It is only if we think concretely of God that we can also think concretely of the things of the created world. And therefore we can think scripturally about the much-disputed doctrine of “common grace.” If we think concretely of the question, we see at once that the term “common” is really applicable only in a very loose sense to the idea of grace. God’s attitude toward the saved and the unsaved can at no point be strictly common. It is well that we begin at this point. God always regards the reprobate as reprobate. When, therefore, he gives to the reprobate certain gifts in this life, of which they are undeserving, and these same gifts (as, for instance, rain and sunshine) also come to the saved, we cannot conclude that, with respect to rain and sunshine, God has the same attitude toward the believer and the unbeliever. When we speak of the attitude of God toward unbelievers we must take into consideration the total picture of the unbeliever’s relationship to God. Thus the gifts of rain and sunshine to the believer are the gifts of a covenant God who has forgiven the sins of his people, and who knows that his people need these gifts. In a similar way, the gifts of rain and sunshine to unbelievers are gifts to those whom God hates, and are given because they too have need of those things to fulfill the purpose that God has with them. God gave Pharaoh life and ability to rule, that he might be able to do that for which God raised him up.
Both the wheat and the tares receive rain and sunshine so that both may reach the day of judgment for the revelation of the glory of God. In all this, God gave a witness to his presence (Acts 14:16). Men are through this witness without excuse. Thus God gave men and nations everywhere what they needed for a natural life and civilization, that they might accomplish the purposes of God. He restrained them in their natural tendency to do only evil continually, so that they, in spite of their own inherent evil nature, do that which externally resembles the requirements of the law of God (Rom. 2:14, 15). It was thus by the gifts of God to sinners that the full demoniacal character of sin appeared and shall appear. When the world by its wisdom shows itself to be ignorant of God, God by his grace saves sinners unto himself. When the righteousness of men is shown to be but as filthy rags, God reveals his righteousness from heaven among men.
We conclude then, that “common grace” is not strictly common. The “common” grace that comes to believers comes in conjunction with their forgiven status before God; the “common” grace that comes to unbelievers comes in conjunction with their unforgiven status. Externally considered, the facts may be the same, but the framework in the two cases is radically different.
When, therefore, we are exhorted to follow God’s example in doing good to our enemies, that is, in giving gifts to them and helping them (Luke 6:35), we are asked to have the same attitude toward them that God has toward them. We are not to forget that they are haters of God. We are to do good to them in spite of this fact. We are to do good to them, in part at least, for the purpose of enabling them to accomplish the purpose that God has with them. To be sure, we are not to judge absolutely. Absolute judgment God reserves for himself. Yet, by the appearance of the wicked deeds of men, we cannot but think of them as enemies of God.
We say that this is one factor of the whole situation. We do not say that it is the only factor. God loves the works of his hands, and the progress that they make to their final fulfillment. So we may and should rejoice with God in the unfolding of the history of the race, even in the unfolding of the wickedness of man in order that the righteousness of God may be most fully displayed. But if God tells us that, in spite of the wickedness of men, and in spite of the fact that they misuse his gifts for their own greater condemnation, he is longsuffering with them, we need not conclude that there is no sense in which God has a favor to the unbeliever. There is a sense in which God has a disfavor to the believer because, in spite of the new life in him, he sins in the sight of God. So God may have favor to the unbeliever because of the “relative good” that God himself gives him in spite of the principle of sin within him. If we were to think of God and of his relation to the world in a univocal or abstract fashion, we might agree with those who maintain that there is no qualitative difference between the favor of God toward the saved and toward the unsaved. Arminians and Barthians virtually do this. Or, we might agree with those who maintain that there is no sense in which God can show a favor to the reprobate. On the other hand, if we reason concretely about God and his relation to the world, we simply listen to what God has told us in his Word on the matter. It may even then be exceedingly difficult to construct a theory of “common grace” which will do justice to what Scripture says. We make Scripture the standard of our thinking, and not our thinking the standard of Scripture. All of man’s activity, whether intellectual or moral, is analogical; and for this reason it is quite possible for the unsaved sinner to do that which is “good” in a sense and for the believer to do what is “evil” in a sense.
