06 September, 2016

Another Look at Common Grace—Chapter Two: What is Grace?

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

In our previous article we quoted extensively from defenders of common grace to learn from them specifically what they mean by the concept. We turn now to a discussion of the idea itself.

If one should study the writings of those who defend common grace, one soon discovers a rather striking fact about such defenses: In their appeals to Scripture to support their views, no text is ever quoted in which the word “grace” itself is used. Sometimes various passages are quoted which are supposed to refer to different aspects of common grace, such as the origin and source of common grace, the effects of common grace among men, the purpose of common grace, and such like things. But in every case, no text is quoted where grace itself is mentioned.

The same is true when common grace is discussed in terms of its synonyms. Common grace is identified with a general love of God for all men, or a general longsuffering of God toward all (the latter being God’s supposed willingness to postpone men’s judgment until they have sufficient opportunity to repent). Sometimes common grace is defined in terms of God’s goodness toward all men, or a certain kindness or benevolence that He shows toward all. And various Scriptural passages are quoted which are alleged to teach such general love, or kindness, or longsuffering.

Although the words themselves (love, kindness, longsuffering, goodness) are sometimes used in the texts cited, more often than not the words do not appear in the texts, and the conclusions drawn from them (viz., that these attributes of God are shown toward all men) are mere deductions.1 This is not to say that the deduction, because it is a deduction, is necessarily wrong.2 But the fact remains that the terms associated with common grace are terms in Scripture that, when used, usually are clear and unmistakable references to God's attitude toward His elect people.

This is emphatically true of the term grace. One would think that a concept so important as that of common grace would surely be mentioned by name in Scripture. But anyone who knows the Bible at all must admit that nowhere, either in Scripture or in the Confessions, is the term found.3

It can be argued, of course, that this is not really an objection because other theological terms, such as “trinity,” “providence,” etc., are also not found in Scripture, but are nevertheless accepted by all Reformed people as words that connote truths of Scripture. And so, it is said, the same is true of common grace. The term is not there, but the idea is.

This argument would hold some value if it were not for the fact that, while “common grace” is a term not found in Scripture, “grace” is found repeatedly in both the Old and the New Testaments. One would think that if “common grace” is indeed taught in Scripture, then somewhere the word “grace” itself would refer to common grace. Why then is it that no such texts are ever quoted? Why does not anyone point us to one passage where the word “grace” refers to common grace?

There is another somewhat strange aspect of this question. Theologians can be found who, while they deny the doctrine of common grace, nevertheless use the term. In general, they use the term to denote God’s providence. More particularly, they use it to denote that aspect of God’s providence according to which God sends good gifts to men. Among these good gifts are rain and sunshine, health and wealth, friendship and marriage.

While it is our intention to discuss these good gifts at some later point, it is important now to notice two things. In the first place, one could very well ask the question of those who hold to the term while denying the doctrine: Why do you want to use the term “grace” to indicate God’s providence? More particularly, why do you want to use the term “grace” to indicate especially the good gifts of God’s providence? Would you have objections to using the term “grace” to indicate cancer, or an automobile accident, or famine? These things too come by God's providence. The answer to these questions would be interesting.

In the second place, we are again back to the point. The term “grace” is often used in Scripture. A good question to ask any Reformed man would be: Is the term “grace” in Scripture ever used to denote providence in general, or the good gifts of providence in particular? If it is not, to say the very least, the use of the term is highly dangerous in today’s theological climate when the term is used in many more ways than merely the workings of divine providence.

All of which leads us to the conclusion that a good beginning in our discussion of common grace is a careful analysis of the use of the term in Scripture. What does Scripture mean by grace? To that we intend to devote this article.

Even a cursory study of the concept “grace” in Scripture will immediately make clear that the word has a variety of meanings, which meanings are, nevertheless, related.

