September 5, 2011

R. B. Kuiper (1886–1966) on Common Grace

The term common grace is used in different senses in different theologians. Wesleyan Arminianism teaches that, although man is by nature totally depraved, God bestows on every individual at birth sufficient grace to receive Christ in faith of his free volition. Because such grace is said to be bestowed on all, it is denominated "common." It is further contended that he who exercises that grace by believing in Christ is in consequence born again. The Reformed position, on the other hand, insists that only he who by the grace of the Holy Spirit has been born again is capable of saving faith. Therefore it rejects the Wesleyan Arminian concept of common grace and employs that term in a radically different sense. It distinguishes sharply between common grace and special or particular grace and ascribes renewing quality only to the latter.

God's Favor to All

Scripture teaches unmistakably that God bestows His saving grace upon the elect, but it teaches just as clearly that He manifests an attitude of favor to all men. The Psalmist sang: "The Lord is gracious and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all" (Ps. 145:8, 9). In Jesus' command to His disciples, "Love your enemies . . . that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven" (Mt. 5:44, 45), the love of God for His enemies is undeniably implicit. God's universal love is basic to the doctrine of common grace.

Scripture ascribes to the goodness of God the blessings of nature granted to all. Immediately after the Deluge God promised that the earth would not again be destroyed by a flood but that, so long as the earth remained, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night would not cease (Gen. 8:21, 22). Paul told the people of pagan Lystra and Derbe that God never left Himself without witness but did good, giving rain and fruitful seasons, and thus filling men's hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stated that God in love causes the sun to shine on the evil and the good, and rain to descend on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:45).

Vestiges of God's Image

When man fell into sin, God permitted him to retain certain vestiges of the Divine image in which he had been created. Prominent among those vestiges is a "sensus Deitatis." According to Romans 1:19-21, the heathen have some knowledge of God. In his Institutes of Christian Religion Calvin insisted that "a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart," even on the hearts of those who "seem to differ least from the lower animals" (I, iii, 1). Nor did God deprive man at his Fall of the precious gift of reason. It continued to be exercised by the offspring of ungodly Cain as well as by the descendants of godly Seth. In fact, in the early history of mankind the former excelled in the arts and sciences (Gen. 4:20–22). Calvin said: "In reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from the Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we should avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or contemn truth wherever it appears." Referring to pagan lawgivers, philosophers, rhetoricians, physicians, and mathematicians, he declared: "We cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration" (Inst., II, ii, 15). Fallen man also continues to to be a moral being; that is to say, he has a sense of right and wrong, a conscience which tells him it is right to do the right, wrong to do the wrong. The Gentiles "show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing on another" (Rom. 2:15).

By no means does the fact of man's retention of vestiges of the Divine image detract from his total depravity. His Fall resulted in the complete loss of true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). The Apostle Paul charged the heathen with suppressing the truth by their wickedness (Rom. 1:18, RSV) and changing the truth of God into a lie (Rom. 1:25); and of both Jew and gentile he said: "There is none righteous, no, not one. . . . There is none that seeketh after God. . . . There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Rom. 3:10, 11, 18). Hence Calvin, having lauded the wisdom imparted by the Holy Spirit to the pagans of antiquity, went on to say: "Still, though seeing, they saw not. Their discernment was not such as to direct them to the truth, far less to enable them to attain it, but resembled that of the bewildered traveller who sees the flash of lightning glance far and wide for a moment, and then vanish into the darkness of the night, before he can advance a single step. So far is such assistance from enabling him to find the right path. Besides, how many monstrous falsehoods intermingle with those minute particles of truth scattered up and down in their writings as if by chance. . . . To the great truths, what God is in himself, and what he is in relation to us, human reason makes not the least approach" (Inst., II, ii, 18). The Canons of Dort having granted that there remain in fallen man "the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior," go on to assert: "But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God" (III–IV, 4).

