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Turretin on Common and Special Grace

September 30, 2007

The Reprobate not denied all of God’s Grace:

VI. The negative act includes two: both preterition, by which in the election of some to glory as well as to grace, he neglected and slighted others (which is evident from the event of election); and negative desertion, by which he left them in the corrupt mass and in their misery. However this is so to be understood: ( that the are not excepted from the laws of common providence, but remain subject to them; nor are they immediately deprived of all God’s favor, but only of the saving and a vivifying (which is the fruit of election)… Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:381.

Common grace and temporary faith:

II. The reasons are (1) saving faith differs from temporary faith in origin and foundation. The former flows from the special grace of election when it is called “the faith of the elect” (Tit. 1:l); which is given only to those who are called according to his purpose (kata prothesin), Rom.8:28) and were ordained to eternal life (Acts 13:48). On the contrary, the latter depends upon common grace which bestows even on the reprobate certain blessings: not only external and temporal, but also spiritual and initial gifts (although not saving) as a testification of a certain general love and to increase their guilt on the supposition of their contumacy. Hence Paul , speaking of the apostasy of Hymenaeus and Philetus, says, “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure” (2 Tim. 2:19), i.e., not on this account does the faith of true believers waver, being built upon the immovable foundation of the election of God. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:588.

Special Grace effects civic virtues:


Whether the virtues of the heathen were good works from which the power of free will to good can be inferred. We deny against the papists.

Occasion of the question

I. This question arises from the preceding. In order to the show that strength for good survives to the free will in a question. state of sin, the papists use the common example of the heathen who strove after virtue above others or were distinguished for illustrious deeds (whose virtues they deny to have been sins, deserving the disapprobation of God, but rather consider good works, meriting favor). Thus the Council of Trent: “Whoever says that all works done before justification, in whatever way done, are truly sins, or deserve the hatred of God, or that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself to grace, so much the more seriously he sins, let him be anathema” (Session 6, Canon 7, Schroeder, p. 43). Bellamine endeavors to prove “that man can without faith, with special help and even without it, perform some moral good, if no temptation presses (“De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio,” 5.9, 10 in Opera [1858], 4:391-98).

II. However we say two things. First, although we confess that some good can be found in these actions (as to the external honesty of the act commanded by God and which therefore cannot but be good), still we deny that they can be called properly and univocally good works as to the truth of the thing and mode of operation (to wit, internal rectitude of heart and intention of the end). We assert with Augustine that they were nothing but “splendid sins.” Second, whatever good or less evil they performed, was not owing to their own strength, but to God’s special help.

III. The former may easily be gathered from what has been already said. Since it has been shown that the inability (adynamian) of the sinner to good is total and Scripture ascribes it to all without exception, it is evident that no works truly good can be performed by the unrenewed man.

IV. This is still further strengthened by the conditions of a good work. Three things are altogether required for a good work. First, on the part of the principle, that it proceed from a heart purified by faith (Acts 15:9), because whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23) and is displeasing to God (Heb. 11:6); for “unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled (Tit. 13). Second, on the part of the form or mode, that it be done according to the law of God, not only in the external work, but especially with the internal obedience of the heart which the spiritual law of God requires from sinners (Rom. 7:14). (3) On the part of the end, that it be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). It is certain that the virtues of the heathen are defective in these three particulars. For in reference to the principle, they could not proceed from faith or a clean heart (of which they were destitute); so as to the mode, they had no internal and spiritual obedience; and as to the end, no direction to the glory of God (since they struggled for their own advancement and glory). Now a good work is from an entire cause, but an evil work from even a single defect.

V. The Athenians are said to “worship (eusebein) the,unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Not as if with a true and saving worship they adored the true God, but according to opinion (kata doxan) because they supposed they offered a true worship to the true God although unknown. Thus by an admirable accommodation (synkatabasin), the apostle strove to gain them over to Christ by tempering his rebuke with praise. He did not simply call them “too superstitious” (deisidaimonesterous), but “as too superstitious” (hos deisidaimonesterous) that he might not seem too harsh. Thus he does not say simply “ye worship” (eusebeite), but “ye ignorantly worship” (agnoountes eusebeite) to prove the vanity of their worship, that no one might accuse him of flattery.

VI. As the moral actions of the heathen are not sins per se (and as to substance of the work), but by accident (and as to the mode of operation) in the essential conditions (on account of the various defects mentioned before); not on that account is it better to omit than to perform them, lest we sin (but the defects should rather be corrected and supplied). What are of themselves sins forbidden of God should be omitted; but what are only accidentally such from some defect of circumstances should not be omitted, but corrected.

VII. Earthly reward does not prove true virtue and a good work because it is only of perishable things which God bestows promiscuously upon the reprobate and the elect. This is a remarkable proof of the divine justice, to teach how much true piety pleases him when he not only remunerates true virtues by eternal rewards, but also the images of virtues by temporal blessings not on account of the adhering depravity, but on account of the apparent external good (in order that even unbelievers may have nothing to complain of concerning the justice of God).

