December 28, 2009

H. Henry Meeter (1886–1963) on Common Grace

Meeter defines common grace as follows:
This influence of God whereby he through various means restrains vile passions and brings to pass many deeds of outward good by unregenerate men, contrary to the evil principle of sin in their hearts, making them do what their sinful hearts would otherwise not do, is what the Calvinist terms common grace. It is "common" because it is not confined to any unique group as is special grace, but is a grace which is given to all men, through not to all in equal measure. As one believer may have more of special grace than another, so one unbeliever may have more of common grace than another. Thus Calvin compares Camillus, a Roman in whom much common grace was found, with Catiline, in whom there was little of it [Institutes, 2.3.4].
H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, rev. Paul A. Marshall, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 53.

He then asks:
Can These Acts Be the Result of Grace in God?

But can this influence of God, whereby he restrains evil passions and prompts to outward good, truly be called grace? What is grace? The Old Testament word chen and the New Testament word charis, which are translated by "grace" in our English Bible, have a wide variety of meanings, some of which are irrelevant to our purpose. It is of importance here to note that the word in the Bible may mean (1) an attitude of favor in God to any one; (2) undeserved favor; (3) favor which God works in the hearts of his people whereby he produces faith and conversion; (4) good things which we owe to the favor or grace of God.

The important question for us is this: Does God show any grace, any attitude of favor, and goodwill, any love, to unregenerate, specifically to such that are nonelect or reprobate sinners? We can begin by saying that as reprobate, as sinners, they are never the objects of God's favor, but always of his wrath. God is glorified in the administration of his justice as revealed in the eternal punishment of the wicked. There are many texts in the Bible which express the attitude of hatred of God to the wicked. Nevertheless, that same Bible does express an attitude of favor, even of love of God to nonelect sinners. In Romans 2:4 Paul speaks of the goodness of God to those who will be lost. "Goodness" here means not mere acts of goodness, but an attitude of goodness in God toward those addressed in that verse. This is clear, not only from the meaning of the word, which is "kindness," but also from the synonyms used there–"forbearance" and "long-suffering"–which also express attitudes in God. In Psalm 145:9 we read: "The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies [an attitude in God] are over all his works." Luke 6:35 instructs us: "Love ye your enemies . . . and ye shall be children of the Highest, for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil."

But how can God love and hate the same persons at the same time? If he hates the wicked, the reprobate, and will punish them for their sins, how can he be said in any sense to love them? According to strict supralapsarian logic, I suppose this is a real problem. For according to this view God, back in eternity, at the outset, decided as his very first decree to glorify himself in two of his attributes, his love and grace toward vessels of honor, the elect, and his punishing justice toward vessels of wrath fitted for destruction, the reprobate. Thereupon, as his second decree, God decided to create these vessels of honor and these vessels of wrath. Note that on this supralapsarian basis the reprobate are already conceived of in the decree of their creation as vessels of wrath. They never were considered objects of love in any sense. The infralapsarian view holds that God first decided to create human beings. As such they were all conceived as objects of his love. Then God decided to permit the fall and in his electing love to save some and to pass by others, the nonelect, and punish them in his wrath for their sins. On this basis it is possible for God to love the nonelect as creatures. A parallel instance would be the case of the righteous father whose heart bleeds for his lost son whose misdeeds demand his expulsion.

Calvin takes this position when he raises the very question here discussed: "Wherefore in a wonderful and divine manner He both hated and loved us at the same time. He hated us, as being different from what He made us; but as our iniquity had not entirely destroyed His work in us, He could at the same time in every one of us hate what he had done, and love what proceeded from himself." [Institutes, 2.16.4, quoting Augustine] Likewise in his replies to the calumnies made against his view of the secret providence of God, Calvin states in reply to Calumny I:
Proofs of the love of God towards the whole human race exist innumerable, all which demonstrate the ingratitude of those who perish or come "to perdition." This fact, however, forms no reason whatever why God should not confine His especial or peculiar love to a few, whom He has, in infinite condescension, been pleased to choose out of the rest. When God was pleased to adopt unto Himself the family of Abraham, He thereby most plainly testified that He did not embrace the whole of mankind with an equal love. . . . And in the next place, if God does love His own, it does not the less follow that He has a right to reject as a just Judge those to whom He has in vain shown His love and indulgence throughout their whole lives as the kindest Father [John Calvin, Calvin's Calvinism: A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God (London: Sovereign Grace Union, n.d.), pp. 26, 269–270.]
Thus from the writings of Scripture and from the teachings of Calvin, we learn that God does have an attitude of favor, or grace, to the nonelect, and that this common grace will one day add to their punishment, because it did not lead them to repentance and life for God.
Ibid., 54–56.

See also H. Henry Meeter, Calvinism: An Interpretation of Its Basic Ideas. Volume 1: The Theological and the Political Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1939), 73–76.

About this book, Louis Berkhof said, "No other work in the English language offers us such a concise, and yet complete and thoroughly reliable resume of the teachings of Calvinism." Cited in John J. Timmerman's Promises to keep: a centennial history of Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 59. This quote also appears on the back cover.


H. Henry Meeter (1886–1963) taught for thirty years in the Bible department of Calvin College. He had graduated from the same college and from Calvin Theological Seminary before obtaining a B.D. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He subsequently earned his Th.D. degree from the Free University of Amsterdam.

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