25 August, 2016

Prof. Herman C. Hanko on Matthew 5:44-45

[Source: Common Grace Considered]

In general, there is no question about it that this is a key passage in the defense of God’s attitude of grace and love towards all men. Every defender of common grace that I have read or listened to has quoted this text as decisive in the debate. And all defenders of common grace assure us that this passage ought to mark the end of all debate.

The text itself reads:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust.

The argument as I understand it goes like this: God sends rain on the just and on the unjust. The common rain that God sends is proof of His favor, love, kindness, etc. towards the unregenerate. Rain is God’s common grace.

Sometimes the argument is turned around, in the interests of showing that all who receive rain actually do receive favor. The argument goes like this: We are called to do good to the just and to the unjust. For us that doing good to the just and unjust includes all men without any distinction, or, at least, includes elect and reprobate alike, for we are unable to distinguish between them. Because we are imitating God as His children, in doing good to all, God also does good to all.

We may not, however, argue from our calling to love our neighbor as ourselves to God’s attitude of favor towards all men. We are creatures, living here in the world, in the world though not of the world. God is God, sovereign over all who does all His good pleasure. Known unto God are all His works from the beginning. We do not know who are God’s elect and who are reprobate. But God does know, for He determines it all. We ought to keep this in mind.

An important question that arises from the text is: Whom does Jesus mean by “the just and unjust” upon whom God sends rain? Does Jesus mean: good men in this world and bad men in this world? That is, men who deserve rain and sunshine and men who do not? The answer, very obviously, is: The text cannot mean that, for there are no just people in the world, for “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10).

Does it then mean to distinguish between those who are righteous because the perfect satisfaction for sin earned on the cross has been imputed to them, and those who are still in their sins and not righteous in Christ? That is, is the distinction between just and unjust a distinction between elect and reprobate? It would seem that the latter would have to be the meaning. But then the text means only, as we have repeatedly observed, that God manifests that He is a good God by giving good things to men, something no one denies. The question still remains: What is God’s attitude and purpose behind these good gifts? And then Psalm 73 and Proverbs 3:33 give us the answer.

But the whole idea that God loves the reprobate is an imposition on the text of man’s own devising.

A positive explanation of the text would, I think, be helpful.

Before I take our journey through this text, it is necessary to put the text into its context. In the broader context Scripture gives us Jesus’ words in His Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is spoken to the disciples and, more broadly, to all citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The Sermon on the Mount has frequently and rightly been called, “The Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven.” After describing the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom in the Beatitudes, the Lord lays down fundamental principles that govern the lives of these citizens while they are still in this world. Note this: Jesus is laying down principles of conduct to be observed by those who are citizens of the kingdom.

In the section of which verses 44, 45 are a part, beginning with verse 21, Jesus is explaining how He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. And in connection with His calling and work to fulfill the law, He condemns the keeping of the law as it was explained by the scribes and Pharisees. They saw the law only as an external code of conduct and paid no attention to the spiritual demands of the law: Love God, and love thy neighbor. Even to the command, Love thy neighbor, the Pharisees had added the command, “Hate thy enemy” (verse 43). This interpretation was indeed what the Pharisees taught, for in verses 46 and 47 the Lord adds, “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans the same?”

The evil interpretation of the law by the Pharisees was basically a self-centered conceit: I will be nice only to those who are nice to me …

In other words, the command of God to love our neighbors as ourselves had been corrupted and abused by the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes. They had interpreted “neighbor” as referring to their brethren, and, even more narrowly, to those who loved them. The Lord warns the citizens of the kingdom not to do as the Pharisees, for that is not the law of God.

But the Pharisees forgot that the command to love our neighbor is rooted in and flows from the command to love God. We cannot love our neighbor without loving God. And, indeed, our love for our neighbor is a manifestation of our love for God. Furthermore, the love the citizens of the kingdom who love God must show to others is a manifestation of the fact that they are loved by God (I John 4:19). The Pharisees, when they interpreted the command, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and interpreted it to mean that we are to love those who love us, immediately had to face the question: Does God love those who love Him? What a foolish question to ask. The answer obviously is, He does not! Jesus’ answer demonstrates that God loves those who hate Him, though they be elect.

The term “neighbor” in the law of God is broader by far than our brethren and those who love us. That it has a broader connotation is evident from the parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). In this parable Jesus explains that we are neighbors to anyone whom we meet or walk with on our life’s pathway, who is in need of our help. That means that our neighbors are not only those who unexpectedly cross our pathway and need our help, but also those with whom we walk on life’s pathway every moment of our lives, but who need our help: our wives or husbands, our children, our fellow saints … Quite frankly, I have a great deal of difficulty accepting the hypocritically pious prating of the ministers who are continuously telling us to love our neighbor, but who divorce their own wives and marry others. Let them first love their neighbor nearest to them, their wives and their children.

For all that, we are also called to love the neighbor who is quite obviously an unbeliever. That is, we are called to love our neighbor without discriminating between those who love us and those who persecute us. We are not to love those only who love us. God does not love those who love Him. God does not love those who make themselves worthy of His love. He loves us, the worst of sinners. If we are children of our Father, therefore, we love those who do not love us. But those whom God loves are those wicked and undeserving people who are nevertheless those for whom Christ died.

