Friday, April 30, 2010

What do the Confessions teach about restraint of sin? (34)

Dear Forum members,

Before I get into the material for this installment, I ran across an interesting quote from Augustine, the church father who served as bishop of Hippo and died in the year 430 AD. He, more than any other church father, was quoted by Calvin. I quote this in connection with the previous installment that dealt with God’s sovereignty over sin. The quote is as follows: “For if it were not a good that evil should exist, its existence would not be permitted by the omnipotent God, who without doubt can as easily refuse to perish what He does not wish, as bring about what He does wish. And if we do not believe this, the very first sentence of our creed is endangered, wherein we profess to believe in God the Father Almighty. For he is not truly called Almighty if He cannot do whatsoever He pleases or if the power of His almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature whatsoever” (Enchirdion, XCVI). It is this doctrine, rejected by Augustine’s own church, which was promoted by Calvin and all subsequent Calvinists.

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I have really finished what I had to say on the error of an internal operation of God’s Spirit in the hearts of all men, which graciously restrains sin in the natural man, with the result that he is capable of doing good in the sight of God. I pointed out that every Reformed man believes in a restraint of sin. He is compelled to do this simply because he believes in a sovereign God who rules over all, including the wicked. But this truth of God’s sovereignty is a far cry from a gracious operation of the Spirit in the hearts of men, which changes their natures for good, even though this operation of the Spirit does not save.

This letter that I now send to you is a sort of bridge between the idea of common grace that teaches a restraint of sin, and an additional doctrine of common grace, which teaches that the natural man, apart from regeneration, is capable of doing good in the sight of God.

This installment deals with two quotations from our Reformed Confessions that defenders of common grace use in support of both a restraint of sin and the good that sinners do. One quotation is from Canons 3/4.4; the other is from Article 14 from the Confession of Faith (sometimes called the Belgic Confession or the Netherlands Confession).

The quotation from the Canons reads: “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society and for maintaining an orderly external deportment” (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1931 edition) 588, The article in the Confession of Faith reads: “[Man] hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof” (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1931 edition) 398, 399.

The argument of the defenders of common grace in their appeal to these two articles in their support of common grace is an appeal to what the Canons calls, “the glimmerings of natural light,” and what the Confession of Faith calls “remains of the excellent gifts man received at his creation.” Further, the defenders of common grace point out that these glimmerings of natural light enable man to retain some knowledge of God and natural things; enable him to know the differences between good and evil; enable him to discover some regard for virtue, good order in society and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.

So, following the reasoning of those who hold to common grace, the internal gracious and restraining work of the Holy Spirit preserves in man these glimmerings or remains of natural light, and these glimmerings are the fruit of the inner restraint of sin in the heart of the sinner by the Holy Spirit. The good works the natural man is capable of performing are those listed in the Canons: some knowledge of God and natural things, some regard for virtue and good order, some ability to maintain an orderly external deportment; and because of common grace, these good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work. Things get stranger and stranger.

At bottom, the assumption that is made is this: These glimmerings of natural light and remains of God’s excellent gifts are spiritual powers or faculties. What the Canons calls “natural light” is by the theory of common grace changed into spiritual light. Is it not true that the Holy Spirit works a change in man, which alters man’s nature for the better? Is not this a spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit? And, are not the good works that proceed from this improvement in the nature pleasing in the sight of God? And, if they are pleasing to God, then they have spiritual value and are of spiritual worth.

The Canons themselves dismisses that idea of a spiritual good in man with some very sharp and penetrating words. It is interesting that when the Synod of the CRC adopted the three points of common grace and appealed to these articles in the creeds as proof, the Synod quoted only the first part of Canons 3/4.4, which I have quoted above. But that same article goes on to say, “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, the light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness. By doing which he becomes inexcusable before God” (Idem, 588). Why did not the synod quote this part of the article? Perhaps because it completely negated their argument? I think so, but we cannot be sure, for the reasons lie in the hearts of men.

So the article itself repudiates many claims that common grace insists the article teaches. Common grace teaches that this light of which the Canons speak makes man more susceptible to being saved; the Canons say that it does not. Common grace explicitly talks about the ability of the natural man to do “civil good”; the Canons say that the natural man cannot use this light of nature “even in things natural and civil”; common grace say that the natural man is capable of some good works; the Canons say that the depraved man renders this natural light in various ways “wholly polluted.” The article to which common grace appeals is itself designed to repudiate common grace. It is not possible that those who composed the three points were unaware of what the rest of the article said. Did the authors of the three points really think that no one was going to read the rest of the article? And thus be persuaded that Canons 3/4.4 actually taught common grace? If so, they had a very low estimate of their opponents.