Restraint of Sin

God graciously restrains sin both in the individual and in the race. That truth is plainly implicit in the divine assertion, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man" (Gen. 6:3). With reference to Sarah, Abraham's wife, God said to Abimelech, king of Gerar: "I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her" (Gen. 20:6). And Scripture teaches that human government was ordained by God for the punishment of evil as well as the encouragement of that which is good (Rom. 13:1–4). Were it not for the Divine restraint of evil, human intercourse on this sin-ridden earth would be utterly chaotic. Since there is Divine restraint, a more or less orderly society occurs.

Encouragement to Good

Scripture teaches not only that God holds sin in check in the lives of the unregenerate; it ascribes to them the exercise of love and the doing of good. Said Jesus to His disciples: "If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what than have ye? for sinners even do the same" (Luke 6:32, 33). Here it becomes necessary to distinguish between "love" and "love," "good" and "good." Elsewhere, Scripture says of the unregenerate: "There is none that doeth good, no, not one" (Rom. 3:12); and they are described as "haters of God" and "hating one another" (Rom. 1:30; Tit. 3:3). Only those who are born again are capable of "spiritual" good; that is to say, good motivated by love for God or that love for men which springs from love for God. The Heidelberg Catechism defines good works as "those which are done from true faith, according to the law of God, and to his glory" (Answer 91). Such works only the regenerate can perform. Yet, by virtue of the common grace of God others can and do perform good that may be denominated "civic" or "natural." But, though there is an outward conformance to precepts of God, there is something essentially lacking in them. Of such good the Westminster Confession of Faith says: "Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing to God" (XVI, 7).

Sincere Offer of the Gospel

A most significant aspect of the doctrine of common grace is what Reformed theology designates "the universal and sincere offer of the Gospel." On the basis of Scripture, Reformed theology holds that from eternity God elected certain persons to eternal life and decreed that the others would because of their sins perish everlastingly. The latter phase of divine predestination is variously described as "preterition," "rejection," or "reprobation." Also on the basis of Scripture Reformed theology holds that "as many as are called by the Gospel are unfeignedly called. For God has most earnestly and truly declared in his Word what is acceptable to him; namely, that all who are called should come unto him" (Canons of Dort, III-IV, 8). Yet such passages as Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; Mt. 11:28; 23:37; and II Pet. 3:9 teach unmistakably that God not only promises eternal life to sinners in the case that they repent and believe, but most cordially invites all who hear the Gospel to repent and believe in order that they may be saved. The last-named passage says in so many words that God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Thus Divine reprobation and the Divine offer of the Gospel admittedly constitute a paradox. Human reason has proved unable to harmonize them fully with each other. Here, as indeed everywhere, Reformed theology subjects human logic to the Divine logos. Commenting on Ezek. 18:23, Calvin said: "God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who are perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety. . . . If any one should object, 'then there is no election of God, by which he has predestined a fixed number to salvation,' the answer is at hand: the prophet does not here speak of God's secret counsel, but only recalls miserable men from despair, that they may apprehend the hope of pardon, and repent, and embrace the offered salvation. If any one again objects, 'this is making God act with duplicity,' the answer is ready: that God always wishes the same thing though by different ways and in a manner inscrutable to us. Although, therefore, God's will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction and wishes them to perish" (Calvin's Commentaries in loco).

Contrast With Saving Grace

Common grace as described in the foregoing paragraphs differs essentially from particular or saving grace. No amount of common grace will save a sinner from sin and death. Yet common and saving grace are closely related. They may be said to be independent. Saving grace presupposes common grace. For example, a covenant of nature, which God established with Noah and his descendants, guaranteed the continuity of the human race (Gen. 8:21–9:17). With that covenant as a background, God subsequently established a covenant of grace with Abraham and his seed, and in so doing guaranteed the continuity of the church (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1–7). Had there been no human race, there could have been no church. in another example it may also be asserted without hesitation that because of His elect God frequently bestows blessings on men in general. For the sake of ten righteous persons God would have spared wicked Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:32). Jesus' saying, "Ye are the salt of the earth" (Mt. 5:13) indicates that God for the present bears with this sinful world because of the presence in it of His children as a preservative. The tribulation that will come to pass toward the end of time will be shortened for the elect's sake (Mt. 24:22). Whether it is solely for the sake of His chosen people that God dispenses the blessings of common grace to mankind is definitely another matter. So sweeping an assertion would be unwarranted.

