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

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