29 August, 2016

Another Look at Common Grace—Introduction

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

It might arouse a sigh of weariness in the souls of some to see another series of articles devoted to the subject of common grace in a Protestant Reformed magazine. There are undoubtedly those with some knowledge of the Protestant Reformed Churches who may have thought these churches really never wrote about much else but common grace; and another series of articles on the subject is in keeping with their character. These churches continue to grind old axes that have been ground on the stones of Protestant Reformed theology now for some 70 years.

There is some truth to all this, we readily admit.

Disagreement over the doctrine of common grace was the occasion for the organization of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Those who denied this doctrine were not permitted to be ministers within the Christian Reformed Church. The reasons were clear enough: The Christian Reformed Church adopted common grace as official dogma in keeping with Scripture and the Reformed Confessions; the Protestant Reformed Churches repudiate common grace and claim that it is a doctrine contrary to both Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. Hence, two denominations.

Because the question of common grace has occupied such an important place in the beginning of the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches, it is not surprising that a great deal has been written on this subject by Protestant Reformed preachers and theologians. Perhaps the amount of writing by Protestant Reformed authors outweighs the total amount of writing on this subject by all other authors combinedalthough many different theologians, from both Presbyterian and Reformed traditions, have written extensively on the subject.

It would, it seems, require some justification to return again to the subject in this series of Journal articles.

Although a specific formulation of the doctrine of common grace by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 in the now famous "Three Points" became the immediate occasion of the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and although most of the writing dealing with the subject in Protestant Reformed theological literature has focused on those Three Points, there are significant ways in which both the Three Points and the discussions surrounding them have become outdated.

Scarcely anyone knows anymore what the Three Points are all about and what specifically they teach. They are, seemingly, a part of ancient history which interests only a few historians. They themselves are really no longer relevant to current theological discussion. This is the more true because, after a brief flurry of writing in their defense shortly after 1924, the Three Points have been, for the most part, consigned to oblivion, to be raised only when some aberration of doctrine and life needed theological support.

But this does not mean that the whole subject of common grace is no longer relevant. It may not be all that relevant in the form given to it by the "Three Points," but it remains a subject of much discussion in both Presbyterian and Reformed churches, both in this land and abroad. Much is still being written on the subject; appeal to common grace is common in theological circles; and, in fact, in some circles it seems so completely accepted as truth that no one even thinks of questioning the doctrine. It has almost the hallowed sanctity of the doctrine of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In all the writings that have appeared, especially in more recent years, some interesting questions have come up which have not been faced earlier. This in itself gives reason for taking a new look at the subject. Not only has enough time passed to give the objectivity of a more distant perspective to the discussion, but new questions have come up which require answers and new issues have been raised which need to be addressed.

Among these new issues is to be found the obvious fact that not all people use the term "common grace" in the same sense of the word. In fact, in discussing the issues surrounding the whole idea of common grace, one soon discovers that there are many who believe that common grace means nothing more than the providence of God in His daily rule of creation. Common grace is the providential control of rain and sunshine which God is pleased to send upon the earth. Now, while one may perhaps quarrel with the use of the term "grace" in this connection, no one will quarrel with the idea. That God's providence is His power by which He controls all that happens in all creation is a truth written large on every page of Scripture and imbedded firmly in all Reformed and Presbyterian creeds. But misunderstandings of this sort need badly to be cleared up; and perhaps the time has come to make an effort to do this.

But all this must not detract from the fact that the ongoing discussions which are directly on the subject of common grace or which appeal to common grace as some sort of theological basis for other ideas have raised new and interesting aspects of the whole question which were not addressed in the bitter controversies of the 1920s. Various subjects which are directly or indirectly related to common grace are repeatedly discussed and are, therefore, worthy of closer attention. It is our purpose to concentrate on some of these subjects.

One event of no little importance seems also to require a new look at the subject. Recently in the Christian Reformed Church, the mother church of the Protestant Reformed Churches, events have brought about a serious crisis, with the result that many individuals, congregations, or parts of congregations have felt compelled to forsake their denominational ties and secede from their mother church. Secession has been forced on these people because of false doctrine within their mother church. While many within this conservative and secession movement are not at all persuaded that common grace has played a role in the apostasy of their mother church, there are others who are not so sure. They are at least inclined to take a look at the question of whether or not the seeds of the apostasy of the last couple of decades were not sown back in the early '20s. Some of them have expressed the desire to take another and new look at the whole subject of common grace.

It is in the hope and with the prayer that this series of articles may clear up misunderstandings which have existed and open the door to new discussions that we venture upon this project. Implied in this is an invitation for anyone interested in the subject to submit material relating to common grace which will be seriously considered for publication in our Journal.

