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

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