15 September, 2016

Another Look at Common Grace—Chapter Eight: "General Revelation and Common Grace"

Prof. Herman C. Hanko


An important aspect of the doctrine of common grace is the doctrine of the restraint of sin. That is, those who hold to common grace also maintain that the grace of God which is common to all men serves as an inward restraint of sin in the hearts of the unregenerate so that they are not as bad as they could be, and that, indeed, they are capable of doing good.

This grace which restrains sin is, according to the proponents of common grace, connected to what is called general revelation, i.e., a revelation of God in the creation by which God reveals Himself to all men graciously.

We took a long and hard look at the whole concept of general revelation in our last article, and we examined many of the texts which are used to support this concept, notably the passage in Romans 1:18ff. It was our conclusion that Scripture speaks only of a revelation which is indeed connected with grace, but is connected with saving grace and is, therefore, particular.

This position does not deny that God makes Himself known also to the unregenerate through creation, but this work of God cannot in any sense be construed as grace. It has as its purpose, “That man may be without excuse.”

In connection with our discussion of these truths, we also took a look at two important articles in the Reformed confessions: Canons of Dordt, III/IV, Art. 4 and Confession of Faith, Art. 14. While both of these articles have also been cited as proof for the doctrine of common grace, we showed that such an assertion is impossible in the light of the very clear language which both articles employ.

One question remains to be discussed. That question we referred to at the very end of our last article. It is the question of the meaning of Article 2 of the Confession of Faith. That article seems indeed to teach a certain general revelation and has often been appealed to as teaching precisely this doctrine. The article reads:

We know [God] by two means: first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith, Rom. 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

It is to this article and its implications we now turn.

The Meaning of the Article

While it is true from a certain point of view that Article 2 of the Confession of Faith speaks of “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” as “a most elegant book,” it must be remembered that the article appears in a confession of faith. The article is not simply talking in the abstract about certain doctrinal truths of one form or another. It is a statement about what the believer confesses to be the truth of the Scriptures, a truth necessary to believe for salvation; indeed a truth which the believer will continue to confess even if his confession brings upon him torture and death. It is a living confession which arises out of the very heart of the child of God.

If we keep this in mind, then we will understand as well the opening words of the article: “We know him by two means....” The believer, in company with his fellow saints, is telling the world how he knows God. He is not, in the first place, saying anything about how the wicked know God. He is talking about the means by which he has come to know God his Redeemer. This is, you will remember, a confession of faith. It is a confession of faith in God through Jesus Christ as the God of our salvation. The confession of the believer here is not: “I will tell you a moment how I happened to make the acquaintance of God.” Nothing of that sort at all. The whole question is: I will now, as an article of my faith in God through Jesus Christ, tell you how I have come to know God who is my Redeemer through Jesus Christ our Lord. And, as contradictory as that may seem, the believer is also saying: I believe that I know God from two books, because the Scriptures tell me that I know Him from two books. It is not as if I have discovered the book of creation on my own and read it with enjoyment and profit, and through reading it have come to know some things about God. Scripture tells the believer that he, as believer, can know God through the elegant book of creation.

The believer is saying, therefore, that he has come to know God as Redeemer in Jesus Christ through the means of two books. One book is “the creation, preservation and government of the universe”; the other book is “God’s holy and divine Word.”

The believer knows God by means of these two books. Up to this point nothing has been said as yet about the wicked and unbelieving. The article will have a bit to say about that too; and we will come to that in a moment. But the approach of the article is not to tell us how creation is revelation to the unbeliever; the approach of the article is to tell us how the believer comes to know his God as the God of his salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Contents of Book I

The article describes the book of creation in various interesting ways. But in every case it must be understood that the various descriptions of the book apply only to the fact that the people of God are the only ones who can make any real use of it. The book is, so to speak, for them.

It may be compared to a book which is written in the Dutch language and contains the charter, constitution, and guarantee of freedom for the Dutch people. As far as the people in the Netherlands who are able to read the book are concerned, the book is the most important book which they have as a nation. They cherish the book as they cherish their own liberty. They protect the book against everyone who would seek to alter it. They make sure that their government adheres strictly to what the book contains. In the keeping of the book is bound up the existence of the Dutch as a nation.

