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An Answer to Phil Johnson's "Primer on Hyper-Calvinism"

Rev. Martyn McGeown

(Originally published as a series of editorials in the British Reformed Journal)




Recently, brethren have brought to my attention Phillip R. Johnson’s “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism.”1 They were offended that he called the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) hyper-Calvinists: “The best known American hyper-Calvinists are the Protestant Reformed Churches.” My initial reaction was to ignore such accusations—I prefer to answer exegetical arguments, and Johnson’s “Primer” does not offer any such arguments. I imagine he does do exegesis, just not in this article. Exegesis is much more than listing texts. Exegesis requires that one dig out of the text its meaning and demonstrate that the text proves what one claims. However, since Johnson is influential, and since he directly attacks the PRC, and since younger, inexperienced brethren may not know how to answer him, I offer this response in a series of editorials.

One paragraph of Johnson’s “Primer” which particularly grieved me was his dismissal of Prof. Engelsma’s book, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel:

The most articulate advocate of the PRC position is David Engelsma, whose book Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel is an interesting but in my view terribly misleading study of the question of whether PRC theology properly qualifies as hyper-Calvinism. Engelsma does some selective quoting and interpretive gymnastics in order to argue that his view is mainstream Reformed theology. But a careful reading of his sources shows that he often quotes out of context, or ends a quote just before a qualifying statement that would totally negate the point he thinks he has made. Still, for those interested in these issues, I recommend his book, with a caution to read it very critically and with careful discernment.

Johnson makes serious charges against Engelsma. However, he makes no attempt to substantiate his allegation of “selective quoting.” With this in mind, I recently re-read Engelsma’s book. I carefully read all the sources in context, and I e-mailed Johnson to furnish me with some examples of his allegation. Thus far, Johnson—a busy man, no doubt—has not responded. Johnson also fails to mention that John Gerstner, who wrote the Foreword to Engelsma’s book, went on record that Engelsma “carefully defines and convincingly avoids ‘hyper-Calvinism’ himself and clears his denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches, of so teaching.”2

One might wonder, Who is this Phil Johnson, and what qualifies him to write “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism”? According to his online biography, Johnson is executive director of Grace To You, the ministry of John MacArthur, a Calvinistic, Baptist, dispensationalist. One assumes that Johnson is either wholly, or almost, in agreement with MacArthur. If this is true, we have a Baptist dispensationalist writing a primer on hyper-Calvinism!3 Johnson identifies himself thus: “a five-point Calvinist, affirming without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt.” Since he, the BRF and the PRC affirm the Canons—and PRC office-bearers (although probably not Johnson) are bound to them by the “Formula of Subscription”—we should find some common ground.

Before Johnson gives his own definition of hyper-Calvinism—a five-point definition, which, if true, would make the PRC and BRF three-point hyper-Calvinists—he quotes a dictionary. Apparently, whoever writes the theological dictionaries rules the theological landscape! However, theological dictionaries do not determine theology. The creeds do! They—not theological dictionaries—were officially adopted by the church. The article is by the Anglican Peter Toon in the New Dictionary of Theology.4 The main features of its definition of hyper-Calvinism are (1) an overemphasis on God’s sovereignty with a minimising of the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners, (2) an undermining of the universal duty of sinners to believe in the Lord Jesus and (3) the denial of the word “offer” with respect to the preaching of the gospel. This definition is too broad—it includes real hyper-Calvinism (a denial of duty faith) but it muddies the waters by including some theological positions which are not definitive of hyper-Calvinism (avoidance of the word “offer,” an “overemphasis” on God’s sovereignty, etc.).5 Moreover, Johnson defines “offer” as “the sincere proposal of divine mercy to sinners in general.”

Another aspect of hyper-Calvinism, which Johnson rejects, and of which the PRC and BRF are certainly not guilty, is a morbid introspection in the search to know one’s election. The PRC, and especially Engelsma himself, have been very critical of that error. We encourage and enjoy a healthy assurance of salvation (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 1, 7; Canons I:12-13, 16; R:7; III/IV:13; V:9-13; R:5-6). Hyper-Calvinist churches and denominations “tend to become either barren and inert, or militant and elitist,” adds Johnson—a charge Arminians have made against Reformed churches for centuries, and a charge of which the PRC, by the grace of God, is innocent. By God’s covenant faithfulness, the PRC are lively and vibrant, lovers of the truth, faithful and generous. Godly homes and marriages with large families, a solid seminary, good Christian schools and zealous mission work testify to this. Calvinism for the PRC and the BRF is not “cold, lifeless dogma,” but truth which lives in our hearts and which is our unspeakable consolation in life and in death (Westminster Confession 3:8; Belgic Confession 13). Thus we abhor Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism (as well as other heresies repugnant to the truth as summarized in the Reformed confessions).

Johnson then proceeds to a brief analysis of “common but not quite precise definitions” of hyper-Calvinism—a denial that God uses the means of preaching, fatalism, supralapsarianism and double predestination. Johnson is correct that not all supralapsarians or double-predestinarians are hyper-Calvinists. Indeed, we add that those who deny reprobation are not true Calvinists, but are hypo-Calvinists who fall short of Calvinism (Canons I:15, 18; R:8).

“Some critics,” adds Johnson, “unthinkingly slap the label ‘hyper’ on any variety of Calvinism that is higher than the view they hold to.” This approach, Johnson warns, “lacks integrity and only serves to confuse people.” Did Johnson examine himself before he wrote those words, and before he called the PRC the “best known American hyper-Calvinists”?


Johnson’s Definition

Johnson’s proposed definition of hyper-Calvinism has five parts:

A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either
#1 Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear OR
#2 Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner OR
#3 Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal) OR
#4 Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace” OR
#5 Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect

Denial #1 is ambiguous—what does “applies to all who hear” mean? Only #2 is genuine, historic hyper-Calvinism. Only #2 is condemned by the confessions. Denials #3-5 are not hyper-Calvinism. Johnson may not like or agree with denials #3-5, but that does not give him the right to label them as “hyper-Calvinism.” Is Johnson not, to use his own words, “slapping the label ‘hyper’ on any variety of Calvinism that is higher than the view he holds to”?

We propose to examine the issues of the gospel offer (#3), the gospel call (#1-2) and common grace (#4-5) to see where this charge of hyper-Calvinism may legitimately be laid. This will require several editorials in the next few issues.


The Gospel Offer or Serious Call?

In order to determine whether a denial of the gospel offer is hyper-Calvinism (#3), we look at the Canons of Dordt, which are the official, creedal definition of Calvinism. In 1924, when the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) adopted the Three Points of Common Grace, it appealed to Canons III/IV:8. We quote from Articles 8-10:

Article 8: As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly shown in His Word what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him.
Article 9: It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted ...
Article 10: But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will ...

These articles were written in response to the Remonstrants or the Arminians, who submitted their “Opinions” to the Synod. The issue here is God’s seriousness—if the gospel only comes to some, and if God grants faith to only some who hear the gospel, is God really serious in the call of the gospel through the preaching? The Arminians contended that, if God did not intend to give salvation to all, and if Christ did not purchase salvation for all, and if sinners do not have the ability to choose salvation, then God must be hypocritical, insincere and unserious in the preaching, by promising something He does not have and which He does not intend to give.

The “Opinions of the Remonstrants” are very enlightening about what the Arminians understood by the offer of the gospel:

Whomever God calls to salvation, He calls seriously, that is, with a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save; nor do we assent to the opinions of those who hold that God calls certain ones externally whom He does not will to call internally, that is, as truly converted, even before the grace of calling has been rejected.

There is not in God a secret will which so contradicts the will of the same revealed in the Word that according to it (that is, the secret will) He does not will the conversion and salvation of the greatest part of those whom He seriously calls and invites by the Word of the Gospel and by His revealed will; and we do not here, as some say, acknowledge in God a holy simulation, or a double person.6

Notice that it is the Remonstrants (Arminians)—and not the Calvinists at Dordt—who teach that God has a “sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save” all who hear the gospel. Arminians believe that God desires the salvation of all men without exception. Johnson would have us believe that only hyper-Calvinists deny God’s desire to save all men.

That background greatly clarifies the meaning of the Canons. The key is the Latin word serio. Three times the word serio is used in Canons III/IV:8, translated by various adverbs in our official English version: “unfeignedly [serio] called,” “earnestly [serio] shown” and “seriously [serio] promises.”

What serio does not mean is what the Arminians taught—“whomever God calls to salvation, He calls seriously, that is, with a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save.” Modern compromised Calvinists, however, such as Johnson himself, do define the gospel call (or offer) that way, as God’s desire to save all or, in Johnson’s words, “the sincere proposal of divine mercy to sinners in general.” Are we to imagine God as a young, lovesick man, earnestly proposing marriage to a beautiful young lady, a proposal rejected by the majority of sinners who hear it as a “sincere proposal of divine mercy”? A disappointed suitor indeed! How could Christ propose to any sinners who are not part of His divinely ordained bride? And how does that differ from the typical Arminian message of Jesus knocking on the sinner’s heart?

About serio (unfeignedly, earnestly and seriously) we can make several observations. First, God is pleased with faith and repentance (“that those who are called should come to Him,” Canons III/IV:8). The good pleasure here is not God’s eternal decree, that which He is pleased to ordain. God is not pleased to ordain that all should repent and believe, for He has not decreed to give all men faith (Eph. 1:11; 2:8; Phil. 1:29). Rather, God’s good pleasure is that which is pleasing in His sight, or that in which He delights, or it is that which He approves in His creatures, and therefore that which He commands in His creatures (such as obedience to the law, faith and repentance). Second, God is serious, in earnest, about this. God is not indifferent to sin and unbelief. God does not say that He does not care whether people believe or not. Will God send preachers but remain indifferent as to whether sinners believe in Jesus? Will God remain unconcerned if sinners despise His Son in unbelief? Of course not! God is so serious about this that He threatens eternal damnation upon those who refuse to believe and to repent!

But the word serio certainly does not mean that God earnestly desires the salvation of all hearers. It cannot mean that, because God did not elect all to salvation (in fact, He reprobated many of those who in time hear the gospel); Christ did not die for all men (in fact, God has nothing to offer the reprobate who hear the gospel); and the Holy Spirit does not work graciously in the hearts of all hearers to regenerate them and work faith in them (in fact, the Spirit hardens many who hear the gospel).7 Since the Triune God does nothing for the salvation of the reprobate—He neither elects, nor redeems, nor regenerates them—how could He, then, in the preaching of the gospel desire (even seriously, ardently and passionately desire) the salvation of the same reprobate?

Such is the confusion of the modern “Calvinist.” Such was not the confusion of Dordt, and a rejection of that confusion does not make one a hyper-Calvinist, Johnson’s “Primer” notwithstanding.

1 Phil Johnson, “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism” ( As an illustration of how accessible this article is, google “hyper-Calvinism.”
2 John H. Gerstner in David J. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grandville, MI: RFPA, repr. 1993), p. vii.
3 Phil Johnson, “Who is Phillip R. Johnson?” (
4 Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright (eds.), New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), pp. 324-325. However, Toon is a hypo-Calvinist (see his Born Again: A Biblical and Theological Study of Regeneration [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987]) and even in his dictionary article he speaks of “the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them” (p. 324), contrary to the truth of particular atonement! The same dictionary notes that Augustine (p. 636) and Gottschalk (p. 259) denied that God desires to save the reprobate, yet they are not called hyper-Calvinists! Not only did the New Dictionary of Theology publish a hypo-Calvinist author and article defining hyper-Calvinism, but it has N. T. Wright promoting New Perspective on Paul ideas in his treatments of “Justification” (pp. 359-361) and “Righteousness” (pp. 590-592), over against Reformed teaching on this article of a standing or falling church.
5 We need not fear an over-emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Writes Engelsma, “Had Toon charged Hoeksema with an exclusive emphasis on the sovereignty of God, so that he denied or minimized the responsibility of man, we would have to take Toon’s charge seriously. Since the charge is that of ‘excessive’ emphasis, we can ignore it. For it is impossible to emphasize the sovereignty of God excessively, especially as regards the sovereignty of grace. Stand before the incarnation, the cross, and the wonder of regeneration, and try to de-emphasize sovereign grace. The ‘charge’ that a theologian excessively emphasizes sovereign grace is in fact the highest praise that one can give that theologian, praise that identifies him as a faithful servant of the gospel of the grace of God in Christ Jesus … Not in an emphasis on God’s sovereignty but in a denial of man’s responsibility must the characteristic flaw of hyper-Calvinism be located” (Hyper-Calvinism, p. 200).
6 Peter Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 1968), pp. 226-227; italics mine.
7 John Piper, another modern “Calvinist,” understands this, which is why he argues that Christ died for all men in some sense, in order to make it possible for God to make a bona fide “offer” of salvation to all men, a scheme which has no basis in Scripture and which certainly falls foul of the Canons of Dordt (especially II:8-9; R:2-4).


