Basic to the doctrine of common grace is the notion that God has another purpose with history besides the redemption of the church. That additional purpose is the development of culture by the world of ungodly men and women.
In support of “multiple divine purposes” with history, Richard J. Mouw intriguingly proposes a new understanding of the infralapsarian order of God’s decrees. Infralap-sarianism, which places the decree of predestination after the decree of creation, allows for, if it does not require, a purpose of God with history alongside the purpose of redemption. This is the purpose that the ungodly develop the riches and powers of creation in a culture that pleases God. After the fall, God realizes this purpose by means of common grace (“‘Infra-‘ versus ‘Supra-,'” in He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace, Eerdmans, 2001, pp. 53-74).
The One Purpose of God with History
Against this proposal of an independent cultural purpose of God with history, there is a weighty objection. The objection is decisive. Jesus Christ is not behind this cultural purpose! Jesus Christ is not in this cultural purpose as it unfolds in history! Jesus Christ is not the goal of this purpose of God with creation and history!
The proposed cultural purpose, supposedly grounded in infralap-sarianism, has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. It leaves Him out. It ignores Him.
The total absence of Jesus Christ from the supposed cultural purpose of God with history is fatal to Dr. Mouw’s common grace theory. For God has clearly and emphatically made known in His Word that He has one eternal purpose with creation and history and that this one purpose is Jesus Christ.Ephesians 1:9-12 reveals the mystery of the will of God with regard to “all things.” The mystery is His one purpose to “gather together in one all things in Christ.”
Colossians 1:13-20 is even more pointed and detailed about God’s purpose with all things. God’s purpose with “all things” is Jesus Christ. “All things were created … for him,” that is, for Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16). The existence and history of all creatures have been subordinated to Jesus Christ and must serve Him. All things cohere in Him (Col. 1:17). In all things, Jesus Christ is to have the preeminence (Col. 1:18). There is no divine purpose with creation and history alongside and independent of Jesus Christ. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is unrelated to Jesus Christ—not Tiger Woods’ putts, not Hal Newhouser’s fastball, not “the glory that was Greece,” not the splendor of American civilization, not the falling of a sparrow from a housetop. The meaning of history is Jesus Christ.
Nor is the Christ of Colossians 1simply the eternal Son of God, the second person of the blessed Trinity. Rather, He is the Son in human nature, the child of the virgin, the man who was crucified and who now sits at the right hand of the Trinity as risen from the dead in His human body. This one is the one purpose of God, for He is the “dear Son in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13, 14), the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18).
First in the Counsel
The explanation of His being the one purpose of God with all things is that Jesus Christ is first in the counsel of God. Here we enter (with the caution that dreads speculation, but with the boldness that dares to follow where revelation leads) the mysterious, awesome, holy realm of the supra-/infra- debate. It is mysterious, awesome, and holy because this realm is the eternal mind and will of God in their innermost, profoundest secrets. There in the eternal thinking, decreeing counsel of the all-wise God, Jesus Christ is first. He is first, not in any temporal sequence, for there is no time in the eternal counsel. But He is first in that He is the one purpose of God to which all the other decrees of God, for instance, the decree of creation and the decree of providence, including the fall of Adam, are subordinated. Freely, wisely, graciously, the triune God thought and willed Jesus Christ as the object of His love, as the one with whom He would have fellowship, as the one whom He would exalt, and as the one in whom He would glorify Himself.
This is the meaning of the teaching in Colossians 1:15, that Jesus Christ is the “firstborn of every creature.” As decreed, the creature Jesus Christ opens the womb of the counsel of God to the decree of all other creatures, they following Him and serving Him in the counsel. In this sense, Jesus Christ is “before all things” (Col. 1:17).
All things must know this! They must know their place! They must know that they are not “before” Jesus Christ, or apart from Him, but after Him and for Him. Gifted, prominent unbelievers, especially the Tiger Woods of this world, arrogantly suppose that they are quite something in themselves, regardless of Jesus Christ. Common grace with its two-purposes-of-God-with-history idea encourages them in this foolishness. The biblical gospel disabuses them of this folly.
