Sunday, February 28, 2010

II Thess. 2:6,7 & Belgic Confession, Arts. 13, 36 (30)

Dear Forum members:

In talking about that aspect of common grace that is called “the inner restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate.” I was talking about the Scriptural proof offered to support this idea. I continue an investigation of this proof.

Another passage of Scripture quoted in support of this idea is II Thessalonians 2:6, 7: “And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery doth already work; only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”

As far as the text itself is concerned, this is a very difficult passage for various reasons and many interpretations have been offered of it. It is not my intention to mention all these various interpretations and to exegete the passage in detail to learn what the Holy Spirit has in mind in this verse. My intention is simply to ask and answer the question: Can this text in any way support a doctrine of the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate that enables them to do works pleasing to God? And the answer to that question is certainly a negative one.

If one is to find in this passage a reference to the gracious restraining power of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate, then some sort of interpretation similar to the following would have to be given. The apostle is speaking here of the rise of antichrist at the end of time. Antichrist is called “the man of sin” in the context. He is part of the “mystery of iniquity” that is present in the world (I John 2:18). But this rise of antichrist is graciously restrained by the Holy Spirit, for that which “withholdeth” is supposed to be a reference to the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will graciously restrain sin in the hearts of the reprobate, particularly in the antichristian development of antichrist in history, and enable those who stand in this historical development of antichrist to do good throughout most of the new dispensation until the man of sin, the antichrist, is revealed “in his time.”

This is strange exegesis indeed. The objections against such a view are compelling.

1) The apostle tells the Thessalonians that they knew that which was withholding. Now if the reference is to the gracious inner working of the Holy Spirit in the unregenertate, the apostle could not have said that the Thessalonians knew of this work of the Holy Spirit. How could they? In all the apostle’s writings there is no other mention of any such thing. Apart from the fact that this expression, “what withholdeth” is a strange way to speak of the Holy Spirit, found nowhere in Holy Scripture, this interpretation presupposes that the Thessalonians knew about common grace and knew about that aspect of it that involved the restraint of sin almost 2000 years before it became a doctrine sanctioned by the church.

2) The idea of the restraint of sin emphasizes that this restraint is in the hearts of all men in general to restrain all kinds of sin and to enable sinful man to perform good works. But here in this text the expression is limited to the development of the antichrist. In fact, it would seem to me to follow that this restraint of sin is to be found in Antichrist himself, that he is the object of grace, that the Spirit graciously restrains him, and that he is able to do good in the eyes of God.

3) If the Holy Spirit and His work is the reference here, then the last line of the text would have to read this way: “But the Holy Spirit who restrains sin will continues to restrain sin until “he be taken out of the way.” The cessation of the work of the Holy Spirit is ended when the Holy Spirit is “taken out of the way.” What a strange and unbiblical way to speak of the Holy Spirit. It ought to be clear to anyone with a modicum of understanding of Scripture that this interpretation cannot possibly be correct.

It would have been extremely helpful if the texts cited in support of common grace had been exegeted and explained by the Synod that adopted these doctrines. But one looks in vain for any explanation; it seems to have been considered sufficient merely to quote texts without any explanation.

