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3000 People Attend A Debate on Common Grace

Category Articles
Date December 5, 2003

Think common grace is no longer an issue in the Reformed community? Think again. The issue of common grace came to a head in 1924 when the Christian Reformed Church Synod determined that, in addition to the saving grace imparted only to the elect, there exists a “common grace” which is manifested to all people in the bestowal of natural gifts, the restraining of sin in human affairs, and the ability of unbelievers to perform deeds of civic good.

Following hard on the heels of Synod’s 1924 decision came the expulsion of Herman Hoeksema from the CRC and the establishment of the Protestant Reformed Churches. For many in the Reformed community, that was the end of the matter. But the doctrine of common grace has recently been brought forward again in Reformed circles, and even beyond with the evangelical publication Christianity Today entering the discussion.

On September 12, 2003, a standing room only crowd of about 3,000 people at Sunshine Community Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, witnessed a debate on the question “Is the doctrine of common grace Reformed?”

Speaking in defense of the doctrine of common grace was Dr. Richard J. Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Prior to his service at Fuller, Dr. Mouw taught for 17 years at Calvin College. Mouw recently authored “He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace,” a book based on his Stob Lectures given at Calvin during the fall of 2000. “He Shines in All That’s Fair” has been reviewed in Christianity Today.

Representing the view against common grace was Professor David Engelsma, Professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament studies at the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches in Grandville, Michigan. Engelsma is also the editor of the Standard Bearer, a Reformed periodical in which he wrote 12 editorials in response to Mouw’s book. Those responses have now been published in book form: “Common Grace Revisited.”

Mouw’s book and Engelsma’s response to it led the Evangelism Society of the Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids to organize this debate. Perhaps it could be described as “historic” for more than one reason. Dr. Mouw commented at one point that it could well have been 80 years since CRC and Protestant Reformed people sang together, and his response was, “Praise the Lord!”

The debate was set up in four segments. Each man was given 30 minutes to present his argument, and then each had 15 minutes for rebuttal. The final two segments were devoted to questions and answers.

Each gentleman first answered three questions written by his opponent. Each then answered three questions submitted from the audience and selected by his opponent.

Richard Mouw

Mouw began by giving a brief historical background regarding the doctrine of common grace, including quotes from Calvin. He believes that the Protestant Reformed view puts more emphasis on Calvin’s negative comments, while those who embrace common grace emphasize Calvin’s positive comments about what he calls a “universal apprehension” of the graces God bestows on both the “pious and impious.” “What does God take delight in?” asked Mouw. “What does He hate?” Mouw made the point that God delights in beauty and good, even when performed by unbelievers, and that God sympathizes with even unbelievers who suffer.

“When we show compassion to the unbelieving,” he said, “we are expressing a love that flows out of the heart of God.” He cited the example of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem as “a profound glance into the heart of God.”

He admitted that his book “intentionally” contains many concrete cases, and that has generated Engelsma’s criticism that he is basing theology on feelings. Mouw cautioned against determining theology from experiences in the world, but said that it is “different to insist that we must bring our theology to the street corners.”

David Engelsma

Engelsma began his presentation by acknowledging Mouw’s fair and respectful treatment of the Protestant Reformed view. He stressed the difference between common and particular grace, giving three reasons why common grace is not Reformed: it is not taught in the Reformed confessions (particularly with regard to total depravity), it destroys the doctrine of the antithesis, and it “inevitably” leads to a doctrine of universal saving grace.

“Are these not worthy concerns for Reformed people?” Engelsma asked.

He then expounded on four Protestant Reformed beliefs.

  1. The first is that God gives many good gifts to ungodly people. Engelsma called these “bounties of God’s providence,” and used Psalm 73 to show that God sets up the wicked for destruction. “Everything is blessing to the elect,” he stated, “but nothing is blessing to the impenitent unbeliever outside Christ.”
  2. The second belief Engelsma discussed was admitting that the deeds of some non-Christians “seem good.” But he was quick to add that we are unable to determine good and evil; only God can do that. “Any work that does not have Him as goal is sin,” he said.
  3. The third belief he affirmed was the active life of the Christian in all spheres of life, saying, “Denial of common grace does not mean withdrawal from society.”
  4. The fourth belief was that God has one all-controlling purpose in history: the honor of the worthy name of Jesus Christ, the head and Savior of the Church, and thus the glory of God.” He believes that the doctrine of common grace posits two purposes: Christ and culture. “We say ‘no’ to common grace because we are determined to say ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ,” he concluded.