Material to Be Treated

The subject of common grace is a broad subject which is related to many other theological concepts and truths. Some of these we are interested in and some of them we are not.

The whole subject of the free offer of the gospel, e.g., is intimately and inescapably connected with common grace. This was true of the "Three Points" of 1924 which spoke of the fact that God's attitude "of favour or grace" which "He shows to all His creatures in general" is manifested in "the general offer of the gospel." And those who have discussed the whole question of the free offer of the gospel have pointed out that such an offer can be understood only within the boundaries of common grace.

It is not, however, our intention to enter into that question of the free offer of the gospel in this series of articles. Much has been written about it, also in this Journal, and to discuss this whole question again would involve us in massive redundancies. Not only that, but one wearies of the whole subject at last. The Protestant Reformed Churches have, over the years, set forth the position of Scripture and the Confessions on this question over and over again. Some choose to ignore what has been written; some continue, in spite of all that has been written, to misrepresent the view which we defend; some, understanding the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches, take issue with it and defend a position contrary to it. The latter are to be respected, even though they differ. But in any case, there is little point in writing more. We are not going to raise our banner again in defense of the sovereign and particular address of God in the gospel.

There are fundamental questions of common grace which are addressed by all who discuss the matterwhether it be the defenders of the "Three Points" of 1924; the proponents of common grace by those who have forgotten 1924; the Presbyterian theologians such as Charles Hodge and John Murray; or the proponents of common grace in other parts of the world whose denominations or congregations have never been touched by controversy over the issue.

These questions, generally speaking, involve several points.

Perhaps the most crucial question is the precise meaning of common grace. Louis Berkhof, e.g., in his Systematic Theology, speaks of three kinds of common grace: universal common grace, general common grace, and covenant common grace.1 Is there agreement on this question, or do differences also emerge here?

In close connection with the question of the meaning of common grace, the relationship between common grace and the cross of Christ must be examined. The most fundamental question is: If common grace is indeed grace, is that common grace earned by the atoning sacrifice of Christ?an affirmative answer to which question would indicate that, in some sense of the word at least, the cross of Christ is universal.

Some have answered the question in the negative; others have answered it with an emphatic Yes; still others have answered with a somewhat hesitant and circumscribed Yes. That it is an important question is evident from the fact that the Christian Reformed Church in the mid-1960s dealt with the question of the universality of the death of Christ as that death of Christ stands related to the universal love or grace of God. This question was discussed at length on the broadest level of ecclesiastical assemblies.

Common grace, perhaps in its most basic sense, involves the question of God's good gifts to the ungodly. God's good gifts, the gifts of His providence, come to all. They come to wicked and righteous. They come to the praying saint and the blaspheming sinner. They come to the elect and the reprobate. The crucial question, the one that needs discussing, is: Are not these good gifts 0f God evidences of his grace? Does one ever give good gifts in anger and hatred? Are not the good things of life, in the nature of the case, gracious gifts of God? ... gifts undeserved? ... gifts gratuitously given? ... gifts, therefore, of grace? It is a question that needs looking into.

A discussion of the good gifts of God's providence immediately brings us into the whole question of the meaning of grace. It is clear to all, I think, that grace is surely unmerited favor. And that point, in itself, needs no further elucidation. But there are those who, while very uncomfortable with the views of common grace taught in years past, are nevertheless accustomed to calling God's good gifts, grace. And, as I indicated earlier, although there may be areas of agreement on the question of whether God actually is favorably inclined towards all men, the terminology at this point becomes extremely important. It must not be forgotten that the defenders of common grace have spoken freely not only of common grace, but also of common love, common mercy, common longsuffering. And this is important, for the question is real and vital to every Reformed man: Does God love all men?

So a close look at terminology is crucial.

Another fundamental aspect of the common grace controversy is the whole question of the restraint of sin in the lives of the ungodly.

The question of such a restraint of sin is a fairly complicated one which involves different questions more or less directly related to the main question.

There has never really been any question about the fact that God indeed restrains sin. The Protestant Reformed Churches have sometimes been accused of denying such a restraint; but this accusation is incorrect. From the beginning of the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches, these churches have held to the obvious fact that indeed God restrains sin. But the question is: How is this sin restrained? Is it restrained by the policeman? or is it restrained by some general operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of all men?

If God restrains sin through the policeman, then grace need not necessarily be involved; although we are quick to add that some have wanted to place the restraint of sin by the police as well in the realm of God's grace towards men. It has been maintained that government in general, and its power to enforce law and order, is the product of God's grace. Nevertheless, the restraint of sin by enforcement of law does not necessarily involve grace. Restraint by an inward operation of the Holy Spirit emphatically involves grace.

