On the Distinctions Between the Error of “Common Grace” and the Biblical Doctrine of “Particular Grace”

This is an article that was shared by a Retired Reformed Minister friend of mine. It’s a bit long but well worth the read.  Here it is unedited.

Beloved Christians Everywhere, PARTICULARLY THOSE WHO TEACH AND BELIEVE THE DOCTRINES OF ELECTION AND PREDESTINATION AND OF BY GRACE ALONE, THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE BY THE REV. LANNING IS MOST PROFITABLE. It has been and remains a real blessing to me personally
Sola gratia! Grace alone!
By Rev. Andy Lanning
Sola gratia is one of the well-known Latin
“five solas” of the Reformation: sola gratia,
sola fide, solus Christus, sola Scriptura, soli
Deo gloria. The “five solas” summarise
the Reformation’s answer to the Roman
Catholic Church, which tried to exalt man
to a position alongside God. Over against
the Roman Catholic teaching that salvation
depends partly upon God’s work and partly
upon man’s work, the reformers taught that
man is justified by faith alone (sola fide),
because of grace alone (sola gratia), on the
basis of the work of Christ alone (solus
Christus). Over against the Roman Catholic
teaching that the pope’s word was of equal
authority with God’s Word, the reformers
taught the authority of Scripture alone
(sola Scriptura). The entire Roman Catholic
system robbed God of His glory by giving it
to man, whereas the reformers taught that
all glory in salvation and revelation belongs
to God alone (soli Deo gloria).
To this day, sola gratia is a dear and beloved
doctrine in Reformed churches. This
particular “sola” teaches a foundational
truth about salvation, namely, that our
salvation does not depend in any way
upon our worth or works, but upon the
sovereign grace of God alone. Sola gratia
echoes the truth of Ephesians 2:8, 9. “For
by grace are ye saved through faith; and
that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
not of works, lest any man should boast.”
If salvation depended upon us, we would
perish. Because our salvation depends upon
God, we are saved indeed. Thanks be to
God that we are saved by grace, and by
grace alone! Sola gratia! Grace alone!
However, some Reformed teachers and
churches today are undermining the
glorious gospel of sola gratia by their
promotion of the theory of common grace.
These teachers claim that there are two
kinds of divine grace: a particular saving
grace of God for His elect people alone,
and a non-saving common grace of God
for all people. This theory of two graces was
recently promoted in Singapore by Rev.
Maurice Roberts, a retired minister in the
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).
Speaking for the 2014 Reformation Day
Conference of First Evangelical Reformed
Church, which had as its theme Sola Gratia,
Rev. Roberts taught that God demonstrates
His favour toward humanity in two ways:
by a common grace for all and a saving grace for His people. The promotional material
for the speech promised that Rev. Roberts
would “elucidate upon God’s common and
saving grace . . . .” The speech went beyond
this promise, as Rev. Roberts not only
elucidated the theory of common grace, but
promoted and advocated it as biblical truth.
When Rev. Maurice Roberts, a respected
and influential Reformed minister,
promotes common grace in Singapore,
at the invitation of a Reformed church
in Singapore, he gets the attention of
Reformed people in Singapore—readers
of Salt Shakers included. Therefore we
are compelled to examine Rev. Roberts’
teaching by asking three questions: What is
the theory of common grace? What is the
error of common grace? And what are the
consequences of common grace?
1. What is the theory of common grace?
Common grace is a theory about God’s
attitude toward all people. It claims that
God has a gracious attitude of kindness,
compassion, pity, and favour for all men
without exception. According to this
theory, God’s favour is not limited to His
elect people in Christ, but extends to all
men, including the reprobate. The name of
the theory is helpfully descriptive: common
grace. The “grace” of common grace describes
God’s attitude as one of grace, favour,
kindness, and compassion. The “common”
of common grace describes this divine
favour as extending to all men in common.