That Jesus Christ is first in the counsel of God, even before the decree of the election of the church accompanied by the reprobation of the others, is the teaching of Ephesians 1:4: “he [God] hath chosen us in him [Jesus Christ] before the foundation of the world.” If we were chosen in Christ, Christ was before us in the counsel. God chose Him first. Our election was grounded in His election.
The Foundation of Election
The truth that Jesus Christ is first in the counsel ought to have been the Reformed response to the Arminian challenge to the Reformed faith at Dordt. In the interests of freeing the atonement from the limitation of election, much as Dr. Mouw thinks to free creation and providence from the restriction of election and redemption by placing election after the decree to create, the Arminians placed the decree of election after the decree of the atonement. This, they argued, made Christ the foundation of election as well as the executor of election. Since in the Reformed order of the decrees, Christ did not appear until after the decree of election, as the Mediator who would carry out the decree of election by redeeming the elect, the Arminians charged that the Reformed reduced Christ to the executor of the decree. The Reformed could not honor Christ as also the foundation of the decree of election.
The Reformed at Dordt fell back on Christ’s being the decreeing God. But this was to evade the Arminian objection. Christ is indeed the foundation of the decree of election. The elect are chosen “in Him.” But this does not refer to His being the electing God, which, of course, He is. Rather, it refers to Him as incarnate, as the head of the church. As incarnate, as the man Jesus, He is the first decree of God. The election of the church is founded upon the election of the man Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is both the foundation and the executor of the decree of election.
Where is Christ in the Purpose of Common Grace?
The truth that Jesus Christ is first in the counsel as the one purpose of God with all things is the deepest intention of the old, and perennial, dispute among Reformed thinkers between supra- and infralapsarianism. Oddly, however, Reformed theologians often carried on the dispute without any reference whatever to Jesus Christ. It is striking that Jesus Christ does not figure in Richard Mouw’s discussion of supra- and infralapsarianism. Mouw leaves the impression that the question is whether the salvation of the elect is the sole purpose of history, or whether the development of culture by the ungodly is also a purpose of God with history, alongside the salvation of the elect. This is not the question, or, at least, the main question. The question is this: Is Jesus Christ the one purpose of God with all things in history, because He is first in the counsel of God?
Scripture’s plain teaching that Christ is first in the counsel conclusively rules out the notion that God has a purpose with creation alongside His purpose of redemption in Jesus Christ. God never had an “original purpose with creation,” whether grounded in infralapsarianism or anywhere else, which He carries out after the fall by common grace. The theory of “multiple divine purposes” shatters on the rock of Jesus Christ as first in the eternal counsel. Inasmuch as the idea of two distinct divine purposes of God with history is fundamental for the theory of common grace, the theory of common grace likewise shatters on the rock of Jesus Christ as the one purpose of God.
“All Things Work Together for Good”
The primacy of Christ in the counsel of God is the Protestant Reformed response to a particular criticism that Mouw makes of their theology. Mouw sharply criticizes the teaching of Herman Hoeksema, which is certainly the teaching of the Protestant Reformed Churches, that all things exist for the sake of the elect.
This is where I find Herman Hoeksema’s thought … most puzzling. Here is a typical Hoeksema comment: “in the counsel of God all other things in heaven and on earth are designed as means to the realization of both election and reprobation, and therefore, of the glory of Christ and His church.” Here is another: “All the things of the present life are but means to an eternal end.” So the goal of bringing the elect and the reprobate to their eternal destinies, for Hoeksema, is the divine goal, and all other seemingly independent goals are really to be viewed as means to the attainment of that one goal. Thus Hoeksema is committed to a perspective in which the paths of the eagle’s flight and the ocean’s waves are ordained by God simply as means to the goal of bringing human beings to their foreordained destinies, and in which the divine delight in such things is necessarily connected to the role they play in fulfilling the eternal salvific decree. I find this belief no less puzzling when I extend it—as surely it must be extended from Hoeksema’s perspective—to the actions of non-elect human beings (p. 36).