VIII. Since the humiliation of Ahab (1 K. 21:27,28) was dissembled and hypocritical (from fear of punishment rather than from love of virtue), it could not per se be pleasing to God. Nor did God grant to him an absolute remission of the punishment before threatened, but only some delay; not in order to testify that the external humiliation of the wicked king was accepted by him, but to show to others what is to be expected by one seriously and heartily repenting. The repentance of the Ninevites cannot be reckoned among the works of the heathen, since they are said to have repented at the word of God and from the operation of faith in God (which is expressly ascribed to them, Jn. 35; Mt. 12:41).

IX. Whatever, moreover, was done by the Gentiles in reference to this subject (by which they were made no better than others, but at least less evil) does not prove remaining strength for good in their free will because not even this could be done without God’s special help. If some were more observant than others of justice and goodness; if some excelled in learning, genius, fortitude, justice and temperance and other virtues (as among them Aristides was celebrated for justice; Scipio for continence; Socrates for wisdom; Alexander for bravery; others for other virtues), these are not to be ascribed to their better nature, but are to be recognized as the gifts of God who gives some over to their own lusts, but restrains the depravity of others from breaking forth. Nor were the heathen themselves ignorant of this, who acknowledged that “virtues are inspired only by the divine breath,” and “there never was a great man without divine inspiration” as Plato frequently says and Cicero after him (cf. Cicero, ?De Republics 3.3 and 6.8 [Loeb, 16:186-87, 260-61; De Natura Deorum 2.167 [Loeb, 19:282-831). Reason itself also persuades us. For why should the sons of heroes be so degenerate? Why should twins be so unlike? Why should those enjoying the best education become savage beasts? The cause, therefore, of this difference is to be sought only in the providence of God. While it permits some to sink with impunity into every enormity, it restrains and represses others as with a bit that they may not rush into the same unbridled license with others. Hence they are not common gifts of nature, but special graces of God dispensed variously to men (inasmuch as he knows that it conduces to the preservation of the universe).

X. Whatever knowledge of God is found in the heathen cannot be considered a good work because if they confess with the mouth, they deny him in their works. They had a knowledge of God, but held the truth in unrighteousness, neither glorified him as God (i.e., they did not truly know him). This was the height of their crime-being unwilling to acknowledge him of whom they could not be ignorant, and forming for themselves innumerable gods in place of the one God (whom they could know from his works). Well, therefore, are they called atheists by the apostle (Eph. 2:12) with their own crowd of gods because they were ignorant of the existence of the true God and of his will towards us. So the Lord gave them indeed a slight taste of his divinity that they might not offer ignorance as an excuse. He has-driven them at times to say some things by the confession of which they themselves might be convicted; but they so saw what they saw as by no means to be directed by the sight to the truth, much less to attain it. It is like the flashing of lightning at night, surrounded by which the traveller sees far and wide for a moment, but so evanescent that he is again involved in the darkness of night before he can move a step-so far is he from being prospered in his journey by such a help.

XI: fhis was the constant opinion of Augustine which he often established against the Pelagians: “True virtue exists in no one who is not righteous; and no one is truly righteous who does not live by faith. Moreover, who of those who wish to be considered Christians, except the Pelagians alone, or even thou alone perhaps among them, would say that the just man is enslaved by the devil?” (Against Julian 4.3 [I?] [FC 35:181; PL 44.7451). And elsewhere: “However highly the works of unbelievers may be extolled, everything which is not of faith, is sin” (On the Proceedings of Pelagius 34 [NPNFl, 5:198-99; PL 44.3411). So Prosper, a disciple of Augustine: “Without the worship of the true God, even what seems virtue is sin, nor can anyone please God without God; and he who does not please God, whom does he please except himself and Satan” (The Call of All Nations 1.7″ [ACW 14:34; PL 51.653-541). And in his precious little book Camn de Ingratis: “Every virtuous deed is a sin, unless it rises from the seed of true faith; it becomes a source of guilt, and its barren glory heaps up punishment for itself” (16.407-409 [trans. C.T. Huegelmeyer, 19621, pp. 66-67; PL 51.117). Whoever wishes more on this question should consult Jansen Augustinus where this entire argument is fully and satisfactorily discussed (‘De statu naturae lapsae,” 3,4 [164011964], pp. 429-678).

XII. Now this is the nature of free will in a state of sin. But how it is constituted in the moment of calling and in the progress of sanctification will be treated of in the proper place (with the favor of God). May the Father of mercies grant that, seriously acknowledging our nothingness (oudeneian) and inability (adynamian), we may learn to depend entirely upon him and to ascribe all our salvation to his grace, saying with the psalmist, “Not unto us, 0 Lord, but unto thy name be all the glory” (Ps. 115:l). Amen. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:683-685.


On Aristides, c.f., Calvin, On love to the reprobate or specific reprobates, entry #4; and on “special grace,” see Calvin on Common and Special Grace.

[To be continued]


2 Comments leave one →
  1. CalvinandCalvinism permalink*
    June 15, 2009 3:04 pm

    I have updated the Turretin file on Common Grace with a small quotation. See header above: “Grace taken away from Saul.”


  1. Paula White Is Evil And What You Should Do About It « Jesus Christology

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