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Common Grace and General Revelation

From Scottish Presbyterian Donald Macleod’s book, Behold Your God (BYG), we learn that “the primary instrument of common grace is God’s general revelation” (p. 121). In fact, the author does not mean this. For a little later he makes plain that he thinks the “primary instrument of common grace” to be God’s special revelation, that is, the preaching of the gospel. Macleod views the preaching of the gospel as the expression of the grace of God for all men without exception, and this is supposed to be the highest manifestation of common grace. 

Nevertheless, the Scottish theologian teaches that the knowledge of God that unregenerated men have from the creation is due to a favor of God toward these men. He teaches also that a result of this knowledge of God on the part of the unregenerate is the presence of good in both the individual and society.

Laudable qualities (are) to be found in the lives of those who are totally alienated from God (p. 117). Through common grace God also preserves some sense of morality and religion in human society (p. 119). Even specifically secular states and avowedly atheistic societies still possess strong ethical structures (p. 121).

Macleod goes so far as to make a general revelation arising from the common grace of God produce a “natural theology”: “If common grace enables unregenerate men to ‘see clearly’ in the realm of natural theology (Romans 1:20) how much more in the realm of natural science?” (p. 139) Thus does the doctrine of common grace bring a Presbyterian into the murky waters of Roman Catholic theology. 

It is fundamental Roman doctrine that the revelation of God in creation and history results in right, though incomplete, knowledge of God in the mind of the natural man. This knowledge then becomes the meritorious stepping-stone to a saving knowledge of God through the gospel. The basic error in Rome’s teaching of “natural theology” is her denial of total depravity. The natural man has some spiritual ability to respond positively to the revelation of God in creation. The same basic error is found in Presbyterian Macleod, as we shall see. 

The biblical basis put forward for this is Romans 1:19, 20: “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” 

Incredibly, Macleod ignores verse 18, with which the passage begins. Verse 18 expressly attributes the revelation of God to the unregenerated heathen in creation, not to a common grace of God but to His common wrath: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven . . . .” The immediate and exclusive reaction of the heathen (whether in the jungle of Africa or in the jungle of the University of Chicago) to this knowledge of God as regards His eternal power and Godhead is that they “hold the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18); change “the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image . ..” (v. 23); and change “the truth of God into a lie” (v. 25), not liking “to retain God in their knowledge” (v. 28). The sole purpose of God with this manifestation of Himself is “that they are without excuse” (v. 20). 

In this general revelation is no grace of God but only wrath burning from heaven. Its effect upon the individual and society is not good, but gross evil – the evil of their perversion of the truth of God and the evil of God’s avenging Himself by giving them up to ethical perversions. The purpose behind it is not divine favor, but awful divine justice: “in order that they be without excuse.” 

In all of the dreadful passage, Romans 1:18-32, there is no grace of God, only wrath; no blessing, only curse; no goodness of men, only evil. He who runs may read. This is why the apostle is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ (vss. 16, 17) and is ready to preach it also to the Gentiles (v. 15). Grace, blessing life, and goodness come only through the gospel. 

In passing, Professor Macleod hints very broadly that God’s “common grace revelation” of Himself in creation is the reason why the Presbyterian churches should accept the current scientific theories of an earth that is billions of years old and of the origin of all things by evolution. 

He is unhappy with those Christian thinkers who are guilty of “virtually proscribing (unregenerate science) and invoking the fact of its unregenerateness to justify rejection of its conclusions, especially in connection with the theory of evolution (p. 138). He thinks that we should repent of the folly of the 19th century defenders of the biblical doctrine of creation who “blundered with little preparation into the debate on cosmogony and geology” (p. 140). In this context, Presbyterians are exhorted “cordially” to welcome the “scientific achievements of natural men” (p. 140). 

The reader was alerted to this impending havoc that common grace would wreak on the inspiration of the opening chapters of the Bible, on the historicity of the first chapters of Genesis, and, thus, on the foundations of the Christian religion already in the fourth chapter of BYG:

We should also bear in mind that mediate creation may have involved very long processes; that certain records of the course of events involved in these processes may be accessible to us today; and that these records may be researched by specialists in the various scientific disciplines. There is indisputably both a theological and a palaeontological record of the sequence of creation events and each is a legitimate subject of human research (p. 44).

Common grace is doing the same damage to the fundamental doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture, creation, and the fall among Presbyterians in the British Isles that it is doing among the Reformed in North America.

Assault on the Theology of Hoeksema

It is when Donald Macleod considers Herman Hoeksema’s objections to common grace that error finds allies in misrepresentation and confusion.

World-Flight!

