Thursday, July 1, 2010

Scripture and the Confessions on the "good works" of the reprobate (38)

Dear forum members:

I was talking in the last installment about the view of God that one must take to hold to common grace in general and the good that sinners do in particular. It is a view that disparages God and makes of him a changeable and helpless god who is unable to accomplish his purpose. No man who fears the Lord God of heaven and earth ought to speak of God as the defenders of common grace speak of him

But in this installment, before I look more closely at the confessional and Biblical proof for this position, I want to quote for you a few articles from the Confessions of the church on this very subject.

My first quote is from the Westminster Confession of Faith. There is an important article in this confession, which forms the confessional basis for Presbyterianism the world over. It is all the more powerful because the Westminster Confession of Faith was written to serve as the confessional basis of a national church. The Westminster Assembly met under the direction of the British Parliament and the Confession itself was approved by Parliament.

In chapter 16, entitled “Of Good Works,” paragraph 7 the confession states: “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and to others; 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 can not please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.” (Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983] 635, 636.That article is about as clear a refutation as one can find anywhere.

The Heidelberg Catechism emphatically states: “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness? Indeed we are, except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God” ( The Confessions . . . [Grandville: The Protestant Reformed Churches in America,. 2005] q. & a. 8, 86). This too is unmistakable. Everything we do is wicked; nothing is good. Wickedness is characteristic of our whole life. The only work that can change that wickedness and produce good works is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

The Heidelberg Catechism also very carefully defines those works of man that do meet with God’s approval. “But what are good works? Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory, and not such as are founded on our imagination or the institutions of men” ( Idem, q & a 91. 122). Good works are not defined as products of a common grace and as civil good, but are said to be only those that proceed from a true faith and are to God’s glory. Common grace perverts the Catechism when it defines good works in terms of “our imagination or the institutions of men.”

It is true that the Canons of Dordrecht speak of “glimmerings of natural light” in fallen man that enable him to retain “some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil”; that enable man to discover “some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” But the same article goes on to say, “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God” (Idem, 167). The Canons are very emphatic that the natural light, which fallen man still possesses cannot be used aright by the unregenerated sinner even “in things natural and civil.” He pollutes the civil good and holds it in unrighteousness. This is strong language.

An appeal to the Confessions ends in exposing the error of common grace clearly and emphatically.

It is also noteworthy that the error of an internal restraint of sin by the Holy Spirit and the error of the ability of the unregenerate to do good stand or fall together. If indeed the Spirit is at work in the hearts of reprobate, their works are good and pleasing in the sight of God; for the good that men do is God’s work in them and God never disapproves his own works. If, on the other hand, God condemns every work of the ungodly, there cannot possibly be any restraint of sin by God through the Holy Spirit.

The defenders of the good that the unrighteous are capable of doing offer us some proof from Scripture. We will look at this proof to see whether Scripture gives any indication of the ability of the wicked to do good – good, that is, worked by the Holy Spirit and pleasing in the sight of God.

The proof that is offered is first of all several texts from the history of the kings of Israel and Judah who are said to have done “good” in the eyes of the Lord. These texts are II Kings 10:29, 30; II Kings 12:2; II Kings 14:3; II Chronicles 25:2. We quote only one of these; the reader can look up the others. II Kings 12:2 reads: “And Jehoash did that which was right in the sight of the Lord all his days wherein Jehoiada the priest instructed him.” The other passages make a similar statement about Jehu, and Amaziah.

While what these texts say about these kings of Israel and Judah is that they did good in the eyes of Jehovah, it is quite possible and even likely that Amaziah was a godly king who loved the Lord, although he was also very weak in many respects and did not do good “with a perfect heart.” But the same cannot be said of Jehu and Jehoash. Of Jehu Scripture say: “Howbeit from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from them, to wit, the golden calves that were in Bethel, and that were in Dan” (II Kings 10:29). And concerning Jehoash we know that when Jehoiada died, Jehoash turned to wickedness and even killed the prophet that was sent to warn him (II Kings 12:17-19, II Chronicles 25:17-25).

