08 May, 2016

A Critique of John Murray’s Theory of Common Grace “Preparing” the Hearts of those who Hear the Gospel (the “Vestibule of faith”)

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Another Look at Common Grace (2019 edition), pp. 68-70]

Many supporters of common grace have spoken of a relationship between common grace and special grace. An example of this may be found in Murray who writes:

We may say that in the operations of common grace we have what we may call the vestibule of faith. We have as it were the point of contact, the Anknüpfungspunkt, at which and upon which the Holy Spirit enters with the special and saving operations of his grace. Faith does not take its genesis in a vacuum. It has its antecedents and presuppositions both logically and chronologically in the operations of common grace.

Both in the individual sphere and in the sphere of organic and historic movement, the onward course of Christianity can never be dissociated from the preparations by which it is preceded and from conditions by which it is surrounded, preparations and conditions that belong not only to the general field of divine providence but also to the particular sphere of beneficent and gracious administration on God’s part, yet gracious administration that is obviously not in itself saving, and therefore administration that belongs to the sphere of common grace. (Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. II, pp. 115, 116.)

It is admittedly somewhat difficult to understand precisely how Murray views the relationship between common grace and special grace in these remarks. But it would seem that his argument is that, because God’s common grace is indeed grace (and mercy, love, kindness, etc.), it is not only an outward attitude towards mankind in general, but also an inward operation of the Spirit which not only creates an objective “climate” in which the gospel can be more effectively preached, but also makes the sinner more receptive to the gospel.
Grace is, after all, an attitude of favor on God’s part towards men. This attitude does not mean a thing unless the object of that attitude himself knows it and experiences it. I may have an attitude of love for a widow in Bangladesh who has just suffered the loss of her family in a terrible flood; but that attitude means nothing unless she knows of it through my own care for her and provision for her earthly and spiritual needs in a time of disaster.
Thus, the wicked are made more receptive to the “overtures” of the gospel because they themselves know that God loves them and is mercifully inclined to them so that they are made more receptive to the offer of the gospel.
That this is probably the meaning is evident from the fact, in the first place, that common grace is always connected with the free offer of the gospel; and, in the second place, from the fact that the “Three Points” of common grace connected God’s general attitude of favor to all with both the free offer and the inward operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men restraining sin.
It is not our purpose to go into this aspect of the question in detail. First of all, it is not our intent in this study to discuss the free offer; and, secondly, the subject will come up again when we come to discuss the whole idea of the “restraint of sin.”
Nevertheless, it is important to note already here that such a line of argumentation opens the door to blatant Arminianism. The simple fact of the matter is that the gospel does come to men in a spiritual “vacuum.” It comes to sinners, totally depraved and unable to do any good. It comes as the power of God unto salvation. It comes to transform sinners into saints and blasphemers into those who humbly confess their sins and seek salvation in the cross.
To speak of a general operation of grace in the hearts of all to “prepare men for the gospel so that they may be more receptive” is to open the door to the worst form of Arminianism. All who receive such common grace are in a state of receptivity because of a divine work of grace. Whether or not they actually accept the gospel depends upon their choice. The choice is possible because God has done all He can to make them receptive. He has, through the gospel, expressed Himself as willing and ready for men to believe. He has, by His Spirit, made them capable of receiving the gospel. Now the choice is in man’s hand, and his eternal destiny is determined, not by God’s sovereign determination, but by man’s choice. This is Arminianism. It is to be rejected by anyone who loves the truth of Scripture.

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