In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
We can now see clearly the distinction between the twofold process a sinner undergoes when he or she returns to life.
The Divine Act
On the one hand, there is a direct act of God, who once and for all destroys in the core of a person’s self all consequences of sin and of sinful straying. God’s act makes the dead self alive and the sinful self holy. This occurs in such a thoroughgoing and pervasive way that there is no possible falling back into sin, so that the reborn individual can no longer sin, since the seed of God is resident within him. This direct act of God is not extended over time, is not tied to any preparation, does not use any means, and is in no way dependent on human beings whatsoever. It is the sovereign God who, in accordance with his eternal counsel, accomplishes this act at the appropriate time in each of his elect, and accomplishes it in the same way in all of them. This act of God is therefore exclusively an act of particular grace.
All kinds of forces come indirectly into play as means that God uses and lets his child use. But, in the main, the impetus that causes the plant with its flowers and fruit to grow upward continues to come from that same particular grace.
The Mixed Work
But in addition to this direct act of God—which, although it can be divided into acts of re-creating, maintaining, and developing, is ultimately one single act—there are acts of self-purification, which neither add anything to nor detract anything from our rebirth. Such self-purification does not add the tiniest bit to our eternal salvation but only strengthens us, as long as we are here on earth, enabling us to glorify the name of our God by demonstrating a godly life. This naturally is a mixed work—that is, a work accomplished within and to our person, in which God anticipates, supports, and inspires us; in which other children of God support and help us; but in which the impetus for the main action must always come from us. We must cleanse ourselves.
“Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded,” it says in James 4:8. It is striking that they who must purify themselves are addressed here as “sinners” and not as “believers,” even though these same persons were told shortly before: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas 1:18). The difference, then, is that they are not addressed here in their hidden standing before God, by which they are holy and perfect, but rather in their standing as people who still live in the world and nevertheless are called to proclaim in the world the virtues of him who has called them to his marvelous light [see 1 Pet 2:9].
Not the Means, but the Consequence
We are not at all claiming, of course, that there is no inner and necessary connection between self-purification and our hidden life before God, even when it might appear so. On the contrary, we hold fast to the conviction that living in the world, struggling in the world, and intermingling with the world is not a means to salvation but a consequence of salvation, and that its aim is not to add something to the work of Christ but to glorify God in this life.
If we wish to express gratitude, it must be intended not for ourselves but for God. And we experience the latter only if our attempts at self-purification lack any motivation of being saved through it, so that we intend only to proclaim the virtues of him who called us.
For this reason, then, when it comes to our self-purification, we must never say that we don’t care about what people think. For Christ himself says to us that this is precisely why we should do it. And only when people see it can our Father in heaven be glorified through it. But this implies that self-purification cannot be accomplished by the direct working of particular grace; rather, its working out is based on common grace.
The Conduct of Believers in the World
This reality is necessarily so if only because it is a self-purification that is to be observed by unbelievers. For they must see our good works and be able to glorify God because of them.
That is not the case with the direct working of the Holy Spirit. The world is simply incapable of observing what grows directly out of saving grace. The Lord Christ himself continually pointed out to the disciples that the world does not and cannot see the Holy Spirit and therefore cannot appreciate his workings. Only believers can do that. Only the one who has the Holy Spirit within has an eye that is open to the things of the Spirit.
If spiritual things that are a direct product of particular grace belong to the kingdom of God (as all Christians acknowledge), then it directly follows that when we are told to let our light shine before the world so that the world might see it, this is not referring to spiritual life in the kingdom of God. If people are capable of seeing it, and are to glorify God in heaven because of what they observe in us, then this must refer to things that are within their reach, things that fall within their horizon, things that they can judge to be good and praiseworthy, based on the discernment at their disposal.
Here we are necessarily distinguishing between mystical stirrings and manifestations in common human life that are within everyone’s reach—manifestations that, up to a point, command the respect of unbelieving people.
This post is adapted from chapter 44 of Common Grace: God’s Gift for a Fallen World, Volume 2 by Abraham Kuyper (Lexham Press, 2019).