ng attention to the doctrine of a common grace as set forth in the writings of John Calvin, we concluded our previous article by noting that Calvin does not only speak of a common grace which is shown to the entire creation, without any distinction, but he also speaks of a common grace of God to mankind in distinction from the creation, and also this grace must be viewed only as relating to the realm of nature. In this connection, according to Calvin, we must view all things, which serve unto the sustaining of our present life, as signs of God’s goodness to mankind, as Divine blessings which are gifts of God’s grace. In I, 16, 5 we read: “In the law and in the prophets he frequently declares, that whenever he moistens the earth with dew or with rain, he affords a testimony of his favor.” Several times the thought is expressed that God, in His favor, preserves and feeds all mankind, as is evident from III, 10, 3, where we read that God’s beneficence is the source of whatever we may enjoy in the earthly sphere, such as clothing, etc.
Calvin, however, does not merely speak of God’s goodness to all of natural life that is viewed as proof of a common grace; but to this must be added that all the excellent virtues of men are ascribed to the goodness and mercy of God. This is evident from II, 2, 17. Calvin had written that the mind was a peculiar property of our nature, However, there are those who become insane. He ascribes it to the goodness and mercy of God that we do not become insane or foolish. Moreover, that others are gifted with eminent gifts of the mind is a proof of God’s goodness and beneficence, and this in connection with His mercy.
God’s common grace, or mercy and favor (the last two words are used by Calvin), consists in this that God imparts to them gifts in this natural life (in fact, life itself must be viewed as proof of God’s favor), such gifts of the mind which men receive from God in distinction from the mute creature. Now it cannot be denied that, when Calvin writes about these matters, he very often does not mean anything else than the gifts which come from God and are bestowed, unmerited, upon men. However, it cannot be denied, in the light of the fact that life itself must be viewed as proof of God’s love and mercy for all, also these gifts must be regarded as gifts bestowed upon the entire human race in God’s general favor and love.
Calvin’s common grace, as bestowed upon mankind, falls into two parts. First, he speaks of a common grace in distinction from a special grace. In II, 2, 17 he speaks of a special goodness of God, which exists in distinction from the general goodness of God. And this also applies to God’s favor and mercy, in relation to mankind in the sphere of the natural. And we add that it is striking that, when Calvin speaks of a common grace among the heathens, or among mankind in general, he does not describe this grace in distinction from the grace which God’s people receive, but in distinction from the special grace which is shown to mankind. When the doctrine of a common grace is set forth today, then the special grace, in distinction from common grace, is the grace of God as limited to the people of God. According to Calvin, however, all mankind receives God’s special grace. The common grace which the Lord bestows upon all mankind consists in this, that the Lord, in general, imparts rich gifts to men. Whereas, according to II, 2, 17, God’s special grace consists in this that the Lord imparts to some richer gifts than to others. This is clearly set forth in this quotation, and we quote: “Let us conclude, therefore, that it is evident in all mankind, that reason is a peculiar property of our nature, which distinguishes us from the brute animals, as sense constitutes the difference between them and things inanimate. For whereas some are born fools and idiots, that defect obscures not the general goodness of God. Such a spectacle should rather teach us that what we retain ought justly to be ascribed to his indulgence; because, had it not been for his mercy to us, our defection would have been followed by the total destruction of our nature. But whereas some excel in penetration, others possess superior judgment, and others have a greater aptitude to learn this or that art, in this variety God displays his goodness to us, that no one may arrogate to himself as his own what proceeds merely from the Divine liberality. For whence is it that one is more excellent than another, unless it be to exalt in our common nature the special goodness of God, which in the preterition of many, proclaims that it is under an obligation to none?”
Calvin, however, does not speak only of a common grace in relation to creation in the sphere of the natural, but he also speaks of a certain common grace in the spiritual sphere. First of all, however, in connection with this, we wish to observe the following. We have been unable to detect in Calvin’s Institutes and in Calvin’s Calvinism any trace of a common grace which proceeds upon wicked men, enabling them to do any good before Him; this grace is strange to the reformer. And neither have we been unable to detect, especially in the light of Calvin’s Calvinism, the teaching that the preaching of the gospel is a general grace of God to the wicked world; he declares the opposite but too sharply and plainly.
