Saturday, July 31, 2010

Final remarks on the "good" that the ungodly do (40)

Dear Forum members,

In the last installment I began an answer to a correspondent who inquired about the relative good that the ungodly do. He was not about to defend the position that the wicked do good by the power of God’s grace worked through the Holy Spirit; nor was he of a mind to defend the proposition that the unregenerate are able to do good that meets with God’s approval. But he was inquiring about the fact that, from an earthly point of view, there is a lot of good in this world.

I agree with this assertion and have been at some pains to develop that idea, including the fact that from an earthly point of view the man who keeps God’s law outwardly experiences a happy and more trouble-free life than the man who tramples God’s law under foot. And, what is true of individuals, is also true of families and nations. There is a direct correlation between the outward good men do and earthly success, health and prosperity. All of this comes from God. We must inquire into this problem.

Before I give a more detailed answer to this question, let it be observed that this principle holds for all of life. A man who eats only McDonald’s hamburgers is not going to be as healthy as the man who eats nutritious foods. A man who obeys traffic laws is not as likely to be in an accident as one who drives recklessly. Nor would anyone, so far as I know, deny that the man or woman who lives a life free from fornication is less likely to contact a STD than one who has no moral scruples that govern his life. No one, I think, would claim that the habit of eating nutritious foods is a gift of grace and that the resulting good health of a man merits God’s approval. God has established certain laws by which he rules in his creation. Sometimes these laws are called secondary means by which God exercises his sovereignty.

To defy God’s law brings trouble and grief in every area of life. To practice abortion brings its own grief and trouble. To live a homosexual life is to incur the dreaded HIV virus. To fornicate in the marriage state results in its own sorrows. Such obvious rules in God’s world has nothing to do with common grace, the ability of the natural man to do good, or the favor and blessing of God upon a person.

Why does consequent prosperity in some measure come to those who do keep God’s law outwardly? The answer is, first of all, that God works this way for the sake of His church. That is precisely the reason why God blessed the house of Potiphar for Joseph’s sake (Gen. 39:5). That is why we are commanded to pray for all those in authority over us, pray even that they may observe the law of God; for, Paul writes Timothy, that among the reasons to pray for magistrates is that the church may lead a quiet and peaceable life (I Timothy 2:1-6).

There are, however, other reasons. The unregenerate know also the difference between right and wrong. In an earlier forum article I discussed the meaning of Romans 2:14, 15, a text which teaches that God puts the works of the law on their hearts so that their consciences tell them what is right and what is wrong according to his moral law. They are also able to see in their lives and in the lives of others that an outward keeping of the law of God brings with it a certain amount of pleasure and order. And they are able to see that to break God’s law brings grief and suffering. If the law against murder were abandoned all together life would become well nigh impossible. If every one committed adultery and family life would cease to exist, society would end in chaos. If laws against stealing were not enforced and everyone was given free rein to steal anything he wished, businesses could not operate and a man’s possessions would never be safe. It doesn’t take regeneration to see and understand that. It is clear from life itself that what a man’s conscience dictates is best for society and a decent life in the world.

This great truth does not keep men from sinning anyway. The homosexual knows that the possibility of him acquiring the HIV virus is increased greatly if he continues his wicked practices, but he goes his own way in spite of it all. A drunkard can see his life disintegrate in his family, his work and his own life as he continues his drinking. But this does not always check his sin.

Yet the law of God serves as a certain rein to sin, especially when the violation of God’s law brings its own judgments from God. God does not wait till the judgment day to punish sin, but executes judgment already in this life.

That such a man becomes a slave to a sin and finds it impossible to escape the slavery of the sin into which he has fallen is also a law of God. Man can, as a matter of fact, become so much a slave of sin that he finds it impossible to escape from the shackles that bind him. A drug addict cannot live without his drugs. But I have dealt with people who have even become slaves of lying, slaves of adultery, slaves of hatred. It is dreadful. Even if, because they see the consequences of their sin, the want to escape it, they find it impossible – apart from sovereign grace, which is able to deliver anyone from any sin and from the bondage of sin.