But much the same can be proved from other expressions in Article 14 of The Confession of Faith. The article describes the creation and fall of man. After briefly describing man’s creation, it goes on to say, “But being in honor, he understood it not (his creation in the image of God, HH) neither knew his excellency, but willingly subjected himself to sin, and consequently to death, and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was the true life, having corrupted his whole nature, whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness” (Idem, 398, 399). It is very difficult to find any common grace of any kind in this article; and only one with common grace-tinted glasses is able to see it.

It is spiritual foolishness to appeal to these articles in proof of any kind of common grace.

But, having said that, we are not relieved of the responsibility of explaining what the two articles really mean. But another installment will be the appropriate place to delve into these questions.

With warm greetings in the Lord,

Prof Hanko

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What does the Spirit work in the reprobate? 33

Dear Forum members,

Before I continue our discussion of the restraint of sin and the good the wicked do, I ought to answer a few questions that I received from one of the forum members. These are the questions.

To what extent does the Spirit of God work in the heart of the reprobate?
While never gracious, what is the nature of this work? To what purpose does it serve?
Scripture gives us accounts of the Spirit’s work of hardening hearts (Pharaoh) and restraining sin (Abimelech) in wicked men. How would you further distinguish and explain these two aspects of the Spirit’s work in the lives of the reprobate?
Is it accurate to say that God controls sin by hardening and restraining it in the lives of wicked men until He alone decides when the cup of iniquity is filled?

These questions came from one of our foreign readers. The questions indicate clearly that many throughout the world are interested in holding firmly to the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty. This is encouraging and reason to give thanks to God.

It is indeed true that the questions arise out of a deep sense of the truth of God’s sovereignty. And they cannot be answered in any other way than out of a profound commitment to the truth of God’s sovereignty in all things, including evil. Some years ago when I was still teaching in the Seminary, I and one of my colleagues were discussing how little was the truth of God’s sovereignty maintained in today’s churches. There were many, so he went on to say, that claimed to be Calvinists, but who refused to confess God’s sovereignty in crucial doctrines. The ultimate test, so my colleague stated, of whether a man is truly committed to the truth of God’s sovereignty is: Does he hold to the doctrine of sovereign reprobation?

The questions quoted above have to do with the doctrine of reprobation. But the questions force us to think of sovereign reprobation in a broader way than I have, up to this point, discussed it. I have more than once mentioned reprobation and pointed to its significance in our on-going discussion concerning the question whether God’s grace, in any sense of the word, is general or common, or whether it is only for the elect. These questions suggest an additional aspect to the subject. Granted that God’s sovereignty is also exercised in His control of sin and in His execution of the decree of reprobation, is it Biblical to say that this aspect of God’s sovereignty is effected by the operation of the Holy Spirit?

The two instances the reader brings up are the cases of Pharaoh and Abimelech. The reader who asked the questions referred not to Abimelech, the son of Gideon, but rather the Abimelech who was king of a people in the southwest part of Canaan. Abraham sojourned there for a time during his wanderings in the promised land, but he employed the same ruse here as he had done earlier in Egypt. He told Sarah his wife to tell all they met that she was Abraham’s sister and to keep secret the fact that she was his wife. Abimelech, in the integrity of his heart, determined to make Sarah his wife, but was prevented by God from doing this. God warned him of the sin of marrying Sarah. Abimelech obeyed God, but protested his own innocence. God recognized that Abimelech was indeed innocent, and said to Abimelech, “Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her” (Gen. 20:6).

The questioner asks whether this is a special operation of the Holy Spirit in the reprobate wicked that restrained the sin of Abimelech. It is my judgment that Abimelech was not a reprobate, but a true elect believer. While the text does not say this in so many words, the entire narrative in Genesis 20 very strongly suggests that.

Nor is this necessarily surprising. After Babel and the division of mankind into races and nations, the true religion continued for some time in various places. Although God narrowed this true religion to the descendants of Shem, He did this over a period of many years. Pockets of the true worship of God could be found. Examples would include Job in the land of Ur, a contemporary of Abraham, Melchisedek, king of Salem, a type of Christ’s office of king-priest, Jethro in the wilderness of Sinai, later to become Moses’ father-in-law, and probably Abimelech who seemed on very intimate terms with God in his conversations with God in his dream.

