24 November, 2016

“Such a Horrible, Monstrous Conception of God!”

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

A word must be said about the conception of God that is implied in the doctrine that God is gracious and merciful to the wicked, the ungodly reprobate, in the things of the present time.

Against us, who deny the doctrine of a general goodness of God that includes the wicked as its objects, our opponents often bring the indictment that our view presupposes a terrible conception of God. It is considered a horrible doctrine that God always and only hates the wicked, that he curses them through the things of the present time, and that he causes all things to work together unto their destruction. It pictures God as a cruel, implacable, and terrible tyrant. This judgment is based on the assumption that God is a God of love, that he is far too merciful to hate the ungodly with constant and eternal hatred. Thus Rev. Johannes Vander Mey wrote in a protest to the consistory of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids in 1924:

My first and greatest objection concerns the pastor’s wrong conception of God. According to him God assumes an attitude of pure hatred and wrath over against the world of the non-elect. Even the gifts God bestows on them serve as punishment and are given to them for that purpose. (2)

After the protestant furnished proof by several quotations from our writings to show that it is actually our doctrine that peace and prosperity and all things of this present life are not blessings for the ungodly, nor are intended by God to be such for them, and that God by these things sets the ungodly on slippery places and casts them down into destruction. Vander Mey wrote, “I consider this a horrible doctrine. I abhor such a conception of God and wish to go on record as such. I will always testify against it. Such a God of hatred is not my God.” (3).


This objection is sentimental rather than argumentative. It has no value as an objection against our conception of God. That someone “abhors” our conception of God may very well testify against his own theology. It certainly is the scriptural teaching that God is terrible for the ungodly. The fact that one thinks that God is terrible cannot be used as an argument to show that this conception of God is unscriptural. The matter does not concern our sentiments about God, but only God’s revelation of himself in his word. Only this determines our theology. Hence the indictment that we present God as terrible is a matter of sentiment and cannot have any weight as an objection against our view.

The objection smacks of Arminianism, even of modernism. That objection has always been lodged against the orthodox conception of God, especially against the Reformed view, and it still is.

Just inquire of any one of the numerous Arminian preachers that fill the pulpits in our country, what his opinion is of the Calvinistic conception of predestination. Usually you will discover that he will not attempt to prove from the word of God that Calvinism is false. But he will answer, “Your God is not my God. A God who sovereignly determines the eternal destiny of men is far too cruel and terrible. God is a God of love to all, and all men have a chance to be saved.”

The modernist raises a similar objection against the orthodox view of vicarious atonement and contemptuously speaks of “blood-theology.”

The fact that our opponents raise this same objection against our view concerning God’s attitude over against the ungodly argues against them.

Nevertheless, it is expedient to inquire more closely into the truth of this objection. It is not superfluous to ask, which conception of God is really horrible and unworthy of God as we know him from the scriptures? Which conception of God, ours or that of the protagonists of common grace, conflicts with his virtues, not only of righteousness and holiness, but also of love, mercy, loving-kindness and holiness? Is the conception which teaches that God is filled with wrath and displeasure against the wicked, so that through the things of this present life he prepares them for eternal destruction, to be abhorred and judged unworthy of the God of the scriptures? Or is the conception that teaches his love for the ungodly and his favor to them by means of temporal blessings to be considered cruel and horrible and in conflict with God’s nature?

To answer these questions, I will apply the last idea to a few illustrations from history and everyday life. It will help us to see the teachings of [those who] hold to common grace in their true light and to evaluate them correctly. When they speak of God’s grace with respect to the ungodly, they usually think of the natural man as being good and noble and performing many good deeds, with common grace improving him and enabling him to do the good. When we thus think of the natural man, it sounds acceptable and proper that God looks on this noble and relatively good natural man in his love and favor and that he blesses him with temporal things, even though he is destined to eternal wrath and destruction. But we must not forget that the scriptures know nothing of a noble and good natural man, this product of common grace, nor can his picture be found in the Reformed confessions. Nor will you discover this noble natural man in the reality of life. We do not teach that God hates the noble and good, but that he has an attitude of wrath and displeasure and hot anger toward the reprobate ungodly. To bring out sharply the implications of [the common grace] view in this matter, I call attention to some biblical illustrations.

Call to mind the illustration of Pharaoh. He was filled with hatred against God’s people of Israel. He was bent on their destruction. He oppressed them sorely, so that the cries of the children of Israel arose to the Lord of Sabaoth. Pharaoh murdered the children of the covenant. His avowed purpose was to destroy the people of God.

