wicked world. They sanction sodomy and lesbianism. The Christian Reformed Church, having already declared that the homosexual condition is not sinful (because she insists on listening to the world), is now reduced to a struggle, on her assemblies, to keep out homosexual practice.

Men graced by God with the gift of discerning spirits saw it coming. In the early 1900's Henry Danhof, Herman Hoeksema, and George Ophoff warned the Christian Reformed Church, as Dutch ministers warned the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, that the adoption of Kuyper's worldview of common grace would certainly result in a deluge of worldliness. The entire church world at the end of the 20th century can see that the prophecy is fulfilled.

Why do the PRC reject the worldview of common grace? Because God's powerful, frightening judgment in history upon Kuyper's worldview is that it has been weighed and found wanting. It has transformed no culture. It has destroyed the churches and schools that embraced it.

The worldview of common grace is hay and stubble that Abraham Kuyper built on the foundation. It will be burned in the day of Christ.

The worldview of common grace is a worldview that has failed.


The Protestant Reformed Churches reject the common grace worldview proposed by Abraham Kuyper because this worldview has failed. For some 100 years, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have practiced Kuyper's (and, I may add, Herman Bavinck's) worldview. The result has been not only that Dutch culture has not been "Christianized" but also that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, with the Free University associated with these churches, have become thoroughly worldly. Common grace has been a bridge by which the world has invaded and destroyed these churches.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America threw up the bridge of the common grace worldview a little later. It did this by its synodical adoption of the "three points of common grace" in 1924. The Christian Reformed Church made Kuyper's theory of common grace official church dogma. The purpose of the Christian Reformed Church was to establish a worldview by which she and her members could live in all areas of life and influence society.

The result has been the same as in the Netherlands. North American society has not become Calvinistic or Christian; Grand Rapids, Michigan has not become Calvinistic. But the Christian Reformed Church, with her schools, has become worldly. She has become worldly in doctrine, e.g., the nature of Scripture, origins, and the extent of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and in life, e.g., Sabbath observance, marriage, the headship of the husband in home and church, and the dance. In a number of instances, the Christian Reformed Church has explicitly appealed to common grace in support of its abandonment of the historic Christian and Reformed position.

The disastrous failure of Kuyperian common grace is evident also in other churches and, especially, in many non-Reformed but Christian colleges. In the nature of the case, Christian schools espouse and teach a worldview. As the writings of Bernard Ramm, Arthur Holmes, and others show, evangelical colleges too have embraced the common grace worldview of Abraham Kuyper. Not one is holding out against the mind and ways of the ungodly world, whether as regards the doctrine of Scripture, the truth of creation, feminism, or sexual morality.

The reason why the worldview of common grace corrupts the churches and schools is that this worldview breaches the antithesis. The antithesis (for a long time now an unfamiliar and unpopular word in Reformed and evangelical circles) is the spiritual separation and warfare that God Himself has established between His holy people and the unholy world of men and women outside of Jesus Christ. From the very beginning, in the first proclamation of the gospel, Jehovah God put enmity between Christ and all those who are His, on the one hand, and the children of the devil, on the other hand (Gen. 3:15). God effectually calls all the members of Christ's church out of the world (I Pet. 2:9). The urgent exhortation to believers and their children in all ages is, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate" (II Cor. 6:14-18). This separation has its source and foundation in God's decree of election by which God eternally separated the church from the reprobate, ungodly world (Deut. 7:6; John 15:19).

Such is the importance of the antithesis that it constitutes the salvation of the church. Nothing less. The blessing of Israel by the Old Testament Mediator was this: "Israel then shall dwell in safety alone" (Deut. 33:28). It was exactly the purpose and power of the cross of Christ that it "deliver us" not only from the guilt of sin but also "from this present evil world" (Gal. 1:4). The warning to the saints is that to dally with the world in communion and cooperation is to perish with the world. Positively, the saints escape the world's sins and plagues only in the way of separating from the world. "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues" (Rev. 18:4).

It is appalling that by his common grace worldview Abraham Kuyper played fast and loose with the antithesis in the interests of political power and cultural influence. It is more appalling still (and inexcusable) that Reformed churches, schools, and theologians continue to play fast and loose with the antithesis by maintaining the worldview of common grace in the face of the testimony of history that this worldview wreaks havoc with the antithesis.

Peter S. Heslam has recently called attention to the fact that Kuyper's theory of common grace contradicts the biblical truth of the antithesis, which truth Kuyper also advocated. In his analysis of Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, the speeches at Princeton University in 1898 that proposed the worldview of common grace, Heslam observes:

That Kuyper was able to display a positive approach to the arts was largely due to his doctrine of common grace, which in this lecture, in contrast to his lecture on science, is emphasized at the expense of his doctrine of the antithesis, which plays no significant role. This discrepancy is one of the clearest indications of what is perhaps the central tension in Kuyper's thought between the antithesis and corresponding isolation on the one hand, and common grace and corresponding engagement and accommodation on the other. It was a tension Kuyper never resolved, and a comparison of his Stone Lecture on art with that on science demonstrates how it led to flaws in the overall coherence of his thought.

