Even though the reasons for Dr. Mouw’s embrace of common grace are his perception of good in the world of the ungodly, his feelings of delight and pity regarding the abilities and the woes of the wicked, and his conviction that believers must cooperate with unbelievers in the building of a good culture, he does appeal to one biblical text in support of his belief. He also refers to two significant passages in the Reformed confessions. Before we consider his arguments from the apparent good of the ungodly, from the Christian’s pity for the distressed idolater, and from the involvement of believers in culture, we must look at Mouw’s biblical and confessional proof for common grace.
A Prominent Text in the Common Grace Controversy
The one text of Scripture that Mouw adduces in support of common grace is Luke 6:35. This is a text that has played a prominent role in the controversy over common grace in Reformed circles. Defenders of common grace have always appealed to it as one of the clearest, most powerful proofs of a favor of God to the reprobate wicked. The text reads: “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.” The text is part of the passage beginning with verse 27 in which Jesus calls His disciples to love their enemies.
Dr. Mouw interprets the text as teaching that “God has a positive, albeit non-salvific, regard for those who are not elect, a regard that he asks us to cultivate in our own souls” (He Shines in All That’s Fair, p. 82). Mouw thinks that the “unthankful and … evil” to whom God is kind are all humans without exception, particularly those men and women whom God has eternally reprobated (p. 83).
Dr. Mouw is certainly right when he insists that the text requires believers to love their unbelieving enemies. For all we know, they may be reprobates. They hate us, curse us, and persecute us. They are our enemies on account of our confession of Christ. They need our prayers, that they be converted and saved.
I hope that Dr. Mouw does not suppose that as part of their opposition to common grace Protestant Reformed people deny that they are to love their unbelieving neighbors. He leaves the impression of this misunderstanding. Having quoted Herman Hoeksema to the effect that God hates His reprobate enemies, Mouw appeals to Luke 6:35 as teaching that we must love our unbelieving enemies (p. 83). That we must love our neighbor, whether Christian or non-Christian, is not the issue. The question is: Does God love His reprobate enemies? Specifically, the question is: Are the unthankful and evil who are the objects of God’s kindness in Luke 6:35 reprobate persons?
Defenders of common grace assume that the unthankful and evil who are the objects of God’s kindness in Luke 6:35are all men without exception, thus including those whom He reprobated. Assuming this, they do not bother carefully to explain the last part of Luke 6:35 in the light of its context. It is enough that they cite it. But this begs the question. All agree that God is kind to unthankful and evil people. What needs to be proved is that God is kind to all humans who are unthankful and evil. More specifically, what needs to be proved is that God is kind to unthankful and evil reprobates.
What Manner of Kindness?
Plainly, Luke 6:35 cannot bear the interpretation given it by the defenders of common grace. This interpretation is that God is kind to reprobate unthankful and evil men with a non-saving, common grace kindness. As Dr. Mouw puts it, God’s kindness in Luke 6:35 is a “positive, albeit non-salvific, regard for those who are not elect” (p. 82). But the text teaches the saving grace, or kindness, of God toward unthankful and evil people. The word that is translated “kind” is the Greek word chreestos. This word is used of God elsewhere in the New Testament in I Peter 2:3 and inRomans 2:4. In I Peter 2:3, where the King James Version translates the word as “gracious,” the word refers to God’s kindness in saving His elect. “As newborn babes,” regenerated believers are to desire the sincere milk of the Word, “if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious (Greek: chreestos).” In Romans 2:4, the King James Version translates chreestos as “goodness”: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” Inasmuch as this goodness, or kindness, of God leads one to repentance, it is a saving kindness, not a common grace kindness.
The one use of the word to describe the attitude of the saints likewise shows kindness to be a saving perfection. Ephesians 4:32 exhorts church members to be “kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” The expression of kindness is forgiveness of sins.
If the unthankful and evil inLuke 6:35 are reprobate men and women, the text teaches that God is kind to them with a saving kindness, or grace. He saves these unthankful and evil people, leading them to repentance and forgiving their sins.
That the kindness of verse 35 is saving grace, not a common grace kindness, is established by verse 36: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” In the love and kindness that we must show to our enemies, we are to be merciful. Our mercy reflects the mercy of our Father. Although the objects of our Father’s mercy are not explicitly stated in verse 36, there can be no doubt that they are the same unthankful and evil persons who are mentioned in verse 35. God is merciful to the same persons to whom He is kind, and His mercy is the supreme manifestation of His kindness. But the divine mercy is such a pity of God toward sinners as yearns to deliver them from their sins and from the misery of their sins. Mercy is not a mere desire to give a wretched sinner some rain on his corn field, or a pork chop on his plate, or even a happy marriage.
