The Calvinistic Conception of Life

Editorial Note

In this article Torch and Trumpet turns its representative discussion of the doctrine of common grace over to a Christian layman, Mr. Steven Harkema, president of the Calvinistic Culture Association. It is our objective to show to our reading public the conception of common grace held by those who, although not professionally-trained theologians, have nevertheless been trained in and have worked with the idea. Mr. Harkema came to this country from The Netherlands a few years ago. There he was very active in the Christian social action movement which owes so much of its inspiration to the great Abraham Kuyper, author of the monumental three-volume work entitled De Gemeene Gratie. We hope that the author’s statement of his views on common grace will enable you to see just how he conceived of his Christian calling upon its basis and in its light.


Common Grace and Antithesis

With the starting paragraph of its Declaration of Principles, the Calvinistic Culture Association points at two things as basic for its action: the unchangeable word of God, and the Calvinistic principles, valid and sufficient as a line of conduct for our cultural life.

Even in our time, in which a complicated system of life has been developed, we confess that for every Christian Holy Scripture is still sufficient to know the will of God in every situation in cultural life. Our only task in this respect is to study the contents of the Bible, not only to discover the full richness thereof for our personal spiritual life, but also to learn the line of conduct for Christianity, as a community of believers in their aggregate attitude and relation toward world-life and culture.

Especially our great leader and teacher Dr. Abraham Kuyper, understood and felt his calling in this matter. His great standard-work Common Grace may still he considered to be the fundamental directive, with respect to the relationship of Christianity and world.

It is needless to say, that the C.C.A. striving to implement a work-program in which it expresses the principal basis for its action, accepts common grace and its logical outcome antithesis, as fundamental and determinative for that action.

We are fully convinced that only a right understanding of this doctrine can direct us to the platform from which we as Christian believers have to see today’s world in its entire complexity.

Starting from the axiom that there is a two-fold development of life visible in human race, on the one hand a life which is based on the principle of obedience to the divine ordinances, and on the other hand a life which we see as fundamentally hostile to them, we notice in the world the appearance of elements from both the Kingdom of God and of its antipode, the empire of Satan.

The Bible teaches us that these two poles of life are hostile, one to the other, and surely we must know the right relationship between them. Every Christian ought to know where he stands in every situation into which he comes.

Ever since the appearance of the Church. of Christ in the world, and wherever the Church came to manifestation there the problem has arisen, namely, the relationship of Church and world. Continuously in church history there has been difference of opinion, discussion and disharmony about this matter.

Many times, Christianity withdrew out of the worldly sphere, (anabaptism, monastic life) while on the other hand, many times Christianity identified itself with the world.

Both of these opposite persuasions did not recognize the right relationship between Church and world. In the history of Christianity we observe the failure of both deviations. History teaches that the heaviest walls of the cloister did not give protection against sin and worldlimindedness. And when, on the other hand, Christianity and world identified themselves as one, every peculiarly Christian way of life was soon dissolved into worldliness.

We believe that Calvinism has always taken a strong position with its view in regard to the relationship of Christianity and the world. Especially in later decades, we have recognized the great merit of Dr. A. Kuyper, who put this matter into the scheme of common grace and antithesis.

Although fundamentally unchallengeable, we are sure Kuyper and his contemporaries did not speak the last word about this matter, however. So, in our time, we witness with gladness the publication of several works and articles on this subject.

It will not be our task to solve the difference in opinion between the many theologians who have written on this subject. Nevertheless, we of the C.C.A. must carry out our cultural program, a clear conviction about the implications of this doctrine has to be expressed; with regard to the development of and taking part in cultural life, we have to know our world and life-view; the demands of Holy Scripture seen in the light of the antithesis have to be dearly outlined.

In actual practice, the Christian believer is confronted with the ordinances of God in his entire life, in every situation which occurs, with respect to every expression of culture, such as: education, literature, sports and entertainment, society and its patterns of organization, art, science, etc.

Maintaining our Calvinistic pretension as to relationship of Christian and world, the C.C.A. will take the only stand which is justifiable in view of our Reformed Confession, according to the Word of God. Therefore we have to see the right significance of common grace.

Overestimation of the significance of this doctrine leads to a diminishing in thought and practice of the fact of the antithesis, and leads inevitably to worldly-mindedness.

Underestimation of its working or even denial of common grace, means a practically untenable conception of the antithesis, and leads to Anabaptistic thought-patterns.

As the existence of common grace is not in dispute, we wish to express our view about the essence and character of this doctrine and of the antithesis in the following theses.

Common Grace

Common Grace was and still is necessary for the development of the world and the fall into sin by Adam and Eve. Without common grace the creation would have perished into total destruct ion as the inevitable effect of sin. Therefore common grace was necessary in order to make the plan of redemption in the coming of Christ on earth possible.