Heslam goes on to speak of

the fundamental tension in Kuyper's thought-a recurrent theme throughout this book, and expressed at its most basic level in the dichotomy between his ideas of antithesis and of common grace. The final passage of the Stone Lectures is added evidence that this was a tension Kuyper himself was unable to resolve (Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 222, 249).

By "tension," the British scholar means irreconcilable contradiction so that where common grace rules, the antithesis is driven out.

The most ardent disciples of the Kuyper of common grace (there was another Kuyper) themselves have been forced to acknowledge and lament the bitter fruits of common grace.

In May, 1952, Dr. Cornelius Van Til told a full house of Calvin Seminary and College faculty and students that if the common grace doctrine of the Christian Reformed Church prevailed one might as well blow up the science building of Calvin College with an atom bomb. This remark mightily irked the leadership of the Christian Reformed Church. It has always puzzled me-not the statement but that Van Til made it. For all his hedging and qualifying, Van Til held the same doctrine of common grace that Kuyper taught in his Lectures on Calvinism and that the Christian Reformed Church adopted in its decretals of 1924.

In any case, that was the science building that has given the Christian Reformed Church Howard Van Till's denial of creation, Davis Young's denial of the flood, and the 1991 report on creation and science that affirmed full-blown theistic evolution.

The Rev. H. J. Kuiper, sworn foe that he was of the Protestant Reformed confession of the antithesis, felt compelled to draw up and circulate a petition in which he and his allies charged that the professors at Calvin College "give instruction which is more or less colorless and neutral…. They stress common grace far more than the antithesis…. There is no pronounced spiritual atmosphere in our college." This petition, signed by 147 persons, was presented to the Christian Reformed synod of 1952 (see Henry Stob, Summing Up Remembrance, Eerdmans, 1955, pp. 318, 319).

In the fascinating speech that Prof. Nicholas Wolterstorff gave earlier this year at a conference commemorating the centennial of Kuyper's Stone Lectures (to which I referred in the previous editorials), the Christian Reformed philosopher and teacher offered the judgment that the sad decline of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and of the Free University was due to their stress on common grace at the expense of the antithesis. To my delight (and surprise), Prof. Wolterstorff reminded his largely Christian Reformed audience that for Kuyper there was another doctrine in addition to common grace that is basic to the life of the Christian in the world. That doctrine, according to Wolterstorff, is the antithesis.

The trouble is that Wolterstorff supposes that common grace and the antithesis can and must be held "in balance." This is impossible. Biblically, theologically, and logically, they are contraries. History has proved that they cannot and will not share the field of thought and conduct. When in the question-period Wolterstorff was asked for guidelines to hold common grace and the antithesis "in balance," he frankly admitted that he could not give any.

The common grace worldview has failed. Even its advocates at the end of the 20th century have remarked the failure.

It has failed because it is the contradiction and destruction of the antithesis.

God has judged the common grace worldview in history. In its utter failure to influence the world, and in the worldliness of the churches and schools that embraced it, God has written upon it His "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin."

Reformed people must not then celebrate the anniversary of the formal propounding of that worldview. How bizarre! As though those oppressed by the system of Marx and Engels were, after the collapse of Communism, to celebrate the anniversary of the writing of Das Kapital.

There should rather be a day, or a week, of repentance with fasting and mourning.

There ought to be, at the very least, a critical reexamination of Kuyper's worldview.

Why in all the commemoration of Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, from Princeton in the East to Escondido in the West, is there never so much as one small spot on the platform or one secondary place in the program for a man who is critical of the worldview of common grace? Critical, on behalf of the Reformed churches, on behalf of Reformed education, and, yes, on behalf of a truly Reformed worldview.

There is one other reason why the Protestant Reformed Churches reject Kuyper's worldview of common grace. It is unhistorical. Kuyper intended that with this worldview Calvinism would have a powerful impact upon nations, societies, and cultures. He had particularly in mind his own Netherlands and the United States.

This is not, in fact, how Calvinism has ever influenced nations and cultures. Calvinism has certainly had an impact on nations and cultures, a tremendous impact. Think of Germany, of Scotland, of the Netherlands, of the United States. Just as Christianity has affected nations and cultures.

But Calvinism never made this impact by means of some innocuous, feeble "common grace." Wherever it went, in those earlier, glorious days, it went as the gospel of sovereign, particular grace and as the judgment upon man and all his works of total depravity. It affected nations and cultures exactly as a worldview of the one, special grace of God in Jesus Christ. This aroused the opposition that convulsed the nation. This saved the elect who then lived the antithetical, holy life that had real impact upon the life of the nation. Ask the secular historians.

And I dare say that should God yet will that Calvinism-the Reformed faith- powerfully affect nations and civilizations, this would, and could only, take place by a bold gospel of particular grace that establishes and calls for the antithesis.

Not by lectures on common grace.


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