Thursday, December 31, 2009

Common Grace: the "Restraint of Sin in all Men" (26)

Dear Forum members,

Greetings to all our readers as we close an old year and begin a new one. May your confession be, as we face the uncertainties of another year, the confession of Asaph: “Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with they counsel, and afterward receive me to glory" (Psalm 73:13, 14).

With this letter I begin to deal with another of the four doctrines that are included in the doctrine of common grace. Common grace teaches in general that God’s favor and love is towards all men and not only towards His elect. This second doctrine teaches that God’s universal favor and love to all is revealed in a restraint of sin in the hearts of all men by the Holy Spirit.

It must be emphatically understood that the subject with which I now deal, the restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate, is also a manifestation of God’s general attitude of love and favor towards all men. We are talking, after all, about grace, or more particularly, common grace. Grace includes all God’s communicable attributes: love, kindness, benevolence, mercy, lovingkindness, and more. This grace, manifested to all, is given to men in different ways. When one stops to think about it, it actually includes many very important gifts that seem to rival the gifts of salvation to the elect.

One such gift, as we noticed in the last letters, is the gift of rain and sunshine, fruitful years, health and strength, riches and luxuries in the world, and prosperity in an earthly sense. But now, in the next series of letters, I am going to talk about another blessing of God’s general attitude of favor, a blessing that is also considered a gift of God’s common grace. I do not say that all defenders of common grace hold to this doctrine of common grace, but many do.

In a much earlier letter I reminded our readers of the fact that God’s grace towards the unregenerate is not simply an attitude of love and favor – of which the objects of that favor know nothing; it is also the actual bestowal of some gift of God upon the recipient, so that the sinner knows God’s favor towards him – even though he ultimately spurns it.

In this and subsequent letters I intend to deal with that “blessing” of common grace called the restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate by the work of the Holy Spirit.

While the idea of a certain attitude of God’s favor towards all men was fairly common in the Dutch Reformed Churches from the late 18th century on, this idea of the restraint of sin did not appear in theology, either in the Netherlands or anywhere else in any developed form, until the time of Dr. Abraham Kuyper. He was the first to develop this idea and to popularize it.

But Kuyper did have ulterior motives in developing the doctrine of the restraint of sin. It might be well to know a bit of that history. I have mentioned some of these historical facts before, but repeat them here so that they may be before our minds.

Kuyper graduated from the university, ready to be ordained into the ministry of the gospel in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, as a theological liberal. He was really brought to any understanding of the Reformed faith by a simple housewife in his first congregation, who would not shake his hand because he was not reformed in his preaching. She pointed him to the Reformed faith as the truth of Scripture and the Reformed confessions.

In the first years of his ministry and after his conversion to the Reformed faith, he did battle with modernism and liberalism in the churches. In fact, he wrote an important book, “The Particularity of God’s Grace” (It has been translated by Marvin Kamps under the title, Particular Grace; it has been published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association and is available from them.). In this book Kuyper followed a strictly Reformed line and defended sharply the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace – even against the pernicious doctrine of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer to all.

But Kuyper had what to us is a strange view of a national Church. The Netherlands had for many years only one sanctioned and government supported national church, called De Hervormde Kerk (Reformed Church). It was Kuyper’s dream that the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, supported by a Reformed government, would be a fountainhead of the Reformed faith from which would flow the mighty stream of the Reformed faith to all parts of the world.

I might mention, in passing, that in the late 17th century and 18th century this dream seemed possible of realization, for the Dutch East Indies Trading Company and the Dutch West Indies Trading Company sent their ships to all parts of the world and established colonies in the Indonesian archipelago, the West Indies, North America, South Africa, Malacca and elsewhere. Ministers went along with these trading ships and when colonies were established, these colonies had ministers to organize Reformed churches and serve in them. They became centers of missionary work among the natives.

In order to implement this dream and guarantee a Reformed government, Kuyper resigned from the active ministry and formed the Anti-revolutionary Party, a political party primarily representing the Reformed Churches. Kuyper himself was elected to the Lower House, but aspired to the office of prime minister. His party, however, never succeeded in electing sufficient members to the Lower House to form a majority government. And so, in order to achieve his purpose of sitting in the prime minister’s seat, Kuyper had to form a coalition with the Roman Catholics. But such a bold and uncharacteristically Reformed move had to be justified. Kuyper developed his ideas of common grace to justify this coalition.

Kuyper succeeded in attaining the office of prime minister, but held that office for only two years. He never attained his ultimate goal, although Reformed Churches were established throughout the world. The Neo-Kuyperians in our day have never forsaken Kuyper’s dream and are still intent on so influencing government, as well as every other sphere of life, that these institutions of society become Reformed.

Kuyper never abandoned his insistence on the particularity of grace. While the idea of common grace (a general attitude of God’s favor towards all men) was prevalent in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Kuyper wanted no part of it – if it included the teaching of a well-meant and gracious gospel offer. He even went so far as to make a distinction in the terminology: Algemeene genade was common grace that taught a gracious and well-meaning offer of salvation to all. Kuyper spoke rather of gemeene gratie, or general grace, a name given to his own particular brand of common grace. Nevertheless, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and grace by any name is still grace. Kuyper’s grace was emphatically grace. And grace is God’s attitude of favor and love.

This is the common grace that fires the imagination of post-millenarian dreamers who look for some sort of worldwide conquest of all society’s institutions by the Reformed so that the Reformed faith can bring about the establishment of the kingdom of Christ here in the world. It has produced that insidious idea that our calling as Calvinists is to make this world a better place to live – in the sense of transforming society to conform to the kingdom of Christ.

Two more remarks have to be made in this letter.

Kuyper’s view had a broader purpose than a coalition with the Roman Catholics in order to capture the reins of government. The fact was that although the Reformed Church was a national church, and although technically all the citizens of the Netherlands were members of the church and were required to be baptized, married and buried by the church, not by any means all within the church were true believers. Yet these unbelieving members had to become a part of the enterprise to bring the Reformed faith to all parts of the world. On what doctrinal basis could that be done? Kuyper found the answer in his theory of general grace. Sin was restrained in all men by this general grace, with the result that all men were capable of doing good. Thus all, believers and unbelievers alike, could labor together for this common cause of bringing the Reformed faith to all parts of the world.

The second remark that needs making is this: the restraint of sin resulted, according to Kuyper, in the ability of the unregenerate to do good works, which could be used in the service of the cause of the establishment of the kingdom of Christ here in the world.

While, therefore, these two ideas of a general restraint of sin and the resulting ability of the unregenerate to do good works belong together, we are going to treat them separately.

Warmest regards to all our readers,
Prof Hanko

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"General Revelation" Again (25)

Dear Forum members,

There is one more aspect of this matter of so-called “general revelation”, to which I wish to call your attention. It is not directly related to our discussion of common grace, but it is, in my judgment, an important positive truth concerning the creation, which will give us, I think, a deeper appreciation for God’s world and a deeper understanding that God’s works in creation cannot possibly be common grace, but are for the benefit and blessing of the church.

Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion has a very well-known passage in which he speaks of the book of creation as being almost illegible to the wicked, but which becomes an open book to those who put on the spectacles of Scripture. (See Book I, chapter VI, Section 1 for this metaphor.) This is an interesting and important metaphor that Calvin uses. It is true that the wicked can read, though barely, God’s Word in creation, but Scripture’s spectacles are needed to read what is really written at large in the things God has made. By the spectacles of Scripture Calvin refers not only to the Bible itself, but to that gift of faith that enables a man to believe all that God has revealed in the Bible. Even the wicked can read the Bible itself. One university I know of teaches a course in “The Bible as Literature 302”. This means nothing.

But we must remember that Scripture is the infallible record of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, we are able to see God’s truth in creation through faith in Christ; and further, when we see God’s revelation in creation, we see Christ Himself. I want to explain this a bit more. Hebrews 11:3 speaks of faith as the way we understand creation; and faith always has as its object Christ revealed in Scripture.
The wicked, though they see God’s eternal power and Godhead in all the things that are made, suppress the truth in unrighteousness and slam the book of creation closed with disgust and hatred – and fear. Or, even though it is for them all but illegible, they claim to read it and find in it things that are not there, but things that fit their own ideas, ideas which are always wrong. Their spiritual eyesight is very poor. These are the theistic evolutionists so-called. Their attitude towards Scripture is like an architect who searches through an ancient castle to learn the origin of the castle and how it was built. He finds, when he first enters the castle, a book written by the builder himself explaining exactly how he built the castle. But he throws the book into the moat as irrelevant and untrustworthy, and goes instead to one of the high towers, to put a handful of dust in his bag in the firm conviction that a careful study of the dust will enable him to learn how the castle was built. So man sends explorers to the moon, so they can return with a few rocks, from which will be learned the origin of the universe. But the book by the Builder is mocked and discarded.

The tragedy of it is that men who call themselves Christians (and even Reformed) claim that evolutionistic theory of the origin of things is correct, while Scripture’s account of the origin of things is wrong. They justify their twisting of Scripture by saying that they can be evolutionists and still believe in Christ, for Scripture’s teachings concerning the origin of things is something entirely apart from the gospel. Creation has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That assertion is as false as it can be. Creation has everything to do with Christ. The whole of Scripture, from Genesis 1:1 to the last verse of Revelation 22 is God’s revelation of His work of salvation in Jesus Christ. Hence, the believer, who puts on the spectacles of Scripture, sees God in Christ throughout creation.