Historical Survey

Although the doctrine of common grace is found by suggestion in some of Augustine's writings, it never came to be elaborated by the Church of Rome. Rome's disparagement of the natural, in contradistinction to the spiritual, accounts for that neglect. The anabaptists, instead of correcting that error, compounded it by positing an antithesis of the spiritual and the natural. To the present day a powerful strain of this persists in much of Protestantism. Hence, many Protestants—perhaps most of them—show little interest in the doctrine of common grace. The 16th-century Reformers, notably Calvin among them, may be said to have discovered that doctrine. Late in the 19th century and early in the 20th it was elaborated and strongly stressed by such Dutch Calvinists as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. The former wrote three large volumes on this subject.

More recently, the present century witnessed considerable controversy on common grace among American Calvinists, particularly in the Christian Reformed Church. In 1920 Ralph Janssen, Professor of OT at Calvin Seminary, was charged with leanings toward higher criticism. Although he was exonerated by the Synod of that year, charges against him persisted. He retorted that his critics were neglecting the doctrine of common grace, and he quoted Kuyper and Bavinck to that effect, under both of whom he had studied at the Free University of Amsterdam. When he refused to defend himself at the Synod of 1922 because, as he contended, certain members of that Synod had by their denial of common grace disqualified themselves for proper evaluation of his teaching, that body found him guilty as charged. However, the very next Synod, that of 1924, found two of his most vehement critics, Henry Danof and Herman Hoeksema, guilty of denying the historic Reformed doctrine of common grace. These men insisted that an attitude of favor on the part of God to the non-elect is out of the question and that they are incapable of doing good whatsoever. Under three heads, Synod emphatically reaffirmed the doctrine of common grace. It also recommended further study of the subject. Attempts in that direction were subsequently made by Herman Kuiper, Cornelius Van Til, James Daane, William Masselink, and Alexander De Jong, among others. Discussion has brought to the fore the importance of the time factor. It is obvious that, although God from eternity decreed unalterably the damnation of certain men, so long as the non-elect have not in actual historical fact finally rejected Christ by unbelief, God does not exclusively regard them nor deal with them qua reprobate, but in many ways manifests His goodness to them. Yet that leaves the paradox of Divine reprobation and common grace unsolved. It has become increasingly clear that this paradox must be permitted to stand without modification. It behooves Christians to beware of detracting from either of its elements.

A significant question demanding further consideration than so far received is whether Christ merited the blessings of common grace for the non-elect by the Atonement. That God ever beholds His elect in Christ is perfectly clear. For Christ's sake He blesses them with natural blessings as well as spiritual. Does God also for the sake of Christ bestow some good things on the non-elect? Calvin has not answered that question explicitly. William Cunningham has said: "Many blessings flow to mankind at large from the death of Christ, collaterally and incidentally, in consequence of the relation in which men, viewed collectively, stand to each other" (Historical Theology, II, 333). Robert S. Candlish observed that the entire history of the human race from the Apostasy to the Final Judgment is a dispensation of forbearance in respect to the reprobate, in which many blessings, physical and moral, affecting their characters and destinies forever, accrue even to the heathen, and many more to the educated and refined citizens of Christian communities. He has asserted: "These come to them through the mediation of Christ" (The Atonement, 358 f.). Also, L. Berkhof, while admitting that Reformed theologians generally have been hesitant to say that Christ's atoning blood merited the blessings of common grace for the reprobate, has concluded that undoubtedly significant benefits accrue from Christ's death to the entire race of men (Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, 1938, 438).
R. B. Kuiper, "Common Grace," in The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Marshallton, Delaware: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1972), 3:48–53.


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