September 20, 2007

John Calvin on Romans 2:4 and The Puritan Concept of Common Grace

Update on 1-15-08:

In addition to reading what follows, the reader should investigate my documentation of many Puritans on The Grace of God, The Goodness of God, The Love of God and The Gospel Offer. You will be able to see what they say about Romans 2:4 as well. Since one hyper-Calvinist on the internet has linked to this post while making many inaccurate historical claims (after only browsing my blog for a few minutes), one should diligently read what the primary sources say.

Concerning the concept of grace, William Jenkyn (1613–1685) correctly wrote:
Grace in its proper notion signifies that free goodness, favour, or good will whereby one is moved to benefit another, as both the Hebrew and Greek words manifest.
Exposition on the Epistle of Jude (James & Klock Publishing Company, 1976), 89.

If one rejects that God at least has a good will toward the non-elect in this world (i.e., that he seeks their ultimate well-being), then one does not agree with the meaning behind the term "common grace." As Romans 2:4 says, the kindness, goodness and longsuffering of God toward rebellious man is meant to lead them to repentance. It's evidence that God wills for them to turn from their wicked ways AND LIVE. That's what is ultimately behind these terms (i.e., goodness, kindness, benevolence, longsuffering, etc.) in scripture. The grace of God is not less than his good will towards his creatures. Or, since some claim to admire Calvin's doctrine, observe what he says on Romans 2:4:
...the Apostle anticipates their arrogance, and proves, by an argument taken from a reason of an opposite kind, that there is no ground for them to think that God, on account of their outward prosperity, is propitious to them, since the design of his benevolence is far different, and that is, to convert sinners to himself. Where then the fear of God does not rule, confidence, on account of prosperity, is a contempt and a mockery of his great goodness. It hence follows, that a heavier punishment will be inflicted on those whom God has in this life favored; because, in addition to their other wickedness, they have rejected the fatherly invitation of God. And though all the gifts of God are so many evidences of his paternal goodness, yet as he often has a different object in view, the ungodly absurdly congratulate themselves on their prosperity, as though they were dear to him, while he kindly and bountifully supports them.
Notice in this first part that Calvin says:

1) The "design" of God's "benevolence" is "to convert sinners to himself."

2) God's "goodness" is associated with this conversion seeking benevolence that some mock and show contempt for in their vain "prosperity."

3) God's "benevolence" and "goodness" are then associated with his "favor."

4) Conversion seeking goodness, benevolence and favor are then associated with God's "fatherly invitation," and those who are to receive "a heavier punishment" are in view, i.e. the reprobate who hear the "fatherly invitation."

5) "All the gifts" that they receive are evidences of God's "paternal goodness" toward the "ungodly."

6) God is said to "kindly" and "bountifully" support them through their prosperity.

Calvin continues:
Not knowing that the goodness of God, etc. For the Lord by his kindness shows to us, that it is he to whom we ought turn, if we desire to secure our well-being, and at the same time he strengthens our confidence in expecting mercy. If we use not God’s bounty for this end, we abuse it. But yet it is not to be viewed always in the same light; for when the Lord deals favorably with his servants and gives them earthly blessings, he makes known to them by symbols of this kind his own benevolence, and trains them up at the same time to seek the sum and substance of all good things in himself alone: when he treats the transgressors of his law with the same indulgence, his object is to soften by his kindness their perverseness; he yet does not testify that he is already propitious to them, but, on the contrary, invites them to repentance. But if any one brings this objection — that the Lord sings to the deaf as long as he does not touch inwardly their hearts; we must answer — that no fault can be found in this case except with our own depravity. But I prefer rendering the word which Paul here uses, leads, rather than invites, for it is more significant; I do not, however, take it in the sense of driving, but of leading as it were by the hand.
Notice what Calvin says in this second part:

1) God's kindness shows us to whom we should turn, i.e. it is with a view to our well-being, so that we ought to desire Him.

