09 September, 2016

Another Look at Common Grace—Chapter Three: "Blessings for All Men?"

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 1993]

(In the article which appeared in the April 1993 issue of The Journal we discussed the meaning of various concepts such as grace, mercy, longsuffering, etc., all of which are related to the subject of common grace. We now enter into the substance of the idea of common grace.)


Although the whole concept of common grace involves many different subjects,1 we tum our attention in this article to the good gifts which all men receive in this life. The question which confronts us is: Are these good gifts God’s grace which is common to all?

It is pointed out repeatedly by those who hold to common grace that the unregenerate receive many good things from God: rain and sunshine, health and strength, riches and prosperity, the privilege of living in a land where people are able to live in peace, etc. These good things which all men without distinction receive are said to be evidences of God’s grace to all men. The very fact that these gifts are good and are sent by God is indicative of God’s favor and grace.

The question is somewhat complicated by the fact that many have spoken of God’s providence as common grace. God providentially bestows many good things on men. This providential bestowal of good gifts is often called common grace. Does God’s providential bestowal of good gifts imply an attitude of favor? Many say not. Can these good gifts then be called grace? As we noticed in our last article, grace indeed refers to an attitude of favor. Providence itself therefore is not grace in the biblical sense of that term.

The question which we face in this article is: Does Scripture teach that God’s good gifts are evidences of His favor?

A Statement of the Idea

So that we may have a clear understanding of what is meant by common grace as the good gifts of God, we turn to various defenders of this position to hear what they have to say on the matter.

Already in 1924 when the Christian Reformed Church adopted the well-known “Three Points of Common Grace,” the Synod spoke of “the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect,” and “a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general.”2 In support of this teaching, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church quoted Psalm 145:9; Matthew 5:44, 45; Luke 6:35, 35; Acts 14:16, 17.

This same idea can be found in various writings of supporters of common grace, and this idea is made explicit in its application to various spheres of life.

Herman Bavinck speaks of the fact that the continued existence of the wicked is due to common grace, by which he means that God’s favor to the wicked is evident in the fact that the wicked are not destroyed immediately.3 This grace of God was especially shown in the preservation of the nations outside Israel during the Old Testament, and was with a view to the salvation of a catholic church.

This last idea of Bavinck is an important aspect of common grace to which he returns when he states that common grace prepares the way in the whole creation and in the human race for special grace by which the whole cosmos is saved.5

Bavinck places great emphasis on this preparatory aspect of common grace, for he discusses the same idea elsewhere. He writes: “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.”6

Louis Berkhof treats common grace in detail and points out that by it he means God’s attribute of grace which “appears also in the natural blessings which God showers upon man in the present life.” Further, he states: common grace is revealed in “those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to Him.”8

In summarizing Herman Hoeksema’s views of common grace, James Bratt castigates Hoeksema for holding a view which says that “those things usually seen as common gifts from God—a man’s talents, for instance, and the bounties of nature—were blessings only to the elect but curses to the reprobate since they were merely means to spiritual ends.”9 Without any proof that Hoeksema was indeed haunted, Bratt insists that “in a phrase that came to haunt Hoeksema, it was ‘utterly inconceivable’ that God could show any favor to the reprobate.”10

H. J. Kuiper, shortly after the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church made its decisions on common grace, preached a series of sermons in support of the doctrines outlined in the Three Points.11 He defines common grace as “the grace or favor which God, for the sake of Christ and His Church, shows to those who do not possess saving grace and through which He (negative) postpones their merited judgment (outward) ...” and “(positive) bestows temporal blessings upon them ... (outward).”12 In connecting common grace with the free offer of the gospel, Kuiper says: “He sends the wicked earthly blessings as the fruits of His kindness, in order to convince them of His sincere willingness to bestow upon them the greater gift of salvation in Christ.”13

Donald Macleod insists that common grace includes blessings enjoyed by the reprobate and explains this in terms of God’s love for all. God does not always love the elect, Macleod says, just as He does not always hate the wicked. “His attitude towards them (the elect) is not simply one of love.”14 Apart from our discussion of God's good gifts, it is horrible to contemplate that God does not always love us. What assurance do we have that we shall finally be saved if this is the case?

