The second reason why Dr. Richard Mouw embraces common grace is his own “empathy” with the ungodly. (For the first reason, see the editorial in the Standard Bearer, May 15, 2002.) “Empathy” is one’s entering into the feelings of another so as to share those feelings. Dr. Mouw rejoices with the wicked in their prosperity. He sorrows with unbelievers in their suffering. This proves the common grace of God, Dr. Mouw argues, since God must feel toward the wicked as Dr. Mouw feels. If Dr. Mouw shares the joy of an unbelieving husband and wife who reconcile after separation, God must rejoice with them as well. If Dr. Mouw sympathizes with the Muslim woman who is raped by soldiers and whose baby is murdered before her eyes, God must grieve with her as well. But such empathy on the part of God can only be due to a gracious attitude of God toward the ungodly, which, of course, is a fundamental teaching of common grace.
God’s “Empathy” for the Ungodly
Mouw advances this ground for common grace in a section of his book, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001), headed, “Divine Empathy.”
I want now to frame the issues [of common grace] in terms of divine empathy. Is it plausible for us to think that there are times when God looks favorably upon the non-elect in this sense: that he has empathy for their very real experiences of joy and sadness, just as he certainly does for those of the elect?
He imagines a non-Christian couple who are reconciled after the wounding of their marriage by the husband’s adultery. The Christian therapist who has helped in the reconciliation sheds tears of happiness over the restoration of the marriage. Mouw proposes that “the Lord himself was involved in the joy of this reconciliation.”
Similarly, according to the champion of common grace, God sorrows with the suffering unbeliever. To prove this contention Mouw relates a revolting incident from real life. After soldiers raped her as part of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign in Eastern Europe, the Muslim woman pleaded for her life on behalf of her baby. Whereupon one of the soldiers cut off the head of the child and placed it on the mother’s breast. Mouw’s response, like that of every Christian, is anger and sorrow. From his own sorrow, Mouw infers the sorrow of God at the suffering of the Muslim woman. In a rhetorical question, Mouw affirms that “the heart of God also break[s] when something like this happens.”
Dr. Mouw’s conclusion is blunt and clear: ” There is a divine empathy that is evoked when a non-Christian woman is brutally raped, or when marital reconciliation takes place between two thoroughgoing secularists.” And behind this divine empathy is the common grace of God.
This argument for common grace is undoubtedly widespread and powerful. It need not be thought through in carefully reasoned propositions. It is simply felt. “I grieve with the terrible suffering of ungodly men, women, and children, and God must grieve too.”
Is Our Attitude God’s?
Nevertheless, the argument is, as they say, a stretch. It is by no means apparent that Richard Mouw may infer God’s attitude toward the ungodly from Richard Mouw’s attitude toward the ungodly. For one thing, Richard Mouw’s attitude may be wrong, even sinful. This was the case regarding the attitude of King Jehoshaphat toward King Ahab of Israel. Jehoshaphat loved Ahab and empathized with Ahab’s zeal to make war with Syria. The prophet of God sharply rebuked Jehoshaphat for his attitude toward the idolatrous king of Israel: “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? Therefore is wrath upon thee from before the Lord” (II Chron. 19:2).
For another thing, certain attitudes toward events and toward our neighbors are proper for us human beings that are not at all the attitudes of God toward these same events and persons. Jeremiah lamented the destruction of Jerusalem with all its misery for raped women, murdered children, and tortured men, but it was the Lord who did all this in His righteous anger. The prophet expressly says that God did not pity (Lam. 2:2). Eli warned his wicked sons with a father’s loving desire that they not perish but repent and be saved. The attitude of God toward Eli’s sons, however, was hatred that willed and accomplished their destruction (I Sam. 2:22-25).
One instance of a radical difference of attitude between God and us toward one and the same person will commend itself to defenders of common grace like Richard Mouw. Such defenders of common grace, following Abraham Kuyper, hold both a grace of God toward the reprobate ungodly as regards temporal life and a qualitatively different kind of grace toward the elect as regards salvation. Mouw confesses predestination, election and reprobation, as taught by the Canons of Dordt. He distinguishes God’s common grace favor from His electing and saving grace.
