A Primer on Common Grace

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?

Unrighteous responses

  • 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)

Righteous responses

  • 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.

Vote for the Candidate You Want

There is a political argument, common to the Left and the Right, that is wrong and lazy, and harmful to democracy in general and the United States of America in particular.

A vote for anyone other than Hillary Clinton is a vote for Donald Trump who is mentally unstable and is not qualified to be President.

The fact of the matter is that either Trump or Clinton will be president. Hillary WILL appoint the most radical leftist Supreme Court judges which will alter the course of the nation for decades to come. Sitting at home on one’s moral high horse will not alter that fact.…Doing nothing is a vote for Hillary.

(Source: Random people on Facebook)

This is an argument from pragmatism. It keeps appearing on social media and in political op/eds. The “lesser of two evils” argument is used by Trump and Clinton supporters to guilt and browbeat their fellow citizens into voting for someone they don’t want in office.

Perhaps you don’t like either candidate, and a friend or relative has targeted you with this argument from pragmatism. Let’s look at the essence of the argument, why it’s wrong and lazy, why it’s harmful, and how you should instead vote for the candidate you want. Then I’ll answer a couple objections that might occur to you.

The essence of the argument from pragmatism

Here are the logical steps that form the argument.

  1. Candidate “Bad” and Candidate “Worse” are the only viable options in a civic election.
  2. The candidate who receives the most votes will win the election.
  3. It is morally unacceptable for Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
  4. A voter who fails to vote for Candidate “Bad” is enabling Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
  5. Therefore, one should vote for Candidate “Bad.”

Can you identify the weak link? Premises 1, 2, and 3 are true. It’s premise 4 that is false. Let me show you why.

Why the argument from pragmatism is wrong and lazy

Here’s a brutal reality that no politician will ever tell you: Your vote has zero practical value.

Let’s suppose you were a US citizen who supported Mitt Romney in 2012. On Election Day, you were walking out to your car to drive to the voting booth, but you slipped on a patch of ice and fell and broke your hip. As a result, you failed to vote for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Did your failure to vote change the outcome? Would Romney have won if only your fragile hip had survived the fall intact? Of course not. Your vote had precisely zero influence on the 2012 presidential election. It had no practical value whatsoever. Only in the smallest civic elections might your vote have even a tiny chance of making a difference.

If you were truly behaving pragmatically in 2012, you would not have voted at all. You would have saved your half-hour at the polls and spent it on a more productive task—shopping for groceries, or vacuuming the house, or researching hip replacement surgery. The only reason that a pragmatist votes is that he or she has not followed this pragmatic line of thinking to its logical conclusion, but has quit thinking halfway to the end. He or she is a lazy thinker, blurting out an argument that is lazy and wrong.

So if your friend or relative is going to urge you to act pragmatically on Election Day, follow their argument to its foolish end. Tell them that the brilliance of their pragmatism has persuaded you. Tell them you have decided not to vote for Clinton and not to vote for Trump. Tell them you have decided not to vote at all, but rather to spend that half-hour on election day with a pragmatism and productivity that will put theirs to shame. For that half-hour, they can find you at home, folding your laundry.

Why the argument from pragmatism is harmful

The argument from pragmatism is harmful for at least three reasons.

First, it encourages people not to vote.

Why is voter turnout so low in many democratic elections? It’s because people are acting pragmatically in the months leading up to Election Day and on the day itself. They’re not spending their time learning about the candidates and their platforms and their merits. They’re not spending the time to vote. They’re doing other things that have genuine practical value. They’re not lazy; they’re pragmatic. They are following the argument from pragmatism to its logical conclusion.

Second, it enables bad candidates and corrupt parties.

How have the Democratic and Republican parties maintained the two-party system for the last 150 years? They have employed the argument from pragmatism. They have manipulated voters into believing that their vote must be cast for a candidate from one of their parties. It is in the interest of both parties to perpetuate this nonsense. Anyone who repeats this argument is either speaking as a cynical manipulator or working to recruit you as a fellow pawn.

Third, it guts our democratic process of its dignity.

