Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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Temporal Things in the Light of Eternity

Herman Hoeksema

 

There is no dispute about the fact that in this world the righteous and unrighteous have all temporal things in common. Our first parents did not go to hell immediately after the fall. The world did not change into chaos. Nor did Adam and Eve at once return unto the dust. The human race continued to exist. Also the ungodly are born. They also live their three score years and ten, or, if they are very strong, their four score years. They too receive their talents and gifts and means. God rains upon the righteous and the unrighteous and the sun rises upon both. They have their houses to live in, their clothes to wear, their food and drink. They enjoy the same relationships as the righteous in home and society. They develop and find the means of their development in the earthly creation. And all this is of God, Who even frequently gives them more of things earthly and temporal than the righteous receive.

Usually, from this fact, the conclusion is drawn that God in this life is gracious also to the ungodly, that He is favorably disposed to the wicked. The argument is plain and appears reasonable. The temporal things the ungodly receive are good things. They enjoy them. And if God gives good things to the ungodly, is not this sufficient proof of His goodness and favor toward them?

If you object to the term “common grace” because you would rather use “grace” exclusively with reference to salvation, employ some other word like “goodness,” but do not deny the fact. Earthly and temporal things are blessings of God. And God’s blessings are a manifestation of His goodness and favor. It surely cannot be maintained that God blesses in His wrath. And, therefore, it really needs no proof that there is a “common grace.” It is utterly foolish to deny it. You see it round about you every day. Rain and sunshine, etc. are “common grace.”

It is in the way of some such reasoning that people generally come to the conclusion that there is “common grace.” Not from Scripture, but from experience, from what they observe from the world, and from a superficial interpretation of what they perceive, they deduce the doctrine of “common grace.” And after they have thus interpreted the facts of their experience, they turn to Scripture and find their own theory corroborated. However, if we are not satisfied with scanning the surface of things, but desire to look more deeply into them, we soon understand that our first deduction was erroneous, and that one can by no means draw the conclusion that God is graciously disposed to anyone merely because he receives the temporal and material things of this world. Hence, this is what we purpose to do. We want to consider the question as to the significance of these temporal things in the light of the current teaching of Scripture.

We would like to point out, first of all, that the conclusion that God is favorably disposed toward the wicked in this world because He sends them rain and sunshine and bestows upon them the temporal things, is untenable. In the first place, it must not be overlooked that even if we considered these temporal things wholly by themselves, apart from their relation to and significance for eternity, these things are not without reservation to be called “good.” They are not unmixed. They are all limited by and lie within the scope of temporal death. Death is in them all. Even though we leave the things eternal out of consideration for a moment, and remain on the surface of things temporal, the fact remains that with all things we all lie in the midst of death. This life is nothing but a continual death. Death works in our members, gnaws at the very roots of our existence from the moment that we are born. We die every day. All things are corruptible. We eat and drink and breathe corruption. The shadow of death is spread over our entire temporal life. The fear of death pursues us. Forget for a moment the difference between the righteous and the wicked, look at the temporal things all by themselves and do not consider them in the light of their eternal significance, and what you have left is nothing more than men that perish like beasts. The conclusion of the Preacher then must certainly be ours: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” And for anyone that does not close his eyes entirely to the vanity of life, the suffering and death of this present time, Pessimism, with its slogan that life is not worth living, must seem the only true philosophy. If you view the temporal things in this light, they all lie within the sphere and power of death, they all end inevitably in death. God causes us to be born in order to kill us. Then there is really no grace at all. “By thy wrath we pine and die,” we may then well lament. For, God’s anger does, indeed, heavily press down upon our whole temporal existence.

However, if you are not so pessimistically inclined, you may close your eyes, in part at least, to this grim reality. In that case you will try to withdraw certain things from this terrible wrath of God. You will make a distinction between “good” and “evil” things. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes looks through the spectacles that are too darkly tinted. All is not vanity. There is still much good in life. The world is better than we would expect or than what the pessimist would have us believe. Men may enjoy many things in this short span of life. And these “good” things certainly are manifestations of God’s grace. Still you do not view things temporal in the light of eternity. Still death is your farthest horizon. But while God punishes us with death in His wrath, He still gives us many things to enjoy. And this is His “general grace,” favor, goodness, or whatever term you may prefer, of which both the righteous and the wicked are objects. But in that case you come to confront another problem. For, turn where you will, death you meet with everywhere. If there be “good” things in life, the “evil” things are abounding; if there be joy and gladness in this world, it is the joy of the death-cell, and the suffering of this present time abounds. And also this suffering is “general” and “common;” not only the wicked, the righteous also receives the “evil” things of life. Now if from the fact that the wicked receive the “good” things of this present time, you would draw the conclusion that God is favorably disposed to the wicked as well as to the righteous, you are bound to conclude also the fact that from the “evil” things that are common to the righteous and the wicked, God’s wrath is upon them both. Then all things are common. Then there is no difference at all between the righteous and the wicked in this world. God’s attitude to both is the same. Then there is in this present time nothing particular. Grace and anger, lovingkindness and anger, love and hatred, the blessing and the curse—all these are common!

