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As the previous editorial pointed out, the recent book by Richard J. Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001), contends that the theory of common grace that was adopted by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1924 can be helpful to all Christians. Its usefulness is that, in a world of division and strife, it provides a basis for the friendship of Christian and non-Christian and, especially, for the cooperation of Christians with non-Christians in working for a decent, humane, and even God-glorifying culture.

With the notable exception of its teaching of a “well-meant offer of salvation” to all who hear the gospel, which was added by the CRC, the theory of common grace that the CRC adopted in 1924 is basically the doctrine that was developed by the Dutch Reformed theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. The theory holds that God has an attitude of favor in history toward all humans without exception. In this common favor, God gives to all, the reprobate ungodly as well as the elect believers, such material gifts as health and family, rain and sunshine, and wealth and long life. In this favor, He also works in all men by His Holy Spirit. To this gracious operation of the Spirit in the unregenerated are due both his natural gifts, for example, the musical ability of a Mozart and the putting prowess of a Tiger Woods, and, more importantly, the restraint of sin in him so that he is only partially depraved. By virtue of the good that is in him by the gracious, though non-saving, operation of the Spirit, the unregenerated can perform works that are truly good. This goodness of the non-Christian is the ground of the Christian’s friendship with him, of the Christian’s appreciation of much of the culture of the ungodly world, and of the Christian’s cooperation with unbelievers to develop a culture that is even better.

Dr. Mouw urges a more active use of common grace by those Calvinists who confess it. He is critical of the passivity of many, who seem to be content merely to recognize common grace in the falling of the rain on the wicked and in the good deeds of unbelievers. Calvinists who confess common grace must proclaim it as a basis of the shared life of all humanity and as a foundation of united cultural endeavor. These Calvinists must also aggressively practice common grace in “common grace ministries,” for example, teaching in the public schools, counseling non-Christians with psychological and marital problems, helping the poor, and addressing national policies and problems in the “public square.”

Mouw himself emphasizes the “empathy” of God that is implied by common grace. In His favor to all, God shares the feelings of unbelieving men and women. God rejoices with the non-Christian husband and wife who are reconciled after the husband’s adultery. He sympathizes with the Muslim mother whose child is brutally murdered before her eyes by her oppressors.

Even though he is an advocate of common grace, Richard Mouw takes seriously the opposition to the theory of common grace by Herman Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). It is the arguments of Dr. Mouw in defense of common grace, against the objections of Hoeksema and the PRC, that are the concern of this editorial.

Absence of Scripture

Scripture plays almost no role whatever in Mouw’s apology for common grace. There is a reference to Revelation 21:24-26 as the passage that Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck explained as teaching that “the honor and glory of pagan cultures” will enter into the holy city in the Day of Christ. But this passage says nothing about a grace of God toward pagans. Verse 27 warns that nothing will enter the holy Jerusalem “that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie.” The notion of Kuyper and Bavinck is absurd. Will the angels carry into heaven a copy of Plato’s Symposium? Michelangelo’s David? Leonardo’s The Last Supper? the score of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9? Mouw himself is rightly dubious of the enthusiastic endorsement of heathen culture by the two Dutch theologians: “Those of us who endorse the idea of common grace would do well to recognize the ways in which its teachings frequently have fostered a trium—phalist spirit that has encouraged false hopes for a premature transformation of sinful culture” (p. 50).

Mouw’s appeal to I Peter 2:11-17, the related exhortation in I Peter 3:15, 16, and a corresponding passage in the Old Testament, Jeremiah 29, is not intended to prove a grace of God at work among the heathen and ungodly, but a certain calling of the people of God toward the heathen and ungodly (pp. 76ff.).

Only in the last chapter, late in the development of his defense of common grace, does Dr. Mouw bring up Luke 6:35, a text that is important in the controversy over common grace. Even then, Mouw’s use of the text is cautious and limited. He appeals to it against Hoeksema’s assertion that God “hates His enemies and purposes to destroy them, except them He chose in Christ Jesus.” Hoeksema’s assertion, says Mouw, “does not seem to comport well, however, with Christ’s command to ‘love your enemies, and do good, expecting nothing in return” even as the Father ‘is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked’ (Luke 6:35).” Then, overlooking that Hoeksema had denied that God loves His reprobate enemies, not that we should love our unbelieving enemies, Mouw adds, “When the Savior refers here to people who curse us and abuse us, is he thinking exclusively of our Christian enemies? It seems unlikely” (p. 83).

