1.26.2011

WILLIAM PERKINS on COMMON GRACE--And You Can't Call Him an ARMINIAN

Perkins was the father of Elizabethan Puritanism, and his works outsold Calvin's three to one. Now no one has ever called Perkins an Ariminian (have you seen his supralapsarian chart on the order of causes?) and here he clearly believed in common grace.  Perkins writes,

Grace must be distinguished; it is twofold, restraining grace, or renewing grace.  Restraining grace, I term certain common gifts of God, serving only to order and frame the outward conversation of men to the law of God, or serving to bereve men of excuse in the day of judgment.  By this kind of grace, heathen men have been liberal, just, sober, valiant, merciful.  By it, men living in the Church of God, have been enlightened, and having tasted of the good word of God, have rejoiced therein, and for a time ourwardly conformed themselves thereto. 

Renewing grace is not common to all men,  but proper to the elect, and it is a gift of God's spirit, wherby the corruption of sin is not only restrained, but also motified, and the decayed image of God, restored in righteousness and true holiness. 

...When our savior Christ heard the young man make a confession of a practice but of outward and civil righteousness, "He looked upon him, and loved him" (Mark 10:34).  Therefore no doubt, he will love with a more special love, and accept as the good subjects of his kingdom, those that have received a further mercy of God, to be born anew of water and of the spirit." William Perkins, The Workes: A Graine of Mustard Seed, Vol. I (John Legatt: London, 1616) 638.

Thoughts...?

12 comments:

  1. Perkins calls common grace “restraining grace”, from which I would surmise that it functions to restrain the amount and severity of evil performed by sinful humans. But if this is true, I would think then that Perkins would give examples of how unbelievers are bad, but not as bad as they could be. But his examples of common grace—unbelievers are just, merciful, valiant, etc.—seem to belie the idea that common grace merely restrains evil. Apparently, this grace so transforms an unbeliever as to allow him to perform virtuous deeds. Or is Perkins’ point that God’s common grace so shapes and guides the sinful motivations of unbelievers that they act in ways that outwardly conform to God’s standard, but for reasons that do not honor God? Perkins must mean something like this, because he explicitly limits the restoring of true righteousness and holiness to the effects of renewing grace, which God gives only to the elect. And as HC aptly puts it, goods works are only those that arise out of true faith, which is the gift of God's grace in Christ. But does it make sense to ascribe to God’s “grace” the unbeliever’s mere outward and limited acts of virtue, which apart from God’s renewing grace cannot spring from true faith and therefore must spring from God-denying desires (however benign)? I only think this can be called grace if we understand that it is grace shown God’s elect, whereby God restrains evil and preserves human society and order so that the Church can function and the gospel be proclaimed, for the salvation of God’s people. I don’t see how this providential ordering of sinful human actions is an expression of favor to the (reprobate) unbeliever. It seems we are on firmer biblical ground if we describe the examples cited by Perkins as God's restraining providence and sovereign ordering of sinful humanity, in service to his covenant grace in Christ. Without clear biblical warrant, it seems best not to expand the doctrine of God's grace beyond his redemptive purpose in Christ. Not calling Perkins an Arminian, though.

    Steve Vander Woude

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Steve, what Perkins outlines here is in fact, explicitly, one of the three points of Common Grace as given by the CRC Synod 1924. What do you make of his comment on the rich young ruler, that there is a certain kind of outward and civil righteousness based upon a certain kind of common love, though certainly not the kind of more "special love" the elect receive?

    And, don't the positive actions of being liberal, just, sober, valiant, merciful, something Perkins equates with a kind of grace that is "common", go beyond merely restraining evil. Implicitly the other points of common grace seem to be here.

    Also, I'm not sure Perkins is putting the cart before the horse here; in other words, though he recognizes that in the reprobate these things will serve to render them guilty before God, I don't read Perkins as pushing ahead what is good and gracious in the present, to the final eschatological day of judgment. In other words, he is not devaluing what are de facto good and common gifts in the present to those who are not elect. Another way of saying it is that he is no platonist, creation is valued and the good gifts of God in the present come from his gracious hand. Judgment will have its place, and if the last day reveals that those who received these common grace benefits did not repent (since we do not know who the elect are, right?), they will be used against them. This seems to comport with what Romans 2 says that the goodness of God leads us to repentance. There he is using that goodness of God to warn people who are heaping up for themselves wrath for the day of wrath.
    Perkins whole point is to dintinguish in the present two kinds of grace, both of which we should view as from God's gracious hand.