Whatever the apostle may be referring to in the text, someone or something, known to the Thessalonians, was preventing a premature appearance of antichrist and would be taken out of the way at God’s time, that is, when in God’s time the time of Antichrist had come. And, therefore, no restraint of the Holy Spirit can possibly be referred to. Such an interpretation of the text is foisted on the text in such an unnatural way that no one can accept it as true.
* * * *
We turn now to the articles in the Belgic Confession (Sometimes called The Netherlands Confession of Faith, or simply, The Confession of Faith).
Two articles were referred to. The pertinent parts of the articles read as follows: “This doctrine (of divine providence, HH) affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us” (Article 13; Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3 [Baker Book House, 1983] 397).
Berkhof tells us why, in his opinion, Article 13 is relevant. “The doctrine of providence is thus comforting for God’s people. It contains among other things this comfort especially, that God controls their enemies with a bridle. In their anger, these enemies cannot go further against the church than God permits. They are under the rule of the heavenly Father and are controlled by Him” (Louis Berkhof, De Drie Punten in Alle Deelen Gereformeerd [The Three Points Reformed in Every Part] {Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1925] 40. The translation is mine.)
Berkhof is aware that some critics of this proof have said that, according to Article 13 of the Belgic Confession and the interpretation given it by the CRC, God also gives his common grace to the devils, for the article speaks of God’s restraint “of the devil and all our enemies.” Berkhof, of course, repudiates this interpretation, although he does not make clear why he can exclude the devils as objects of common grace, if this article in the Belgic Confession is proof of common grace.
The proof which was offered for an inner restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all men indicates how meager and contrived the proof from the confessions really is. Berkhof himself spends almost no time in showing how this article proves an inner, divinely-worked restraint of sin, but spends his time, other than the quote given above, trying to free himself from the charge that the devils must also be the objects of common grace.
No Reformed man who believes in the sovereignty of God has ever denied that God restrains sin. No Reformed man has ever denied that included in God’s sovereign control are Satan and his black hosts from hell. Even while our Lord was on earth, the devils who were cast out of devil-possessed people, were subject to the Lord’s will. They could not even enter the pigs without the Lord’s permission (Mark 5:1-17). This profound truth of God’s sovereignty is taught in Article 13 of the Belgic Confession. But there is absolutely no mention made of an inner work of the Holy Spirit who restrains sin from within a man by changing man’s nature so that he can do good. Appeal to this article is an unwarranted twisting of the article on God’s providence.
The other article referred to is Article 36, which is titled “Of Magistrates.” “We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, hath appointed kings, princes, and magistrates, willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose he hath invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (Italics are in the original because the quotation is from Scripture. Article 36. [Idem, 432]).
Berkhof’s justification for an appeal to this article is: “These words speak for themselves. God demonstrates His goodness in this that, because of sin, He ordains a magistrate and gives him the sword. And the purpose that He has in mind with this is that the lawlessness of men is restrained, and with respect to human affairs, everything goes well.” (Idem., 41. The translation is mine.)
Who can disagree with that explanation? Again, it is clear to every Reformed man that indeed God ordains magistrates to keep order in society. But as one man once put it to me, “The second point (of common grace) confuses the Holy Spirit with the policeman” – or makes the sword of the magistrate the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to derive from this article anything even remotely resembling a work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all men, bringing to these men God’s grace, and restraining man’s sin by these gracious internal influences. It is no wonder that Berkhof apparently felt such an appeal to Article 36 to be poor proof, for he makes only two or three short sentences in explanation. It is well that he adds, “These words speak for themselves.” It reminds one of a preacher who is somewhat doubtful about the correctness of what he wants to say from the pulpit, and so intersperses his remarks with comments such as: “This is as clear as the sun in the heavens.” Or, “Anyone can see how true this is.”
We need not delay ourselves with further argumentation on this matter of the proof for the restraint of sin. It is quite clear that there really is none.
Yet, the idea, first propounded by A. Kuyper, is one that has taken hold of many. It is well to notice this in passing. But there is also a positive truth set forth in Scripture that runs counter to the teaching of the idea of an inner gracious restraint of sin and we do well to note this truth. I shall deal with this in a future installment, God willing.
With warm regards,

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Scriptural "proof" for the Second Point of Common Grace (29)

Dear Forum members:

I have described that aspect of common grace, which teaches the restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate. In this letter I intend to begin to deal with the proof that was offered by the defenders of this view from Scripture and the Netherlands Confession of Faith. It is true that the latter is a Confession of the Dutch Reformed Churches, and is not of any confessional relevance to Presbyterians. But the teachings of the two articles quoted as proof bring up some interesting points that are worth discussing in connection with this error of an inward restraint of sin. We will look at the Biblical proof first of all.

The first text used for proof is found in Genesis 6:3: “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man.” This text is found in the context of the apostasy that took place from the covenant line of the seed of the woman and the consequent terrible wickedness that was found in the pre-deluvian world. It is recorded in Scripture as the introduction to God’s announcement of His judgment on a world that had filled the cup of iniquity. This word, therefore, paved the way for God’s instructions to Noah “who found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8) to build the ark.