There are basically two reasons why wicked man cannot see God in creation in the pristine beauty in which God made Himself known in Paradise and of which He speaks in Scripture. The creation Adam saw did not reveal Christ to Adam, for sin had not yet entered the world and there was no need for a Savior. But, though God makes Himself known to all men through creation, it is a relatively dim knowledge of God that the wicked have. Calvin speaks of the fact that apart from the Scriptures it is possible to see God in creation only in a very dim way (“For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words . . . “).

The first reason for the difficulty in reading the book is that the Word of God by which the creation was formed is almost drowned by the Word of the curse. Because man fell, the Word of God’s curse came upon the creation (Gen.3:17). This word of the curse is seen and felt in the death that comes upon all creation. Animals and man die; flowers and trees die; all things do not continue as they were from the beginning of creation (II Pet. 3:4) as the evolutionist contends. The curse is violent and terrible. It is God’s Word of the curse that sends tornados, tsunami waves, typhoons, earthquakes and all kinds of natural disasters, Nature is, as the poet said, “red in tooth and claw.” Any other word than the word of the curse can scarcely be seen and heard – except through the eyeglasses of Scripture.

The very fact of the curse itself demonstrates to the wicked that God brings the fury of His wrath upon all those who will not worship Him.
The second reason why the Word of God’s creative power is not clearly heard anymore is the sinfulness of man. The curse has come on him as well, darkening his understanding, blinding him to the truth, making it impossible to see clearly, and robbing him altogether of his spiritual sight. He holds the truth in unrighteousness. This paucity of knowledge that man possesses is his blindness. Sinful man is not only blind spiritually; he is also nearly blind in his powers of mind. He thinks he knows so much and boasts of his accomplishments. But in fact he knows very little of the creation and there are untold mysteries that he cannot solve.

Only Scripture enables a person to see God in creation. Scripture, as the revelation of Christ, gives eyes to see and ears to hear. Scripture works faith in the hearts of God’s people. To put on the spectacles of Scripture is to have faith, by which one holds for truth all that God has revealed in His Word, for “through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb. 11:3). The object of faith, which is first of all the sacred Scripture, is also Christ. Faith lays hold of Christ. Faith sees Christ and clings to Christ. And so, putting on the spectacles of Scripture, we see Christ revealed also in creation. This is a great blessedness. That evidence of Christ in the creation sounds loudly to the believer so that the awful word of the curse is no longer so loud.
In a certain sense of the Word, the original creation in which Adam lived for a time was already adapted, according to God’s plan, to God’s purpose in Christ. A few instances of this are the following. The creation of Paradise pre-figured the plan of the temple: the land surrounding Eden was comparable to the outer court; Paradise in the east of Eden was comparable to the Holy Place; and the tree of life in the midst of the garden was comparable to the Holy of Holies. It was at the foot of the tree of life that God came to Adam and had fellowship with him.
Adam was already created with an immune system – though he did not need it. Carnivorous animals were created with a digestive system that could eat and digest flesh, although they did not eat other animals before the fall, for there was no death. The fall did not happen outside God’s plan. The first Paradise was the building of the “stage” on which was to be enacted the drama of sin and grace, damnation and salvation in Jesus Christ. God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good. That is, God did not only see that the creation was morally without defect; God saw that the entire creation was perfectly adapted to serve His purpose in Christ.

And so Christ is revealed in the creation. It is true that one cannot see Christ without believing in Him as revealed in the sacred Scriptures, what Calvin called the eyeglasses of Scripture. But putting them on, Christ is evident in all that we see.

This truth is the reason why Christ Himself is given names taken directly from creation. He is the Bright and Morning Star that announces the dawn of the perfect day (II Peter 1:19, Rev. 2:28). He is the Lion of Judah’s Tribe (Gen. 49:9, 10). He is the Lily of the Valley and the Rose of Sharon (Song of Solomon 2:1). He is the Sun who runs His course in the Heavens as the Bridegroom coming forth to meet His bride, the church (Psalm 19:4-6). And He is the Sun of Righteousness who arises with healing in His wings (Mal. 4:2). And so we could go on. I once heard a Christmas all-school program of one of our Christian schools in which a dear friend of mine, one of the teachers, prepared the entire program around the many names taken from creation and given to Christ. It was profoundly moving.

There are many Psalms that sing of the creation itself praising God, but always in the context of God’s people singing the praises of the great Creator (Psalms 147, 104, 145, 148, 29 and many more.). He who sees God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ through the Scriptures, is then in all creation moved to the depths of his being by God’s marvelous works. Even the events in the creation (earthquakes, destructive pestilences, floods, and all the other judgments God sends on the earth) are signs of the coming of Christ, for Christ comes through all history in judgment on the wicked and for the salvation of the church: Zion is redeemed with judgment (Isaiah 1:27). Christ is coming again; the whole creation groans and travails in pain waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the children of God (Rom. 8:19-22).

God’s creation is a marvelous place in which, with the spectacles of Scripture firmly in place, one sees God’s power and majesty; and bows in humble worship with the words on his lips: “My God, how wonderful thou art.”

Creation is not a revelation of grace to all – only to those who by faith lay hold of the Christ of the Scriptures.

With warmest greetings in the Lord,

Prof Hanko

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More On the Works of the Law in the Heart (24)

Dear Forum members,

At the end of the last installment I was in the middle of a discussion of Romans 2:14, 15, which reads: “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 show the work of the law written in their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”

I was commenting on this verse, because it stands closely related to chapter 1 verses 18 – 32. The point I was making was to show from these two passages that general revelation, so-called, is not common grace, though these are the two passages primarily quoted in support of the assertion that God shows His favor and grace to all men by revealing Himself to them in creation and by writing in their hearts the works of the law.

The points I was making were these: 1) The term “general revelation” is a misnomer. When referring to God’s self-disclosure, Scripture uses the term “revelation” exclusively for God’s work of grace in the salvation of the elect by which He gives them the knowledge of Himself. He does this by objectively revealing Himself to them, but also by giving them, through the work of the Spirit of Christ, eyes to see and ears to hear this revelation. 2 ) Romans 1 speaks of the fact that God does make Himself known through creation, not to show His love and grace to all men, but to reveal His wrath to them and to leave them without excuse (Rom. 1:18, 20). The clause, “So that they are without excuse” is a purpose clause and defines the purpose of God in making known the truth concerning Himself through the things that are made.

There is obviously no grace involved if God’s sole purpose in making Himself known to the wicked is to leave wicked men without excuse. In the judgment day, when Christ sentences the heathen to hell, Christ will do this in complete justice. For they changed the glory of the invisible God into an image make like unto the corruptible creature. They will never be able to say, as an excuse for their sin, “We did not know that we were called to worship God,” or, “We did not know there was a God who demanded that we serve Him. Our ignorance is our excuse.” If such a plea were correct, Christ would indeed do injustice to them in sending them to hell. But such is not the case.

Further, there is here no common grace because God punishes the suppression of the knowledge of Him, which He gives with the further sin of homosexuality. It is impossible to find any grace in that.

This truth is very difficult for people, even in the church, to believe. Evangelicals face a dilemma here. They want all men to be saved, and they want a god who desires to save all men. But throughout the history of the world the gospel does not come to all men, and, in fact, the majority of men never hear it. Most men, therefore, are never given a ‘chance’ to be saved. One would indeed think that such a strange phenomenon would be God’s fault, for He does not give everyone a chance.

A few comments about this are necessary and important.

Pelagians (already in Augustine’s day; Augustine died in 430 AD) were bothered by the same problem, and so concluded that, after all, God’s speech in creation was sufficient to save the heathen. The light of the gospel of Jesus Christ was not essential. The Arminians followed that idea and spoke of the “light of nature”, that could be sufficient to save one who possesses it and never knows the light of the gospel. The fathers at Dordt, aware of this claim of the Arminians, included a paragraph in their Canons repudiating it. This can be found in Canons 3/4, B 5. The rejection of this Arminian error reads: “The synod rejects the error of those who teach that the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (note the use of the term by the Arminian, HH) (by which they understand the light of nature) or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, viz., the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. And that in this way God on his part shows himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since he applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion.”

It ought to be clear that the heathen did not have the gospel, which alone could save them, because of God’s deliberate purpose, for God is able to send the gospel wherever He wants to send it. It was God’s choice that kept the gospel from the heathen. Yet the heathen are still without excuse when they are sentenced to hell. This is just and right – when God does this! How can that be? This is true because all the heathen know that the Creator of all things is the one true and living God. They know that God is their Creator and the Creator of all things. They know that God, therefore, imposes upon them the solemn obligation, upon pain of hell, to worship and serve Him alone.

They also know how they are called by God to obey Him, for they have the works of the law written in their hearts. So clearly do they know the law of God that their own consciences accuse or excuse them in their deeds. And the conscience is the voice of God in their consciousness that approves or disapproves their deeds. Yet the voice of God in the conscience is always connected to the objective Word of God, in the case of the heathen, the Word of God in creation .

But does not the doctrine of total depravity excuse the heathen? After all, their total depravity makes it impossible to worship the God who is made known to the heathen. They could not believe even if they wanted to do so. What good then is God’s manifestation of Himself in creation?

But what is the answer of Scripture?

Interestingly, the answer of Scripture is stated with precision in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 4. I sometimes think that already in this early Lord’s Day, Ursinus and Olevianus, the authors of the Catechism, separated the truth of Scripture sharply and unmistakably from the Roman Catholic and Arminian error – although the Catechism was written almost 60 years before Dordt met. But here is the point where the Reformed faith diverges from all Roman Catholicism and Arminianism and sets a true Biblical path to follow in all its development of Scripture’s truth. Let me quote the whole Lord’s Day.

“Doth God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in his law, that which he cannot perform?
“Not at all, for God made man capable of performing it, but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.

