Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 11 - Louis Berkhof

Louis Berkhof posthumously wins one of our famous t-shirts for the THEOparadoxical thinking exhibited in his defense of the doctrine of common grace. Berkhof sees God's Being as infinite and supra-logical, and therefore capable of more deeply complex intentions than many would typically ascribe to Him.

Although some will argue that the Scriptures make no distinction between "common" and "special" grace, these designations are nothing more than a helpful way of describing God's mercy toward all mankind, in contrast with His sovereign election of some (both of which are clearly taught in the Scriptures). We can think of "common grace" as that kindness which God extends to all people everywhere - even those who never believe. All sinners who continue to live on earth receive air, water, food, sunshine and a host of other little enjoyments each day. If God's kindness and love were restricted to the elect alone, the reprobate could not be held guilty for failing to give thanks to God for His Providential bounty. But as it stands, all men are guilty of aggravated sin by exalting God's good gifts above God Himself, and loving the effects of divine love rather than the Cause Himself. Unregenerate men take these gifts as deserved quantities, while the righteous feel ever so unworthy to receive them, seeing their own natural sinfulness clearly. The saints wonder how it can be that God should so favor them as to provide even one more breath - let alone fellowship with Christ and eternal life in the joy of their Lord.

In Arminianism, common and special grace are both denied. Such distinctions are unnecessary if there is no sovereign election. Arminians posit a universal "prevenient grace," which essentially means that God gives every person an equal opportunity to make a free will choice for or against Christ. In this way, they preserve the foundation of salvation as grounded in divine grace and initiated by God, while denying that God is ultimately decisive in the matter. Prevenient grace simply makes it possible for man to choose what he wants, and it portrays God as "offering" salvation in the hope that some will respond without His special intervention. While this ascribes a certain attractive sense of humanistic "fairness" to God, it has the negative side effect of placing man's will above that of the Creator. It also gives me the right to boast against non-believers, since I wisely responded to the prevenient grace and they did not. Calvinists note that God is neither required nor obligated to save any sinner, that He would remain just if He never offered any opportunities for salvation, and therefore He has the right to sovereignly intervene where and as He chooses. Yet the Calvinist does not leave the non-elect beyond the glow of God's mercy, which is over all His works and abounds too much to be escaped entirely - even by those who are fleeing from Him.

Interestingly, the denial of common grace is a defining mark of hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinists emphasize God's hatred of the non-elect, and deny any sense of God's love or grace toward the reprobate. These matters must be sorted out with Scriptural reasoning, and with a healthy sense of paradox in view, for the same God who "hated" Esau also allowed him a place to live in safety, command over an army of 400 men, and resources he himself described as "plenty." (Gen. 33:9). Did Esau deserve these things? No? Then they were certainly given as gifts of grace - undeserved! How can these things be? Without further adieu, let's hear Mr. Berkhof's defense of the more moderate, Biblically balanced perspective which is set forth in classical Calvinism . . .

"Another objection to the doctrine of common grace is that it presupposes a certain favorable disposition in God even to reprobate sinners, while we have no right to assume such a disposition in God. This stricture takes its starting point in the eternal counsel of God, in His election and reprobation. Along the line of His election God reveals His love, grace, mercy, and long-suffering, leading to salvation; and in the historical realization of his reprobation He gives expression only to His aversion, disfavor, hatred, and wrath, leading to destruction. But this looks like a rationalistic over-simplification of the inner life of God, which does not take sufficient account of His self-revelation. In speaking on this subject we ought to be very careful and allow ourselves to be guided by the explicit statements of Scripture rather than by our bold inferences from the secret counsel of God. There is far more in God than we can reduce to our logical categories. Are the elect in this life the objects of God’s’ love only, and never in any sense the objects of His wrath? Is Moses thinking of the reprobate when he says: “For we are consumed in thine anger, and in thy wrath are we troubled”? Ps. 90:7. Does not the statement of Jesus that the wrath of God abides on them that obey not the Son imply that it is removed from the others when, and not until, they submit to the beneficent rule of Christ? John 3:36. And does not Paul say to the Ephesians that they “were by nature children of wrath even as the rest”? Eph. 2:3 . Evidently the elect can not be regarded as always and exclusively the objects of God’s love. And if they who are the objects of God’s redeeming love can also in some sense of the word be regarded as the objects of His wrath, why should it be impossible that they who are the objects of His wrath should also in some sense share His divine favor? A father who is also a judge may loathe the son that is brought before him as a criminal, and feel constrained to visit his judicial wrath upon him, but may yet pity him and show him acts of kindness while he is under condemnation. Why should this be impossible in God? General Washington hated the traitor that was brought before him and condemned him to death, but at the same time showed him compassion by serving him with the dainties from his own table. Cannot God have compassion even on the condemned sinner, and bestow favors upon him? The answer need not be uncertain, since the Bible clearly teaches that He showers untold blessings upon all men and also clearly indicates that these are the expression of a favorable disposition in God, which falls short, however, of the positive volition to pardon their sin, to lift their sentence, and to grant them salvation. The following passages clearly point to such a favorable disposition: Prov. 1:24; Isa. 1:18; Ezek. 18:23,32; 33:11 ; Matt. 5:43-45; 23:37; Mark 10:21 ; Luke 6:35: Rom. 2:4; I Tim. 2:4. If such passages do not testify to a favorable disposition in God, it would seem that language has lost its meaning, and that God’s’ revelation is not dependable on this subject."

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), 445-446.

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