In our last issue I promised to carry on our discussion with the brethren of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church concerning the doctrine of common grace. The brethren of that denomination have expressed themselves as being willing to have such discussion and as being open for instruction in this matter. We greatly appreciate both this willingness and this openness. We want to make it plain, however, that our approach to the brethren of the EPC of Australia is not that of haughty superiority, but of humility. For we have nothing which we have not received, and what we are and have as Protestant Reformed Churches is all of grace. For that reason, too, our appeal in this discussion is to the Word of God and to our Reformed standards. And we expect that our brethren down under will accept only such instruction as meets this test.
The occasion of this discussion is my comment in the Standard Bearer of January 1, 1974 concerning a brochure published by the EPC and entitled “Universalism and The Reformed Churches: A Defense of Calvin’s Calvinism.” My comment was as follows:
“We have earlier referred to an excellent treatise on the subject of the ‘free offer’ published by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. This brochure is entitled ‘Universalism and the Reformed Churches.’ It refers to the offer theology as ‘modern modified Calvinism’. This brochure has many fine arguments; and we agree with its main thrust of opposition to the offer-theory. However, we find inconsistent—and ultimately impossible to maintain—its insistence upon common grace in the following paragraph on page 8: ‘Lest we be misunderstood when we deny the universality of the love of God, let it be clearly understood that we are not controverting the fact that God is good to all, for “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust.” (Mat. 5:45). Rather, we are concerned with refuting the doctrine which teaches that God’s goodness in sending temporal blessings upon all is indicative of His love and long-suffering in redemption toward the non-elect, and a desire in Him that they might be saved. We maintain that the gospel is given for the purpose of separating the elect from the reprobate, and in the providence of God, in the case of the latter who hear it, for their greater condemnation.’
“To the brethren of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia we suggest:
1. That apart from this question of the ‘offer’ they should give confessional and Biblical account of this whole idea of temporal blessings—the traditional ‘common grace’ theory. We believe they will discover it to be incorrect.
2. That they should consider the fact that the theory of ‘common grace’ itself—apart from the offer-theory—has implications for life which are not acceptable. This is evident from the devastating results of the theory both in the Netherlands and in the U.S. The theory of ‘common grace’ necessarily involves one in the denial of the antithesis and of the antithetical calling of the Christian.
3. That they should also consider the close historical and doctrinal connection between ‘common grace’ and the very offer-theory which they combat. I am afraid that if they concede ‘common grace’ they will be helpless to combat the offer-theory.
“We invite further discussion of this from the Evangelical Presbyterian brethren.”
Thus I wrote last January. When the. Rev. Charles Rodman visited last August, we had some opportunity to discuss these matters face to face. Now, however, we may carry on this discussion in writing and for our mutual edification.
In connection with the comment just quoted and also quoted in an article in The Evangelical Presbyterian of May, 1974, the Rev. Rodman writes the following introductory comment:
“The comment in the Standard Bearer affirms that the publication by the Literature Committee at the particular point to which it refers is inconsistent with respect to the doctrine of common grace, which it seeks to refute.
“When criticized, we should not show too great a readiness to hasten to our own defense. Often under criticism we can learn of the deficiencies of our own position. This is in fact the way many of us have progressed in the knowledge of the truth from that of outright Arminianism and mysticism to the Reformed Faith.”
At this point the Rev. Rodman quotes the critical remarks which I quoted above and which first appeared in the Standard Bearer of January 1, 1974.
After quoting my comments, the Rev. Rodman continues as follows:
“The background to the writing of the ‘Defense of Calvin’s Calvinism’ was our controversy with the Free Church in Australia. We found that those who maintained the theory of common grace, make it a foundation of their system, that God must desire the salvation of all men because He ‘maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good’ etc.
“We believe that there is no such thing as common grace, because the word grace implies an unmerited mercy, love, and favor which in the Word of God is never common at all. There can be no division of purpose in God’s providence, one temporal and the other spiritual. If God in His administration of the Covenant of Grace sends temporal blessings in the preaching of the gospel to men as He pleases, He has but one purpose in respect of His own glory, namely the redemption of the Church and the greater condemnation of the reprobate. Any other concept concerning God’s providence falls into the gross error of ascribing complexity and confusion to the will of God.
