28 May, 2016

Westminster Confession, X: 4—“common operations of the Spirit”


Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested (Westminster Confession of Faith, X: 4).


(I)

Rev. Angus Stewart


Sometimes people appeal to the “common operations of the Spirit” in Westminster Confession 10:4 (and Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A. 68) as if this phrase in the Westminster Standards taught common grace. The erroneous notion of common grace is variously understood. For most who hold this view, it means that Jehovah loves the reprobate (those whom He has eternally ordained to destruction in the way of their sins) and that by His love He makes them something less than totally depraved, thus enabling them to do things ethically good in God’s sight in this world.

Aside from the polemical aspect of the issue, it is worthwhile to underscore that the Holy Spirit certainly does work upon unbelievers, not just externally but also internally. This necessarily flows from the universal scope of God’s providence and the truth of the Holy Trinity, that the Father works all things through the Son and by the Holy Spirit.

We can distinguish three ways in which the Spirit works upon and in all men, including the reprobate. First, the Spirit (being equal with the Father and the Son) gives all men (including reprobate unbelievers) physical life and strength, for it is only in God—the Triune God—that we, both elect and non-elect, “live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Second, God by His Spirit gives the reprobate intellectual understanding of natural things, for the good gift of knowledge in all spheres (reading, writing, cooking, farming, construction, medicine, etc.) comes from the God of all wisdom through His Son, the Word or Logos, and by the all-knowing Spirit. Third, the Spirit even gives the reprobate a natural understanding of spiritual things (though not a spiritual understanding of spiritual things). Those not elected who are brought up in covenant homes or attend church services or read Christian literature may have some intellectual understanding of biblical truths. This cannot be apart from the Holy Spirit, for all knowledge comes by Him.

In the sphere of the visible church, the understanding of some reprobate can even be said to be “enlightened” by the Spirit, so that they have a clear natural understanding of spiritual things (Heb. 6:4) and a sense or “taste” of the beauty of the Scriptures, the glory of heaven and the power of God (vv. 4-5). The ungodly prophet Balaam (II Pet. 2:15-16) certainly experienced this, as one can see from his four prophecies concerning Israel (Num. 23:7-10, 18-24; 24:3-9, 15-24) and especially certain parts of them (e.g., 23:10, 23; 24:5, 9, 17, 23), for he “knew the knowledge of the most High” (24:16) and spoke by “the spirit of God” (v. 2). Through the preaching, the Spirit even gives some non-elect “joy” in their natural understanding of spiritual things, before they fall away from their (hypocritical) profession of faith (Matt. 13:20-21). After all, it is only through the Spirit that unbelievers experience (an earthly) joy in the pleasant things of God’s creation like a beautiful sunset or a good meal or finally grasping a difficult concept. Even so, it is the Spirit who gives some reprobate a natural understanding of spiritual things and a (temporary) natural joy in spiritual things. Moreover, reprobate unbelievers, such as Judas Iscariot, were given power to exorcise demons (7:22; 10:1, 4) of the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit (10:1; 12:28).

In connection with the three proof texts often listed with Westminster Confession 10:4, we note, first, that those who merely receive the “common operations of the Spirit,” such as, a natural illumination in, and a natural taste of, spiritual things in Hebrews 6:4-5 are subject to God’s “cursing” (v. 8), which is His powerful, damning wrath (Matt. 25:41). Second, sandwiched between the parable of the sower (13:3-9) and its explanation (vv. 18-23), including its word about those who experience natural joy over the mysteries of the kingdom for a time (vv. 20-21), is Christ’s affirmation of God’s election and reprobation as determining man’s response to the gospel (vv. 14-15; cf. Isa. 6:9-10; John 12:39-40). Third, to those not elected to salvation who have uttered prophecies, exorcised demons and performed miracles (Matt. 7:22), the Lord states that He will say, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (v. 23). Since Christ, the incarnate Son of God, knows all men head for head intellectually, and must know everybody in order to proclaim this judgment upon many at the last day, “I never knew you” refers to His knowledge of love: “I never loved you, not now, not before the foundation of the world, not during your life on earth, never!” Thus all these good gifts to the reprobate come to them not in God’s love and grace (Ps. 73; Prov. 3:33; Rom. 9:13; 11:7-10) but by His sovereign, all-controlling providence, which is of the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit.

These “operations of the Spirit” are “common” to the elect and the reprobate in that some elect and some reprobate have performed miracles (Matt. 7:22) and all elect and some reprobate have been enlightened and given joy in, and a taste of, the mysteries of the gospel by the Spirit (13:20; Heb. 6:4-5). There are especially three differences, however, with regard to the “operations of the Spirit” in the elect and the non-elect. First, the Spirit gives to some reprobate a natural understanding, joy and taste of or in spiritual things, whereas the elect receive a spiritual understanding, joy and taste of or in spiritual things (John 17:13; I Cor. 2:14). Second, the “operations of the Spirit” come to the two groups of people with a different divine motivation and in a different way: the elect receive them in God’s grace but the reprobate receive them in providence and not grace. Third, both Westminster Confession 10:4 and Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A. 68, speak of “some common operations of the Spirit,” for there are operations and gifts of the Spirit—the greatest, permanent and saving gifts!—which are only for the elect and not the reprobate: the new birth, the forgiveness of sins, the imputed righteousness of Christ, the love of God shed abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), the assurance of Jehovah’s invincible love (8:37-39), etc. Amongst these “operations of the Spirit” which are particular to the elect alone is the effectual call, the subject of Westminster Confession 10:4: “Others not elected, although they may be [externally] called by the ministry of the word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved,” for they were not eternally predestinated unto life and so the Holy Spirit never internally and effectually calls them.


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(II)

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 20, no. 1 (Nov. 1986), p. 18]

It is quite clear from the remainder of this article that the divines had in mind good influences ... The Westminster divines do not give any further explanation for this statement, and we are left to speculate what they may have meant by it. It is possible that they referred to the fact, common in later Puritan teaching, that the preaching of the law can and usually does have some kind of influence upon the unregenerated hearer so that he is able to see his sin, even sorrow to some extent for it, show an interest in Christ as the One through whom he can escape from sin, and even have a certain longing for the blessedness of which the gospel speaks. In its reaction to the cold dead orthodoxy of the Church of England and the terrible worldliness which characterized so many of her members, and because the Puritans possessed a defective view of the covenant, religious experience was to them a crucial aspect of salvation. And their view of the effect of the gospel, especially the preaching of the law, was influenced by this. If this is indeed true, this idea is condemned by the Canons in III/IV:B:4. But we can only speculate.


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(III)

More to come! (DV)





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