If this text is to be quoted in favor of an inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate, then the meaning of the text is this: for a long time, perhaps nearly a millennium and a half, the Holy Spirit had struggled in the hearts of those who belonged to the line of Cain to keep these wicked people from being as sinful as they were determined to be, but that, at last, the Holy Spirit, apparently failing in His efforts to restrain sin, withdrew from the wicked and God ceased from restraining their sin by His Spirit. It is an argument based on a strange assumption (The Holy Spirit had worked mightily for over 1000 years to restrain sin but had failed), and it is deduced from a negative statement (“My Spirit shall not always strive with man”) and made to mean a positive doctrine of an inner work of the Spirit in the reprobate that changes their nature for good, but does not save.

But, of course, the text does not say anything even faintly resembling such an idea, and, in fact, the picture drawn for us in Genesis 4 and 5 is quite different. One is hard-pressed to find any restraint of sin of any kind in the hearts of these wicked people; one finds, rather, a frightening development of sin that within 1650 years or so almost destroyed the church and made the world ripe for judgment.

Cain was guilty of fratricide and the blood-soaked ground under Abel’s body cried out for vengeance (Gen. 4:8-12). When God pronounced the curse upon Cain (Gen. 4:11), Cain, and subsequently, his descendants, moved away from the church, where the seed of the woman “began to call upon the name of the Lord,” (Gen. 4:26) to find their way in the world apart from the church.

Lamech, from the line of Cain, was apparently the world’s first bigamist and defied God’s creation ordinance for marriage. He also took it upon himself, not only to murder one of the people of God, but to compose a song to celebrate his dastardly deed (Gen. 4:23, 24); and he dared God to punish him for committing such a terrible sin: “If Cain shall be avenged seven-fold, truly Lamech seventy and seven fold” (Gen. 4:24).

In chapter 6 we have that chilling description of the dreadful sins that took place when those of the line of Seth sought cooperation with those of the line of Cain: “. . . the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. . . . There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:2-5).

But the sin to which we are pointed in these chapters of Genesis, which was the worst of all, was the sin of the persecution of the church. It began early with the murder of Abel. It continued with Enoch who was taken to heaven, because he was being hunted by wicked men (Gen. 5:24, Jude 14, 15, Heb. 11:5, 6. Note in Hebrews 11: 5 that the text says that “he was not found,” indicating that he was being hunted, but was delivered by a miracle of translation to heaven without dying.). The entire church in a world that must have numbered millions was reduced to eight people at the time the flood came. If the flood had not come when it did, no church would have survived.

All of these things do not speak of an inward restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit, but just the opposite: a violent and rapid development of sin so that the world became ripe for judgment in a relatively short time.

But we must still explain what the text does mean. The text can only refer to the preaching of the gospel that took place prior to the flood. This is evident, first, from the fact that the preaching of the gospel is always accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit never works independently of the preaching, but He always works where the preaching takes place –whether that work is to save or harden. Second, we know that prior to the flood God had His preachers in the world. Two are mentioned in Scripture: Enoch who “prophesied of these (wicked men who ‘went the way of Cain’, HH) saying, Behold the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 11, 14, 15). Noah also is said in II Peter 2:5 to be a “preacher of righteousness.” It is clear from the description of Enoch’s preaching, found in Jude15 and of Noah’s preaching found in II Peter 2:5, that the preaching contained all the elements of true preaching: the command to repent from sin, the warning of certain judgment on unbelievers and the call to believe in Christ and the gospel of salvation in Christ. That Noah preached salvation in Christ who was to come is evident from the fact that Noah was a preacher of righteousness as Hebrews 11:7 makes clear. Both Noah and Enoch not only preached the gospel that righteousness could only be found in the Seed of the woman who was to come, but both also called to repentance and warned against coming judgment. For this they were persecuted.

This powerful preaching was mocked, opposed and hated. And so God said He would withdraw this preaching and its accompanying work of the Spirit – as He always does to apostate churches and as He did to wicked Israel (Amos 7:11, 12). In churches where the gospel is no longer preached, the Spirit is withdrawn. The work of the Spirit is no longer present. The striving of which the text speaks is, therefore, the preaching of repentance from sin, which the preachers of the pre-deluvian world proclaimed, and that truth of the gospel impressed on the consciences of men by the Spirit. It all is a warning to today’s rapidly departing churches that the Spirit is no more present where the gospel is perverted. And the sound of the gospel is no longer heard in nations in which these apostate churches are found, and which have rejected the gospel.

