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

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