In our last editorial, we began to examine Phillip R. Johnson’s definition of hyper-Calvinism in his influential on-line article, “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism.” We distinguished between a serious call (the Latin term serio in Canons III/IV:8) and a gospel “offer.” We noted that it is the Arminian—and not the Calvinist—who defines serious (serio) as “a sincere and completely unhypocritical intention and will to save all” who hear the gospel.1

Johnson’s next line of attack is to suggest that “all five varieties of hyper-Calvinism undermine evangelism or twist the gospel message.”2 Johnson is aware that many of those whom he labels hyper-Calvinists do evangelize, so he accuses them of preaching a truncated gospel:

Many modern hyper-Calvinists salve themselves by thinking their view cannot really be hyper-Calvinism because, after all, they believe in proclaiming the gospel to all. However, the “gospel” they proclaim is a truncated soteriology with an undue emphasis on God’s decree as it pertains to the reprobate. One hyper-Calvinist, reacting to my comments about this subject on an e-mail list, declared, “The message of the gospel is that God saves those who are His and damns those who are not.” Thus the good news about Christ’s death and resurrection is supplanted by a message about election and reprobation—usually with an inordinate stress on reprobation.

First, I would strongly urge Johnson not to be unduly influenced by theological arguments on the internet. All kinds of kooks (many of whom have no ecclesiastical home) love to spend their time as the Athenians of old “in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). It would be unwise to label a group of people as hyper-Calvinists because of the expressed opinion of some unstable soul, who may not be under—or worse, refuses to submit himself to—proper ecclesiastical oversight. Extremism thrives in unsupervised on-line domains.

Second, and more importantly, I do not think I have ever read any theologian—and especially not an ordained minister—who defines the gospel the way in which this cyber-theologian supposedly does. And, more to the point, the BRF and the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) have never expressed such an absurd opinion.

Moreover, Johnson seems to be presupposing that the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is “good news” to all men. It emphatically is not. The gospel is only good news to those who believe it, that is, to the elect. Paul defines the gospel in I Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried and that the rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”

The Bible never defines the gospel as the good news that God loves everyone, that Christ died for everyone, that God desires to save everyone and that eternal life is available for everyone, if they will only accept it. That is Arminianism, not the gospel!

The danger Johnson sees in hyper-Calvinist “evangelism” is a failure to preach the gospel call.

This first variety of hyper-Calvinism denies the general, external call, and insists that the gospel should be preached in a way that proclaims the facts about Christ’s work and God’s electing grace—without calling for any kind of response. This is the worst form of hyper-Calvinism in vogue today. I’d class it as an extremely serious error, more dangerous than the worst variety of Arminianism. At least the Arminian preaches enough of the gospel for the elect to hear it and be saved. The hyper-Calvinist who denies the gospel call doesn’t even believe in calling sinners to Christ. He almost fears to whisper the gospel summons to other believers, lest anyone accuse him of violating divine sovereignty.

Johnson’s attitude is astounding. He would prefer to have Arminianism than lose his precious gospel “offer.” Hyper-Calvinism is heresy, but so is Arminianism. Johnson reminds me of a man I met once in the liberal Presbyterian church. He said that he could never join a church which denies that God loves, and wants to save, everybody. I asked him if the fact that his church allowed a host of serious errors (higher criticism in the seminary, women in church office, Arminianism, theistic evolution, etc.) perturbed him. He admitted that it did, but that at least he could have the gospel “offer.” Straining at gnats and swallowing camels (Matt. 23:24)!

Paul was not one who did not mind what people preached, as long as the “gospel call” was uttered. He tells the Philippians that there were some preaching Christ with wrong motives (“of envy and strife,” “of contention, not sincerely,” “in pretence;” Phil. 1:15-16, 18), but that he rejoiced because Christ was preached (v. 18). Certainly, Paul preferred preachers to do their work with the right motivation, but what Paul did not tolerate was a changing of the message itself (Gal. 1:6-9).

There are preachers who are hyper-Calvinists—although they are few and far between, and their number is almost negligible in comparison to the huge influence of Arminianism in most of the church world. Nevertheless, remember that this article is not written to defend hyper-Calvinists (who are, indeed, heterodox in their doctrine of salvation), but to defend the BRF and the PRC against the charge of hyper-Calvinism. I remind the reader of Johnson’s accusation: “The best known American hyper-Calvinists are the Protestant Reformed Churches.”


Offer/Invitation Versus Command

To understand the issues correctly we must distinguish between the gospel call (which Johnson advocates and which we do not deny) and the offer (which Johnson advocates and which we do deny). Quite simply, the gospel call is a command. A command is something very different from an offer, even if sometimes an offer or an invitation is couched in the language of a command, that is, in the imperative mood (“Come!” “Take,” etc.). Johnson writes, “The whole thrust of the gospel, properly presented, is to convey an offer (in the sense of a tender, a proffer, or a proposal) of divine peace and mercy to all who come under its hearing.”

But that is not what the gospel call is!

What is the gospel? The gospel is good news, announced to sinners by heralds sent by Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a declaration of what man must do. The gospel is not even a declaration of what God would like to do for man. The gospel is a declaration of what God has done.

The gospel cannot be offered. What God has done cannot be offered, as if one were trying to sell something. When I offer you something, I give it with the expectation, hope and desire that you will receive it. “Would you like a cup of tea?” “You are invited to my birthday party.” These are offers—in the sense of a tender, a proffer or a proposal. But the gospel is never an offer. God does not tender, proffer or propose something. In the gospel call, God commands. Therefore, the Bible does not use offer language but serious command language. God never comes to sinners with an offer: “Would you like salvation. It is available for you if you would like it, but if you would rather not, that is fine too.” That is the way in which I offer a cup of tea to a guest in my home. Nothing serious is at stake, if my guest declines my offer of tea.

A much better illustration is that of a summons to a court room. The bailiff of the court comes with a document from the judge. The document is not an offer: “You are cordially invited to attend my court room. I would love it if you could attend, but if it is inconvenient to you, there is no urgency to come.” The summons says, “Come!” And the bailiff has the power of arrest, should you refuse to come, and you will go to jail for contempt of court, if you fail to appear at the time appointed.

The classic passage on the gospel call as a command is the “Parable of the Wedding Feast” in Matthew 22. Many have misinterpreted this parable to teach a sincere and gracious invitation to the reprobate to receive and enjoy salvation. However, the word “invite” is inappropriate. Throughout the parable, Jesus uses the Greek verb “call” (kaleo):

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son. And sent forth his servants to call [kaleo] them that were bidden [i.e., called, kaleo] to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden [i.e., called, kaleo], Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage (vv. 2-4).

Many of the called refuse to come, and the king destroys them in verse 7. Then Jesus adds, “Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden [i.e., called, kaleo] were not worthy” (v. 8). After the wedding feast is filled with guests—who were not only called, but “gathered” (v. 10)—Jesus concludes, “For many are called [kaleo], but few are chosen” (v. 14).

The first important lesson from this parable is that both the external preaching, which comes to both elect and reprobate, and the internal call of the Holy Spirit, which is given only to the elect, are referred to as a “call” in Scripture (vv. 3, 14). God calls both the elect and the reprobate, but in different senses. The call of Matthew 22:14 is not the same, therefore, as the call of Romans 8:30 (“whom he called, them he also justified”). Some who are externally “called” (kaleo) are not justified and glorified, and therefore we could say that they are not elect. Thus the hyper-Calvinist, who denies that God externally “calls” the reprobate, is proved to be in error. This text is the basis for the classic Calvinist and Reformed distinction between the external call and the internal call.

Second, the word kaleo proves to us that the gospel comes as a command to all who hear, not as a gracious invitation. If I invite you to my birthday party, that is a gracious invitation, which you are free to accept or reject without any serious consequences. When God, the King in Matthew 22, calls men and women to the wedding feast of His Son, Jesus Christ, He is greatly displeased when they refuse. Moreover, we read that He destroys those who do not come (v. 7). That cannot seriously be understood as a gracious invitation to them.

Canons of Dordt II:5 explains the relationship between the gospel and the call:

Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.

Notice the careful wording here. God does not promise in the gospel to save sinners, if they will believe. God promises to save all believers. God does not promise to save the reprobate. But then how do the elect, the true recipients of the promise, hear the promise? Through the preaching! The promise is preached to all and sundry, but the promise applies only to believers. The command must be addressed to all hearers, and that call must go far and wide, but a command implies neither the intention of God nor the ability of man. A command only teaches us what our duty is. God does not promise anything to the reprobate. Indeed, and this element is lacking in Johnson and other modern Calvinists, the gospel call serves to harden the reprobate and to leave them without excuse (Isa. 6:9-10). Does God, then, “offer” something and later rescind His offer when the reprobate refuse to accept it?

1 “The Opinions of the Remonstrants” in Peter Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 1968), pp. 226-227.
2 Remember that Johnson’s proposed definition has five parts: “A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either #1 Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear OR #2 Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner OR #3 Denies that the gospel makes any ‘offer’ of Christ, salvation or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal) OR #4 Denies that there is such a thing as ‘common grace’ OR #5 Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.” All quotations are from Johnson’s online article, “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism” (


“The best known American hyper-Calvinists are the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC).” It is this scurrilous charge of Phillip R. Johnson, in his “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism,” that we are answering in this series of editorials (

We have distinguished between the serious call—what the Reformed faith, following the Canons of Dordt, does teach—and the gospel offer—what the Reformed faith rejects, and what the Arminians (Remonstrants) did teach. We have also explained that gospel preaching is the promiscuous proclamation of a particular promise, in which God promises—not merely offers—salvation to whomsoever believes in Jesus Christ (see Canons II:5), and that this promise—not a mere offer—must be preached to all without distinction with the command to repent and believe. We have also stressed the truth that, in the gospel, God is serious—He seriously commands all to repent and believe, and He seriously promises salvation to all believers, although He does not merely offer salvation to all hearers on condition of faith.

This brings us to a consideration of what hyper-Calvinism actually is. That we deny that we are purveyors of hyper-Calvinism and that Johnson unfairly characterises the PRC (and the BRF which also rejects the free offer) as hyper-Calvinists, does not mean that hyper-Calvinism does not exist and that it is not a real threat to the church. We must reject all error, both on the right and the left.

Johnson garbled the definition earlier in his “Primer” by quoting Peter Toon, who charges hyper-Calvinists with “undermin[ing] the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them.”1 As we shall argue later, God does not command all sinners to be assured that Christ died for them—how could He, when Christ did not die for all men?—but He does command all sinners to believe in Jesus Christ, promising eternal life to all who do. Later, in his own five-point definition, Johnson more accurately writes, “A hyper-Calvinist is someone who ... denies that faith is the duty of every sinner.”

Here, finally, we have an accurate definition of hyper-Calvinism, to which we would add that a hyper-Calvinist also denies that repentance is the duty of every sinner. Had Johnson’s “Primer” defined hyper-Calvinism thus, he would have been historically and theologically accurate, and he would not have slandered those who reject the free offer as hyper-Calvinists. A denial of duty faith and duty repentance is the hallmark of genuine hyper-Calvinism. A denial of the well-meant or free offer, i.e., a denial of God’s desire to save the reprobate, and a denial of common grace are not hallmarks of hyper-Calvinism. Would that theologians would stop muddying the waters of theological discourse!

We repudiate, reject and oppose hyper-Calvinism’s denial of duty faith and repentance. We insist that it is the duty of all men everywhere to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, and we are not afraid to press that serious command upon our hearers and readers.2

Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists make the same basic error. They judge man’s duty according to his ability. The Arminian reasons that, if God commands sinners to repent and believe the gospel (which is true), unregenerate sinners must be able to do this by the power of free will (which is false). The hyper-Calvinist reasons that, if unregenerate sinners are totally depraved and therefore unable to repent and believe (which is true), God cannot command them to repent and believe the gospel (which is false).

