Friday, July 16, 2010

Further questions on the "good works" of the reprobate (39)

Dear Forum members:

In the last installment I considered the Biblical and confessional proof for the notion that the unregenerated are able to do good that is pleasing in the sight of God. I have, however, received some correspondence concerning the teaching of the third point of common grace. This correspondence had to do with the remarks I made concerning the law of God in the life of the Christian. One correspondent thought my remarks were irrelevant to the point at hand, too brief and therefore misleading.

I justified my remarks concerning the law in the life of the Christian by pointing out that I have had personal contact with people, frequently Presbyterians, who have made those passages that speak of the keeping of the law as a way of life prove common grace. I am not sure what the reasoning behind these claims is; it seems that the statement of the text itself (“the man that doeth them [the works of the law] shall live in them”) is quoted as proof that it is possible for the unregenerated to keep the law. (These texts are Rom. 2:13, and Gal. 3:12.) Actually, it is obvious that the texts simply refer to the principle of the law that requires the keeping of the law for life. But the point is that no man can keep the law, and that, therefore, salvation is not to be found in the keeping of the law.

My point in commenting briefly on the meaning of these texts was to prove that God has tied in an unbreakable bond the keeping of his law with salvation. I did not say and would never say that our ability to keep the law is tied to salvation. But God is Creator and we are creatures. God’s law, given for every creature, defines how that creature is to serve him: The bird by living in the air, the fish by living in the water, the tree by being planted in the ground and reaching out to the sun; man by loving the Lord his God. To break that law means death.

We cannot keep that law of God in any respect, but Christ kept it for us. While he suffered the pains and anguish of hell for his people, he still kept the law perfectly. He loved his God though his God had forsaken him. By doing this, he fulfilled the law for his people so that the law is written on their hearts (Heb. 8:10). With the law written in their hearts God’s people are given the spiritual power to keep that law and love the Lord their God. Salvation includes the grace necessary to keep that law as the rule of gratitude. God takes his people to heaven in the way of keeping his law, a way that is possible by the wonderful work of Christ who enables us by his Spirit to be obedient to God.

That is the meaning of these texts.

In other correspondence I received, the correspondent made several important points that ought to be addressed. I propose to do that in this installment. Some of the points that I consider as I answer this question I have already dealt with in an earlier installment. I beg the readers’ patience in a reiteration of these points, but they are sufficiently important to deal with the matter again.

The question really has to do with the good that unregenerated men obviously do. All those who have not been brought to faith in Christ are not as evil as, say, Hitler or Stalin, or a hit-man hired by the mafia. In a positive sense, there are unconverted people who do live with their wives all their life; who do finance the building of hospitals and schools; who do operate institutions that care for the poor and needy. There are many unconverted people who never in their life get in trouble with the law and who, considered from an earthly point of view, are sometimes more virtuous than a regenerated and converted child of God.

Such conduct is considered by all men everywhere to be “good”. Few people are devils here in the world – although some are. Few people are criminals – although some are. Few people deliberately break the outward demands of God’s law – although increasingly many do. Many are humanitarian with a “love” for their fellow man that manifests itself in many ways.

The correspondent based the question on the assertion that when Dr. A. Kuyper spoke of common grace as a power that prevented men, at the time of the fall, from becoming devils, he did not mean devils in the literal sense of the word, but people who did devilish things. And the assertion was made that there is a lot of good in the world that is not devilish. It may be relatively good; it may be good only in an outward sense, but it is good for all that.

I agree fully with the correspondent’s remarks. What he says is obvious from the world about us. Whether Dr. A. Kuyper actually meant that people do not literally become devils, but that common grace prevents them from degenerating morally into devils is another question. But whatever Dr. Kuyper meant is irrelevant. The question stands in its own right. And with that position I am in total agreement.

We may even go a step further. It is my judgment, as I wrote in an earlier installment, that an outward observance of the law is beneficial for a family and a nation. Whether we may call that benefit a “blessing” from God is another question, although the answer lies in how one defines “blessing.” But before I proceed any further along these lines, it is quite important that we remember a few things.

First of all, although the question is an important one, it is not entirely the question at issue. The question at issue is: Is this good of the unregenerated a gift of grace? Are those capable of doing this relative good the beneficiaries of grace? I contend that they are not – not even of a “common” grace.