This is the extent of the reference to, and use of, Scripture. One text bearing on the issue of common grace is quoted in part and is then very briefly and hesitantly explained as favoring a grace of God to the reprobate ungodly.

This is not intended as a criticism of Dr. Mouw. There can be no doubt whatever that he knows all the passages that the defenders of common grace have adduced in support of the doctrine. We may be sure that he is thoroughly conversant as well with the interpretation of these texts by the defenders of common grace. But Richard Mouw is a candid man. The real reason why he embraces and promotes common grace is not the clear, compelling testimony of Holy Scripture. He says as much when he admits that, after forty years of studying the issue, he is still not clear as to what common grace is.

Real Reasons for Common Grace

In He Shines in All That’s Fair, Richard Mouw sets forth the real reasons for his acceptance and advocacy of a common grace of God. Mouw, a Christian and a Reformed man, sees in unregenerated men and women in Southern California and elsewhere a goodness that does not harmonize with the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. He sees non-Christians who are decent, moral, friendly, loving, kind, and compassionate. He sees men and women who are avowed unbelievers performing works that are good: reconciling in marriage, caring for their children, helping the poor, giving their life in selfless devotion to their country or their fellowmen.

The reason for Mouw’s advocacy of common grace is that he finds in himself an empathy with ungodly people that seems to conflict with the Reformed faith’s teaching that God hates the reprobate wicked. Mouw takes delight in the putting ability of a Sabbath—desecrating professional golfer. Much more important to the Fuller Seminary theologian is his pity for the Muslim mother, worshiper of Allah, whose infant child is killed before her eyes by the men who have just raped her.

And the reason for his embrace of common grace is that Dr. Richard Mouw, learned, influential Christian scholar and teacher, thinks that he and other Christians should be able to cooperate with unbelievers on behalf of a culture of justice, mercy, and peace. But he is well aware of the Reformed doctrine of the antithesis between the church and the world, believer and unbeliever, godly and ungodly. He Shines in All That’s Fair has a lengthy section on the antithesis. Nor is Mouw of a mind to repudiate the antithesis. On the contrary, he takes issue with his mentor, Henry Stob, who was inclined to limit the antithesis to opposing principles of goodness and evil in the world. Mouw recognizes that the biblical antithesis comes between persons.

A theory that accounts for what Mouw sees, feels, and thinks is common grace. Does he see goodness in the world of fallen men and women? A common grace of God must be at work in this world. Does he feel pity for the tormented Muslim woman? This pity must be a reflection of a common grace compassion that God Himself has for the woman, idolater though she is. Does he desire to work together with non-Christians to hold together the fragmenting culture of North America and even to make it a good culture? This desire must be grounded ultimately in a purpose of God Himself to create good, “godly” cultures in history by the common grace efforts of decent unbelievers and especially by the united efforts of believers and unbelievers.

Common grace solves the problem of the discrepancy between what Mouw sees, feels, and thinks and what the Reformed confession maintains. Mouw sees goodness in the world of fallen, natural men and women, whereas the Reformed confession teaches total depravity. The solution is a common grace of God that gives some deliverance from the condition of total depravity without affirming the natural goodness of fallen man.

Mouw’s pity for an idolater suggests a compassion of God for the reprobate wicked, whereas the Reformed confession teaches that God is compassionate toward the elect only and that His wrath is revealed from heaven against the pagans who hold the truth under in unrighteousness. The solution is a common grace favor of God toward the wicked, distinct from His special, saving grace to the elect.

Mouw thinks that he should form friendships with non-Christians and that he should work with them to create a good culture, whereas the Reformed confession teaches separation and hostility between the believer and the unbeliever. The solution is a common grace of God that believer and unbeliever share and practice in the sphere of everyday, earthly life, while remaining separated as regards worship and salvation.