“Will God suffer such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
“By no means, but is terribly displeased with our original as well as actual sins, and will punish them in his just judgment temporally and eternally, as he hath declared, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’

“Is not God then also merciful?
“God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore his justice requires, that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.”

The point of the Catechism is that man, even if he never heard the gospel, is damned to hell; that the reason is his total depravity not only, but that his total depravity is his own fault. He has no one to blame for it but himself. Why? Because he sinned in Adam and is responsible for Adam’s rebellion; that his responsibility for Adam’s sin includes the guilt of Adam’s sin, imputed to him, but also the depravity of Adam’s nature. Guilt and depravity came upon him as the just punishment of God for his transgression in Adam.

Understanding that fundamental point of Scripture and the Reformed faith, we can have no trouble with the just punishment of the heathen who know God only through the creation.

Romans 5:12-14 is the key Scripture passage for this truth: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.”

Without going into detail in an explanation of this passage, the point is that death came on Adam for his sin, but that death also came upon all men, for that all have sinned in Adam. That this is the meaning is clear from the fact that we are conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5) – original sin and guilt being the death of which Paul speaks (Eph. 2:1). We do well, however, to remember the crucial importance of the last line in the passage, “Who was the figure of him who was to come.” Take away the imputation of guilt and the reality of death from the human race because of original guilt and original pollution, and you take away the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the great work of sanctification for the elect..

I shall make a couple more remarks about this, though they are somewhat in passing, for they do not have direct bearing on the question whether there is such a thing as general revelation, and whether, if there is, that general revelation is grace to all men.

The passage in Romans 1:18 and following clearly states that God’s temporal punishment on the idolater is an act of God in which He gives the sinner over to the terrible sin of homosexuality. Sin is punished with sin – more sin, greater sin. In this way God reveals His wrath from heaven.

If one understands these things aright, he cannot possibly slip into the error of common grace, for there is no room for any kind of common grace in this Biblical and confessional doctrine. Hence, to maintain common grace is, sooner or later, going to be the abandonment of these fundamentally Reformed truths. And so it is; the modern church is a wasteland, laid desolate by rampant Arminianism.

And finally, let this be a solemn call to all who still love the sacred Scriptures and cherish the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty, to abandon the man-centered errors of Arminian theology, and find their hope and solace in God’s sovereign and unchangeable purpose.

With warm greetings in Christ,

Prof H. Hanko

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Works of the Law Written in Man's Heart (23)

Dear forum members,

Our discussion was centered in the claim that God’s general revelation, that is, His revelation in creation, is common grace. Romans 1:18 ff. is quoted as proof of that assertion, and I was examining that passage. That passage makes it clear that the heathen who have never heard the gospel are nevertheless the objects of God’s wrath because they refuse to obey God and serve Him. They know through the creation that God is God alone and that He must be worshipped and served, but they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The passage does not teach a general revelation that is evidence of God’s common grace, but rather it speaks of God’s wrath revealed from heaven. The purpose of God’s making Himself known in the creation is “that they may be without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

The suppression of the knowledge of God of which all men are guilty is the refusal on the part of the wicked even to allow the knowledge of God and their calling to worship Him to enter their consciousness. Their hatred of God is so intense that they refuse even to think about Him. Or, if they think about Him, they do so in terms of their idols: Allah, Buddha, or other imaginary gods.

The way the wicked suppress the consciousness of God’s demands on them is to make idols and worship them: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened, Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:21-23). We ought to notice how the verse emphasizes that the wicked did possess the knowledge of God. It states emphatically that they knew God, and knowing God, they changed the glory of God into a beast or bird or snake. To change something, one must know what he is changing.

So the idolatry of the heathen was not born out of ignorance of God; nor was it an expression of their longing to know God but ignorance as to how to worship Him (as many maintain, and as I was taught in grade school); it was a deliberate, conscious and willful alteration of Him whom they knew to be God alone, into a corruption of Him in an idol. In order to suppress something that one refuses to think about, wicked man finds this most easily done by altering the thing hated and feared. If a man refuses to worship God whom he knows through creation, the best way to avoid doing this is to create a god of his own imagination and convince himself that his idol is the true God. If a man has committed fornication and his conscience drives him to distraction and he wants to drive the fact that he sinned from his consciousness, the best way to do it is to justify it by persuading himself that fornication is not sin, but a normal part of one’s lifestyle. He knows fornication is wrong, but refuses to admit it and turn from it. So he justifies it by appealing to the misery of being married to a cold and unsatisfactory wife, by claiming the right of happiness (“A man has the right to happiness, does he not?”), and by convincing himself that in his case, the thing he did was the wise and best thing to do . . . .

The same is true of modern man who considers it silly to bow before an image, as do the Hindus and Buddhists. Today’s Western man is too sophisticated for that sort of thing. But in his hatred of God the Creator of all and the One alone to be worshipped, man suppresses the truth of God by various heresies such as the godless theory of evolution. For God is substituted natural selection, alteration of the species through random genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest. And ultimately, man’s idol is science itself, which, so men claim, is the only road to truth. Man today has other idols that he makes his own and that he serves: money, pleasure, possessions, large homes, expensive cars, huge yachts, fame and honor, drink and drugs. Even modern idols are concentrated efforts on the part of sinful man to escape his calling to serve and worship God and live in obedience to Him. Nor have I mentioned the false doctrines that abound by which God’s glory is changed into an image concocted by sinful man: a god helpless to save, but worshipped by Arminians; a god who makes wealthy and delivers from the afflictions of this present time – if only one wants him; a god who changes his mind and can only react to what man does. Modern man’s idols are abundant.

The dreadful part of this is that man’s suppression of the truth is accomplished by committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty. Man argues that the truth, seared upon his consciousness by all the creation (and by Scripture in our modern “Christian” civilization) is, after all, not the truth at all. But to escape this truth and to suppress it, man changes the truth into a lie (evolutionism instead of creation; sexual immorality in the place of sexual purity, divorce and remarriage in the place of life-long marriage, pleasure in the place of self-denial, riches in the place of giving to the poor, heresy in the place of the truth) and convinces himself that the lie is truth and the truth is a lie. Suppressing the truth is dangerous business. Yet we all do it. We sin and when confronted by it, and knowing full well that what we have done is sin, we nevertheless, justify ourselves and attempt to prove to ourselves and others that what we have done is perfectly permissible.

The sad part of it is that we can be persuaded, and, if we persist in our intellectual dishonesty, we finally will succeed in persuading ourselves that we are right, that what God demands is wrong, that the truth is a lie, that the lie is truth, that our conduct is for one reason or another perfectly correct – at least in our case, and that what God says is a mistake. When we have succeeded in persuading ourselves of the fact that it is all right to change the glory of the incorruptible God into our own image of corruption and immorality, we are what Scripture calls “hardened” – as the heart of Pharaoh was hardened. Our consciences are seared with a hot iron (I Tim. 4:2). For such a one there is no repentance and confession of sin. Why should one confess as sin something of which he is persuaded that it is true and right? But for such a one there is no salvation. Suppression is a terrible danger and a dreaded sin packed with the threats of God’s wrath in this life and in eternity.

This matter of suppression is so great a sin that Paul mentions once again the evil of it: “Who change the truth into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than (‘rather than’ is correct, HH), the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (1:25).

The only way to escape the spiritual bankruptcy of self-justification and hardening is through confession of sin – to God and one another. That is why Scripture extols repeatedly the blessedness of the one broken in spirit and contrite in heart. Confession of sin is a gift of grace.

Thus, this manifestation of God in creation, given to all men, is “That they are without excuse” (1:20). They are never, into all eternity, able to plead ignorance. They knew! God showed it to them.

* * * *

Having said all this, the apostle also explains how the wrath of God is revealed to these sinners. It is revealed in a most terrible way. “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves” (vs. 24). And again, “For this cause (the idolatry of the wicked) God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature; And likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (vss. 26, 27).

And then, once again the emphasis that such idolatry is conscious and deliberate: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient” (vs. 28). In other words, God punishes sin with sin – more sin, greater sin, more horrible sin, the sin of homosexuality. That is the revelation of the wrath of God.

This is so-called “general revelation”. This is the common grace of general revelation. We do well to see that common grace is also an idol and that to believe in a god who loves all men and tries to save them is a changing of the glory of God into an image of man’s own devising. It is dangerous to suppress the truth. It is salvation to get down on our knees before a sovereign God who does all His good pleasure, and worship Him in awe and humility. It is salvation to live in obedience to God’s will and when we sin, not to justify ourselves, but to confess our sins and seek forgiveness in the cross. There, in the cross, is hope for us poor sinners.

* * * *
The apostle says much the same thing in chapter 2:14, 15, He is explaining why the Gentiles, unsaved as they are, nevertheless do things in conformity with the external demands of the law. This was especially true in the Roman Empire, famous for its advances in jurisprudence. The wicked, even those who have not the gospel, keep these outward demands of the law because they really know the law. “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 show 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.”

Not all unsaved people commit fornication, steal from their neighbor, murder those whom they hate, seek divorce when they weary of their spouses. There can be found among unsaved people an external conformity to the law. These are the heathen who have no Bibles and have never heard of the law of the ten commandments. The gospel is foreign to them. Especially in Paul’s day, this ignorance of the gospel was true of most of the people within and beyond the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. And the law, given from the fire of Sinai, was unknown to them. How is it to be explained that they do by nature the things contained in the law?

Again, many explain this knowledge of the law and conformity to its external demands as being evidence of God’s common grace. But there is no mention of this in the text and we ought not to introduce that which God does not introduce.