Second, Because it is said that God’s grace is both, objectively, an attitude of God that makes him favorably inclined towards the unconverted, and, subjectively, that grace is the subjective bestowal of gracious gifts, the answer of those who hold to common grace is that this subjective grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, which alters the nature of man so that he is no longer totally depraved, but is morally better than he was. The Holy Spirit restrains sin and produces good. No one claims, if he claims to be a Calvinist, that this grace manifested in the gift of the Holy Spirit is a saving grace. It is not that. Nor are the good works produced by the Spirit saving good; no one claims that to be true. But the Holy Spirit performs a work that does in fact change of nature of the sinner that enables him to do good. I deny this work of the Holy Spirit and insist that Scripture does not speak of it.

Third, The good that the unconverted and unsaved sinner does, according to the defenders of common grace, is pleasing to God. It is rewarded with temporal blessings. This position is, of course, a necessary position to take, given the fact that these good works are the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work. God would certainly not condemn his own work that he does through the Spirit; God’s work can only be approved by God himself who delights in all his works.

It is necessary that we remember these points. Nevertheless, we are compelled to answer this question: How is it possible for an unregenerated man to do “good” in a relative sense –though it not saving good?

I remind our readers that the historic Reformed and Presbyterian Confessions readily acknowledge such good that sinners are able to do. The part of the Canons, quoted by the Christian Reformed Synod in proof of this good that sinners do, demonstrates that the unconverted can indeed do “good” in a relative sense. You recall that Canons 3/4.4 emphatically teaches that: “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 differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” Westminster, in 16.7 has a strong statement on the subject. I have quoted the article before, but quote it once again. “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them that may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others . . . .” But the Confession, in the same article, goes on to say, “yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God.” Then the Confession adds, correctly, “And yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.” The matter is not a question of relative good found in the wicked, but of relative evil.

A righteous man is rewarded according to his works, but a wicked man is also punished according to his works. It is more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah, and for Tyre and Sidon than it is for Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin (Matt. 11:21-24).

We freely confess that, apart from the good works that are the fruit of regeneration and given as a gift of grace, there are many degrees of good that can be found in the world of unconverted men. It is better to help a man who is in the ditch than to drive past. It is better to give one’s money to an orphanage than to get drunk. It is better to work hard for one’s employer than to steal from him. And so we could go on, but there is no need of this; we all know how true these things are. There is, after all, the good that Jehu did when he killed all the descendants of Ahab. It pleased the Lord that he did this because he was obedient to the command of God. You can find Jehu’s history in II Kings 10. One must read however, verses 29-31 as well. “Howbeit from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from after them to wit, the golden calves that were in Bethel, and that were in Dan. And the Lord said unto Jehu, Because thou hast done well in executing that which is right in mine eyes, and hast done unto the house of Ahab according to all that was in mine heart, thy children of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel. But Jehu took no heed to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart: for he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam, which made Israel to sin.”

But the question remains: Are these good works authored by the Holy Spirit? The answer to that is an unqualified No. Nor is there any indication either in Scripture or the Confessions that teaches this. Are these good works gracious gifts of God? There is no evidence either in Scripture or the Confessions that such is the case. Do these good works merit God’s approval? In a certain sense they do, for Jehu is commended for his slaughter of Ahab’s house and the worshippers of Baal. The same thing is true in our time. A family in which there is no divorce and remarriage is a happier family than one in which father and mother part to marry others. A family has a better life, given it of God, when neither the father nor the mother is an alcoholic. A nation in which the law of God is observed, be it but outwardly, prospers. A government that enforces legislation against abortion and homosexuality can expect a more trouble-free country than one where abortion is openly practiced and homosexuality is considered “an alternate lifestyle.” History is strewn with the wreckage of powerful nations who were destroyed by internal moral rot and a ruthless waste of the natural resources that God had given.

Whether the ability to keep God’s law outwardly is due to God’s grace is quite another question. The answer has to be No! Whether the external prosperity which follows for a nation outwardly observant of the law of God is a blessing from God cannot be answered in any other way than with a Biblical No. Why then does God in His providence enable one person – or family, or nation – to keep God’s law outwardly? We shall look at this question in the next installment.

With warm regards,

Prof. Hanko

1 comment:

  1. What do you make of Genesis chapter 9? Many people point to that as teaching common grace.