John Murray not only speaks of the outward blessings of grace shown in the good things of life, but he does not hesitate, as some have,15 to connect these blessings to the cross of Christ. Because of Murray’s influence over the years, we quote him at some length.

Murray too believes that common grace and special grace are related. Although common grace has other purposes, one surely is that it “provides the sphere of operation of special grace and special grace therefore provides a rationale of common grace.”16

In discussing the benefits which all receive by virtue of common grace, Murray writes:

Many benefits accrue to the non-elect from the redemptive work of Christ. There is more than one consideration to establish this proposition. Many blessings are dispensed to men indiscriminately because God is fulfilling his redemptive purpose in the world. Much in the way of order, equity, benevolence, and mercy is the fruit of the gospel, and the gospel is God’s redemptive revelation centered in the gift of his Son. Believers are enjoined to ‘do good to all men’ (Gal. 6:10) and compliance has a beneficial result. But their identity as believers proceeds from redemption.... Furthermore, we must remember that all the good dispensed to this world is dispensed within the mediatorial dominion of Christ. He is given all authority in heaven and in earth and he is head over all things. But he is given this dominion as the reward of his obedience unto death (cf. Phil. 2:8, 9), and his obedience unto death is but one way of characterizing what we mean by the atonement. Thus all the good showered on this world, dispensed by Christ in the exercise of his exalted lordship, is related to the death of Christ and accrues to man in one way or another from the death of Christ. If so, it was designed to accrue from the death of Christ. Since many of these blessings fall short of salvation and are enjoyed by many who never become the possessors of salvation, we must say that the design of Christ’s death is more inclusive than the blessings that belong specifically to the atonement. This is to say that even the non-elect are embraced in the design of the atonement in respect of those blessings falling short of salvation which they enjoy in this life. This is equivalent to saying that the atonement sustains this reference to the non-elect and it would not be improper to say that, in respect of what is entailed for the non-elect, Christ died for them.17

After referring to Hebrews 10:26, 27, Hebrews 6:4, 5, and II Peter 2:20-22 in support of this view, Murray goes on to say:

But this suffices to show that there are benefits accruing from the death of Christ for those who finally perish. And in view of this we may say that in respect of these benefits Christ may be said to have died for those who are the beneficiaries. In any case it is incontrovertible that even those who perish are the partakers of numberless benefits that are the fruits of Christ’s death and that, therefore, Christ’s death sustains to them this beneficial reference, a beneficial reference, however, that does not extend beyond this life.18

Explaining Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27, 35, Murray writes:

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 gospel proclamation.19

In explaining further the relation between these benefits to the ungodly and the atonement, Murray states that “the non-elect enjoy many benefits that accrue from the atonement but they do not partake of the atonement.”20 Thus, a distinction is to be made in the love of God. The love of benevolence is love which saves; the love of complacency is love which is conditional.21

Differing from Charles Hodge, Murray wants a broader definition of common grace: “Any gift or favor bestowed upon, and enjoyed by creatures”; “gifts bestowed upon other creatures as well as upon men”; “every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”22

Taking his cue from Herman Kuiper, Murray distinguishes between a universal common grace “which is common to all the creatures who make up this sin-cursed world ... a grace which touches creatures as creatures”; a general common grace which is “common to all human beings in distinction from the rest of God’s creatures ... a grace which pertains to men as men”; and a covenant common grace which is “common to all elect and non-elect covenant members.”23

Among many other elements, common grace also includes the fact that the creation is the recipient of divine bounty24 and that men themselves are the recipients of favor and goodness.25 The benefits mentioned in Hebrews 6 are “non-saving grace at its very apex.”26

We need not quote any more from proponents of common grace. The ideas referred to above are commonly and generally held.27