The same reason for this phenomenon of an external conformity to God’s law is given here as in Romans 1:19, 20. The wicked know the law of God even though they never heard of the ten commandments. The wicked have the works of the law written on their hearts. They do not, the apostle points out, have the law written in their hearts; this is salvation. But they do know what the law teaches and demands, namely that they must serve God. They not only know that they must serve God, but they know how to serve Him, that is, by keeping His commandments. They do not have the law as given from Sinai, but they do know what the law of God requires. God has seen to it that through creation itself every man, woman and child knows the difference between right and wrong. And all men know what is right and what is wrong in their relationships to their fellow men. This knowledge of the law is also made known through the creation, for it is imbedded in the creation as a creation ordinance.

That the works of the law are written on the hearts of all men is explained further by the fact that the text clearly states that men’s consciences testify of the rightness and wrongness of a deed. Every man has a conscience. It is the subjective testimony in the consciousness of man of God’s judgment upon every thought, word and deed he does. But that word of God in the conscience men suppress. That God is displeased with their sin and pleased with obedience is a truth they suppress. Yet they conform their lives outwardly to the demands of the law. This fact is proof that they know God’s law and understand well what God requires.

But that they conform their lives in some measure to the outward demands of the law is also understandable. It does not take regeneration or grace, though it be common, to see that defiance of even the outward demands of the law leads to chaos. Thus they heed the voice of their conscience in an outward obedience, which is only evidence of man’s desire to seek his own good. But if he could sin and get away with it, he will do it. Abortion is a case in point. The threat of pregnancy following fornication is a deterrent to sexual immorality; but given abortion and the removal of the deterrent, soon total moral chaos results. But these wicked who know the law and conform outwardly to its demands do not and will not love the Lord their God with all their hearts and minds and souls and strength. Apart from such love for God and the neighbor, there is no true keeping of the law at all.

This knowledge of this is not common grace; this knowledge is given so that men may be without excuse when God judges all men (2:16). The creation itself teaches that God is God alone and that because He is God, the Creator, He must be worshipped and served. That they know what is right and what is wrong is evident from and proved by their lives in which they maintain some outward conformity to the law. It is not grace that enables them to live lives in conformity with the law of God externally, but simply that even wicked man can see the social benefit of keeping the law outwardly. Society and life in society would be impossible if people stole and murdered without any restraint. It does not take regeneration or grace to see that laws defining what is right and what is wrong are necessary and that society is better preserved when law enforcement agencies are given the authority to punish violators of the law.

Dr. A. Kuyper and his followers claim this outward conformity to the law is common grace. But such is not the case. We will have to investigate this matter further as well as other matters, but for the present, I am content to demonstrate how Scripture speaks indeed of a general knowledge that all men have of God and of morality; that this knowledge is not common grace, for its sole purpose is to leave men without excuse; and that only by faith in Christ is there salvation.

With warm regards,

Prof Hanko

Monday, November 2, 2009

God's Wrath shown to the Ungodly in Creation (22)

Dear Forum members,

When I wrote the last letter I introduced the subject of general revelation and common grace. As you recall, I said that even though general revelation is a concept that has had its own place in Reformed theology for centuries, I expressed uneasiness with the whole idea. My main objection was the fact that revelation, by virtue of the term itself, implies grace, and general revelation implies general or common grace. The major question is not one of terminology; nor am I interested in objecting to general revelation because some use it as proof of common grace: that latter reason would not be a valid one. One may not object to a term because it has been used wrongly. But I did show that Scripture, while also connecting revelation with grace, always speaks of revelation as God’s self-disclosure, as part of the salvation of the elect. This assertion, I said, brings up some problems, the chief of which is the question: Does not God make Himself known also to the world in general? This, and related questions, is the one which I address in this letter. Our starting point is Romans 1:18ff.

* * * *

First of all, let it be established beyond any doubt that indeed God does make himself known to all men through creation. (See Article 2 of the Belgic Confession.). God makes Himself known to His people in the creation, but, as Calvin puts it, we cannot see God in creation without the spectacles of Scripture. We may certainly call God’s manifestation of Himself in creation to His people “revelation,” but only in connection with Scripture and Scripture’s power to convert the sinner and instill faith.

That God makes Himself known to the wicked in creation is clearly taught in Romans 1:19-21 and Romans 2:14, 15. (Romans 1:18ff. is too long a section to be quoted here; you are urged to take out your Bibles and follow in them.) But notice, in Romans 1:19 the expression “hath shewed” is used instead of the term “hath revealed.” The term revelation is used by the apostle in verse 17 of the same chapter when he is speaking of the righteousness of God imputed to His people. Further, the same term is used in verse 18, but there it is used as the revelation of God’s wrath, and grace cannot be found in God’s wrath.

The entire passage in Romans 1 from verse 18 to the end of the chapter is an important one. It is important because it does speak of God making Himself known to all men. It is also important because Dr. A. Kuyper used this very passage as proof of common grace. Kuyper’s argument (as Bavinck’s) was, however, rather oblique. He appealed to the statement in Romans 1:24, 26, “God gave them up”, as teaching common grace because, until such a time as God did give them up to their own lusts, He restrained their sin; and this restraint of sin is evidence of grace. But we wait with our discussion of this until we examine that aspect of common grace.

* * * *
We ought to notice first of all, that the theme of verses 18–32 is most emphatically not: the revelation of God’s grace to all; it is rather: the wrath of God revealed from heaven. The revelation of God’s wrath from heaven is really the title of the entire section from verse 18 to the end of the chapter. That immediately rules out this passage as proof for common grace. Furthermore, the reason why God makes Himself known to all men is not to reveal His grace to all men, but “that they may be without excuse” (1:20). The word “that” in the AV introduces a purpose clause: “. . . in order that they may be without excuse”.).

One may ask: Why is the word “revealed” used in verse 18? This is a fair question. But the answer is obvious. This term used here also refers to God’s self-disclosure. God reveals Himself as a God of great wrath against the wicked. He is indeed a God of love and mercy, but He is the holy God and reveals Himself as holy by the terrible wrath He has against all “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (vs. 18). The whole passage talks of wrath.

It is this matter of holding the truth in unrighteousness, which is the apostle’s next concern. In order for one to hold the truth in unrighteousness, he must, in some sense, possess the truth.

How does a wicked man possess that truth that he holds in unrighteousness?

Before I answer that question from what the apostle says, I must say something about the wicked and their sin of holding the truth in unrighteousness. The word translated “hold” in the AV can be translated here, “suppress.” The wicked suppress the truth. And their suppression of the truth is because they are unrighteous and ungodly. Not only is the sin of suppressing the truth itself an unrighteous and ungodly act, but the wicked suppress the truth because they are unrighteous and ungodly. If their suppression of the truth takes place by means of their unrighteousness and ungodliness, they are an unrighteous and ungodly people to begin with. The former term, “unrighteous” refers to their deliberate and willing violation of what God commands them to do. They are to honor and keep the law of God who is their Creator and Lord. But they deliberately disobey. “Ungodliness” is a denial of God and a denial of the fact that God is their Creator and has every right to command them to obey Him. They deny that, deny any claim God may have upon them, and deny God’s right to tell them what to do.

To suppress the truth is to know it, but to refuse to acknowledge it as truth, or even to allow it to enter one’s consciousness. We are all past-masters at this sort of thing. We know some truth that gives us great pain; some memory of some event; something so traumatic that has happened to us that we cannot bear to think about it. Because of the pain associated with it, we suppress it. That is, we refuse to allow ourselves to think about it. We drive it from our consciousness the moment it is present in our minds. We bury it somewhere where it will not intrude on our thinking.

We may suppress some obligation we have towards someone. We may owe a man $500.00, but we do not want to pay it for some reason. When it appears in our consciousness, we drive it away, because it bothers our conscience. We deliberately refuse to allow ourselves to be reminded of it, and when we are reminded of this debt by someone, we become angry and self-defensive.

So it is with God’s demands on man. He comes with the demands that men serve Him and obey His law, but man refuses. He will not even allow himself to think about it, for he is immediately troubled by an accusing conscience. And so he suppresses the thought and fights desperately to keep it from entering his thoughts. He knows that God is God and that God’s demands that men serve him are true. Everyone who has witnessed to an unbeliever has experienced that his word calling man to repent of sin and believe in Christ is rejected. The more often it is brought to a wicked person the more angry he becomes. Why is he so angry? Because he knows it is true, but refuses to forsake his sin and does not want to be reminded of his obligation towards God. Anger is the reaction of a guilty conscience. And it is well that we understand that we are the same way when confronted with sin in our lives.

But to suppress the truth of God the wicked must know that God is God and that He has every right to demand of men that they worship Him and obey Him. How do they know this? The apostle answers that question: “That which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shown it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead” (verses 19, 20).

Several points must be made in connection with these two verses. The first is that God is in Himself invisible. Man cannot see or know God apart from God’s own self-disclosure. The things of God are the invisible things of an invisible God. Man has no knowledge of God unless God makes Himself known to man in a way man can understand.

Second, Paul does not use here the word “to reveal,” for that would refer to revelation, always given in grace, as I said. The word used is quite different from the word “reveal.” It simply means “to make known to another.” Thus the apostle himself distinguishes here between revelation and a making known.

Third, God shows the things of Himself to man by means of the things that are made. God has showed the invisible things of Himself to the wicked so that the things of the invisible God are clearly seen and understood by means of the creation. Never is it possible for the wicked to plead ignorance. In the judgment day, they will not be able to say, “We did not serve you because we did not know you nor your demands on us.” God will say, “I clearly showed these things to you in my creation.” And they will have to admit that this is so.