If you ask: What was the work of the Spirit that accompanied the preaching, the answer is that the Spirit convicts of sin, reproving sin in the consciousness of the wicked and impressing upon the wicked the certainty of judgment (John 16:8-11). When God takes His Spirit from a church, or nation, or person, such are not longer even warned of their sin and impending judgment and the consciousness of their sin is lost. This is dreadful.

* * * *

Additional proof offered for the restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate is a group of texts that speak of God giving man over to sin. It might be well to quote the texts here.

“But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would have none of me. So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lusts: and they walked in their own counsels” (Psalm 81:11, 12).

“Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness” (Acts 7:42)?

“Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves” (Rom. 1:24). The same expression is found further in this passage in verses 26 and 28.

It is difficult, if not impossible to see an inward restraint of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unregenerate in these verses. Presumably, the argument is that if God gives a man over to sin, God must first of all restrain sin, and only after failing to restrain sin, God ceases His restraint. Yet no Reformed man would ever talk in a way that implies a frustrated God who cannot accomplish what He intended, nor can a prior restraint of sin be dug out of a passage that speaks of God’s work of giving man over to sin.

The meaning of these texts is rather, as I explained in connection with our discussion of Romans 1:18-32, that God punishes sin with sin. God’s wrath is revealed in His terrible judgments upon the wicked. One of those judgments is that God pushes as it were the sinner into greater sin. Romans 1 uses the language, “gives them over.” Idolaters who change the glory of God into an image made like unto corruptible man are punished by being given over to homosexuality. History is replete with examples of this. God is, after all, sovereign. He gives the sinner over to the sin that his wicked heart craves. Sin multiplies and becomes worse. And all this takes place until the cup of iniquity is filled. But all this has nothing to do with any kind of inner restraint of sin in the hearts of the wicked.

I shall say no more about this for the present, for I intend to discuss this further a bit later in another connection. But it ought to be clear in any case that it takes considerable exegetical legerdemain to extract from these passages an inward work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the ungodly that alters the depraved natures of the wicked and results in good works, but does not save.

With warmest regards,
Prof. Hanko

Monday, February 1, 2010

Implications of the Second Point of Common Grace - (28)

Dear forum members,

In my last letter I explained what is meant by the common grace that is a restraint of sin in the unregenerate. I did this by quoting Louis Berkhof who was a defender of common grace, and one of the chief authors of the formulation adopted by the CRC in 1924.

Before we move on, I need to make a few more remarks about what the restraint of sin means.

In the first place, I remind you once again that this restraint of sin is emphatically called grace. That is, this restraint of sin is a work which God performs in the hearts of the unregenerate because He is gracious to them, loves them, is merciful to them and earnestly desires their salvation.

Second, this restraint of sin is worked internally by the Holy Spirit. The result is that the unregenerate and unbelieving sinners have the Holy Spirit in their hearts as well as the people of God. While the second point of common grace makes this internal work of the Holy Spirit explicit, the same internal work of the Spirit and the subjective bestowal of grace is the teaching of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer. Although I intend to discuss this in more detail at a later date, it is worth mentioning now that grace, whether common or particular, always implies a subjective bestowal of spiritual benefits. In the gracious and well-meant gospel offer, this grace is a power within the unregenerated sinner that enables him to make a choice for or against the gospel offer. He is in a spiritual position to make up his own mind as to God’s offer of salvation whether to accept it or reject it.

This is then the relationship which exists between the doctrine of the restraint of sin and the doctrine of the gracious gospel offer. God so restrains the sin in the hearts of the reprobate and bestows on these reprobate blessings that enable them to accept the gospel – if they so will.

Third, this work of the Holy Spirit not only impedes the progress of sin or restrains its outbreak in the lives of the individual, but it also has a good effect on the nature of man so that he is morally better than he would be without this common grace. The work of the Holy Spirit does not actually regenerate a man; that is, the Holy Spirit does not actually give to the sinner the life of Christ and a new heart, but God does, in His internal work, alter the nature of man for good. That is, a totally depraved nature is made less than totally depraved by God’s common grace given through the Holy Spirit.

