Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Further evaluation of the "good" of the reprobate (37)

Dear forum members:

The problem we face in our discussion of the good works that unregenerated people are capable of performing by the common grace of God is the meaning of civil good. This term was used by the formulators of this doctrine at the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, which is the most explicit statement of this doctrine one can find. Some of the defenders of this doctrine have said that the following characteristics are implied in civil good. 1) It is worked in the hearts of men by the Holy Spirit who restrains sin in the wicked. 2) It consists of good works that are pleasing in the sight of God and meet with His approval, though not, according to Berkhof, with merit in God’s records. 3) It is a good that is not the fruit of regeneration or salvation and is to be sharply distinguished from saving good; that is, from the good that is the fruit of regeneration and conversion. 4) But it is, emphatically, the result of God’s grace that is given through the Holy Spirit.

I suggested various kinds of good that might be included in the scope of this term “civil good.” We could add to the list given in my last installment, the efforts of wicked men to make this world a better place in which to live. By grace the wicked conquer disease; explore the mysteries of the universe; establish welfare programs to aid the poor and needy; build institutions that care for wounded veterans, people with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease; open orphanages and try by various ways to better the lot of mankind. Even some unregenerated people fight against abortion and homosexual practices and marriages. All these and such like things are said to be good and pleasing in the sight of God.

I think it important that we understand clearly that no single person of whom I have knowledge, much less myself, mean to deny that there is much good in the world, if one defines “good” by human standards. None in his right mind would say that it is an intolerable evil to do those good deeds which I have described in the previous paragraph. No one would ever claim that it is just as bad to build hospitals and train doctors to help people to regain health as it is to kill the sick and dying – although this also is being proposed in some countries. No one would ever say that to work in laboratories to find cures for cancer is as evil as letting cancer patients suffer and die without any efforts to help them. One who opposes the murder of unborn babies, though unregenerate, is not as great a sinner as the doctors in abortion clinics who perform abortions on a regular basis. Nor is it as great a sin to help a man with a flat tire as it is to pass him by and let him struggle on his own – even if he happens to be an old man of 80+ years.

There are degrees of evil in this world and I do not deny that some sins are greater than others. The Lord Himself taught this when he told the Jews that it would be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon, than for Capernaum and Bethsaida, for the sin of the latter cities in Palestine was greater than the sins in the heathen cities the Lord mentioned. In Luke 12:47, 48, Christ underscores this point: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

In fact there is even more to be said about this in Scripture. I can best explain this by referring you to the history of Israel. There were times in Israel’s history when the nation was ruled by God-fearing kings such as David; when the temple worship flourished because godly priests served in the tabernacle and temple; and when prophets brought the Word of God to Israel. The whole nation prospered at times like this, even though many in the nation were godless and unbelieving. In most cases these unregenerate people followed the practice established by good kings, priests and prophets, even though it was only outward conformity to the law of God.

There were also times when the wicked were in control. Evil kings sat on the throne – such as Ahaz; evil priests sacrificed to idols; evil prophets brought their own words instead of the Word of the Lord. God’s wrath fell on the whole nation until it was destroyed. And the godly suffered also under the fury of God’s wrath. Terrible judgments came upon Judah when Nebuchadnezzar led the nation into captivity, but God-fearing Daniel and his three friends also went to Babylon.

The whole house of Potiphar was blessed for Joseph’s sake (Gen. 39:3). And Paul instructs Timothy to pray for all in authority in the sphere of government, not only because God saves secular rulers as well as other elect, but also “that we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:1-4).

The same principle holds true today. Nations in the past have attained great power and influence, only to be destroyed for dreadful sins against God’s law. The Roman Empire is a case in point, for its final destruction at the hands of barbarian invaders was brought about by internal moral rot. The nation in which the law of God is outwardly observed is a prosperous nation. Many wicked countries are proof of this, and in them the church flourishes. The nation that breaks God’s law with impunity also soon turns against the church, which condemns the wickedness present in the land.