A summary of the views of proponents of common grace with respect to the question of God’s good gifts to men would include the following elements: 1) Common grace is identified with many other attributes of God, all of which are also common. We may mention specifically, love, mercy, kindness, benevolence, favor, and longsuffering. 2) This grace or favor is shown to a) God’s creatures in the brute creation, b) mankind in general, c) both elect and non-elect within the covenant.28 3) The blessings of common grace include the continued existence of the wicked in the world, the natural bounties of the creation, man’s talents, and a postponement of judgment. 4) Common grace prepares the way for special grace. While it is not always clear precisely what is meant by this, it seems as if those who teach this idea refer not only to the fact that common grace creates a climate in which the gospel can be preached successfully, but that also the effects of common grace have some internal significance upon man to make him more receptive to the gospel.29 5) Murray especially maintains that common grace is rooted in the atonement and endeavors to prove that the atonement is an expression of God’s love for all men. 6) Various texts from Scripture are quoted in support of these positions.

Various Problems

Before we enter into an analysis of these views, we note that it is clear that the whole presentation creates serious problems, especially for the child of God. We intend to treat in detail not only the different aspects of this view of common grace, but also the texts used in support of it. But before we do so, questions naturally arise which are scarcely, if ever, treated in connection with this doctrine

One of the great questions is: If the natural bounties of the creation are grace or favor or love towards the non-elect, how does one explain the judgments of God in the creation? Not only does God send rain and sunshine, He also sends floods and drought. Not only does God send flourishing crops, He also sends hail and insects. Not only does God send fair weather, but He also sends foul weather in tornados and hurricanes which leave paths of destruction in their wake. It is true that parts of the world experience peace, but war rages in other parts, leaving devastation, starvation, and death in countless villages and cities. The judgments which God sends seem often times to be more widespread and seem to affect more people than the bounties of nature. America is, generally, wealthy and enjoys a level of prosperity not found elsewhere in the world. But poverty and sickness, starvation and war, natural disasters of every sort, and pestilences of every kind are present throughout the world. Is God more gracious to America than to those in the slums of Argentina? Is God more gracious to the farmers of the Midwest than to the suffering people in Bosnia? Is the Nile Delta blessed while the Sahara is cursed?

The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that both prosperity and calamity are the lot of all. Not only do the elect enjoy prosperity, but also the reprobate—which is obvious and forms the ground of common grace. But the opposite is also true. Not only do the reprobate receive God’s judgments, but the calamities of judgment come upon the elect as well. If God has His people throughout the world, the elect in Bangladesh suffer as well as the wicked.

How is all this to be explained?

The problem becomes acute if one looks at it from the viewpoint of the personal experience of the people of God. If prosperity is to be equated with favor and love, then it would seem to follow that adversity and suffering must be equated with hatred and the curse. And if this proposition is true, then God both loves and hates the wicked, but also, as Macleod claims,30 God both loves and hates the righteous.

This problem becomes the more pressing when we consider what Asaph wrote as a general principle for all time. As far as the wicked are concerned, Asaph “saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men . . . . Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish . . . . Behold these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches” (Psalm 73:3-5, 7, 12). But as far as the righteous are concerned, Asaph opines that he has cleansed his heart in vain, and washed his hands in innocency, “for all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning” (Psalm 73:13, 14). So great a grief was this to the Psalmist (i.e., before he understood the matter rightly) that he could not bear to think about it, for it was too painful for him (v. 16). And, indeed, if natural gifts are to be equated with blessings, then the admonition of Psalm 37 rings hollow: "Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity" (v. 1).

This is a problem of no small import. When a godly farmer sees his wicked neighbour receive an abundant harvest while his own land lies stricken with drought, he can only conclude that the blessing of the Lord rests on the wicked while he himself is cursed. Where then is the experience of God’s love for him? It vanishes with the hailstorm that destroys his crops. And for the prosperity of the wicked he has no solution.

It may perhaps be argued that the conclusion I drew above that grace is in the mere possession of earthly and natural gifts is unwarranted. But consider the fact that all the proponents of this view insist that these natural bounties are in themselves evidences of God’s favor and love. It may further be argued that, while natural bounties are blessings, natural calamities may not necessarily be construed as curses. But consider then the conclusion that these calamities and natural disasters are blessings upon all. Can this ever be a tenable position? No one in his right mind would claim such.