With respect to the question, then as to whether Scripture actually teaches an attitude of favor, up to a point, on the part of God toward the non-believer, we can only intimate that we believe it does. Even when we take full cognizance of the fact that the unbeliever abuses every gift of God and uses it for the greater manifestation of his wickedness, there seems to be evidence in Scripture that God, for this life, has a certain attitude of favor to unbelievers. We may point to such passages as the following: In Psalm 145:9, we are told: “The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works.” In seeking the meaning of such a passage, we must be careful. In the first place, it is to be remembered that God is constantly setting his own people in the center of the outflow of his goodness to the children of men. So, in Exodus 34:6, 7 we read: “And the Lord God passed before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation.” In this passage we are, as it were, warned to think concretely on the question before us. God’s mercy and grace is primarily extended to those whose sins are forgiven. If in any sense it is given to those whose sins are not forgiven, it must always be remembered that God does not overlook iniquity. We may therefore expect that in Psalm 145 the psalmist teaches nothing that is out of accord with what has been taught in Exodus 34. Thus, the primary meaning of Psalm 145 is again that God’s great favor is toward his people. Even when God gives great gifts to non-believers, they are, in a more basic sense, gifts to believers. Gifts of God to unbelievers help to make the life of believers possible, and in measure, pleasant. But this does not detract from the fact that the unbeliever himself is, in a measure, the recipient of God’s favor. There is a certain joy in the gift of life and its natural blessings for the unbeliever. And we may well think that Psalm 145 has this in mind. Such joy as there is in the life of the unbeliever cannot be found in him after this life is over. Even in the hereafter, the lost will belong to the works of God’s hands. And God no doubt has joy that through the works of evil men and angels, he is establishing his glory. Yet that is not what the psalmist seems to mean. There seems to be certain satisfaction on the part of God even in the temporary joy of the unbeliever as a creature of himself, a joy which will in the end turn to bitterness, but which none the less, is joy while it lasts.
Another passage to which we briefly refer is Matthew 5:44, 45. “But I say unto you, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good.” In this passage, the disciples of Jesus are told to deny themselves the selfish joy of expressing enmity against those that hate them. They are not to express their attitude of hostility. But this is not all they are to do. They are to replace the attitude of hatred with an attitude of love. He does not know but that this one who now hates him may one day become a believer. This is one factor in the total situation. Yet this is not to be made the only factor. It is not even the expressed reason for his loving his enemy. The one guide for the believer’s action with respect to the enemy is God’s attitude toward that enemy. And the believer is told definitely to love his enemy in imitation of God’s attitude toward that enemy. God’s attitude toward that enemy must therefore in some sense be one of love. It is no doubt the love of an enemy, and, therefore, in God’s case, never the same sort of love as the love toward his children. And to the extent that we know men to be enemies of the Lord, we too cannot love them in the same sense in which we are told to love fellow-believers. God no doubt lets the wheat and the tares grow together till the day of judgment, but even so, though God’s ultimate purpose with unbelievers is their destruction and the promotion of his glory through their destruction, he loves them, in a sense, while they are still kept by himself, through his own free gifts, from fully expressing the wicked principle that is in them.
So also ought we to think of what is often called the universal well-meant offer of salvation. We know that there are those whom God, in his secret counsel does not intend to save. Of those round about us, we do not always know who are saved and who are not. In a sense, therefore, our ignorance accounts for the necessity of using a general formula in preaching the gospel. Yet this is not the only reason why Christ wept over Jerusalem, over Jerusalem which he knew would, for the most part, reject him. So God calls those whom he knows will harden their hearts. He labored with Pharaoh to let his people go before the final time of destruction should come. Yet he had raised up Pharaoh for that final destruction. It is the duty of men to repent, as it was originally their duty not to sin. It is always the duty of man to obey the voice of God. The call to repentance that unbelievers receive will add to their judgment because they do not heed it. But to be able to add to their judgment, it must have had a real meaning in their case. To say this is not to fall into individualistic Arminianism. Those who have not heard the call of redemption ill be judged because they are sinners in Adam and with Adam. Yet those who have heard the call and have not accepted it will receive the greater damnation. Thus, there must be a genuine meaning in the call that comes to them. It is only if we really think analogically or concretely of the attributes of God that we can thus do justice to all the aspects of Scripture truth.
It is only if we keep all this in mind that we can understand something of what is meant when Paul says in Romans 2:14, 15 that the natural man does by nature the work of the law. This cannot mean that man’s sinful nature is no longer sinful. If that were the case, it would mean that he had already received the gospel. It can only mean, therefore, that, in spite of his sinful heart, he habitually does things that, externally considered, fulfill the requirements of the law. His good deeds are adventitious as far as his sinful heart is concerned, but there is in him such a thing as an old nature, which, in spite of himself, leads him to do that which is good after a fashion. It is not merely not as bad as it might be, but it is, in a sense, good. It is a gift of God to the unbeliever when in this life he leads an externally good life, even if it be not from his heart. The deeds of the unbelievers are, to be sure, splendid vices; they are that, but they are also at the same time something else. They are, in a sense, a gift of God’s favor; and they, in turn, are the object of a certain favor of God.
All in all the idea of commonness, whether applied to grace or to the gospel call should be closely connected with the idea of earlier and later. Commonness is always commonness up to a point and with a difference. But commonness is more common earlier than later. Men in general, believers and unbelievers, are regarded and treated similarly according as the process of differentiation between them has not come to development. There is a common wrath upon elect and non-elect to the extent that the difference between the elect and the non-elect has not yet come to expression. So also with common grace and the common gospel call. It is to men regarded in their more or less undifferentiated state that the term commonness is applicable. History has genuine meaning; the doctrine of election may not be interpreted so as to destroy its meaning, but rather so as to be the foundation of it.
January 28, 2016
Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), 240–244. [underlining in the original]