If the unthankful and evil ofLuke 6:35 are all humans without exception, including especially the reprobate, the text teaches far too much for the defenders of common grace. It does not teach a meager “positive, albeit non-salvific, regard for those who are not elect.” It teaches a robust kindness that wills to save them. It teaches a pity toward them that yearns to redeem them.
This understanding of the kindness of God in Luke 6:35 is demanded by the preceding context, verses 27ff. There is a relation between our love for our neighbors and God’s love for the unthankful and evil. Our love reflects His love: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (v. 36). Like Father, like children: “But love ye your enemies … and ye shall be the children of the Highest” (v. 35). In our love for our enemies, we are to pray for them, that is, pray for their salvation: “Pray for them which despitefully use you” (v. 28). This implies a sincere desire on our part for their repentance and salvation. If now the kindness of God that we reflect is a kindness toward all without exception, including reprobate men and women, God too must sincerely desire the repentance and salvation of all without exception. But such a kindness, or grace, is not common grace, “a non-salvific regard for those who are not elect.” It is saving grace.
Who Are the Unthankful and Evil?
Scripture denies that God is kind and merciful to unthankful and evil reprobates, having compassion on them in their misery, willing their salvation, leading them to repentance, and forgiving their sins: “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion…. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:15, 18). Scripture teaches that the Christ of God, carrying out the will of God who sent Him, refused to pray for all men without exception. Thus, He showed that He did not sincerely desire the salvation of all without exception. He prayed only for those whom the Father had given Him out of the world. “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine” (John 17:9).
The meaning of Luke 6:35 is that we Christians are to love our neighbors, including our enemies. These enemies are unbelievers, non-Christians, who are hostile toward us because of our confession and discipleship of Christ. They may well be reprobate enemies, although we hope that our prayers and kind behavior may be useful to win them to Christ.
In loving our enemies, we reflect the character of our Father. Like Father, like children. For God is kind to unthankful and evil people. He is not kind to all unthankful and evil people. Nor does Luke 6:35 say this. But He is kind to people who are unthankful and evil. These are the elect in Christ, “the children of the Highest,” who now are called and privileged to show the marvelous goodness of their heavenly Father in their own attitude and behavior toward their enemies.
We were the unthankful and evil when in kindness He set His love upon us in the eternal decree of election.
We were the unthankful and evil when in kindness He gave up His own Son for us in the redeeming death of the cross.
We were the unthankful and evil when in kindness He translated us by the regenerating Spirit into the kingdom of His dear Son.
And still we are the unthankful and evil when daily, in kindness, He brings us to repentance, forgives our sins, preserves us in the faith, and shows us a fatherly face in Jesus Christ. For, although by His grace we are also thankful and holy, we have only a very small beginning of this thankfulness and holiness. How unthankful we are for the love of God to us in Jesus Christ! And this is evil! This is a great evil!
He Shines in All That’s Fair appeals to one text in support of common grace:Luke 6:35. But this text does not teach a common grace of God. It teaches a saving kindness of God. If the unthankful and evil in the text are all humans without exception, the text teaches that the saving grace of God is universal, a doctrine that the rest of Scripture denies, a doctrine that the Reformed confessions condemn, and a doctrine that Dr. Mouw repudiates.
Since this is a text that all defenders of common grace thoughtlessly appeal to, others as well, it may be hoped, will now reconsider their use of it in defense of common grace and, perhaps, their defense of common grace itself.
A Particular “Common Grace”
I idly wonder whether the defenders of common grace ever recognize that their interpretation of Luke 6:35 fails even on the assumptions of the theory of common grace. Suppose that the kindness of the text is a common grace kindness of God. In this imaginary case, God’s kindness is His loving desire to give everybody a comfortable physical life, nice material things, and earthly happiness, as well as His actual bestowal of all this upon everybody.
God is not kind in this way to all unthankful and evil people. What about the millions of children born into poverty, famine, sickness, and abuse? What about the hundreds of thousands born with dreadful handicaps of body and mind? What about the millions wracked with pain, crushed with burdens, broken with disappointments, desolate with despair, terrified by fears, destroyed by war?
Is God kind with a common grace kindness to all unthankful and evil people? Is He thus kind even to most unthankful and evil people?
I do not see it.
His supposed common grace proves to be as particular as His (real) saving grace.