Professor Macleod portrays Hoeksema’s opposition to common grace as the anabaptistic and monkish penchant for world-flight:

A second objection to the doctrine of common grace (by Herman Hoeksema – DJE) is that it is inconsistent with the accursedness of creation. According to this point of view, the world is exclusively evil and horrible and Christians can have no part in it. The only course open to them is to separate from it, create their own self-contained communities and leave secular art, politics, culture and commerce to the children of darkness (p. 126).

To the Protestant Reformed reader, this description of the Protestant Reformed objection to common grace is laughable. It needs no refutation. To the Reformed and others in the United States and Canada who are familiar with the history of the PRC and who know the members of these churches, this attempt to answer the Protestant Reformed objection to common grace by rendering the objection absurd itself falls by the weight of its own absurdity. 

But Macleod’s book circulates in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe where readers lack this firsthand acquaintance with the PRC and their people and may, therefore, suppose that the objection of the PRC to common grace actually is a form of anabaptism. Reading this description of the PRC, a Scot might well imagine that the members of the PRC in North America huddle together in their isolated communes like the old Mennonites or the Amish of the present day.

Protestant Reformed people live in many of the largest cities, as well as in the country. They are found in every occupation, including business and the professions. They are active in politics. There are among them accomplished musicians, poets, painters, and other artists. They attend the symphony, visit the art galleries, and even occasionally take in a ball game on a weekday. Their Christian schools educate their children in every branch of human knowledge and prepare them to live and work in North American society. 

This way of life does not conflict with their opposition to common grace but is in harmony with it. 

The PRC do indeed regard the world as “exclusively evil and horrible.” By “world” is meant the unbelievers and the system of life that they control. This is the world whose god is Satan (II Cor. 4:4); the world that lies in wickedness (I John 5:19); the world that all Christians are forbidden to love (I John 2:15). The world is “evil and horrible,” spiritually and ethically -exclusively “evil and horrible.” Its evil is that it does not know, glorify, and serve God. Its evil is horrible in that the world is now exposed as having crucified the Son of God (cf. John 12:31). 

From this world, God has separated Protestant Reformed Christians, with all true Christians everywhere. He has done. this by the sanctifying call of the gospel on the basis of the cross according to eternal predestination (cf. I Pet. 2:9Gal. 1:4John 17:6). Protestant Reformed Christians, with all true Christians everywhere, know themselves to be called by God to live in separation from the world: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers . . . come out from among them, and be ye separate . . .” ( I Cor. 6:14-18). 

This separation is absolute. The world has been crucified unto Protestant Reformed Christians, and Protestant Reformed Christians unto the world (Gal. 6:14). Surely this is also true of Presbyterian Christians in the British Isles. 

But the separation is spiritual, not physical, although it can, and should, take physical form, e.g., in not marrying an unbeliever. Physically, God wills New Testament Christians to live in and among the world. The reason is not, however, that the world is somewhat good by virtue of common grace. To suppose so, and teach so, is to destroy the spiritual antithesis that must at all costs be maintained. Professor Macleod is guilty of this: “Common grace provides us with a biblical rationale for involvement in the world” (BYG, p. 142). But the reason is that both the church and the world must develop by means of this close contact with each other. Also, God will be glorified by a church that shines as light in the midst of darkness. Besides, it is not creation, the creatures, and the earthly ordinances that are evil (cf. I Tim. 4:1ff.). 

Herman Hoeksema’s objection to common grace was not an expression of anabaptism, that is, physical world-flight. It was an expression of zeal for the antithesis, that is, spiritual world-fight. Macleod may be excused for not having read Hoeksema’s Niet Doopersch Maar Gereformeerd (Not Anabaptistic but Reformed), with which he maybe unfamiliar. He is to be faulted, however, for ignoring what Hoeksema wrote in explanation of the antithesis in his Reformed Dogmatics (hereafter, AD), with which Macleod is quite familiar. What Hoeksema wrote concerning the church’s attribute of holiness is typical and crystal-clear:

For these members of the body of Christ are in the world. They have no calling to go out of the world and to organize a colony of saints in some secluded spot. On the contrary, they must be in the world, and live its whole life in all its relationships, in home and school and state and society, in labor, in industry, in business, in commerce. But in all these different relations and departments of life they are called to reveal themselves as members of the body of Christ, the holy church, the communion of saints. They must be holy in all their walk and conversation. They are called to be holy in the home, in the education of their children, in the state, in the relation of employer and employee, in store and office and shop, in all of life. They represent the cause of the Son of God and walk according to the will of their Lord Jesus Christ. This means that in the spiritual, ethical sense they can never be unequally yoked together with unbelievers (pp. 616, 617; cf. also p. 743).

To represent this urgent call to the saints as a plea for world-flight is misrepresentation.