But if a man from China would pick up the book, he would discard it almost as soon as he took one look between its covers. He might be able to detect that the book belongs to the people of the Netherlands, but he is a citizen of China. And, in any case, he can’t read a word of it and so cannot understand one bit of what it is all about. And even if he could read a word here and there, he would say to himself: The book is of no concern to me because it has nothing to do with me at all.

So it is with the book of creation. It is a book belonging to the believer. The article very sharply claims this book of creation for the believer. So to speak, the article writes the name of the believer on the inside cover so that everyone may know that this book belongs to him.

In the second place, the contents of the book are described: “The creation, preservation and government of the universe.”

Although we cannot speak of this in detail, two things especially are worth some attention.

In the first place, the book deals with two truths: the doctrine of creation, and the doctrine of providence—the latter because both preservation and government have to do with what is called providence. Especially the government of the universe includes “history,” for God not only creates man, but also upholds him and governs him. All that happens in the world, both in the brute creation and in the history of mankind, is a part of that book.

In the second place, the article emphasizes the fact that the book tells of God. I must return to that in a moment, but here already this is underscored. The book says that God created the universe. To teach a form of evolutionism (whatever that form may take; even if it is a form of so-called ‘theistic’ evolutionism) is to deny the book.

The book also says that God continues to give to every creature in the universe as well as the universe itself its existence and being. This is what the book says. The book speaks of the preservation of the universe. Preservation is a work of God. The book says that the creation is not independent, not existing by its own power, not continuing by virtue of inflexible laws of nature according to which things take place. The book says that Someone gives it its existence, and that Someone is God.

The book also says that God is sovereign in all the universe. The universe is governed by someone else. It is governed in every respect and in every detail. Not only are planets and galaxies governed, but also trees and flowers. And not only are trees and flowers governed, but also salamanders and bears. And not only are salamanders and bears governed, but also men and women. They are all governed absolutely because they are all given their very life and existence by the One who governs them. And so anyone who gives a certain independency to man to decide his own way in life, or anyone who curses the notion that all that happens in the world comes from God, is a fool who cannot read the book.

Thirdly, the article emphatically states that indeed only God’s people are able to read the book. It is not only the believer confessing the truth that he knows God through two books; but that believer says that even Book I is for him. It is a book which is “before our eyes as a most elegant book.” It is a book which leads “us to contemplate the invisible things of God.”

In the fourth place, it is an elegant book. It appears as if the article really means, by this use of the word “elegant,” to point us particularly to the book’s purpose, namely, to lead us to contemplate God. But the book is elegant in its own right. It is true that the curse is on the creation. And that curse is of such a kind that the creation is far less beautiful than the creation was during the time of Paradise I. It is also true that the creation today is as nothing in comparison with what it will be in Paradise II. And it is certainly true that there are many ugly things in the book: lions killing and eating baby gazelles; people beating baby seals over the head to slaughter them for their fur; floods and earthquakes leaving devastation in their wake; barren deserts and impenetrable jungles where poisonous snakes lurk; weed-infested fields where no crops will grow. But in spite of all these ugly blotches on the book, which are there because of God’s curse, the book is still elegant. In fact, it is so elegant that one who takes the time to read the book cannot help but wonder at times: “If this creation is so beautiful that it is breath-taking, how can the new earth be even yet more beautiful?” Can anything surpass the glory of today’s sunset? Can the tremulous quiet of an early morning broken only by the far-off call of the whippoorwill be surpassed anywhere? Can the trees find more beautiful garments than the coat of many colours which they wear in an autumn in Maine? Can anything fix one’s attention by its elegance more powerfully than that multitude of places where sea and land meet? It is an elegant book!

