25 August, 2016

Rev. Martyn McGeown on Matthew 5:44-45

[Source: British Reformed Journal, Issue No. 63, Autumn/Winter 2016]

[Matthew 5:44-45 and Luke 6:35 are] the favourite texts of all those who advocate common grace. [To] quote these texts without exegesis proves nothing. [One] cannot merely quote them and then write, “That is common grace.” [Defenders of common grace] must demonstrate that exegetically!

Because these texts in Matthew and Luke are so crucial to the “common grace” cause, we offer a thorough exegesis.

Matthew 5 is part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus Christ teaches principles that govern our lives as the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The question in verses 44-45 is how we treat our enemies, who are those who “curse” us (which means to speak evil of and upon us), who “hate” us (which means to wish evil upon us, and to be motivated by malice and spite against us), and who “despitefully use” and “persecute” us (which means to insult, revile and vilify us; and to chase after us with a view to destroying us). The Pharisees responded, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy” (v. 43). In fact, many Pharisees defined “neighbour” so narrowly and “enemy” so broadly that they restricted their love to fellow Jews or even to fellow Pharisees, while they justified hating everyone else.

Jesus taught us to “love” our enemies. That love must be manifested in “blessing” (which means to speak well of someone and to speak good upon them), “doing good” (which takes good speech one step further, so that we perform deeds of kindness for our enemies) and “praying for” our enemies (which means that we seek for them the blessing of God by beseeching our Father to have mercy on them in turning them from their sins to Jesus Christ). This love for our enemies is not a calling to have fellowship with them, which, as long as they remain unconverted, is impossible. The Christian comes in love, blessing, doing good, praying and calling the enemy to repentance; but the enemy responds with hatred, cursing, despiteful use and persecution. Whatever the response of the enemy, the Christian is called to love him still. William Tyndale, who was martyred in 1536, exemplified this Christian virtue of love, when, in a letter to his persecutors, he wrote, “Take away my goods, take away my good name, yet as long as Christ remaineth in me, so long I love thee not a whit the less.”

In verse 45, Jesus draws a parallel between our calling and the activity of our God and Father, and it is in this parallel especially that some find proof of “common grace.” The activity of God in sending rain and sunshine on both the evil and the good is proof, say many, that God favours, loves, has mercy upon and blesses the evil and the good alike. In Luke 6:35, Jesus draws a similar parallel: “He [i.e., God] is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.”

To understand the parallel, we need to ask a few questions.

First, who are God’s enemies? In Scripture, God has two kinds of enemies: His reprobate enemies, whom He destroys; and His elect enemies, whom He reconciles to Himself and saves. God’s reprobate enemies are the devil, the reprobate demons and reprobate human beings. These are preordained to damnation (Rom. 9:22; I Pet. 2:8; Rev. 17:8). God has decreed not to save them. God’s attitude toward these enemies is one of hatred (Rom. 9:13). He curses them and sends them to hell (Luke 19:27). This hatred, this curse and this eternal punishment do not mean that God is evil, spiteful, malicious or cruel, for God’s hatred of the wicked is a righteous, holy hatred of their persons and their sins (Ps. 5:5; 11:5). The Canons of Dordt explain the decree of reprobation in these sobering words:

What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture that not all, but only some, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal election of God; whom God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but leaving them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at last for the declaration of His justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation, which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof (Canons I:15).

But God also has elect enemies. They are “the unthankful” and “the evil” of Luke 6:35. God’s elect enemies are sinners chosen in Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world to be saved through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God’s attitude toward these enemies is love: God blesses them, God has mercy on them, God is kind to them, God delivers them from sin and death, and God brings them to everlasting life. God changes these enemies into friends. Believers were these enemies: by nature we were the enemies of God for we once lived as the enemies of God (Eph. 2:3) as those who once hated Him, cursed Him, despitefully used Him and persecuted Christ and His saints (Acts 9:4-5). Paul writes, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreprovable in his sight” (Col. 1:21-22).

Second, what does God do to His enemies according to Matthew 5 and Luke 6, and does He do these things to His elect enemies, His reprobate enemies or both?

