Is God Gracious in Giving Good Gifts to All Men?
Some defenders of common grace define common grace as God’s attitude of favor towards His creation. No Reformed man would ever disagree with this assertion. God made this world; He upholds it and governs it by His power. God has determined to save His creation through the atonement of Christ. God loves His world, looks on it with favor, and sends out His Spirit into the creation to renew it. There is, of course, the matter of terminology; that is, whether God’s love for His creation can rightly be called grace. But apart from that, the controversy does not lie here.
The defenders of common grace speak of the fact that God also has a certain attitude of favor towards men – not some men, but all men. He is kind and benevolent towards men in general; He shows His desire that they be saved and does what He can to convince men of His desire to save them. That is, common grace, according to its proponents, is God’s love, mercy, kindness, etc. towards every man in the world that has ever lived, lives now and will live in the future before the Lord returns. It is an attitude of favor in whatever form it takes; that is, God shows His favor or grace to men in different ways, the chief of which is the well-meant gospel offer. But He shows His love for men in general in ways different from the well-meant and gracious gospel offer as well.
It is now my purpose to discuss that element in the doctrine of common grace that claims that God shows His favor to all men through giving them the good things in life. While a great deal has been said and much ink spilled over the question of the so-called offer of the gospel, proponents of common grace point also to rain and sunshine and the good things of this life as grace upon all men and His love towards mankind in general.
It is this matter of rain and sunshine (as well as other good gifts) upon the unregenerate that concerns us at present. The first point of common grace, adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924, specifically speaks of this kind of common grace. The point reads:
“Relative to the first point which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, synod declare it to be established according to Scripture and the Confessions that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5 and III/IV, 8 and 9, which deal with the general offer of the gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our Reformed writers from the past favored this view.
(Quoted from Hoeksema and Hanko, Ready to Give an Answer [Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1997] Page 63)
The wording of this first point of common grace is extremely unclear. It speaks of a favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect. According to the defenders of common grace, not the creation is meant, but men are the objects of this general grace of God – even though the wording does not sound like that.
But the confusion does not end here. When it comes to the point of telling us what that favorable attitude of God towards humanity is, the first point speaks only of a general offer of the gospel. One would think, upon reading the point, that this gospel offer is all that is meant. Even when one looks at the “proof” given for this assertion of God’s favorable attitude towards humanity, one discovers that there is no confessional proof offered for any favorable attitude of God towards the wicked except that favor supposedly revealed in the offer of the gospel. Canons II, 5 and III/IV, 8 and 9 both speak of the gospel.
The same is true in part of the Biblical proof for this universal favorable attitude of God towards all men. The last four proof texts, I Timothy 4:10 , Romans 2:4 , Ezekiel 33:11 , Ezekiel 18:23 , are obviously intended to give Biblical proof for the gospel offer.
But then, strangely enough, other passages are referred to, which, though few, speak of something other than the gracious and general gospel offer. There are four such Scriptural passages. These four are Psalm 145:9, Matthew 5:44-45, Luke 6: 35-36 and Acts 14:16-17.
Matthew 5:44-45 speaks of sunshine and rain and is interpreted to mean that sunshine and rain are evidences of God’s grace. Because the sun shines on everyone and because rain falls everywhere, God’s grace is also upon everyone. Luke 6 speaks only of God’s kindness towards the unthankful and evil. The interpretation of this, then, is that kindness is like rain and sunshine and is evidence of grace to all, all men being the unthankful and evil.
Acts 14:17 speaks of the fact that God did not leave Himself without witness, but testified that He is God by doing good, giving rain from heaven along with fruitful season, and filling men’s hearts with food and gladness. This witness of God is interpreted to refer to God’s grace and favor that He shows to all men.
Let us consider the matter. Before we enter into the meaning of the few texts quoted, three other points have to be made.
The first is that no one disputes the fact that God gives good gifts to men. This is irrefutably taught in Scripture and no one wants to deny it. James 1:17 settles the matter: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”
God is good!
He is good in His own being. And as He reveals Himself in all the things He has made, He reveals that He is good. He is good in all He does; He is good in all the gifts He sends to man; He is the overflowing fountain of all good. Indeed, in whatever He does, He is good. It would be terribly wrong to say that there are certain things God does that are not good. The implication would have to be that sin can be found in God; or imperfection; or lack of understanding; or some deficiency in what He does. All this would be blasphemy of the worst sort.