Kittel4 points out that although Scripture gives to the term its own distinct meaning, nevertheless, the basic idea of the term was found in profane Greek. It meant 1) that which pleases or delights; 2) the state of being pleased; 3) that which causes pleasure to others, kindness.5 In general, therefore, it means good pleasure, favor, goodwill.6

In Hellenism, Kittel says, the term means either the demonstration of a king's favor, a gracious disposition, or thanks. He then goes on to add that the term also had the connotations of power, a connotation found also in its New Testament usage.7

He goes on to discuss the meaning and connotation of the terms in Scripture, which are חֵ֥ן (ên) from the verb חָנַן (ênan) and χάρις (kháris) in Greek. Kittel says that the noun in Hebrew refers first of all to beauty or charm, and points to several passages as illustrations. In Exodus 3:21 the Lord says: “And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians.” Here “favour” is really “grace.” This thought is repeated in Exodus 11:3 and 12:36. The same meaning is attached to the word, according to Kittel, in Psalm 84:11: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.”8

In other places in the Old Testament the word refers often just to an attitude. This is especially true of such passages as speak of one finding grace in the eyes of another. An example of this is in Genesis 6:8: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”9

After pointing out that this Old Testament idea is carried over into the new, Kittel goes on to say that it is especially the New Testament which emphasizes that grace is always free. While a number of texts are quoted as support for this idea, Kittel appeals especially to Romans 3:24: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”10

Kittel’s summary statement is: “What is in view is the process whereby one who has something turns in grace to another who has nothing, nor is this just an impersonal transfer of things, but a heart-felt movement of the one who acts to the one acted upon.”11

In connection with the fact that grace is always free, Kittel makes some very sharp statements that have direct bearing on our discussion of whether Scripture uses the word “grace” as being common, i.e., towards all men.

He defines grace as the “totality of salvation,” and quotes II Corinthians 6:1 and I Corinthians 1:4 as proof. II Corinthians 6:1 reads: “We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.”12 And I Corinthians 1:4 reads: “I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ.”13

As he emphasizes this point, Kittel speaks of grace as “the power of grace [which] is displayed in its work, the overcoming of sin.” He refers to Romans 5:20 as proof: “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”14 He uses such expressions as follows—all of which show the particularity of grace: “It is free election.” “It actualizes itself in the church.” “Its goal is every good work.” “It holds the believer fast in the fellowship of grace.” “It is the destruction of sin.” “χάρις [kháris]  “is the divine ‘favour’ shown in Christ.” In fact, in Colossians 3:13, grace means “to pardon.” “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye”—where, in both instances that the verb “forgive” is used, the Greek uses the verb form for grace.15 So grace always belongs to salvation.

If it is argued that these Scripture passages all speak of saving grace in distinction from common grace, the obvious answer is: Saving grace is the only use of the term in God’s Word.

Hermann Cremer16 is in basic agreement with Kittel’s analysis of the term. He offers the general definition: Grace is a “kind, affectionate, pleasing nature, and an inclining disposition either in person or thing.”17 /Luke 1:30; 2:40, 52; Acts 2:47; 4:33; 7:46 are referred to as texts which use the word in this sense.

He then proceeds to speak of it as God’s grace and favor which excludes merit and is not hindered by guilt, but forgives sin. Among other texts, the following are quoted as supporting this idea. Romans 5:15: “But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” Galatians 2:21: “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” Ephesians 3:2: “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward.” And he concludes his discussion with the statement that grace is spontaneous favor.18

Also Cremer finds no use of the term in Scripture which can in any way be construed as applying to a grace which is common.

Following these analyses of the word “grace,” Rev. Herman Hoeksema also treats this concept extensively in his Reformed Dogmatics.19

He points out, first of all, that grace is an attribute of God.20 God, says Hoeksema, is gracious in Himself. As proof of this use of grace in Scripture, he refers to Exodus 34:6: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”; and I Peter 5:10: “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.”

Hoeksema considers this to be an important point. He argues that God never becomes outside Himself what He is not, first of all, within His own triune covenant life. He is gracious in Himself. The grace that He reveals to sinners is the grace which He is within His own being. And so, such revelations of His grace as He is pleased to show in Christ Jesus are revelations of His own perfections.

Proceeding from this starting point, Hoeksema shows, first of all, that grace is always rooted in ethical goodness.21 He quotes a number of passages to prove this. Among them are the following. Proverbs 22:11: “He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend.” This is an important text in the argument, for it proves that pureness of heart and grace belong together. The one who loves pureness of heart has grace of lips. Psalm 45:2: “Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever.” Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” That is, grace is administered to hearers when we speak nothing corrupt, but speak good to the use of edifying. Colossians 4:6: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”

Grace is, therefore, a beauty or excellence, a comeliness or attractiveness which is rooted in ethical perfection.

Secondly, grace is an attitude of gracefulness. In Acts 7:46, David is described as one “who found favour (or grace) before God.” The same is true of Mary as the angel assures her: “Thou hast found favour (or grace) with God” (Luke 1:30).