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  4. Chris, not sure I'm following Perkins in his reading of the Rich Young Ruler passage. Why didn't Christ "love" the Pharisees then, who were very concerned to demonstrate an outward, civil righteousness? Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs, full of dead men's bones.

    I think from your comment that you agree with my observation that Perkins uses the term "restraining grace" but then clearly attributes to it more than a mere restraint of sin.

    He wants to account for "civil righteousness" by some operation of God's grace. I get that, but I'm not convinced it has biblical support. Human actions, however outwardly benign or virtuous, flow from a heart that is incredibly complex and ultimately religiously directed, either toward God in obedience or away in rebellion. Sin isn't always the repugnant serial killer. Sin can be charming. Sin can show up for dinner in a tux and love good wine and classical music. Perkins' view (and Kuyper's) doesn't dig deep enough into the human heart.

    No argument that God gives good creational gifts to both elect and reprobate. Being created, having life, is a gift and undeserved. But this argument proves far too much. Must we consider the souls in hell, by virtue of their mere continued existence (rather than annihilation), recipients of some form of God's grace? (Interestingly, you are making a great argument for prelapsarian grace.) But see Psalm 73.

    I think a robust doctrine of providence, rather than common grace, accounts for all the biblical and phenomenological data.

    Steve VW

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  5. Hi Steve,
    With regard to the rich young ruler, you really have two options. One way to read it is that since the text says Christ loved him, you could make the assumption that he must be one of the elect. This is the typical PR approach to the text. The problem is that, textually speaking, there is no warrant for that assumption. The fact is that he walked away unrepentant and sad. He did not repent and believe. You have no Biblical warrant to prove he did.

    Perkins is taking the only other option that what is being displayed is the way gospel preaching should be done, and the kind of general love, displayed by Christ, must be present for all in its proclamation. This does not exclude God's wrath. After all, we don't compartmentalize the attributes of God. He is simultaneously all his attributes at once. The question is whether there is a general, beneficent grace that God has even for the non-elect. I recognize that some do not want to use grace here, and I can appreciate a protection of the special use of grace as something that applies only to the elect. But the fact is that (as much as our PR brethren want to deny this) the old Reformed theologians spoke this way all the time.
    Paul took this approach in Acts 14 to the pagans sacrificing to other gods in Lystra. He called them to repentance based upon the good gifts God gave them rain, fruitful seasons, "filling their hearts with food and gladness." Wonder what God thinks of those who are saying that those things are in fact curses upon the reprobate when God's inspired word characterizes them as things that fill their hearts with gladness. Again, if the day of judgment reveals that there was no repentance, yes, those things will be held out against them. But, we dont have access to the decrees of who is elect and reprobate, right?

    Perkins has all sorts of writings on the wrath of God, he understood the human heart better than any of us. Read his order of the causes on salvation and damnation.

    You ask, "Must we consider the souls in hell, by virtue of their mere continued existence (rather than annihilation), recipients of some form of God's grace? (Interestingly, you are making a great argument for prelapsarian grace.) But see Psalm 73."

    You just made an assumption that I have been cautioning against. Everything is being collapsed as if you have access to the decree. This approach completely devalues time, and creation. It's quite platonic taken to its logical conclusion. It also assumes that God just has this eternal hatred in his heart towards his creatures without any regard to sin. No, the wages of sin is death, not the wages of reprobation. Sin happens in time. God's good gifts come through his generous hand in time. Therefore I am not making an argument for prelapsarian grace since there is no need for it without sin in the picture. And there can be no grace once the day of salvation is over, therefore, there is no common grace in hell.

    I also agree that what we now call common grace was the old doctrine of providence. If that makes things clearer, great, I have no problem using providence to describe these realities.

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  6. Chris, we need to distinguish (1) God's good creation, which is enjoyed by believer and unbeliever alike; and (2) the outwardly virtuous acts of unbelievers.

    As to the first issue, no platonism here. I agree the creation, as such, is good, and not just in some idealized, abstracted form. But your view infers from the enjoyment of God's good creation by reprobates a type of love/grace/favor of God for said reprobates. (This is admittedly a hypothetical scenario, because we don't know who is reprobate. But positing the existence of reprobates, which is a fact revealed in Scripture, is not assuming access to the decree.) I don't think this is warranted by Scripture, and in fact, directly denied by passages like Psalm 73, where the Psalmist telescopes to the end.

    I've already stated what I think is a better way of understanding issue (2) and I don't see you addressing it as much as (1).

