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Paradoxes of Common Grace

Common Grace: the Law written on the heart of man

Let’s talk common grace again.

Van Til makes the point that common grace is the only explanation for many of the paradoxes of Scripture. How is it that the Bible can say that all men inherently know God while also saying that they don’t know God?:


All men know God. Every fact of the universe has God’s stamp of ownership indelibly and with large letters engraved upon it…

Yet these same men to whom we must testify that they know God, must also be told that they do not know God… (p. 150)

How is it that Scripture can say all men have God’s law written on their conscious yet say that only believers truly have the law written on their hearts?


The requirement of God comes clearly home to the consciousness of man. In this sense the law of God is written in his heart… (p. 152).

At the same time the Bible says to these men that they do not have the law of God written on their hearts. According to the promise of God to Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31) he will write his law upon the hearts of his people (p. 153).

The answers to these questions come in the form of the doctrine of common grace.

God’s creation of Adam was an act of common grace, not saving grace. The law was written on his heart in the ‘common’ manner, not in the saving manner. The law is written on (unregenerate) man’s heart via his conscious and knowledge that there is a Creator. The law is written on the (regenerate) believer’s heart via his relationship with the Holy Spirit, who causes him to love the law of God in the inner man. He is not only aware of the law, he loves the law.

Adam knew God, but didn’t know God. He knew him as his creator but didn’t know the grace of regeneration. So it is with all men before God clothes them with the garment of the sacrifice.

All quotations from Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel

As Solomon Used the Cedars of Lebanon

Cedars of Lebanon Common Grace

Let’s talk common grace.

The earth is the Lord and its fullness. When talking about the doctrine of common grace, Van Til makes the point that this fullness includes the cultural works of man. As Solomon uses the cedars of Lebanon to build the temple, Christians are called to subject the stuff of the world to the gospel and use it for God’s fuller purpose in the service of Christ:

It is in this program of God, it is in connection with this work of Christ by which the world that was cursed of God should be reconciled unto him for the greater glory of God, that common grace must have a part. All things in history must serve this glorious consummation…

For those who reject the Christ and those who have never heard of Christ, but who have sinned in Adam, are still laborers, even though unwillingly, in the cultural task of man…All the skills of those who are artificers in iron and brass, all the artistry of painters and sculptors and poets, are at the service of those who, under Christ, are anew undertaking the cultural task that God in the beginning gave to man…

It is the meek who shall inherit the earth. The earth and its fullness thereof belong to the Lord and to those to whom in his sovereign grace he gives it.

To them therefore belong all the common gifts of God to mankind. Yet that it may be the earth and the fullness thereof that is developed, the covenant keepers will make use of the works of the covenant breakers which these have been able and compelled to perform in spite of themselves. As Solomon used the ceders of Lebanon (1 Kings 5:8-10), the products of the rain and the sunshine that had come to the covenant breakers, and as he used the skill of these very covenant breakers for the building of the temple of God, so also those who through the Spirit of God have believed in Christ may and must use all the gifts of all men everywhere in order by means of them to perform the cultural task of mankind

-Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, pp. 136, 137, 138

Jonathan Edwards: Chief End, Ultimate End, Subordinate End

In his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World (which you can read for free HERE), Jonathan Edwards makes some logical distinctions about desire. This relates to God’s purposes in creating the world. It’s also helpful in understanding our own desires. I’ve written in the past HERE about his fountain analogy for creation. But in this post I’m going to summarize Edwards’ idea of ‘ends.’ The qualifications he make about our different types of desires have been helpful for me in understanding the Bible and my own motivations.

There are two reasons to desire something: (1) You desire a thing for its own sake or (2) you desire it for the sake of something else (as a means to a further end).

Under the heading of “desiring something for it’s own sake,” Edwards uses the terms “chief end” and “ultimate end.” What are they?:

  • Chief End: The absolute highest purpose; the thing most valued in and of itself. A person can have only one chief end.
  • Ultimate End: Something sought for its own sake. A person can have multiple ultimate ends and various levels of desire relating to them. An ultimate end is not necessarily a chief end.

When distinguishing between a more desired ultimate end and a less desired ultimate end, Edwards uses the phrase Inferior End.

  • Inferior (Ultimate) End: The lesser valued of two or more ultimate ends

He calls things desired not for their own sake but for the sake of something else (as means to an end) “subordinate ends.”

  • Subordinate End: something sought not for its own sake but for some further purpose (a means to an end)

To summarize: a chief end is desired in and of itself above all other things without qualification. An ultimate end is desired in an of itself, but only one ultimate end can be a chief end.

One person can have all sorts of ultimate ends at any given time. For example, if I take my wife out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse, I can have two ultimate ends. One is eating a steak. The other is spending time with my wife. I enjoy both things in and of themselves. Whichever I desire less is the inferior of the two ultimate ends. In order to get to the steakhouse, I have to drive for 30 minutes. Driving is a subordinate end. I don’t desire to make this drive in and of itself. I only want to do it because I want to get to the steakhouse.

That leaves the chief end. What’s my chief end in all this? The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This should be the chief end in everything that we do. In my driving, in my eating, and in my marriage, my desire should be to glorify and enjoy God.

Christ Plays on Every Station: Common Grace and the Law Written on Man’s Heart

If God does not confront man everywhere, he cannot confront him anywhere. That’s a paraphrase. That’s also inherent in the concept of common grace and the law written on the heart of man.

In an essay in his book Common Grace and the Gospel, Cornelius Van Til uses this analogy to describe Paul’s teaching in Romans 1-2:

The main point is that if man could look anywhere and not be confronted with the revelation of God then he could not sin in the biblical sense of the term. Sin is the breaking of the law of God. God confronts man everywhere. He cannot in the nature of the case confront man anywhere if he does not confront him everywhere. God is one; the law is one. If man could press one button on the radio of his experience and not hear the voice of God then he would always press that button and not the others. But man cannot even press the button of his own self-consciousness without hearing the requirement of God (p. 203).

This is our attempt to suppress the truth, Romans 1-style.

Christians often do the opposite. Doug Wilson made this point in a blog post years ago. He said something to the effect that Christians think they’ve found the right station. So they keep the dial tuned in to that station and that station alone. Which sounds great. Until your wife (or you) gets tired of K-Love.

A major point of our book is going to be that Romans 1 applies to Christians too. For instance, Romans 1:23 describes truth-suppressing, idol-worshiping man like this:

“[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon that pointed out the fact that this is an obvious allusion to Psalm 106:20:

“They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.”

To whom is Psalm 106 referring? It’s talking about Israel. It’s talking about religious people.

Van Til makes the point that if God is to confront man anywhere, he must confront him everywhere. Christians and non-Christians alike are bent toward suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. One way we do this, as Christians, is by not looking for God’s glory everywhere. We convince ourselves that he’s not speaking on every radio station. But he is. He’s there, confronting us with his law and his gospel. Yes, even in secular culture. Not just in sunsets and the ocean.

Charles Spurgeon (see HERE) sometimes quoted the hymn Say Not, My Soul. I’ve never heard the hymn in church. You probably haven’t either. But here’s the first stanza:

Say not, my soul, ‘From whence
Can God relieve my care’
Remember that Omnipotence
Hath servants everywhere.

Omnipotence has servants everywhere. This is why (in the quote linked above) Spurgeon said God’s truth is “viral.” Gerard Manly Hopkins put it this way: “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” Here, it’s more like ‘Christ plays on every channel.’ He plays everywhere, always. But we have to have ears to hear and eyes to see.

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