“Common Grace” and Difficult Texts

I have subscribed to the Standard Bearer for about two years, and have found the articles edifying and thought-provoking.

I would like your comments on two verses in light of the Protestant Reformed Churches’ position on common grace. As I understand it, your position is that God has no gracious purposes with regard to the non-elect, either in providentially providing them with material benefits, or in permitting them to come under the preaching of the gospel.This position helps to explain many verses that would otherwise be difficult to interpret, e.g., Matthew. 13:10-15. However, two verses mentioned below seem to contradict this position. In Matthew 5:44, Christians are commanded to love their enemies. In verse 45, God the Father is set forth as their example. It states that God provides sunshine and rain on both the evil and the good. The implication is that God loves His enemies (the evil) and demonstrates this by providing them with sunshine and rain. Also, in Mark 10:17-22, Jesus encounters the rich young ruler. It states in verse 21 that Jesus, looking at him, loved him. The young man went away unconverted. As far as we know he was not one of the elect, yet Christ loved him. Both verses seem to be teaching that God loves unbelievers (and thus presumably is graciously disposed toward them).

I am sympathetic with your position on common grace, but it is hard for me to reconcile these verses with it. I will appreciate your comments.

Kenneth D. Asher

Bay Village, OH


It is indeed the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches that God is not gracious toward the reprobate ungodly. He bestows on them good gifts in His providence, but these gifts of providence do not express any love, or favor, of God toward them. ” God does not give the gifts with His blessing. Nor do the good gifts do the unbeliever any good.

When the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) adopted her doctrine of common grace in 1924, she appealed to Matthew 5:44, 45 in support of her contention that there is a “favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect.”

Herman Hoeksema refuted the (implied) interpretation of the passage by the CRC, explaining the passage as follows:

20. But does not Matt. 5:44, 45 prove the point synod made in its first declaration?

If the synods interpretation of this text were the correct one, it would prove far too much and, besides, it would lead to absurdity. It is, deplorable that synod merely quoted without even an attempt at explanation; otherwise synod would have soon realized how untenable the position is, that in these verses we have a proof that God is gracious to all men. The interpretation which, evidently, synod would offer, runs as follows: 

a. We must love our enemies. 

b. If we do, we will be children of God and reflect His love, for He loves all His enemies, as well as the good, in this present life. 

c. This love to all men is manifested in the rain and sunshine on all without distinction. 

Of this interpretation we assert that, first, it proves too much and, secondly, it leads to absurdity and is untenable. It proves too much, for, all the Scriptures witness that God does not love, but hates His enemies and purposes to destroy them, except them He chose in Christ Jesus and whom He loves not as His enemies, but as His redeemed people, justified and sanctified in Christ: God does, indeed, love His enemies, but not as such, but as His children in Christ. And it leads to absurdity, for if rain and sunshine are a manifestation of God’s love to all men, the just and the unjust, what are floods and droughts, pestilences and earthquakes and all destructive forces and evils sent to all through nature, but manifestations of His hatred for all, the just and the unjust? But it is absurd to say that God hates the just, for He loves them. It is also absurd to say that God changes, now loving the just and the unjust and manifesting this love in rain and sunshine, now hating them and revealing his hatred in upheavals and destruction. Hence, the interpretation that leads to this evident absurdity is itself absurd. 

Besides, it must not be over: looked, that the text does not at all state, that God is gracious to the just and to the unjust, but that He rains and causes His sun to shine on all. 

21. How, then, must the text be interpreted? 

We must take our starting point from verse 44. The Lord admonishes His people that they shall love their enemies. Now, love is not a sentimental feeling or emotion or affection. It is, according to Scripture, the bond of perfectness. It is therefore, the bond between two parties or persons that are ethically perfect, that seek each other and find delight in each other because of their ethical perfection, and that, in the sphere f ethical perfection seek each others good. It is in this true sense that God is love. 

However, it stands to reason that in the case of loving our enemies that despitefully use us, curse us and persecute us, love must needs be one sided. There cannot be a bond of fellowship between the wicked and the perfect in Christ. To love our enemy, therefore, is not to flatter him, to have fellowship with him, to play games with him and to speak sweetly to him; but rather to rebuke him, to demand that he leave his wicked way and thus to bless him and to pray for him. It is to bestow good things upon him with the demand of true love that he leave his wicked way, walk in the light and thus have fellowship with us. If he heed our love, which will be the cause if he be of God’s elect and receive grace, he will turn from darkness into light and our love assumes the nature of a bond of perfectness. If he despise our love, our very act of love will be to his greater damnation. But the cursing and persecution of the wicked may never tempt the child of God to live and act from the principle of hatred, to reward evil for evil, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 

As a single illustration from actual life and experience, the Lord points to the fact, that so God rains and causes His sun to shine upon the just and the unjust, thus bestowing good things upon them all, demanding that they shall employ them as means to walk in righteousness and light. For with God love is delight in perfection in the highest sense of the word. If now the wicked receive grace with rain and sunshine, they will walk in the light and have fellowship with God. If they do not receive grace they will employ the rain and the sunshine in the service of sin and receive the greater damnation. 

But rain and sunshine is never grace and Matt. 5:44, 45 does not prove the contention of the first point. (The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, Grand Rapids, 2nd ed., 1947, pp. 325-327.)

However one might explain Mark 10:17-22, the incident of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life and went away grieved, Jesus’ love for the rich ruler was a saving love, that is, a love that desired his salvation. The context concerns inheriting eternal life (v. 17) and entering the kingdom of God (vv. 23-31). If, then, the rich ruler perished in his sins, it is possible that the Christ of God loves a man with a love that desires his salvation, but that He fails, nevertheless, to accomplish the desired salvation.

This necessarily raises the further question, “Did Christ in His love for and desire to save some persons who yet perish also carry this love and desire to save to the cross?” For Mark 10:32ff. proclaims the cross, especially verse 45: “… the Son of man came . . . to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” In this case, Christ died for persons who go lost forever. The doctrine of limited atonement is denied.

Scripture condemns the notion of a universal, ineffectual Messianic love as false. Christ loved “His own,” loved them “unto the end,” gave Himself to the cross for them alone, and effectually gives eternal life to every one of the (see John 13:1, 18; John 17:1ff .).

From the fact that Jesus loved the rich ruler, we may, must, and can only conclude that the rich ruler was one of the elect and that, later, he was converted, gladly selling all he had, giving to the poor, and following Christ. Jesus suggests as much in verses 23-27: what is impossible with men is possible with God, even the salvation of a rich man.

Alfred Edersheim puts us on the right track:

“He loved him”—as He loves those who are His Own…. And, although we hear no more of him, who that day went back to his rich home very poor, because “very sorrowful,” we cannot but believe that he, whom Jesus loved, yet found in the poverty of earth the treasure of heaven (Jesus the Messiah, vol. 2, New York Herrick, 1883, pp. 341, 342).

Some have thought that this rich young ruler was John Mark himself, who wrote the most detailed and vivid account of the incident. Herman Hoeksema suggests that the ruler was Joseph of Arimathea (see his unpublished notes on “New Testament History,” p. 30).

The passage makes plain that Jesus does not make the way of discipleship easy for those whom He loves and that one elected by God and loved by the Christ may not in every case be converted at once by the gospel-call.

—Ed. Comm.