We have already argued at length from the Reformed confessions and from Christ’s parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22:1-14) that God calls—not merely invites—more than the elect and that whom He calls, whether elect or reprobate, He calls seriously, but not with a well-meant offer.

Let us reiterate and develop that point. The Canons are not hyper-Calvinist in their doctrine of the call, nor do the fathers at Dordt compromise with Arminianism. Canons II:6 teaches that “many who are called by the gospel do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief.” Canons III/IV:9 also states that “[some of] those who are called by the ministry of Word refuse to come and be converted.” Canons III/IV:10 adds “that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will.” Moreover, Canons I:3 avers that by the gospel ministry “men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified.” In Canons III/IV:17, the fathers at Dordt remind us that “the most wise God has ordained [the preaching of the gospel] to be the seed of regeneration and food of the soul.” In addition, the Heidelberg Catechism explains the relationship between God’s command and man’s (in)ability: “God made man capable of performing it [i.e., obedience to His law]; but man ... deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts” (A. 9). The same catechism explains the duty of the sinner to repent: “it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted ...” (A. 84).

One tactic of genuine hyper-Calvinists is to refuse to recognize the distinction between the external call—the command to all to repent and believe—and the internal call—the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit in the elect to bring them to saving faith and repentance. Hyper-Calvinists will not acknowledge that the call of Romans 8:28, 30 and Ephesians 4:4 is different from the call of Matthew 22:14. Moreover, because sometimes Christ restricts His call to repentance to certain kinds of people, hyper-Calvinists restrict the call of the gospel always and only to those whom they call “sensible [i.e., sensitive] sinners.” Hyper-Calvinists might even be zealous in their evangelism; they might preach widely and indiscriminately; they might plant churches; but in their preaching they do not call the hearers to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. A “sensible” sinner is actually a regenerate person, a believer, because a “sensible” sinner is aware of his sin, laments over his misery, and hungers and thirsts after righteousness. According to Canons III/IV:R:4, “to hunger and thirst after deliverance from misery and after life, and to offer unto God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed (Ps. 51:10, 19; Matt. 5:6).” Johnson is, therefore, correct when he writes,

Advocates of this position [i.e., hyper-Calvinism] suggest that each sinner must seek a warrant for his faith before presuming to exercise faith in Christ. The sinner does this by looking for evidence that he is elect (an utterly absurd notion, since faith is the only real evidence of election).

He could have made reference to Canons I:12 and Canons V:9-10 in this regard.

Hyper-Calvinists appeal to various statements of Christ. For example, Christ declares, “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32; cf. Matt. 9:12-13; Mark 2:17). Elsewhere, Christ says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). In Luke 4:18, Christ says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor ... to preach deliverance to the captives ...” In Matthew 11:5, Jesus bids the messengers of John to return to John with this message: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

From this, the hyper-Calvinist concludes that the gospel is preached only to the poor (in spirit) or only to the meek (Isa. 61:1) or only to the captives; that the gospel is preached only to the (spiritually) labouring and heavy laden; that God addresses the gospel to no one else, and that therefore the preacher may not address the gospel to anyone else. But the Reformed faith teaches that the promise of the gospel is to be “declared and published” (and therefore addressed) to all men without distinction (Canons II:5).

The texts above are not the only ones which bear upon this subject. In one of the earliest examples of Christ’s preaching, we read, “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). This was a general call. In Matthew 11:20, Jesus “began ... to upbraid the cities.” Why? “Because they repented not.” If they were not required to repent, why does Christ upbraid them and threaten them with damnation for not repenting? When Christ sent out His disciples, “they went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). Before He ascended into heaven, Christ commanded His disciples to “teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19) and “preach the gospel to every creature,” adding that “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16), for it is His will “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations” (Luke 24:47). No restriction of the call to repentance and faith can be admitted in these passages.

The internal call of grace is limited by election, for “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14), but the external call is not limited—the gospel with the command to repent and believe is to be preached, proclaimed, declared and addressed to all men without distinction. All who come under the hearing of that gospel must be confronted with their duty before God to repent and believe. So serious is God in impressing this duty upon all hearers that He threatens eternal damnation upon all who refuse to believe and repent.

Exactly this is what the apostles did in obedience to their Lord. “Repent, and be baptized,” said Peter (Acts 2:38). “Repent ye therefore, and be converted,” he urged (Acts 3:19). To the unbelieving Sanhedrin, Peter declared, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In Antioch of Pisidia, Paul preached, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins,” adding the warning, “Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish” (Acts 13:38, 41). To the pagans in Lystra, Paul proclaimed, “[We] preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God” (Acts 14:15). To the trembling Philippian jailor, Paul preached the command and the promise: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). In Thessalonica, according to Acts 17:3, Paul was “Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” To the Athenians, Paul declared, “[God] commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30). In Acts 19:4, Paul describes John the Baptist’s preaching thus: “John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” In the synagogue of Ephesus, Paul “spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God,” the result of which preaching was that some “were hardened, and believed not” (Acts 19:8-9). Paul describes his ministry in Ephesus as “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). In prison, before the ungodly governor Felix, Paul “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.” So searching was Paul’s preaching that Felix “trembled,” but he did not repent, although we can be sure that Paul commanded him to repent (Acts 24:25). To unbelieving Herod Agrippa, Paul exclaims, “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds” (Acts 26:29). At the end of the Acts, we find Paul teaching the gospel, with the result that some believed and some did not believe (Acts 28:23-24, 31).

Clearly, then, we see a pattern in New Testament preaching. Christ and the apostles preached indiscriminately, calling, commanding and urging all men to repent and believe, and promising believers—and only believers—rest, peace, salvation and eternal life. Christ and the apostles did not preach that God loves all men, that Christ died for all men and that God desires the salvation of all men head for head. Thus the New Testament rebukes both real hyper-Calvinists on the one hand, and Arminians with “free-offer Calvinists” on the other hand.

To these obvious truths, the hyper-Calvinist responds with unbiblical distinctions. English hyper-Calvinist Joseph Hussey (1660-1726) called preachers to “preach the Gospel of the kingdom to [unbelievers]” but “do not preach the Gospel of the blood of Christ to them.” Unbelievers are called, he said, to believe in Christ naturally but not with true faith, and to repent with a legal, but not evangelical, repentance.3 As if the Bible knows of different gospels or different kinds of repentance! One hyper-Calvinist whom I encountered recently argued that the “all men every where” of Acts 17:30 must refer to the elect alone. His argument was that Paul goes on to say that God “hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him [i.e., Jesus] from the dead” (v. 31). Since the word for assurance in verse 31 is pistis, which is commonly translated “faith,” and since God gives faith as a gift only to His elect, the “all men” in both verses 30-31 must refer only to the elect. Strange exegesis indeed! The word pistis does indeed mean faith, but its meaning is not determined merely from a lexicon, but from the context. The meaning of the phrase here is to furnish proof, to demonstrate something, that is, the resurrection of Christ proves to all men that Christ will judge the world on the Last Day. The resurrection of Christ is clear, objective proof—whether men will believe or not—that Jesus is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4).

A more difficult question is, What does God command the reprobate to believe? Clearly, God does not command the reprobate to believe that Christ died for them or to believe that God loves them or to believe that they have eternal life.4 No unbeliever has any right to believe that he has eternal life, so long as he remains unbelieving. In fact, the opposite is true: an unbeliever is commanded to believe that the wrath of God remains on him so long as he remains in a state of unbelief. This is “declared and testified to all unbelievers” in the preaching of the gospel (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 84; cf. John 3:36).

The preacher must declare to the unbeliever who God is, what sin is, who Christ is and what Christ has done for sinners, and then call that person to repent and believe. These former steps of explanation are usually skipped by Arminians looking for premature decisions. To say, “Repent and believe in Christ crucified” is not the same as “Repent and believe in Christ who died for you.”

One objection to this is Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, where faith is defined as,

an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits (A. 21).

If the reprobate are commanded to believe, are they not commanded to have an assured confidence of personal salvation? The answer is no. No one is commanded to have assurance unless he believes. Faith, believing the truth and trusting in Jesus, is first, and confidence is a necessary fruit of faith. Without faith—without receiving for truth all things revealed in the Word of God and without resting on Christ alone for salvation, with a repudiation of all works as the ground of salvation—there can be no assurance. Faith is the way in which the sinner receives the benefit of justification. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 23 says, “God ... imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ ... inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart” and “I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only” (A. 60, 61). Moreover, Lord’s Day 31 says that the preaching opens the kingdom of God,

when according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits (A. 84).

One who does not receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith cannot possibly have personal assurance of the forgiveness of sins.

The Heidelberg Catechism simply summarizes the teaching of Scripture: “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16); “Repent ... and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38); “Repent ... that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19); “whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43); “And by him all that believe are justified ...” (Acts 13:39); “Believe ... and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). To the believer eternal life is promised, and the believer can and must have assurance of his personal salvation. To the unbeliever nothing is promised, and the unbeliever may not have any assurance whatsoever—except that he will be damned if he continues in his unbelief and impenitence.

Let Engelsma—whose book Johnson calls “terribly misleading” with “selective quoting and interpretive gymnastics,” none of which charges he makes any attempt to prove—explain:

The message proclaimed in the gospel is not something that may ever merely be received for information, nor does it ever leave anyone with the impression that God is satisfied with that. The message of the gospel is the message of God’s Son in our flesh, crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The gospel must be believed, and the Christ presented in the gospel must be believed on—today. Nothing else will do. Therefore, the gospel calls those who hear the good news .... For the sake of the elect, God has the church call all who hear the preaching; lest it call a reprobate, hyper-Calvinism tends to call no one.5

Let the gospel be preached clearly, urgently, promiscuously—with the gospel call, but not a mere offer, to all to whom God is pleased to send the gospel. Then we act as true, Reformed Calvinists, eschewing both Arminian offer theology and real hyper-Calvinism.

1 Peter Toon, “Hyper-Calvinism” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright (eds.), New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), p. 324.
2 Please note that the BRF is not a church and, therefore, the BRF, as such, does not preach.
3 Joseph Hussey, God’s Operations of Grace But No Offers of Grace (Elon College, NC: Primitive Publications, 1973), pp. 87, 153, 156-157, cited with sharp disapproval by David J. Engelsma in Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, repr. 1993), pp. 204-205.
4 Remember Peter Toon’s Arminian statement that it is “the universal duty of sinners to believe savingly in the Lord Jesus with the assurance that Christ actually died for them.”
5 Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism, p. 26.



In our last three editorials, our focus was on the first three parts of Phil Johnson’s erroneous definition of hyper-Calvinism. We have demonstrated that a denial of the well-meant, or free, offer of the gospel is not hyper-Calvinism. Now, in addressing Johnson’s last two points, we demonstrate that a denial of common grace is also not hyper-Calvinism.

Remember that Johnson’s proposed definition has five parts:

A hyper-Calvinist is someone who either
#1 Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear OR
#2 Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner OR
#3 Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal) OR
#4 Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace” OR
#5 Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.

It remains for us to deal with #4 and #5.

One of the weaknesses of Johnson’s argument is that he fails to give a meaningful definition of grace or, indeed, any definition of grace at all. In addition, Johnson does not distinguish between grace, mercy and love, which, although similar, are distinct attributes of God. How can we discuss whether or not grace is common, unless we first define what grace is? Johnson probably assumes that it is self-evident what grace is. After all, do not all Christians—and especially Reformed theologians—know what grace is? Johnson complains that “type #4 hyper-Calvinists” deny that God has any “true goodwill toward the non elect,” and that, therefore, “type #4 hyper-Calvinists” deny that God shows “favour or grace of any kind” to the reprobate. In addition, Johnson complains that “type #5 hyper-Calvinists” insist that “God’s demeanour toward the non-elect is always and only hatred,” which is, writes Johnson, “a de facto denial of common grace.”

Therefore, Johnson seems to equate God’s grace with “goodwill,” “favour” and a certain kind of pleasant “demeanour” of God toward His creatures. God’s elect enjoy saving grace, by which they are delivered from sin and brought to heaven. The reprobate enjoy for a time “common grace,” by which their life in this world is made pleasant, before they are eternally condemned. Moreover, the reprobate often enjoy more “common grace” in this life than God’s children.