It encourages realpolitik, the embrace of amoral pragmatism and Machiavellian politics. It encourages citizens to vote out of fear, hatred, and loathing of the opposition candidate. It ensures that wicked campaigners will gain power, and corrupt elites will remain in power, by infesting voters with their fear, hatred, and loathing of the alternative. If all this sounds like America circa 2016, it’s because we have made our bed, and now we are lying in it.

Vote for the candidate you want

Your vote, and my vote, has no pragmatic value. It will not sway the results of all but the smallest civic election. So why do we vote?

You and I vote not because it’s practical, but because it’s our duty and our dignity. We vote for ideological reasons. We are citizens of a state that, for all its faults and corruption, protects us from harm, enforces justice, and promotes what is good. It is my responsibility to the state to vote in a civic election, because my vote is my voice. I use it to communicate what kind of person I believe should be in office, and what kind of platform they should run on. I want my community, my state or province, and my country to be led by someone who is virtuous and just and wise, and who makes decisions with virtue, justice, and wisdom.

There is only reason to vote for a candidate for public office: you vote for the candidate because you want him or her to hold that office. It is a violation of your civic duty, a betrayal of your citizenship, to vote for someone you don’t want.

If you’re an American citizen, here’s how you should vote in the 2016 presidential election:

  1. If you want Donald Trump to be President, then vote for Donald Trump.
  2. If you want Hillary Clinton to be President, then vote for Hillary Clinton.
  3. If you don’t want either one to be President, then research your third party alternatives, find a candidate that you do want to be President, and vote for that candidate.
  4. If you can’t find a third-party candidate that you want to be President, then write in the name of a person you would like to be President, if your state permits it.
  5. If your state does not permit a write-in vote, or restricts it to names you don’t find acceptable, then do not cast a vote for President. (Do, however, cast a vote for other elected offices on the ballot.)

Remember: Your vote has no practical value. It will make no difference. And so you are free to vote for the candidate you want.

Objections answered

If everyone thought this way, then Candidate “Worse” might be elected!

Don’t forget that if everyone were thinking this way, then the supporters of Candidate “Worse” would also be thinking this way. Many of them would vote for someone else. Remember, they are voting for this candidate only because in their opinion, it is Candidate “Bad” who is the worst! Given an alternative, many would choose someone better. So in the end, this objection only leads to speculation and worry, both of which are hardly pragmatic.

Al Gore lost Florida to George W. Bush by 537 votes. If the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader had instead voted for Al Gore, then Gore would have won Florida—and the election. So didn’t this ideological voting for Nader cost Gore the 2000 presidential election?

Once again, it’s speculation to assume that Ralph Nader’s supporters would have voted at all if Nader weren’t an option. And if we’re going to speculate, why not speculate about the party nominations in that election? Would Al Gore and George W. Bush have even been nominated as candidates if party members had voted ideologically rather than pragmatically? And would prior presidential elections have been reshaped by ideological voting, fundamentally altering the political landscape for the 2000 election? We don’t know.

The point is this: It’s not your civic responsibility, or mine, to speculate about the results of your voting. It’s your civic responsibility to vote for the candidate you want.

Furthermore, you are not responsible for other people’s votes, but only your own. And if you had been one of those Nader supporters, changing your vote to Al Gore would not have won him the election. With your help, he still would have lost—by 536 votes.

Semipsalm 23: The Lord Is My Manager

Sometimes, the Bible seems boring. It’s because we’re familiar with it. The words have lost their edge.

So when biblical counselor David Powlison wrote Antipsalm 23 a few months ago, I actually found it to be refreshing. It was refreshing because this “antipsalm” echoed and exposed the way I think sometimes. It was refreshing because it brought into stark relief the comfort and the beauty of Psalm 23.

So here’s my own take. Instead of a mega-depressing Antipsalm 23, in which God is absent from my life, I’ve written a moderately-depressing Semipsalm 23, in which God is a distant manager of my life instead of a loving shepherd. Sad to say, this is the way I tend to think of him. It’s hard to love and feel loved by a God like this.

Semipsalm 23

The LORD is my manager;
I’m equipped with what I need to be successful.
He makes sure I have enough to eat and drink,
And that I’m not too stressed out.
He gives me what I need to get by;
He communicates good advice
so I can keep him satisfied with my progress.

