Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Concerning II Peter3:9 (1) --(54)

Dear Forum members,

We are busy with the Scriptural proof that has been offered in support of a gracious and general well-meant gospel offer. I already treated a few of these texts; in this letter I continue an examination of such passages, for Scripture itself is our final canon of truth.

I consider in this letter II Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

Although John Murray and Ned Stonehouse make a great deal of this passage in their pamphlet on the well-meant gospel offer (Stonehouse, Ned & Murray, John, The Free Offer of the Gospel: Report to the 15th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1948. 27 pages), it is something of a puzzle to me how an appeal to this word of God can be made credible. A well-meant offer is so far from the thought of either the Holy Spirit or Peter in penning these words that one is forced to scratch his head in puzzlement at all efforts to make it proof for what is after all, an erroneous doctrine.

I suppose that the defenders of a well-meant gospel offer appeal to the very last clause in the verse, “Not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The text then must be read: “Not willing that any single person on the face of the earth should perish, but that every one of them should come to repentance.”

But the question is, of course, What right does anyone have to make the text read in this way? The answer to this question could conceivably be: “Well, Calvin explained the verse this way.” It might be well to quote Calvin.

“And as to the duration of the whole world, we must think exactly the same as of the life of every individual; for God by prolonging time to each, sustains him that he may repent. In the like manner he does not hasten the end of the world, in order to give to all time to repent.

“So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But this order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way” (John Calvin, Commentaries on The Catholic Epistles, tr and ed by John Owen (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948) 419.

Even in this explanation of II Peter 3:9, Calvin is aware of God’s sovereign decree of election and reprobation. He writes,

“But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundations of the world” (Idem, 419, 420).

There is, however, some justification in the appeal that the defenders of common grace make to Calvin in this passage in II Peter. Calvin’s expressions are not as clear and decisive here as one would like to have them. But I am convinced that those who do appeal to this passage do so wrongly. Whatever Calvin may have meant in writing these words, his thoughts were never along the lines of the defenders of the common grace of the well-meant gospel offer. I submit the following considerations in proof of this assertion.

In the first place those who appeal to Calvin in support of any aspect of common grace are guilty of the sin of anachronism. The sin of anachronism is to ascribe to men of bygone years views that one is defending hundreds of years later. It is the sin of interpreting what a man says long ago in the light of the times in which we live, to make a man of the 16th century a thinker in the 20th century; to describe the circumstances in which he wrote as if they were identical to our present circumstances. No one may do that. A man has to be interpreted and understood in the light of his own times and the circumstances under which he did his work. Only the Bible transcends all time and circumstances.

What I mean is that the common grace that is taught today throughout much of the church world was not anyone’s teaching in the days in which Calvin wrote. The common grace controversy of the 19th and 20th centuries was a foreign subject to the Reformers; it was not even taught in the form in which it is taught today by the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin was a man of his times, and he did not react to the heresy of common grace in the same way we are called to do it today.

In the second place, the quotation is taken from Calvin’s commentaries; and his commentaries were, for the most part, delivered in class when Calvin lectured in the Academy on almost all the books of the Bible. The students took down these lectures and they were printed as commentaries. (Calvin himself did, however, edit them and approve them before they went to the printer.) Calvin was a busy man who literally worked himself to death. His notes from which he lectured were not always as thorough as they could have been if he had devoted every day of the week to exegesis. That we find, not only here, but in other commentaries less than satisfactory exegesis is not hard to imagine or understand.

Yet, I do not want to minimize the importance of Calvin’s commentaries. I have a whole section of my bookshelves filled with commentaries. I must admit that, while I still make a lot of sermons, there is only one commentary among them all to which I now turn: Calvin’s commentaries. They are, far and away, the most helpful. Regularly I recommend them to those who ask about the best commentaries available. But this does not mean that they are without error.

In the third place, it does not surprise me that Calvin’s commentaries are not perfect. Who has ever written a perfect commentary? Who is so bold and foolish to claim infallibility in his exegesis of the infallible Word of God? Our best efforts are feeble and without much merit when compared with the depth of the knowledge and wisdom of God contained in sacred Scripture. I insist that we ought not to be surprised by Calvin’s “unreformed” statement that he makes from time to time; what ought to surprise us is that Calvin, brought up in Roman Catholicism, steeped in Roman Catholic thought, influenced throughout his formative years, could be so “Reformed” – if I can make use of an anachronism. Perhaps it is better to say, “. . . so profoundly Biblical.” What never ceases to amaze me is that all the great truths of sovereign grace were as clearly seen by this great servant of Christ in such a few short years of a short lifetime.

And that brings me to my final point. Many passages can be found in Calvin in which he teaches doctrines directly contrary to the ideas defenders of common grace pull out of a few isolated passages here and there. I hope to demonstrate this in a subsequent letter. But for the present I merely state it without demonstrating the validity of it.

It happens times without number that the great men whom God raises up in the church had such gifts of God that they see the wide horizons of that truth as we lesser theologians cannot. They see the breadth and length of God’s truth. They see its scope as it brings together under one roof all the doctrines of Scripture from one side of its broad perspective to the other.

Lesser theologians have not this ability, and so they misrepresent the men who can grasp these glorious truths and see them in their united oneness. The Antinomians did such misinterpretation of Luther. Luther taught justification by faith alone without the works of the law. Luther had no problem with Scripture’s insistence on the necessity of good works when he railed against the law and condemned it in fierce fashion. But Agricola and his followers did. And they repeatedly appealed to Luther himself in support of the position that the justified child of God might not have anything to do with the law of God. They took one aspect of Luther’s theology and without holding it in the balance of all Luther’s thought, they ran only with the one idea that the law was an enemy. They did not understand and could not see that Luther’s sharp condemnation of the law was a condemnation of the law as the road to salvation.

I well recall that in the controversy of 1953 in the Protestant Reformed Churches that arose from a defense of an unconditional covenant, some took the position that any use of the word “if” in any theological statement was heresy, for “if” implies a condition. I was reprimanded for choosing in a worship service, Psalter No 65, a versification of Psalm 25, which goes:

Grace and truth shall mark the way
Where the Lord His own will lead,
If His Word they still obey
And His testimonies heed.

If one wants to quote Calvin in support of the well-meant gospel offer, one must explain many, many passages where what Calvin says is an almost furious assault against that very doctrine. Let me quote just one passage from Calvin, interestingly taken from his commentary on I John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Calvin writes:

“Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotage of the fanatics, who under this pretence extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.”

Calvin would have been a muddled-headed theologian to write such contradictory words without his even being aware of it.

That is enough for now. I would like to return to Calvin in my next letter.

With warm regards,

Prof. Hanko.

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