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