10 Things You Should Know about Common Grace2
We should acknowledge from the outset that the adjective “common” does not appear in the Bible as a modifier of the noun “grace.” But we are justified in making use of it in view of how God’s dealings with non-Christian people are portrayed for us in Scripture. Our task will be to determine in what sense, if any at all, the grace of God is given to or is operative in the lives of those who persist throughout life in unbelief and rebellion against God.
(1) The biblical portrait of humanity’s condition apart from God’s saving grace is beyond bleak; it is hopeless. The apostle Paul writes:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
This is the truth of total depravity. The latter term does not mean that every person is as bad as he/she could possibly be. It simply means that moral depravity and willful spiritual darkness pervades and touches the totality of their being: mind, heart, soul, spirit, body, affections, and will. Some who misunderstand what is meant by “total depravity” find it difficult to embrace for the simple reason that it conflicts with what they see in the world and what they experience in their relationships with other people. There are quite a few extremely evil people in society. However, most of us have close friends and relatives who are not Christians but who are, what we would feel justified in calling, “good” people. They are honest, civil, generous, loving, and show little if any sign of being “totally depraved.” We enjoy their presence and would vouch for their character.
(2) The truth of God’s common grace is driven home when we ask how it is that people who lie under the wrath of God experience so many good gifts at the hand of God. How do we account for the extraordinary gifts, talents, and accomplishments of those who are unregenerate? How is it that so many unbelievers contribute so much to human flourishing, cultural advancement, and scientific discovery?
(3) All mankind are the recipients of the outpouring of God’s common grace, but not all experience it in the same degree or in the same manner. Our use of the term “common,” as Gregg Allison points out, “does not mean ‘in the same measure for all’ but ‘universal,’ extended to everyone. Neither does it mean ‘mundane,’ though common grace is often taken for granted and detached from its source, who is God. It is anything but dull and ordinary, as seen in bountiful fields, medical advancements, artistic genius, loving families, global initiatives against human trafficking, and much more” (50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith, 206).
Consider, for example, the common grace of God as seen in Genesis 39:5 where God is said to have “blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.” At Lystra, Paul declares that God “did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). Jesus himself said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). The Father is described as being “kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35; see Luke 16:25).
(4) How, then, should we define “common grace”? 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” (Principles of Sacred Theology, 279).
John Murray defines common grace as “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God” (“Common Grace,” in Collected Writings, II:96).”
(5) The goodness of God as seen in common grace is first found in the way it exerts a restraining influence on the expression of human depravity or sin. This preventative operation of God’s goodness is not comprehensive, or no sin at all would ever exist. Neither is it uniform, for if it were all men and women would be equally evil or equally good. What we mean, then, is that the manifestation and effects of man’s moral depravity is not permitted to reach the maximum of which it is capable. The simple empirical fact is that if this were not the case, life on earth would be virtually impossible. John 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:980.
For this, see Genesis 4:15; 2 Thess. 2:7. God told Abimelech, king of Gerar, that “it was I who kept you from sinning” when the king considered having sexual relations with Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Gen. 20:6; see also 2 Kings 19:27-28). 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.
(6) Another expression of common grace is God’s merciful determination to suspend the immediate manifestation of his wrath and judgment warranted by human sin. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4; see also Gen. 6:3; Acts 17:30; 1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 3:9).”
(7) In goodness and as an expression of his kindness toward the material creation, God also holds in check the destructive tendencies that are part of the curse of sin upon nature. 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).
On this, see Romans 8:19-21; 2 Peter 3:11-13. Thus, one explanation for why this sin-cursed earth is not instantly destroyed is God’s common grace in restraining, until the appointed time, his final and inevitable judgment.
(8) Another 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 and humanity manifold blessings both physical and spiritual. These blessings, however, fall short of redemption itself. We read in several places where the grace of God results in blessings on the material world. See Psalms 65:9-13; 104:10-30; 145:1-16; 136:25.
(9) John Murray is again helpful in bringing our attention to the way in which God endows men and women with gifts, talents, and opportunities they don’t deserve. He grants them,
“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).
We read about this expression of common grace in Genesis 39:5; Acts 14:16-17; Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:35-36; 16:25. This is why we may speak of people who are totally depraved doing deeds and supplying services that are deemed “good” (see 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). Therefore, such deeds cannot in any way commend them to the righteous standards and demands 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.
(10) Gregg Allison (50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith) points out that “the human conscience is another area of common grace. God has hardwired every human being with an innate sense of ethical duty. This moral arbiter enables people to know the basic principles of right and wrong and to distinguish what is right and wrong in different situations. . . . This common grace is manifested when people do what is good and avoid what is evil, promote a culture of life, and fight against social injustice” (205). It is entirely possible, but far from certain, that the apparent exercise of supernatural power by the unregenerate is the fruit of God’s common grace. On this see Matthew 7:21-23; 12:27; 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9; and possibly Acts 2:6, if the miracle at Pentecost was one of hearing and not one of speaking (which is, in my opinion, highly unlikely).