Fourth, the apostle is even stronger. He says, “That which may be known of God is manifest in them.” That is strong language. It is true that the Greek word used here can also mean “among”. Then the meaning would be that this making Himself known is in the sphere where the heathen live. But the literal meaning of the preposition is “in,” and that is the translation I prefer. God personally sees to it that what He says concerning Himself is sealed clearly and unmistakably on their consciousness. This interpretation is confirmed by what Paul says in 2:15, where the Gentiles are said to “shew the work of the law written in their hearts.” To have the work of the law written in their hearts is the same as having God’s speech in creation impressed upon their consciousness.

No earthly teacher can ever do that. A teacher may make a math problem clear to her students and even use the blackboard to demonstrate it, but she cannot make the pupils pay attention, nor can she make the poor student, who never can figure out what math is all about, to see it and understand it. God puts the truth that He makes known into the consciousness of men so that they are fully aware of what He says and who He is. The sky filled with stars, the birds that greet the dawn with song, the rose bush arrayed in all its beauty, point not to themselves, as Augustine expressed it in his Confessions, but point beyond themselves and say, “Look not at me, but look to Him who made me.” This subjective Word of God that He seals upon the consciousness of every man is not the subjective bestowal of grace, as the text makes clear, but is instead the guarantee that the wicked indeed know God. And this work is undoubtedly accomplished by the Spirit of Christ who carries out all God’s purpose so that God alone, as the sovereign God, does all according to His counsel.

This inward sealing of the truth concerning God on the consciousness of man is sometimes called the semen religionis (seed of religion), or, sensus divinitatis (sense of divinity). It is a part of man’s created being. He knows he is dependent upon a power outside himself, that he is not autonomous, and that he cannot escape this complete dependence. He knows that he is a part of the creation and that the creation can be explained only in terms of God, the Creator who formed all things and who continues to uphold them. And, knowing this, he also knows that the Creator alone must be served and worshipped.

Fifth, this work of God in making Himself known is a work that is seen by all men. It is not a part of the gospel. It does not reveal Christ. It does not come with the promise of salvation to those who believe in Christ. It is God’s declaration that He alone is God. Thus Paul’s emphasis here is on those who, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, live outside the sphere of gospel preaching. Every man, woman and child, in every jungle and forest, in every isle of the sea, in every land under heaven, knows that God is God and must be served. No man is without that knowledge.

Finally, it is the knowledge given in creation itself: “the invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.” So clearly are they seen that every man, from the creation itself, is confronted with the truth concerning God. God’s reason for this is “so that they are without excuse” (vs. 20). The wicked go to hell because they did not obey God when they clearly knew Him through His own creation. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

It is sometimes argued that Christ must be made known if men are to be saved (which is true), and that, therefore, God does not give all men an opportunity to believe in Christ, because He does not bring the gospel to all men. Because the work of making Himself known is limited to the creation, it is unjust of God to send those to hell who have never heard the gospel. Or, so it is argued, God’s revelation in creation itself is enough to be saved if only men would believe it and not suppress it. But this is exactly not Paul’s point. Paul is insisting that God is just when he comes in His wrath against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the wicked even though they never heard the gospel and never heard of Christ, the One through whom alone is salvation. They know that God is God and that He must be worshipped and served.

You may argue that they cannot worship and serve God, because they have had no chance to hear the gospel, and because their total depravity makes it impossible for them to be saved apart from the Christ, whom they do not know. But we must not forget that they themselves are to blame for their inability to serve and worship Him. They sinned in Adam and their total depravity is the punishment of God upon the sinner for his guilt in Adam. This is also true of us. We stand under the righteous judgment of God for our sin and guilt in Adam just as all men stand under penalty of death for Adam’s sin. The truth of original sin, both original guilt and original pollution, is part of the foundation of the whole of the Reformed faith. Though it is rarely taught in today’s theologically insipid church, and although it is even flatly denied by modern evangelicalism, it is part and parcel of the faith once delivered to the saints. It is clearly taught in Romans 5:12-14.

The gospel makes God’s way of salvation clear and the command goes out to all that all who hear the gospel must believe in Christ. When they who hear the gospel in turn refuse, their judgment is far greater than those in heathendom. It is more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Chorazin and Capernaum, for Chorazin and Capernaum heard the gospel proclaimed Christ Himself. But the fact is that also the heathen who knew not the gospel are responsible before God for their sins, for they were created good and able in every way to serve God. But they lost their gifts to serve God through their cooperation with Satan when Adam agreed to disobey God and join forces with Satan in his wicked purpose. This is the reason for what Paul says in verse 1 of chapter 2: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest.”

Although I went to a Christian school in my grade-school days, chapel speakers would often urge on us the calling to go to the heathen with the gospel because the only reason the heathen did not believe was because they had not heard of Christ. We were told that, if we did not go and tell them of Christ, we were responsible for the millions that perish, millions who longed to be delivered, whose only fault was that no one ever told them about Christ, whose salvation was certain if only someone would go to bring them Christ. Paul puts all that nonsense aside in these verses.

The question remains, What do the heathen do when they suppress the gospel?

I shall address that question in the next letter, God willing.

With warmest regards,

Prof Hanko

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is "General Revelation" a matter of Common Grace? (21)

Dear Forum members,

I mentioned at the conclusion of my last letter that the time has come for us to turn to the question of general revelation. I intend to treat this subject at this point because we are discussing the view of common grace that teaches that God reveals His love for all men in creation (rain and sunshine, for example), what has sometimes been called “general revelation,” that is, God’s revelation of Himself in creation in distinction of God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture. And this general revelation, so called, is also common grace, for God gives evidence in the creation of His goodness, kindness, benevolence and grace. God speaks His Word of creation and providence in the world about us, expresses in it His greatness and glory and gives through it the knowledge of Himself. This knowledge of Himself is given to all men and is indicative of God’s favor and love to all men. Indeed, the very act of revealing Himself to all men is indicative of His favor. But along with that revelation of Himself to all is a certain subjective grace that all men have by the power of which all men come to know God’s love for them and kindness to them.

Herman Bavinck most clearly identifies common grace with general revelation. In his book, Our Reasonable Faith (tr. by Henry Zylstra from the Dutch work Magnalia Dei; The Wonderful Works of God; (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1977). In discussing the differences between general revelation and special revelation, he writes: “The first (general revelation, HH) is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin . . .” (37). “It is common grace (in general revelation, HH) which makes special grace possible, prepares the way for it, and later supports it; and special grace, in its turn, leads common grace up to its own level and puts it into its service.” (38).

William Masselink wrote a book under the title, General Revelation and Common Grace in which he argues that God’s revelation of Himself in creation and history constitutes in itself the common grace of God. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977). That is, the very fact that God reveals Himself to all men is, in itself, grace.

In a decision concerning the legitimacy of teaching evolutionism in Calvin College, it was argued that general revelation, because it is God’s common grace, has to be taken into account in determining the origins of the creation and the age of the earth. The argument is that God’s common grace through general revelation gives man the necessary ability to discover in creation God’s truth – also concerning the age of the earth. It is strange though that although Scripture teaches creation in seven days of twenty-four hours by the mighty Word of God, science, which supposedly teaches an old earth of billions of years of age and creation by long processes of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, is to be preferred over Scripture, and Scripture’s teachings considered in the light of science, rather than science in the light of Scripture. This is the theistic evolutionist’s position in spite of the fact that Scripture has as its Author, God, while science has as its authors, unbelieving scientists. That idea certainly ascribes to common grace a formidable power.

Prof. Ralph Janssen, professor in Old Testament studies in Calvin Theological Seminary in the early 20th century till his deposition in 1922, held to the idea that the miracles of Scripture had to be explained in scientific terms because of common grace. For example, the water from the rock when Moses struck it was not due to a miracle, but was due to a blow of Moses’ rod on a thin layer of rock, which broke the rock and released the water already in it (Num. 20:7-11). He also taught that the monotheism of Israel’s religion was gained in a certain measure by the adoption of the religions of surrounding nations. All this was possible because of the common grace given in general revelation, for, because all the heathen possessed common grace, they were able to discover and hold to certain truths concerning creation and God. And because scientists possessed common grace, they are able to understand general revelation and formulate certain scientific truths into which Scripture’s miracles had to be fitted and in the light of which they had to be explained. (For a more detailed study of this subject see my Masters Thesis, A Study of the Relation Between the Views of Prof. R. Jansen and Common Grace, available from the Protestant Reformed Theological School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.)

But we cannot be side-tracked by attempts to destroy God’s Word. We must move on to this question of “general revelation” and face the question whether so-called “general revelation” is common grace.

* * * *

Before I examine this whole idea in detail, I have a caveat that is, it seems to me, important. The fact is, that for years I have been unhappy with the whole concept of general revelation. General revelation is usually interpreted to mean that, apart from Scripture, God reveals Himself through creation; and this revelation of God in creation is given to all men. This is why this revelation in creation is called “general.” I have no problem with the idea that creation itself makes God known; my problem is with the word “revelation” as it stands connected to “general” and is applied to creation. It seems inevitable that such a conception leads also to a grace common to all those to whom God “reveals” Himself, for Scripture connects revelation with grace. I do not want to quibble about mere terms, but it is my conviction that we ought to abandon the term “general revelation” for the term itself implies something contrary to Scripture and has been used as proof of God’s universal love and favor.

I have examined the many texts in Scripture where the term “revelation” is used in the sense of God’s self-disclosure and I have been unable to find a single text that speaks of revelation as God’s self-disclosure to all men. In the sense of God’s revelation of Himself, the term is used strictly as revelation to the elect. Scripture’s use of the term “revelation” limits God’s revelation to His people. All Scripture follows the words of our Lord, when, after pronouncing terrible woes upon Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum for their unbelief, He prays: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Matt. 11:25 –27; the emphasis is mine).

