Confusion of Grace and Providence

It is a fundamental doctrinal error of the theory of common grace as taught by Dr. Richard Mouw in He Shines in All That’s Fair (Eerdmans, 2001), his mentor Abraham Kuyper, and his numerous allies in Reformed and Presbyterian churches worldwide, that it confuses grace and providence. The existence of the world is grace; that man did not become a devil at the fall was grace; rain and sunshine are grace; Beethoven’s musical ability was grace; that my decent, unbelieving neighbor does not commit the sins of the Marquis de Sade (so far as we know) is grace; and that Greece in times past and the United States in the present develop a grand civilization is grace.

Confusion of grace and providence is inexcusable for Reformed theologians and churches. The Reformed creeds plainly and sharply distinguish these two powers and works of God. The consequences of this confusion are destructive of the biblical, Reformed faith and life.

Providence, which follows upon the work of creation in the beginning, is divine power that keeps all things in existence and governs them (Heid. Cat., Lord’s Day 10; West. Conf., 5). Grace, which carries out the work of redemption, is divine power that blesses and saves guilty, depraved sinners (Heid. Cat., Lord’s Days 11-33; West. Conf., 7-18).

The power of providence is directed by the counsel of providence, which is the wise plan of God decreeing that and how all things will glorify Him in the day of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:9-11; Bel. Conf., Art. 13). The power of grace originates in and is controlled by the counsel of predestination, which purposes the salvation of the elect church (Eph. 1:3-12).

The power of providence is all comprehensive, extending as well to devils as to angels and including as well the wicked deeds of the reprobate as the good works of the elect (West. Conf., 5.4;Acts 4:23-28). The power of grace is particular, extending exclusively to the elect church in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28-11:36; Canons of Dordt).

Providence serves grace. God’s upholding and governing of all things accomplish the spiritual and eternal good of elect believers. In His providence, God sends evils upon the believer that work his good (Heid. Cat., Q. 26). According to the original German of Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the providence of God makes all things “come to us,” that is, to us who believe in Jesus Christ, from the fatherly hand of God (German: “alles … von seiner vaterlichen hand uns zukomme”). Providence works for the blessedness of the children of God. The Catechism is clear that providence does not intend, or effect, the blessedness of all humans without exception: “All things … come to us from His fatherly hand.”

Providence serves grace, but providence is not grace. Providence itself does not deliver from sin. Providence itself does not bless. Providence itself does not accomplish anyone’s true good. Providence itself does not reveal the love of God for anyone, just as it itself does not betoken God’s hatred for anyone. That is, from the fact that one exists, is marvelously gifted, and possesses great wealth, one cannot infer that he is the object of God’s favor. Think of the ungodly ofPsalm 73. Similarly, from the fact that one is grievously afflicted, one cannot infer that he is the object of divine wrath. Think of Job.

That providence is not grace is plain on the face of it. Mere existence is not grace for a man. Jesus said about the traitor that it “had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). Providence gives existence, and many splendid abilities, to the devil. If providence is grace, God is gracious to Satan.

Providence includes the evils in human life and history. If providence is grace, the flood was grace to those who perished in it; the brimstone and fire that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah were grace to those cities; the Nazi regime was grace to the Jews; and the rape and murder of little girls by monstrously wicked men in a decadent society are grace to those girls and their parents.

God’s providence will everlastingly uphold and govern hell and its inhabitants. Who will say that this providence will be grace to the damned?

Providence in itself is not grace even to the believing child of God. Consider the good things that fall to the believer. The well-watered land near Sodom was not blessing for Lot. The great wealth or the striking beauty that comes to a Christian may prove to be spiritually, and even physically, destructive.

Consider the evil things that befall a believer. In itself, the death of a loved one, or financial ruin, or cancer is no blessing, does not turn from sin, and lacks the power to draw the sufferer nearer to his God. By themselves, such evils embitter or depress. Not providence in itself, but the grace of God working with the evils in the believer’s heart and mind makes the evils beneficial.

Consider the sins in the life of the child of God. These too are included in providence. Was David’s adultery with Bathsheba grace and blessing for him? In itself? Was Peter’s denial of Christ grace for the disciple? That God governed these sinful deeds for the spiritual and everlasting good of David and Peter, and indeed of the whole church, is beyond question. But it was the grace of God that humbled, forgave, and then renewed David and Peter in connection with their melancholy falls that blessed them, not the sinful deeds themselves—mere providence. Grace is not in things; grace is in the Spirit and gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Things in themselves are not blessings, anymore than they are curses; blessing and curse are the living Word of God in and with and through things. God’s goodness to a person—the divine favor that blesses him—is not identical with, nor determined by, a person’s earthly prosperity; God’s goodness to a person is identical with, anddetermined by, his eternal election, known by a true faith in Christ, that guides a man or woman to everlasting glory, regardless of his or her physical, earthly, temporal misery and want. “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart,” though the clean of heart is plagued all the day long, and chastened every morning (Ps. 73).

Providence, Not Common Grace

All that Dr. Mouw attributes to common grace is, in fact, a matter of providence, and of creation, of which divine work providence is the continuation.

The continued existence of the world after man’s fall, as of reprobate, ungodly humans, is providence, not grace. By His providential power, God keeps His creation in existence, now as a kingdom of Satan and under His curse (Bel. Conf., Art. 13). By His providential power, God maintains fallen man as man, though now displaying the image of the devil and serving the god of this world (Acts 17:24-28).