The instance of two different attitudes is this. A Christian father with a wayward child will grieve over the child’s unbelief and disobedience. All his life, the father will warn the child and pray for him. If the child dies evidently outside of Christ, the father’s heart will be broken. This sorrow arises from the father’s love for his child, a love that vehemently desires the child’s salvation. And this sorrow with its source in love is right, although it must always finally be qualified by submission to the will of God. But no one may conclude from the attitude and feelings of the father that God’s attitude toward the child is the same as that of the father. Assuming that the child is a reprobate, an Esau, Dr. Mouw will readily grant that God’s attitude toward the child is an attitude of hatred according to which God in His just judgment passed the child by with the grace of election from eternity and withheld the grace of salvation from the child in time (Canons I/15). The father loves the child, desiring his salvation; God hates the child, purposing his damnation.
In the matter of attitudes and feelings toward human beings, we may not draw a line from the attitude of the Christian toward his neighbors to the attitude of God toward these same persons. The Christian is related to other humans by the strong ties of mutual flesh and blood. Out of this shared humanity wells up empathy. In addition, the Christian is called to love the fellow humans whom God puts near him, as neighbors, by seeking their good. God’s relation to these same humans, however, is not that of neighbor. It is the relation of Creator and creature. As regards the relation between God and sinful men and women outside of Jesus Christ, it is that of the awful, holy, and just Judge and guilty, foul creatures. Scripture reveals that God “shines in all that’s fair.” It also reveals that He curses all that’s foul.
Does God rejoice with the ungodly in their prosperity?
Psalm 73 is God’s own answer to this question. As regards the “prosperity of the wicked” (v. 3), by His giving the wicked many good things and in their enjoyment of a comfortable earthly life, God sets them “in slippery places.” He casts them “down into destruction,” so that they are “brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors” (vv. 18, 19). No empathy of shared joy here!
God has no joy in the pleasures of the ungodly. He has no joy in their life at all. Their life angers Him, for they live apart from, and in enmity against, Him. All their pleasures are sinful pleasures, for whether they eat or drink, work or play, marry or divorce, they do nothing to the glory of God. What joy can God have in sin?
God has no “feeling” of delight in the things that most please and gladden the ungodly. As far as He is concerned, they have no business rejoicing in those things. “Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord” (Jer. 9:23, 24).
God has no joy in the reconciling of two unbelievers, for their reconciliation dares to propose peace apart from God in Jesus Christ. God has no joy in the “repentance” of one whose “repentance” does not include, indeed, is not rooted in, sorrow of heart that he has sinned against the good God. God has no joy in a non-Christian’s forgiveness of her adulterer husband, for she “forgives” without any reference to the sole ground and source of forgiveness, namely, the grace of God in the atonement of the cross. God has no joy in the loving marriage of two secularists, for they do not thankfully receive the great good of marriage from God its maker, nor live in it according to His will, nor devote it to His praise.
We opponents of common grace have this against the theory, that it is a spiritual soporific to the ungodly in their decent, comfortable, pleasurable, brief lives in the world. It is as if the preachers of common grace run along the banks of the lovely river on which the ungodly are drifting—ever more swiftly!—in their fine vessels, enjoying themselves to the fullest, shouting to the ungodly, “God loves you! He rejoices in your joy of floating comfortably down the river! He has a gracious purpose with your blessed river cruise!” And around the next bend are the dreadful falls that will plunge these ungodly into eternal perdition.
I wonder whether, since the defenders of common grace would not listen to the testimony of the Protestant Reformed Churches, God will not have the damned convince them of the error of common grace. On the day of judgment, before the condemned depart to their place, they will turn to those who taught and defended common grace, and say, “Why did you go out of your way to leave the impression with us that all was well with us in the very favor of God? Why did you not warn us, sharply and incessantly, that God’s wrath lay on our prosperity, that He was angry with our joy, and that His curse was in our house, so long as we remained unconverted to Him, to whom all life ought to have been lived? Why did you Calvinists not teach us what your own Heidelberg Catechism plainly asserts in Lord’s Day 50, namely, that God’s good gifts are one thing and His blessing quite another, that people can have the gifts without the blessing, and that the gifts without the blessing do not profit?”