By checking sin and corruption, and by restraining the devastating influence of sin, the results of common grace in human society-life are perceptible in: a constitutional state, legislature, governmental and civil institutions and also by a certain inward knowledge of God’s law, by the testimony of the conscience, etc.

By means of these values a certain morality is maintained, a standard of good and evil; resulting in a system of society-life which makes the existence of human life on earth possible.

The subjugation of the powers and potentialities of creation, the whole building-up of the world, must be considered as an after-effect of the divine ordinances of creation, and to the remnants of the original inborn impulse to cultural activity in the heart of man, which (to a certain extent) leads to the fulfillment of the mandate of paradise.

With respect to the fulfillment of this mandate, we believe that since the creation of heaven and earth, supporting and maintaining workings and powers are emanating from the Holy Spirit upon the whole creation. By this working man is qualified for cultural activity with natural gifts and powers. Even after the fall into sin, the remnants of these gifts and powers enable man to do his work in every field of human endeavor. Therefore we cannot consider common grace to be the source of cultural development, as man possesses gifts and powers thereto by order of creation.

In this respect we see in common grace only the favorable attitude of God toward his creation, by means of which the powers and possibilities of the creation could be unfolded. Therefore, cultural values. such as art, science, etc., do not come forth from common grace, as this is not an inspiring power in man, qualifying him to perform cultural labor. Considering the motives underlying the activity for the development of these values by natural man, we do not believe that common grace involves a re-establishing of any ethical good in the heart of man, as according to Holy Scripture the compelling elements in that heart are in principle wickedness and enmity against God and the neighbor. With respect to sin, the aim and working of common grace is only negative in its restraint and checking of sin and corruption.


Originally, true cultural activity was service of God. Man was created in covenant-relationship to his Creator, bound to do tile Creator’s will in all his activities; and this activity was directed to the fulfillment of the mandate of paradise, in obedience to the divine ordinances.

After the fall into sin there was an absolute change in motives by natural man underlying the performance of his cultural activity.

Although cultural development was still possible as an effect of the working of common grace, the motives within him, underlying his activity, became opposite to those existing within him before the fall into sin. These motives were no longer obedience to the Creator or service of God, but self service, idolatry, pride, etc. The issues of the heart from that time on are only wickedness and enmity.

Then according to the saving work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, there is again existing in the hearts of them who are re-born, the principle of obedience, re-established by the working of the Holy Spirit, and again there is an element of true service of God perceptible in their activities. Cultural activity can in them anew be true service of God.

Out of the sinful motives within natural man, underlying his cultural activity, often times forms of life have been and still are developed which are contrary to the divine ordinances for human life, and thus for a Christian are not acceptable, but forbidden.

Here the antithesis is visible and this is absolute with respect to every act of man. Essentially this twofold expression of life is the absolute contraposition of the kingdom of God and the empire of Satan. Between these two poles in human life there is no neutral territory.

The Consequences of this Doctrine

When Adam and Eve in Paradise had committed their first deed of sin, immediately they became conscious of it complete change in their situation. They became aware of their nakedness. This fact they had not known before. They were ashamed; a feel ing they did not know before.

They became afraid because of their nakedness, and hid themselves from the presence of the Lord. Until that time they had not known fear. A hostility entered into the relations’ between them. Adam accused his wife and she accused the serpent. Harmony was disturbed, corruption started immediately. Very soon further consequences like hatred, murder, enmity against God and the neighbor became visible. Service of God in cultural life became self service by natural man.

Yet, although in the heart of man the motives for every action changed into the opposite of what they were before the fall into sin, the basic structure of his existence did not change; for that would he impossible.

Sin is of Satanic origin. Satan could (in a certain sense) spoil God’s creation, but he was not able to give a new, a different structure for that creation. Satan himself could not create, he could not construct anything in replacement of God’s creation. Also, besides the law of God, Satan was not able to substitute a different, constructive law.

So the consequences of disobedience became disastrous for man. He could put aside God’s law, but could not find a substitute. With his fall into sin, he lost the base for his existence.

Rejection of the law of God, means lawlessness, anarchy, dissolution of the structure of life; and hence, disobedience has for its consequence death.

But then, by God’s common grace, there was left in man the natural impulse to live, still the law of God remained written in his heart.

He knows the difference between good and evil. The image of God is not completely effaced.

These facts keep him back from total wickedness. The element of wickedness in his heart, although it is absolute, does not work all the way through. Man can well know that there is no other possibility for his existence than a life based upon the structure of God’s law, although he rejects that law in his heart.

So we see in the life and existence of mankind a constant inward struggle: on the one hand the principle of wickedness in the heart, rejecting God’s law, and on the other hand the knowledge of that law as the necessary condition for life.