“We acknowledge God’s providence in terms of Question No. 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which states, ‘God’s works of providence are, His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing of all His creatures and all their actions.’ Being holy and wise, God’s works of providence are good and include the making of His sun to shine and the rain to fall on all men alike. Though nature, because of the fall of man has been cursed in the bringing forth of briars and thorns, God’s providence as He governs it according to His eternal purposes, is the means of manifesting His goodness both in the time of plenty and even in His severity in the day of calamity.
“In Psalm 145:9 we read, ‘The Lord is good to all: and His tender mercies are over all His works.’ Here the word mercies must be understood to be restricted in its extent for it can only refer to the works of God’s providence in respect of time, and cannot include grace and favor, nor can it refer to God’s eternal purposes concerning angels and men. This interpretation is consistent with Psalm 103:17 which states, ‘But the mercy of God is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him.’ The idea of a mercy inclusive of grace and favor in the context of a supposed common grace makes nonsense of Scripture for the following reasons:
“God’s goodness in respect of the physical creation which will pass away is not from everlasting to everlasting. His mercy is not upon the reprobate angels and men who are reserved for everlasting destruction. Rather God’s mercy and grace govern all that content of His providence, both temporal and spiritual, which belongs only to the elect who fear Him and keep His commandments. Again, there is no division of purpose and no such thing as common grace.
“John Calvin makes the position clear in his commentary on Psalm 145:9. ‘God is good to all,’ etc. ‘The truth here stated is of wider application than the former, for the declaration of David is to the effect, that not only does God, with fatherly indulgence and clemency forgive sin, but is good to all without discrimination, as He makes the sun to rise upon the good and the wicked. (Mat. 5:45) Forgiveness of sin is a treasure from which the wicked are excluded, for their sin and depravity does not prevent God from showering down His goodness upon them, which they appropriate without being sensible of it. Meanwhile believers, and they only, know what it is to enjoy a reconciled God, as elsewhere it is said—”Come ye to Him and be ye enlightened, and your faces shall not be ashamed; taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 64:5, 8). When it is added that “the mercy of God extends to all His works” this ought not to be considered contrary to reason, or obscure. Our sins having involved the whole world and the curse of God, there is everywhere an opportunity for the exercise of God’s mercy, even in helping the brute creation.’
“It is on the basis of such commentary as given by Calvin, that the ‘defense of Calvin’s Calvinism’ has been written. Unless we have misinterpreted Calvin, we do not see where we differ from him in the statement of the ‘Defense’ page 8 in respect of the goodness of God to all men.
“We believe that when Calvin’s principle of simplicity concerning the will of God is comprehended, he is seen to be entirely consistent in this area of his theological system. If the position is otherwise, we would cease to be Calvinists and take company with those who modify his system.
“We are in entire agreement with the suggestions No. 2 and 3 above which are directed to us by Prof. Hoeksema.
“With respect, the first suggestion, relative to the I position which we hold, appears to bring into question whether it may be said that God in His providence is good to all men as it is clearly stated by John Calvin, whose Calvinism we have sought to defend. This is perhaps the area in which clarification should be made.
“We realize that the theory of common grace has a wider context than its implications concerning the ‘free offer’ and admit that our studies apart from those implications have not been in the same depth as has been the case with the brethren of the Protestant Reformed Church. Our response to the invitation for further discussion is that we are open for instruction in the matter.”
First of all, let me express appreciation and joy over the fact that the brethren of the EPC want nothing of common grace. When they assert that there is no such thing as common grace and that God’s mercy, love, and favor are in the Word of God never common to all, this is language after our hearts. When, further, they insist that there can be no division of purpose in God’s providence, one temporal and the other spiritual, this also is soundly Reformed language. And when, further, they insist on the simplicity of the will of God, as they do both in their brochure and in the quotation just made, this also is sound theology. For this we are thankful. And it is plain to me from these remarks of the brethren that we are fundamentally agreed on these matters.
