I can’t remember anything affecting me quite like Katrina and the devastation this hurricane inflicted on the southern gulf coast. There have been other disasters that resulted in greater loss of life (the recent Tsunami, for example) and perhaps carried greater implications for our world today (9/11, being a case in point). But I recently ministered at a church in New Orleans and was scheduled to return in late September to speak there yet again. So I’m feeling a personal connection that I suspect many of you feel as well.
But as I watch the news broadcasts detailing the extent of the damage, I can’t help but think of the common grace of God and the end of the age. By the way, I have no idea if we are near the end. But I do have a theory about what it will look like once it approaches. Let me explain myself.
All Christians know that divine grace is the unmerited favor and mercy of God that saves sinners from a well-deserved eternal death, but few have given thought to the concept of common grace.
What theologians typically refer to as special grace is the favor of God that actually results in the salvation of the human soul. Special grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in calling, regenerating, justifying, and sanctifying individual sinners. Special grace is restricted to those who actually come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Herman Bavinck defined the special or saving grace of God as “his voluntary, unrestrained, unmerited favor toward guilty sinners, granting them justification and life instead of the penalty of death, which they deserved" (208). Louis Berkhof defined it simply as "the free bestowal of kindness on one who has no claim to it" (71). J. I. Packer expressed it this way:
"The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity, and had no reason to expect anything but severity" (Knowing God, 120).
But this is not the only manifestation of God’s grace to a sinful world. Even those who never come to saving faith in Jesus Christ are recipients of divine grace. Consider the fact that the apostle Paul (among others in Scripture) portrays the universal condition of humanity in extremely bleak language. Drawing upon the testimony of the Old Testament, he writes: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-12). Such is the predicament of people apart from Christ. Theologians call it total depravity. But, as John Murray has observed, this apostolic assessment of human nature forces us to deal with a series of very insistent questions:
"How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?" (Collected Works, II:93).
The answer to these questions is found in the distinction the Bible draws between God's common, or non-saving, grace and his special, or saving, grace. [By the way, although the Bible never uses the terms “common” or “special” when describing God’s gracious activity, the latter cannot be properly understood apart from drawing this conceptual distinction.]
The common grace of God has been variously defined. According to Charles Hodge, the Bible teaches that
"the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good. . . . This is what in theology is called common grace" (II:667).
Abraham Kuyper defines common grace as
"'that act of God by which negatively He curbs the operations of Satan, death, and sin, and by which positively He creates an intermediate state for this cosmos, as well as for our human race, which is and continues to be deeply and radically sinful, but in which sin cannot work out its end" (279).
A simpler and more direct definition of common grace is given by John Murray, Common grace, he writes, "is every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God" (II:96).
I see common grace manifesting itself in at least four ways.
(1) The first aspect of common grace is what we might call negative or preventative. Its essential characteristic is that of restraint. Although the restraint that God places upon sin and its effects is neither complete (else no sin would exist at all) nor uniform (else all men would be equally evil or good), it is of such a nature that the expression and effects of human depravity are not permitted to reach the maximum height of which they are capable. Thus, the most obvious manifestation of common grace is God’s exercise of restraint on the sin of man. Murray explains:
"God places restraint upon the workings of human depravity and thus prevents the unholy affections and principles of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them. He prevents depravity from bursting forth in all its vehemence and violence" (II:98).
See, for example, Gen. 4:15; 20:6; 2 Kings 19:27-28; and 2 Thess. 2:6-12.
We see a perfect illustration of this in the aftermath of Katrina. Why is it that looting is so rampant in New Orleans today? Is it because people who were otherwise good and law-abiding suddenly decided to become evil and criminal? No. Human nature hasn’t changed.
The reason for looting is obvious. All the normal impediments to thievery in New Orleans are no longer in place. There is no electricity, so there are no alarms or lights or other manifestations of electronic protection on personal property. Security guards are gone. The police cannot gain access to certain areas of the city. Surveillance cameras that otherwise would photograph burglars are no longer operative. In other words, virtually all the restraints and obstacles to criminal behavior have disappeared. What kept the sinful and criminal inclination of the human heart from expressing itself is gone. [Needless to say, there was, before Katrina, a considerable amount of criminal behavior in spite of such restraints.]
Here’s my point. Electricity and light and alarms and the police are analogous to the common grace of God. They function as something of a barrier to criminal behavior or a deterrent that hinders the full expression of human wickedness. Once these natural restraints disappear, the full extent and expression of evil and criminal inclination begin to emerge. My point is that what electricity and light and alarms and police do to restrain wickedness in a singular American city is analogous to what the Holy Spirit does to restrain human sin on a more global scale.
Thus, one of the purposes of the Spirit’s activity in our world is to impede or inhibit or curb the outward expression of the inward propensities of the sinful heart. Were he not to do so, were he completely to lift or withdraw or suspend this particular activity, our society would eventually be uninhabitable. The wickedness of mankind would engulf the world and bring it to the verge of utter chaos and corruption.
This work of the Spirit in restraining human sin is called “grace” because no one deserves it. That God inhibits their sin is an expression of mercy to those who deserve judgment. It is called “common” because it is universal. Both saved and unsaved, regenerate and unregenerate, are the recipients of this divine favor. It is not restricted to any one group of people and it does not necessarily lead to salvation.