The point of comparison between God’s love and our love is: God loves unworthy sinners (though they are the elect whom God knows) and we are to love unworthy sinners (though we do not know elect from reprobate.) In doing so we imitate our Father in heaven.

We may very well ask the question: Why does God want us to love our neighbor and not only our brethren? The very obvious answer to that question is: We do not know who are our brethren (or will become our brethren), and who are not. That is why the Pharisees interpreted the command to love our neighbor We do not even know with absolute certainty who among our brethren are truly people of God; much less do we know of those outside the circle of our brethren who are true people of God. Luther was right when he said that there would be many in heaven who surprised him by their presence, and there would be many he thought to meet in heaven who were not there. Hypocrites are to be found in the church and God’s people are to be found outside the circle of “brethren,” though they may as yet be unconverted. God knows who are His own; we do not know with absolute certainty.as referring to those who love them. If, said the Pharisees, a person loves us, he must be one of our brethren and we ought to love him.

This was very perverse and wicked. Nor need we know. It is enough for us to live in fellowship with those who manifest themselves as faithful servants of Christ, with whom we live in our homes and in the communion of the saints. Going back all the way to Calvin and our Reformed fathers after him and following them, we must exercise desire to see them one with us. But it is always a reflection in our lives of God’s love for us, undeserving sinners. God does not love those who do good to Him, who deserve His love. He loves the unthankful and evil But He loves them in Christ, seeks their salvation by sending His own Son into the world to suffer and die, and does all that is necessary to bring them to heaven.

As I said, witnessing has the same power as preaching. Preaching brings to faith in Christ; so does witnessing. Preaching is directed to far more people than the elect; so is witnessing. Preaching condemns sin and calls to faith in Christ; so does witnessing. Preaching is a two-edged sword that hardens as well as saves; so is witnessing. Witnessing is a sort of echo or reverberation of the preaching—preaching that we have heard and by which we have a faith that echoes in our witnessing. The two belong together. God uses promiscuous preaching to save His elect; so also He uses witnessing to bring His elect to the preaching of the gospel, to the fellowship of the church and to faith in Christ. We must not be as the Pharisees; we must be children of our Father in heaven.

Considering these things, we can understand the words: “That ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven, for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” The point Jesus is making is that we must do to others what God has done to us. This is always a theme in Scripture, as Jesus makes clear in the parable of the two debtors (Matt. 18:21-35). God loves us and has shown His love for us by giving us Christ and salvation in Him. We are undeserving sinners who have no claim at all on God’s mercy. We receive what we do not deserve. If we fail to show this great blessing to our neighbor, we are thankless and unappreciative, not worthy of the blessings we are given. If we are aware of the amazing wonder of our salvation and if we have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, then we will also be inwardly compelled by the power of that love to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is Jesus’ point in this passage.

If you say that Jesus points us to the fact that God sends His rain and sunshine on men indiscriminately, you are, of course, correct. The point of the terms “just and unjust” is precisely to demonstrate that God’s love does not depend on the worthiness of the object. But, further, God always gives only good gifts … God gives good gifts, for He is good in Himself. The good gifts He gives show beyond question the wickedness of the world, for they despise God’s good gifts and use them in the service of Satan. In this way God Himself demonstrates that His judgment on the wicked is a judgment they deserve. In His good gifts to the reprobate, God sets them on slippery places where they slide rapidly into everlasting destruction (Psalm 73:18, 19). Behind this just judgment stands the eternal and unchangeable decree of sovereign predestination.

But God’s goodness is a manifestation of His grace to those whom He has chosen in Christ and for whom Christ died. We are unthankful and evil and deserve nothing. But God knows us as His own and knows all who are His own. He saves us sovereignly. We do not know who are elect and who are not. We are called to be witnesses of what God has done for us in the hope that God will do the same to those to whom we witness. And God will do what He has eternally planned to do, but in such a way that our witnessing always accomplishes His purpose whether that means to save or to harden. Or, to put it a little differently, God who knows His own in this world, gives good gifts to them for their salvation; but He also gives good gifts so that the wicked may be without excuse and God’s purpose in reprobation accomplished. We do not know who are elect and who are reprobate, but our manifestations of love have the same affect: they save (by God’s grace) the elect and harden and condemn the wicked.

You say, But God gives rain and sunshine to the just and unjust. That is, of course, true. But it is a false assumption to interpret giving rain to just and unjust as tokens of God’s love for the wicked. He gives rain and sunshine to the unjust reprobate for their condemnation, and to the just elect for their salvation. So we, the objects of such undeserved favor, must love our enemies and do good to them that hate us. That is, we must seek their salvation, not knowing whom God will be pleased to save through our goodness. God will use that very love for our neighbor to harden and condemn the wicked, but also to save those whom He has chosen to everlasting life.

One correspondent asks whether it is an accurate statement of God’s attitude towards the reprobate to say, “The good gifts of providence that he gives to them (the wicked, HH) are meant as a testimony to them that he is a good God, full of kindness and love, and therefore one worthy to be worshipped and before whom they should repent were they in their right mind, and that if they were to do so they would experience his loving fellowship as sweet.” My response to that summary is a hearty “Amen.”

This is biblical and what we must believe.

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