The problem is aggravated again by a consideration of the final judgment of hell which comes to the wicked. No man who is in any respect Reformed denies that the wicked are to be sentenced to everlasting judgment in hell.31 The question will not disappear: How can God love a man in this life, show him kindness and mercy, give him favor and grace, bestow upon him countless good gifts, and then, when the man dies, throw him into hell?

The answer to this may very well be that God punishes a man for his rejection and misuse of the good gifts which he has received. And this is surely true. But the fact remains that this leaves us with a changeable God who loves men in this life and destroys them when they die. There is a kind of cruel irony in this: God manifests His love in countless ways to ungodly sinners, but hurls them into hell when they depart this life. And again, if God is thus changeable, and bounties are blessings while calamities are curses, how does the righteous man know that perhaps God will not also change with respect to him and cast him at last into hell? If people whom God loves can be punished in hell, perhaps the same fate awaits the Christian.

The whole matter comes down to the question of whether God is Himself changeable. Reformed theology has always insisted that God’s eternity implies His immutability. God is the changeless One: “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). It is, after all, a cruel God who loves men in this life and puts them in hell for eternity.

One could wish that the proponents of common grace would give an answer to these perplexing problems.

All this brings up the question of God’s hatred. That Scripture speaks of God’s hatred against the wicked is evident. Psalm 5:5 is decisive: “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.”

Sometimes there is some confusion on this question. The confusion lies in the failure to distinguish properly between wrath and hatred. God is indeed filled with wrath against the wicked; but He is also angry with His people. David complains: “O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure” (Psalm 38:1). Yet, in His wrath towards His people, God still loves them. This is evident from the following considerations. 1) Wrath is not incompatible with love. A father may be very angry with his son who walks in sin and may as a result of that anger chasten his son. But this anger and chastisement, if it is godly, is a manifestation of love. In fact, the opposite is also true. If an earthly father did not chasten his son for wrongdoing, but allowed his son to continue in a way of sin, this would not be a manifestation of love at all, but of hatred. His hatred would be evident in his utter unconcern for the spiritual welfare of his son. It is love which makes him angry. 2) The text itself speaks exactly of such chastisement. As is so often true in the Psalms, Psalm 38:1 is also an incident of Hebrew parallelism. The last clause of the text is an explanation of the first. God’s wrath is His hot displeasure, and God’s rebuke is His chastisement. When His people walk in sin, God does not, in love, allow them to continue in their sins, but He turns them again to Himself through the rod of His chastisement. Chastisement hurts; it hurts very much; it hurts so much that David fears it, as is evident in his anguished plea. But this does not alter the fact that chastisement is visited upon sons, for “whom the Lord loveth be chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (Hebrews 12:6).

But hatred is different from wrath. Hatred includes wrath—of course, God’s wrath is upon the wicked reprobate, but the wrath of God upon the wicked is hatred, not love. Only sons are chastened in love. “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Hebrews 12:7).

How is it possible for the proponents of common grace to deal with these questions?32

Is the Atonement For All?

The problem of the relation between common grace and the atonement of Christ has always been a perplexing one. Those especially who have stood in the Reformed tradition have hesitated to say that common grace is merited for the wicked in the cross of Jesus Christ. Their hesitancy has reflected their fear of universalizing the atoning work of the Savior.

There is good reason for this hesitancy. It strikes at the very nature of the atonement. The Reformed churches both on the continent and in the British Isles who have stood in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation have understood the Scriptures properly that the death of Christ was a substitutionary work of Christ so that He stood in the place of those for whom He died, bearing the wrath of God for them and paying the full penalty for sin. The atonement of Christ is so complete and perfect that for those for whom Christ died, sin and guilt exist no longer and righteousness and everlasting blessedness is merited for them.

Thus the work of Christ accomplished two things: Christ bore away all the wrath of God against those for whom Christ died; and Christ, by His perfect obedience, secured all the fullness of salvation.