Finally, that book serves a purpose. That purpose is to lead us “to contemplate the invisible things of God.” Notice once again that the article speaks emphatically of the book leading us to contemplate God. But let that be. The book leads us to contemplate God. Augustine has a moving and eloquent passage in his Confessions which speaks of this. I refer to what he writes in X, vi, 8 & 9.2 Augustine begins paragraph 8 with the words: “Not with doubting, but with assured consciousness, do I love Thee, Lord. Thou hast stricken my heart with Thy word, and I loved Thee. Yea also heaven, and earth, and all that therein is, behold, on every side they bid me love Thee....” But then, after some of the most beautiful words in his entire work, Augustine goes on to say:

And what is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, “I am not He;” and whatsoever are in it, confessed the same. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, “We are not thy God, seek above us.” I asked the moving air; and the whole air with his inhabitants answered, “Anaximenes3 was deceived, I am not God.” I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, “Nor (say they) are we the God whom thou seekest.” And I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh; “Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me something of Him.” And they cried out with a loud voice, “He made us.”

It is indeed as Augustine says it is. To read the book of creation is to be led to God! And there in His book is to be found those great truths concerning Him who has formed all things and governs all things by His power.

Can the Wicked Read This Book?

Someone may argue that the article which we have been discussing refers as well to the wicked. It does not speak of the fact that only the believer reads this book, but specifically states that the book is able to be read by the wicked as well. The statement in the article is a reference to Romans 1:20: “All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse.”

The argument is that if this elegant book is sufficient to leave all men without excuse, then it certainly is capable of being read by all men. It is inescapably true that all men must appear in the judgment to give account of what they did in the flesh. And when the wicked who have not the Scriptures must give an account of the reason why they did not serve God, they will never be able to say, “We did not know Him. We did not know there was a God. We did not know He had to be served. We did not know how to serve Him.” That will not serve as an excuse because these things are present in the book, even, perhaps in large print. And they are able to read that book.

Now we do not, nor ever have, denied this. Paul is too clear in Romans 1 even to think about denying it. But that is, after all, not the point. The question is: Is that book revelation to the wicked? And as revelation, is that book grace for the wicked? Neither the article nor the whole of Scripture so much as breathes a word about that. By no stretch of the imagination can that ever be said of Book I.

It is as if the article makes the statement concerning the unbelieving incidentally. It is really an after-thought. Not that the Confession is not sure about this truth. It certainly is. It is an important truth in its own right. But the fact is that Article 2 is really saying: “Creation is a most elegant book in which God’s people are able to see God’s handiwork and by which book they are led to contemplate the great truths of God Himself. And, oh, by the way, that same book is open to the unbeliever to read—even though he is barely able to make out the words. And God insists that he read it too, for by reading it he becomes without excuse before God.”

This is the elegant book of creation.

The Book of Scripture

But the same article speaks of another book, the book of Scripture. Concerning that book it states:

Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

It might be objected that the article says very little about Book II, the Holy Scriptures, especially in comparison with the rather detailed description of Book I. But it must be remembered that Book II is really the book in which the Confession is interested. It does not have much to say in this article about Book II because it devotes no less than five additional articles to a discussion of the Scriptures.

It is not within the scope of our purpose to discuss this book of the Scriptures in this article. The only question which concerns us is the relation between these two books. Are they two separate books lying side by side, both speaking of God, but dealing with different aspects of God’s truth? Are they both necessary to read to get a clear picture of who God is? Are they essentially and fundamentally unrelated to each other—except that both deal ultimately with the same subject?

The answer to this question must be emphatically, No! It is true that Article 2 of the Confession of Faith does not enter into the relation between these two books, but that is probably because the Confession is really interested in Book II and refers to Book I only incidentally.

Nevertheless, it is important that we understand the relation between the two books for all that.

The Relation between the Two Books

In order to understand the relation between the two books, it must first of all be understood that no man of himself is able to read the book of creation easily. When God created the universe, the entire creation was a sparkling, clear, beautiful book, unmarred, pristine, and gloriously illustrated. That book was given to man who was endowed with powers beyond anything we can understand. He had, of course, such spiritual powers as stem from the fact that he was God’s image bearer. But he possessed also physical and psychological powers which enabled him to read and understand the book of creation with ease. And always through it all He was led to God.

But sin spoiled that completely. And it spoiled that for two reasons.