In doing that and executing his wicked designs, he employed many gifts and talents bestowed on him by God. He possessed the personal gifts of intellect and will and employed them in his designs against the people of God and in their execution. From God he had received his existence and all the means for its sustenance. These gifts, talents, and means he had received in common with all men. In addition, he occupied a position of power and authority in Egypt. Especially through his high position he could oppress the people of God’s covenant and aim at their utter destruction. He was king. He was a mighty sovereign, clothed with power to impose his will on others. Against him Israel was powerless and defenceless. Pharaoh had received his power and might from God, for God had raised Pharaoh up and placed him on Egypt’s throne. What we must clearly discern is that God gave him all these things continuously. God did not bestow all those gifts, talents, power and authority on that wicked king only at a certain moment, and then subsequently Pharaoh possessed them in himself apart from God. Such is never the case with God’s gifts. On the contrary, from moment to moment the king was in God’s hand. If for one moment the Most High would have withdrawn his providential hand from that mighty and wicked sovereign, he would have possessed nothing; he would not even have existed anymore. In God, Pharaoh lived and moved and had his being. His gifts and power, his position as king, and his authority. Literally every moment, therefore, the king received from God everything he had.

[Advocates of common grace admit this].

What is the theory of those who teach common grace? They teach that God continuously bestowed all those gifts and powers on Pharaoh in his favor and great mercy. When that ungodly sovereign with devilish ingenuity contrived schemes to destroy the people of God, first through the mediation of the Egyptian nurses, later directly through the command that all the male children of Israel must be drowned in the river, then according to the theory of common grace, God in his loving-kindness had bestowed the gift of that ingenuity on the wicked king. When Pharaoh abused his power to cause the children of Israel to groan under the burden of heavy labor at the brick kilns, according to [the common grace] view, God clothed the king with that power in his great mercy. When the king’s mighty hand grabbed the people of God by the throat to choke them to death, God at the same moment showed his loving-kindness to that king by strengthening his wicked hand. When Egypt’s mighty sovereign repeatedly hardened his heart to oppose the Most High by refusing to let the people go, God’s goodness and loving-kindness to the king furnished the strength of mind and will to that hardening of the heart. When Pharaoh let the people depart and then changed his mind and pursued them with chariots and horses to destroy them, all those means and powerschariots, horses, the mighty host, and the equipment—were gifts of God’s grace to the king.

This is the conception of every one who holds to the theory of common grace applied to the case of wicked Pharaoh and his oppression of the people of God. According to this theory, in God’s goodness and loving-kindness he bestows on the ungodly the gifts and powers they possess.

We claim that this is a horrible conception of God that conflicts not only with the divine virtues of justice and holiness, but also with the love of God to his people.

Would a father furnish a would-be murderer of his child with the knife to accomplish the foul deed?

Against this view we hold that God gave that power and all those means to Egypt’s sovereign not in goodness and loving-kindness, but for the realization of God’s divine purpose of revealing his wrath and making known his power. God forbore the king in his wrath until he had served the divine purpose to the very end. Let the reader judge which of these views is unworthy of the Most High and presents us with a conception of God that is contrary to Holy Writ.

I present one more illustration from scripture. The ungodly were gathered around Golgotha. They hated God’s Christ, his only begotten Son, his beloved, in whom is all God’s good pleasure. They made Christ a prisoner, filled him with reproach, condemned him as an evildoer, mocked him, spit on him, buffeted him, scourged him, pressed the cruel crown of thorns on his brow, and finally nailed him to the accursed tree. And they stood under the cross jeering and scoffing and heaping contempt on the Son of God.

What a mighty display of splendid gifts and powers we behold at the cross! What glorious gifts of God were employed in the execution of that wicked plot that sent the Son of God to his shameful death! Gifts of intellect and will were employed in plotting and conspiring against Jesus of Nazareth, in inventing accusations against him, and in his trial and condemnation. Gifts of power and authority were bestowed on the high priest, the Jewish council, and the Roman governor. And powers of brute force were employed to capture the Savior, to bind, buffet, scourge, and maltreat him, and finally to nail him to the cross!

[The teaching of common grace protagonists] is that in his great mercy and goodness over that wicked world God caused his sun to rise the morning of the darkest of days on that ungodly mob that crucified his Son, that in his favor God gave them the minds to conspire against the Lord, the strength in their fists to buffet him, the scourges to lash his back, the power to strike the cruel nails through his hands and feet, and even the pieces of silver to pay the traitor!

Such is the implication of the doctrine of common grace.

There can be no question that God continuously bestowed on those murderers of his holy child Jesus all the gifts and powers they employed in destroying the Lord of glory. Without the continuous operation of God’s providence they could not have accomplished their wicked designs.

About this truth there is no difference of opinion.

But it is [the] teaching [of common grace] that God in his favor bestowed all those gifts and powers on the murderers of his Son. In Gethsemane, in the palace of the high priest, in the judgment hall of the Roman governor, at the bloody cross, there was a constant manifestation of the goodness and loving-kindness of God toward that wicked world. God’s favor strengthened the hand that crucified his Son.