The wicked do two things about this slavery of sin. The first thing they do is try to find ways and means of avoiding the consequences of sin. They invent birth control instruments to prevent pregnancies resulting from adulteries. They build abortion clinics to kill babies when they discover that some people are too stupid or too captured by their sin to use available techniques to avoid pregnancy. They invent medicines that can curb the harmful effects of the HIV virus. They establish elaborate rehabilitation centers for those caught in the trap of drug addiction, liquor addiction or gambling addiction. And the answer of the world to these addictions is not to cease from the sin that brought them on, but to use the latest medical techniques that enable a man to continue in his sin but stave off the consequences.

The second thing they do is mount elaborate campaigns to condition people into thinking that all these violations of God’s law are not sins. These weaknesses into which men plunge themselves are the results of their genes, or remnants from their animal ancestry, or sicknesses for which cures can be found. They are treatable and science, in its performance of miracles, will conquer bad consequences of a wicked life. But if one says that homosexuality is a sin against God, he is as liable as not to be arrested and tried for a “hate crime.” The poor person cannot help doing what he does; it is in his genes. His actions are predetermined. (And these same people call Calvinists “Fatalists”!)

All this is proof that man does no good out of the motive of love for God and his neighbor. He seeks himself and will sin as much as he dares. He rejoices when apparently means are invented to help him escape the consequences of his sin. He claps his hands in glee when he has succeeded in overcoming God’s judgments on sin.

But God is in heaven and he is just and righteous in all he does. He punishes sin and laughs at man’s silly poking around to invent means to avoid God’s wrath. God does not respect persons. He does not judge on the basis of outward appearances (I Samuel 16:7). Teachers of common grace look at outward appearances, but in doing so fail to follow the Scriptures where God tells us what is pleasing in his sight.

God will tell us what works are pleasing to him. And we had better listen.

The Canons and the Westminster Confession describe, these good works that are approved by God as they ought to be described (See Canons 3/4.4 and WC 16.7, which we have already quoted). If one is talking about good that is approved by God himself, then the criteria of the Heidelberg Catechism must be used as a measuring rod: “They must proceed from a true faith”. This assertion is also Biblical: “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). They must be performed according to the law of God. Surely, if outward conformity to that law is approved by God, the Pharisees did more that met with God’s approval than anyone else. But the law of God is all summed up in the words of Jesus in Matt. 22:37-40. The only true keeping of the law is love: love for God and love for one’s neighbor for God’s sake. True good works are done to God’s glory. Man’s “good” is done for the glory and praise of man; good works are done only for God’s glory. Then, and then only is a work something that meets with God’s approval.

Works that are “good” in this world are actually sins. A man who is faithful to his wife and family goes to hell, not in spite of his faithfulness to his family, but because he did not remain faithful out of a true faith in Christ; nor because he loved God and his neighbor; nor because he was seeking God’s glory. Does this seem to you to be impossible? We must measure man’s works, not by our standards, but by the standards of a holy God. Nor must we forget that God created man good, and his inability to do good is his own fault, for he chose the way of sin in the place of the way of obedience.

One more matter must be addressed. It takes us back to the basic idea of common grace. Is the prosperity of the wicked, even when it is the result of a life in conformity with the outwards demands of the law, indicative of God’s favor and blessings?

To answer this question, perhaps we ought to read once again Psalm 73, Psalm 37, Proverbs 3:33, and such like passages. The answer in Scripture is obvious. The prosperity of the wicked, even when it is the consequence of a walk in keeping with God’s law outwardly, sets the wicked on slippery places that end in everlasting destruction. The Psalm is quite clear on the matter: God sets them on slippery places. His purpose never is to bless the wicked, but to destroy them. Even their riches, their health, their pleasures are God’s wrath. God’s curse is in the house of the wicked.

But this is not the case with God’s people. They may and do wash their hands in innocency, but know only the chastening of the Lord: poverty, sickness, trouble, grief, suffering; but, says the Psalmist, in spite of all his troubles, “I am continually before thee: thou hast held me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with they counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever. For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee. But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all thy works.”

With warm greetings in Christ,

Prof. Hanko

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