According to Rev. Roberts:
“There is . . . a general goodness of God,
what you might call a universal kindness of
God. Listen to what Jesus says about God:
‘He is kind to the unthankful and to the
evil.’ He is referring to His heavenly Father,
and He says God is kind, merciful to those
who never become Christians, who never
listen to the gospel, who never read the
Bible, who never go to church. God is kind
even to these.”
God displays this common grace to all
men, so the theory goes, through the many
good gifts that He bestows upon them.
Not only the elect, but also the reprobate
receive many necessary things and many
pleasant things from God. According to the
theory of common grace, bestowal of such
wonderfully good gifts must imply that
God also has a positive attitude of grace
and favour for all who receive these gifts.
According to Rev. Roberts, continuing
from the quotation above:
“Now let’s be clear what Jesus meant. He
meant that God is so kind that in this life
He gives to the wicked many favours which
express His goodness and His pity to fallen
sinners. What sort of things do I mean? I
mean, He gives them food and drink and
health and good weather and homes and
good government and happiness, etc. You
dear people don’t need me to tell you, as
I visited your beloved island of Singapore,
what a wonderful community you have. How safe it is, and how much protection
you have, and how many services you have
of many kinds, and benefits of many kinds.
You don’t need to be hungry in Singapore
– plenty of places to eat, yes. Well, that’s a
favour from God, and that favour is enjoyed
by people who never ever go to church,
never ever read the Bible. And Jesus puts it
like this: God is kind to the unthankful and
to the evil.”
Common providence?
Upon reading this description of common
grace, some may wonder whether Rev.
Roberts is simply teaching a variation of
the Reformed doctrine of providence.
There may even be some who know that
common grace is a false doctrine, and
yet are sympathetic to what Rev. Roberts
says, who attempt to excuse his theory of
common grace by claiming it is merely a
theory of common providence.
The term “providence” refers to God’s
sovereign control over all things. Herbs and
grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren
years, meat and drink, health and sickness,
riches and poverty, yea, and all things are
distributed to men by God according to
His own sovereign will and by His own
sovereign direction. Usually, the Reformed
faith simply refers to God’s sovereign
control as “providence”. Perhaps it would
be legitimate to refer to God’s providence
as “common providence”, because God
exercises sovereign control over the elect
and the reprobate alike. The elect man and
his reprobate neighbour receive the same
common providence of rain and sunshine
on their crops. They enjoy the protection
of the same police force. Their children
catch the same flu, and see the same doctor
and take the same medicine for relief. God
sovereignly distributes to the elect man and
to the reprobate man alike.
Such a doctrine of providence, and even
“common providence,” is biblical and
confessional. It is the doctrine of Matthew
5:45. “That ye may be the children of your
Father which is in heaven: for he maketh
his sun to rise on the evil and on the good,
and sendeth rain on the just and on the
unjust.” It is the doctrine of Article 13 of
the Belgic Confession. “We believe that the
same God, after He had created all things,
did not forsake them, or give them up to
fortune or chance, but that He rules and
governs them according to His holy will, so
that nothing happens in this world without
His appointment…”
However, Rev. Roberts’ theory of common
grace is emphatically not a theory of common
providence. The Reformed doctrine of
providence teaches that God governs both
the elect and the reprobate, but it does
not teach that God has the same gracious
attitude toward the elect and reprobate as
he governs them. The Reformed doctrine
of providence speaks of God’s particular
favour for the elect, believing saints of
God. For example, Article 13 of the Belgic
Confession: “This doctrine [of providence]
affords us unspeakable consolation, since
we are taught thereby that nothing can
befall us by chance, but by the direction of
our most gracious and heavenly Father . . .
.” In this article, although God sovereignly
distributes to all men in His providence,
His favour is only for “us,” that is, the elect
children of our heavenly Father.
The Reformed doctrine of providence
teaches God’s universal government, but
His particular grace. Rev. Roberts’ theory
of common grace teaches God’s universal
government, and God’s universal grace.
Rev. Roberts’ theory is not merely one of
common providence, but common grace.