The notion—popular with those who confuse grace and providence—that God had to administer a dose of common grace to fallen man to prevent him from becoming a devil is utterly without biblical and creedal basis. The notion is foolish. No more than there is evolution is there devolution of the species. Creation fixed the species. Neither sin nor salvation affects this fixity. God made man man, and man he remains, whether saint or sinner, whether glorified in heaven or shamed in hell. Even the most ardent advocates of common grace will grant that damned men and women in hell will be humans, not devils. But the reason will not be common grace, since on the admission of the defenders of common grace themselves common grace must cease on the day of Christ.

The purpose of God with the continued existence of the world, as of the reprobate, ungodly race of humans, is gracious. It is His gracious will to save an elect church from all nations and races to the praise of His glory in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:9-12). This gracious purpose extends to the creation itself, which will share in the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Recognition of a gracious purpose of providence does not confuse grace and providence.

As providence explains the continuing existence of a fallen world, so also does it account for the various physical, mental, scientific, artistic, technological, and political abilities of unregenerated men and women. Likewise, providence is the power of the natural, cultural development of nations. The only nation whose development is due to grace is the one “holy nation,” the church, the spiritual kingdom of Christ.

In creating man, the Creator gave him many, unique, excellent gifts. Indelibly stamped on man, as man, are kingship and community. Although the fall severely weakened man’s natural powers and made him a rebel-king, who seeks community apart from God, providence maintains man’s gifted kingship. In a mysterious way, the everywhere present and almighty power of providence arouses and compels fallen men to develop their gifts and powers, and to do so in order finally to establish a grand world-kingdom in which the race is united. This is to say, the power of the Creator that made man in the beginning now maintains him as man and impels him to behave as man.

An aspect of the aesthetic nature of man by virtue of creation is music. The fall did not strip man of appreciation and ability for music. As a power bestowed on man by His Creator, the gift of music is good. But as devoted by the totally depraved sinner away from the glory of God and away from the promotion of the kingdom of Christ to the glory of man and to the promotion of the kingdom of this world, the actual activity of composing, or playing, or singing is sin.

High among the abilities of men, as the Reformed have always recognized, is the political gift, the ability to move and rule a people and nation. Adolf Hitler had this gift. The ability itself was good, as a gift of providence. Therefore, in a way, Hitler and his propagandists were right, in spite of themselves, when they proclaimed that Hitler had been raised up by “Providence” as the uniquely gifted “leader” of Germany. But, in fact, they lied, for they meant that God gave Hitler and his gift of ruling to Germany in His grace and as a blessing. They confused grace and providence. Would the defenders of common grace want to contend that Hitler possessed and exercised his remarkable gift of ruling by the common grace of God, whether as blessing of Hitler, of Germany, or of the world?

The deepest concerns of Richard Mouw in defending common grace, as of Abraham Kuyper before him, are the continuing existence of the world after the fall, the presence and development in the fallen human race of all kinds of splendid natural abilities, and the Christian’s association with the ungodly in everyday earthly life, using and even enjoying the cultural products of the wicked.

The explanation is providence, not grace.

To confuse grace and providence is to go wrong as regards both of the outstanding works of God, creation and redemption.

The Absurdity of Common Grace

Common grace’s confusion of grace and providence ends in absurdity. It has Christianity Today declaring, in an enthusiastic endorsement of Mouw’s book, that God enjoys a baseball game (see “Why God Enjoys Baseball,” Christianity Today, July 8, 2002, pp. 49-52). Common grace makes God “the big Dodger in the sky.”

Worse, the confusion of grace and providence that is common grace had Abraham Kuyper teaching that common grace will produce the Antichrist.

At the moment of its destruction Babylon—that is, the world power which evolved from human life—will exhibit not the image of a barbarous horde nor the image of coarse bestiality but, on the contrary, a picture of the highest development of which human life is capable. It will display the most refined forms, the most magnificent unfolding of wealth and splendor, the fullest brilliance of all that makes life dazzling and glorious. From this we know that “common grace” will continue to function to the end. Only when common grace has spurred the full emergence of all the powers inherent in human life will “the man of sin” find the level terrain needed to expand this power.

In its development of all the powers latent in humanity and in creation, common grace is the “basis” of the Antichrist. Common grace “leads to the most powerful manifestation of sin in history” (Abraham Kuyper, “Common Grace,” in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 179-182).

Grace—the grace of God—is the source of the Antichrist! Antichrist and his world-kingdom, that is, the kingdom of Satan, are the fruit of the grace of God!

Nor may Reformed and Presbyterian defenders of common grace dismiss this absurd, if not blasphemous, notion, as the personal speculation of Abraham Kuyper. For one thing, Abraham Kuyper was the father of the doctrine of common grace that they embrace and defend. For another thing, they are as committed to the absurdity as was Kuyper. It is fundamental common grace teaching that common grace works the cultural development of the race in history. But this history-long development will culminate in the culturally impressive kingdom of Antichrist.

Lo, common grace produces the beast! The worst enemy of common grace has not condemned the theory so conclusively.

In this article, I have addressed the first two of Dr. Mouw’s deepest concerns, on account of which he thinks that common grace is a necessity. I have contended that the biblical and Reformed truth of God’s providence answers the concerns of Dr. Mouw as regards the continuing existence of the world and as regards the natural gifts and powers of ungodly men and women.

It remains to take up Mouw’s third concern: the warrant for the Christian’s full, active life in the world, including his use and enjoyment of the knowledge and inventions of the ungodly and his association and cooperation with unbelievers in the activities of earthly society.