The Forgotten Second Point

In a controversial decision, at synod Kalamazoo (1924), the Christian Reformed Church adopted “Three Points” on “Common Grace” (Gemeene Gratie). They are:

  1. Concerning the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect, the Synod declares that it is certain, on the ground of Scripture and the Confession, that there is, besides the saving grace of God, shown only to those chosen unto eternal life, also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to all His creatures. This is evident from the quoted Scripture passages and from the Canons of Dordt II, 5, and III and IV, 8 and 9, where the general offer of the Gospel is discussed; while it is evident from the quoted declarations of Reformed writers of the period of florescence of Reformed theology, that our Reformed fathers from of old have championed this view.
  2. Concerning the restraint of sin in the life of the individual and in society, the Synod declares that according to Scripture and Confession, there is such a restraint of sin. This is evident from the quoted Scripture passages and from the Belgic Confession, Art. 13 and 36, where it is taught that God through the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart, restrains sin in its unhindered breaking forth, as a result of which human society has remained possible; while it is evident from the quoted declarations of Reformed writers of the period of florescence of Reformed theology, that our Reformed fathers from of old have championed this view.
  3. Concerning the performance of so-called civic righteousness by the unregenerate, the Synod declares that according to Scripture and Confession the unregenerate, though incapable of any saving good (Canons of Dordt, II, IV, 3), can perform such civic good. This is evident from the quoted Scripture passages and from the Canons of Dordt, III and IV, 4, and the Belgie Confession, where it is taught that God, without renewing the heart, exercises such influence upon man that he is enabled to perform civic good; while it is evident from the quoted declarations of Reformed writers of the period of florescence of Reformed theology, that our Reformed fathers from of old have championed this view.

Since that synod, most of the controversy has focused on the free or well-meant offer of the gospel. You can see John Murray’s defense of that doctrine here. For more, see the essay “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Words: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80. I’m not aware that there has been great controversy about the third point but I’m sure someone, somewhere doesn’t like it!

In my experience, however, the second point, that God restrains evil in society “without renewing the heart” has mostly been assumed: “Of course he does.”

Over the last few months, however, we have been given reason to pause and to reconsider that “of course.” The recent escalation of violence is unnerving. So, I am thankful to my pastor, the Rev Mr Chris Gordon, for his reminder last Lord’s Day about the second point of synod Kalamazoo. It’s God’s world and we’re just living in it.

Belgic Confession Art 13 says:

We believe that the same good God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment; nevertheless, God is neither the author of nor can be charged with the sins which are committed. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what he does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into farther than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing those limits. This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father; who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow can fall to the ground without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without his will and permission they cannot hurt us. And therefore we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing but leaves all things to chance.

Article 36 says, in part:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

…They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.

The biblical basis for is in places such as Acts 17:25–27:

he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,

The narrative of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt illustrates God’s preservation of and mercy to believers and unbelievers alike. God used Joseph (Gen 45) to preserve life and also to preserve a remnant of God’s people.

Genesis 9 teaches that God has established a covenant that is common to believers and unbelievers, from which they both benefit. That covenant says that the Lord will never flood the earth in judgment as he did then. He will preserve the earth until the final judgment. The rainbow cited there is not romance but a sign of blessing to those who believe and a sign of the judgment to come to those who do not. A “bow” in the ancient world wasn’t just pretty it was a a weapon for hunting and for war. Judgment is being restrained for the time being and with that pause comes a restraint of evil.

  • Genesis 20:6 says that, after Abraham lied and gave Sarah to Abimelech, God restrained Abimelech from touching her.
  • Job 1:12 indicates that the Lord restrains Satan generally and Revelation 20:1 teaches that Satan is bound with respect to the church. It was the pagans who taught that there are two ultimate principles in the world, good and evil and that they dueling for control. Scripture rejects that notion categorically. God is sovereign and the Evil One can do no more than the Lord permits.

Romans 13 and Genesis 9, as summarized by Belgic Art. 36, teach that God uses the civil magistrate to restrain outward evil and violence, that is is chief duty as God’s “minister.”

for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the minister of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

Remember, when Paul wrote those words, Nero had been Caesar for about three years. He was about 20 years old and he obtained power through murderous intrigue. His sexual deviancy would shock even pagan Romans, who were hardly naive about such behavior. Paul was no fan of Caesar’s person but he understood the nature of the office of the civil magistrate. He did not think of the magistrate, as we are tempted to do now, as a therapist. He did not think of our relation to civil government as a covenant of grace but as a covenant of works, in which there may be mercy (restraint of the full wrath of the magistrate).

We may think that to the degree the late modern civil magistrate and the governed have confused the covenant of grace administered the church with the civil covenant administered by the magistrate, we have confused God and Caesar, and thus chaos has become more frequent. Nevertheless, things are not as dark as they would be without the Lord’s merciful restraining providence. So, Louis Berkhof (1873–1957), wrote:

Through the operation of common grace sin is restrained in the lives of individuals and in society. The element of corruption that entered the life of the human race is not permitted, for the present, to accomplish its disintegrating work. Calvin says: “But we ought to consider that, notwithstanding the corruption of our nature, there is some room for divine grace, such grace as, without purifying it, may lay it under internal restraint. For, did the Lord let every mind loose to wanton in its lusts, doubtless there is not a man who would not show that his nature is capable of all the crimes with which Paul charges it, (Rom. 3 compared with Ps. 14: 3 ff).” 31 This restraint may be external or internal or both, but does not change the heart. There are passages of Scripture which speak of a striving of the Spirit of God with men which does not lead to repentance, Gen. 6: 3; Isa. 63: 10; Acts 7: 51; of operations of the Spirit that are finally withdrawn, I Sam. 16: 14; Heb. 6: 4-6; and of the fact that in some cases God finally gives up men to the lusts of their own hearts, Ps. 81: 12; Rom. 1: 24,26,28. In addition to the preceding passages there are some which are clearly indicative of the fact that God restrains sin in various ways, such as Gen. 20: 6; 31: 7; Job 1: 12; 2: 6; II Kings 19: 27,28; Rom. 13: 1-4 (Systematic Theology, III.F.2.