God’s wish to save all men
Rev. Roberts intensifies his theory of
common grace by claiming that God also
desires to save all men. God’s common
grace, so the teaching goes, is not merely
a kindness in God’s heart that gives men
nice earthly gifts, but a loving-kindness
that wishes to give all men the heavenly
gift of salvation from sin and eternal life.
God’s saving grace will only save the elect
in the end. But, according to Rev. Roberts,
God’s common grace makes Him desire
the salvation of the elect and the reprobate
alike. Quoting Rev. Roberts again:
“But here’s the wonderful thing: so kind
and generous is God that He expresses
to sinners His wish, His desire, that they
should all be saved.
Now that’s amazing.
I’m going to quote to you now. Listen to
the words in Ezekiel 33: ‘As I live, saith the
Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death
of the wicked, but rather that the wicked
turn from his way and live.’ Now God is
saying that to people who hate Him, and
who never come to believe in the Lord Jesus
Christ. God is saying, I have no pleasure in
your death, sinners. My wish is that you
turn, sinners, from your wicked way.”
Rev. Roberts repeatedly uses the term
“sinners” in the quotation above. The
sinners he is talking about are not elect
sinners, predestined to salvation, but
reprobate sinners, predestined to hell. They
are the sinners “who hate [God], and who
never come to believe in the Lord Jesus
Christ.” To these reprobate sinners, Rev.
Roberts says, “God… expresses… His wish,
His desire, that they should all be saved.”
2. What is the error of common grace?
Rev. Roberts’ theory of common grace is that God has a gracious attitude of kindness and
mercy in His heart for all men, including
the reprobate; that God distributes earthly
gifts to all men in His gracious favour for
them; and that God graciously wishes that
all men would be saved.
Rev. Roberts’ theory of common grace is
false doctrine.
It is false doctrine because it is unbiblical.
The Bible teaches that God’s grace is
particular. That is, the objects of God’s
grace in Scripture are never all men
without exception, but always His elect
people alone. From the first reference to
grace in Genesis 6:8 to the last reference
in Revelation 22:21, God’s grace is for
the elect. Noah found grace in the eyes
of the LORD (Genesis 6:8), as did Moses
(Exodus 33:17). God was gracious to His
church in the Old Testament (Exodus
33:16), as He is to His church in the New
(Romans 16:24). Grace is for the beloved
of God, called to be saints (Romans 1:7),
for them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus,
that call upon the name of Jesus Christ our
Lord (I Corinthians 1:2, 3), for the faithful
in Christ Jesus, chosen in Christ before
the foundation of the world (Ephesians
1:1, 2, 4), for all the saints in Christ Jesus
(Philippians 1:1, 2), for the saints and
faithful brethren in Christ (Colossians
1:1, 2), for the church which is in God
the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ (1
Thessalonians 1:1), for the dearly beloved
(Philemon 1, 3), for the elect according
to the foreknowledge of God the Father
(1 Peter 1:2), for them that have obtained
like precious faith with the apostles through the righteousness of God and our Saviour
Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, 2), for the elect
lady and her children (2 John 1, 3), and for
the servants of Jesus Christ who receive His
revelation (Revelation 1:1 with 22:21).
What makes the particularity of God’s
grace stark and clear is that the Bible
always describes God’s attitude towards the
reprobate as an attitude of wrath, never as an
attitude of favour. Always, from eternity to
eternity, God curses the wicked. Indeed, His
curse permeates their entire earthly life, for
His curse is in their house (Proverbs 3:33).
He bestows many wonderful gifts upon
the ungodly, not because He is gracious to
them, but to make their path slippery as
they slide into destruction and desolation
(Psalm 73). He hates the reprobate Esau
(Romans 9:13) and Esau’s children, the
reprobate nation of Edom (Malachi 1:1-5).
He appoints the disobedient to wrath, and
makes them stumble in this life upon the
Rock of offence (1 Peter 2:7, 8). He before
of old ordained men to condemnation,
and in this life pronounces woe upon them
(Jude 4, 11).
In Rev. Roberts’ theory, God’s grace is
common. In the Bible, God’s grace is
strictly particular.