The same idea of revelation is underscored in Jesus’ explanation of the reason why He teaches in parables. I refer to Matthew 13:11-16. Jesus’ answer to His disciples’ query (why does Jesus teach in parables?) is first of all, that to them (that is, the disciples; and the disciples in distinction from all others) is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. This knowledge is not, Jesus says, given to others, but is hidden from them (vs. 11). And so Jesus goes on to explain that His reason for teaching in parables is that the sovereign purpose of God might be realized in the salvation of the church and in the damnation of unbelieving Israel. He quotes Isaiah 6:9, 10 in support of His contention.

Many want to interpret these words of Jesus that parables are intentionally the method of instruction that Jesus chose because parables are riddles, enigmas, puzzles calculated to obscure. Quite the opposite is the case. Parables make clear, explain things, and teach concerning the invisible truths of the kingdom of heaven by means of visible and easily understood realities in this visible creation. Thus, everyone who hears them, knows exactly what Jesus means and what truths He is making clear. But that is not yet revelation, because God’s purpose is that hearing many shall indeed hear, but not understand; and seeing they shall surely see, but shall not perceive. That they hear and see, but do not understand or perceive is due to the fact that the heart of the Jews was grown fat, and their ears dull of hearing, and their eyes closed so that they could not see (vss. 14, 15).

But, says our Lord to the disciples: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (vs. 16). Obviously the meaning of the Lord is that it is given to the disciples both to see and to hear (vs. 11). That is, revelation of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven is to the disciples alone, because revelation includes the spiritual ability to see that revelation. Revelation includes the subjective and gracious work of God to enable the spiritually blind to see and the spiritually deaf to hear. Revelation is sovereign and particular. Revelation is part of the work of salvation. Revelation is never, never to the wicked.

I can understand why revelation is linked to common grace in the thinking of the defenders of common grace. Even they realize that revelation involves grace, and so, if revelation is general to all men, grace is general to all men. And so, we have “general revelation” and common grace. But the Scriptures do not teach this.

That revelation is only for the elect is easily illustrated. The word “revelation” means “to uncover, to expose, to unveil.” It brings to mind the public unveiling of a statue of some famous person in some park. A crowd is assembled, and, after appropriate speeches are finished, the time for unveiling comes and the drape covering the statue is removed. But now supposing that all the people assembled are blind and deaf -- is there any revelation? No one present can see a thing or hear a word. What revelation takes place? None.

The sinner is spiritually blind and deaf. He cannot see nor hear because he has no eyes and ears attuned to heavenly things. He is dead in trespasses and sins. The uncovering or unveiling of God when He speaks of Himself and all His mighty works cannot be to the unbeliever whose heart is fat, whose ears are dull and whose eyes are closed. Revelation is indeed grace. It is a grace that opens eyes and ears and instills faith. But the Lord God must be thanked that this same revelation is hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to babes, for this is the Father’s good pleasure.

Our conclusion is, therefore, that revelation is part of the work of salvation; part of God’s undeserving gift to His people, part of the overflowing bounty of grace, and it is very particular.

* * * *

That teaching of Scripture raises, however, some questions. The first question is: Is it not true that God does make Himself known to the wicked? Another question, closely related to this is: Why does Jesus nevertheless, speak of the wicked as “seeing,” even if they do not see, and “hearing” even though they do not hear? And, thirdly, is it not true that the wicked also know God? Does not Romans 1 teach exactly that?

In connection with these questions, one must recall that I talked in an earlier letter about the fact that not only saving grace, but also common grace, is not simply an objective attitude of God towards men, but is also a subjective infusion of spiritual power modifying and mitigating the severity of sin in the sinner. Applied now to this idea of revelation, does not general revelation, if it is common grace, bestow the spiritual ability to know God in the truest sense of the word? It certainly has to mean that, and the defenders of common grace and general revelation are ready (and even eager, one might suppose) to teach this.

But these questions, and especially an analysis of the teaching of Romans 1:18ff. are going to take more time than we have left in this letter.

With warmest regards,
Prof. Hanko

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God is Kind to the Unthankful and to the Evil (20)

Dear forum members,

Before we pursue further the discussion of the proof texts used to prove an attitude of favor and love that God shows to all, I must deal briefly with a text that one of the readers of the forum sent in. He says that it is usually quoted as proof for a gracious and well-meant gospel offer, but would like to have a brief explanation. The text is Revelation 22:17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”

I am aware of the fact that this text, and others like it, have been used to prove from Scripture a well-meant and gracious gospel offer in which God expresses His desire to save all men. But such an interpretation is incorrect. Presumably, the defenders of this position assume that, though this call of the gospel comes only to those that hear or are thirsty or will to come, such characteristics belong to all men. All men hear; all men thirst (for the coming of Christ), all men desire to come.

But this is an evident impossibility on the face of it. Such a view is based on the Arminian doctrine of free-willism, and cannot be found in Scripture. I am just now reading a book by Robert A. Peterson with the title, “Election and Free Will” in which the author traces the history of free-willism from the early church fathers till today and speaks of it as the dividing line between Arminianism and Calvinism. (P & R Publishing, 2007.)

Briefly, the meaning of the text is quite different. In the first part of the text John lays down the general truth that the “bride” of Christ, that is, His church, prays, by the power of the Spirit for Christ’s return. The words “The Spirit and the bride say, Come,” mean, by a Greek hendiadys, “The Spirit in the hearts of the bride says, Come.” He then turns to an admonition directed to the bride to make this prayer earnest and one’s own. These members of the church are described by their spiritual names. They hear what the book of Revelation says about the coming of Christ; they thirst for that coming, for it means their full salvation, and the waters of life shall be their’s to drink forever and ever to quench their thirst.

But even the saints need this admonition, for they are yet in the world, sinful and not always earnestly and eagerly longing for Christ’s return. They are too trapped in their pre-occupation with earthly things to give much thought to Christ’s coming. So the admonition directed to the saints is urgent.

Let us be aware of the fact that Scripture does call all men who hear the gospel to faith and repentance. Proverbs 8:1ff and Matthew 22:14. This command of God is not an expression of His loving desire to save all, but simply a sharp and earnest command. But there are also texts directed only to those who are God’s elect and who know already the work of the Spirit and the grace of God in their hearts. They are addressed by their spiritual names and cannot refer to all men. Such passages as Rev. 22:15, Isaiah 55:1 and Matthew 11:28 are clear instances of such passages. But in neither case does such a passage speak of God’s gracious and loving desire to save all who hear the gospel.

One other item demands our attention before we go on,. In an earlier installment I said, “God does not love those who love Him.” Some of our forum members misunderstood what I was saying, wrote, “God does love those who love Him.” I apologize for my lack of clarity and hope this note clarifies the point. What I meant to say, and thought I had said in the context was, “God does not love His people because they love Him.” His love is first, creative, powerful, salvation itself. God’s love for us creates our love for God.

I hope this clears up the matter.

* * * *

We will now consider the Biblical proof that is used to support the idea of God’s general attitude of favor and love that He shows to all men. No confessional proof was offered in support of this point of common grace, but a few Bible verses were quoted in support of it. In the last installment, I considered Matthew 5:44, 45. In this installment I consider the second proof text, Luke 6:35, 36: “But love 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. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”

This passage in Luke is nearly parallel with the passage in Matthew 5 that we considered last time. The context also is very much the same. The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in Matthew 5-7, but here, though spoken on a different occasion, the subject is the same. The text is also very close to being the same, the only difference being that Jesus here speaks of God’s kindness to the unthankful and evil, while in Matthew 5, Jesus speaks of the rain and sunshine God sends to the just and the unjust. Luke 6 therefore makes explicit what is implicit in Matthew 5: the reference to the unthankful and evil is, therefore, a reference to the unthankful and evil elect. Election is not based on works, but on the free and sovereign choice of God. Those who are eternally chosen are not chosen because of any good they did, nor because something was found in them that made them suitable to be counted among the elect. They were as evil as any in the world. They were as ungrateful for God’s good gifts as anyone elsewhere. They were as deserving of everlasting condemnation as those who were not chosen. But they are in any case, citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus is giving them the principles by which the citizens of the kingdom live here in the world.

The elect who are the objects of God’s mercy know with total certainty that they were not chosen because they were in any way better than those not chosen. The awesome character of election and its sovereign work of God is the reason for the humility of God’s people. How can it be any different? It is not at all strange, therefore, that these people are admonished to be merciful to others. They are eager to love their enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. They cannot help but be themselves kind unto the unthankful and evil, for this is the way God dealt with them.

There is no reason at all in the text to argue, as those who teach common grace argue, that God is merciful to all men. After all, Jesus is speaking here to His own disciples (verse 20) and is describing the characteristics and calling of those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. Citizens of the kingdom of heaven are saved by grace; they are now to be gracious to those with whom they come into contact. In this way they manifest to others the grace God has shown to them. What could be more obvious?

To argue that because within the sphere of the kingdom of heaven, God is kind to unthankful and evil people can never be reason why we conclude that God is gracious to all men. One ought to re-read Psalm 73 and Proverbs 3:33 if he has any problem with this explanation.

* * * *

The last text that is quoted is Acts 14:16, 17: “Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”

This is an interesting text that requires considerable explanation, though not because it is difficult to refute those who want to thrust common grace on the text. Whatever the text may mean, it certainly does not say anything about a general attitude of favor and grace that God has towards all men. That seems to be clear on the very surface.