We must not make the error, as common grace does, of equating material and physical prosperity with God’s blessing. Asaph’s Psalm (73) warns us in no uncertain terms that to think this way is grievous error that will surely rob the people of God of their assurance of God’s favor. Try telling the people of God in Myanmar, who can scarcely keep body and soul together, that material prosperity is indicative of God’s favor. Mere prosperity must never be construed as blessing from God. One reason why God gives prosperity to a nation that outwardly keeps God’s commandment is for the sake of the people of God that they “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:2). Generally speaking, it is easier for the church to carry out her calling in a nation peaceful and prosperous.

I hold firmly to the truth that a wicked man who lives faithfully with the wife of his youth, cares for his family and sends his children to college, is better than the man who abandons his wife because he lusts after some other woman, turns his back on his children and has no regard for their welfare. I hold firmly to the truth that the man who brings groceries to his neighbor when the neighbor is in need is better than the neighbor who shoots the husband in a drunken brawl.

By repudiating the common grace that enables the wicked to do good in the sight of God, I do not intend to deny all these obvious facts. But we must come to grips with two crucial points. Is the good that sinners do good in God’s sight? And, if not, how do we explain this good of which sinners are capable? And their prosperity?

Before I enter into these questions, there is one element to the position that the defenders of common grace hold that is startlingly offensive and casts a huge cloud over the whole concept. I refer to the fact that the objects of common grace, according to the defenders of this doctrine, go to hell. The Holy Spirit dwells in them. They are, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the recipients of God’s grace. They are the objects of love and benevolence. Sin is restrained in them so that the outbreak of sin is less than it would be apart from grace. The Spirit works in them to produce good works that please God and earn His approbation. Yet they go to hell. God casts an object of His love into hell. God’s kindness, suddenly and at the moment of death, turns to fury and hatred.

That is not the whole story, however. God is pleased with his own work – always. God cannot be displeased with what he does. He is pleased with the work of the Spirit in the hearts of the wicked. He is pleased that his Spirit restrains sin. He is pleased with his work of producing good in the lives of the ungodly. Yet he turns His back on what he does and rejects that of which he is the Author and in which he formerly found delight. He, as it were, considering his own work in the ungodly, decides after all that he wants no part of it; that, indeed, the one whom he loves must go to hell everlastingly.

This is strange not only, but a dreadful disparagement of God’s holiness. Such conduct on God’s part involves God in hopeless contradiction and in a changeableness that denies his immutability. How it is possible for one who fears God to think such incredible thoughts about God is impossible for me to understand. I am deeply offended by such characterizations of God.

There is, as far as I can see, only one solution to this problem that is available to those who defend such ideas. That solution opens the door wide to every form of Arminianism and Pelagianism. It is a solution that teaches that God’s common grace puts man in a spiritual position to recognize God as one who is ready to save him, but does not do so until he himself accepts God’s overtures of love. Then punishment is due to God’s anger over man’s refusal to act favorably to God’s sincere efforts to save him. Man is then the one who determines his own salvation, and God’s work of saving the sinner depends upon man’s reactions to God’s initiatives and overtures of love. This, I say, drives us into the arms of Pelagianism, which the Canons calls a doctrine out of hell.

And so, however you may explain this strange doctrine, you wind up with a god who is a caricature of the God of the Scriptures.

With warm regards,
Prof Hanko

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What of the unbelievers' "good works?" (36)

Dear Forum members,

I have finished our discussion of that part of common grace that speaks of an inner restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the ungodly that changes their natures for the better, mitigates somewhat the devastating power of total depravity, enables the man thus blessed with grace to do good in the sight of God, but nevertheless fails to save him, so that eventually he goes to hell in spite of all these gracious influences. It is a strange, but nevertheless a widely taught error.

I have now to turn to that part of the doctrine of common grace that emphasizes the good that sinners are able to do by these gracious works of the Holy Spirit. In the nature of the case, I have talked a bit about this aspect already, for it is really impossible to speak of the gracious restraint of sin without talking about the good deeds that result. But we have to deal with this aspect of common grace separately, for it is separately mentioned and it is given separate “proof”.

