Our opposition to the teaching of a common grace of God notwithstanding—opposition that has hardened through a careful study of the recent book by Dr. Mouw—we have enthusiastically welcomed Richard J. Mouw’s defense of common grace, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001).
The Christian Reformed theologian and evangelical leader renews discussion of the widely, but often uncritically, accepted doctrine of common grace. He affirms the great importance of the doctrine, not only for Reformed Christians in the Dutch tradition, but also for all Christians. He expresses the wish that others take up the discussion: “Perhaps what I have said here will revive a discussion of a topic that has received little attention in recent years on the part of mainstream Reformed theologians” (pp. 89, 90).
We endorse this wish, but not because we think that lively discussion will promote the doctrine of common grace. Rather, we are convinced that more careful scrutiny of common grace will reveal to many that the doctrine is without basis in Scripture, is contrary to the fundamentals of the Reformed faith as set forth in the confessions, and is destructive of both the faith and walk of the Reformed church.
In the course of his defense of common grace, Dr. Mouw acknowledges the opposition to common grace by Herman Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Churches. Mouw states the Protestant Reformed objection fairly, even respectfully. He is surprised that the Reformed community has been so passionate—one might honestly say bitter—in its condemnation of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) for their repudiation of common grace. Mouw understands well that the PRC are deeply concerned to maintain the antithesis—the spiritual separation of church and world—so solidly founded on Scripture and so vital to the church’s very life.
At the heart of Herman Hoeksema’s sustained critique of common grace theology lies a very practical concern about the life of the church. The commonality emphasis in common grace theology, Hoeksema insists, will inevitably result in the “obliteration of the distinction between the Church and the world, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, righteousness and unrighteousness” (p. 24).
Although here and there Calvin speaks of a “peculiar grace of God” to the unregenerated wicked, in their opposition to “common grace teachings” the PRC “can legitimately claim … to be working within the general contours of Calvin’s thought” (p. 18). Such a champion of common grace as Richard Mouw gently reminds the rabid defenders of the doctrine that denial of common grace does not, in fact, put a church or a theologian outside the pale of orthodox Calvinism.
Nevertheless, Dr. Mouw is a studied and enthusiastic advocate of common grace. Indeed, he desires to develop the doctrine both as regards the theory and as regards its practice. He Shines intends far more than only a defense of traditional common grace. The book urges a more expansive role for common grace than has beenrecognized hitherto. It calls Christians to implement common grace more aggressively than has been done in the past. Common grace must become the spiritual glue—the superglue—that holds together our fragmented and fragmenting society and world. In cooperation with the ungodly, Christians must exert themselves to see to it that common grace carries out its great work of creating a unified, decent, peaceful, and even God-glorifying and God-pleasing culture. Christians must institute and labor in “common grace ministries.”
We admit to surprise at this vehement, not to say reckless, promotion of common grace. The grave threat to the churches, to evangelical and Reformed Christians, and to covenant children and young people at the present hour is the worldliness that, at the very least, is the definite risk of common grace. Mouw recognizes both the threat and the risk. Still he calls for more common grace. It seems to us that he allows his concern for the troubles of the world of ungodly men and women (which he thinks can be alleviated by vast doses of common grace) to override his concern for the perils of the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ.
In any case, He Shines demonstrates that the theory of common grace is not content merely to hold its own, much less to occupy a relatively insignificant place in the Reformed faith and life. Common grace is bound and determined to develop, to expand, to dominate.
Starkly outlined in Richard Mouw’s advocacy of common grace are the importance of the divine work of common grace, on the one hand, and the complete absence of any witness to this work in Scripture and the confessions, on the other hand.
According to our contemporary defender of common grace, following his mentor Abraham Kuyper, the common grace of God governs the entire life of the Christian in relation to the world. Common grace delivers the ungodly from total depravity. Common grace achieves one of the two great purposes of God with history: the production of good, God-pleasing culture. Common grace binds Christians and non-Christians together in their mutual calling to build a better, God-glorifying, Christianized world.
