How must we explain the gifts of unbelieving scholars and artists?
To these questions Reformed New Testament professor Dr. Jakob van Bruggen provides a succinctly helpful answer.
In the entire creation-work of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit are co-creating. The Spirit hovered above the waters. And through the Word everything that exists came into being. To that creation belongs also every good gift that comes down from the Father of lights (James 1:17). The devil breaks what God creates, but he himself cannot produce anything beautiful or good, because what is beautiful and good comes from a pure source. Fortunately the world is still full of God’s creating and preserving work, not only in plants and animals, but also in people and their special beauty or extraordinary gifts. The great sin of human beings is that they proceed to develop that beauty and often exploit it as though it were their own possession. And their sin is that they proceed to develop their own particular abilities as they see fit and often with pride. Nevertheless this sin of human beings cannot obstruct the reality that there are good gifts and with them God accomplishes his own work. Perhaps the symphony conductor is condemned because of pride while at the same time his musical performances may be an encouragement to many people (assuming that such performances indeed served the beauty of sound that comes from God).
For some Christians it is perhaps confusing that the Spirit who is given to us in Christ should also be at work in technicians or artists who are totally unbelieving. We could distinguish between the work that the Spirit performs as Creator (proceeding from the Father and the eternal Son) and the work that he performs as Redeemer (proceeding from the Father through the incarnate Son who now sits at the Father’s right hand). This distinction signifies no separation, for the creating and maintaining work of the Triune God is tied to his redeeming and restoring work.
The statement that “the Holy Spirit works only in the hearts of believers,” seems to me to be formulated too narrowly, with the result that people have trouble with the rest of the Spirit’s work. I would change that statement this way: “The redeeming work of the Spirit of Christ occurs only in the hearts of all those who are reborn unto faith: at that point the human heart is opening up for that same Spirit who has always been doing his creating and maintaining work in all people, very often without these people giving God the honor for that work.”
Dr. J. van Bruggen is emeritus professor of New Testament at the Theological University in Kampen. He is also the editor of the recently completed New Testament Commentary series. You can find his personal website, and his succinct response in Dutch, here.