We must be sure that we understand this meaning of the term clearly. The idea is not so much that David or Mary were in themselves graceful in the sense that they were ethically pure and thus attractive—although this was surely, in a sense, true. But the idea is rather that God took an attitude of favor towards them. He was favorably inclined towards them. He looked upon them with approval.

It is at this point that the two ideas come together. Grace is attractiveness which is rooted in ethical perfection; but it is also an attitude of God towards men. Now this latter can mean two things. It may mean that the one who is gracious is ethically perfect. God is gracious because He is ethically perfect.

But, quite obviously, this idea does not do justice to the texts cited above in which Scripture states that David and Mary found grace in the sight of God. The idea is here that these two are the objects of God’s attitude of favor, of approval, of delight. The idea here is, then, that God’s attitude towards them is an attitude which cannot possibly be rooted in themselves or in the kind of people they were. They were wicked and ethically impure.22

God is favorably inclined to them, therefore, because they were ethically perfect for another reason than the kind of people they actually were. They were ethically pure objectively in Christ Who died for them so that God sees them in Christ. But that great attitude of God’s favor towards them made them ethically pure.

Hence, in the third place, grace is undeserved favor. This is repeated again and again in Scripture. It is sharply contrasted with works of any kind. It is never payment of a debt. It is never earned. It is the very opposite of works. This truth is emphatically stated in Romans 11:6: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”23 The same truth is stated in Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”24

Finally, grace is the power of salvation.25 It is itself the power whereby these blessings are actually given and become the possession of the people of God. It is that which makes the objects of God’s grace ethically perfect as He is by transforming them into saints and bestowing on them all the blessings of salvation.

It is clear how crucial the idea of ethical perfection is to the concept of grace. If it is true that ethical perfection always stands connected with grace, then it is also true that the term in Scripture cannot apply to any common attitude towards all men.

And so it is clear that the term grace in Scripture has reference only to the saving grace of God which is given through Jesus Christ to those who belong to Christ's church. Never is there the slightest hint that this grace is common, that it is shared with all alike, that all men are, in some sense, the objects of this grace. Scripture simply does not use the term in that sense at all.

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It is obvious from a study of the term grace in Scripture that grace is closely related to other attributes of God such as mercy, love, longsuffering, goodness, and the like. Kittel, e.g., treats the concept mercy along with grace on the grounds that the two are so closely related that they cannot be treated separately.26 And Hoeksema also makes the point that these ethical virtues of God stand related to each other.

The defenders of common grace are quick to admit this. They insist that, because all men are the objects of God’s grace, all men are also the objects of God’s love, mercy, goodness, etc.

H. J.  Kuiper, e.g., speaks of a grace and love shown to all men.27 He goes on to explain how God can both hate and love the same person: “God hates the wicked as wicked, but He loves them as His creatures.”28 So bold is Kuiper on this point that he states: “There is no one here in this audience who can say, ‘God hates me.’ Suppose you knew that you will ultimately be lost; even then you could not say, ‘God does not care for me.’ ”29

Macleod speaks of God’s longsuffering towards the world and insists that man receives blessings of divine benevolence.30 Surprisingly, Macleod even goes so far as to say that God does not always love the elect, just as He does not always hate the wicked: “His attitude to them (the elect) is not simply one of love.”31

Henry Meeter insists that grace towards all men must be identified with God’s favor which includes goodness, kindness, longsuffering, love.32

John Murray is not at all reluctant (as some are) to root common grace in the atoning work of Christ: “Many benefits accrue to the non-elect from the redemptive work of Christ.”33 Specific benefits upon the ungodly are expressions of God’s kindness and mercy.34 He finds in Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27, 35 proof also for God’s love to the unregenerate: “There is a love in God that goes forth to lost men and is manifested in the manifold blessings which all men without distinction enjoy, a love in which non-elect persons are embraced, and a love that comes to its highest expression” in the “entreaties, overtures and demands of the gospel proclamation.”35

The argument is, of course, correct formally. Because God’s attributes are one in Him, they are to be treated together. God’s grace is surely inseparably connected to and a part of His love, kindness, goodness, mercy, longsuffering, etc. If anyone of them is common to all men, they are all common. If one is particular, however, they all are particular.

It would go beyond our present purposes to discuss in detail all these various attributes of God which are mentioned and defined in Scripture to show that in every case they are attributes which are shown only to the elect. There is a prima facie case to be made for the truth that always God is particular in His grace and mercy, His love and favor. The argument consists of two lines of thought.