Those who taught (and teach) that the atonement of Christ is for every man head for head are of necessity compelled to alter this essential characteristic of Christ’s atoning work. They stand confronted with the obvious fact that not all men are actually forgiven and not all men are saved. But if not all men are forgiven and if not all men are saved, then Christ did not secure for them who are not saved forgiveness of sins and everlasting blessedness. Hence, those who promote universal salvation must fall back on a different conception of the atonement.

Various theories of the atonement have been suggested over the years33 and it is not our intention to discuss this question in detail. The works written on the subject are many. But, whatever the particular theory may be, the heart of it all is that Christ accomplished only one thing on the cross: He only made salvation available for all. He did not actually secure forgiveness and salvation; He only made these gifts available. They actually become the possession of those who, hearkening to the overtures of the gospel, accept Christ as their Savior by an act of their own will.

This conception is sheer Arminianism, and Reformed people have always, with good reason, shied away from it and condemned it as useless for their salvation. It has been well said: “A Christ for all is a Christ for no one.”

This is the dilemma which the proponents of common grace necessarily face. God is a holy God who hates sin and must, to preserve His essential holiness, punish the sinner with death both temporal and eternal. If God would do anything to the sinner but punish him, His holiness would be besmirched and He would no longer be God. The only possibility for God’s favor to rest upon man is if someone would come to bear himself the punishment which is justly due the sinner. This is the work Christ accomplished.

But now, so common grace teaches, God loves all men, is kind and merciful to them, bestows upon them many good gifts in this life, and blesses them with many temporal blessings which flow from the fountain of His grace and mercy. He loves and blesses those who are not saved and bestows good gifts on those who go to hell. How can this love and favor of God come upon those for whom Christ did not die and for whom Christ did not earn blessing?

It is obvious that such favor and blessing cannot come apart from the cross. And so, sensing the force of the problem, many have concluded that the death of Christ is, after all, for all men in some sense of the word. This is the position which John Murray takes.

Many benefits accrue to the non-elect from the redemptive work of Christ.... Thus all the good showered on this world, dispensed by Christ in the exercise of his exalted lordship, is related to the death of Christ and accrues to man in one way or another from the death of Christ. If so, it was designed to accrue from the death of Christ.... This is to say that even the non-elect are embraced in the design of the atonement in respect of those blessings falling short of salvation which they enjoy in this life.... It would not be improper to say that, in respect of what is entailed for the non-elect, Christ died for them....

It is incontrovertible that even those who perish are partakers of numberless benefits that are the fruits of Christ's death....34

The idea is, therefore, that while Christ actually accomplished salvation full and complete only for the elect, the suffering and death of Christ was so stupendous in its efficacy that additional blessings were also merited for the non-elect. It is (the figure is mine) as if Christ filled to overflowing the cup of salvation, but the overflowing blessings fall upon the reprobate as well.

But there are serious objections to such a conception of the cross.

On the one hand, it seems impossible for these blessings of common grace to come to the reprobate apart from the cross. If these blessings are rooted in God’s love and mercy and are expressions of His favor, such love, mercy, and favor can come only through the cross.

On the other hand, it is impossible to see how these blessings which are in their very nature of a temporal kind can be merited by Christ when He died for sin.

The very first objection is that this view has no Scriptural basis. It is a logical deduction without biblical foundation.35 It is striking that Murray offers not one shred of evidence from Scripture for such a universalizing of the atonement. He argues for it in this way: 1) The reprobate receive many blessings; 2) These blessings flow from the love and mercy of God; 3) There can be no love and mercy for anyone apart from the cross; 4) Therefore, in some sense Christ died for every man. This is, in itself, sound argumentation; the problem is with the first premise: The reprobate receive many blessings. This is simply not true.36 And, if the first premise is not true, the need for a universal atonement is not true. We may safely conclude that Scripture gives not the slightest hint that Christ’s meritorious work on the cross accomplished the meriting of temporal blessings for all mankind.

Secondly, the question is one of merit. The Scriptures teach that the work of Christ is meritorious. He earned and merited for the elect that which they could not merit for themselves. He did this great work in obedience to the Father. The elect were given Him from all eternity as His own possession. When He died on the cross, the names of all His elect were in His heart and thought. He consciously and willingly died for each one of them. “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (John 13:1). “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep.... As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14, 15).