A Definition of Grace

Grace signifies three things in Scripture. If we understand what grace is, we will see that God’s grace could not possibly be bestowed on the reprobate, that is, it could not be common. Let us turn to what the Scriptures teach.

First, God’s grace is an attribute of God, one of His glorious perfections. I Peter 5:10 calls Him “the God of all grace.” Similarly, we read that there are treasured up in the Triune God “exceeding riches of his grace” (Eph. 2:7). About Jesus, we read that, as the only begotten of the Father, He is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This means that the source of all grace is God Himself and that all grace mediated to the creature comes through Christ alone. Is “common grace,” then, also mediated through Christ? How could that be, since the reprobate are not “in Christ”? Grace has the root idea of beauty, charm or pleasantness. When we speak of God’s grace, therefore, we mean that He is—utterly independent of the creature, to whom He may or may not show grace according to His good pleasure—the sum of all perfections, the God of beauty, charm and pleasantness. The believer delights in this, desiring to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of [his] life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). God’s beauty is His grace.

Second, grace is favour. Although it comes to us as undeserved favour, grace itself is simply favour. We know this because God favoured Jesus Christ, about whom we cannot say that He received God’s undeserved favour. “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Moreover, we must not confuse the word “favour” with the word “favourite,” as if God could only favour some, because having “favourites” supposedly means that He must exclude others from His favour. A teacher might favour everyone in the class, without showing favouritism or having favourites. The teacher’s favour on some or all of the students is his attitude toward them. God’s favour is free. Therefore, He may favour all, many, some, few or even none, according to His good pleasure. If God had favour on none, but cast all sinners into hell, He would still be the gracious God of all grace. However, in that case, He would not have made His grace known. That grace of God has “appeared” (Titus 2:11). God’s grace or favour, then, is the beautiful, pleasant attitude of favour that God has for His people who are creatures and sinners. When the Psalmist prays, “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Ps. 90:17), he has God’s grace in mind. Let God’s favour rest upon us! Does God’s favour rest on the reprobate? Certainly not, for the Bible teaches that God’s wrath abides on them (John 3:36).

Third, grace is a power by which God works in His people to conform them to the image of Jesus Christ. This third aspect is not the focus in the “common grace” debate, so we can be more brief. Grace is the power by which we live as Christians. Paul writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (I Cor. 15:10). God’s grace laboured in Paul—it was a power active in him. That same grace works in us, enabling us to live as Christians, to fulfil the calling God has given to us and to endure the trials that He has placed upon us. Elsewhere, Paul writes that God’s grace teaches us and enables us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, that we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world (Titus 2:12). Does common grace do that? Do the reprobate live in a godly manner by the power of God’s (common) grace? Only a fool would suggest it! Without God’s grace we can do nothing. That is why we pray for grace, for “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 116). When God assures Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee” (II Cor. 12:9), He does not mean, “It is enough for thee that I am the sum of all perfections or it is enough for thee that I am favourable to thee” but “the power of My grace, which works in thee, is sufficient for thee to serve Me, even if I do not remove the thorn from thy flesh.”


God’s Grace Is Particular

God’s grace is particular, that is, not all men are recipients of it. Common grace, which Johnson says is “extended to everyone,” does not exist. That makes the BRF, “type #4 hyper-Calvinists” in Johnson’s mind, a charge we vehemently deny.

In addition, God’s grace is one. Johnson complains that the “type #4 hyper-Calvinist” teaches that God shows “no favour or grace of any kind” to the reprobate, but Johnson must demonstrate different “kinds” of grace in God. And Johnson must demonstrate the source of this “secondary kind” of grace of God. Is it rooted in election and the cross, the source of grace according to sacred Scripture? How could it be when, by definition, the reprobate are excluded from election and the cross?

The first time the word “grace” is used in Scripture is Genesis 6:8, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” While God’s wrath was directed against the whole of mankind and while He determined to destroy them, God favoured Noah and his family. There is in Genesis 6 no hint of common grace. The “but” of verse 8 contrasts sharply God’s attitude toward Noah with His attitude toward the wicked antediluvians. When God caused His sun to rise upon the antediluvian world and when those wicked people “were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Matt. 24:38), they did so without God’s favour upon them. God’s elect eat, drink and enjoy His sunshine and rain with His blessing upon them; but the reprobate wicked eat, drink and use God’s creation under His wrath and with His curse upon them. Proverbs 3:33 teaches, “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just.” God does not curse those upon whom He is gracious; and God does not bless those whom He curses. Blessing and cursing are mutually exclusive: “For such as be blessed of him shall inherit the earth; and they that be cursed of him shall be cut off” (Ps. 37:22). On the Last Day, Christ will declare that His elect sheep are blessed (both in time and into eternity), while the reprobate goats are cursed (both in time and into eternity) (Matt. 25:34, 41, 46).

Something that all advocates of common grace miss is that God’s grace is not in things but in His disposition behind the things that He gives (Ecc. 9:1-2). God’s providence is universal, not particular. God upholds and governs even the wicked by His hand. God supplies even the wicked with the good gifts of this creation. Often, the reprobate wicked enjoy more of God’s creation and for a longer time than do His often beleaguered children. But those good things are not in themselves grace. God can give rain, sunshine, food and clothing graciously or in His wrath (Num. 11:33). If God has a benevolent disposition of good will toward a creature, in which He desires to bless that creature, we call that good will “grace.” But God might also have a disposition of wrath against a creature, in which He desires to curse that creature. Never can we call such a disposition “grace.”


Good Gifts to the Reprobate

It is absolutely true that the reprobate wicked live in a world full of God’s gifts. Asaph writes about that in Psalm 73. Looking around, he witnesses the prosperity of the wicked: “Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches” (v. 12). Worse than the prosperity of the wicked is the adversity of the righteous: “Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning” (vv. 13-14). It seemed to Asaph that God favoured the wicked and that their prosperity was “grace” to them. Such a thought drove Asaph almost to despair: “But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vv. 2-3). How did Asaph retain his spiritual sanity? Not by subscribing to “The Three Points of Common Grace”—that might have driven him over the edge!—but by considering the purpose of God in the prosperity of the wicked: “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end. Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction” (vv. 17-18). The prosperity of the wicked is God’s sovereign, inscrutable way of placing the ungodly on a slippery slide by which He brings them down into hell. Good gifts—certainly! Abundant prosperity—absolutely! Common grace—by no means! Asaph’s conclusion is clear: “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart” (v. 1). Asaph knows that God is good only to Israel, that is, only to those who are of a clean heart. The child of God needs to know that for his own comfort. Common grace advocates rob the child of God of that vital consolation. If God’s favour is found in prosperity and the child of God suffers adversity, the child of God’s feet will slip when he hears of “common grace.”

Psalm 73 is not the only witness. Psalm 37 show that the prosperity of the wicked is illusory; they only seem to be favoured by God. In reality, God is cursing them even in their prosperity. We quote some texts so that the reader might get a flavour of the Psalm. “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb” (vv. 1-2). “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him that prospereth in his way …” (v. 7). “For evildoers shall be cut off … For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be …” (vv. 9-10). “But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away” (v. 20). “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found” (vv. 35-36). Notice the temptations to which we are exposed by the seeming prosperity of the wicked: envy and fretting oneself to do evil. A Christian who believes that God is blessing the wicked with “common grace” will be tempted to leave the path of obedience and to walk with the wicked, so that he might enjoy more of God’s “common grace” also. That is exactly why Psalm 37 and 73 were written—that we might not fret ourselves to do evil!

In Psalm 92, the Psalmist contrasts two plants. One is the wicked man: “When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever” (v. 7). The word “that” indicates purpose: “it is so that they shall be destroyed forever.” God’s purpose in the temporary springing up and flourishing of the wicked is their destruction. That is not common grace. The second is the righteous man: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing” (vv. 12-14). A brutish man does not know this, and a fool does not understand this (v. 6). The modern advocate of common grace does not understand it either. Asaph confessed his brutishness and folly in Psalm 73, when he was temporarily bewitched by the prosperity of the wicked: “So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee” (v. 22).

If Johnson desires to prove common grace, he needs to prove that, when God gives good gifts to the wicked, this is evidence of His favour upon them, which favour then ends at death, when He casts the same wicked, whom He supposedly favoured in time, into everlasting destruction. However, this creates other problems, for how can God’s grace, mercy or love be temporary, especially when Psalm 136 declares twenty-six times that “his mercy endureth for ever”? Johnson, like many others, confuses God’s providence, which is common, with God’s grace, which is not common.

Johnson writes, “The idea of common grace is implicit throughout Scripture.” To label Reformed Christians with the dishonourable epithet of “hyper-Calvinist,” one surely requires more evidence than something that is supposedly “implicit” in Scripture! We need a text, properly exegeted in its context, which proves that God is gracious or shows favour to the reprobate wicked. This Johnson does not supply. Such a text does not exist.

However, Johnson does trot out the standard “common grace texts,” although without exegeting them. Presumably, he believes that they speak for themselves. Does the theory of “common grace” pass exegetical scrutiny? Even when Johnson brings forth his “big guns”?

We shall see.


Bringing Out the Big Guns

In our last editorial, we defined God’s grace and demonstrated its particularity. In this issue, we intend to address the main texts to which Phillip R. Johnson appeals in defence of “common grace,” the denial of which, alleges Johnson, places one in the dreaded camp of the hyper-Calvinists.

Before we address those texts, let us deal with a point of confusion. Many who believe in “common grace” do so because God in His providence gives good gifts to the reprobate wicked, which they do not deserve. “Every day that a wicked person lives in this world is grace to him, for everything apart from hell is grace,” is the argument of many. We agree wholeheartedly that the reprobate wicked deserve nothing—they do not even deserve to live. However, that is not the same thing as grace. It is important in order to avoid confusion to use words as Scripture uses them. In this case, it is important not to confuse grace with providence. Sometimes, those who believe in “common grace” and those who do not are talking past one another because they do not properly define their terms.

Grace in Scripture is God’s favour. The issue is not whether God gives good things to the wicked, which they do not deserve to have, but what is God’s purpose in so doing and, especially, what is God’s attitude to the wicked to whom He gives such good gifts? If God’s purpose in prolonging the life of the reprobate wicked is to enable them to treasure up wrath against the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5) or to place them on slippery places so that they are cast down into destruction (Ps. 73:18) or that they might be destroyed forever (Ps. 92:7), we cannot call that grace.


Psalm 145:9

First, Johnson urges that common grace is “God’s goodness to humanity in general” and quotes Psalm 145:9: “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.” Here, although the Psalmist does not write “grace,” he praises God’s “tender mercies,” and in the previous verse he writes, “The Lord is gracious (Hebrew root: hen), and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy” (v. 8). The question is, who are the “all” of verse 9?

A Calvinist such as Johnson must not demur at such a question, because he faces it elsewhere, such as in II Corinthians 5:14-15 (“one died for all … he died for all”). If Johnson does not want to deny the particularity of the atonement, he must interpret the word “all” in a certain way in II Corinthians 5:14-15. The exegesis of that text is, however, not at issue here.

Suffice to say that context determines the meaning of the word “all” in any particular text. Psalm 145 is Hebrew poetry. Therefore, we would expect the phenomenon called “Hebrew parallelism,” in which the second phrase of a verse is a further explanation of the first phrase. “The Lord is good to all” is clarified by “and his tender mercies are over all his works.” Therefore, “all” refers to “all his works.” But what do “all his works” mean? Do “all his works” include the reprobate wicked? Certainly, God did create the reprobate wicked but are they included or excluded here? We are not left to speculate, for verse 10 further elucidates verse 9: “All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee.” Therefore, the “all” of verse 9 equals the “all thy works” of verse 10, which equals the “all thy saints” of verse 10. Do the reprobate wicked (who, Johnson claims, are included in the “all” of verse 9) praise God? Do they bless Him (v. 10)? Do they speak of the glory of His kingdom (v. 11)? Do the eyes of the reprobate wicked (“the eyes of all”) wait upon God (v. 15)?

The reprobate wicked do appear in Psalm 145, but here is what the Psalmist says about them: “but all the wicked will he destroy” (v. 20). Is God good to them as He destroys them and are God’s tender mercies over them as He destroys them? To ask such questions is to answer them. Therefore, “common grace” is neither implicitly nor explicitly taught in Psalm 145. In fact, we see from Psalm 145 that God’s attitude toward the reprobate wicked is hatred, not love (v. 20).


