What is Common Grace?


Monday I wrote about God’s special saving grace that He gives His people through covenant. Today we turn to another introductory matter on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation): common grace.

I fear that those of you who are familiar with and enjoy long detailed definitions of theological terms are going to find my definition of common grace too simple. Common grace is just that – God’s grace that is common, or given to all men which brings countless blessings to all.

The doctrine of common grace arises from a question. We know that this world is fallen and under the curse of sin, yet how is it that in the world we still see traces of things are that good, true, and beautiful? How is it that order exists amid the chaos and confusion here? How is it that earth brings forth food, trees, flowers, and fertile fields rather than just thorns and briars? How is it that we fallen creatures still give evidence of being made in the image of God by using our time, talents, and treasures to do good toward our fellow man? How is it that the sun rises, or rain falls on a world that hates God? How is it that man is capable of doing praiseworthy good in the lower earthly sphere while being incapable of doing any good in the higher spiritual sphere? Article 18 of the Augsburg Confession answers these questions like this: “Man’s will has some liberty to work a civil righteousness, and to choose such things as reason can reach unto; but it has no power to work the righteousness of God.” So we see in natural man, that man does have some ability to do good in this earthly lower sphere of life to fellow man. How is man able to do this?

One possible answer we could give at this point is to say that man has the ability to do some good to fellow man because man isn’t as fallen as we think he is, or that there is more good in man than we thought there was. But, such an answer would be wrong, and we would do well to reject any answer to these questions that attributes any good to man. The correct answer lies in our first subject today: gratia communis, or the common grace of God.

When talking of the common grace of God some reformed theologians speak of three kinds of common grace. Louis Berkhof (footnote 1) gives us these three in his systematic text: 1) Universal Common Grace: a grace that extends to all creatures. 2) General Common Grace: a grace that applies to mankind in general and to every member of the human race. 3) Covenant Common Grace: a grace that is common to all those who live in the sphere of the covenant whether they belong to the elect or not. Others within the reformed community simply refer to common grace as the general grace God gives to all mankind that results in countless blessings.

Before we move onto describe these blessings, see the difference between covenant theology (or special grace) and common grace. First, special grace is limited to the elect of God only, while common grace is given by God universally to all mankind. Second, special grace removes the guilt and penalty of sin, quickens the sinner’s heart, and sanctifies the saint until glory. Common grace does no such thing. It does not remove any guilt or penalty of sin, but merely restrains its influence or lessens its consequences. Third, special grace is irresistible, when God saves He saves and changes everything for the sinner in view. Common grace is resistible, and tends to always be resisted to varying degrees. To sum up what common grace is we could say this: by His common grace God restrains the influence and growth of sin in the world, and maintains the order of life for all mankind.

Now let’s turn to the blessings of common grace (footnote 2):

The Physical World

That God didn’t wipe out all of mankind immediately after the fall in Genesis 3 and allows sinners to continue to live in His world, is common grace. God blessed the household of Potiphar through the faithfulness of Joseph in Genesis 39:5. Psalm 145 speaks of God who is “good to all” (v9), and God giving food each season so that man could satisfied (v15-16). Mathew 5:44-45 says, “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 the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages us to love our enemies by pointing out that God loves His enemies by giving them sunlight and rain. In other words, you and I are encouraged to love our enemies because God loves the wicked through His common grace. And though Paul speaks of the world as groaning for redemption in Romans 8:19 and being subjected to futility in Romans 8:20, can we not say that much of this world is stunningly beautiful? White beaches, towering mountains, vast canyons, wide rushing rivers, gold fields, majestic sunsets, and to a certain degree heart shaking thunderstorms. That God still makes His creation beautiful, even though so many reject Him, is part of His common grace.

The Intellectual Realm

That God would restrain the sin of humanity intellectually is evidence of common grace. We are fallen people, and yet even Hitler didn’t kill his mother. We are totally depraved yes, but we’re not utterly depraved. We’re bad, but we’re not as bad as we could be. Romans 1 and Acts 17 are two examples in Scripture where we see that pagan man still knows God to a certain degree. In Romans 1:21 Paul says “Although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to him….” Acts 17 Paul is preaching to the Aeropagus, the men of Athens and in 17:22-23 Paul points out that they are very religious and grasped a bit of the truth even though it was still clouded. “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” Paul says in 17:23. That man is still knows the truth, in part, is not a result of the genius of man, but the common grace of God. Therefore everything that pagan man discovers, writes, invents, or creates that is in line with the truth…whether found in science, technology, or even in other religions, is evidence of the common grace of God given to all mankind.

The Moral Realm

That all men have an inward sense of right and wrong is evidence of God’s common grace. He puts a conscience within us, and now our behavior shows the work of Law written our hearts either to accuse or excuse us of wrongdoing (Romans 2:14-15). In Luke 6:33 Jesus mentions something that even sinners do saying “If you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” That sinners would not always act in line with their sin is a result of common grace.

The Artistic Realm

That God would give unique talents and gifts to fallen men to be able to create the arts is a result of common grace. When I say the arts I refer to any activity man could express himself in whether it be in athletics, acting, directing, cooking, singing, painting, designers, drawing, playing an instrument, singing while playing an instrument, even skill in writing is in view here. That a Christian like me could get so much soul enjoyment out of the movies of a man like Peter Jackson (directed all of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies) and so much enjoyment out of the soundtrack for those films made by Howard Shore, shows that great gifts have been given and spread around to all mankind by God’s common grace. I’m sure many of you could say the same thing about various enjoyments in your life from our unbelieving neighbors whether it be iPhones, a golf course, the NFL, or the latest Marvel movie. Think about it: many sports fans enjoy the quality of an Under Armor or Nike product, and by and large we don’t give a thought to whether or not these people made their products for the glory of God. We buy and enjoy them because they are made well. The same could be said of many bookbinders who print the Bibles we read everyday. Yet how many of them also us the same ink and machines to print works made by other religions? Probably many of them. Yet we buy them. All of this shows the variety of gifts God has given to man, solely by His common grace.

The Societal Realm

That our world has institutions like government and family in which has many unbelieving people labor within and receiving the benefits of is evidence of common grace. In this respect we could also speak of organizations like the Red Cross and other charitable groups and public service groups that serve to relieve poverty, hunger, and homelessness around the globe is evidence of God’s common grace.

There are countless other things we could speak of here in regard to the blessings of common grace. But let’s end this discussion with a sobering reminder.

Common grace is just that, common. We should not reject the good things unbelievers make as evil, but use and enjoy them according to the principles given to us in Scripture. That God has given mankind so many blessings through common grace should lead us to do two things. First, we should thank God for His many common grace provisions He has given and continues to give us. Second, we should remember that common grace isn’t saving grace or special grace. Being a recipient of common grace does not put you into a covenantal relationship with God, but it should cause us to remember to share the good news of the gospel to all we interact with in daily life.

The unbelieving world uses and abuses common grace all day long, it ought to be the Church who lets them know who the Giver is.

[1] In Berkhof’s one volume edition, this is found on page 435-436.

[2] See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 658-663 for a full description of these blessings.

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