God does not empathize with the joys of the ungodly. Nor does He sympathize with the suffering of the wicked. Dr. Mouw is deeply grieved at the suffering of the Muslim woman to whose rape is added the misery of the cruel murder of her baby. Understandably and rightly so! Who has not groaned over the anguish of his fellow humans in this world of unspeakable woe? I suppose that everyone has burned into his soul a particular incident of heartrending distress. For Dr. Mouw, it is the event involving the Muslim woman. For me, it is an incident described in William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There is the great hole containing the bodies of many Jews already machine-gunned by the S.S. In the new batch of Jews lined up at the edge of the pit is a little Jewish boy, about ten years old. As the Nazis wait, cold, callous, even enjoying what they are about to do, cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, the little boy, not comprehending, but fearful, clings to his father. Looking down on his son’s anxious but trusting face, the helpless father tries to comfort his child. In a moment father and son will go down into the huge grave, atop the mass of dead bodies, to be shot.
It breaks our heart.
But the suffering of the reprobate wicked outside of Jesus Christ does not break the heart of God. God Himself inflicts their suffering by His almighty power of providence as punishment for their sins. The human agents of the cruelties, the soldiers in Eastern Europe engaged in “racial cleansing” and the Nazis bent on genocide, are responsible, and they alone. God holds them responsible and will punish them for their brutalities, if they do not repent. Let these rapists, murderers of babies, and slaughterers of old men and little boys be damned! But in His sovereignty God acts through these despicable murderers and evildoers to punish the ungodly in righteousness.
The evils that anger and grieve Dr. Mouw—and me—as dastardly deeds of men are also aspects of the death that God pronounced and now visits upon a human race that rebelled against Him and fell away from Him (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). As such, these deeds must elicit from Dr. Mouw—and all of us—the response of awe before the God who is terrible in His justice and of a living sense of the greatness of our sin that it should deserve such punishments as these.
The very deeds that outrage and sadden Dr. Mouw—and me—rape and the murder of a baby, whose severed head is then cruelly laid on the mother’s breast, are deeds that Scripture says are done to the ungodly by God. So far is it from being true that God sorrows over these sufferings of the wicked that, on the contrary, God Himself brings them upon the wicked. Isaiah 13prophesies that the Babylonians will be thrust through with the swords of the Medes. The Babylonian children “shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished” (v. 16). It is Jehovah God who will bring all these evils upon Babylon: “I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible” (v. 11).
In fact, God brought these same atrocities upon His own people. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, young and old lay slain in the streets, maids were ravished, princes were hung up by their hands, and mothers boiled their own children. In all of this, “the Lord hath done that which he had devised; he hath fulfilled his word that he had commanded in the days of old; he hath thrown down, and hath not pitied” (Lam. 2:17).
Divine “Empathy” and Hell
If now the defender of common grace objects that a God who does not sorrow with the sufferings of the ungodly, but rather inflicts these sufferings, is not the loving God of the gospel, I respond, “What about everlasting hell?” Will not the loving God of the gospel punish all reprobate ungodly men and women with the torment of hell? Will not that suffering be far worse than the horrors endured by the Muslim woman or by the Jewish father and his son? Certainly, there will be no everlasting breaking of the heart of God over that most dreadful of all suffering.
We opponents of common grace have this against the theory, that it obliterates the wrath of God in history. Let some catastrophe befall the world, causing misery to the children of men, and common grace immediately cries out, “Oh, God is so sad at what has happened! God is suffering right along with the stricken people. Let’s get up a committee to help with the relief!” Common grace finds it hard to say, “The wrath of God is falling upon an ungodly world of unbelieving and disobedient people, who have now almost filled the cup of iniquity! Flee for refuge to the cross of Christ!”
Obliterating the reality of the wrath of God in history, common grace has a hard time with the wrath of God in eternity. Would not the move in the coming eternity from common grace to undiluted wrath signal a change in God? Would not the absence of His common grace in the coming eternity mean the loss of one of His precious virtues? Must not a God who empathizes with suffering idolaters now, empathizes so, that His heart breaks over their suffering, necessarily abolish, or empty, hell? And can God sympathize with men and women—truly suffer with them—apart from the incarnation and cross of Jesus Christ? Hebrews 4:15connects the sympathy of the Son of God with the high priesthood of Jesus.
It is vital that we proclaim, “He shines in all that’s fair.”
Everything is at stake in confessing also, “and curses all that’s foul.”