Deuteronomy 10:15

Johnson’s next proof text for common grace is from Deuteronomy 10. In that chapter, God assures Israel of His love: “only the Lord had a delight in thy fathers to love them …” (v. 15). This love is a particular love, for God did not love, delight in or choose others (cf. 7:6-10). In response to His love, God demands love from Israel, for “He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:18-19).

From these verses, Johnson aims to prove two assertions. First, God loves all men, at least in some sense. Notice, however, that the word “grace” is absent from the text, and that Johnson is trying to prove “common grace,” not common love. He blurs somewhat the distinction between “type #4” and “type #5” hyper-Calvinism here.1 Second, God’s love to all men is demonstrated in “common” things, “in giving [them] food and raiment.”

However, what Johnson must demonstrate exegetically is that the “stranger” of verse 18 includes all strangers. Does God love, show mercy to, and provide food and raiment for absolutely all strangers? Do not some strangers starve to death and do not some strangers remain unclothed? God fed and clothed the widow of Zarephath but there were many other widows with sons in Sidon, whom God did not feed and clothe; and there were many widows in Israel, whom God did not feed and clothe (Luke 4:25-26). Do not even some of God’s people starve to death (cf. Luke 16:22)? Did God not love them?

When Paul says in Romans 5:6 that “Christ died for the ungodly,” he does not mean all the ungodly. He simply means that those for whom Christ died are ungodly. Similarly, those whom God loves are the believing strangers who joined God’s people Israel and He commands Israel to provide for strangers. This does not mean that God loves absolutely all strangers or that He has mercy, grace or favour for all strangers. And it certainly does not mean that God loves reprobate strangers or that He is gracious to them. Moreover, that God loves some by giving them food and raiment does not mean that, whenever God gives food and raiment, He always gives these things in love (or in “common grace”), and, whenever God withholds food and raiment, He always withholds them in wrath as a sign of His displeasure.

An ungodly rich man, upon whom the curse of God rests in Proverbs 3:33, has a house stuffed full of food and raiment, and the poor man, in whose house the blessing of God resides, is deprived of much food and raiment, for “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith” (Prov. 15:16).

In Numbers 11, God supplied quails for Israel, but we read, “And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague” (v. 33). Psalm 106:15 is a commentary on that history: “And he gave them their request; but he sent leanness into their soul.”

Many Calvinists, such as Johnson, are short sighted in their view of providence: food and clothing are never in themselves indications of God’s favour. The Heidelberg Catechism makes a wise distinction here, for we learn to acknowledge in our prayers, that “neither our care nor industry, nor even [God’s] gifts [of daily bread] can profit us without [His] blessing” (A. 125). God can and does give daily bread to the wicked without His blessing or so-called “common grace.”

Similarly, when God “did good” in Acts 14:17 (another text to which Johnson refers), it was as a “witness,” but the ungodly heathen must never imagine, when God “gave [them] rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling [their] hearts with food and gladness,” that this was a demonstration that the Creator loved them, favoured them or sought to bless them. Indeed, Paul writes elsewhere that the wrath of God—and not His love or favour—is revealed from heaven through the creation that God has made (Rom. 1:18-20).

God reveals His love, grace, mercy and favour in Jesus Christ! Only in Jesus Christ!


Matthew 5:44-45

Next, Johnson quotes the favourite text of all those who advocate common grace, Matthew 5:44-45: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” For the sake of completion, let us quote the parallel passage in Luke 6:35: “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” But to quote these texts without exegesis proves nothing. Johnson cannot merely quote them and then write, “That is common grace.” He must demonstrate that exegetically!

Because these texts in Matthew and Luke are so crucial to the “common grace” cause, we offer a thorough exegesis.

Matthew 5 is part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus Christ teaches principles that govern our lives as the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The question in verses 44-45 is how we treat our enemies, who are those who “curse” us (which means to speak evil of and upon us), who “hate” us (which means to wish evil upon us, and to be motivated by malice and spite again us), and who “despitefully use” and “persecute” us (which means to insult, revile and vilify us; and to chase after us with a view to destroying us). The Pharisees responded, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy” (v. 43). In fact, many Pharisees defined “neighbour” so narrowly and “enemy” so broadly that they restricted their love to fellow Jews or even to fellow Pharisees, while they justified hating everyone else.

Jesus taught us to “love” our enemies. That love must be manifested in “blessing” (which means to speak well of someone and to speak good upon them), “doing good” (which takes good speech one step further, so that we perform deeds of kindness for our enemies) and “praying for” our enemies (which means that we seek for them the blessing of God by beseeching our Father to have mercy on them in turning them from their sins to Jesus Christ). This love for our enemies is not a calling to have fellowship with them, which, as long as they remain unconverted, is impossible. The Christian comes in love, blessing, doing good, praying and calling the enemy to repentance; but the enemy responds with hatred, cursing, despiteful use and persecution. Whatever the response of the enemy, the Christian is called to love him still. William Tyndale, who was martyred in 1536, exemplified this Christian virtue of love, when, in a letter to his persecutors, he wrote, “Take away my goods, take away my good name, yet as long as Christ remaineth in me, so long I love thee not a whit the less.”

In verse 45, Jesus draws a parallel between our calling and the activity of our God and Father, and it is in this parallel especially that some find proof of “common grace.” The activity of God in sending rain and sunshine on both the evil and the good is proof, say many, that God favours, loves, has mercy upon and blesses the evil and the good alike. In Luke 6:35, Jesus draws a similar parallel: “He [i.e., God] is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.”

To understand the parallel, we need to ask a few questions.

First, who are God’s enemies? In Scripture, God has two kinds of enemies: His reprobate enemies, whom He destroys; and His elect enemies, whom He reconciles to Himself and saves. God’s reprobate enemies are the devil, the reprobate demons and reprobate human beings. These are preordained to damnation (Rom. 9:22; I Pet. 2:8; Rev. 17:8). God has decreed not to save them. God’s attitude toward these enemies is one of hatred (Rom. 9:13). He curses them and sends them to hell (Luke 19:27). This hatred, this curse and this eternal punishment do not mean that God is evil, spiteful, malicious or cruel, for God’s hatred of the wicked is a righteous, holy hatred of their persons and their sins (Ps. 5:5; 11:5). The Canons of Dordt explain the decree of reprobation in these sobering words:

What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture that not all, but only some, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal election of God; whom God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but leaving them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at last for the declaration of His justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation, which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof (Canons I:15).

But God also has elect enemies. They are “the unthankful” and “the evil” of Luke 6:35. God’s elect enemies are sinners chosen in Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world to be saved through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God’s attitude toward these enemies is love: God blesses them, God has mercy on them, God is kind to them, God delivers them from sin and death, and God brings them to everlasting life. God changes these enemies into friends. Believers were these enemies: by nature we were the enemies of God for we once lived as the enemies of God (Eph. 2:3) as those who once hated Him, cursed Him, despitefully used Him and persecuted Christ in His saints (Acts 9:4-5). Paul writes, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreprovable in his sight” (Col. 1:21-22).

Second, what does God do to His enemies according to Matthew 5 and Luke 6, and does He do these things to His elect enemies, His reprobate enemies or both? Matthew 5:45 teaches that God sends sunshine and rain upon all men indiscriminately: “He maketh his sun to shine upon the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” The evil and the good or the just and the unjust include all kinds of men: the converted and unconverted, the believer and the unbeliever, and the elect and the reprobate. We see that all around us: God causes the sun to shine and rain to fall upon the field of both godly and ungodly farmers. Often He sends so much rain and sunshine on the ungodly that their fields produce a bumper harvest, they have tables laden with good food, bank accounts stuffed with money and good health to enjoy these things that come from God’s hand.

But does an abundance of good things (“rain and sunshine”) mean that God is blessing the ungodly in those things or that those things are evidence of God’s favour? That is the issue with “common grace.” Remember that, according to Johnson and his allies, common grace is supposed to be a favourable attitude of God toward the reprobate wicked seen in the good things that God gives to them. That would mean that God, when He gives rain and sunshine and lots of other good things to the wicked, is saying to them, “In these things, I love you; I have favour upon you; I show mercy to you; and I am gracious to you. (But, at the same time, I have eternally determined not to save you; Christ did not die for you; and I will cast you into hell).”

What, then, is God saying to His own people when He sends them so much sunshine that their crops wither and die so that they starve, or when He sends them so much rain that He washes away their houses in a flood? “In these things, I hate you; in these things, I do not have favour on you; in these things, I seek your destruction; in these things, I express my displeasure against you.” God forbid!

That would mean that God, in giving good things to the wicked, is blessing them, speaking His favour upon them and seeking to do them good. But that would be a blessing of God, which does not accomplish their good, but increases their guilt; a blessing of God, which comes to an end when they die and go to hell; and a blessing of God, which changes into a curse.

But God’s mercy, grace, love and blessing are one. (There are not two kinds of graces, mercies or loves of God; one for the elect, and the other for the reprobate.)2 All mercy, grace and love of God are everlasting. They are unchangeable. They are attributes of God, they belong to His very Being, they are rooted in God’s decree of election and they are displayed at the cross. Rain and sunshine, in and of themselves, are not grace, mercy or blessing. God is always gracious to and blesses His people in giving to, or withholding from, them, rain and sunshine. God is never gracious, but always curses, the reprobate in giving to, or withholding from, them, rain and sunshine. Let it be clearly understood: God gives good things to elect and reprobate alike, but good things are not blessings for the reprobate.

Third, which pattern are we called to follow? Do we treat our enemies the way God deals with His elect or His reprobate enemies? If we want a pattern on how to treat our enemies, we only need to consider how He treated us, who were His enemies, and who are still sinful, even after He has reconciled us to Himself. This is especially clear in Luke 6:35, in which Jesus says that God is kind to “the unthankful” and “the evil.” In Luke 6, Jesus does not speak merely of sunshine and rain, which of themselves are neither God’s blessing nor curse, but He speaks of God’s kindness and mercy. The kindness in Luke 6:35 is, and can only be, a saving kindness. There is no other kindness in God. God’s kindness is infinitely more than God being “nice” to people. Kindness is God’s gentleness, His careful handling of His delicate precious people. God is not kind to the reprobate. He breaks them with a rod of iron and He dashes them in pieces as a potter’s vessel (Ps. 2:9). God’s kindness is called goodness or graciousness in other passages and is only ever directed toward the elect (Rom. 11:22; I Pet. 2:3). This kindness is shown to the unthankful and to the evil, to us; we who believe in Jesus Christ are the unthankful and the evil.

We are to be merciful because God has been merciful to us. This saving kindness and mercy shown to us who were, and in many ways still are, unthankful and evil, comes to us from the cross of Christ, a cross that is for the elect alone and not for the reprobate. We see kindness and mercy at the cross where God poured out His wrath upon Jesus Christ, crushing Him under His curse, so that He could be gentle and compassionate to His elect children.

If God was so good to you in sending Christ to die for your sins, not when you were good and thankful, but when you were unthankful and evil, how much more ought you not love those who are evil and unthankful to you? And if God can still bless you, who are still unthankful and evil, how much more ought you not continue to love, bless, do good to and pray for those who are still unthankful and evil to you? And when we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us we are reflecting in a very small way the great love, mercy, grace, kindness and blessing that God has for us.

But that has nothing, I repeat, nothing, to do with “common grace”!

1 According to Johnson, a “type #4” hyper-Calvinist “denies that there is such a thing as common grace” and a “type #5” hyper-Calvinist “denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.”
2 For a more detailed explanation of God’s simplicity, see my editorials, “A Double-Minded God Unstable in All His Ways” in the British Reformed Journal, issues 57 and 58.


A Hyper-Calvinist Reader

I had planned to continue the critique of common grace begun in the last editorial but recently a (real) hyper-Calvinist wrote to me to “correct” my error of duty faith and duty repentance.1 Remember that hyper-Calvinism is not a denial of the well-meant (or free) offer and common grace, but a denial of duty faith and duty repentance. In the third editorial in this series, we addressed genuine hyper-Calvinism but more, it appears, needs to be said.

