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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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