Mouw’s Rebuttal

In Mouw’s rebuttal, he admitted that the Protestant Reformed concerns are important and said, “He and I simply disagree.” He addressed the issue of total depravity by referring to the Canons of Dort reference to man as being incapable of any saving good.” He agreed that anyone who has not been saved is an enemy of God, but doesn’t feel that is “the primary lens” through which we must view unbelievers.

“We must express compassion,” he said while reiterating that he does not believe “there is any grace outside Jesus Christ. What I think of as common grace is a work of Jesus Christ.”

Responding to Engelsma’s charge that the doctrine of common grace has destroyed the doctrine of the antithesis and opened up schools and institutions to worldliness. Mouw stressed that “we must be discerning.” He also questioned the active involvement of the Protestant Reformed Church in all spheres of life. He acknowledged the “power of intellect available in the Protestant Reformed Church,” but noted a “regrettable impact” in the lack of implementation of its gifts.

Engelsma’s Rebuttal

Engelsma began his rebuttal by again mentioning how grateful he is that Mouw does not ignore or misrepresent the Protestant Reformed view. He addressed three points raised by Mouw: Calvin’s views, God’s delight, and God’s heart.

  1. Firstly, Engelsma recognized that Calvin speaks of a certain grace of God to unregenerate people as “splendid gifts,” but he stated Calvin “never had in mind a restraint of sin.”
  2. Secondly, he considers it a “huge leap” from believing that what is fair in creation displays the glory of God to the proposition that God “shines in what’s fair in the lives of unregenerate people.” “God does not take delight in the legs of a man,” he said, “but in those who fear Him.” He continued by describing the activity of unbelievers as “abominable.” He continued, “It is sin. God does not delight in it.”
  3. Thirdly, Engelsma dismissed Mouw’s suggestion that suffering breaks God’s heart. “All suffering is inflicted by a Sovereign God as judgment for sin,” he said. “His heart does not break. God Himself afflicts atrocities as punishments on the sinful human race.”

He concluded his rebuttal by reiterating that the doctrine of common grace becomes a belief in universal saving grace.

Questions and Answers

During the question and answer periods, Mouw emphasized that we glorify God by imitating His love in compassion to the suffering. He reiterated his view that common grace is a work of Christ since “all things are in Christ,” and quoted from the Christmas carol: “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

Mouw believes in some type of continuity between this world and the next, while Engelsma rejected the concept that any expression of cultural products (such as Mozart’s symphonies) will be present in heaven.

Engelsma also rejected the charge in a listener’s question that the Protestant Reformed person seeks to determine whether a person is regenerate before reaching out to them. “We are called to love all our neighbors,” he said, “But we show this love in a different way to believers. We do not have fellowship with unbelievers.”

The Approach of the Two Men

The men were very different in their modes of expression, Mouw often leaning over the podium and sometimes searching for words, while Engelsma maintained an erect carriage and forceful delivery. Viewers of the debate may have preferred one style of delivery over the other or may have felt that one or the other reasoned more biblically, but I doubt that anyone whose mind was already made up about the issue of common grace was persuaded to join the other camp.

Still it is helpful to hear the rationale and beliefs behind both sides of the issue and this debate provided a great deal of illumination. The debate was taped in video and audio formats. Cassette tapes are available for $3 and videotapes for $12.50. Tape orders are being processed by Joel and Kelly Dykstra, who may be reached at 616-878-1210 or at joeldykstra1210@

Gelnda Mathes


Reported in ‘Christian Renewal’ November 10, 2003 and reprinted by permission.
Editor ‘Christian Renewal’ John Van Dyk

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