I should stress at this point that I do not intend to answer my hyper-Calvinist objector again. The purpose of this series of editorials is twofold: (1) to answer the charges of hyper-Calvinism that Phil R. Johnson makes against the PRC (and the BRF, which also rejects the teachings of the well-meant offer and common grace) and (2) to repudiate the error of hyper-Calvinism itself. There are some readers who will never be satisfied, and to answer every argument and objection would entangle the editor in interminable debate. This will be the final response to my hyper-Calvinist reader’s objections. I urge the readers of the BRJ to understand that, when debating theology or any other subject, wisdom dictates when one has reached the point where further discussion would be fruitless. Let us all aim to know when we have reached that stage in our personal interactions! I hope we can disagree without rancour.

We may have misconceptions about hyper-Calvinism. The popular caricature is of a church which never preaches the gospel to anyone except its own members. That, however, is not the issue—the issue is what does the hyper-Calvinist preach? A person might preach to huge crowds of unbelievers and still be theologically a hyper-Calvinist. The issue that the reader brings up is this: to whom do we address the command to repent and believe, and (related to that) to whom do we address the promise, and how are the command and the promise connected?

A good place to start is with the Canons of Dordt, which authoritatively define true Calvinism. Canons I:3 states, “And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings, to whom He will and at what time He pleaseth; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified.” That the reference here is to the external call is clear from Canons I:4, which speaks of those “who believe not.” Canons II:5 states,

Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.

Again, Canons II:6 makes clear that not all who hear that command to repent and believe do actually believe (“many who are called by the gospel do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief”). Clearest of all is Canons III/IV:8, where we read,

As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly shown in His Word, what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him.

The context, again, makes clear that the external call is the focus: “[There are] those who are called by the ministry of the Word [who] refuse to come and be converted” (Canons III/IV:9). We have examined these creedal references in earlier editorials.

The Canons do not teach Arminianism and they refuse to overreact to Arminianism by teaching hyper-Calvinism. They teach the biblical and Reformed doctrine of the call without confusing it with an Arminian offer. They teach the universal and serious command to all (including the reprobate) to believe in Christ and to repent of sin, while they restrict the promise to the “whosoever believeth” or the elect.


More Biblical Proof

In the third editorial in this series, I included a number of texts to prove that Christ and the apostles commanded repentance and faith of everyone in their audience.2 Let me include a few more. To the unregenerate, hypocritical and, as far as we can tell, reprobate Pharisees and Sadducees, John the Baptist spoke these words: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matt. 3:7-8). To do that is to go beyond repentance—it is to show evidence of genuine conversion! Could these unbelieving religionists do that? No, but they were commanded to do it. To the hypocritical, covetous, erstwhile sorcerer, Simon, whose heart was “not right in the sight of God” and who was, according to Peter’s accurate perception, “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity,” The apostle urged, “Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee” (Acts 8:20-23). Whatever Simon was (elect or reprobate), he certainly was not a “sensible” (spiritually sensitive) sinner. Can one in the bond of iniquity pray? Can one in the gall of bitterness repent? No, but he was commanded to do it. To King Herod Agrippa, Paul describes his ministry in these words:

Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance (Acts 26:19-20).

Notice what Paul does not say: “I preached that only the elect or sensible sinners or spiritually qualified sinners should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” Paul issued general commands in his preaching and so must all true Calvinists. The risen and exalted Lord Jesus issued a command of repentance to the wicked, stubbornly impenitent, false prophetess Jezebel of Thyatira: “And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not” (Rev. 2:21). Christ adds a warning for her impenitent children: “Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds” (Rev. 2:22).

We could multiply quotations but one entrenched in hyper-Calvinism will rarely be convinced. Noteworthy about these and many other examples in Scripture is that (1) the command to repent is addressed to all indiscriminately; (2) the preacher, whether John, Peter, Paul or Christ, never promises all the hearers salvation, even conditionally if they repent and believe; and (3) the preacher does not make an offer or express a sincere desire in God to save the reprobate. The command is general but the promise is particular.

My hyper-Calvinist reader submits a list of questions. I will not include them all but will only address his main arguments. I will also paraphrase them in places so that the reader can see the force of the question.

The first major issue for my hyper-Calvinist reader is the address of Peter in Acts 2 and 3, and of Paul in Acts 16: “May I command anyone to repent and be converted, and then promise that person the blotting out of his sins?” “Does Peter command the house of Israel to repent, be baptized and save themselves from this untoward generation, and promise them the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost?” “Does Paul command the unbelieving jailor of Philippi to believe, and promise him and his yet unbelieving house salvation?” “Will you walk up to any man and proclaim, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, and your house’?” Finally, to make my position seem ridiculous, he asks, “Will you say, ‘O Iscariot and Jezebel, repent, and be baptized for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Save yourselves from this untoward generation’?”

These are interesting questions, and they reveal the confusion in my hyper-Calvinist reader’s mind. He imagines that, if you teach duty faith and duty repentance, which is my position, it inevitably means that God promises salvation to all whom He commands to repent and believe, which I deny.


The Call and the Promise

Acts 2 records Peter’s Pentecost sermon, at the end of which, he declares, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made this same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (v. 36). The effect of the sermon is conviction of sin for “they were pricked in their heart” (v. 37). This does not necessarily mean regeneration and certainly no preacher can know with certainty that a display of conviction of sin is genuine. Nevertheless, the frightened sinners cry out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter ministers the gospel to them. At this point, we wonder what the hyper-Calvinist would say. Would he say, “Repent,” and thus issue a command? Would he say, “There is nothing you can do. You are totally depraved. It is utterly hopeless. The best thing you can do is to wait to see if God converts you”? We know what Peter said: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (v. 38). Moreover, “with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (v. 40).

We see from Acts 2 what a preacher must do. First, he must preach the command (“Repent,” “be baptized” and “save yourselves” are imperatives). Second, he must preach the command to everyone: “every one of you” (v. 38). Third, he must preach the promise. Without the promise, the hearers will not know to whom salvation pertains.

We see how Peter preaches the promise in verses 38-39: “And ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” What my hyper-Calvinist reader does not acknowledge is that Peter commands all to repent and believe, but he promises salvation (“the gift of the Holy Ghost” and by implication “the remission of sins”) only to believers. The promise is not conditional. Peter does not say, “God promises to each of you and to each of your children, that, if you and they repent and believe, you and they shall be saved.”

The promise is unconditional, as Peter explains with that qualifying clause at the end of verse 39, “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” That phrase qualifies or limits the “you,” the “children” and the “afar off.” Peter does not promise in the name of God salvation to everyone in his Jewish audience (“you”) or to all of their children (“your children”) or to all the Gentiles (“afar off”)—he promises salvation to the “called” (the effectually called) within those three groups. Nevertheless, Peter does not limit the command to those whom God effectually calls. Peter commands everyone in the audience to repent and believe in Christ. That cannot be denied.

The same scenario plays out in Acts 3, where Peter addresses a crowd of unbelieving Jews who have gathered in response to a miracle that he has performed at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. After charging them with killing the Christ, he issues the command, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (v. 19). The words “repent” and “be converted” are imperatives, and there is no indication here that the people had been pricked in their hearts before Peter issued the command to repent.

In Acts 3:19, the people must (1) repent and (2) be converted (or, literally, “turn”). The purpose of such repentance and turning is “that [their] sins may be blotted out.” Peter’s words are both a command and a promise, a command to all the hearers to repent, and a promise of the blotting out of sins to all who repent and are converted. Peter’s words do not constitute a conditional promise but identify the true recipients of the promised blessing—only those who repent and believe will be forgiven. The hearers are not able to repent and be converted, but the obligation to do so still rests on them. If they do not repent, they “shall be destroyed from among the people” (v. 23).

Acts 16 records one of the most dramatic conversions in the New Testament, the conversion of the Philippian jailor. Awoken from his sleep by a miraculous earthquake, and knowing that Paul and Silas were men of God, the terrified jailor cries out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). Again, I ask the question of my hyper-Calvinist reader, “What would you say to a person who asked you that question?” What ought a preacher today respond to a person who asks such a question? Will we respond, “Do not be foolish! There is nothing you can do. You must stand still and see the salvation of God”? That is not what Paul and Silas responded. “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (v. 31).

Grammatically, again, the verb “believe” is in the imperative—it is a command. The words “thou shalt be saved” constitute a promise. That presents a problem to my hyper-Calvinist reader. Is Paul declaring to the jailor, whose eternal destiny (elect or reprobate) and whose spiritual state (regenerate or unregenerate) are unknown to the apostle that, if he believes, he shall be saved, that is, is Paul preaching a conditional promise to the jailor? Then may the preacher today declare to any unbeliever, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and, if you believe, God promises you salvation”? We answer in the negative. Paul commands the jailor, and we command everyone to believe. The promise (“and thou shalt be saved”) pertains only to believers. The jailor can only become partaker of the promised salvation through faith. However, salvation does not depend on the jailor, for Scripture everywhere proclaims that repentance, faith and salvation are gifts of God (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29).

Therefore, in answer to my hyper-Calvinist reader, I can and will preach to any person, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house.” I can and must do that without any embarrassment or hesitation. I can and must urge upon the audience to which I speak (whether to an audience of thousands or to an audience of one) the command to believe, and I can and must proclaim to that same audience that God graciously promises salvation to believers and to them only.

What about Judas Iscariot and Jezebel? The same command pertains (pertained) to them. Judas was under the solemn obligation to believe in Jesus Christ. Judas was not exempt from that command because he was a known reprobate. In fact, he was not a known reprobate, except to Christ. Christ even commanded Jezebel (the New Testament Jezebel of Revelation 2) to repent, as we have noted above. Although Judas could not repent and although God still commanded Judas to repent, Judas was not promised salvation. Such a promise would be impossible, since God had eternally reprobated Judas, and excluded him from Christ’s atonement and from participation in the grace of the Spirit. Nevertheless, if I meet a Judas Iscariot today, that is, if I meet a reprobate, I can and must in the preaching declare to him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house.” I must call him to repentance and faith, despite the fact that I can never identify a reprobate in the audience, and despite the fact that the preaching will be the “savour of death unto death” to him (II Cor. 2:16).

Another example raised by my hyper-Calvinist reader is Christ’s preaching to the rich young ruler: “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Although the man appears not to have been immediately converted, we know from Mark 10:21 that, since Jesus loved him, he was an elect sinner who must have been converted at some point before he died. The grammar of Luke 18:22 is similar to the passages we have addressed earlier: four imperatives (“sell,” “distribute,” “come” and “follow”) and one future tense (“thou shalt have”), which constitutes a promise. Command and promise—that is the biblical pattern. Christ does not promise everyone treasure in heaven, nor does He promise this man treasure in heaven on condition that he repents of his covetousness, which is the essence of His command here. He issues the command with a promise but a promise which only pertains to the penitent. The preacher can urge the same thing upon all his hearers today: “Repent, believe in Jesus, and you shall have treasure in heaven.” There is no Arminianism and no conditional theology here.


What Are Reprobates Commanded to Believe?

My hyper-Calvinist reader and I agree that the reprobate cannot believe and that they cannot have assurance of salvation. Furthermore, I agree with my hyper-Calvinist reader that a reprobate cannot be commanded to believe that Christ died for him/her. Where we disagree is my contention that we can and must in the preaching command a reprobate (with the caveat that we can never identify a reprobate in the audience) to believe.

To this my hyper-Calvinist reader urges Hebrews 11:1-2 and 6, which state,

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report … But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

All men must believe that God is. Atheism is sin, for it is the refusal to believe and confess the one true and living God. An unbeliever cannot please God because he does not believe that God is. Unbelievers also do not believe that God rewards those who diligently seek Him, which is why they refuse to seek Him. “The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts” (Ps. 10:4). The reprobate is, however, not commanded to believe that God has a reward for him personally. He is commanded to believe in the God who rewards the seeker. And he is commanded to seek that God.

My hyper-Calvinist reader asks, “If a person has no assurance in the promise of the gospel as applicable to himself, does he have faith?” “If a person does not have assurance that Christ died for his sins, does he have faith?” “Can a person be commanded to believe that Christ has died for his sins if that person is a reprobate?” “Can a person be commanded to believe that Christ has not died for his sins, and would such a belief be faith?”