This is a great blessedness for God’s people. They, when by faith they flee to the cross for their salvation, know and understand that their names were on the lips of Christ when He entered into the depths of hell to die for them. He loves them more than any other person can possibly love them. When, therefore, Christ cried out: “It is finished,” the believer understands that 2000 years ago on Calvary all his sins were completely taken away so that they exist no longer. At that point all his sins are gone, completely gone, forevermore. Salvation full and free was earned for him so that he can look forward in certainty to everlasting blessedness in heaven. Christ merited this for him.

If then, the cross of Christ was also for the reprobate, did Christ have also all the names of the reprobate in His heart and mind? When He said to God: “I offer the perfect sacrifice for the sins of my people by enduring the fury of Thy wrath,” did He also say, “Father, I offer myself as the sacrifice for those who are not Thy people in order that I may earn for them temporal blessings, even though their end is hell?” This is manifestly absurd.

Thirdly, one may carry this whole idea back to God Himself and His love, mercy, and grace, for that is our starting point when we discuss this question of common grace: common grace flows from a universal love, mercy, and grace.

Did God out of His own eternal and sovereign love for the elect give them to Christ so that Christ might accomplish salvation for them? That is the heart of salvation, and, indeed, this is the blessed truth to which every child of God clings. But, in addition to that, did God give also the reprobate to Christ from all eternity, out of eternal love, in order that Christ might also die for them—even though the death of God’s own Son is for temporal blessings for the reprobate and their end at last the suffering of hell?

Put in this form, it becomes obvious that such cannot be the case. We may, rather abstractly, discuss the extent and the design of the atonement; but put in the concrete form of the believer’s relation to Christ, the whole question strikes at the heart of His faith.

Finally, although the proponents of this universalizing of Christ’s atonement are careful to limit it in such a way that only certain temporal blessings are earned for the reprobate, the fact remains that once having universalized the atonement, even in a limited way, the outcome is bound to be a complete universalizing of the atonement so that the Arminian position is once again brought into the church and a Christ for all is preached from every pulpit. Then salvation is not accomplished; it is only available, and salvation depends upon the will of man.

Various distinctions have been made to try to justify a line of argumentation which makes temporal blessings flow from the cross. Such distinctions have been applied to the love of God. Murray, e.g., distinguishes between a love of benevolence which saves and a love of complacency which is conditional.37

Similar distinctions have been made in the atonement of Christ, distinctions between such ideas as the extent of the atonement, the design or intent of the atonement, the efficacy of the atonement, etc. Very clearly, Murray speaks of the design of the atonement as being inclusive of the reprobate, although he uses also the term "extent" when he speaks of the blessings which God sends to the reprobate. He writes:

The topic is sometimes spoken of as the design of the atonement. In the discussion the term 'design' is frequently the appropriate and convenient term. But there is also an advantage in the term 'extent'; it has a denotative quality and serves to point up the crux of the question: who are embraced in that which the atonement actually accomplished? For whom were obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption designed?38

Another distinction is made between temporal blessings and eternal blessings, the former for all men, the latter for the elect only. But whether the blessings are temporal or eternal, they remain blessings for all that.

Yet another distinction has been made between the sinner and his sin. God loves the sinner, but hates his sin. God loves the sinner as creature and, therefore, this love for the sinner as creature is the same as His love for all His creatures, including rocks and elm trees. But the sin of the creature God hates.39

Yet these distinctions too are made in an effort to give some support to common grace without any Scriptural basis. It is impossible to find in Scripture any distinction in the love of God. It is impossible, as we have noted, to find any references in Scripture to the effect that the atonement has a broader referent than the elect. It is impossible to find in Scripture any distinction between sin and the sinner. In fact, to state that Scripture teaches that God loves the sinner, but hates his sin is in flat contradiction to Psalm 5:5: “Thou hatest the workers of iniquity.”

These distinctions, therefore, can only confuse. They are impossible to maintain. And the result is that the people in the pew come to believe that God loves everyone,40 that Christ died for every man head for head, and that blessings come to all. The argumentation ends in blatant universalism.

