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We come now to the real reasons why Dr. Richard Mouw embraces the theory of a common grace of God upon and in unregenerated humans. These reasons are evident in Mouw’s book, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001). The reasons are not the clear, abundant, powerful testimony of Holy Scripture, much less the teaching of the Reformed confessions. But the reasons are that Dr. Mouw sees decent unbelievers performing deeds of justice, kindness, and mercy; that Dr. Mouw finds in himself a feeling of delight at the splendid skills and a feeling of sorrow at the dire distress of ungodly persons; and that Dr. Mouw is convinced that he and other Christians are duty-bound to cooperate with non-Christians on behalf of a good, even God-glorifying, culture.

Although most defenders of common grace are not as candid as Richard Mouw, these are the real reasons for the advocacy of common grace by all its defenders.

We must not underestimate the power of these reasons, or grounds, of the theory of common grace. What we see with our own eyes, our own feelings especially of sympathy with the suffering, and our natural impulse to improve the world, regardless that we must cooperate with those who deny Christ, have a way of setting aside the confessions and blinding us to the testimony of Scripture.

In full awareness of the power and appeal of Dr. Mouw’s real reasons for holding common grace, let us examine these reasons.

 

The Seeming Good of the Ungodly

 

First, there is the goodness that Dr. Mouw supposes he sees in many unregenerated men and women.

As A Calvinist, I accept the fundamental classification of humankind into two categories, the elect and the non-elect, and I believe that while we are all totally depraved, God enables his redeemed people to perform acts of righteousness that would not be possible apart from divine grace. But I also witness—regularly, I must emphasize—acts of kindness on the part of the unredeemed that clearly seem to be in conformity to revealed standards of righteousness. Nor am I inclined simply to dismiss these acts as nothing more than well-disguised deeds of unrighteousness. There is, for example, a large moral difference between the acts of the courageous, unbelieving white people who risked and even lost their lives in the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s and the acts of those unbelievers who willfully carried out Hitler’s orders in exterminating the Jews (He Shines, p. 38).

It is not only the case that these deeds seem good to Dr. Mouw. But Mouw affirms that these works are good in the judgment of God. They are not good as are the works that the regenerated perform in the power of the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, but they are truly good. These deeds of the unregenerated please God. “God also gives positive moral appraisals to non-elect persons” (He Shines, p. 37).

The error of this evaluation of the seeming goodness of natural men and women is not necessarily that it overlooks base motives in every case. Not every unbelieving husband loves his wife only for his own selfish ends. Not every ungodly soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to save his buddies does so for posthumous fame. There is a natural love that moves the mother to sacrifice herself for her child and the soldier to give his life for his comrades. There is a natural zeal for earthly liberty that motivates the patriot to deny himself for his country. There is even a natural affection for the human race that drives some to spend their lives and fortunes for the good of mankind.

 

The Ignored Goodness of God

 

The error of the evaluation of the deeds of many unregenerated as good is not so much that it esteems the seeming good of the ungodly too high. Rather, the error is that it esteems God too low. Indeed, it esteems God not at all. For the evaluation of the seemingly good works of the ungodly as truly good, that is, good in the appraisal of God Himself, leaves out that these works are not done to the glory of God. The sinner does not do them in the service of God. The one who performs these deeds is not motivated by thankfulness to God for His gracious salvation in Jesus Christ.

But such is the Godhead of the triune, one, true God revealed in Jesus Christ, such is His weightiness, His worth, and His goodness with regard to us human creatures and our works, that whatever work does not take Him into account, does not aim at and end in Him, and does not manifest and promote His glory—that work is sin. It is gross sin. Comparatively, it is far worse—infinitely worse—than a sin that merely fails to work for the welfare of, and thus injures, one’s fellowman.

No matter that a work is full of the natural love of a mother for her child, or even that an entire life of works is unselfishly devoted to the human race and its welfare (as though the welfare of the human race were possible apart from God in Jesus Christ!), the work and the life are base and evil. They represent man seeking man, man serving man, man worshiping man, man glorifying man.

“Rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (Rom. 1:25).

The fundamental truth about good works is that it is the goodness of the goal, or end, of a work—God Himself, who alone is good (Matt. 19:17)—that makes a work good. No more than a rifle-shot can be good that misses the target, misses the target because the rifleman deliberately and foolishly aimed elsewhere, regardless that the shot in other respects shows some remarkable features, for example, that the eye of the rifleman was accurate, the aim was steady, and the bullet hit the target that was sighted, can a work be good that ignores God. Of course, if a work ignores God, it insults and opposes Him.

The fundamental truth about good works is God. God and His glory as the end, or aim, or goal of a work constitute the goodness of a work. For God to appraise a work as good that is not directed to God and His glory would be for God to deny Himself.

Evaluation of Works in the Reformed Tradition

This God-centered estimation of all the works of men is prominent in the Reformed tradition. In his book on the very subject of the total depravity of the natural man, that is, man apart from the regenerating grace of God in Jesus Christ, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (Baker, 1996), John Calvin wrote: “The worth of good works depends not on the act itself but on perfect love for God so that a work will not be right and pure unless it proceeds from a perfect love for God” (p. 27). Jonathan Edwards was of the same mind: “And therefore certainly, unless we will be atheists, we must allow that true virtue does primarily and most essentially consist in a supreme love to God; and that where this is wanting, there can be no true virtue.” Edwards continued:

Nothing is of the nature of true virtue, in which God is not the first and the last; or which, with regard to their exercises in general have not their first foundation and source in apprehension of God’s supreme dignity and glory, and in answerable esteem and love of him, and have not respect to God as the supreme end (“The Nature of True Virtue,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, Banner of Truth, 1974, pp. 126, 127).