With respect, my hyper-Calvinist reader is over-complicating matters to no good purpose. We need to understand several things. First, we do not know who is elect and reprobate. Second, since we cannot know who is elect and reprobate, we can only issue general commands, which God then applies to individual souls for their salvation or hardening according to His sovereign good pleasure. Third, therefore, we can never command an unbeliever, “Believe that Christ died for your sins” or “Believe that Christ did not die for your sins.” We command simply this, “Believe in Jesus Christ, who was crucified for sinners.” And we add the promise, “He who believes will have salvation and will have assurance that Christ died for his sins.” Beyond that we cannot go. Suffice to say, God does not command a reprobate to believe a lie, nor does He command a reprobate to hypocritical repentance or to counterfeit faith. He commands all men, including the reprobate, to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ. The ground of that command is not in the hearer’s ability, but in the sovereign will and unchangeable righteousness of God.


The Reprobate Are Commanded to Repent

The third part of my hyper-Calvinist reader’s objection is his contention that not all men are commanded to repent. In fact, he says, “Some men are commanded not to repent.” He aims to prove this in two ways. First, he attempts to prove that some reprobates (such as Judas) were commanded to sin. Second, he attempts to restrict the command to repent to only certain kinds of sinners. About Judas, my hyper-Calvinist reader writes, “God does not command Judas Iscariot not to betray Him, though He laments his betrayal, but rather commands it in John 13:27, ‘That thou doest, do quickly.’” He adds, “Christ does not command Judas to believe. He cares for the elect. He cares that Judas betray Him to bring about salvation for the elect.” While it is true that the betrayal of Judas was necessary, that does not make it Judas’ duty. To be fair to my hyper-Calvinist reader, he is not suggesting that Judas was duty bound to betray Jesus or that Judas’ betrayal was a righteous act. Judas’ duty was to honour, love and obey Jesus, and to believe in Jesus. Christ merely commands Judas to do what he has already determined to do quickly or without delay. Judas’ had planned to perform his dastardly deed after the feast but God decreed the death of Christ to take place at the Passover.

About the Pharisees, the reader writes, “Jesus does not command the Pharisees to repent of their hypocrisy, even though He condemns them for it, but rather commands them to ‘fill up the measure of [their] fathers’ (Matt. 23:22).” I answer: Christ does not command them to fill up their sins. He speaks ironically, as we would when we say, “Go ahead, do what you are planning to do,” even though we do not approve of it. The entire chapter is Christ’s denunciation of the Pharisees for their wickedness.

About the inhabitants of certain Galilean cities, the reader writes, “Christ does not command them to repentance or faith—that He condemns them for not having done so does not diminish the fact that He does not command them to do so.” But, of course, He commands them to repent! He upbraided them “because they repented not” (Matt. 11:20). There are only three options with respect to their duty: (1) God commands them to repent; (2) God does not command them to repent; (3) God does not care if they repent or not. The holy God commands sinners to repent. The holy God must require sinners to repent. God’s purpose with their impenitence, however, is another matter entirely. God’s purpose does not determine the sinner’s duty. God’s command determines the sinner’s duty.

In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas preach to pagans “that [they] should turn” from idols to the living and true God (v. 15). My hyper-Calvinist reader attempts to circumvent the force of the passage in this way: “Paul addresses in his promiscuous preaching only those whose hearts God had filled with food and gladness, which latter term Scripture otherwise applies to the filling of the heart of Christ with gladness at His resurrection (Acts 2:28, quoting Psalm 16:11).” I respond: the address of Paul is general: “Sirs … [we] preach unto you that ye should turn” (Acts 14:15). Notice also that in verse 17 the pronoun changes from “ye should turn” to “[God] gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” Paul does not restrict the command, and my hyper-Calvinist reader’s appeal to Acts 2:28 ignores the context. No one in Paul’s audience, and none of Luke’s readers, doubted that Paul was addressing all the people in Lystra with the command to repent.

In fact, insists my reader, there are many places where the inspired writers did not call unbelievers to repentance. It would appear that, in the mind of my hyper-Calvinist reader, the “duty faith” position fails if there is even one place where an unbeliever is not called to repent and believe the Gospel. He cites examples in Matthew 23—Christ simply pronounces woes upon the Pharisees (23:13ff.), James 5—James simply calls the rich men to “weep and howl” (5:1), and Jude—Jude simply excoriates the apostates for their many sins. When a biblical writer condemns a person for his sins, the call to repentance is implied. When, in the preaching, we hear the condemnation of a particular sin, we are called to repent, even if the minister does not explicitly say, “Repent of this or that sin.”

The arguments of my hyper-Calvinist reader illustrate the lengths to which some will go to avoid the obvious teaching of Scripture. God commands all to repent and believe, despite their inability, and God promises salvation to all who do repent and believe. It only becomes complicated when someone has a deliberate hyper-Calvinist agenda that clouds his exegesis.


The Twofold Call

One final issue is the hyper-Calvinistic interpretation of Matthew 22:12. My hyper-Calvinist reader refuses to acknowledge a twofold call in the Scriptures, arguing that “called” in Matthew 22 is the same as “called” in Revelation 19:9, where we read, “And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God.” It is true, of course, that both texts in Matthew 22 and Revelation 19 speak of the marriage supper, but the context is different. In Revelation 17, for example, those who follow Christ are “called, and chosen, and faithful” (v. 14), and in Revelation 19, those who are called are “blessed” (v. 9), but in Matthew 22:14, Christ distinguishes between the called and the chosen: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

My hyper-Calvinist reader offers the following, to my mind bizarre, exegesis of the parable:

Hypers identify the city in Matthew 22:7 as Jerusalem, the typical abode of the elect. The king’s destruction of the city refers to the truth that Christ died for “those murderers” (v. 7) and vicariously endured eternal fire for their sakes. After this, God sends the Gospel into the whole world to the elect (vv. 9-10), and they hear it and enter the kingdom of God.

No one reading the parable without hyper-Calvinistic bias could possibly come to that conclusion. Those who first heard the parable never imagined that that was Christ’s meaning. Here is the obvious meaning: God calls some (in the context, the Jews), who refuse to believe. God judges those unbelievers with damnation. God then calls others, who do believe. God makes them partakers of the blessings of salvation. Christ’s explanation for this outcome is (1) many are called—they are “unfeignedly called” as Canons III/IV:8 explains; (2) of the many who are called, some do not come, which is sinful rebellion, for it is their duty to come, and God commands them to come, and punishes them for not coming; (3) those who do not come, although they were unfeignedly called, are reprobate, that is, they were not chosen; (4) those who do come enter the wedding feast because they are elect.

The true Calvinist preaches the Gospel without an ineffectual offer—he proclaims far and wide the glad tidings of salvation in Christ crucified. He announces that there is salvation full and free for all who come to Jesus Christ. He urges everyone in the audience to repent of sin and to believe in the crucified and risen Saviour. He warns, exhorts and even begs—although God never begs—sinners to flee from the wrath to come. He promises to all believers that they will have eternal life. He warns all unbelievers that they will perish, if they refuse to believe in Christ. And he does this knowing that God has an elect people, that Christ died only for that elect people and that the Spirit grants life only to that elect people.

In all this, he avoids Arminian conditionalism and he repudiates stultifying hyper-Calvinism.

Next time, we shall continue our critique of “common grace” (DV).

1 The reader in question calls himself a hyper-Calvinist but he will not be named in the editorial.
2 Matt. 11:20; Mark 1:14-15; 6:12; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 4:12; 13:38, 41; 14:15; 16:31; 17:3, 30; 19:4, 8-9; 24:25; 26:29; 28:23-24, 31.



Common grace is extended to everyone. It is God’s goodness to humanity in general whereby God graciously restrains the full expression of sin and mitigates sin’s destructive effects in human society. Common grace imposes moral constraints on people’s behavior, maintains a semblance of order in human affairs, enforces a sense of right and wrong through conscience and civil government, enables men and women to appreciate beauty and goodness, and imparts blessings of all kinds to elect and non-elect alike.1

In our last six editorials, we have (1) introduced the basic charges that Phil Johnson levels against the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) and, therefore, also against the BRF, which agrees with the PRC on these matters; (2) explained the difference between the serious gospel call and the “well-meant” or “free” offer of the gospel; (3) refuted genuine hyper-Calvinism, which denies the duty of all men to repent and believe in Christ; (4) refuted the theory of “common grace,” which is a supposed favour of God toward the reprobate; (5) addressed some of the texts that Johnson adduces in favour of his theory of common grace; and (6) addressed some objections made by real hyper-Calvinists. The quote above from Johnson indicates the subject of this final editorial—God’s grace and the restraint of sin.

Remember that Johnson claims to be a genuine Calvinist: “Lest anyone wonder where my own convictions lie, I am a Calvinist, affirming without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt.” Before we address Johnson’s point above, we examine the Canons on the subject of human depravity. It is my contention that Johnson’s view denies the doctrine of total depravity as set forth in the Canons, and that God’s restraint of sin can be affirmed without recourse to the error of “common grace.”


The Canons and Total Depravity

In Canons III/IV:1, after setting forth man’s original, created righteousness, the Synod explains the consequences of Adam’s first act of rebellion:

... he forfeited these excellent gifts, and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.

Notice what the Synod affirms—this is what man became, not what he would have become but for “common grace.” This is what man is. This is what the unbeliever is. This is what that friendly, unbelieving neighbour on your street is. This is what your friendly, unbelieving postman is. This is what your kind, helpful, obliging but unbelieving colleague or family member is. And this is what you, believing reader, still are by nature, but for the grace of regeneration and conversion. Do you believe that or is that too strong? If it is too strong for you, do not call yourself a Calvinist and do not claim that you “affirm without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt.”

Having set that forth in Canons III/IV:1, the Synod concludes,

Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation (Canons III/IV:3).


The “Glimmerings of Natural Light”

The debate between the advocates of “common grace” and the BRF comes to a head in the interpretation of the next article of the Canons. In fact, that article was quoted in the infamous “Three Points of Common Grace” adopted by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1924. In the second point, we read, “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;” and in the third point, we read, “the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good” and “God, without renewing the heart, so influences man that he is able to perform civil good.” Johnson appears to believe essentially the same thing.

Canons III/IV:4 consists of two parts. First, the Synod explains what man, despite the fall, still retains in terms of “natural light.” Second, the Synod explains what man does with this “natural light.” Herman Hoeksema and Herman Hanko take note of the fact that “the committee [that the CRC] synod had appointed to serve her with advice in this matter did not quote the article entirely, but only the first sentence of it.”2

Here is the part of the article to which the CRC appeals in its advocacy of “common grace”:

There remain, however, in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment …

Article 4 was not written in order to contradict Articles 1-3—Dordt does not return with the right hand what it took away with the left hand. Articles 1-3 are an uncompromising, biblical statement of total depravity, the first petal in the Reformed TULIP. Dordt is not claiming in Canons III/IV:4 that man is still good after all or that man is still good in some sense. Article 4 is not a denial or a dilution of total depravity. It is, however, an explanation or a clarification. What did man become after the fall? Has he become a beast or a demon? Does man commit every possible sin? Is man’s depravity such that life is impossible, inasmuch as all men are raping, murdering, rampaging demons? And if all men are not raping, murdering, rampaging demons, is that due to common grace or due to the remnants of some goodness in man? Those are the issues in Canons III/IV:4.

The key phrase is “the glimmerings of natural light.”

Before the fall, according to Canons III/IV:1, man was “adorned with a true and saving [Latin: salutari, beneficial] knowledge of his Creator and of spiritual things.” That is gone—in its place is “blindness of mind.” The light that man retains is merely “natural.” Everyone has natural light, which is the natural light of reason. However, fallen man retains only “glimmerings” of that light. Imagine the power of Adam’s natural light before the fall compared to man’s darkened mind after the fall. We think that we are modern, sophisticated and intellectual. Adam’s intellect far exceeded ours. What is the power of this “natural light” of reason? Article 4 lists several things: (1) he retains some knowledge of God; (2) he retains some knowledge of natural things; (3) he retains some knowledge of the differences between good and evil; and (4) he discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.

And he does all of this while remaining totally depraved.

Let us explain and prove these various aspects of “natural light.”

First, the totally depraved unbeliever retains “some knowledge of God.” This is, however, not a “true and saving knowledge” of God, not the knowledge of love and fellowship, and not a spiritual appreciation of God. Nevertheless, even the dullest atheist knows that God exists. Even the demons know that God exists and they know that without “common grace.” The reader should consult Romans 1:18-23 and James 2:19.