The lines of Scripture are sharp and clear. God eternally loves His people in Christ. He gives them to Christ as Christ’s possession. For them Christ sheds His blood and earns for them forgiveness of sin and life everlasting. Through Christ and His cross the blessings of God come upon those for whom Christ died. They are the blest, while “the curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked” (Proverbs 3:33).

Common Grace and Special Grace

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.41

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 these articles to discuss the free offer; and, secondly, the subject will come up again when we discuss in some future article 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.

We have not yet dealt specifically with the question of temporal blessings. Nor have we examined the texts which are quoted in support of such temporal blessings. This will have to wait till our next article.


1. A list of such subjects would include: the relation between common grace and the atonement of Jesus Christ, the free offer of the gospel, the internal operations of the Spirit in the hearts of all men, the restraint of sin, and the civic good of the ungodly.

2. Quoted from Herman Hoeksema, The Protestant Reformed Churches In America (Grand Rapids: R.F.P.A., 1947), p. 317.

3. Herman Bavinck, “Common Grace,” tr. by R. C. Van Leeuwen, Calvin Theological Journal, p. 40.

4. Ibid., p. 44.

5. Ibid., pp. 6Off.

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

7. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), p. 435.

8. Ibid., p. 436.

9. James D. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984) p. 111.

10. Ibid.

11. H. J. Kuiper, Sermons Delivered in Broadway Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: no publisher given). In the forward Kuiper says: “Our real purpose was to explain and defend the 3 points.”

12. Ibid., p. 11.

13. Ibid., p. 15. For Kuiper this is evidence of God’s universal love. He writes: “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.’ ”  

14. Donald Macleod, Behold Your God (Christian Focus Publications, 1990), pp. 117, 126.

15. Cf., e.g., K. Sietsma, The Idea of the Office (Paideia Press, 1985), pp. 27, 33.

16. John Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. II (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), p. 116. See also p. 113.

17. Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 63, 64.

18. Ibid., p. 65.

19. Ibid., p. 68.

20. Ibid., p. 69.

21. Ibid., pp. 70-72.

22. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 96.

23. Ibid., pp. 96, 97.

24. Ibid., pp. 106, 107.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., p. 110.

27. On can cf., e.g., David Silversides, Paper on Common Grace, (unpublished), pp. 35, 47; Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinist Conception of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), pp. 239, 240; John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing The Word Of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism, (Brentwood, TN, Wolgemuth &. Hyatt, 1991), pp. 130, 131; et. al.

28. There is some difference of opinion on the question of whether the elect also are the recipients of common grace, or whether common grace is only bestowed on the reprobate, with the elect recipients only of special grace.

29. Common grace convinces men of God’s willingness to save them. Cf. Kuiper, Sermons, p. 15.

30. See above.

31. Increasingly in evangelical circles eternal punishment in hell is being denied. Is this perhaps the natural outcome of a commitment to common grace?

32. It is true that increasingly in evangelical circles what is called “process theology” has come to the fore. This view of God sets aside God’s attributes, especially His attribute of immutability, and teaches that God only reacts with favor or disapproval to what man does with God’s good gifts. This is a denial of God’s eternity and unchangeable being. Has common grace brought about this view of God?

33. As, e.g., the moral theory of the atonement or the governmental theory of the atonement.

34. Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. I, pp. 63-65.

35. It is ironic that those who hold to common grace often accuse the Protestant Reformed Churches of rationalism, while they themselves often argue rationalistically.

36. We have not discussed this question as yet, but intend, the Lord willing, to do so.

37. Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. II, pp. 70-72.

38. Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. I, p. 63.

39. Cf. Kuiper, Sermons, p. 11: “God hates the wicked as wicked, but he loves them as His creatures.” Although Kuiper does not make the distinction between sin and the sinner, his idea seems to be the same.

40. Note H. J. Kuiper’s comment referred to earlier: “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.’ ” Kuiper, Sermons, pp. 15, 16.

41. Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. II, pp. 115, 116.

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