The Reformed creeds have made this right judgment of all human works binding upon all Reformed churches and Christians. The Westminster Confession of Faith judges all works done by unregenerate persons to be sinful. Specifically, Westminster judges those very deeds of unregenerated persons that Dr. Mouw and all other defenders of common grace esteem as good to be, in fact, sinful, and only sinful. The Confession judges these deeds to be sinful because they are not done “to a right end, the glory of God.”

 

Works done by unregenerate men, although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from an 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 unto God (WCF, 16.7)

There is, indeed, a distinction between two kinds of works performed by unbelievers. But it is not a distinction between works that are good and works that are sinful, works that please God and works that displease God. Rather, it is the distinction between works that are sinful and works that are more sinful, works that displease Him and works that displease Him more. Because God is glorified only by works that conform to His law, which is the command “Love Jehovah your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” only those human works that are done in obedience to the law please God. No work that is completely lacking in love for God can be good. Because the only source of goodness for fallen man is the crucified and risen Jesus Christ by His Spirit, only those works that proceed from a true faith in Christ are good. Even these works must be purified by the blood of Jesus to be pleasing to God.

Question 91 of the Heidelberg Catechism also passes judgment upon all the works of all unconverted men and women, that they are evil. The Catechism adds the warning, that we not allow our imagination to decide the goodness of works.

God’s Evaluation of Works in His Word

Scripture’s judgment of the works of the unregenerated is radically different from that of Dr. Mouw and all defenders of common grace. The fundamental wickedness of the unregenerated Gentiles is that “when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful” (Rom. 1:21). Dr. Mouw and the other defenders of common grace certainly must acknowledge that, whatever else one might want to say about certain works of the unregenerated, they are not performed in order to glorify God, or out of thankfulness to God. But Scripture declares that for this reason alone, because unregenerated people do not glorify God and because they are not thankful, such people and all their works are foul. Upon them falls the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18).

Scripture passes the same judgment upon all the works of unbelievers when it says that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Granted, the reference is primarily to the works of believers which in spite of the faith of the believers do not arise from their faith. For this very reason, the argument against the works of the unbeliever is a strong one. First, the Word of God clearly makes an all-comprehensive judgment concerning human works: “Whatsoever is not of [Greek: ‘out of’] faith is sin.” Did the civil rights activists in the 1960s conduct their campaign “out of faith”? If not, their deeds were sin. (If the civil rights activists engaged in revolution against the authority of the state—civil disobedience—it is certain that they did not act from faith.) Does the decent family man next door love his wife and children out of faith in Christ? If not, his natural affection is sin, although his failing to be faithful would be greater sin. As the article in the Westminster Confession quoted above shrewdly adds, works done by unregen-erated men are sinful even though these works may be “of good use both to themselves and others.”

Second, the force of Romans 14:23is this: If even the works of regenerated believers that do not proceed from faith are sin, how much more the works of those who have no faith.

This settles the question whether God takes delight in the prowess of the unbelieving athlete. Mouw mentions the putting ability of Tiger Woods. My first reaction was regret that Dr. Mouw had not made a stronger case for his position by referring to real athletic ability, for example, hitting the ninety-mile an hour fastball or sinking the fifteen-foot hook shot. But the answer will be the same. The athletic skills of the ungodly as they are actually put to use, God detests. They are the skills of one who is ungodly in all his abilities and activities. They are of no use to God or man. They desecrate His Sabbath. They are part of the insane worship of the sports-hero that holds millions in thrall. Honing these skills is the waste, not only of time but of an entire life. God takes no pleasure in the legs of a man (Ps. 147:10). The plowing of the wicked, much more the putting, is sin (Prov. 21:4).

 

Judging as God Judges

 

Dr. Mouw has never seen an unbeliever who is good. He sees many who are decent, law-abiding, considerate, and friendly. But none glorifies God or is thankful to God. None, therefore, is fair, shining with the beauty of the holy God. All are foul. Upon them all is the curse of God, if they do not repent of all their sins, the seemingly good as well as the obviously vile. With the gospel of Scripture, Dr. Mouw must make this judgment upon all unbelievers, as must we all.

Neither has Dr. Mouw ever seen one good work performed by an unregenerated person. He sees many works that are outwardly impressive. Some even glitter. But none originates in the risen Jesus Christ by a living faith in Him; none is in accordance with the will of God that a man love Him from the heart; and none aims higher than the earth and the human race. Not one work of the unregenerated man or woman, therefore, is fair. God’s own beauty does not shine in any of the works of the ungodly. All the works of unbelievers are foul with the depravity of seeking man rather than God. Upon these works falls the wrath of God, now and in the final judgment. Dr. Mouw is called to make this searing, humbling judgment of the gospel upon all the works of man apart from Christ his own, as are we all.

God shines in all that’s fair. What is fair is that in nature which still shows the power and divinity of its Creator and that in the human race which now displays the lovely beginning of the new creation in Jesus Christ by His Spirit.

Foul is all that which does not glorify the God and Father of Jesus Christ. In and upon it all is the curse.

We will see this, if we look at man and the world in the light of God.

— DJE