The Covenant Reformed Fellowship in Northern Ireland has called to my attention a recently published book by Scottish Presbyterian theologian Donald Macleod. It was suggested that it would be helpful for the witness of that group to the Reformed faith in the British Isles if I would comment on the book. The reason is that the book promotes the doctrine of common grace and attacks the doctrine of sovereign, particular grace confessed by the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The author is professor of systematic theology in the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh. An influential theologian and churchman, he is a leading representative of contemporary Presbyterianism in Scotland.
The book is titled, Behold Your God (Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 1990 -hereafter, BYG). It is a treatment of the attributes of God. It is also an ardent defense of the doctrine of common grace. Three of the book’s sixteen chapters are expressly devoted to the explanation, defense, and advocacy of a common grace of God. A fourth chapter, the last, enthusiastically applies the theory of common grace to the saving love of God in Jesus Christ, to Christ’s atoning death, and to the call of the gospel.
In the course of his defense of common grace, Macleod assails the theology of Herman Hoeksema. Twice he charges Hoeksema with blasphemy. Hoeksema’s teaching that God governs the powers of sin, death, and the curse by His providence, so that they “are not powers outside Him and apart from Him, which He must restrain” by a common grace, is “virtually blasphemous” (p. 131). Similarly, the teaching of Hoeksema that God is love in Himself in that He loves Himself as the highest good is “well-nigh blasphemous speculation” (p. 150).
In every respect, the defense of common grace in BYG is weak, pitifully so in most cases. It is a small comfort to the opponent of common grace that if common grace in Scottish Presbyterianism rests on the foundations laid in this book the fortunes of the doctrine are bleak.
Misleading Quotation of Calvin
Calvin is quoted from the Institutes, 2.3.3 to prove “a general divine restraint placed upon human depravity” (p. 117). What the reader is not told, but may discover for himself by reading the entire section, is that Calvin is teaching God’s restraint of wicked men by His providence. The section concludes:
Thus God, by His providence, curbs the perverseness of nature, preventing it from breaking forth into action, yet without rendering it inwardly pure.
The common grace defended by Macleod restrains sin as an internal operation of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of the unregenerate that keeps him from being totally depraved and that makes him somewhat pure. It is this to which the Protestant Reformed Churches are opposed as the plainest denial of the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.
The controversy over common grace has nothing whatever to do with God’s restraint of the open outbreaking of sin by His providence. With the Belgic Confession in Article 36, the PRC confess that God restrains “the dissoluteness of men” by means of the civil magistrates. There is, however, a qualitative difference between the restraint caused by the policeman with his gun at the ready and a restraint supposedly caused by a purifying work of the Holy Spirit on the heart of the unregenerate.
Astounding Appeal to Psalm 73
In one of the most astonishing instances of biblical reference and interpretation in all the history of the defense of common grace, Macleod appeals to Psalm 73in support of his contention that the prosperity of the wicked is due to God’s grace to them I and must be viewed as divine blessing (pp. 118, 119). If only the defenders of common grace would seriously I take this passage into account in their thinking on the subject of the good gifts of God to the reprobate ungodly in time! The PRC would gladly rest the determination of the entire common grace controversy on this one passage.
The Psalm demands that the present prosperity of the wicked be viewed in light of the eternity to which it leads. “. . . then understood I their end. Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction. How are they brought into desolation. .” (vss. 17- 22).
Is it a favorable attitude of God towards the wicked that sets them in slippery places with their prosperity to slide smoothly into eternal hell? Is the abundance of earthly things that constitutes God’s casting of the ungodly into destruction a blessing?
God spare me and my loved ones this His grace and blessing.
As the Ekronites cried out when the lords of the Philistines sent the lethal ark of the covenant to them, “They have brought about the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people” (I Sam. 5:10), so would a sane man cry out when he was threatened with the prosperity of Psalm 73, “God has sent us these riches to destroy us; take them away!”
Would Macleod call it grace that sets someone in a boat on a sure course down the river that plunges over Niagara Falls, even though the splendid boat is loaded with dainties and fine wine? Would he call the pleasant journey a blessing?
What is still worse about Macleod’s interpretation of the prosperity of the wicked in Psalm 73 is its clear and necessary implication that the present affliction of God’s Israel is divine curse coming to them in God’s wrath. If grace is in things themselves, not only are riches and health blessing for the ungodly but also poverty and sickness are curse for those of a clean heart.
The Psalmist could be thankful that God did not send him a common grace theologian as a comforter in his affliction. Being plagued all the day and chastened every morning, while seeing the ungodly prosper in the world, caused his feet almost to be gone and his steps nearly to slip. To have had a common grace theologian “comfort” him by assuring him that God in this life blesses the ungodly in His grace, while cursing the godly in His wrath would have done the Psalmist in.
In fact, however, also the adversity of the godly must be viewed in light of the eternity which it serves: “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (v. 24). Adversity as well as prosperity comes to the child of God in this life as blessing in the favor of God, working his good. “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” (Rom. 8:28).
The grace of God is not in earthly things. Grace is in the attitude of God towards a man and in His covenant friendship with a man, regardless of things: “Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand . . . there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever” (vss. 23-26). The truth about the temporal suffering of the beloved and elect church is stated in the opening words of the Psalm: “Truly God is good to Israel.”
The truth about the temporal prosperity of the reprobate ungodly is expressed in verse 27: “For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee.”
Psalm 73 is not a passage to appeal to in support of the teaching that the good gifts of God to the wicked are common grace. On the contrary, the Psalm gives the deathblow to the theory.