Dordt and Common Grace

The expression “common grace” has an historical connection to the Remonstrants. That has led some Calvinists to reject entirely the term “common grace,” and to make this a shibboleth of “true Calvinism” or “classical Calvinism.” Such a shibboleth is foolish and mistaken, both because folks like Matthew Henry, Thomas Manton, and Jonathan Edwards used the term approvingly, but also because the Savoy Declaration and the London Baptist Confession use the term approvingly.

The term gets mentioned in the Canons of Dordt. The mention is in the context of the rejection of a Remonstrant error. The specific mention is this (at 3/4:V):

Who teach that corrupt and natural man can make such good use of common grace (by which they mean the light of nature) or of the gifts remaining after the fall that he is able thereby gradually to obtain a greater grace– evangelical or saving grace–as well as salvation itself; and that in this way God, for his part, shows himself ready to reveal Christ to all people, since he provides to all, to a sufficient extent and in an effective manner, the means necessary for the revealing of Christ, for faith, and for repentance.

For Scripture, not to mention the experience of all ages, testifies that this is false: He makes known his words to Jacob, his statutes and his laws to Israel; he has done this for no other nation, and they do not know his laws (Ps. 147:19-20); In the past God let all nations go their own way (Acts 14:16); They (Paul and his companions) were kept by the Holy Spirit from speaking God’s word in Asia; and When they had come to Mysia, they tried to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit would not allow them to (Acts 16:6-7).

(bold is the error being rejected)

Notice that the Canon does not say “Those who say ‘common grace’ are anathema.” Instead, it is a particular view of the sufficiency of common grace that is at stake. This is significant, because it means that it is not the phrase itself that is rejected.

Note that “common grace” is defined to mean “the light of nature.” The same synod, however, positively expressed the view of the synod on “common grace” or “the light of nature” in this way:

Article 4: The Inadequacy of the Light of Nature

    There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him–so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God.

Notice that the synod positively affirms that man has the light of nature, it just rejects the sufficiency of that light of nature for salvation.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that the synod says of this common grace, that “man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society.” That is a serious blow to those who today are departing radically from the teachings of the Reformers and asserting the sufficiency of the light of nature for matters of society.

There is not a symmetry between Scripture and the light of nature, such that the light of nature is sufficient for nature and society whereas the Bible is sufficient for faith. Instead, the light of nature is utterly insufficient. So taught the Reformers, so teach the Scriptures, and so ought we to believe.


13 Responses to “Dordt and Common Grace”

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