But this in turn means that God is not only good when He sends His rain and sunshine from heaven and causes an abundance of food to grow; He is also good when he sends drought and famine, pestilence and grasshoppers, which eat everything in sight. He is good, not only when He sends health and strength, but also when He sends sickness and pain. He is good in times of prosperity, but He is also good in times of adversity. That ought to be clear to anyone that holds to the truth of God’s sovereignty and infinite goodness.
If God is good when He sends what we want, why is he not good when He sends things we do not want and fear?
Is He good when rain and sunshine come?
But bad when floods and drought destroy crops?
Is He good when He gives us strength to work, but bad when He sends sickness?
That is the insoluble problem of common grace!
Who would dare charge God with badness?
Not even those foolish people who deny that God sends sickness and trouble dare to claim badness on God’s part. They simply move all trouble and affliction outside God’s control and into the hands of the devil – and thus deny God’s sovereignty.
From the viewpoint of our own subjective experience as children of God, we ought to see how crucial this is for our faith.
If only the good things in life are grace, what about the bad things?
We would be forced to conclude that the bad things are evidences of God’s anger and hatred.
What else can they be?
But what would that do for our faith?
Every affliction and trouble in this life would be reason for fear and despair.
Why is God angry with us?
Why does He send these terrible troubles?
It can only be that God is angry with me and loves me no longer. Such is the inevitable experience of trying to equate God’s favor with mere outward prosperity.
The problem is, obviously, that we equate God’s favor towards men with the bestowal of pleasant earthly things. Rain and sunshine are favor, so it is claimed. So is health and strength. So is prosperity and affluence. The more things of this world I possess, the greater is the favor of God. But then the less of the things of this world I possess, the less I have of the favor of God. That follows.
We do grave injustice to our fellow saints in third-world countries such as Myanmar when we make such absurd statements.
How can we claim to have more of the favor of God here in an affluent Western country when our fellow saints in Myanmar have all they can manage to keep body and soul together?
It is a cruel slander of them.
And yet it is a mistake we are all inclined to make. Asaph made that mistake when he told us in Psalm 73 that in noticing the prosperity of the wicked and his own suffering, he almost lost his faith. The wicked owned an abundance of the things of this world and seemed to live tranquil and trouble-free lives, while he endured chastening each morning at the hand of God. The problem was so serious to him that, unless he found the answer, he found it impossible to believe God’s goodness towards His people.
Common grace, which identifies favor with material things, is a threat to one’s faith.
The same error is made into the central truth of preaching by the so-called “Prosperity Gospelers.” Their main theme in all they preach is that to serve the Lord will result in material prosperity, health, and an easy life in the world. Thousands follow their teaching; it is the easy way to attain what their covetous souls desire. Common grace, insofar as it teaches that material possessions are indicative of the favor God, feeds this abominable teaching. It is a teaching, when consistently applied to life, believed and accepted, leads to hell. And yet I hear voices claiming to be “Reformed” who make the same dreadful mistake.
It is sometimes argued that surely in the old dispensation material prosperity was indicative of God’s blessing. Countless texts can be quoted in support of this, especially in the book of Deuteronomy. One example of such a text, outside of Deuteronomy, is Malachi 3:10: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house and prove me now here with, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”
But we must not forget that all this was in the old dispensation in which all God’s dealings with His church were in pictures and not in reality, in types and shadows and not directly in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The result was that material prosperity was, for the church, prosperity in the land of Canaan. And the land of Canaan was a picture of heaven: it was a land flowing with milk and honey as a picture of the rich spiritual blessedness of heaven. In keeping, therefore, with the nature of the old dispensation, all these blessings in the land of Canaan were dependent on Israel’s keeping of the law of God (See especially Deuteronomy 28). And the fact of the matter was that Israel could not and did not keep God’s law, with the result that the land of Canaan became a barren wasteland and Israel was brought into captivity (II Chronicles 36:21).
The believers in Canaan never made the mistake of confusing Canaan and earthly prosperity with the blessing of God in Jesus Christ. They looked at the picture and realized it was only a picture. When Christ would come, He would fulfill the law for them and do on their behalf what they could never do. And the reward would be, not that land on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, but heaven itself. Their hope and faith were fixed on Christ and on His perfect work, which would give them the fullness of the spiritual blessings of salvation (Hebrews 11:10, Hebrews 11:13-16).
By Herman Hanko