07 May, 2018

Romans 1:21—“… neither were thankful …”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. (Rom. 1:18-23).


Q. 1. “How can [these individuals] be guilty for being ‘unthankful’ unless the good things of providence are in fact genuine favours, and expressions of mercy and lovingkindness to them? Surely their being condemned for being ‘unthankful’ necessitates that these things must have been ‘blessings,’ not curses; real tokens of ‘kindness’ shown to them by God, and only if they are *kindnesses* could they consequently ‘increase their guilt.’ Why are they condemned for ‘thanklessness’ if they withdraw from evidence of what is merely ‘wrath’? Man should be thankful for ‘mercy/kindness.’” (Source: David Silversides, Ken Stebbins, and Donald Macleod)

The wicked are required, as creatures, to be thankful to God for what He gives them whether it comes in grace or not. As an additional note, Romans 1 is about wrath, not grace.
Listen to the following series entitled, “The Operation of God’s Wrath in the World”: http://sermons.limerickreformed.com/serie/10032-the-operation-of-god-s-wrath-in-the-world  (Rev. Martyn McGeown, 06/05/2018)

The unbeliever is to be thankful to God for the fact that He gives them good things.
The eternal decree of God behind it is not the point. Unbelieving man took the good things God gave him, never expressed the slightest trace of true gratitude, and used what God gave him only for the purposes of sin! An analogy from merely human arrangements: We are to be grateful to those who help us regardless of their motives. (Rev. Angus Stewart, 06/05/2018)

Consider: if God knows they will be unthankful and gives them over, it can have no other effect than to harden them in unthankfulness. See the spiral that begins with failure to glorify God and ends up in total debasement of their creaturehood? If that is not hardening them, what would be? (Dr. Richard Bacon, 07/05/2018)


Q. 2. “But ‘thankfulness,’ by nature, cannot be appropriately given unless good intentions are there, or that the giver has a favorable disposition towards the receiver! Surely it would be ‘inappropriate’ for the reprobate to be thankful to God if God has absolutely no love towards them?”

The wicked are unthankful for the good gifts that God gives them. The gifts are good in themselves, regardless of the attitude of God towards the wicked. For the heathen in view in Romans 1, these gifts include food and drink, the knowledge of God from the creation (which is unsaving in nature; only the gospel saves), and the marital relation of man and woman. For those in the sphere of the revelation of Jesus, the ingratitude includes the knowledge of God in the good news of the gospel. For this the unbeliever is unthankful, regardless of the intention of God towards him with this gospel. What this intention is, Romans 9 clearly teaches. Toward the reprobate ungodly, God’s purpose is not his salvation, but that he be hardened unto damnation by the gospel.
In short, one can be guilty of ingratitude for gifts that are good in themselves, even though God’s purpose towards him with the gifts is not his blessing but the cursing of him. (Prof. David J. Engelsma, 12/05/2018)

Reprobate men are to be thankful because God gives them good things (Rom. 1:18-31). There are no Scriptures that teach that God loves the reprobate (yet loads of Scriptures that say that God hates and abhors them for their sins http://www.cprf.co.uk/quotes/textshatredreprobate.pdf). There are Scriptures which say that everybody, including the reprobate, is to be thankful for the good they receive, but no Scriptures that say that the reprobate are to be thankful for love as the motive of God’s giving good gifts to the reprobate. (Rev. Angus Stewart, 11/05/2018)

God is to be worshipped and thanked for WHO He is, not for what He gives. (Rev. Martyn McGeown, 09/05/2018)

This same argument can easily be made by an Arminian/Hyper-Calvinist: e.g., “It would be ‘inappropriate’ for the reprobate to repent from their sins and believe in Jesus Christ … if ultimately God has never intended that they do so, or if Jesus Christ did not actually die for these individuals, or if man, by nature, doesn’t even possess the ability to repent and believe …” etc.


Q. 3. “If God, according to the anti-common grace camp, isn’t actually intending or purposing the good of the reprobate, or desirous to bless them by the things of creation, and that these things aren’t really genuine tokens of love and mercy to them … WHY, therefore, should the reprobate be thankful to Him for these things? If God’s giving of these things to the reprobate is to ‘further their destruction,’ and not to bless them, … would it not be unfitting for the reprobate to be ‘thankful’ to God for these things? Wouldn’t that be like a man who was condemned to die, expressing ‘gratitude’ towards his executioner for providing him with a guillotine? etc.
Another example: Suppose I’m a young boy and someone gives me a bicycle as a present. I am very thankful. Then I find out later that that guy had nothing but hatred for me, and only gave me the bicycle because he judged me an unsteady rider and was hoping that I would break my neck. Should I say, ‘Well, nevertheless, thank you for the bicycle (which is good in itself)’? I don’t think it appropriate for me have any thankfulness toward him, quite frankly. How much more, the reprobate toward God?”