There are other questions. If from the beginning of history God did not restrain sin, would Adam (and the human race with him) have become a beast? Was the grace of restraint of sin, operating on his nature, necessary to prevent him from descending into total bestiality? So it has been maintained by many, beginning already with Dr. Abraham Kuyper.

The question of the restraint of sin is an important question because it also involves the question of the ability of the sinner to do good in the sight of God. Can the sinner do good? More concretely, when an unregenerated man builds a hospital for the care of the sick, is this not good? Does a man go to hell for rescuing a drowning child? Is his punishment all the greater because a man has endowed the local art museum with money to buy costly paintings? Is there no difference in the sight of God between the butcheries of Stalin and the neighbor who cares for his wife and children, works faithfully at his job, and keeps the law of the land?

The whole question is worth some thought and attention because the simple fact of life is that the keeping of the law of God, though admittedly outward, brings greater reward than a violation of it. The man who lives faithfully with the wife of his youth enjoys the institution of marriage; the homosexual acquires AIDS. The drug addict winds up in the hospital or prison; the man who turns away from drugs never suffers their debilitating effect. The nation which keeps the law of God prospers; the nation which tramples the law of God under feet suffers the just judgment of God. If it is true that even outward good is rewarded (completely apart from the question of salvation) is this not because that which is rewarded is truly good?

And this whole problem in turn involves the question whether it is proper to distinguish in the life of the unregenerated man between total and absolute depravity. Many have done this. Man is not absolutely depraved, although he is totally depraved, it is said. And, the questions are basically the same, is it correct to say that God hates man's sins, but loves man? ... that God makes distinction between sin and the sinner?

The question of the ability of the natural man to do good involves important practical questions, questions which involve the life and calling of the child of God in the world. These questions center in what, in Reformed circles, has been called, "the antithesis."

The question of the antithesis has been raised in different connections. But the basic argument is clear enough. If it is true that a gracious restraint of sin in the unregenerate results in good works in the lives of the unregenerate, does it not follow that cooperation in certain areas of life between the people of the world and the people of God is possible? To cite but one example: Certainly there are plenty of people in the world who are not regenerated, but who despise with their entire being the monstrous evil of abortion. They have set themselves to do battle with this evil and to attempt to eradicate it from the land. No Christian would ever think of approving of the murder of unborn infants. Cannot the Christian make common cause with the wicked at this crucial juncture so that both work together for a common goal?

But this entire question of the antithesis has been raised in connection with other problems. The incorporation of higher critical methods into a Reformed Hermeneutics has been justified on the grounds of common grace and the ability of the natural man to do good. If God's Spirit operates in man to produce good, man is able to produce good thinking and good ideas. Higher criticism is one of these good ideas.

Common grace has been the justification to accept the findings of natural science, not only in such questions as the revolution of the planets about the sun in our solar system, but also in such questions as the origin of our universe. Natural science has discovered that the universe is from 15 to 20 billion years old and that the universe as we now know it has developed from lower forms of life to higher forms of life over these lengthy spans of time. And, because science is possible because of common grace, we must accept these findings of science as the fruit of God's grace in the lives of unregenerated scientists.2

But, whether one agrees with all this or disagrees, the question remains: Is it due to the influence of God's gracious operations in men which enables them to discover truthwhether that be in the area of science, or philosophy, or ethics, or anywhere else. And if this obvious discovery of truth on the part of the ungodly is not due to God's grace, how is it to be explained?

To conclude this discussion, it can also be pointed out that the purpose of common grace has often been discussed. Why does God bestow His grace and favor upon men while they live in this world? Some have pointed out that this is necessary for the church to survive and the elect to be saved through the mission labors of the church. It is argued that without common grace this world would be such a "hell" that the church would be unable to survive even for a day. Others have gone a bit beyond this, and have suggested that common grace, especially as it is operative in "general revelation," is a necessary preparatory work for God's special grace. The wicked world is prepared by common grace for special grace, for salvation, for membership in the church. This is argued, e.g., by the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck: "It is common grace which makes special grace possible, prepares the way for it, and later supports it; and special grace, in its tum, leads common grace up to its own level and puts it into its service."3

In discussing this question, appeal is made to general revelation in distinction from special revelation. General revelation is common grace; special revelation is special grace. So common has this idea been that an entire book has been written with the title: General Revelation and Common Grace.4 The fact is that throughout the history of the discussions of common grace, the question of general revelation has always been introduced. And it is important, therefore, that we take a look at that question too.

And so it seems to be worth our while to take another look at this important question, investigate anew what the Scriptures have to say about it, and open the door to discussion on the matter.

And this we shall do, God willing, in subsequent articles.


1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), p. 434.

2. The Christian Reformed Church, in a committee report on this question, specifically appealed to common grace.

3. Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 38.

4. William Masselink, General Revelation and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953).

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