You see, it is not sufficient that we are satisfied with looking at the surface of things, if we would maintain the theory of common grace. To believe this theory one must also refrain from explaining even those things which he beholds on that surface.

But let us inquire of Scripture whether it is true that the things of this present life are to be regarded as manifestations of a gracious disposition in God toward the wicked. In this connection it is especially that we called the attention of our readers repeatedly to the clear teaching of Psalm 73 and Psalm 92. Not as if these two passages of the Word of God are the only texts that condemn the common grace view and teach that also in this present life God’s grace is always particular, but these two psalms shed a very clear light upon the question we are now discussing: how must we conceive of God’s attitude and disposition over against the ungodly in view of the fact that these also receive from Him all the things of this present life common with the godly?

In both these psalms the things of this present time are viewed in the light of eternity. This is evident even by a superficial reading. They do not leave us standing at the surface of things—they consider all things in the light of God’s eternal thoughts, His eternal counsel, and with a view to the eternal destiny of men.

In Psalm 73, we read first of all of Asaph’s experience when he stood looking at the surface of things and thus attempted to understand God’s providential government of men. He had no peace. His feet were almost gone, his steps had well nigh slipped (v. 2). He confronted a problem. He contemplated the works of God. For, not about mere earthly things, but about the glory of his God the poet was anxious and concerned. When he considered the temporal things as such it appeared as if God were favorably disposed to the ungodly. They seemed to have peace. They prospered in the world (vv. 3, 12). Their eyes stood out with fatness; they had more than heart could wish (v. 7). There were no bands even their death (v. 4). And, on the other hand, he, the poet, was plagued all the day long, and chastened every morning (v. 14). In vain had he cleansed his heart and washed his hands in innocency (v. 13). And he would not have it so.

The attitude of the poet was radically different from the attitude of those that love to speak of God’s grace to the wicked and expel those from the fellowship of their churches who insist that God loves the righteous and hates the workers of iniquity. That God would love the wicked he could not believe; the very thought was an offense to him. And thus he was almost inclined to take the question on his lips: “How doth God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?” (v. 11), and although he refrained from actually asking this question, the matter was, nevertheless, too painful for him to understand.

But all this changed when he went into the sanctuary of God (v. 17)!

God led him into the sanctuary, caused him to descend from the surface into the depth of things, made him see those same temporal things in their reality, in the light of God’s eternal counsel and purpose. And what did he see there? Did he then learn to accept the theory of common grace and find peace in it? On the contrary, he discovered that he had erred when he thought himself justified in drawing the conclusion that God was gracious to the wicked because they prosper in the world. He perceived that God’s wrath is always over the wicked, that His curse is even in their house, that His wrath is even in the things they receive in this present time, and that their present prosperity is a slippery road on the which God leads them to eternal destruction (vv. 18-20; cf. Prov. 3:33; Ps. 69:22; John 3:36).

As soon as you consider the temporal things in the light of eternity, you must abandon the theory of common grace. Such is the clear teaching of Psalm 73. If this Psalm teaches that the temporal prosperity of the wicked is by no means a proof of God’s grace to them, if, on the contrary, this psalm plainly reveals that God intends and uses the things of this present time as means to bring the wicked to eternal destruction, if one asserts that he wholeheartedly accepts this truth in all its implications, then, by the same token, such a one denies the theory of common grace.

One cannot again ascend from the depth of God’s sanctuary, where he has been instructed in God’s holy purposes, to the surface of mere human contemplation, where it appears to him that God is graciously disposed to the wicked and the righteous alike. One may be quite sure that Asaph, after he had seen the things temporal in the true light of the sanctuary of God, would never agree with the theory of a general goodness or grace of God.

Psalm 92 is no less clear on this subject.