The context is clear enough. In his first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra. During the course of Paul’s preaching in this city of Asia Minor, Paul healed a lame man. This startled the citizens of this city and they immediately considered Paul and Barnabas to be two of the gods that they worshipped and served. Under this erroneous conclusion, they prepared to make sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas. Paul was determined to prevent them from committing such a terrible sin. The passage is part of Paul’s efforts to stop them from their horrible idolatry.

Even considering the text in this context and attempting to find common grace in this text, one would, it seems to me, immediately wonder why in the world Paul used the doctrine of common grace to prevent the heathen idolaters from worshipping him. But, apart from that, the text says nothing at all about an attitude of God’s favor and grace towards all men, but merely speaks, as I have emphasized more than once, that God gives good gifts to men. His gifts are always good and never evil. He is Himself a good God, infinitely good in His eternal perfections. He cannot give anything but good gifts.

You say, Yes, but God also sends floods, tornados, famine and earthquakes. Is He good when He sends these disasters? Yes, indeed, He is good also when He sends catastrophes, for in His infinite holiness and perfect hatred of sin He sends judgments on the wicked in order that His goodness may be vindicated and His hatred of sin revealed. And surely part of the sin that He hates is the dreadful sin that man commits of despising God’s good gifts and using them to oppose God.

And, we may mention in passing that when God sends catastrophes upon His people, that also is good, for God uses all the sufferings of this present time to sanctify His people and prepare them for glory.

* * * *

But the text in Acts 14 goes further. It gives a reason why God gives good gifts to men. That reason is not that God loves them and is kindly disposed towards them. The reason is that God does not leave Himself without witness. In the good gifts that He gives, God testifies of Himself. He even, Paul says, did this in the old dispensation when Christ had not yet come and when the gospel was not sent into the nations. Even in those days when the gospel was proclaimed only in Israel, the heathen who never knew or heard the gospel, nevertheless, were given a strong and irrefutable witness of God. The Jebusites, Moabites, Philistines, Ammonites and all the other heathen nations of the earth received that witness from God through the good gifts that God gave to them.

Paul explains this further in Romans 1:18ff, and this point is sufficiently important to devote some time to it, but let it be established now that when God gave good gifts to men, He gave them to show all men that He alone is God, that He alone is good, and that He alone must be served and worshipped.

Paul appeals to that truth in Lystra, because he underscores the fact that the wicked from the beginning of time and including the idolaters in Lystra knew and know that God alone must be worshipped and served. The people in Lystra, therefore, must not offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, but to God alone.

This truth brings us to a discussion of Romans 1 and the truth of what is sometimes called general revelation. But all this must wait.

With warm regards to all,

Prof Hanko

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Scriptural "proof" for Common Grace: Matthew 5:44-45 (19)