I remind our readers of a few things we talked about earlier that also have bearing on this point. It was Dr. Abraham Kuyper who introduced this idea into the whole view of common grace, which was not held earlier in the churches of Scotland, England and the Netherlands, except insofar as Arminianism with its doctrine of freewill was held. The commonly-held view of common grace had chiefly to do with the gracious and well-meant gospel offer that was taught so widely in the post-Reformation churches. Kuyper’s purpose was different; he wanted to engage the entire country in Netherlands, believers and unbelievers alike, in his efforts to plant the Reformed Faith in all parts of the world. Neo-Kuyperianism has prostrated itself at the feet of Kuyper.

In order to have clearly before us the issues of common grace that teach that the unregenerate are capable of doing good that is pleasing to God, I quote the third point of the decisions of the Christian Reformed Church. I quote this decision because it is, so far as I know, the only official decision in Presbyterian and Reformed Churches on this subject. The view is widely taught and many hold to it, but rarely has it been officially adopted as dogma in any denomination of note. The point at issue reads:

“Relative to the third point, which is concerned with the question of civil righteousness as performed by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confessions the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good. This is evident from Dordrecht, 3/4.4, and from the Netherlands Confession, Article 36, which teach that God without renewing the heart so influences man that he is able to perform civil good; while it also appears from the citations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology, that our Reformed fathers from ancient times were of the same opinion.” (Quoted from: Hanko and Hoeksema, Ready to Give an Answer [Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1997] 125.)

In dealing with this third kind of common grace, we shall follow the treatment of the idea as it has been explained in the decision of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. Nowhere else is this work of grace so explicitly set forth as in this point.

The difficulty in understanding this work of God’s common grace in the unbelievers is to understand the distinction which is made between “civil good” and saving good. Herman Hoeksema discusses at some length the evasiveness and disagreement that existed over this question among the defenders of common grace. (See Hoeksema, Ready to Give an Answer,126-128]. But the best we can do is quote Louis Berkhof, himself; he played a major role in the formulation of the decisions, and he took the time to explain them in a pamphlet he wrote.

He writes: “His [the unregenerate man] works may be called good, in a subjective sense, in as far as they are the fruit of inclinations and affections touching the mutual relations of men, which are themselves relatively good, are still operating in man; and in an objective sense, if they in regard to the matter as such are works prescribed by the law, and in the sphere of social life correspond to a purpose that is well-pleasing to God.” (The quotation is taken from Berkhof, De Drie Punten . . . [The Three Points] 50, 51. I am, however, using the translation that appears in Hoeksema, Ready . . . , 127.)

In his Manual of Reformed Doctrine, Berkhof writes: “Common grace enables man to perform what is generally called civil righteousness or natural good, works that are outwardly in harmony with the law of God, though entirely destitute of any real spiritual quality.” (Louis Berkhof, Manual of Reformed Doctrine [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1933] 228.)

While it remains difficult to understand precisely what is meant by civil good or civil righteousness, the following seem to be implied. 1) It is to be distinguished from saving good. Emphasis on this point is thought to preserve the doctrine of total depravity. 2) Because this good involves inclinations and affections, the good which this aspect of common grace produces includes good thoughts, desires, emotions and other activities of the mind and will. Presumably, in this category of good can be found the love of a man for his wife and children, though he is not regenerated. 3) The natural man does civil good when he keeps outwardly in his external conduct, the law of God. Examples are probably such things as stopping for a red traffic light, being an honest employee who does not steal from his employer, is no child molester, etc. 4) Such civil good would also, I presume, include donations to build hospitals, establish foundations for research in various genetic diseases, giving to charitable institutions that feed, clothe and provide sleeping quarters for “street people.” 4) Such works as bringing groceries to the next-door neighbor when the husband is out of work, pulling a car out of the ditch for a family that has slid into the ditch on icy roads, and helping the man across the street build a shed for his lawn mower.

