It is June 2020 in America. Cable news and social media feeds are brimming with pandemic, riots, deception, and injustice. It may feel as though the world you know is buckling and collapsing around you. It may get far, far worse.
Maybe you are asking the question, “Why is all this happening?” Alongside that important question is another one you ought to ask: “Why has it not always been happening?”
As I’m watching, listening, and reading Americans who are responding to our national crises—especially white evangelical Christians in North America—I’m noticing a critical gap in our mindset. This gap is a doctrine taught abundantly in the Bible and further developed by Reformed theologians such as John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Cornelius Van Til. Yet this doctrine is noticeably absent from all of the breathless and thoughtless commentary I’m reading on such matters as the Covid-19 pandemic, racial reconciliation, and the place of human government. It is absent even among most Christians, among those who ought to know better.
We are missing the doctrine of common grace.
I am not beginning a series of articles on common grace because I’ve developed an expertise in it. Lord knows I have much more study to do in even this relatively neglected doctrine. I would prefer to wait, to study more, to learn more. But I’m writing now because I’m sensing that the North American church has a window of opportunity to think, speak, and act wisely regarding the controversies in our world. I think it’s better to write my sloppy and imperfect thoughts now, rather than waiting to write more precise and perfect thoughts a year later, when the opportunity has passed.
This first article will be more systematic, analytical, and linear than even I would prefer. I’m writing it as a primer, a “crash course” meant to introduce this doctrine. Over the next few weeks, the articles that follow will be more personal, reflective, and confrontational.
What is common grace?
Sin is a term used to describe the disposition, attitude, and activity of human beings in opposition to God, contrary to his law of love revealed in the Bible. It is the corruption of the image of our Creator within ourselves. It is a personal slander against the good character of God.
Grace is commonly defined as unmerited favour. More specifically, it is the favour or kindness that God shows to us sinful human beings who have done nothing to earn it and possess no right to claim it.
When Protestant Christians talk about grace, we are usually referring to saving grace (also known as special grace or particular grace). This is the grace of God that brings people to salvation from the penalty they owe for their sin, from the power of sin over them, and ultimately from the presence of sin within and among them.
Common grace, then, describes the grace of God that doesn’t (on its own) bring people to salvation. It is defined in this way by John Murray in his Systematic Theology:
Every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.(Murray, p. 96)
How is common grace given?
Murray goes on to explain that God works his common grace in our world, in both a positive and negative manner:
- Negatively, “God restrains sin and its consequences” (p. 97).
- Positively, God bestows and produces good (p. 102).
Where is common grace given?
Although the exact phrase common grace doesn’t appear in the Bible, scripture is thoroughly drenched in the concept, so that I can only give a small sample of what God says about it. In his own Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem outlines a number of different “realms” of human experience in which God’s common grace is revealed (pp. 657–668):
The physical realm
- Positively: Material needs, natural beauty, even life itself are all bestowed by God. (Psalm 19:1; 145:15–16; Acts 14:17; 17:24–25)
- Negatively: Harm from the natural world (such as diseases and natural disasters) are somewhat restrained. (Genesis 3:17–19; 9:2, 11)
The moral realm
- Positively: God enables even the worst of sinners to do relatively good things. (Luke 6:32–34)
- Negatively: God doesn’t give people up to be fully corrupted by sin, but restrains them from sinning through conscience, consequences, and human customs. (Genesis 20:6; Proverbs 3:33–35; Luke 6:32–34; Romans 2:14–15)
The intellectual realm
- Positively: God bestows intelligence and understanding on people, even giving them a rudimentary knowledge of God himself. Science, technology, medicine, etc. are products of these intellectual endeavours. (Proverbs 2:6; Acts 17:22–23; Romans 1:21)
The creative realm
- Positively: God bestows creativity and skill, as well as the ability to appreciate these things. (Analogous to the special grace found in Exodus 31:1–6)
The societal realm
- Positively: God gives family, friends, government, and other organizations (businesses, charities, etc.). (Psalm 127:3; Proverbs 1:7–9; 18:22; Romans 13:1)
- Negatively: God restrains evil through these relationships and organizations, particularly government. (Romans 13:4)
The religious realm
- Positively: God gives blessings even to unbelievers, and his gospel is proclaimed to them as well. (Matthew 5:44–45; 1 Timothy 2:1–4)
- Negatively: God delays his judgment of the world. (Acts 17:29–31)
For what purposes does God give common grace?
- To secure his plan to save sinners, in concert with his saving grace. (2 Peter 3:9–10)
- To influence and enrich the church.
- To reveal his glory by…
- Demonstrating his goodness. (Psalm 145:9)
- Modelling kindness and love for one’s enemies. (Luke 6:35–36)
- Demonstrating his justice in condemning sinners. (Romans 2:4–5)
- Revealing his greatness and goodness on display in his creatures.
How should we respond to God’s common grace?
- Ingratitude and entitlement. We fail to recognize grace as grace, feeling instead that it is our due. (Romans 1:21)
- Presumption. We assume without warrant that God will continue to be gracious. (Genesis 3:4; Romans 2:4–5)
- Lack of discernment. Christians spurn the common grace of God when we reject wholesale the good deeds and wisdom of unbelievers. (James 1:17)
- Honour God. Through our thoughts, words, and actions, recognize and reflect his goodness and greatness. (Psalm 147:12–15; Romans 1:21)
- Give thanks. Recognize all the good he has given and respond with gratitude. (Psalm 147:7–9; Romans 1:21)
- Steward well. Work wisely and well to become a faithful steward of the gracious gifts God has given. (Matthew 25:20–21)
- Extend grace. As you have received, so become a channel of God’s common grace to others. (Luke 6:35–36)
What else would you add to flesh out this introduction to common grace? What other important things does scripture have to say on this subject?
Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. [WTS Bookstore, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca]
Murray, J. (1977). Collected writings of John Murray: Vol. 2. Systematic theology. Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust. [Banner of Truth, WTS Bookstore, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca]
Featured image by Seth Reese on Unsplash.