Second, the totally depraved unbeliever retains “some knowledge of … natural things.” This is, however, not a “true and saving knowledge … of spiritual things.” Sinful man can engage in intellectual pursuits. He can study the world, develop science and become proficient in many fields of study, but all of it is merely in natural things. That is part of the so-called “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion …” Man pursues science, art, culture and philosophy, and he does so as totally depraved. An unbelieving, cultured scientist with a PhD in physics is as depraved as an idolatrous, cannibalistic savage in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

Third, the totally depraved unbeliever retains “some knowledge of … the differences between good and evil.” He knows, for example, that murder is wrong, that theft is wrong and that living faithfully with one wife is good. He knows that because his inner judge—his conscience—reminds him of that.

Romans 2:14-15 states,

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

When Gentiles do “the things contained in the law,” they do not obey God’s law, which is impossible (Rom. 8:7), but they display external virtue and avoid external vice. When they display “the work of the law written in their hearts,” this does not mean that God has written the law on their hearts—that is regeneration (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10)—but it means that God has written the knowledge of right and wrong in their hearts, and He testifies it to their consciences. All men know the difference between right and wrong. This does not make them good, or even partially good, but inexcusable!

Fourth, the totally depraved unbeliever “discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” Even the basest of sinners prefer to live in a nation of laws. They see some need for a criminal justice system, even if they hope to escape human justice, and they see the benefit of complying with some moral code. Most people generally obey the law of the land. However, this is not “civil righteousness”—it is self-preservation. Law is good for them and law is good for society. Most are astute enough to discern that lawlessness is counterproductive. Many are restrained by a natural sense of shame or a fear of punishment. But unless the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner and writes God’s law on his heart, that sinner will never serve God out of thankfulness from the heart.

These “glimmerings of natural light” do not amount to much—they do not produce good works, they do not constitute righteousness, they are not pleasing to God and they are not spiritual or saving good. And their existence has nothing to do with “common grace.”


An Inexcusable Omission

However, the Synod of Dordt did not finish there.

Here is the part of Canons III/IV:4 that the CRC Synod did not quote:

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. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

Notice those damning words. Not only do the “glimmerings of natural light” not improve totally depraved man, they actually make his judgment before God even worse because of his misuse of them. Unregenerate man is “incapable of using it [i.e., the light of nature] aright even in things natural and civil.” When man seems to fulfil the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28, he sins. (In fact, all of his endeavours are not a fulfilling of the “cultural mandate” but a selfish pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power and sin). When man develops science, medicine and technology, he sins. When man pursues any field of study, he sins. When man behaves in an outwardly moral fashion, even when he lets conscience be his guide and when he follows God’s law externally, he sins. When man lives as a law-abiding citizen, in faithfulness to one wife and loves his children, he sins. Everything man does, he does in the service of sin. He cannot use natural light aright even in things natural and civil (cf. Prov. 21:4).

Of course, if, instead of pursuing a cure for cancer, man makes and deploys a terrorist bomb, he sins even more. If, instead of living in faithfulness to his wife, he commits adultery or, if instead of loving his children, he neglects or abuses them, he sins even more. If, instead of living as a law-abiding citizen, he becomes a criminal, he sins more. The issue is not between depravity and “common grace,” but between different expressions of depravity.

Moreover, “this light, such as it is [and it is not much], man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness.” Man pollutes—he wholly pollutes—his intellectual gifts, his knowledge of God, his knowledge of good and evil, his conscience, and his natural sense of morality and external virtue. He wholly pollutes it! Do you believe that or is that too strong? If it is too strong for you, do not call yourself a Calvinist and do not claim that you “affirm without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt.”

The Synod of Dordt did not invent this out of whole cloth. The Synod echoes the teaching of sacred Scripture. Romans 1:18 states that unbelievers “hold the truth in unrighteousness,” where the verb “hold” means to “hold down” or to “suppress.” I Timothy 4:2 speaks of those “having their conscience seared with a hot iron.” Titus 1:15-16 warns that

unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.

Romans 3:12 simply teaches, “there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” No one does spiritual good, saving good, moral good, natural good, civil good or any other kind of good before God.

Yet Johnson writes without a shred of biblical evidence:

Common grace is extended to everyone. It is God’s goodness to humanity in general whereby God graciously restrains the full expression of sin and mitigates sin’s destructive effects in human society. Common grace imposes moral constraints on people’s behavior, maintains a semblance of order in human affairs, enforces a sense of right and wrong through conscience and civil government, enables men and women to appreciate beauty and goodness, and imparts blessings of all kinds to elect and non-elect alike.

At the same time, he insists, “Lest anyone wonder where my own convictions lie, I am a Calvinist, affirming without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt.” If Johnson affirms the Canons, then he must affirm Canons III/IV:4, including the second half of the article, which the CRC in her “Three Points of Common Grace” inexcusably omits.


Walking by Faith, Not by Sight

All of this raises a legitimate question. Total depravity does not seem to be true and “common grace,” as Johnson describes it, seems to be true. We all know nice unbelievers. Not all men are actual rapists and murderers. Not all men behave like Adolf Hitler. There are people whom you know, who are unbelievers, to whom you would entrust your house, your car and even your children. Does not God indeed restrain them through “common grace,” so they do not kill you and steal your possessions?

First, we do not judge doctrine by experience. That is a recipe for disaster. What does the Word of God say? “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).

Let these words sink in:

“the wickedness of man was great in the earth.”
“[The] imagination of the thoughts of his heart was ... evil.”
every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was ... evil.”
“every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil.”
“every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

The question is not, “Do you see and observe that?” but, “Do you believe that?”

Second, do you know the heart of your kind, unbelieving neighbour? If you could look into the heart of your kind, unbelieving neighbour, as God can and does, what would you see? You would see that every imagination of the thoughts of your kind, unbelieving neighbour’s heart is only evil continually. And if we could display the imagination of the thoughts of your kind, unbelieving neighbour’s heart on a large screen for you to see, you would no longer think that he was good. If we could do that with the imagination of the thoughts of your heart, we would not think that you are good either.

So perhaps we think that we find “good people.” God finds none (Ps. 14:2-3; Rom. 3:10-18).

The answer, then, is not to deny total depravity; it is not to find some remnant of good in man; it is not to teach that God counteracts the natural outbreak of evil in man’s heart by a generous dose of “common grace,” so that he is less evil than he could be. The answer is that sin develops in a human being, in society and in history. Sin develops in God’s providence, not under God’s “common grace,” and sin takes time to reach its full potential.

The teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism is that “we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness” (Q. 8). The teaching is not that we actually perform every conceivable form of wickedness. Evil is like a seed in us, which has the potential to grow, but not all wicked people develop in sin in the same way. Some men are more inclined to sexual sins than others: they might develop into pornographers, adulterers or even rapists. Some men are more inclined to greed than others: they might develop into thieves, robbers, fraudsters or simply live as misers. Every one of us has a sinful nature and every one of us is capable of every conceivable sin. And each of us is totally depraved by nature.

Moreover, not all men have the same opportunity to develop in sin, because the development of sin takes time. As sin develops in a man’s life and in society, that man or that society becomes ripe for judgment. For example, Adam and Eve were totally depraved as soon as they disobeyed God in the Garden, but Adam did not immediately break out into every conceivable form of wickedness. When God declared in Genesis 15:16, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full,” He did not mean that the Amorites were not yet totally depraved—they were—but He meant that the Amorites had not fully developed their potential for wickedness.

Take Adolf Hitler as an example. When Hitler was six years old, he was as totally depraved as he was when he died at age fifty-six. But at age six, Hitler had neither the imagination, nor the opportunity, nor the power to mastermind the Holocaust. The same is true with society: everyone from Adam and Eve onward was totally depraved, but it took over 1,600 years before the whole world was filled with violence and had reached a point where it was ripe for destruction (Gen. 6:11-13). The same is happening in our day: our society is developing in sin, man is finding new ways to sin, which development will culminate in the man of sin, at which point sin will be fully ripe and God’s wrath will be filled up.

The development of sin, as all other things, is under the sovereign control of God. God wills that sin develop in the human race and that sin reach its full potential. God does not will this because He delights in sin—He hates sin!— but because God wills that sin be seen as the dreadfully wicked thing that it is, so that He can be glorified in saving sinners from it and so that He can be glorified in punishing it.

In addition, God does restrain man’s sin, but He does not restrain sin inwardly and graciously by His Holy Spirit. God does not restrain sin in such a way that man becomes less than totally depraved or even able to do good. God restrains sin through various means—He uses the law as a restraint; He uses a sense of fear, shame, self-preservation and other motives to restrain sin; He even uses sickness and death to restrain sinners. All of these restraints act like a muzzle on a rabid dog.

But that is not “common grace.”



We have now come to the end of our answer to Johnson’s “Primer on Hyper-Calvinism.” I remind the reader why I took up the pen in the first place. Johnson slandered the PRC, and, by extension, the BRF and others who agree with the truth of particular grace, with these words:

The best-known American hyper-Calvinists are the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). They deny that there is any sort of “offer” (in the sense of a proffer or tender or proposal of mercy) in the gospel message. They also deny that they are hyper-Calvinists, because they insist that the only variety of hyper-Calvinism is that which denies the gospel call (Type-1 above).3
The most articulate advocate of the PRC position is David Engelsma, whose book Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel is an interesting but in my view terribly misleading study of the question of whether PRC theology properly qualifies as hyper-Calvinism. Engelsma does some selective quoting and interpretive gymnastics in order to argue that his view is mainstream Reformed theology. But a careful reading of his sources shows that he often quotes out of context, or ends a quote just before a qualifying statement that would totally negate the point he thinks he has made. Still, for those interested in these issues, I recommend his book, with a caution to read it very critically and with careful discernment.

We have taken issue with Johnson’s remarks not out of denominational loyalty or in order to defend our theological friends or even in order to defend ourselves but because Johnson’s statement is not true. The ninth commandment, as explained in the Heidelberg Catechism, requires that “I love the truth, speak it uprightly, and confess it; also that I defend and promote, as much as I am able, the honor and good character of my neighbor” (A. 112). God hates lies and He especially hates lies about Himself. Johnson labels an entire denomination of churches and one of those churches’ leading theologians, Prof. David J. Engelsma, with the dishonourable epithet of hyper-Calvinist. He also makes unsubstantiated charges against Engelsma’s book, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel, accusing Engelsma of “selective quoting and interpretative gymnastics.” For this charge, he has not offered one word of evidence.

We have found Johnson’s fivefold definition of hyper-Calvinism wanting. Only one of his five points, namely, a denial that faith is the duty of every sinner, is genuine hyper-Calvinism. A denial of the “well meant” or “free” offer is not hyper-Calvinism. A denial of “common grace” is not hyper-Calvinism. The standard against which genuine Calvinism is to be measured is not Phil Johnson, not even Calvin’s Institutes and certainly not the New Dictionary of Theology, but it is the Canons of Dordt, which Johnson claims to “affirm without reservation.” The Canons explain the relationship between the serious call and the saving desire of God, and from the Canons one would never reach Johnson’s faulty definition of hyper-Calvinism. Ultimately, of course, the authority is the Word of God, which is why we have given a careful exegesis of key texts of Scripture pertinent to the topic.

Finally, I pray that in my writing of these editorials and in your reading of them, we have not harboured rancour against Johnson in our hearts. In much theological polemics, there is more heat than light. We have as much as possible avoided personalities. We have been interested in expounding the truth: the truth about God, about Christ, about man, about sin and about salvation.

It is my desire that Johnson might reexamine his “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism” and come to realize that, while he might not agree with us on this matter, we do not deserve to bear the opprobrious name of hyper-Calvinists, for we insist most strongly that God’s grace is particular and that the reprobate, who are never partakers of that particular, effectual, saving grace, are nevertheless required by God to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ as He is set forth in the gospel.

That is, we are genuine, biblical, Reformed, creedal Calvinists!

1 Phil Johnson, “A Primer on Hyper-Calvinism” (
2 Herman Hanko and Herman Hoeksema, Ready to Give an Answer: A Catechism of Reformed Distinctives (Grandville, MI: RFPA, 1997), p. 137.
3 Johnson is mistaken here also. The PRC (and BRF) do not deny the false charge that we are hyper-Calvinists “because [we] insist that the only variety of hyper-Calvinism is that which denies the gospel call [Type-1 above].” We deny that we are hyper-Calvinists because we insist that the only variety of hyper-Calvinism is that which denies duty faith (and duty repentance) [Type-2 above].