Sinners receive good gifts from God. Although they are ignorant of God’s purpose with these gifts, which in many cases is the rendering inexcusable these sinners, they do know that they ought to acknowledge God as the giver and give thanks to Him, using the gifts to His praise. They do the opposite. They use the gifts in the service of sin. For this they are rightfully punished. In the judgment, God is not on trial, as to what His purpose was, but sinful men are on trial. Their judgment is just. They will not dispute the judgment.
The difference between God and the one who gives a boy a bicycle is the difference between God and humans. God has the right to demand of humans what they cannot perform and to punish them for their disobedience (for which all humanity is to blame inasmuch as we all sinned in Adam (Romans 5). (Prof. David J. Engelsma, 12/05/2018)


Q. 4. “What is the ground of our thankfulness to God for His daily provisions, if not that these provisions come to all men as tokens of love and kindness to all men?”

If I understand the question correctly, the answer is that everything God gives is good.
God does not give bad things. But the wicked use God’s good gifts to sin all the more. In fact, every good gift from God is put to evil use by wicked man. For that sin God sends His wrath. The more good gifts they receive, the greater is God’s wrath.
You would do the same. If you gave a man a hundred dollar bill to pay his debts, and he used it to buy liquor, you would be angry. If you gave him your car and he used it to race others and smashed it up, you would be very angry.
If you factor in God’s eternal sovereignty and point out that this sin is God’s eternal purpose, you have shifted the argument to the relation between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. That is quite another matter. (Prof. Herman C. Hanko, 16/05/2018)


Q. 5. “How can God hold the wicked responsible for being unthankful if they are, by nature, unable to be thankful? Surely man must still have some ability to obey God’s commandments in order to be judged blameworthy?”

The argument that blame or guilt necessarily implies “ability” on the part of man is sheer Pelagianism. It is the hoary heresy that the duty implies the ability. Luther destroyed this argument in his Bondage of the Will. It is the argument considered and rejected in Q. 9 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in His law that which he cannot perform? Not at all; for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own wilful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.”
Inability, which is the sinner’s fault, does not rule out responsibility.
Even in human affairs, I may, with right, demand of my fellow what he is unable to do, if his inability to perform something is due to his fault. For example, if I loan money to a fellow human, and he squanders it foolishly, I may, with right, demand repayment to the point of having him imprisoned for theft. It is his fault that he is unable to repay.
I note that the argument in question is not biblical, but mere (poor) human reasoning. The Bible teaches that God punishes the race for its sinfulness even though after Adam all are incapable of obeying God’s law. (Prof. David J. Engelsma, 12/05/2018)


Q. 6. “Fallen man possesses the ‘natural’ ability to obey God’s commandments, but not the ‘moral’ ability.”

With regards to the distinction between two kinds of abilities, this was the invention of Jonathan Edwards. The effect of the distinction was the apostasy of New England Calvinism into sheer Arminianism and then modernism, as his disciples ran with the “natural ability.” Scripture knows of no such thing as natural ability to repent.  On the contrary, Scripture denies natural ability to repent. The nature of the unregenerate is rebellion against God that takes form in the refusal to repent. One does justice to biblical teaching when he simply denies the ability of the wicked to repent, in any sense whatsoever. To teach ability to repent in any invented way whatever is to make the fatal concession to the free will doctrine of Arminianism. No man can come to Jesus, in any respect whatever, except the Father draw him (John 6). All men by nature are dead in sin (Ephesians 2). Deadness rules out ability in all sense whatever. It is given to some humans to believe on Jesus, which includes repentance as an aspect of faith (Philippians 1; Ephesians 2). (Prof. David J. Engelsma, 12/05/2018)