The first item that draws our attention in Calvin’s doctrine of Common Grace in the sphere of the spiritual is in relation to the regard for external virtue. We read in II, 3, 3: “For in all ages there have been some persons, who, from the mere dictates of nature, have devoted their whole lives to the pursuit of virtue. . . . These examples, then, seem to teach us that we should not consider human nature to be totally corrupted; since, from its instinctive bias, some men have not only been eminent for noble actions, but have uniformly conducted themselves in a most virtuous manner through the whole course of their lives. But here we ought to remember, that amidst this corruption of nature there is room for Divine grace, not to purify it, but internally to restrain its operations. . . . In His elect, the Lord heals these maladies by a method which we shall hereafter describe. In others, he restrains them, only to prevent their ebullitions so far as he sees to be necessary for the preservation of the universe. Hence some by shame, and some by fear of the laws, are prevented from running into many kinds of pollutions, though they cannot in any great degree dissemble their impurity; others, because they think that a virtuous course of life is advantageous, entertain some languid desires after it, others go further, and display more than common excellence, that by their majesty they may confine the vulgar to their duty. Thus God by his providence restrains the perverseness of our nature from breaking out into external acts, but does not purify it within.” It appears from these quotations that there is a certain operation of God’s grace, not to the people of the Lord but to others. We have here the doctrine of grace in connection with the restraint by God of the outward deeds of the wicked. In this same paragraph from which these quotations are taken, the reformer very vividly describes the terrible wickedness of the sinner. And in other writings of the reformer the same thoughts are expressed.
Another item which attracts our attention is a sort of covenantal grace, which they receive who, although estranged from the work of Christ, nevertheless belong to the covenant externally, as it manifests itself in the midst of the world. Calvin appears to teach, first, that the election of Israel, as people, in its entirety, was a manifestation of God’s grace to all, secondly that this grace was bestowed upon Israel, not from the viewpoint of the election unto salvation, but as the historical people of God, and, finally, that this grace for them consisted in this, that they, because of the gracious love of God, received gifts of God, inasmuch as they were received into that external covenant.
In connection with this we can also understand the following in Calvin’s writings: (1) First, the apostolic office was a manifestation of God’s favor, but that it nevertheless did not contain the hope of eternal salvation—III, 22, 7. (2) Secondly, Calvin speaks of a general and special faith, and he undoubtedly refers to hope and other gifts, which they possess in the external covenant in the general sense of the word.—III. 11, 12. (3) Finally, external faith, which the reprobates possess, because they are in that external covenant, is a manifestation of God’s favor and mercy. This faith is common, not because it has essentially anything in common with true faith, but because it, in the light of the outward emotions, is so similar to it externally.
Concluding our first point, which deals with the broad content of Calvin’s doctrine of a common grace, we would note the following. We have attempted to present Calvin’s doctrine of a common grace as briefly as possible. Of course, one could conceivably read a certain common grace in so many expressions of Calvin. This method, however, would not be just, inasmuch as the writer at times speaks of gifts of graces, not meaning anything else than that these gifts are bestowed upon us as unmerited. But, we have called attention to the following. First, God, the Creator of heaven and earth, shows a certain mercy to the entire creature, including the animal. However, this common grace, also conceded by the advocates of Common Grace today, is nothing else than a merciful providence, and the beast, as well as man, shares in this common grace. Secondly, there is a common grace which is bestowed upon mankind, which consists of many gifts in the sphere of nature, and this grace is divided into two kinds, a common and a special grace. And, in the third place, there is also a sort of covenant grace which the wicked receive in the sphere of the covenant. Besides, in this sphere of the covenant, there is a common and a special faith, hope, etc. Now it is striking that Calvin, with respect to all spheres of life, identifies the grace of God with outward gifts, in both spheres of life, the natural and the spiritual. In this must be sought the explanation of this doctrine of the reformer. Calvin identifies the grace of God with the things; or, he views God’s grace in the things. Life, bread, temporary faith are to him in themselves good and must therefore be identified with a certain mercy of God. And whereas all these things, according to Calvin, are of God, and man receives them as unmerited, he views this participation in all kinds of gifts a participation by all men in God’s favor, mercy, goodness, grace, etc. And this common grace, identified by Calvin with the things, (therefore Calvin says that God shows a temporal mercy), reaches out to the entire universe, to mankind in the sphere of the natural, and to all those who, being externally in the covenant, taste the gifts of that covenant by the Spirit. These things are certainly of interest also to US in our present day. The doctrine of a common grace is and should always be of interest. It is very vitally related to the present position and defections in the Christian Reformed Church today. And it should be of interest to know the position of the great Genevan Reformer, also in connection with his doctrine of sm. In our following article, the Lord willing, we will call attention to this doctrine of a common grace, as set forth by Calvin, as it is very limited in its scope, and we purpose to compare it with the doctrine of Common Grace and of the Three Points of the present day.