For one thing, the book itself was marred. The curse came into the creation because of sin, and with the curse came death. The book was extremely difficult to read because it shouted loudly of God’s anger against sin and His hatred of all that is evil. It was as if the book was doused in water for eight days and became warped and faded. Various pages were torn out. The print was so faded as to become almost invisible. The pages were tattered and torn. The binding was broken and it was impossible to keep all the pages together.

All of that would have been bad enough, but the situation is worse. Man became spiritually blind. He is so blind that he is unable to see spiritual things.4 This spiritual blindness involves the terrible consequences of sin. Man lost most of his physical and psychical powers of which we retains only a few remnants.5 But worse, man became totally depraved. That is, he completely lost the image of God which he bore. The result was that man becomes an enemy of God who hates God, goes about to destroy Him and steal this creation from Him, and does all in his power to drive God out of His own universe. This spiritual blindness makes it almost impossible for man to read the book.

From a certain point of view it is not surprising that wicked man reads the book and discovers that the book teaches evolutionism. The book is tattered and water-blotted. And he squints and peers at this book, barely able to make out the letters. And sections are even missing. The result is that he finds it easy to make the book say something which the book does not say at all, and has never said.

But it must be remembered that this blindness is willful disobedience. He does not want to see God in the book, and, in fact, will do everything to prove that God is not there. That spiritual blindness makes him think that he sees a world of 10 or 12 billion years old which came about through evolutionary processes. The book never said that, but he wants the book to say what he can use to deny God, and so he sees things in the book which are the figment of his own imagination. The interesting and silly part of it all is that he is so adamant about it that he tells people who can read the book that they are fools, and he even tries to kill these people because he is so determined to read what he wants in the book.

But that is the situation.

Nevertheless, in spite of himself, he can make out just enough from the book to realize that all his mis-readings are really wrong. It makes no difference now whether he is an “atheistic” biologist in the University of Southern California or whether he is a professing Christian in a Bible School. He can make out enough to see that the book says two things: God alone is God; and, God alone must be served. Those two things he can see. But that is exactly what he hates. And so, although he can make that much out (chiefly because God shoves his nose so deeply into the book that he can’t help but see it—“God hath showed it unto him...,” Rom. 1:19), he “holds the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18), and claims that the world had its origin in a “big bang” and that man came from a monkey. It is all rather silly to claim to find such preposterous things in the book, but it is the silliness of unbelief for which a man goes to hell.

It must be understood that this is all that a man can see apart from salvation through grace in Jesus Christ. There is no common grace which gives him better eyesight. There is no “revelation” by which he truly experiences God’s favor and love and begins to long for God and seek after greater truth. The picture I have drawn is all that can be said. That is the way it is, according to Scripture and the confessions.

You must see this man clearly, for it is a self-portrait. He sits bowed over this book, and he not only thinks that he is able to read it with ease, but he finds these preposterous and utterly silly notions and passes them off as what he finds in the book. He lifts his head from the book, looks as wise as an owl, assumes a know-it-all air, pontificates about his great skills in reading the book, and pronounces that the book says that the creation started with a big bang. If it were not so horribly evil, you would pat the man on the back, and suggest indulgently that he get a pair of glasses before he claims certainty of what the book says. But you have to be careful because he is fierce, and he will turn on you in fury if you suggest he is mis-reading the book—a fury which clearly demonstrates that deep down he knows full well that he is deliberately perverting what the book says.

It is here that Scripture enters in.

As we all know, Calvin has an astonishingly apt figure to describe what the relation between Book I and Book II really is.

There is a passage in Calvin’s Institutes which deals with this subject. It is the well-known passage in I, vi, 1 in which Calvin talks about the need of the Scriptures to understand God's speech in creation. He too uses the figure of a book and speaks of the Scriptures as “eyeglasses” which enable us to read the elegant book of creation. The pertinent passage reads:

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in their minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. God therefore bestows a gift of singular value, when, for the instruction of the Church, he employs not dumb teachers merely, but opens his own sacred mouth; when he not only proclaims that some God must be worshipped, but at the same time declares that He is the God to whom worship is due; when he not only teaches his elect to have respect to God, but manifests himself as the God to whom this respect should be paid.

We ought to notice a few things about this passage.