Mouw repeats the criticism later, listing a number of events that, according to him, have nothing to do with the decree of predestination: Plato’s writing of the Republic; Babe Ruth’s hitting sixty home runs in a season; Kennedy’s approval of the Bay of Pigs invasion; and the decline of the Tokyo stock exchange in 1998 (p. 61).
The criticism is itself puzzling. Hoeksema’s doctrine here is the explicit teaching of the Bible. It is the teaching ofRomans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” In I Corinthians 3:21, the apostle assures the elect church, “All things are yours.” He specifies: “Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours” (I Cor. 3:22). He explains: “And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (I Cor. 3:23).
In addition to overlooking the explicit teaching of Scripture, the criticism fails to recognize that Jesus Christ, who is first in the counsel of God, was chosen as head of the church (Col. 1:18). His election was our election, as His body, with Him and in Him. Therefore, as all things were created for Him, they were also created for us. The providence that carries out the decree that all things are for Christ the head necessarily governs all things also for our advantage, who are His body.
We have not the slightest hesitation to confess that Plato wrote his Republic, Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs in one season, and the Tokyo stock exchange suffered declines in 1998, among other subordinate purposes that God was realizing, in the service of Jesus Christ and His church and, thus, for God’s glory.
Who can figure this out? Which Reformed Christian is not deeply humbled by this, as well as comforted in his miseries and encouraged in the difficulties of the way. But who dares to deny this, since to deny this is to deny that all things serve Christ? And Christ, the elect of God, the crucified Servant of Jehovah and the risen Lord over all, is worthy that this should be.
Once upon a time, the God of history gave remarkable proof in history that the universe exists for the sake of the chosen people of God. For an entire day, God brought the rotating earth, the moving solar system, and the wheeling galaxies to the outermost limits of space to a halt. All waited patiently, as servants, upon Joshua—typical Christ—and Israel—church of the Old Testament. The redemption of the church of Christ—this commands the universe. Joshua had no doubt: “Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon” (Josh. 10:12-14). Neither do we.
The “Cultural Mandate”
The truth of God’s one purpose with history sheds light on the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28: “Subdue it [the earth]: and have dominion.” The mandate is not simply that Adam and Eve exercise rule over the earth. Rather, they are to have dominion as servants of God, so that the earthly creation develops as the kingdom of God.
Fallen men and women are unable to fulfill the mandate. By the admission of the advocates of common grace themselves, fallen men and women cannot fulfill the “cultural mandate” even with the help of common grace. With the help of common grace, the fallen race develops creation, not as the kingdom of God, but as the kingdom of Man and Satan. According to Abraham Kuyper, father of culture-building common grace, by the help of common grace the ungodly erect the kingdom of Antichrist in history. Not only is common grace a fiction, it is also a failure. It cannot do the job.
The only fulfillment of the “cultural mandate” is by the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, as God intended from the beginning, that is, by the first decree in His counsel. Christ begins to fulfill the mandate now by His regenerating grace in the lives of elect believers. A J. S. Bach writes lovely music to the glory of God. A Christian writer uses words well to explain, defend, advance, and apply the truth of the gospel. A godly farmer cultivates the ground, a godly businessman conducts his business, and a godly laborer works at his otherwise menial task, as unto the Lord Christ. A covenant mother orders her home and family according to the will of Christ.
This is true culture. This is the only culture that pleases God.
The perfection of the “cultural mandate” by Jesus Christ will be His renewal of all things—elect humanity out of all nations and the creation itself—by His (special) redeeming grace at His coming.
Then we will see how in the vast, complicated panorama of history every creature and every motion of every creature cooperated, wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly, in serving Christ and His church.
Until then, we believe and confess it.
Thus honoring Jesus Christ—the fulfillment of the first decree of God.