(2) There is a second manifestation of common grace. Besides placing restraint upon the ungodly tendencies of the human heart, God freely suspends the immediate manifestation of his divine wrath due unto sin. That is to say, in common grace God not only restrains the sin of man but also the ready execution of the full measure of judgment which sin demands. This latter element of restraint is especially evident in such texts as Genesis 6:3; 1 Peter 3:20; Acts 17:30; Romans 2:4; and 2 Peter 3:9.
(3) In addition to the manifestation of common grace in the relationship God sustains to his creatures, he also holds in check the destructive tendencies that are part of the curse of sin upon nature. This third dimension of common grace was especially evident with Katrina. The question we should ask is not, “Why did this hurricane occur?” but “Why do not more hurricanes with even greater destructive power occur?” Again, John Murray elaborates:
"Sin introduces disintegration and disorganization in every realm. While it is true that only in the sphere of rationality does sin have meaning – it originates in mind, it develops in mind, it resides in mind – yet sin works out disastrous effects outside the sphere of the rational and moral as well as within it. God places restraint upon these effects, he prevents the full development of this disintegration. He brings to bear upon this world in all its spheres correcting and preserving influences so that the ravages of sin might not be allowed to work out the full measure of their destructive power" (II:101).
See, for example, Gen. 3:17 and 9:2-5.
We are told in Romans 8:20-21 that “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” One day, when our Lord returns to this earth, the natural creation, together with the children of God, will be delivered from the curse that was imposed because of the fall of Adam. But until then we suffer from hurricanes and earthquakes and drought, etc., all of which constitute in part the “futility” under which all things labor and suffer.
How arrogant of us to presume upon good weather, as if we deserved it! We wake up to sunny skies and gentle breezes and occasional rain and mild temperatures and we never pause to consider that what this sinful world deserves is scorching heat and tornadoes and floods and crippling ice-storms. The only reason why the latter do not dominate our globe is the common grace of God!
(4) The fourth and final aspect of common grace is more positive in thrust. God not only restrains the sinful operations and effects of the human heart, He also bestows upon both nature (see esp. Ps. 65:9-13; 104:10-30; 145:1-16; 136:25) and humanity manifold blessings both physical and spiritual. These blessings, however, fall short of redemption itself.
God not only restrains evil in unredeemed men but also endows them with
"gifts, talents, and aptitudes; he stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilization of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions. We may regard these interests, pursuits and institutions as exercising both an expulsive and impulsive influence. Occupying the energy, activity and time of men they prevent the indulgence of less noble and ignoble pursuits and they exercise an ameliorating, moralizing, stabilizing and civilizing influence upon the social organism" (II:102-03).
Of this manifestation of common grace we read in Genesis 39:5; Acts 14:16-17; Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:35-36; 16:25. It is because of such operations of common grace that the unregenerate may be said to perform "good" (cf. 2 Kings 10:30; 12:2; Matt. 5:46; Luke 6:33; Rom. 2:14-15). However, Murray reminds us that "the good attributed to unregenerate men is after all only relative good. It is not good in the sense of meeting in motivation, principle and aim the requirements of God's law and the demands of his holiness" (II:107) and thus can in no way commend them to the righteousness of the Father. We must never lose sight of the fact that all such operations of "grace" (so-called because undeserved) are non-saving, being neither in design nor effect such as would produce new life in Christ.
Now, what does all this have to do with the end of the age? Well, here is my theory.
As we approach the second coming of Christ, whether that be one year or one-thousand years in the future, I believe the presence and power of common grace will progressively diminish. The restraining power of the Spirit on the sinful souls of men and women, as well as on the natural creation, will incrementally weaken. The manifestation of human sin and wickedness and unbelief will therefore expand.
Common grace is much like the emergency break on a car that is parked on a steep incline. The weight of the car, together with the force of gravity, would naturally result in its descent down the road and its eventual crash. But the emergency break resists and impedes this otherwise natural inclination. So, too, with human sin. The Holy Spirit is like an emergency break on the human heart. But one day, perhaps imperceptibly and certainly in gradual fashion, the restraint on the sinful and depraved inclination of the human soul will be removed.
But here is the good news. I also believe that together with the progressive withdrawal of common grace will be a corresponding increase of special grace! The people of God will experience fresh and ever-increasing manifestations of divine favor and power and blessing and anointing simultaneously with the withdrawal of the Spirit’s common grace work of curbing the sinful impulses of the lost. This is why there will be an increase of wickedness and persecution (and, yes, martyrdom) in the world at large at the same time there is an increase of righteousness and perseverance in the church in particular.
My “theory” (which I do believe has Scriptural support) is that the Church will experience great revival, ever-increasing impartations of supernatural power, unprecedented expressions of love and unity, all the while she is being oppressed and persecuted and increasingly hated by the unbelieving world. Special grace will intensify even as common grace will diminish.
I should also point out that this process will culminate eternally in what we know as heaven and hell. Heaven is the unabated overflow of special grace. Hell is the utter absence of even common grace. Forever.
So what should be the Christian’s response to Katrina and the devastation she wrought? We should, no pun intended, flood the people who are suffering with expressions of kindness and compassion and generosity, knowing that such devastation could as easily fall on us (cf. Luke 13:1-5). As the Spirit’s provision of common grace diminishes, may the recipients of his special grace overflow in the goodness of Jesus to the glory of God the Father.