This is a terrible and most horrible conception of God.

We maintain, contrary to this, that God in his providence bestowed on the ungodly world all the powers and means necessary for the execution of their wicked plot, but that he did so not in his favor or grace on the reprobate ungodly, but to the realization of his determined counsel, to the salvation of the elect, and to the destruction of the reprobate who filled the measure of iniquity.

Allow me to call attention to one more scriptural illustration.

Before the second coming of our Lord we expect the kingdom of the antichrist. According to the word of God, that kingdom will be glorious from a worldly viewpoint. That kingdom will be the consummation of all that man can do; it will be filled with prosperity and peace, riches and wealth, and power and honor. Babylon will not only be a great kingdom—mighty in science and art, in commerce and industry, and in worldly pleasures and joy—but it also will be a kingdom in the which there will be no place for the true children of God and those who confess the name of Jesus. They will be subjected to tribulation for Christ’s sake; they will not be able to buy or sell; they will be killed with the sword of power and authority. That kingdom will employ its power and greatness against God and the cause of his Son in the world.

[The common grace theologian] teaches that all those means and all the power of the antichrist are gifts of common grace. He sees in them proof that God is merciful to the ungodly world. The ungodly world that persecutes his church and sheds the blood of his saints God blesses with temporal gifts in his great mercy.

Again we say, this is truly a horrible conception of God.

Contrary to this, we hold the truth that God is greatly displeased with that antichristian world and that even in the bestowal of all the riches and glory it possesses, God executes his wrath and prepares the world for certain and eternal destruction. When the antichristian kingdom will have been realized, we will not speak to the people of God of this great goodness towards the wicked enemies and persecutors of his people, but rather comfort them with the truth that their redemption is nigh and that God is filled with wrath over their enemies.

I will also apply the theory of common grace to a few illustrations from history.

History tells us of that monster of wickedness, Nero, who once occupied the throne of the Roman Empire. That miserable wretch, victim of his own foul and carnal lusts, was suspected of being the incendiary who, to the gratification of his insane lust for pleasure, started the fire that well-nigh laid the proud capital of the empire in ruins. To divert suspicion from himself and to cause the people to believe that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were guilty of the crime, he subjected them to the most cruel tortures and deaths. Some were crucified; others were sewn in hides of wild beasts and cast to the dogs. It is notorious how that cruel wretch amused himself and the people with the races in the imperial gardens that were illuminated by torches of living Christians put on stakes, covered with a flammable material, and set ablaze.

How many gifts of common grace were required to create that awful spectacle in Nero’s gardens! What human power and ability were displayed in those races! What a beauty of nature was represented in those splendid gardens, on which God made his sun to rise and caused his rain to descend! What wicked and cruel ingenuity, which as mere ingenuity was a gift of God, became manifest in the keen suffering of those burning Christians, illuminating the scene the imperial sports! What power and authority in the sovereign word of Nero that could call into being such a gruesome spectacle! What a gladness of heart was expressed in the shouts and applause of the mob that was gathered to make merry at the groans of God’s children!

According to [the theory of common grace] all those powers and gifts must be viewed as manifestations of the loving and gracious disposition in God toward those ungodly murderers of his people.

It cannot be denied that the terrible spectacles in the gardens of the wicked and cruel emperor could not have been created and continued for a moment if God by his providence had not continuously bestowed his gifts of body and soul, of mind and will, and of power and superiority on the perpetrators of the crimes.

[The] contention [of those who promote common grace] is that God always blesses all the ungodly in this world with the gifts of the present time.

Again we brand this as a horrible theology, a conception of God that conflicts with everything the word of God reveals concerning the Most High and is contrary to all his glorious virtues. Instead we hold that God in his burning wrath, with great forbearance accompanied by long-suffering over his people, bestowed all those powers on Nero and his ungodly crowd to cast them down into eternal destruction.

We all know of the cruelties perpetrated by the Spanish Inquisition in the age of the Reformation, and of the inhuman forms of torture it invented to bring the sons of the Reformation to a denial of their faith. The faithful confessors of the truth were torn apart limb by limb, their flesh was torn from their bodies by red hot tongs, their tongues were plucked out of their mouths, and slowly they were tortured to death. In all those devilish forms of torture the persecutors employed gifts and talents and means bestowed upon them continuously by the Most High—gifts of God’s loving-kindness to them, according to [the teaching of common grace].

Gifts of God indeed, we admit, but gifts the Lord of heaven and earth bestowed on them not because he favoured them and had an attitude of grace toward them, but because of his good pleasure to use those agents of the devil to try and to glorify his work of grace in his people and to prepare the ungodly instruments for eternal woe.

Let the reader judge which of these two conceptions of God is to be abhorred.

You remark perhaps that I call attention to the most glaring illustrations of iniquity and godlessness. This I admit. I add that I do this intentionally to bring out very sharply the implications of the theory of common grace and its sweet and lovely conception of God.