Those who hold to common grace and also profess to be Calvinists feel constrained to defend the doctrine of total depravity, one of the five points of Calvinism. In order to accomplish this extremely difficult, if not impossible, task of harmonizing the good change in the nature of the unregenerate with the doctrine of total depravity, they make a distinction between “total” depravity and “absolute” depravity. The latter means depraved completely. And sometimes is added, “beyond salvation.” The devils are described as being absolutely depraved. But “total” depravity, in distinction from “absolute” depravity, means that a man is depraved in every part of his nature (body, soul, mind, emotions and will) but not completely so. Each part of his nature is partially depraved, but also partially good. This, it seems to me, is playing with words and with Biblical truths. But, of course, the proponents of this restraint of sin have a difficult time of it when they try to explain how, as Calvinism insists, a man can be totally depraved and yet be able to do good by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Fourth, it is this restraint of sin that makes possible an area of cooperation between the believer and the unbeliever. This was, originally, Abraham Kuyper’s intent. If the Netherlands was to be the fountainhead of a stream of Reformed teachings that would spread throughout the world, with Kuyper himself the prime minister, he had to make some sort of theological ground for such cooperation between believers and unbelievers that would make his dream a reality. After all, the majority of the population in the Netherlands was unbelieving.

The result is that the current thinking on this subject is this: because of this so-called “neutral” area occupied by both believers and unbelievers, created by grace, believers and unbelievers are able to unite in common causes. For example, Reformed churches permit union members to belong to the church, because, though membership in unions involves cooperation with unbelievers in the common cause of protecting the worker from rapacious owners of businesses, the unions, though composed mainly of ungodly men, are seeking the welfare of the laboring man. Christians may cooperate with these ungodly men, because these unions are “neutral.”

I recall that many years ago I received a call from the national headquarters of the Right To Life Movement, with headquarters in Washington D.C. I was asked to cooperate with the Right to Life Movement to prepare a petition to be delivered to the president in which a plea would be made to stop abortions in this country. I responded that I would be willing to work on such a petition, for I was opposed to the dreadful sin of murdering unborn babies, but, because the Right To Life Movement is a humanistic organization, I reserved the right to protest this sin of abortion on strictly Biblical grounds. His response was, “I will call you again some time.”

In other words, the whole idea of the restraint of sin breaks down the wall of the antithesis and makes cooperation possible between what one of my professors in college called, “the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens.” But I wish to discuss this a bit more when we examine the “proof” for this position.

This view of common grace, namely that God restrains sin in unbelievers, leads to some very unbiblical positions. Dr. Janssen, professor of Old Testament in Calvin Seminary was, in 1922, relieved of his position in Calvin Seminary because he taught higher critical views of Scripture. He denied some of the miracles, believed and taught that Israel received parts of its religion from the heathen and that some of the incidents described in Scripture, such as Samson’s exploits, were myths and fables invented by the Hebrews who wanted myths like the Greeks and Romans. He did so on the grounds of common grace; particularly the restraint of sin and the consequent good that sinners do. It was his contention that common grace operating in unbelieving higher critics, led these higher critics to set down truth. It was the church’s obligation to recognize these “good” views of unbelievers, for they were the fruit of God’s grace. This view of common grace lies at the bottom of today’s church’s compromise with higher critical views of Scripture, views that deny infallibility.(See also D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. See especially pages 49, 73, 168 as examples.)

Janssen also denied some of the miracles because they contradicted scientific findings. But again he justified his position on the grounds of the restraint of sin in scientists, who were able to discover truths concerning creation, by common grace. Later, the CRC did the same when it approved the teaching of theistic evolution in Calvin College.

There is a vast neutral area in which believers and unbelievers can work together for the good of mankind and the betterment of the human race. In this neutral area there is a sharing of ideas, a unity of effort and a benefit to be derived from such cooperation, for even an unbelieving man can discover truth.

Thus common grace becomes a bridge across the chasm of the antithesis on which unbelievers can come over to help the church and church members can cross to solicit the cooperation of wicked men and join with them in various endeavors.

These remarks are, of course, my criticism of the second doctrine of common grace. And it is better to wait with a criticism until I can bring all the objections together. But it is important to understand precisely what the gracious restraint of sin actually is and how it works out in the life of mankind and of the church. The gracious restraint of sin is, after all, a world-and-life view. And if it is not that exactly, it carries in it the seed of a world-and-life view that is quite
contrary to Scripture.

I think it better at this point to deal with the “proof” for this view. But I shall wait with a discussion of the proof until the next letter.

With warm regards,
Prof. Hanko