These are not minor accomplishments. If real, they are mighty works of God in men and history worthy of clear, repeated celebration in the gospel of Scripture.
But Scripture does not teach these mighty works of common grace. The gospel does not celebrate them. He Shines admits as much in that it offers one text, and one text only, in support of common grace and its wonders: Luke 6:35. But this text says nothing about culture on anyone’s interpretation. As an earlier installment in this series painstakingly showed, the text does not even teach that God is favorable to the reprobate unthankful and evil.
This is not an implied criticism of Dr. Mouw for failing to adduce more texts. It is simply the observation that Mouw himself is well aware that his enthusiasm for “culture,” for the ability of those who are under the wrath of God to produce a culture that pleases God, and for the union of believers and unbelievers to work together for good culture does not derive from the Bible.
For this reason, there is not one word about common grace and its highly touted achievements in any of the Reformed confessions.
Like all defenders of common grace, from Abraham Kuyper to the Christian Reformed Church, Richard Mouw confuses providence with grace. Even Calvin was guilty of this confusion on occasion. His few, incidental ascriptions of grace to the pagans were a mistaking of providence for grace. The abilities of the heathen in the arts and sciences, as also the regard for virtue by certain of the “noble pagans,” which Calvin sometimes attributed to a grace of God in them, are the effects of providence. And Calvin himself on other occasions explained these abilities and this morality in terms of providence, not grace.
Mouw’s error of confusing providence and grace appears glaringly already in the title of his book: He Shines in All That’s Fair. Mouw has borrowed the title from the second stanza of the hymn, “This is My Father’s World.”
This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.
In the hymn, God’s shining in all that’s fair refers to the beauty, power, and glory of God in the inanimate and brute creation. The world of the hymn is “the music of the spheres,” “rocks and trees . . . skies and seas,” and “rustling grass.” Even though Christ is mentioned, there is nothing in the hymn about fallen mankind and their depravity. The hymn does not even notice, amid the “morning light” and the “lily white,” the curse of God upon the creation subjecting the creation to the “vanity” of the “bondage of corruption” (Rom. 8:20, 21). As is characteristic of hymns in comparison with the psalter, the hymn is superficial. To be sure, “He shines in all that’s fair” in nature. But it is unrealistic and misleading to ignore that even in nature He curses all that’s foul. What of storm and earthquake, of decay and death, of “nature red in tooth and claw”?
Nevertheless, there is in the creation of azure skies and white-flecked seas, of great gray mountains and gold-leafed trees, a fairness that is the shining of the Creator. What is illegitimate is the application of the shining of the Creator in a fair creation through the work of creation and providence to an alleged shining of God in the lives of guilty, totally depraved, and unregenerated sinners by a work of common grace. Rocks and trees are one thing. Fallen, spiritually dead sinners are quite another. It is one thing for God to take delight in the great sea creature’s playing in the depths. It is quite another thing to declare that God takes delight in the activities of reprobate, corrupt sinners outside of Jesus Christ, who do not seek the glory of God.
God shines in the remaining splendor of His creation and in the holy life of the redeemed. The life of the ungodly is foul, and He curses it: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).
Confusing providence and grace is serious error. Far worse is the use of the theory of a common grace of God to introduce the doctrine of universal saving grace. History shows that this is unavoidable. The Arminians at the time of the Synod of Dordt employed common grace on behalf of their doctrine of universal, resistible saving grace (see the Canons, III, IV, Rejection of Errors/5). Claiming to confess the Kuyperian common grace of rain and sunshine, the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 adopted the doctrine of a universal, resistible saving grace of God in the preaching of the gospel. This is the “well-mean gospel offer” of its first point of common grace. The Presbyterian John Murray likewise moves from common grace to universal saving grace in his booklet, “The Free Offer of the Gospel.”