The Bible teaches only particular grace,
and knows nothing of a common grace,
for this profound reason: God’s grace is
in Jesus Christ. That is, God’s attitude of
favour is never displayed apart from Christ,
but is always grace in Christ. After all,
God’s attitude of gracious favour is not an
attitude first of all for us, His people, but an
attitude of gracious favour for Christ Jesus.
“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am
well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Therefore,
for us, God’s grace is in Christ Jesus (2
Timothy 2:1). God graciously chose us in
Christ in the decree of election (Romans
11:5, Ephesians 1:4). We are justified freely
by God’s grace through the redemption
that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24).
God’s grace reigns through righteousness
unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord
(Romans 5:21). The law was given by
Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus
Christ (John 1:17). We know the grace of
our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was
rich, yet for our sakes He became poor; that
we, through His poverty, might be rich (2
Corinthians 8:9). In the ages to come, God
will show the exceeding riches of His grace
in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus
(Ephesians 2:7). Therefore, God declares
to His people in Christ, “The grace of our
Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (2
Thessalonians 3:18).
Because God’s grace is in Christ, it always
irresistibly and infallibly saves. Grace in
Christ does not merely bestow earthly
treasures, but heavenly treasures. Grace in
Christ does not merely wish to save, but
actually saves (Ephesians 2:8, 9), justifies
(Romans 3:24), gives eternal life (Romans
5:21), sustains through infirmities (2
Corinthians 12:9), makes accepted in
the beloved (Ephesians 1:6), redeems in
Christ’s blood and forgives sins (Ephesians
1:7), quickens (Ephesians 2:5), calls with a
holy calling (2 Timothy 1:9), and helps in
time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
In Rev. Roberts’ theory, God has a grace
that does not save. In the Bible, God’s grace
always saves.
3. What are the consequences of common
grace?
Churches and teachers that tolerate and
promote common grace open themselves
up to serious consequences. The worst
consequence is that they make a mockery
of God. The god of common grace is
divided against himself. He cannot make
up his mind whether he loves certain
people or not, whether he should save them
or not. In his eternal decree of reprobation,
he righteously hates them and wills their
destruction, while in his common grace,
he at the same time mercifully wishes
their salvation. How perplexed the god of
common grace must be as he holds both
love and hatred, both blessing and curse in
his heart for all of the reprobate! Not even
the pagans teach that their idol gods are this
confused, but the god of common grace
remains impossibly bewildered. Such a god
is unstable and confused; such a god is to be
pitied. However, the true God of the Bible,
the God of particular grace, is not divided
against Himself. He is not confused about
His attitude toward men. In time and
eternity, He graciously blesses His chosen
people in Christ; in time and eternity, He
righteously curses the reprobate. With
perfect consistency, He loves His own;
with perfect consistency, He hates the
impenitent wicked. Teachers of common
grace mock the true God when they assign
to Jehovah the fictional attitude of common
grace.
Another, related consequence of common
grace is that its proponents not only mock
God, but they also mock His grace. In the
theory of common grace, God’s grace is
utterly impotent. In common grace, God
supposedly wishes and desires the salvation of all men, but that same grace is unable
actually to accomplish the salvation of all
men. People continue to “hate Him” and
“never come to believe in the Lord Jesus
Christ,” even though God expresses to them
“His wish, His desire, that they should all
be saved.” God’s so-called common grace
fails to accomplish what it desires. It is
powerless, impotent, useless grace. Fallen
man should tell the god of common grace
to keep his grace to himself, thereby sparing
both god and man the frustration of such
impotence. However, the true grace of God
is sovereign, powerful, and irresistible. God’s
grace always accomplishes what it desires,
infallibly saving those whom God desires
to save. The “I” in the Reformed acronym
TULIP does not stand for “impotent grace”
but “irresistible grace”. Reformed teachers
and Reformed churches who know the
irresistible grace of TULIP have no business
tolerating, much less teaching, impotent
common grace.