There is no question about the fact that God, by His Holy Spirit, restrains sin in the lives of His people, even sins of ignorance. It is a part of their salvation.

Nor, so far as I know, is the Holy Spirit mentioned in connection with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.. Scripture certainly makes a point of it that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is mentioned no less than ten times. It is also said in Scripture that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but, strikingly, a different Hebrew word is used and that only four times.

That God hardened Pharaoh’s heart brings up the question: Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart by the Holy Spirit? If not, how was this accomplished sovereignly by God?

I do not think that the question can be answered with any certainty. I do not know of any passage in Scripture that teaches explicitly that the Holy Spirit is the means God uses to accomplish His purpose in the ungodly.

Having said that, however, the fact seems to be a necessary conclusion from other teachings in Scripture.

As I noted in an earlier installment, Romans 1:19 reads literally, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shown it unto them” It would seem to me that it is not at all doing violence to the text to interpret that phrase “in them” to mean that God seals the consciousness of His power and glory upon the wicked by the Holy Spirit. The same is true of Romans 2:15: “Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts . . . .” The wicked, totally apart from grace, know the difference between right and wrong; and they know that God is the One who determines right and wrong. While all these things can be and are known through the creation, it is very well possible that God seals this knowledge upon on the hearts of the wicked by the operation of the Holy Spirit. This is at least implied in what we are told: that God makes Himself known that the wicked may be without excuse.

Further, all God’s works are works which He performs as the triune God. We must never ascribe some works to the first person of the trinity, some to the second person, and some to the third person. That is a sort of tri-theism, which the church has never taught. All that God does, He does as the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But in all the works of His hands, God makes Himself known. God makes known His own Trinitarian life in such a way that He works as the triune God, through Jesus Christ, and by means of the Holy Spirit. God executes His will sovereignly in all the works of His hands, and does so, according to His eternal determination, through Jesus Christ, His own Son, and by the Holy Spirit given to Christ at Christ’s ascension. Even in the OT there were manifestations of Christ in the Angel of Jehovah (whom Scripture calls God, Gen. 32:30, Gen. 19:24, etc.) and of the Holy Spirit of Christ with whom the office bearers were filled in their work, and by whom the OT Scriptures were written (I Peter 1:11).

If God is sovereign in all He does, including His control over the wicked, surely He does this in the same way He does all His works. If one would consider, for example, Proverbs 21:1 “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will,” it surely makes no essential difference whether God triune acts directly on the heart of a king to turn it, or whether God turns the heart of a powerful monarch through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture strongly suggests this same truth in connection with the preaching of the gospel. In II Corinthians 2:14-17, Paul says, “Now thanks be unto God which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.”

The apostle is clearly saying here that he gives thanks to God when the response to his preaching (which brings the savour of the knowledge of God to men) is a rejection of the gospel, as well as the fact that he gives thanks to God when his preaching is received by faith. He gives thanks to God in both instances, because God’s purpose is accomplished in both the reception of the gospel by faith and the rejection of the gospel in unbelief. Both reception and rejection are a sacrifice whose odor is pleasing to God. In both God’s purpose is accomplished. So God works faith that saves, but also works unbelief that rejects the gospel. The cross of Christ, set forth in the gospel, is the means of working faith, but also of working unbelief.

The text does not specifically say that unbelief is worked by God through the Holy Spirit, but it makes no difference whether God does this by a direct work on the hearts of men or by a work He performs through the Holy Spirit of Christ.

God sovereignly accomplishes reprobation as well as election. I talked of this earlier, and pointed out that election and reprobation are, according to the Canons of Dordt, one decree. This does not deny that God executes reprobation differently than election. Election is the fountain and cause of faith, and therefore of salvation. Reprobation is accomplished in the way of the sin of the wicked.

And here lies mystery – not contradiction, but mystery. God is sovereign over sin; yet He executes His sovereignty in such a way that the will of sinful man is not violated and man remains responsible for His own sin. The sinner is not coerced by God’s sovereignty to sin. He sins because he wants to sin. He is culpable and is punished. Where the execution of God’s sovereign will, whether or not it is through the Holy Spirit, touches the will of man, we find mystery.

Maintaining these truths, we hold to Scripture.

With warm regards,

Prof. Hanko