Unpacking Common Grace
A major doctrine for Christians looking to understand the world in which they live is the doctrine of common grace. This doctrine is firmly embedded in the Reformed tradition, but ultimate is found in the pages of Scripture itself. To unpack this doctrine we’ll look at it from several angles. First, I’d like to define what the doctrine is. Second, I’ll briefly provide biblical support for this doctrine. Third, I will cite some helpful clarifications on the doctrine. And last, we want to share some thought s on a controversy over the doctrine of common grace.
Defining common grace. Dutch Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof defines God’s common grace as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Furthermore, he adds, that common grace includes “those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit” (see his Summary of Christian Doctrine). Likewise, Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til (one of the founding faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary) said common grace is God’s “favor to sinners by which they are kept from working out to the full the principle of sin within them and thereby are enabled to show some measure of involuntary respect and appreciation for the law of God that speaks to them even through their own constitution, as well as through the facts of the world outside” (see his An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 55)
This is exactly what the great Reformer John Calvin affirmed when he warned:
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I 2.2.15)
Last, the well respect scholar of the Post-Reformation Era, Richard Muller, in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, under the entry gratia communis, “common grace” wrote,
a nonsaving, universal grace according to which God in his goodness bestows his favor upon all creation in the general blessings of physical sustenance and moral influence for the good. Thus, rain falls on the just and the unjust, and all men have the law engraved on their hearts. Gratia communis is therefore contrasted by the Reformed with particular or special grace.
Biblical Support. Sin has infected our every faculty. Nevertheless, God is gracious and has restrained it from doing its worst (Gen. 20:6). God also displays lovingkindness to both believers and non-believers in the unfolding of history (Matt. 5:45, Acts 14:16-17). God does use unbelievers to make true pronouncements (Num. 23:18-24, cf. Gen. 49: 9), even when speaking God’s truth was not their intention (Jn 11:47-51, Acts 5:34-39). Whether on the lips of faithful friend or fiercest foe, Calvin notes that truth should be acknowledged as coming from the Spirit of God, who is the “sole foundation of truth.”
Clarifications. Some clarifications are in order. R. C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier Ministries, writes in his book, Everyone’s a Theologian, makes a very helpful distinction between common grace and special grace.
Another important distinction is between common grace and special grace. Special grace involves the redemption that God gives to the saved. By contrast, common grace is called “common” because it is virtually universal. It is the grace that God gives to all people indiscriminately. Common grace is the mercy and kindness that God extends to the human race. The Bible says that God in His providence sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5: 45), and this is an example of common grace. There may be two farmers in the same town, one devout and committed to the things of God, and the other as pagan as he can possibly be. Both need the rain for their crops, and God in His goodness waters the earth, so both profit from the showers. Neither farmer deserves the rain to nurture his crops, but God’s rain falls upon both, not just the devout man.
God’s common grace extends far beyond rain. People who are not in fellowship with God enjoy many favors from Him. Changes in the human standard of living over time— quality of life, improved health, and better safety— trace the progress of God’s grace through history. Of course, not everyone enjoys an equal standard of living, and certainly the basic standard of living in America is much greater than that in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, even in those areas, life expectancy and quality of life tend to be significantly better than in centuries past. Life has become easier.
Many simply attribute these improvements to science or education, but we must also factor in the influence of the Christian church over the past two thousand years. Orphanages were begun by the Christian community, as were hospitals and schools. Christians even drove the development of science in many ways. Believers have taken seriously their God-given responsibility to be good stewards of the planet. If we chart the history of the influence of the church on many different spheres, we see that, contrary to those who decry the impact of religion on the world, the general quality of life on earth has been vastly improved by the influence of Christianity.
Final thoughts. Finally, some thoughts on the controversy. I know that the Protestant Reformed Church has a long history of rejecting the doctrine (stemming from Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema), but it must be noted that even at the mere numerical level, they are in the vast minority of Reformed denominations and institutions. I fear that there is a biblically unwarranted move from acknowledging that God elects some for salvation (and leaves the reprobate to their just punishment), to believing that God has no good will towards the reprobate. In one sense, that would seem to make sense in a logical sequence. How, it could be asked, could God love those who he has eternally decreed he would allow to suffer the punishment for their sin? But here we must not go beyond Scripture itself which says, “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145.9). Likewise, Jesus directly addresses this when he tells us to love our enemies:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Christ’s point was that when we love our enemies we are acting like God. Now it could be said, yes, but Christians are enemies of God before their conversion (Rom. 5:10), and that’s certainly true. But Jesus explicitly speaking of both the righteous and the unrighteous. We must not be afraid to speak the way the Bible speaks, and the Bible speak of God’s love even for unbelievers. Of course, it is not the unconditional love which God bestows on his elect children, but it is genuine love.