In the first place, Calvin alters the figure somewhat. He does not only speak of Scripture as a book, but he changes the figure to refer to Scripture as a pair of eyeglasses.

In the second place, the book of creation is really impossible to read without these eyeglasses. They are indispensable for reading the book. This fact is important because it is denied by those who try to make a case for theistic evolution. They speak of two books which God wrote: the book of creation and the book of Scripture. They then set these two books side by side and talk as if both are equally clear, both are equally easy to read, both are necessary to learn the whole truth. And so both have to be harmonized.

Yet, I am not stating the case exactly correctly. They really teach that the book of creation is easier to read than the book of Scripture. Or, to use Calvin’s figure: the book of Scripture can scarcely be read, but the book of creation is the pair of eyeglasses which enable us to read Scripture.

They do this because they teach that while Scripture seems to teach creation, the universe itself teaches evolutionism. And so, accepting evolutionism, we must reinterpret Scripture in the light of creation.

But let us not forget that they are turning the whole truth upside down because they do not want to admit that they are blind and in need of eyeglasses. They, and this is their sin, insist that their vision is clear and unclouded without the aid of Scripture. They can see the book of which Calvin says that they can scarcely make out two consecutive words. Their sin is that they will not confess their sin. Their great blindness is that they will not admit they are blind. And this sin is committed to protect their own sense of worth and value apart from grace, their own tremendous powers of mind to uncover all the secrets locked away in creation, and to set themselves over against God with their human wisdom.

The atheist does it without apology. The theistic evolutionist does it under the guise of Christianity.

In the second place, Calvin is saying here that the gift of the spectacles of scripture is given only to God’s people. He makes a point of that: “God therefore bestows a gift of singular value, when, for the instruction of the Church....” “...When he not only teaches his elect to have respect to God....”

What Calvin means, as he goes on later to explain, is this: To be able to put on the spectacles is possible only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, if I may put it a bit differently, the Holy Spirit gives us the spectacles, and the Holy Spirit enables us, to put them on. This is true because only one in whom the Holy Spirit works by His grace can want the Scriptures; can believe that they are the eyeglasses he needs; can truly desire to know God who is his Savior and Redeemer.

Thus the only way in which to read the book of creation (and providence) is in the light of Scripture. Everything which we discover in creation must be interpreted by Scripture. If something in creation seems to contradict Scripture, then we do not rush to Scripture to see if we can twist and distort Scripture to make it agree with the findings of science; but we recognize the fact that the book of creation is almost impossible to read. We recognize that we are reading a book that is tattered and torn, blotted and faded, and thus we are obviously reading it wrong. We admit that we are nearly blind. It is quite necessary to put on our glasses and look at creation again through these marvellous glasses.

But let it be remembered that these marvellous glasses will make it clear to us that the book of creation also speaks of Christ and redemption through Him. The glasses enable us to see that creation was in six days of 24 hours because it was the “stage” formed by God on which to enact the drama of sin and redemption through Christ. With the glasses we will be able to see that the lion is a picture of “the Lion of Judah’s tribe”; that the sun tells us of Him who is the “Sun of righteousness who arises with healing in His wings”; that the morning star announcing so gloriously the dawn points to the “light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in our hearts.” Indeed, with these glasses we can see not only our own resurrection in the seed of corn put in the earth, but a creation which “groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now,” for the creation also “shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

Then the book of creation really does become an “elegant book” which leads us to contemplate the invisible things of God. For His works in creation are the same as His works in salvation. All shall be saved in Jesus Christ, so that Christ may be Lord of all.

And that saved creation is planned by God, from the very beginning of His work in forming the worlds, to be, in its glorified state, the inheritance of the elect.

The believer claims also Book I as his own.


1. Cf. our article in Vol. XXIX, Number 2, published in April, 1996.

2. I quote from a translation by Dr. E. B. Pusey, from “Everyman’s Library”; E. P. Dutton and Co, Inc. the publisher. It is a 1950 edition.

3. An ancient Greek philosopher who held that air was ultimate reality.

4. I Cor. 2:14: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

5. Cf. our last article on this subject for a discussion of what is meant by these “remnants,” as they are referred to in our Confession.

No comments:

Post a Comment