The New School theologians ascribe to man natural as distinguished from moral ability, a distinction borrowed from Edwards’ great work, “On the Will.” The import of their teaching is that man in his fallen state is still in possession of all the natural faculties that are required for doing spiritual good (intellect, will, etc.), but lacks moral ability, that is, the ability to give proper direction to those faculties, a direction well-pleasing to God. The distinction under consideration is advanced, in order to stress the fact that man is *wilfully sinful,* and this may well be emphasized. But the New School theologians assert that man would be able to do spiritual good if he only wanted to do it. This means that the “natural ability” of which they speak, is after all an ability to do real spiritual good [Cf. Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, p. 266]. On the whole it may be said that the distinction between natural and moral ability is not a desirable one, for: (1) it has no warrant in Scripture, which teaches consistently that man is not able to do what is required of him;  (2) it is essentially ambiguous and misleading: the possession of the requisite faculties to do spiritual good does not yet constitute an ability to do it;  (3) “natural” is not a proper antithesis of “moral,” for a thing may be both at the same time; and the inability of man is also natural in an important sense, that is, as being incident to his nature in its present state as naturally propagated;  and (4) the language does not accurately express the important distinction intended; what is meant is that it is moral, and not either physical or constitutional; that it has its ground, not in the want of any faculty, but in the corrupt moral state of the faculties, and of the disposition of the heart.” (Louis Berkhof, “Systematic Theology,” Banner of Truth, 2005, pp. 247-248)

[Objections to the Popular Distinction between Natural and Moral Ability]. In this country much stress has been laid upon the distinction between moral and natural ability. It has been regarded as one of the great American improvements in theology, and as marking an important advance in the science. It is asserted that man since the fall has natural ability to do all that is required of him, and on this ground his responsibility is made to rest; but it is admitted that he is morally unable to turn unto God, or perfectly keep his commandments … With regard to this distinction as it is commonly and popularly presented, it may be remarked:—
   1. That the terms natural and moral are not antithetical. A thing may be at once natural and moral. The inability of the sinner, as above remarked, although moral, is in a most important sense natural. And, therefore, it is erroneous to say, that it is simply moral and not natural.
   2. The terms are objectionable not only because they lack precision, but also because they are ambiguous. One man means by natural ability nothing more than the possession of the attributes of reason, will, and conscience. Another means plenary power, all that is requisite to produce a given effect. And this is the proper meaning of the words. Ability is the power to do. If a man has the natural ability to love God, he has full power to love Him. And if He has the power to love Him, he has all that is requisite to call that love into exercise. As this is the proper meaning of the terms, it is the meaning commonly attached to them. Those who insist on the natural ability of the sinner, generally assert that he has full power, without divine assistance, to do all that is required of him: to love God with all his soul and mind and strength, and his neighbour as himself. All that stands in the way of his thus doing is not an inability, but simply disinclination, or the want of will. An ability which is not adequate to the end contemplated, is no ability. It is therefore a serious objection to the use of this distinction, as commonly made, that it involves a great error. It asserts that the sinner is able to do what in fact he cannot do.
   3. It is a further objection to this mode of stating the doctrine that it tends to embarrass or to deceive. It must embarrass the people to be told that they can and cannot repent and believe. One or the other of the two propositions, in the ordinary and proper sense of the terms, must be false. And any esoteric or metaphysical sense in which the theologian may attempt to reconcile them, the people will neither appreciate nor respect. It is a much more serious objection that it tends to deceive men to tell them that they can change their own hearts, can repent, and can believe. This is not true, and every man’s consciousness tells him that it is untrue. It is of no avail for the preacher to say that all he means by ability is that men have all the faculties of rational beings, and that those are the only faculties to be exercised in turning to God or in doing His will. We might as reasonably tell an uneducated man that he can understand and appreciate the Iliad, because he has all the faculties which the scholar possesses. Still less does it avail to say that the only difficulty is in the will. And therefore when we say that men can love God, we mean that they can love Him if they will. If the word will, be here taken in its ordinary sense for the power of self-determination, the proposition that a man can love God if he will, is not true; for it is notorious that the affections are not under the power of the will. If the word be taken in a wide sense as including the affections, the proposition is a truism. It amounts to saying, that we can love God if we do love Him.
   4. The distinction between natural and moral ability, as commonly made, is unscriptural. It has already been admitted that there is an obvious and very important distinction between an inability arising out of the limitations of our being as creatures, and an inability arising out of the apostate state of our nature since the fall of Adam. But this is not what is commonly meant by those who assert the natural ability of men to do all that God requires of them. They mean and expressly assert that man, as his nature now is, is perfectly able to change his own heart, to repent and lead a holy life; that the only difficulty in the way of his so doing is the want of inclination, controllable by his own power. It is this representation which is unscriptural. The Scriptures never thus address fallen men and assure them of their ability to deliver themselves from the power of sin.
   5. The whole tendency and effect of this mode of statement are injurious and dangerous. If a sinner must be convinced of his guilt before he can trust in the righteousness of Christ for his justification, he must be convinced of his helplessness before he can look to God for deliverance. Those who are made to believe that they can save themselves, are, in the divine administration, commonly left to their own resources.
   In opposition therefore to the Pelagian doctrine of the sinner’s plenary ability, to the Semi-Pelagian or Arminian doctrine of what is called “a gracious ability,” that is, an ability granted to all who hear the gospel by the common and sufficient grace of the Holy Spirit, and to the doctrine that the only inability of the sinner is his disinclination to good, Augustinians have ever taught that this inability is absolute and entire. It is natural as well as moral. It is as complete, although different in kind, as the inability of the blind to see, of the deaf to hear, or of the dead to restore themselves to life. (Charles Hodge, “Systematic Theology,” vol. II, pp. 265-267)