    A quick note on your statement:

    "Perkins is taking the only other option that what is being displayed is the way gospel preaching should be done, and the kind of general love, displayed by Christ, must be present for all in its proclamation."

    I think you are right that the gospel proclamation by preachers should be motivated out of love...but to infer God's general love for all from the promiscuous gospel proclamation poses problems, which cropped up in the love of God controversy in the CRC.

    I think we are basic agreement, I just wish "common grace" could be weeded out of our usage as it has been abused so badly in the CRC and elsewhere.

    Steve VW (URC not PR)

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  7. Perkins said: "Grace must be distinguished; it is twofold, restraining grace, or renewing grace. Restraining grace, I term certain common gifts of God, serving only to order and frame the outward conversation of men to the law of God, or serving to bereve men of excuse in the day of judgment. By this kind of grace, heathen men have been liberal, just, sober, valiant, merciful. By it, men living in the Church of God, have been enlightened, and having tasted of the good word of God, have rejoiced therein, and for a time ourwardly conformed themselves thereto."

    Clearly, what Perkins is saying is that common grace is capable of producing all the outward fruits that we would expect from one who has come under the influence of renewing (redemptive)grace. With that being said, it is clear that these fruits are temporal, and that they will not stand the test of time. Isn't this what Jesus is teaching in Mathew 13, in the parable of the sower and the seed? I am surprised that so called Reformed people find this controverial given the teaching of the Canons on this subject. I am thinking specifically of what the Canons teaching under the third and fourth heads of doctrine, article 9. "It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, (free offer of the gospel), nor the fault of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted...others, though they recieve it, suffer it not to make a lasting impression on their heart; therefore, their joy, arising only from a temporary faith, soon vanishes, and they fall away; while others choke the seed of the Word by perplexing cares and the pleasures of this world, and produce fruit. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower" (Mathew 13).

    The Canons cleary speak of a temporary faith, in distinction from true faith. This temporary faith is obviously not the product of God's special redemptive grace, and therefore it must be the product of some other kind of grace, hence the label "common grace". So by necessity, we must distinguish between temporary faith the product of common grace, and true faith, the product of God's special redemptive grace.

    Isn't it ironic that some who claim to be the tip of the reformed arrow are actually outside the boundary of the Reformed Standards?

    Rev. Mark J. Stromberg, Belgrade URC

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  8. check Bible verse cited, it's not Mark 10:34, but I believe it's Mark 10:21

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  9. "The Canons cleary speak of a temporary faith, in distinction from true faith. This temporary faith is obviously not the product of God's special redemptive grace, and therefore it must be the product of some other kind of grace, hence the label "common grace". So by necessity, we must distinguish between temporary faith the product of common grace, and true faith, the product of God's special redemptive grace."

    This begs the question. You are assuming that we must attribute temporary faith to "some other kind of grace". Why must we assume this? Why couldn't we just as easily, or perhaps better, assume that the temporary faith (counterfeit faith) is the expression of self-interest or some other godless motive in the heart of the unbeliever? After all, if the person experienced true faith-as defined in our confessions-it would not be temporary. Thus, "temporary faith" is a euphemism for hypocritical unbelief. Is that a product of grace?

    Steve VW

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  10. According to Perkins above, it is outward. Hypocritical unbelief is the product of restraining grace - not renewing grace.

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  11. Anonymous(SVW)wrote, "Chris, we need to distinguish (1) God's good creation, which is enjoyed by believer and unbeliever alike; and (2) the outwardly virtuous acts of unbelievers."

    I would suggest that we need to consider another helpful distinction here below, noted by R. Scott Clark.

    "Just as there are two parts to common grace (creation and providence) so there are two parts to the atonement, expiation and propitiation."


    "How do we reconcile the notion of a limited, personal, substitutionary atonement with a universal non-saving favor? If God is favorably inclined toward all, how can one say that Christ did not die for them? And if Christ did not die for all, how can God be favorable toward them in any way?

    We say this because creation and redemption are distinct. In creation, God made all that is. In His providence, He sustains and orders all that He made. In redemption, however, He saves His elect image bearers from sin and judgment. Redemption presupposes creation, since there must be a creation (that is, humans) for whom Christ died and whom He redeemed."

    "The usefulness of the doctrine of common grace for our understanding of the atonement becomes clearer in 1 Timothy 4:10 where Paul wrote, “For to this end we labor and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe” (ASV)."

    He explains some difficult passages further here:

    http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/god-so-loved-world-clark/

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