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

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