Matthew 5:45 teaches that God sends sunshine and rain upon all men indiscriminately: “He maketh his sun to shine upon the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” The evil and the good or the just and the unjust include all kinds of men: the converted and unconverted, the believer and the unbeliever, and the elect and the reprobate. We see that all around us: God causes the sun to shine and rain to fall upon the field of both godly and ungodly farmers. Often He sends so much rain and sunshine on the ungodly that their fields produce a bumper harvest, they have tables laden with good food, bank accounts stuffed with money and good health to enjoy these things that come from God’s hand.

But does an abundance of good things (“rain and sunshine”) mean that God is blessing the ungodly in those things or that those things are evidence of God’s favour? That is the issue with “common grace.” [Common] grace is supposed to be a favourable attitude of God toward the reprobate wicked seen in the good things that God gives to them. That would mean that God, when He gives rain and sunshine and lots of other good things to the wicked, is saying to them, “In these things, I love you; I have favour upon you; I show mercy to you; and I am gracious to you. (But, at the same time, I have eternally determined not to save you; Christ did not die for you; and I will cast you into hell).”

What, then, is God saying to His own people when He sends them so much sunshine that their crops wither and die so that they starve, or when He sends them so much rain that He washes away their houses in a flood? “In these things, I hate you; in these things, I do not have favour on you; in these things, I seek your destruction; in these things, I express my displeasure against you.” God forbid!

That would mean that God, in giving good things to the wicked, is blessing them, speaking His favour upon them and seeking to do them good. But that would be a blessing of God, which does not accomplish their good, but increases their guilt; a blessing of God, which comes to an end when they die and go to hell; and a blessing of God, which changes into a curse.

But God’s mercy, grace, love and blessing are one. (There are not two kinds of graces, mercies or loves of God; one for the elect, and the other for the reprobate.) All mercy, grace and love of God are everlasting (Psalm 136). They are unchangeable (Malachi 3:6). They are attributes of God, they belong to His very Being, they are rooted in God’s decree of election and they are displayed at the cross. Rain and sunshine, in and of themselves, are not grace, mercy or blessing. God is always gracious to and blesses His people in giving to, or withholding from, them, rain and sunshine (Rom. 8:28; I Cor. 3:21). God is never gracious, but always curses, the reprobate in giving to, or withholding from, them, rain and sunshine (Psalm 73:18-20; Psalm 92:7; Prov. 3:33). Let it be clearly understood: God gives good things to elect and reprobate alike, but good things are not blessings for the reprobate.

Third, which pattern are we called to follow? Do we treat our enemies the way God deals with His elect or His reprobate enemies? If we want a pattern on how to treat our enemies, we only need to consider how He treated us, who were His enemies, and who are still sinful, even after He has reconciled us to Himself. This is especially clear in Luke 6:35, in which Jesus says that God is kind to “the unthankful” and “the evil.” In Luke 6, Jesus does not speak merely of sunshine and rain, which of themselves are neither God’s blessing nor curse, but He speaks of God’s kindness and mercy. The kindness in Luke 6:35 is, and can only be, a saving kindness. There is no other kindness in God. God’s kindness is infinitely more than God being “nice” to people. Kindness is God’s gentleness, His careful handling of His delicate precious people. God is not kind to the reprobate. He breaks them with a rod of iron and He dashes them in pieces as a potter’s vessel (Ps. 2:9). God’s kindness is called goodness or graciousness in other passages and is only ever directed toward the elect (Rom. 11:22; I Pet. 2:3). This kindness is shown to the unthankful and to the evil, to us; we who believe in Jesus Christ are the unthankful and the evil.

We are to be merciful because God has been merciful to us. This saving kindness and mercy shown to us who were, and in many ways still are, unthankful and evil, comes to us from the cross of Christ, a cross that is for the elect alone and not for the reprobate. We see kindness and mercy at the cross where God poured out His wrath upon Jesus Christ, crushing Him under His curse, so that He could be gentle and compassionate to His elect children.

If God was so good to you in sending Christ to die for your sins, not when you were good and thankful, but when you were unthankful and evil, how much more ought you to love those who are evil and unthankful to you? And if God can still bless you, who are still unthankful and evil, how much more ought you not continue to love, bless, do good to and pray for those who are still unthankful and evil to you? And when we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us we are reflecting in a very small way the great love, mercy, grace, kindness and blessing that God has for us.

But that has nothing, I repeat, nothing, to do with “common grace”!

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