In this “Song for the Sabbath Day” we read: “It is good to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High; to show forth thy lovingkindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night. Upon an instrument of ten strings and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound. For thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy work: I will triumph in the works of thy hands. O Lord, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep. A brutish man knoweth not; neither doth a fool understand this. When the wicked spring as the grass, and all the workers of iniquity do flourish, it is that they shall be destroyed forever” (vv. 1-7).

Let us note the following thoughts expressed in these verses:

  1. This “song for the Sabbath day” is designed to be sung by the Church for the special purpose that she may sing of God’s lovingkindness. The Psalm knows of no distinction between a “saving” and “non-saving” lovingkindness or grace of God. It simply speaks of **the** lovingkindness of God. But if one is to sing of this lovingkindness of the Most High, he must do it in such a way that God’s name be praised and magnified by his song. He must remember that God is the Faithful One (v. 2), that He is upright and that there is no unrighteousness in Him (v. 15). Also, this faithfulness and uprightness belong to the holy Name of God, and in a song to the praise of God’s lovingkindness His righteousness may not be forgotten or eliminated. One must sing of this lovingkindness of the Lord intelligently, meditating (higgajon in the Hebrew, “solemn sound” in English translation) to the accompaniment of the harp. One must be reformed even in his singing!
  2.  The psalmist learned to know this lovingkindness and faithfulness of God, the greatness and glory of His name, from the works of His hands. That the Lord shows lovingkindness, and to whom He shows His lovingkindness is evident from His works. But if one would truly know and understand these works of the Most High, he must not consider the surface of things temporal and earthly, but descend into the depths of God’s thoughts and purposes. For the works of the Lord are very great. If, then, you would rejoice in the works of the Lord and praise Him for His glorious deeds, you must take pains to contemplate them seriously in the light of revelation.
  3. These great works of the Lord and His very deep thoughts are especially manifest in this, that “the wicked grow as the grass and all the workers of iniquity do flourish, in order that they may be destroyed forever” (v. 4). You see, also in this psalm the subject is the temporal things which the ungodly receive from the Lord—and they do receive many things. The wicked grow as the grass. All the workers of iniquity do flourish. They enjoy great prosperity. And you also perceive that also in this psalm the temporal things are viewed and judged in the light of eternity. There is mention here of God’s deep thoughts, of His eternal purposes with all things. And these eternal purposes concern the eternal destiny of the wicked, their everlasting destruction, as well as their present prosperity as a means to prepare them for that eternal destiny. The wicked grow and flourish in order that they may be destroyed forever! Such are the deep thoughts; such are the eternal purposes of the Lord. And in these works He must be known. And when the Church on the Sabbath Day sings of His lovingkindness, she may not leave these eternal purposes and divine thoughts out of consideration. And thus you see that also this Psalm clearly teaches that God’s goodness and lovingkindness are never general or common, that the wicked are never the object of His grace. And very emphatically that Psalm warns us against the conclusion that, because the wicked prosper in this world, God is “favorably disposed” toward them. It may appear so on the surface, but if in the light of revelation you know the deep and eternal thoughts and purposes of God, you perceive that “things are not what they seem.”
  4. Only when you have learned to see and acknowledge all this, can you truly sing of “the lovingkindness” of the Lord. As long as you consider the mere surface of things, you may be “pricked in your reins” as Asaph (Ps. 73:21), you may envy the ungodly (v. 3), you may be inclined to say that there is no knowledge in the Most High (v. 11); and then you will not be able to sing at all. Or, you may thoughtlessly and very superficially sing of “a lovingkindness” of God over the wicked, of “a common and general goodness” of the Most High, where by His faithfulness and His righteousness are denied; but you cannot possibly sing of the lovingkindness of the Lord, for it is never common. And you cannot sing the praises of the Most High. In order to do this you must enter into the sanctuary, descend into the depths of God’s secrets, of His deep thoughts, as revealed in His Word, and in the light of them consider all things temporal.
  5. It is the “fool” and the “brutish” (stupid) man, who remains at the surface of things and refuses to consider them in the light of God’s own revelation, who superficially contemplates things temporal by themselves apart from their eternal significance, who does not know and understand these things.  It is he who foolishly speaks of a “common grace” or general goodness, of God’s lovingkindness over the wicked in this life, just because he does not understand His great works.  Just because he merely scans the surface of things he cannot understand that God does, indeed, send prosperity to the wicked in His fierce anger and to destroy them forever; and he considers all the things of this life as so many gifts which God bestows also upon the ungodly in His lovingkindness for their pleasure and enjoyment.

(Herman Hoeksema, God’s Goodness Always Particular [Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1939], pp. 145-156)