Dear forum members:
I have been at some pains to deal with the arguments raised in defense of the idea that God has an attitude of favor towards all men, and not only towards the elect. I also gave a positive statement concerning the truth of this matter, namely that God’s favor and love are always towards His people and are rooted in sovereign election; it is not possible to answer the questions posed by common grace without taking into account both election and reprobation.
Although I am reserving our discussion of other aspects of common grace for future articles, I must remind our readers that the question of God’s general attitude of favor and love towards all men underlies all aspects of common grace: the restraint of sin, the good that the unregenerate do, and the free and well-meant offer of the gospel. All three are based on the idea that God is favorable towards all men. The point we are now discussing is crucial and fundamental to all aspects of common grace.
Further, I must remind you all that what I said at the beginning of these letters is an important point to bear in mind. God does not only take an objective attitude of favor towards all men and leave it go at that so that most, if not all, the objects of common grace do not even know that God loves them; rather, God’s attitude of favor includes the actual bestowal of grace upon the object of that favor. God’s “attitude” is not a mere thought in His mind; it is the living will of the living God. He shows His favor towards all, and makes certain that these objects of His favor know that God loves them. He gives them His grace in their hearts to enable them to be what apart from His grace they cannot be and to do that which apart from His grace they cannot do. They know His love whether they accept this love or not.
Bearing these two thoughts in mind, we can proceed with our discussion.
* * * *
It is now time to examine the Biblical proof given by defenders of common grace for God’s attitude of favor towards all men.
The first point of common grace adopted by the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 offered the following Biblical proof: Psalm 145:9, Matthew 5:44, 45, Luke 6:35, 36, Acts 14:16, 17. We shall discuss these texts one by one. If anyone among our forum members had other texts to consider, I would be more than willing to consider them as well.
* * * *
Now, there is not much here to which we have to pay attention. I have already discussed Psalm 145:9, and need not deal with that text again. I pointed out that the reference in this Psalm is not to men but to God’s creation. God is good to His creation, for it is His; Christ died for it, and it shall be redeemed.
Further, Matthew 5:44, 45, Luke 6:35, 36 and Acts 14:16, 17 are all very similar, and the correct interpretation of one will give us the correct interpretation of the others.
Even the two brochures written almost immediately after the adoption of the three points by the Christian Reformed Church contain no additional Scriptural proof for the point we are discussing. The two brochures are: Louis Berkhof, De Drie Punten in alle Deelen Gereformeerd (The Three Points, in all Parts Reformed) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1925) and H. J. Kuyper, The Three Points of Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1925).
Now this is in itself rather significant. It would seem to me that in a official doctrinal statement made by the highest ecclesiastical body of a church and introducing into the church’s body of faith a doctrine that from the viewpoint of the Reformed creeds and the history of the Reformed churches has at best only dubious historical support (although the first point of common grace claims that this view was held by all theologians in “the most flourishing period of Reformed theology,”)—that ecclesiastical body would give an abundance of Scriptural proof, and even, one would hope, an explanation of the texts referred to as proof. But such is not the case. The need for careful exegesis of Scripture is the more pressing when faithful ministers of the gospel are stripped of their office because they refuse to sign the doctrinal statement at issue. Nevertheless, we ought to look at the proof given.
I must, therefore, turn to Matthew 5:44, 45. In general, there is no question about it that this is a key passage in the defense of God’s attitude of grace and love towards all men. Every defender of common grace that I have read or listened to has quoted this text as decisive in the debate. And all defenders of common grace assure us that this passage ought to mark the end of all debate.
The text itself reads: “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 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 unjust.”
The argument as I understand it goes like this. God sends rain on the just and on the unjust. The common rain that God sends is proof of His favor, love, kindness, etc. towards the unregenerate. Rain is God’s common grace.
Sometimes the argument is turned around, in the interests of showing that all who receive rain actually do receive favor. The argument goes like this: We are called to do good to the just and to the unjust. For us that doing good to the just and unjust includes all men without any distinction, or, at least, includes elect and reprobate alike, for we are unable to distinguish between them. Because we are imitating God as His children, in doing good to all, God also does good to all.
We may not, however, argue from our calling to love our neighbor as ourselves to God’s attitude of favor towards all men. We are creatures, living here in the world, in the world though not of the world. God is God, sovereign over all who does all His good pleasure. Known unto God are all His works from the beginning. We do not know who are God’s elect and who are reprobate. But God does know, for He determines it all. We ought to keep this in mind.
An important question that arises from the text is: Whom does Jesus mean by “the just and unjust” upon whom God sends rain? Does Jesus mean: good men in this world and bad men in this world? That is, men who deserve rain and sunshine and men who do not? The answer, very obviously, is: The text cannot mean that, for there are no just people in the world, for “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10).
Does it then mean to distinguish between those who are righteous because the perfect satisfaction for sin earned on the cross has been imputed to them, and those who are still in their sins and not righteous in Christ? That is, is the distinction between just and unjust a distinction between elect and reprobate? It would seem that the latter would have to be the meaning. But then the text means only, as we have repeatedly observed, that God manifests that He is a good God by giving good things to men, something no one denies. The question still remains: What is God’s attitude and purpose behind these good gifts? And then Psalm 73 and Proverbs 3:33 give us the answer.
But the whole idea that God loves the reprobate is an imposition on the text of man’s own devising.
* * * *
A positive explanation of the text would, I think, be helpful.
Actually, I dealt with some of the issues in this verse in my last letters and I ask the reader to consult what I wrote there. There is some repetition here, therefore, but perhaps the points are worth repeating.
Before I take our journey through this text, it is necessary to put the text into its context. In the broader context Scripture gives us Jesus’ words in His Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is spoken to the disciples and, more broadly, to all citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The Sermon on the Mount has frequently and rightly been called, “The Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven.” After describing the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom in the Beatitudes, the Lord lays down fundamental principles that govern the lives of these citizens while they are still in this world. Note this: Jesus is laying down principles of conduct to be observed by those who are citizens of the kingdom.
In the section of which verses 44, 45 are a part, beginning with verse 21, Jesus is explaining how He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. And in connection with His calling and work to fulfill the law, He condemns the keeping of the law as it was explained by the scribes and Pharisees. They saw the law only as an external code of conduct and paid no attention to the spiritual demands of the law: Love God, and love thy neighbor. Even to the command, Love thy neighbor, the Pharisees had added the command, Hate thy enemy (verse 43). This interpretation was indeed what the Pharisees taught, for in verses 46 and 47 the Lord adds, “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans the same?”
The evil interpretation of the law by the Pharisees was basically a self-centered conceit: I will be nice only to those who are nice to me . . . .
In other words, the command of God to love our neighbors as ourselves had been corrupted and abused by the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes. They had interpreted “neighbor” as referring to their brethren, and, even more narrowly, to those who loved them. The Lord warns the citizens of the kingdom not to do as the Pharisees, for that is not the law of God.
But the Pharisees forgot that the command to love our neighbor is rooted in and flows from the command to love God. We cannot love our neighbor without loving God. And, indeed, our love for our neighbor is a manifestation of our love for God. Furthermore, the love the citizens of the kingdom who love God must show to others is a manifestation of the fact that they are loved by God (I John 4:19). The Pharisees, when they interpreted the command, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and interpreted it to mean that we are to love those who love us, immediately had to face the question: Does God love those who love Him? What a foolish question to ask. The answer obviously is, He does not! Jesus’ answer demonstrates that God loves those who hate Him, though they be elect.
The term “neighbor” in the law of God is broader by far than our brethren and those who love us. That it has a broader connotation is evident from the parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). In this parable Jesus explains that we are neighbors to anyone whom we meet or walk with on our life’s pathway, who is in need of our help. That means that our neighbors are not only those who unexpectedly cross our pathway and need our help, but also those with whom we walk on life’s pathway every moment of our lives, but who need our help: our wives or husbands, our children, out fellow saints . . . . Quite frankly, I have a great deal of difficulty accepting the hypocritically pious prating of the ministers who are continuously telling us to love our neighbor, but who divorce their own wives and marry others. Let them first love their neighbor nearest to them, their wives and their children.
For all that, we are also called to love the neighbor who is quite obviously an unbeliever. That is, we are called to love our neighbor without discriminating between those who love us and those who persecute us. We are not to love those only who love us. God does not love those who love Him. God does not love those who make themselves worthy of His love. He loves us, the worst of sinners. If we are children of our Father, therefore, we love those who do not love us. But those whom God loves are those wicked and undeserving people who are nevertheless those for whom Christ died.
The point of comparison between God’s love and our love is: God loves unworthy sinners (though they are the elect whom God knows) and we are to love unworthy sinners (though we do not know elect from reprobate.) In doing so we imitate our Father in heaven.
We may very well ask the question: Why does God want us to love our neighbor and not only our brethren? The very obvious answer to that question is: We do not know who are our brethren (or will become our brethren), and who are not. That is why the Pharisees interpreted the command to love our neighbor as referring to those who love them. If, said the Pharisees, a person loves us, he must be one of our brethren and we ought to love him.
This was very perverse and wicked. We do not even know with absolute certainty who among our brethren are truly people of God; much less do we know of those outside the circle of our brethren who are true people of God. Luther was right when he said that there would be many in heaven who surprised him by their presence, and there would be many he thought to meet in heaven who were not there. Hypocrites are to be found in the church and God’s people are to be found outside the circle of “brethren”, though they may as yet be unconverted. God knows who are His own; we do not know with absolute certainty. Nor need we know. It is enough for us to live in fellowship with those who manifest themselves as faithful servants of Christ, with whom we live in our homes and in the communion of the saints. Going back all the way to Calvin and our Reformed fathers after him and following them, we must exercise towards those who profess to be believers “the judgment of charity,” or “the judgment of love.”
But God is pleased to save His church from the world of unbelief. He is pleased to save His church by the preaching of the gospel. The effect of the preaching of the gospel is that God’s people are His witnesses in the world of sin; and the witness of God’s people is itself the power of the preaching within them. God uses the witness of Christians to bring His people outside the church into the fellowship of the saints and under the preaching. This is God’s reason for the command to love our neighbor.
As Jesus makes clear, our neighbor is anyone who comes in our pathway: our wives or husbands, our children, our fellow saints, the man next to us in the shop, the man who knocks on our door to ask for food, the man who threatens us with harm, the man who persecutes us – these and all the rest who, if only fleetingly, enter our lives. God brings them there. God has His purpose in bringing them there. That purpose is to hear our witness of what God has done for us. We do good to those on our pathway whom God has put there.
We who are husbands surely seek the salvation of our wives. We do all we can to help them fulfill their own calling in the home and in the church. We surely seek the salvation of our children, for we teach them the ways of God’s covenant and insist that they walk in those ways. We surely seek the salvation of our fellow saints, for we earnestly desire to go to heaven with them.
The command to love our neighbor is broader than showing love to our acquaintances. We are to love those whose pathway crosses our pathway and who, like the wounded Samaritan, block our path so that we have to go around them if we are to ignore them. God put him on our pathway and did so for a good purpose.
Our neighbor is emphatically someone on our pathway. To love my neighbor who lives in Zaire is very easy. Even if occasionally I have to write out a check because famine is stalking Africa; to love these neighbors is the easiest thing in the world. But to love the unkempt and stinking man who knocks on my door for some food when I am in a rush to meet an appointment with a parishioner who has just lost a loved one – that is something more difficult.
We must love the neighbor. Love is not sentimental and syrupy do-goodism. Paul defines love as being the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14). Paul means that love binds two people together in a friendship that is characterized by holiness. So it is within the church. When that love is to be extended to our neighbor, it means that we earnestly desire the salvation of our neighbor, that he may, through faith in Christ, be perfect also; and that, saved by God’s grace, he may be one with whom we live in the communion of the saints. Love always seeks the salvation even of those that hate and curse us, despitefully use us and persecute us, for they may very well be brought to faith in Christ by our love for them.
Love is not, therefore, having fellowship with them in their sins, going to parties and sporting events with them, visiting them in their homes for amiable chats in front of the fireplace, or having a beer with them at the local pub. To seek their salvation is to reprove their sins, call them to repentance and faith in Christ, and point them to the way of salvation. When God shows mercy to us, He shows mercy to the unthankful and evil. We, moved deeply by such a mercy, do likewise.
To love them is therefore to do good to them and to pray for them, for this is what the Lord enjoins. Our concern for their salvation must be earnest, heart-felt and rooted in a genuine desire to see them one with us. But it is always a reflection in our lives of God’s love for us, undeserving sinners. God does not love those who do good to Him, who deserve His love. He loves the unthankful and evil But He loves them in Christ, seeks their salvation by sending His own Son into the world to suffer and die, and does all that is necessary to bring them to heaven.
As I said, witnessing has the same power as preaching. Preaching brings to faith in Christ; so does witnessing. Preaching is directed to far more people than the elect; so is witnessing. Preaching condemns sin and calls to faith in Christ; so does witnessing. Preaching is a two-edged sword that hardens as well as saves; so is witnessing. Witnessing is a sort of echo or reverberation of the preaching – preaching that we have heard and by which we have a faith that echoes in our witnessing. The two belong together. God uses promiscuous preaching to save His elect; so also He uses witnessing to bring His elect to the preaching of the gospel, to the fellowship of the church and to faith in Christ. We must not be as the Pharisees; we must be children of our Father in heaven.
Considering these things, we can understand the words: “That ye may be 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.” The point Jesus is making is that we must do to others what God has done to us. This is always a theme in Scripture, as Jesus makes clear in the parable of the two debtors (Matt. 18:21-35). God loves us and has shown His love for us by giving us Christ and salvation in Him. We are undeserving sinners who have no claim at all on God’s mercy. We receive what we do not deserve. If we fail to show this great blessing to our neighbor, we are thankless and unappreciative, not worthy of the blessings we are given. If we are aware of the amazing wonder of our salvation and if we have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, then we will also be inwardly compelled by the power of that love to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is Jesus’ point in this passage.
If you say that Jesus points us to the fact that God sends His rain and sunshine on men indiscriminately, you are, of course, correct. The point of the terms “just and unjust” is precisely to demonstrate that God’s love does not depend on the worthiness of the object. But, further, God always gives only good gifts. I have pointed out in an earlier installment that God gives good gifts, for He is good in Himself. The good gifts He gives show beyond question the wickedness of the world, for they despise God’s good gifts and use them in the service of Satan. In this way God Himself demonstrates that His judgment on the wicked is a judgment they deserve. In His good gifts to the reprobate, God sets them on slippery places where they slide rapidly into everlasting destruction (Psalm 73:18, 19). Behind this just judgment stands the eternal and unchangeable decree of sovereign predestination.
But God’s goodness is a manifestation of His grace to those whom He has chosen in Christ and for whom Christ died. We are unthankful and evil and deserve nothing. But God knows us as His own and knows all who are His own. He saves us sovereignly. We do not know who are elect and who are not. We are called to be witnesses of what God has done for us in the hope that God will do the same to those to whom we witness. And God will do what He has eternally planned to do, but in such a way that our witnessing always accomplishes His purpose whether that means to save or to harden. Or, to put it a little differently, God who knows His own in this world, gives good gifts to them for their salvation; but He also gives good gifts so that the wicked may be without excuse and God’s purpose in reprobation accomplished. We do not know who are elect and who are reprobate, but our manifestations of love have the same affect: they save (by God’s grace) the elect and harden and condemn the wicked.
You say, But God gives rain and sunshine to the just and unjust. That is, of course, true. But it is a false assumption to interpret giving rain to just and unjust as tokens of God’s love for the wicked. He gives rain and sunshine to the unjust reprobate for their condemnation, and to the just elect for their salvation. So we, the objects of such undeserved favor, must love our enemies and do good to them that hate us. That is, we must seek their salvation, not knowing whom God will be pleased to save through our goodness. God will use that very love for our neighbor to harden and condemn the wicked, but also to save those whom He has chosen to everlasting life.
One correspondent asks whether it is an accurate statement of God’s attitude towards the reprobate to say, “The good gifts of providence that he gives to them (the wicked, HH) are meant as a testimony to them that he is a good God, full of kindness and love, and therefore one worthy to be worshipped and before whom they should repent were they in their right mind, and that if they were to do so they would experience his loving fellowship as sweet.” My response to that summary is a hearty “Amen.”
This is Biblical and what we must believe.
With warmest regards,
Prof. Hanko