Berkhof first published his Systematic Theology 1932 as part of his Reformed Dogmatics. The Great Crash had occurred 3 years before. The Great Depression was under way and wouldn’t end, in the private economy, for nearly 20 years when soldiers returned home from World War II, the public spending shrank dramatically, and a new prosperity began. In his life he had seen the 1st World War and the second was on the way. Yet he kept publishing the same doctrine even after we became aware of the extent of the Holocaust. In those years, when deaths from war were counted not in the thousands but in the tens of millions, when gold stars in windows were frequent, he continued to affirm the second point.

As this sad year draws to a close it is well to remember that, as ugly as things have been, they have been worse and they may yet be better in future. Christ was ruling the nations (Ps 2) then and he’s ruling them now. The powers of this age are under his subjection and they cannot so much as breathe without his sovereign will. In his humiliation and death Christ has conquered all the powers in the earth, below the earth, and above it. He laughs at them.

His restraining mercy and providence sustain all things but one day that mercy will end. Irresistible judgment will come and there will be blood (Rev 22:14–15). Until that time, however, the Lamb who was slain says, “Come.”

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. (Rev 22:17)

Here’s an earlier, related post.

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  1. I’ve always wondered about the acts of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century vis-a-vis the second point you mention. It seems to me they have to be in a different category. Like precursors of God’s final judgment. Because what Japan did in China, what Mao’s China did, what the Khmer Rouge did, what Leninist/Stalinists did in the Soviet Union, what Nazis did, if that is not human evil *without restraint* I don’t know what would be. And I’m talking about the up close and personal torture and murder committed by these regimes and ideologies. I had a habit of reading of such things earlier in my life. The scale, the hallucinogenic blood lust (personally I see it as sacrificing human suffering and death to the Devil’s Kingdom, i.e. plain old human sacrifice when all is said and done).

  2. Law is a restraint of evil (somewhat). Without it there would be total chaos.

    But evil men and governments have always been around, and will always be around, until that Day.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    when you were quoting Roman 13:4, doesn’t “he” from the text point to the “God’s servant” and not to “God”?

    So, shouldn’t it be: “for [the God’s servant] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the minister of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”


  4. I’m curious about the “even in things natural and civil” in Belgic Confession 3-4, article 4. This is referenced in a couple of places in the book “Kingdoms Apart” to attempt to deconstruct the common kingdom formulation in 2k theology.

    Is this application correct? Or are the canons and/or is 2k being misunderstood? My apologies if this has been addressed elsewhere.

    • Hi Jeremy,

      I think you mean Canons of Dort 3/4.4. It’s a fair question that has come up before but it’s been a while. I dealt with it some in the comments on this post:

      In the Canons we confess:

      There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, and natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. 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. By no means, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted and hinders in unrighteousness, which by doing he becomes inexcusable before God.

      I still think what I did then, that it depends upon how one understands what the Synod intended by “incapable” and “aright.” In the immediate context the Synod is addressing the incapacity of fallen man to make use of the glimmerings of natural light and law to know God savingly. The synod was well aware of the tradition before the Reformation and in the Reformation, which is well documented, teaching the existence and relative perspicuity of natural law for civil life. When the Synod says, “aright” it isn’t saying that natural law and light is inherently insufficient but upon the fact that, as all historians know, no society has ever reached perfection or ordered itself according to that revelation as it ought. The modifiers “incapable” and “aright” shouldn’t be construed to mean “not at all.”

      There is, among certain strains of neo-Kuyperianism, a strong bias against any idea of natural law. The problem with such a bias is that it is at war with the Reformed tradition. To understand the original intent, this can’t be de-contextualized from the 17th century and re-contextualized in a neo-Kuyperian context. So, what could this language have meant in a context where it was normal for Reformed writers to talk about natural law as a guide for civil society? Was this international synod, composed of representatives a variety of civil and political systems, intending to deny any function of natural law in civil life?

      The answer to the question would be in the writings of the Arminians (and their successors). What had Arminius and his students said about natural law/light? We know that Grotius was an advisor to Oldenbarnevelt and a supporter of the Remonstrants (and their doctrines advocated in the Remonstrance), a rationalist, and sympathetic to the Socinians. He was stoutly opposed by the orthodox, contra-Remonstrants. He was also an advocate of a doctrine of natural law that is being re-considered. He’s traditionally been regarded as a rationalist and a secularist. I’m not expert on him so I can’t say a great lot with any authority but I do know that he was opposed by the orthodox. Cocceius interacted with him at length. He was in the Erasmian tradition that gave more authority to reason than Luther, Calvin, or the orthodox Reformed were willing to do. Like Erasmus, he taught a soteriology that downplayed the effects of sin on the intellect and the will.

      Anyway, I would interpret this language in that context. Otherwise it would be the canons at odds with a well-established pattern of Reformed (and magisterial Protestant) teaching that held that the moral law revealed in the Decalogue was known in nature before the fall (as part of what would become the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works) and that same law is known by all humans in the conscience.

      One way to evaluate whether the canons intended to upend the Protestant tradition of natural law theory to that point is to see how it was taken by the Reformed in the period around the Synod (1618-19) and after. It does not seem as if the Canons were so understood.

      In short, the synod may have been critical of some natural law theories/doctrines but it’s unlikely that synod intended to reject the doctrine of natural law taught by Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Melanchthon et al.

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