It is true, of course, that the texts say that Jehu and Jehoash did good. But that this is proof for good influences of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of wicked men so that they do good in the sight of God is quite another matter, and there is no mention of any such thing in the text. Jehu did good in destroying the whole house of Ahab. This was God’s will that Ahab and his house be destroyed because of its great wickedness. Jehu was God’s appointed means to accomplish this destruction. But Jehu was glad to do it, for he reveled in killing and was sure to secure his throne by destroying any threat from Ahab’s family. Jehoash kept God’s commandments and preserved the faithful worship of God in the temple, but only because of the strong influence of godly Jehoiada. But that his own heart was evil and that he did not do good to please God is evident from his dreadful sins after Jehoiada’s death. They did good in an outward obedience to God’s commands, the doing of which was for their own personal advantage.

No one has ever denied that wicked and unregenerate men are able to do good in a certain sense of the word. Mozart can compose very beautiful music, though he was a wicked man. An architect can design a beautiful building, but not do so in a way pleasing to God and bringing God’s approval upon his good works. A carpenter can and often does build a house that has few if any defects, because he is an excellent builder; and we say, “He did a good job of this house.” I recall one noted theologian who said that Tiger Woods ability to sink a 40-foot putt was surely due to common grace. And so we can go on. It happens all the time in the world that men do good from a purely earthly viewpoint. But this is still a far cry from moral good that the Spirit enables wicked men to do; and it is a far cry from good that meets with God’s approval. The texts quoted are entirely beside the point and have no bearing on the matter at hand.

Luke 6:33 is also quoted as proof for the good that sinners do: “And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? For sinners also do even the same.” I am puzzled by the appeal to this text as proof for the good that sinners do. It teaches quite the opposite. Sinners do good, not to please God, but to please themselves and advance their own welfare. They invite people to their feasts so that they will in turn be invited by the high and mighty. They do good to others so that they may reap the fruits of having others do good to them. Pure selfishness can hardly be the fruit of the Spirit and pleasing to God. We are warned not to do good as the wicked do it.

Another three texts are also used in support of this aspect of common grace, that unregenerated men can do good in God’s sight. These texts all say the same thing. Romans 10:5 says: “For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth these things shall live by them.” Galatians 3:12 reads: “And the law is not of faith: but, the man that doeth them shall live in them” Romans 2:14 says, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.”

I think that the appeal by the Synod to these texts was a mistake on the part of the authors of the theory of common grace. Actually, the Synod that adopted officially the doctrines of common grace is the body that referred to these texts in support of the doctrine. But somewhere along the line a serious mistake was made, for these texts teach quite the opposite from what was the intention of the authors of the good that sinners do by the grace of God. For these texts teach that the fundamental principle for all time and for eternity is that fellowship with God is inescapably connected to the keeping of God’s law. But as the passages in their context go on to say, just because this principle is so true no man can possibly be saved by the keeping of the law, because it is impossible for depraved man to keep it.

The texts, however, teach a profound truth: The keeping of the law is necessary for anyone to be saved. This is a truth that dates back to the beginning of time. Adam remained in a state of rectitude only as long as he obeyed the law. It is true for all time and in every place: man only lives through the keeping of the law. This is Paul’s point.

But Adam fell and all men with and in him. The keeping of the law was now forever impossible for man. For, while it is possible for sinful and totally depraved man to conform his life outwardly to the law, the law requires love within: love of God and one’s neighbor. Sin is the opposite. Sin is love for one’s self. And so Christ had to come to do what man of himself can never do. That is why Paul calls the law a school-teacher to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). Christ kept the law. He loved his God perfectly – even when the horrors of hell drowned him in sorrow and pain and all he knew was abandonment by him whom alone he loved. By His perfect atonement Christ fulfilled the law for those for whom he died, and now, by his Spirit, he enables his people to keep the law, for the law is written on their hearts. And so still today the way to life is the keeping of the law, but it is the keeping of the law by him who works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).

And so we are left without any proof whatsoever, a fact that compels us to reject the heresy of the ability of the totally depraved sinner to do good.

With warm regards,

Prof Hanko


  1. Not to break our train of presentation, but it would be interesting to have some reflection from you, historically, on the rise of the common grace theory and its present position of dominance in contemporary "reformed" systems to the dramatic disinterest, (neglect)of antithesis teaching among those who are supposed to be "strangers and pilgrims on the earth". Could this be grounded in the obvious corresponding decline in appreciation of the radical (life or death)discontinuity embedded in a thoroughly scriptural understanding of the richness of blessing embedded in the Covenant. Put simply and personally, Psalm 84:10
    Warm regards

  2. If "Farel" reads through this blog from its beginning, he should have answers to his question. Rob surely recognizes the problems which arise from this issue of Common Grace. GVB