In the second place, it is plain to me that there is a certain area of misunderstanding here. On the one hand, this misunderstanding was on my part. The brethren “down under” did not understand—in fact, did note even dream—when they wrote their brochure, that the statement which I criticized would be read by us of the Protestant Reformed Churches from the viewpoint of and with the background of all of the common grace controversy through which we passed in our history. The fact is that already when I read this statement for the first time, I felt that it was not in harmony with the thrust of the whole pamphlet. I felt—if I may use an expression of the Rev. Rodman—that it was as incongruous as “a pig with feathers.” And while I now understand a little better what the brethren have in mind, and certainly understand and accept the fact that they do not want common grace, I still find the statement inconsistent. On the other hand, I believe that there is some misunderstanding on the part of the brethren “down under” with respect to such ideas as “temporal blessings” and God’s being “good to all” and God’s mercies not being inclusive of grace and favor. About this I shall write a bit more presently.
In the third place, I can appreciate the allegiance of the brethren of the EPC to John Calvin and their desire to defend Calvin’s Calvinism. In this respect also we are in agreement. To me, however, this does not imply agreement with everything which Calvin wrote, nor with his exegesis of every passage of Scripture, but with the fundamentals of John Calvin’s theology and with all that he wrote which is consistent with his “Calvinism,” according to the test of Scripture itself. John Calvin himself would not want it differently, but would certainly want his disciples to put his writings to the test of Holy Scripture. Parenthetically, let me recommend the writings of Calvin published under the title Calvin’s Calvinism. This volume, one of the least known and least quoted works of Calvin contains his writings on two subjects: “The Eternal Predestination of God” and “The Secret Providence of God.” Perhaps the brethren of the EPC are acquainted with this volume; but if they are not, they ought to get acquainted with it.
But now let us get at this matter of terminology. Twice—once in the quotation which I originally criticized, and once in their reply to my criticism—the brethren of the EPC speak of “temporal blessings” upon the reprobate as well as the elect. At the same time the brethren assert that they want no such thing as common grace. In fact, in their reply to my criticism they even make the point that God with these “temporal blessings” has in view but one purpose in respect of His own glory, “namely the redemption of the Church and the greater condemnation of the reprobate.” The difficulty lies, of course, in the fact that the very term “temporal blessings” suggests the idea of an attitude of favor and grace. In other words, to us this language is contradictory. We hold that God’s favor is always upon His people, and that in that favor God always blesses them. On the other hand, God’s hatred and wrath are always against the wicked reprobate, and in that wrath He always curses them. Let me call attention to the fact that if this distinction is kept in view, then the danger of positing a “division of purpose in God’s providence, one temporal and the other spiritual” is also avoided. It would seem to me that while the brethren wish to avoid that danger and to insist that there can be no division of purpose in God’s providence, they run the risk of implying such a division by speaking of “temporal blessings upon all.” In this connection, it must be kept in mind that the work of God’s providence is always motivated by His predestinating love toward His elect, but also by His purpose of reprobation toward the non-elect.
In this same connection I would criticize the statement of the EPC brethren that “God is good to all.” This statement, of course, can be defended, provided the word “good” is properly interpreted. Do the brethren merely mean to say that God is good in all His works? Whether He blesses the righteous or whether He curses the ungodly, whether He sends rain and sunshine and fruitful seasons, or whether He sends drought and floods and famine, whether He saves some or whether He damns others, He always does good? Is this their meaning? Then, of course, we are in perfect agreement. Or do the brethren mean to say that God’s gifts, which in His providence He bestows upon all men, are in themselves good gifts? God’s sunshine is good sunshine, and God’s rain is good rain. You understand, in that case we still do not say that God’s sunshine is a blessing upon all men alike or that God’s rain is a blessing upon all men alike, no more than we say that drought from God is a curse upon all men alike or that floods and storms from God are a curse upon all men alike. But His gifts, bestowed in His providence, are in themselves good gifts. If this is the meaning of the brethren, then also we are in agreement. But there is at least the suggestion in what they write that they mean that God is benevolent, or beneficent, to all alike. And then, it seems to me, the brethren cannot avoid the implication of an attitude of favor (even though it be with their assertion that there is no such thing as temporal and non-saving) on the part of God to elect common grace and reprobate alike. And if this is the implication, then I cannot understand how this can be consistent with their assertion that there is no such thing as common grace.
That brings us to the matter of Psalm 145:9.
But this will have to wait until our next issue, D.V.