Monday, April 21, 2008

On Common Grace and the Non-Elect

I recently read one of Richard J. Mouw’s Stob lectures, "Seeking the Common Good," given at Calvin College in 2000, (He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, pp. 75-88). The central question Mouw is asking is whether or not Calvinists should engage with wider society in seeking the common good of all, even when it is recognized that the “all” is not solely made up of God’s elect. He quite rightly challenges the attitude of some Calvinists in boycotting this sphere and argues persuasively for a full engagement with human culture. So far, so good. All very commendable. But the reason this is a problem at all for Mouw’s audience is that it is a very Calvinist one indeed. One's understanding of his argument hinges on understanding what Calvinists mean by “common grace.” Common grace is what makes it possible even for the non-elect to enjoy a cool glass of water on a hot day or sit under a shady tree. If we fall over and break our leg an ambulance will come along and take us to the hospital. God causes such rain to fall on the just and the unjust, on the elect and the non-elect. But for Calvinists this grace does not in any way contribute to a person’s salvation. Here is where “common grace” differs from “prevenient grace” as held, for example, in the Wesleyan tradition. Prevenient grace is God drawing all people to salvation (whether or not they ultimately come – the offer at least is genuine.) Common grace on the other hand is given to all but only the elect may be drawn to God. This is made explicit on page 82 when Mouw defines common grace as …”the teaching that God has a positive, though non-salvific, regard for those who are not elect…” This is exactly the difference between prevenient and common grace. The first has the aim of salvation, the second does not. It surprises me that Mouw quotes the Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema without any attempt to defend his outrageous claim that “All of the non-elect…are the enemies of God, and God ‘hates His enemies and purposes to destroy them, except them he chose in Christ Jesus.'” (pp. 82-83) It’s certainly an understatement when Mouw follows this up with the admission that “this does not seem to comport well, however, with Christ’s command to love your enemies.”! It’s a good article and a timely word to Calvinists (and all Christians) of the need to engage culture. But it is marred by a view of God which hardly matches the God of love set forth in the Bible who is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."


K E Alexander said...

Amazing they can continue to cling to those views...even seeing the obvious pitfalls...

Ross McPhee said...

Without going into the Calvinism or Arminianism debate, which position is more viable from the Biblical perspective?

Also, how do you as a pastor and theologian strike a balance between God's love and His justice in your preaching and teaching?

James Garth said...

Interestingly, the Catholic Encyclopedia has an entry dedicated to "Predestinarianism", which it equates directly with the teachings advocated by Calvin himself (ie. that God is deliberately responsible for reprobation of the non-elect). It describes the doctrine variously as "a heresy", "[a system of] unbearable harshness and cruelty", and "a dread doctrine".

Glen O'Brien said...

James, even Calvin himself conceded that God's decision to reprobate the non-elect was a decretum horribile ("a horrible decree.") Yet his internal logic was inexorable and he stood by it anyway. Ross, you ask, "Without going into the Calvinism or Arminianism debate, which position is more viable from the Biblical perspective?" It's pretty impossible to answer your question without "going into the Calvinism or Arminianism debate." In summary I believ the Bible does not support Calvinism because it teaches the following points each on of which is rejected by Calvinism.
1. Christ's death is a universal atonement. He died to make salvation available to every person who ever has lived or ever will live.
2. God is not willing that any person should perish but that ALL should come to repenetance.
3. God elects all of those whom he knows in his foreknowledge will freely choose to believe and he predestines them to be conformed to the image of his Son.
4. We are not born with the natural ability to move toward God (that would be Pelagianism) but God's prevenient grace gives that ability to all persons, as a gift of his grace, enabling whosover will to believe.
5. It's rare, but nonetheless possible, that a genuinely converted person might at some point turn away from Christ and fall from grace.

Call this "Arminianisnm" if you want to give it a label, but I prefer to say that it is "not Calvinist." A lot of Christians (in fact the majority) hold these views but wouldn't necessarily describe themselves as "Arminian."

Ross you also asked, "how do you as a pastor and theologian strike a balance between God's love and His justice in your preaching and teaching?" This one is actually easier to answer than it sounds. When the passage I am preaching from stresses God's love I try to do justice to its intent whilst issuing a brief qualification that God's love does not let us off the hook when it comes to obedience. If the passage stresses God's justice I do the same with a brief qualification that God's judgment is something he'd rather not do if we would respond as we should. I think Paul got it right when he told the Romans they should consider [both] "the goodness and the severity of God." (That's how the AV puts Rom 11:22. NIV has "kindness and sternness."


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