Saturday, October 4, 2014
The Nature of Common Grace
(I) Restraint. It is natural that writers on this subject should place in the forefront of their discussion the notion of restraint. It is perhaps the most striking and readily granted feature of the non-saving grace that God dispenses to this undeserving and sin-cursed world. God restrains sin and its consequences.
It is not, of course, to be supposed that the restraint God places upon sin and its effects is complete, nor is it uniform. Complete restraint would imply eradication, for even though restraint in itself does not mean eradication, yet a restraint that would be complete would involve the removal of the exercise of sinful affection and impulse and removal of the very primary consequences of sin. Neither does the notion of restraint suppose that such restraint is always present. Paul tells us that because men did not like to retain God in their knowledge God gave them over to a reprobate mind and gave them up to uncleanness so that they were filled with the fruits of unrighteousness. But what the notion of restraint does involve is that in the forbearance and goodness of God He does place restraint upon the expressions and consequences of human depravity and of unholy passion.
There are three respects in which the notion of restraint may be applied.
(a) Restraint upon Sin. God places restraint upon the workings of human depravity and thus prevents the unholy affections and principles of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them. He prevents depravity from bursting forth in all its vehemence and violence. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell-fire, if it were not for God's restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell: there are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are the beginnings of hell-fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments in them as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in Scripture compared to the troubled sea, Isaiah 57:20. For the present God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;’ but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is a thing that is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God's restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so, if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.”
This restraint upon the tendency inherent in sin appears very early in the history of fallen humanity. It is, no doubt, exceedingly difficult to know the exact meaning and intent of Genesis 3:22, 23. “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” But it seems rather certain that the eating of the tree of life after man had completely forfeited every right to that of which it was the sign and seal would have been an act of gross presumption, sacrilege and rebellion. It is surely an act of gracious restraint on the part of God that He thrust him out from the garden so as to prevent the commission of so heinous and desperate a sin. This consideration is not offset by the other fact that the expulsion from the garden was an act of divine judgment for the first sin. A divine act may have diverse grounds according to the aspect from which it is viewed.
Again, perhaps more conclusive and significant is the case of Cain. Profane and godless as he was, a halo of sanctity was placed around his life to protect him from the violence that sinful passion would tend to execute upon him. “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (Gen. 4:15). Provision was made by God to restrain and prevent in others the murderous impulse that was so signally characteristic of Cain himself.
In the case of Abimelech we have a direct statement to the effect that God kept him from sin. “Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her” (Gen. 20:6). We do not have reason to suppose that Abimelech truly feared God, and so we have an example of an unbeliever restrained by divine intervention from the commission of sin. This fact is not in the least disproven by the objection that it was for Abraham's sake that this restraint was exercised. Whatever may have been the reason or reasons, it is still a fact that God prevented the sin of which Abimelech would otherwise have been guilty.
In the case of Sennacherib his rage against the Lord was curbed and the evil purpose of his mind frustrated. “But I know thy abode, and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against me. Because thy rage against me and thy tumult is come into my ears, therefore I will put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou camest” (2 Kings 19:27, 28).
(b) Restraint upon the Divine Wrath. There is restraint upon the divine vengeance, suspension of the full measure of the divine wrath due to sin. It should not be forgotten that all the evil that exists in the world is ultimately traceable to the divine displeasure. Even the evil that is present in the physical realm is the result of the divine curse, and the curse is but the expression of His wrath. But there is also the direct infliction of divine displeasure, an infliction that is the necessary reaction of God's holiness to sin and guilt. It is the restraint upon this manifestation of God's wrath /p. 9/ that we have in mind when we speak of restraint placed upon the execution of the divine wrath. Were it not for this restraint the wicked would be immediately consigned to everlasting perdition. The facts demonstrate that this world's history is a dispensation of the divine forbearance and longsuffering. Restraint is therefore not only restraint upon the unholy passion of man's heart but also restraint upon the holy wrath of God.
One of the most forcible examples we have of this is in the period prior to the flood. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years” (Gen. 6:3). Whether the word should be translated “strive” or “rule”, this text implies that God did bear with men in His forbearance and longsuffering. Notwithstanding much provocation, the pent-up forces of God's indignation were to be restrained for one hundred and twenty years. And though the main point of this text is that there is a limit to the divine longsuffering, nevertheless the longsuffering does operate. We have allusion to this on the part of Peter and confirmation is given to the correctness of this interpretation. Peter refers to the period before the flood as the time “when the longsuffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah” (1 Pet. 3:20).
When Paul, referring to past generations of the history of the world, says that the times of ignorance God overlooked (Acts 17:30), he is not referring to any indifference or connivance on the part of God—his first chapter of the epistle to the Romans disproves any such interpretation—but among other things he is making reference to the fact that God refrained from executing the full measure of His judgment. It is true that God did not manifest His grace as now when He commands that men should all everywhere repent, but in the word we have translated “overlooked” there is also implied the “passing by” of forbearance.
Romans 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 may have believers particularly in mind, but, even so, the longsuffering mentioned in both passages involves the suspension of judgment over periods of time, and such suspension of judgment draws even the wicked and reprobate within its scope.
(c) Restraint upon Evil. Sin introduces disintegration and disorganisation in every realm. While it is true that only in the sphere of rationality does sin have meaning—it originates in mind, it develops in mind, it resides in mind—yet sin works out disastrous effects outside the sphere of the rational and moral as well as within it. God places restraint upon these effects, He prevents the full development of this disintegration. He brings to bear upon this world in all its spheres correcting and preserving influences so that the ravages of sin might not be allowed to work out the full measure of their destructive power.
The curse pronounced upon Adam as distinct from that pronounced upon the serpent and upon Eve had particular reference to this effect of sin. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake” (Gen. 3:17). But the ground, though not yielding henceforth its strength and although its strength was to be sapped by thorns and thistles, was yet to bring forth enough for the sustenance of life.
The ferocity of the animals that leads them to destroy human life we must regard as unnatural and as a consequence of the disruption and discord that sin brought in its train. If from no other consideration, we may infer this from the sanction by which the life of man is protected against this form of predatory ferocity, “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it” (Gen. 9:5). But that this destructive impulse in the animal kingdom is restrained is intimated in Genesis 9:2. “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea.” However we may explain the origin of this fear, it cannot be doubted that it holds in check a destructive tendency that is part of the curse of sin upon the animal order.
We thus see that restraint upon sin and its consequences is one of the most outstanding features of God's government of /p. 11/ this world—the history of this present world exists within an administration that is one of restraint and forbearance.
(II) Bestowal of Good and Excitation to Good. This caption means that common grace is more than negative and preventative; it is also positive, in the bestowal and production of good. God not only restrains the destructive effects of sin in nature but He also causes nature to teem with the gifts of His goodness. He not only restrains evil in men but He also endows men with gifts, talents, and aptitudes; He stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilisation of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions. We may regard these interests, pursuits and institutions as exercising both an expulsive and impulsive influence. Occupying the energy, activity and time of men they prevent the indulgence of less noble and ignoble pursuits and they exercise an ameliorating, moralising, stabilising and civilising influence upon the social organism.