Richard Mouw does the same in He Shines. He wrote the book, as he himself tells us, to defend and promote culture-forming common grace. We find him concluding that common grace may well be universal saving grace. He ascribes common grace to the “Spirit of the reigning Lamb”:
But we also know—and this is an important message for common grace theology—that the Spirit of the reigning Lamb is indeed active in our world, not only in gathering the company of the redeemed from the tribes and nations of the earth, but also in working mysteriously to restrain sin in the lives of those who continue in their rebellion, and even in stimulating works of righteousness in surprising places. And so, while we proceed with caution, we also go about our business in hope (pp. 86, 87).
Hope of what? Hope for whom?
It comes as no surprise then that on the last full page of the book, Dr. Mouw allows for the transformation of his—and Kuyper’s—common grace into universal saving grace.
I do want to make it clear that while I am no universalist, my own inclination is to emphasize the “wideness in God’s mercy” rather than the “small number of the elect” motif that has often dominated the Calvinist outlook. I take seriously the Bible’s vision of the final gathering-in of the elect, of that “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” who shout the victory cry, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
For all I know—and for all any of us can know—much of what we now think of as common grace may in the end time be revealed to be saving grace (p. 100; emphasis added).
It is impossible to restrict a favorable attitude of God towards men to this life. It is impossible to confine a divine power that delivers from sin and produces good works to the life of earthly culture. Such a favorable attitude and divine power—grace—demands to be viewed, and proclaimed, as saving grace—universal saving grace. And this is the destruction of the Reformed faith, either in the direction of universalism, or in the direction of conditional salvation.
Two recent developments illustrate the deadly consequences of the doctrine of common grace that Richard J. Mouw defends in He Shines in All That’s Fair. Virtually all Reformed, Presbyterian, and evangelical churches embrace, confess, and practice this doctrine. One development has to do with the Christian life. Calvin College, the college of the Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sponsored a concert by notorious lesbians. The lesbians sang to the Calvin students of “love, romance, and relationships.” Hosting the concert by the lesbians and another concert by a band that uses obscenities is part of “Calvin’s mission,” according to Calvin’s director of student activities, by virtue of God’s “common grace.” The title of the article in the Calvin College student paper, Chimes, that reports on the concerts and on a panel discussion about the concerts is “Calvin debates common grace in music.” Defending the college-sponsored concert on “love” by the lesbians, a Calvin professor argued, publicly, “God is behind what is good and what is true and what is loving” (Chimes, Oct. 4, 2002, p. 3).
Common grace and therefore God Himself is crooning to Reformed college students of lesbian love. The common grace god is thus wooing and winning Reformed college students to lesbian and homosexual love. Of course, he must be allowed to do so. Who may resist God?
The other development corrupts Christian doctrine, and is worse. Writing in the Spring 2002 Westminster Theological Journal (WTJ), Dennis E. Johnson contends that the one speaking in Romans 7:7-25 is an unregenerated man. This unregenerated man possesses the significant spiritual ability and goodness that he claims in the passage, by virtue of God’s common grace. Romans 7 “attests the way in which God, in his common grace, grants ethical insight and sensitivity even to the unregenerate.” The title of Johnson’s article is “Spiritual Antithesis: Common Grace, and Practical Theology” (WTJ 64, no. 1 [Spring 2002]: 73-94).
Since the man of Romans 7claims a will that chooses the good and hates the evil, even to the point of delighting in the law of God, Johnson teaches the free will of the unregenerated man by virtue of common grace. This was exactly the doctrine of the Arminians at Dordt. Upon the exercise of the will that has been freed by common grace, then, depends the offered salvation. This is the death of the Reformed system of doctrine as set down in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The Westminster Theological Journal is the journal of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Dennis E. Johnson is professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.
This is where common grace brings the churches, schools, theologians, and young people who believe and practice this pernicious doctrine.
By the one, sovereign, particular grace of God in Jesus Christ, the Protestant Reformed congregations, schools, ministers, and young people are not going there.