In the selections of these glaring examples I am perfectly justified, for according to [protagonists of common grace], this goodness and grace of God to the reprobate ungodly is general. It knows of no exceptions. When we read in Psalm 145:9 that the Lord is good to all, the word “all” according to [common grace theorists] includes every man. Always and to all the ungodly reprobate the Lord gives all the things of this life in his great goodness over them. These “all” certainly include Pharaoh, Annas, Caiaphas, Judas, Pilate, the antichrist, Nero, the tormentors of the Spanish Inquisition, and all who ever received gifts of God. When I called attention to a few of many illustrations, I certainly [do] no injustice to all who hold to the theory of common grace. They will admit everything I wrote in the above paragraphs regarding their view of God’s goodness and loving-kindness to the ungodly world.

Although I admit that these illustrations are strong and outstanding, they cannot be considered exceptions that prove the rule. You can peruse all of scripture and you will find many more examples of wickedness as great as those to which I called attention. There you meet with Cain, the fratricide; with Lamech, the proud and vengeful tyrant; with all the ungodly of the prediluvian world concerning whom Enoch prophesied; with carnal and wicked Israel who killed the prophets; with Jeroboam who caused Israel to sin; with Ahab and Jezebel; with Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus Epiphanes and Herod the great and with many others. From God they all had their lives and beings, their wealth and glory, their names and positions, and all the means whereby they executed all their wicked devices. According to the theory of common grace, in receiving those temporal gifts they were the objects of God’s favor and loving-kindness.

Nor do you receive a different impression of the natural man when you turn to the facts of everyday life and experience. You find there not only the coarse and common brawler and profane man, who employs God’s gift of speech to curse and abuse the name of the Most High, but also the erudite man of science, who exerts all the power of his intellect to deny and put to naught the word of God and to maintain his own vain philosophy. You meet there with the ungodly, rich employer who sucks the blood out of his poor employees to increase his own wealth, as well as with the ungodly poor who employs brute force in the bitterness of his soul to gain what he considers his share of the world’s goods. You have there the sensual debauch who wastes his strength and means to satisfy the lusts of the flesh, as well as the wretched miser who for the love of money denies himself and others the barest necessities of life. You meet with the common highway robber who is ready to take your life for a dollar, as well as with the nations of the world who employ their power and ingenuity to invent instruments of murder on a large scale, intended for the destruction of one another. Why mention more? You can multiply these examples by consulting your daily newspapers.

These all continuously receive all their gifts from God. According to the theory of common grace, when they employ these gifts in the service of sin and iniquity, they are the objects of God’s loving-kindness and tender mercy, and the things of this present life are bestowed upon them in God’s favor.

When I say that I utterly abhor and reject such a conception of God as it is implied in this theory, I do this not on the ground of humanistic considerations and motives, but on the basis of the word of God.

According to Psalm 73, when Asaph imagined that God favoured and blessed the ungodly in bestowing on them peace and prosperity, he had no peace. He did not want it that way. He could not find the theodicy. It was in conflict with everything he knew of God. His soul found rest when he viewed those same dealings of God with the ungodly in a different light—the light that was shed on them from the sanctuary of God, and when in that light he understood that the things of this life that the wicked enjoy are not tokens of God’s grace and love to them, but means whereby he sets them on slippery places and casts them into destruction. [The common grace] conception of God he abhorred. And do not forget that the author of Psalm 73 was inspired by the Spirit of Christ.

In Psalm 69:22-28 we read:

22. Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap.

23. Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.

24. Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them.

25. Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.

26. For they persecute him whom thou hast smitten; and they talk to the grief of those whom thou hast wounded.

27. Add iniquity unto their iniquity: and let them not come into thy righteousness.

28. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.

David directed this prayer against the enemies of God and his anointed, against the reprobate ungodly. Let us guard against the error of the modernists that this psalm belongs to the old dispensation and that it therefore strikes a note that is foreign to the higher standpoint of the New Testament. Ultimately, not David but the Spirit of Christ prayed in Psalm 69. It is plain from Romans 11:7-10 that God heard this prayer. According to scripture it is no less than Christ on the cross who uttered this prayer. Not only is Psalm 69 strongly Messianic, but according to the context of the words quoted, this prayer proceeds directly from the lips of Christ. Plainly, the suffering Messiah is the subject of verse 21: “They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” The same Messiah continued to speak in the prayer quoted above.

Such is the testimony of scripture.

Terrible, you say? I reply, to be sure but in the good sense. God is, indeed, terrible for the ungodly. This is as it should be, for he is righteous and holy, a consuming fire for those who hate him in time and in eternity.

“There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.” Not even the peace of God’s general loving-kindness in the things of the present time, as [the teaching of common grace] would have it. The wrath of God abides on them!

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