The first is this. If all these attributes are indeed inseparably related to grace, and if grace in Scripture is something shown only to the elect, then it follows that these other attributes as well are shown only to those chosen in Christ from eternity.

The second line of thought goes like this. God’s attributes are never mere characteristics of God. They are living, powerful, working attributes. They are the virtues of the living God Who does all things. If, e.g., grace is itself the power whereby we are saved, so also is this true of love and goodness. We love God because He first loved us. We are good because God is good to us. We are called to be kind towards one another because God is kind to us. God’s attitude is never merely attitude, powerless to accomplish what it is in Him. When God is gracious to a man, that grace permeates man’s being and makes him gracious. God’s mercy is more than an attitude of pity and longing to deliver. It is a mighty power that rescues us from our own hell and makes us blessed. It is a serious injustice to God to make His attributes mere attitudes such as our attributes are.

Nevertheless, it is not amiss to call attention to one other such attribute, the attribute of longsuffering. We choose this particular one because it especially is mentioned as referring to God’s attitude of favor to all men. Three texts especially are quoted in support of the idea that longsuffering is an attribute of God which He shows to all men. The first is found in 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.”36 The other two passages are found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. The first is 2:4: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?”37 The second is 9:22: “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction?”

The Greek words for longsuffering are μακροθυμὲω (makrothumeō) in the verb form, and μακροθυμία (makrothumia) in the noun form. The words are used often in the New Testament both as an attribute of God and as an attribute of God’s people.

To take the latter first, God’s people are called to be longsuffering towards one another in James 5:8: “Be ye also longsuffering;38 stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.” The interesting part of this verse is that it is found in the context of a description of the sufferings of God’s people at the hands of the wicked rich. They are told to be patient unto the coming of the Lord because the Lord Himself is longsuffering towards them (v. 7).39

In Hebrews 6:15, this attribute is applied to Abraham: “And so, after he had patiently endured (‘had been longsuffering,’ in the Greek), he obtained the promise.”

In I Corinthians 13:4, love is said to be longsuffering; and in I Thessalonians 5:14, God’s people are admonished to be “patient (i.e., longsuffering) towards all.” In Colossians 1:11, longsuffering is said to be an attribute of God’s people for which the apostle prays. In II Timothy 3:10, the apostle speaks of longsuffering as characteristic of his own life. This mention of longsuffering as an attribute of the believer is common in Scripture.4o

It is worthy of note that in every case in which the word is used in the New Testament it is used as an attribute of the believer. Never does the word refer to a characteristic of the ungodly. This is already significant because the believer is recreated in the image of God; and the clear implication is that the believer is called to reflect in his life and does actually reflect God’s attribute of longsuffering to him. This would already suggest that God’s attribute of longsuffering is one shown only to His people.

But a study of the word “longsuffering” as an attribute of God very clearly supports this idea.

This is true of James 5:7: “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience (longsuffering) for it, until it receive the early and latter rain.”

As we noticed, the Lord is speaking here of the suffering which His people endure in the world. The question might arise why the Lord does not deliver them, but waits until the coming of Christ. James uses a parable to explain this. He compares God with a husbandman who waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being longsuffering, for the early and latter rain must first come before the harvest can be brought in. The fruit of the earth here refers to the full harvest of the elect, when all the elect will have been born and saved. Only then can Christ return.41 The husbandman, as much as he would like to harvest his field as quickly as possible, knows that he must wait until the grain is ripe.42 He endures the great threats to his harvest because he knows that if he harvests his crop too early, the harvest will be spoiled. So also God is longsuffering towards His people in their distress while He waits for the full harvest to come.

In Luke 18:7, the same idea of longsuffering on God’s part is vividly described. The widow who sought redress for wrongs done to her found an uncaring judge. It was only, finally, when she refused to cease pestering him that he was moved to help her and avenge her against her enemies. By way of application of the parable Jesus says, “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long (is longsuffering) with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily.” It is, therefore, because of the longsuffering of God that Jesus tells us that we “ought always to pray, and not to faint.”

The same use of longsuffering is used in I Peter 3:20. We quote the entire passage:

For Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water (vv. 18-20).