But it must be remembered that common grace teaches that such “good works” are the fruit of the operations of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the unregenerate, which operations restrain sin and produce these good deeds. That is, if the Holy Spirit is the Author in the unregenerated man of these works, they are surely pleasing in the sight of God. And, in addition, these good works are present in the unregenerate because God is gracious to the unregenerate and manifests His love for the unregenerate in giving him the power to do good works.

Various Biblical passages were also quoted in support of this position that the unregenerate man is capable of civil good. These passages are: II Kings 10:29, 30; II Kings 12:2; II Kings 14:3; II Chronicles 25:2; Luke 6:33; Romans 2:14; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12. The reader is asked to look up these passages and study them with a view to discovering himself whether they teach what the synod claimed they taught. I will discuss them in later installments in this forum, but it seems to me that it does not take much exegetical acumen to realize that the proof that synod appealed to is spurious.

In the meantime, there is another aspect to this question that must not be forgotten. The four aspects of the one doctrine of common grace are all parts of one whole and thus belong together. The underlying doctrine of all aspects of common grace, expressed in the first point, is that God is gracious, loving and kind to all men, elect and reprobate alike. It is this universal grace that manifests itself in various gifts: the offer of the gospel, the good gifts God gives to man, especially in rain and sunshine, the work of the Spirit in restraining sin, and the ability of man to do good.

But there is also an internal connection between the four aspects of God’s universal attitude of favor towards all men. On the one hand, it is the inner work of the Holy Spirit in man that enables him to do good (a relationship between the second and third points). On the other hand, it is this same work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men that enables them to accept or reject the gospel offer.

But there is another internal connection. In fact, God’s gifts of good things, His inner restraint of sin and the good works which the sinner is able to perform all point to the chief goal of common grace, the salvation of all men. The gracious gospel offer is the final purpose of God in giving all these many good things to man. In the end, God wants to save man. He expresses His desire to save all men, He does all He can so that on His part there is nothing more to do. He loves all men; He tells them of His love in the gospel; He gives them countless good gifts to show His love for them. He restrains sin in them by His Holy Spirit; He gives them the power to accept or reject the offer. He enables them to do good in the world. What more can God do? Wicked men are surrounded by His goodness and experience this goodness in their hearts. It only remains for them to accept God’s love or reject it.

I am aware of the fact that Dr. Kuyper originally invented this idea of common grace because he was searching for a why to explain that there is a lot of seeming good in the world, which makes it possible for the church to survive. But Kuyper was also looking for some theological basis to justify cooperation between the wicked and the people of God; he found that theological basis in his theory of common grace. Because the Holy Spirit enables the unregenerate to do good, therefore the righteous may work along with the wicked in the pursuit of certain mutually desirable goals that can be realized in this world. These mutually desirable goals serve to bring about the kingdom of Christ here below.

Kuyper did not deny that the kingdom of Christ was heavenly and that it would be realized only at the time of Christ’s return, but in some more limited way the kingdom would also be realized in this present world, so that Christ, when He comes, can take the kingdom, already established, into heaven.

Post-millennialism, especially of the Neo-Kuyperians, takes the whole concept a step further and speaks of a complete realization of Christ’s kingdom here in the world. And their conclusion is a logical deduction from the teachings of Kuyper. It is not strange that Neo-Kuyperian post-millennialists appeal to him in support of their position.

I am aware of the fact that defenders of common grace do not specifically and in detail draw out all these relationships and internal connections. I am also aware of the fact that some would limit God’s manifestation of common grace to less than that expressed in the three points of common grace adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924. Nevertheless, grace is grace, and the objects of grace receive grace, not only objectively in hearing the preaching of the gospel, which tells them of God’s love for them, but also subjectively in their hearts by God’s Spirit.

Common grace is a pernicious error and influences all theology and life.

With warmest regards,

Prof. Herman Hanko