2) God strengthens the ungodly to expect mercy if they would but turn and not abuse His bounties.

3) God's favors are associated with blessings and benevolence, and these things are to train us to seek himself.

4) God patiently indulges transgressors of his law in order to soften them by his kindness.

5) God is inviting them to repentance.

6) The unrepentant deaf cannot blame God for not efficaciously touching their hearts. They have only their own depravity to blame. W. G. T. Shedd echoed this point when he said:
The fact that God does not in the case of the nonelect bestow special grace to overcome the resisting self-will that renders the gifts of providence and common grace ineffectual does not prove that he is insincere in his desire that man would believe under the influence of common grace any more than the fact that a benevolent man declines to double the amount of his gift, after the gift already offered has been spurned, proves that he did not sincerely desire that the person would take the sum first offered.
7) Calvin prefers the term "lead" rather than "invites" because it is "more significant." He has already granted that God invites sinners above, but he prefers the stronger language of "leads." He does not want it to connote that men are "driven," as if violence is done to their wills. Rather, it is a gentle leading, as if by the hand. The Puritan John Flavel echoes this point when he alludes to Romans 2:4. John Flavel said:
Thus the goodness and forbearance of God doth, as it were, take a sinner by the hand, lead him into a corner, and say, "Come, let us talk together; thus and thus vile hast thou been, and thus and thus long-suffering and merciful has God been to thee; thy heart has been full of sin, the heart of thy God has been full of pity and mercy." This dissolves the sinner into tears, and breaks his heart in pieces. If any thing will melt a hard heart, this will do it. How good has God been to me. How have I tried his patience to the uttermost, and still he waits to be gracious, and is exalted that he may have compassion.
This is the classical conception of common grace as articulated by Paul in Romans 2:4, and as articulated by Calvin, Flavel, Shedd, and others. One may also want to consider what the Puritan John Howe has to say in his allusions to Romans 2:4:
3. Consider the forbearance of God towards you, while you are continually at mercy. With what patience doth he spare you, though your own hearts must tell you that you are offending creatures, and whom he can destroy in a moment! He spares you that neglect him. He is not willing that you should perish, but come to the knowledge of the truth, that you may be saved; by which he calls and leads you to repentance, Rom. ii 4. On God's part, here is a kind intention; but on man's part, nothing but persevering enmity.
To reject what these men are saying is to reject what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 2:4 since they are all in agreement. Therefore I repeat: If one rejects that God has a good will toward the non-elect in this world (i.e., that he seeks their ultimate well-being), then one does not agree with the meaning behind the term "common grace."

Since I started with Jenkyn, I will also end with Jenkyn. He said:
God is gracious even unto them who abuse his grace. He affords the means and offers of it to them who turn it into lasciviousness. He holds the candle to them who will not work by, but wanton away the light. He calls men though they will not hear, and woos them who will not be entreated. Certainly, God does not only show himself a God in powerful working, but even in patient waiting upon the wicked; none but a God could do either. O sinner, how inexcusable wilt thou be in that great day, when God shall say, "What could I have done more?" Isa. v. 4; or how couldst thou desire me to wait longer for thy good? Certainly, thine own conscience shall be God's deputy to condemn thee. If thou shalt give an account for every idle word which thou thyself hast spoken, how much more for every unprofitable word which thou hast made God speak to thee!
Ibid., 96.
We should fear to pervert the patience and long-suffering of God to a presumption and a delaying of repentance. This being a despising that goodness which leads to repentance, and a treasuring up wrath by God's forbearance, Eccl. viii. 11; Rom. ii. 4. God intended mercy to be prized, not despised; and He who has made a promise of repentance, has not made a promise of repentance when we please; nay, how justly may God punish the contempt of his grace with final impenitence! Heb. iii. 7, 11, 12. Repentance delayed till death is seldom unto life.
Ibid., 97.

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