Apart from the difficulties of verse 19 in particular, it is clear from the passage that in the days of Noah also the true people of God were hard pressed by their enemies. In fact, so great was the pressure of the wicked world that by the time the flood came only eight souls were left among the believers. During that terrible time of suffering Noah was building the ark in which he was saved. God did not deliver them immediately from their sufferings, because He had His own appointed time for their deliverance in the ark by the flood. But during that time of persecution God was longsuffering towards His people. When the time came for deliverance, God came in judgment upon the world and saved His church.

It is this idea which also stands on the foreground in II Peter 3:9. As we noticed earlier, this text is often quoted in support of God’s favorable attitude of longsuffering towards all men.43 The idea is then that God postpones deserved judgment because He earnestly seeks the salvation of all men. Only when men have clearly shown that they want no part of salvation does this longsuffering change to wrath.

Yet the text teaches nothing of the sort. In fact, it is quite difficult to see how this text can be quoted in support of God’s attitude of graciousness or longsuffering to all men.

The theme of this passage is much like that in James 5, to which we referred earlier. The saints to whom Peter is writing were enduring severe persecution. It is clear from this chapter that the saints were expecting an early return of the Lord and were, in fact, puzzled by what seemed to them an unnecessary delay of this great event. Peter explains that God never delays, for He is not slack concerning His promise. The explanation is to be found in God’s longsuffering. That longsuffering, Peter emphatically states, is to “us-ward”; that is, it is a longsuffering towards Peter and the saints to whom he is writing. That longsuffering reveals itself in this, that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The reference is very obviously to the church which is yet to be born. We must remember that the number of the elect, destined to inherit the new heavens and the new earth, is a fixed number, determined eternally by God. That number of elect is not merely a conglomeration of individuals, an arbitrary group of people; it is the body of Christ, which with Christ constitutes the organism of the church. So completely is that organism one that if one individual in it should not be saved, it would be impossible that any be saved. All the elect go to heaven, or none goes to heaven. And so Christ cannot return for salvation until every one comes to repentance. This is why the Lord cannot come as yet. And this is why God bears the sufferings of His people with much longsuffering. He endures their agony in the interests of their salvation.

That this is the meaning is indicated further by the fact that just a few verses later Peter writes: “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation” (v. 15). This is a strong statement. It means that God’s longsuffering is identical with salvation. It is the same thing as salvation. When longsuffering is showed to a man, that constitutes his salvation. In the light of that strong statement, it is difficult to see how longsuffering can still be said to indicate God’s attitude towards all men.

We come now to the two difficult passages which seem to indicate that longsuffering is not particular, but general. I refer to Romans 2:4 and Romans 9:22. To these we now turn.

Romans 9:22, to take this passage first, reads: “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction?”

It would seem, on the surface of it, that the objects of God’s longsuffering are the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. And yet, a closer look at the passage surely indicates that this cannot be. We call attention to the following objections:

1) We have, first of all, the broader context of Scripture itself in the light of which this verse must be considered. We have noticed that, with the exception of these two passages in Romans, every use of this term in the New Testament, as it is applied to God, indicates that God’s longsuffering is particular, i.e., only for the elect. And we ought not to forget Peter’s strong statement that God’s longsuffering is salvation. We must be careful to interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture. It would be strange to find that most of Scripture teaches that God’s longsuffering is only towards His people, then suddenly to find a passage where this is not true. This is all the more the case when we remember that longsuffering is salvation. No one would want to maintain the position that the vessels of wrath, objects of God’s longsuffering, are in fact saved.

2) The immediate context in verse 23 makes sharp distinction between the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction and the vessels of mercy through whom God is pleased to make known the riches of His glory, and who are, in fact, afore prepared unto glory. Verse 23 is the continuation of the thought in verse 22, and verse 22 must take verse 23 into account.

3) The relation between verses 22 and 23 is all the more important when we consider that the word “longsuffering” in verse 22 is in the Greek in the form of a prepositional phrase: ὲν πολλῆ μακροθυμία (en pollē makrothumia). The text can, therefore, be translated: “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured, in abundant longsuffering (or, perhaps even better, while being abundant in longsuffering), the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.” The text, translated in this way, would not necessarily teach that God’s longsuffering is towards the vessels of wrath.

