Pristine Grace

Is it common....
Part 3
by Eileen Beckett
Is it common....

The Creeds

I found it interesting that the creeds are silent on the issue of ‘common grace’. There isn’t any mention of this teaching on ‘common grace’, instead by what is taught in the creeds the theory is actually rejected. Dr. Mouw uses the Third head, Article 3, of the Canons of Dordt in the defense of common grace:

“Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation.”

Dr. Mouw believes that by the Canons use of the two words ‘saving good’ it necessarily implies and leaves open the possibility that man can do ‘good’, just not saving good. This good is seen in the works of the unbeliever that regard virtue, deeds that bring about good order in society, etc., which leads to the main thrust of his book; “common grace ministries”. But if we take into account the very next Article in the Canons along with the teaching of the Heidelberg we see that the implication of unregenerate man being capable of doing good is not specifically taught, it is actually repudiated.

Canons Article 4

“There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural understanding, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this understanding of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay, farther, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”

Heidelberg Q 8:

Q: “But are we so depraved, that we are wholly incapable of any good and prone to all evil”?

A: "Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God."

Further the Canons in the rejection of errors (the only time the actual words ‘common grace’ are used) states:

Paragraph 5:

Who teach: That the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, that is, the evangelical or saving grace, and salvation itself, and that in this way God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since He applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion.
For both the experience of all ages and the Scriptures testify that this is untrue. He showeth his word unto Jacob, his statues and his ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation; and as for his ordinances, they have not known them (Ps. 147:19, 20). Who in the generations gone by suffered all the nations to walk in their own way (Acts 14:16). And: And they (Paul and his companions) having been forbidden of the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, when they were come over against Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not (Acts 16:6,7)

This was the error of the Arminians, rejected by the Canons, who taught that man could achieve his own salvation by the use of his “common grace” ability for good. While it is true that this is not the goal of Dr. Mouw, who uses “common grace” as a means God uses in the unregenerate in order to produce a good culture, it nevertheless weakens the teaching of total depravity and gives to the natural man real ability to do good and the affirmation of a favor of God to all men without exception, leading to the inevitable expression “God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men”. So the one time that the creeds do mention ‘common grace’ they reject it as an error opposed to the Gospel.

I began putting the phrase ‘common grace’ in quotation marks some time ago and in my studies and reading I ran across this statement by Henry Van Til who actually embraced ‘common grace’. He raised the important question of whether ‘common grace’ is indeed ‘grace’ in any straightforward sense of the word and decided that it was best to ‘place the term ‘common grace’ in quotation marks, because it seems a little odd to equate what he considers to be the very real ‘beneficent goodness of God to the non-elect sinners’ with the redemptive ‘blessings which God bestows upon elect sinners in and through Jesus Christ, the Mediator".

Is there then any straightforward sense in which grace is common?