Another devastating consequence of
common grace is that it opens God’s people
to doubt whether God is truly good to
them. Especially, the child of God who
suffers in this life is taught by common
grace to question God’s goodness to him.
After all, if nice earthly things are the
evidence of God’s favour, then lack of these
things must be the evidence of God’s anger.
This common grace thinking was exactly
the sin of Asaph in Psalm 73. He noted
with great envy that the wicked prosper
(vs. 3) while he was plagued (vs. 14). At
first, Asaph approached this problem from
a common grace theology, assuming that
God’s gracious goodness was demonstrated
in earthly things. Therefore, his first
conclusion was that it was vain to be a child
of God, because the wicked received all the
evidences of God’s grace. “Behold, these are
the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they
increase in riches. Verily I have cleansed
my heart in vain, and washed my hands in
innocency. For all the day long have I been
plagued, and chastened every morning” (vss. 12-14). So spiritually paralyzing were
these doubts that they almost drove Asaph
to abandon the faith. “But as for me, my
feet were almost gone; my steps had well
nigh slipped. For I was envious at the
foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the
wicked” (vss. 2, 3). These are the awful
doubts that common grace theology can
create in God’s people. How can Reformed
teachers and churches entertain, much less
promote, such a theology?
God removed Asaph’s doubt by bringing
him finally to understand that God’s
attitude toward people is not demonstrated
through the provision of earthly things.
Rather, God always despises the impenitent
ungodly (vs. 20) and is always graciously
good to his people (vs. 1). The gifts that
God gives in this life to the ungodly only
hasten their plunge into destruction (vs.
18, 19), while the sorrows that He sends
to His people are used to draw them nearer
to Him (vs. 26). God rescued Asaph from
devastating spiritual doubt by taking
away Asaph’s common grace theology
and giving him instead a particular grace
theology. Likewise, it is incumbent upon
all Reformed teachers and churches today
to teach and defend God’s particular grace,
and to repudiate the soul-destroying error
of common grace.
Una Gratia
The theory of common grace is false
doctrine, with serious consequences. But it
is popular false doctrine.
It has able, influential proponents,
including Rev. Maurice Roberts. It has
many adherents, including large Reformed
denominations throughout the nations.
It finds sympathy almost wherever it
goes in the Reformed world. Indeed,
the false doctrine of common grace has
now been tolerated in Singapore, as Rev.
Roberts openly promoted his theory at the
invitation of a local Reformed church. The
false doctrine of common grace is popular,
and spreading.
Therefore, Reformed believers in Singapore,
now more than ever, must stand for the
biblical truth of God’s saving, particular
grace. Standing for the truth of God’s saving
grace will mean vigorously repudiating the
theory of common grace as an intolerable
false doctrine.
Perhaps Reformed believers in Singapore
could even advance the cause of the true
doctrine of God’s particular grace by
coining a new term: una gratia.
The Latin sola gratia means “grace alone.”
The Latin una gratia means “one grace.”
Just as sola gratia expresses the biblical truth that we are saved by grace alone, so una gratia expresses the biblical truth that such saving grace is the only kind of grace there is.
There are not two kinds of grace of God,
one saving and particular, the other non-
saving and common. God’s grace is only
saving and particular: one grace, una gratia.
Just as sola gratia is a helpful, memorable
way to distinguish the Reformed faith from
all theories of works-righteousness, so una
gratia could be a helpful, memorable way
to distinguish the Reformed faith from the
theory of common grace. Sola gratia is a
rallying cry for all lovers of the gospel of
grace; una gratia could be a rallying cry for
all lovers of sovereign, particular grace. Sola
gratia! et (and) Una gratia!
Regardless of whether Reformed believers
use this phrase or not, let us maintain the
truth that this phrase represents. We are
saved by grace alone, and such saving grace is the only grace there is. By this truth, God
is honoured and glorified as the sovereign,
gracious God, who mercifully and infallibly
saves His own people in Jesus Christ.
Sola gratia! et Una gratia! Soli Deo Gloria!

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