In keeping, therefore, with the rest of Scripture, it is better to refer the phrase concerning God’s longsuffering to His attitude towards the elect while He was enduring the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. This interpretation is certainly plausible if we consider that the apostle uses the word ἤνεγκεν (ēnenken) to indicate God’s attitude towards the vessels of wrath. Although this idea is not very common in Scripture, it apparently refers to the very opposite of God’s longsuffering. God endures the vessels of wrath, in contrast to His longsuffering towards His people. This endurance is for the sake of His people. As the wickedness of the world increases and evil is increasingly rampant, one often wonders why God does not come in judgment upon the workers of iniquity who transgress God’s law, openly mock His precepts, and trample His commandments under foot. The only answer is that God endures their sin for a time. He does this, not to give them a chance to repent, which is an old Arminian interpretation; but He endures their sin because the elect must still be gathered. And until these are gathered, God cannot destroy the world.

4) Finally, the entire context is opposed to the interpretation that would make longsuffering apply to all men. When Israel was rejected, this was not because the Word of God had taken none effect (v. 6). God was accomplishing His purpose, for they are not all Israel which are of Israel. That purpose of God is to be found in election and reprobation. The elder (Esau) in the family of Isaac is to serve the younger (Jacob). And this is because God loves Jacob and hates Esau. Can Esau, whom God hates, be the object of God’s longsuffering?

And so it is throughout time. God has mercy on whom He will have mercy. Pharaoh was raised up and hardened that God might show His power in him (vv. 11-18). How can longsuffering be shown to those whom God hardens? Is hardening an indication of longsuffering? How can that be? God, willing to show His wrath, endures the vessels of wrath who are fitted to destruction. But He is longsuffering to the vessels of mercy. After all, they live in the world surrounded by the hatred of the vessels of wrath. They suffer greatly. They are led as sheep to the slaughter. God longs to deliver them, and, indeed, suffers with them. God also is impatient to pour out His wrath upon the wicked. But all must wait until the last elect is born and saved so that the riches of God’s glory might be revealed in them whom He had afore prepared to glory.

Romans 2:4 is also said to teach that longsuffering is an attribute of God towards the ungodly. The passage itself reads: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?”

But there are obvious problems with this interpretation. We call attention to the following.

1) Nowhere does the text say that the reprobate wicked are the objects of God’s longsuffering. The text merely asserts that men despise God’s longsuffering. It can perhaps be argued that if men despise such longsuffering, this must mean that they are the objects of it. But such is not necessarily the case. It is surely possible that the wicked despise this attribute of God even though they are not the objects of it. I may, e.g., despise the wealth of a man without possessing that wealth myself. Or I may despise marital love in general, and the specific instance of it I see in my neighbor without myself being married. This is the more plausible in connection with the longsuffering of God when we consider that the wicked always despise God with all their hearts. And, in despising God, they despise also all His attributes.

2) The argument that this text supports common grace is based on the statement that God’s goodness leads to repentance. But surely this does not prove an attitude of goodness on the part of God to all. The text, so interpreted, proves too much. The text does not say that God's goodness wants to lead all men to repentance. Nor does it say that God’s goodness attempts to lead all men to repentance. It emphatically states that God’s goodness does lead to repentance. The interpretation of those who hold that this goodness is shown to all men proves too much. It says more than even the most passionate defenders of common grace want to say.

3) The passage is addressed to “man” in general: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man...” (v. 1). “And thinkest thou this, O man...” (v. 3). Paul is here including all men, whether Jew or Gentile, under the severe judgment of God.

When all are included under the just judgment of God, then does God’s grace towards His people become manifest. The following verses make that clear.

But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God (vv. 5-11).

Thus the point is that Jew and Gentile are treated alike, for all come under God’s just judgment. But to the contentious and those who do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, comes wrath—whether they are Jew or Gentile. And to those who work good, whether Jew or Gentile, comes blessing. These (that “worketh good”) are those, among the general “O man,” who are led to repentance by the goodness of God.

And so we conclude our study of these terms. The Scriptures themselves are clear on the matter. God’s virtues of grace, love, mercy, longsuffering, and goodness are always particular.44


1. An instance of this is the text from Matthew 5:44, 45. This passage is perhaps quoted more than any other in support of common grace. And yet none of the words are found in it which are used to refer to God's general attitude of favor towards all.

2. The Westminster Confession speaks of “good and necessary consequence,” when it deals with the legitimate interpretation of Scripture.

3. It is, of course, found once in the Canons of Dordrecht. But in this one instance, it is found in the mouths of the Arminians whose views were condemned by the Synod of Dordrecht. The pertinent article reads: “...The Synod rejects the errors of those who teach: That the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which we understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, viz., the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself” (III/IV, B, 5).