But when the darkness closes in and I feel half-dead,
I’m frightened by all the pain that grips me,
Because you seem so far away from me,
And your distant management of my life leaves me alone and afraid.

You do let me help myself to the leftovers from your table,
Which I suppose is better than what my enemies get.
You acknowledge my presence at dinner,
And you let me pour a little wine into my cup.
I guess I have an adequate and decent life most of the time,
And I can always stay at the LORD’s house for a few days if I ever feel the need.

Jesus has come to conquer death, so don’t underestimate his authority (Mark 15:40–16:8)

Jesus is dead.

Mark is very clear on the matter. He introduces three women to the story, and he follows their eyewitness accounts of the events following Jesus’ crucifixion. The women watch Jesus breathe his last and die. Two of them take note of where he is buried, seeing a great stone rolled as a seal across the entrance. The man who buries him, a secret disciple named Joseph, handles Jesus’ body, taking it down from the cross and wrapping it in a linen shroud before laying it in his own tomb. The centurion who observed Jesus’ rapid death also confirms it to the Roman governor Pilate.

Jesus is dead, dead, dead.

It’s really hard for me to imagine the effect Jesus’ resurrection had on his disciples. For us, the events have already taken place, and we know from the beginning that he will rise from the dead. It’s no surprise. But to Jesus’ followers, his resurrection was a thundering shock. When the women arrive at the tomb early on Sunday morning, they are convinced that they will find a dead body. They’ve prepared their anointing spices and are ready to play out the familiar postmortem rituals. Their only question is, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Even as they’re worrying aloud to one another about this rather important detail, they catch sight of the tomb from a distance—“and they saw that the stone had been rolled back.” Suddenly, events are taking an unfamiliar turn. As they enter the tomb, they see “a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” And they suffer a collective heart attack.

This strange young man sitting in a tomb immediately tries to calm them down. First, the obvious: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Then, the shocking twist: “He has risen! He is not here; see the place where they laid him.” The young man gestures toward the niche where Jesus’ body was placed. It’s empty now. The women see the truth with their own eyes.

This “young man” (clearly an angel!) gives them a message from Jesus. He says, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Even though the disciples (especially Peter) have abandoned him, Jesus hasn’t abandoned them. Not only is he alive, he plans to meet with them again!

Now, the angel’s commands to the women are “go” and “tell.” So what do the women do? Mark records that they “went out”…and “fled.” And “they said nothing to anyone”—at least not right away.

What gives? Why did they fail to carry out the angel’s instructions? Mark explains that “trembling and astonishment had seized them…they were afraid.” In other words, their response to the angel was pure terror. They panicked and ran away.

So why the hysteria? Well, their actions speak loud enough. They were fully expecting a dead man. Their minds were locked into the usual pattern of things; it never occurred to them that Jesus might not stay dead. So when the angel’s announcement shattered the orderly reign of Death, they were utterly unable to process what had taken place. Mentally overloaded, they turned and ran.

The women had stood at a distance and watched Jesus’ death. They could handle that, albeit with great pain. Joseph could even exercise courage when it came to preparing Jesus’ body for burial. But when Jesus breaks loose from the dominion of Death, the women can’t take it.

Jesus calmed a storm which threatened his disciples, and they became afraid of him. Jesus drove a legion of demons out of a wild man, and the people nearby responded with fear and asked him to leave. Now Jesus has conquered the undefeated enemy, Death, and the response is shock and terror.

These people responded in fear because they underestimated Jesus. He seemed to be a good teacher, perhaps a prophet, even the Messiah. But when he began to overpower natural and spiritual forces, that caught them by surprise. Then he announced that he would triumph over the grave—and so he did, “just as he told you.” No one believed him.

It is not possible to underestimate Jesus. He is the Son of God. He has authority over Death itself. If you have not given up on yourself and bowed the knee to him, this is very bad news. If he can conquer Death, what will he do with a rebel like you?

But if you belong to him as his disciple and servant, Jesus’ victory will fill you with confidence in his limitless authority:

Fear not! I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17–18)