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

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