4. Kittel, G., ed, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974).

5. Ibid., p. 373.

6. Ibid., p. 374.

7. Ibid., pp. 375, 376.

8. Ibid., p. 379.

9. Ibid., p. 380.

10. Ibid., p. 394.

11. Ibid., p.377.

12. This is an interesting passage. The translation of the AV might lead one to misinterpret it. The Greek reads: Συνεργοῦντες δὲ καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν μὴ εἰς κενὸν τὴν χάριν τοῦ Θεοῦ δέξασθαι.  The translation is: “But working together, we also beseech you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” The point is not that we are co-workers with God; but that we work together as ministers of God.

13. Ibid., p. 394.

14. Ibid., p. 395.

15. The Greek word is χαρἰςομαι (khárisomai)

16. Cremer, Hermann, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1895).

17. Ibid., p. 573.

18. Ibid., p. 574.

19. Hoeksema, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966).

20. In fact, his analysis of the term is found under the section dealing with the attributes of God.

21. Ibid., pp. 107, 108.

22. Some effort is made to get around this by the defenders of common grace by asserting that God loves the sinner, but hates his sin. The trouble with this distinction is that it is the sinner who sins. Sin is not an abstraction which hangs out in the air somewhere. Sin is the activity of a person. Not only that, but even more importantly, the sinner sins because he is a sinner. He is, in his own nature, totally depraved. He is ugly and repulsive, shot through with guilt, full of running sores. That kind of person God cannot love as a sinner.

23. The last sentence of this verse is omitted in some translations. This is a mistake. The support for the verse as we have quoted it is very strong.

24. Ibid., p. 109.

25. Ibid., p. 110.

26. Kittel, loc. cit.

27. Kuiper, H. J., Sermons Delivered in Broadway Christian Reformed Church, 1925. These sermons were delivered in Kuiper's congregation shortly after the controversy in the Christian Reformed Church which led to the expulsion of Rev. Herman Hoeksema. In the Foreword he states: “Our real purpose was to explain and defend the three points.” See pp. 10, 11 where Kuiper explicitly states that God's love is towards all men.

28. Ibid., p. 11.

29. Ibid., pp. 15, 16.

30. Macleod, Donald, Behold Your God (Christian Focus Publications, 1990), p. 118.

31. Macleod says this in spite of Scripture's testimony: “The Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3).

32. Meeter, Henry, Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing), p. 73.

33. Murray, John, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), p. 63. Not all defenders of common grace are prepared to admit that the blessings of common grace are rooted in the cross. Sietsma, e.g., claims that these blessings are not something given through the cross, but some original goodness is preserved in man from the beginning in the office which man continues to hold. See Sietsma, K., The Idea of Office, tr. by Henry VanderGoot (Toronto: Paideia Press, 1985), p. 33.

34. Ibid., pp. 65, 66.

35. Ibid., p. 68.

36. See, e.g., the extensive treatment of this passage in “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” written by John Murray and Ned Stonehouse as part of the Report to the 15th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1948.

37. The text was quoted in support of the first point of the three points of common grace adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924.

38. The AV has “patient” here, but the Greek has the usual word longsuffering: μακροθυμὴσατε (makrothumēsate).

39. Again, in the description of longsuffering as an attribute of God, the AV uses the expression, “and hath long patience for it.” We shall refer to this text a bit later in our discussion of longsuffering as God’s attribute.

40. See Hebrews 6:12, James 5:10, II Corinthians 6:6, Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:12, I Timothy 1:16 (this passage speaks of Jesus Christ showing forth all longsuffering in Paul), II Timothy 4:2.

41. The figure of a harvest to depict the salvation of the elect is common in Scripture. See Revelation 14:14-17 and Matthew 13:39-43.

42. I well remember, when working on the farm in Montana, how true this was. The grain was not ready till early September. But in that high altitude, snow could come at any time and destroy the harvest before it was reaped. Every morning the farmer for whom I worked would anxiously go to his field to see whether the grain was sufficiently ripe for harvesting. But he would return to tell us that we had to wait yet a bit. When finally it was ready, everyone, in great excitement, would hurry to the fields to begin the combining.

43. It is argued that God is longsuffering towards all men in this respect that God wants all men to be saved.

44. We shall have occasion to consider the attributes of love and goodness in another connection.

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