Common grace is the distinctly (not: distinctively) Reformed way of accommodating the Bible’s severe judgment upon the world of the ungodly and the Bible’s equally stringent call to believers to spiritual separation from this world to the seemingly contrary facts of our experience. Reformed people are not the only ones to have noticed the apparent good of the ungodly, or to have felt that God ought to have some sympathy for His reprobate enemies, or to have thought it proper for Christians to enjoy friendship with non-Christians and to cooperate with non-Christians in building a good society. Theological liberals explain these things in terms of the natural goodness and brotherhood of all mankind (now: humankind). Roman Catholics fall back on natural theology. These doctrines have been objectionable to Reformed theologians, although Rome’s natural theology is now finding some favor. But common grace provides the very same conclusions and warrants the very same practices as liberalism and Roman Catholicism: the goodness of unregenerated man; a love of God for all; the friendship (brotherhood?) of believer and unbeliever; and the union of church and world in building a good culture, or, shall we say, kingdom of man. And the theory of common grace has the advantage of a Reformed reputation.

In basing the theory of common grace upon his own seeing, feeling, and thinking, rather than upon the Word of God, Dr. Mouw is not unique. What sets him apart from many other defenders of common grace is his candor in acknowledging what the real basis of common grace is. Common grace as developed by Kuyper and Bavinck, adopted by the CRC in 1924, and now widely advertised in the Reformed community as one of the hallmarks of Calvinism is simply not the doctrinal fruit of careful, thorough study of the Word of God. Scripture does not teach the partial depravity of the unregenerated. Scripture does not teach that the works of those who are dead in trespasses and sin are good—good in God’s judgment as the product of His grace. Scripture does not share the enthusiasm of the defenders of common grace for the possibilities of a good culture as the result of the united efforts of the church and the world. It is tough going to find Scripture permitting, much less commanding, the friendship of the seed of the woman with the seed of the serpent.

Nor does the theory of common grace that is now a shibboleth in Reformed churches derive from John Calvin. Calvin on the rare occasion speaks unadvisedly of a “peculiar grace” in the ungodly, usually in connection with Calvin’s recognition of outstanding natural gifts possessed by them. But one will search Calvin in vain for a grace that renders the unbeliever only partially depraved, that produces a positively good culture from the efforts of those who hate God, that is a basis of the friendship of Christian and non-Christian, and that expresses the purpose of God to create good cultures in history apart from His crucified and risen Son. The father of culture-building common grace in the Reformed tradition is not John Calvin, but Abraham Kuyper. Common grace is certainly not a main theme in the theology of John Calvin. It is not even a theme. It is barely a mention.

Doing Theology at Monroe and Division

Common grace is based on what we see, feel, and think as we observe our neighbors and the world. This explains its popularity and its endurance, in spite of the contrary testimony of the Reformed confessions and in spite of its flimsy, scant support in the Bible. “Let the critics of common grace say what they will, we see good in the ungodly; we feel pity for them in their woe, and God should feel pity also; we cannot but think that we ought to pitch in with the decent non-Christians to make our society, and man’s life in it, good—a society reflecting, not Christ, but ‘Judeo-Christian principles.'”

If the issue is to be decided on the basis of what we see, feel, and think, the theory of common grace wins hands down. For we critics of common grace also see fine, decent, moral, friendly, likable unbelievers. We too see good in the ungodly, much good. Sympathizing with the suffering neighbor who worships another god, or no god at all, we too wonder why God does not feel pity for him. We also groan over the division, folly, injustice, and misery of human life in a society, a nation, and a world and are tempted to suppose that the Christian is permitted, indeed called, to join with non-Christians in what would then seem the noblest of all causes: creating a society, a nation, a world, of justice, peace, beauty, and goodness. Without the gospel and Spirit of Jesus Christ!

We see such things, feel such things, and think such things when we see, feel, and think apart from the Word of God.

This was what Herman Hoeksema was warning against, I now realize, when more than once during my seminary days he would say, “Do not do your theology on the corner of Monroe and Division” (in those days, the heart of the life of the city of Grand Rapids).

Neither may Richard Mouw do his theology on the streets of Southern California.

Regardless of the seemingly contrary evidence of our experience of the world, we must resolutely form our theology from Holy Scripture, guided by the Reformed confessions.

Then it will be true that “He shines in all that’s fair,” but the “fair” must be truly “fair.” And it will also be true, and our theology will state it, that He curses all that’s foul.

— DJE