When we are taught that as a result of sin humans are incapable of any good and this inability is called “natural,” this does not refer to physical necessity or fatalistic coercion. Humans have not, as a result of sin, lost their will and their increated freedom: the will, in virtue of its nature, rules out all coercion and can only will freely. What humans have lost is the free inclination of the will toward the good. They now no longer want to do good; they now voluntarily, by a natural inclination, do evil. The inclinations, the direction, of the will has changed. “The will in us is always free but it is not always good” (Augustine, “On Grace and Free Will”). In this sense the incapacity for good is not physical but ethical in nature: it is a kind of impotence of the will. Some theologians therefore preferred to speak of a moral rather than a natural impotence—Amyraut, Testard, Venema, and especially Jonathan Edwards among them. Edwards in his day, one must remember, had to defend the moral impotence of humans against Whitby and Taylor, who denied original sin and deemed humans able to keep God’s law. They argued, against Edwards, that if humans *could* not keep God’s law, they did not have to, and if they *did* not keep it, they were not guilty. To defend himself, Edwards made a distinction between natural and moral impotence, saying that fallen humans did have the natural but not the moral power to do good. And he added that only natural impotence was real impotence, but moral impotence could only be figuratively so called. For sin is not a physical defect in nature or in the powers of the will; but it is an ethical defect, a lack of inclination toward or love for the good (J. Edwards, “Freedom of the Will”). Now Edwards did say that human beings could not give themselves this inclination toward the good nor change their will. In this respect he was completely on the side of Augustine and Calvin. But by his refusal to call this disinclination toward the good “natural impotence,” he fostered a lot of misunderstanding and actually aided the cause of Pelagianism.
   The Reformed, therefore, consistently spoke of natural impotence. This word “natural,” however, can have different meanings. One may use it to refer to the original human nature, created by God in Adam according to his image, in the sense used by Protestants when they said that the image of God is natural. In that case, the incapacity for good is not natural, but rather contrary to nature, unnatural, and subnatural. One can mean by it the physical substance or power of any creature, and in that case, too, this incapacity—since all substance and power is created by God—cannot be called natural. Incapacity for good is not a physical impossibility, like the inability of human beings to put their hands on the stars. But, speaking of natural impotence, one can also have in mind the characteristics of fallen human nature and mean by it that the incapacity for good in this fallen state is “by nature” characteristic for all human beings, congenital and not first introduced in them from without by custom, upbringing, or imitation. In this sense the term “natural impotence” is absolutely correct, and the term “moral impotence” open to misunderstanding. “Morally impossible,” after all, is the phrase often used to describe what is considered impossible for a given person on the basis of that person’s character, custom, or upbringing. It is morally impossible for a virtuous person all at once to become a thief, for a mother to hate her child, or a murderer to strangle an innocent child. Such a moral “impossibility” nonetheless definitely does occur under certain circumstances. This kind of moral impotence is not what describes the incapacity for good. Though ethical in nature, and an incapacity of the will, natural impotence belongs to humans by nature; it is innate, and a property of the volition itself. And precisely because the will, in its present fallen state, in virtue of its nature cannot do other than to will freely, it cannot do other than what it wills, than that to which it is by nature inclined. (Herman Bavinck, “Reformed Dogmatics,” vol. III, pp. 122-123)

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