What memories that term brings to the minds of those who are members of our Protestant Reformed Churches. For it was in opposition of this theory developed by the Christian Reformed Church culminating in the Synod of 1924 that is the main historical reason for the establishment of our denomination.
In our discussion of a world and life view which is based upon Scripture, it is impossible to ignore the theory of Common Grace. For this dogma, established by the Church, has much to say about this subject. By its very nature, Common Grace speaks of the world and life view of the Christian I the world: of his attitude towards unbelievers and the fruits of their labors as they apply themselves to the creation about them and produce the fruits of their scientific and intellectual efforts.
In this article I am particularly concerned with the view itself. If the Lord wills, we may treat the world and life view that is logically implied in it in a future article.
And I am not now so much concerned with the first point, for that does not have the immediate relevance to our subject which warrants a detailed discussion. The first point has to do with God’s attitude of favor toward all men in the whole creation. There is a sense, according to this point, in which God loves all men, bestows upon them many temporal blessings to reveal His favor, and makes them conscious of this earnest desire to save them. This favor is revealed in the rain and sunshine. He sends upon them, the blessings of prosperity and health, riches and honor; but especially is this favor shown in that He sends to them all the offer of the gospel by means of which they have a chance to be saved if they will accept the gospel and received it as their own. There is no need now to show that this first point is obviously Arminian, subtracting greatly from the sovereign work of God in the preaching of the gospel powerfully to save His elect.
Beyond a doubt there is an organic connection between the three points so that the second and third points are logically related to and follow from the first. But in a discussion of this sort, it is perhaps not necessary to go into this intimate relation between the points, but merely to concentrate on the second and third points which have more direct bearing on our subject.
The second point has to do with the particular subject of the restraint of sin by an inward operation of the Holy Spirit upon all men. If God had not intervened after the fall, according to this view, man would have fallen into the state of bare animal existence, losing even his rationality and morality. He would have been incapable at worst of doing anything above the level of the beast of the field. Art best, he would have become so totally vicious in all his acts that human existence upon earth would have been impossible. He would immediately have killed every body in sight if he could, lost all regard for even an external moral conduct, and sunk into the morass and slough of the lowest degenerate whose life is morally and spiritually below the level of an animal.
But God intervened with His Holy Spirit in such a way that the complete breaking forth of the sin of man is somewhat restrained. The Holy Spirit operates upon the heart of all men in such a way that they cannot sin and do not sin as much as they otherwise would.
The result of this restraint of sin is that the natural man who is unregenerate and unsaved is capable of performing many good deeds which are good in the sight of God, yea, which will even abide into eternity. He is capable of moral and civic good and righteousness, of making astounding progress in all branches of learning and human endeavor; and with these things in his hands, he stands before God expecting and receiving the evident approval of God upon what he does. These good things which meet with God’s approval are many and various. He, with the powerful influence of the Spirit within him, lives a good life in which he contributes much toward the benefit of his fellow man in financial gifts, in good deeds, in the good things of life. He develops beautiful music and art in which true Scriptural thoughts and ideas are conveyed and communicated to those who will listen and look. He establishes wonderful systems of philosophy in which he comes even to the knowledge of God imperfect though it may be. He aids and abets man’s desire for the better life with the products of scientific achievement which mitigate the power of the curse upon the creation and man and go a long way towards making man’s life fruitful and happy, relived of cares and fears. And all that he does meets with God’s approval and satisfaction, so that what he produces is of sufficient value to be preserved for eternity.
That this is the view of Common Grace can be shown from the three points themselves and the texts and Confessional references which were used to support this view. But is can also be shown that this is the case from writings which men addicted to this view have produced in years gone by.
In a book entitled “Christianity And Classical Civilization” written by Ralph Stob, we read for example, “Reformed theology also says that there is common and special grace. In common grace and its blessings all men as men can share. Special grace is that which is received by the elect alone. Now, it is the common grace of God which has been given bounteously to the people of ancient Greece and Rome. Because of that grace their civilizations attained the heights. Through that common grace Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Pheidas, Homer, etc., received the insight into truth and put it in the forms which have come down to us…It is by means of this doctrine that the explanations is found for all the good present in the teaching and the life of people who have never heard the Gospel.” p. 28.
A little later he writes, “The Reformed view pictures the world of antiquity as neither totally corrupt nor altogether good. It does not view the course of the history of the pagan peoples as only downward on the steep road to the abyss. Nor again does it see humanity in antiquity climbing higher and higher until in finally scales the height of thought characteristic of Christian teaching. Rather it views the situation as a combination of both. There are trends and movements pointing upward. Again there is much that points downwards toward ruin and destruction. The Providence of God does not lead only to a long list of zeros so that the total effect is negative. But through the negation at times and again along side it in another direction there is positive working.” p. 32.
Again, “To return now to a further elucidation of this doctrine of common grace as applied to pagan civilization. In surveying that civilization one can maintain that this grace operated not only negatively but also positively. Its sole function was not to restrain the various evil tendencies, to hold sin in check. There was not only a working of the Spirit by which the minds of men was the inconsistencies and the folly of their views, so that by their reasoning they felt themselves led astray and into deeper struggles…But often through their thinking they came upon bits of truth which gave them a measure of satisfaction and a measure of contentment and joy.” p. 35.
Then there appears some comment on the various products of this Spirit I the old pagans with the conclusion that “Such a development was positively in the direction of Christianity which called for faith on the part of the individual in Jesus Christ and God.” p. 37.
There are a few other quotations which I would like to call to your attention, but this must evidently wait.
Originally Published in:
Vol. 19 No. 1 February 1959