Here we see the working of common grace! It does not take away wickedness from the heart of man, (not even partly) but tempers this. In a certain sense common grace leaves in man something of the original knowledge of the law and maintains a sense of good and evil. Common grace does not re-establish any original good in man, but restricts evil, tempers wickedness and bridles sin. Common grace does not abolish the curse on creation, but gives means by which man can restrict the consequences of the curse.

As an effect of this working of common grace, life on earth is become tolerable, an orderly society-life has developed, the earth is cultivated, creation is subdued, constructive cultural effort takes place.

In a broad sense, in this cultural activity, the universal vocation of mankind must be seen. Therefore a Christian may not hate culture, but must recognize in the unfolding of the powers of creation the will of the Creator. Nevertheless, and here is the antithesis, every activity in every situation and in every sphere of life must be performed in obedience to the ordinances of God. In culture we can accept only that which is in accordance with the aim of the mandate of Paradise: the honor and glory of God. Therefore, the positively Christian mind does not acknowledge the existence of any neutral territory in this world, but observes the features of the empire of Satan, operating as a result of common grace. Finally these facts include for him the recognition of forbidden places. Every surrounding where it is not possible to serve God in each of one’s activities is for the Christian a forbidden place.

Every circle of life where God can not he acknowledged as the source of all authority, and where his will is not respected is for the Christian a forbidden place. These forbidden places in this sin dominated world constitute the negative side of Christianity; yet, its positive call is far greater and of much more importance. Christianity must not withdraw on so-called “distinctive territory,” but always has to take its stand everywhere in life’s battle-line. The whole cultural life is its field of action, because of the fact of the reign of Christ, our Lord and King.

In our days, we perceive a Christianity that for convenience sake forsakes common action and leaves the battle for the recognition of the divine ordinances to the individual. This type of Christianity trains youth insufficiently for their coming battle against spiritual wickedness.

There is also a Christianity that worships modern culture. It, broadly outlined, dares not or will not accept the basic structure of Christian faith for its life, and institutes that life on the thought-scheme of the humanistic world of thinking.

A Christianity which leaves the humanistic, modernistic mind of the nation untouched fails to be a salting salt.

A Christianity which accepts the non-principled political grouping, trade-unions or other organizations in present-day society on the so-called neutrality-principle denies its vocation in the world.

A Christianity allowing modern literature, the neutral press, immoral writing and art to poison the mind and spirit in its own circle, is committing suicide.

It is not merely a question of interest in the matter itself that forces us to a consideration of the problem of the relationship of Christianity and world. There is a great necessity for it!

We are moving toward new social and cultural forms and they in time will shake the very foundations of our society-life. The question does not concern a little more or less Christianity in our attitude toward the neighbor; in the future the alternative will be: a society-life based upon the norms of Christian faith, or a totally Godless life-system.

We are moving toward the latter. What do we do as a group which is calling itself Calvinistic? Very little! We are losing ground even while we experience numerical increase. We are losing ground, for we do not even have the courage, trust, and faith to institute our own life’s pattern upon the basis of divine ordinances. There is a lack of a Christian style of living among us. There is no willingness to make real sacrifice. We love too much the world and its treasures and friendships. Mammon has gained first place in our life. There is a lack of faith. That is why we do not believe in Christian action. We fear as a small group the masses of the nation. The first objection which we hear about Christian cultural action is always: “What can we do? Our group is too small.” This is one of the biggest lies Satan ever invented, and, what is worse, for convenience sake this lie is eagerly believed!

If we had the faith that can move mountains, we could do great things. That faith was the power of the apostle Paul when he alone entered Europe. He fought the mightiest anti-Christian culture and civilization of all times, and in this faith he won. That faith was the strength of our fathers when they died at the stake and in the dungeons by the tens of thousands, and they won the battle against two world powers, the Roman Catholic Church and the world empire of Spain. That same faith can make us win the battle against the humanistic thought scheme of our time, for it is the faith that overcomes the world.

The only thing required is that we must really have the courage and the willingness to do battle. But we do not seem to have this. If we had the faith, the will, and the purpose to overcome the world for the sake of God’s kingdom, we would feel that had to do battle, and we really would win! We would then give up our “Sunday-Christianity” and our Arminian only-inviting-glad-tiding-Gospel, and accept completely Holy Scripture with its demands for human life and culture. That is the best way to preach judgment and repentance to a world on its way to destruction. We never would cooperate with non-Christian life-systems, nor accept any compromise, but appeal to the world upon the standpoint of the basic structure for its existence: The ordinances of God.

In this conception of common grace and antithesis lies the power and strength of Christianity, its superiority over the world, and its world calling.