Common Grace

In two conversations recently, the topic of common grace has come up, and it was interesting to hear people say that they had not heard of the concept before, nor did they fully understand it.

Reformed Christians believe in sin. Sometimes we call it “the doctrine of total depravity”. By that we mean, not that everyone is as bad as they could be, but that every part of human nature (mind, heart emotions and will) has been affected by sin. But we do not always experience the full effects of human badness and depravity. We have good neighbours. Most of the people we do business with are trustworthy. There are many unbelievers who are kind, helpful and unselfish. How can we account for the goodness we find in people, for the amount of truth we find in the writings of unbelievers, and for the beauty that has been produced by musicians, poets, painters and novelists who are not Christian?

Calvin was convinced of the sinfulness and corruption of human nature. He reflected on the reasons for the truth, goodness, beauty and civilisation that we find in this sinful, fallen world. And he said that we must attribute these things to the grace of God. Common grace is distinguished from particular or saving grace. Common grace restrains sin in fallen humankind even though it does not take away man’s sinfulness. Saving grace is the means whereby human nature is renewed and whereby people are enabled to turn to God in faith, repentance and grateful obedience. Common grace restrains human sinfulness without renewing human beings. (See Calvin’s Institutes II,2 14; II,2,15; II, 3,3)

The biblical basis for this concept of common grace is found in such passages as Romans 1 where Paul speaks of God abandoning or giving people over to their sin, the implication being that previously God was restraining the effects of sin in their lives. One way in which such restraint is exercised is through the state imposing penalties like fines or prison sentences (Romans 13:3,4). God works through earthly rulers to restrain sin (I Peter 2:12,13). The “man of lawlessness” who is prophesied about in II Thessalonians 2 is “held back” (II Thess 2:6,7). Holding back this incarnation of wickedness is part of God’s gracious control of the world.

One of the main values of this doctrine is that it not only enables us to enjoy and celebrate the cultural products and gifts of unbelievers (even though the glory and praise of God was not part of the conscious intent of these artists) but it also gives us the leverage we need to work and pray for a better world.

The sentiment of many of evangelical Christians is that since this world is in the hands of the devil, all we should do is evangelism. Our main and only concern should be the salvation of souls through saving grace. Why paint the ship when it is sinking? Many evangelicals have therefore cut themselves off from the cultural and political life of our society

Common grace reminds us that the earth is God’s earth. He not only created it, but maintains it in such a way that sin is restrained, civilisation is possible, and human culture is significant.

“Not that we expect to see a totally Christianised world on this side of the new earth; we do not. But we must continue to work for a better world here and now. To that end we must use the resources of education and the printed page. We must be active in the political arena….We must continue to do all we can to alleviate suffering and hunger in the world, and to bring justice to the oppressed. We must keep on opposing the senseless nuclear arms race and keep on working for world peace. We must continue to try to eliminate the enslavement caused by poverty….We must persistently oppose all forms of racism.”  Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 201

For one of my ministerial colleagues, this understanding of common grace has renewed his commitment to work as a peacemaker in our divided society. He has come to see that the calling of the church and of Christians is not only to preach saving grace, but that we must make a contribution towards the improving and enhancing the common life of our community through working for peace and reconciliation. Because of common grace we can be purposefully active in cultural, scientific, educational and political pursuits.

Common grace is also linked directly to our eschatology. We look forward to a new earth in which righteousness will dwell (Isaiah 65:17-25; II Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4). This new earth will be the present earth renewed and glorified, free from the curse of sin (Romans 8:19-21). There will be a continuity with this present world, and it will be liberated from its bondage to decay, corruption and sin. This means that our work and life on this earth will have an abiding significance in the world to come.

The unique contributions of every nation will enrich life on the new earth. Revelation 21:24,26 says that the glory and honour of the nations will be brought into the Holy City. The deeds and accomplishments of the faithful departed will follow them (Rev 14:13). Some day the restraint of sin will be complete. That is why we can work with confidence here and now.

While the doctrine of common grace underpins so much of what we do as Christians, maybe we need to state it more explicitly and more often.

18 Replies to “Common Grace”

  1. Very helpful, Stafford, and this comment stands out, “This means that our work and life on this earth will have an abiding significance in the world to come.” And we do need to state it more explicitly and more often.

    I came across this just today in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark A. Noll. “The prize-winning Irish poet Evangeline Paterson (said), “I was brought up in a Christian environment where, because God had to be given pre-eminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything has significance.”

  2. The quote from Anthony Hoekema is terrific and speaks powerfully into our situation here in this country.Let’s encourage those around us that as Reformed Christians we have a strong Biblical and theological foundation to spur us in working for a better society. We need the strong combination of word ministry and deed ministry.

  3. This topic today is important because some strange teaching is going about supported by the Protestant Reformed Churches who deny common grace per se. On a very topic matter, do you believe that attending the
    Roman mass is wrong for the Christian per se. It was alarming indeed to
    listen in to Sunday Sequence and hear discussion of this today ?

  4. Raymond

    I can think of all sorts of things that are wrong for the Christian per se, but that doesn’t usually stop us!

    Stafford’s comments this morning were sensitive, thoughtful, practical and ‘commonly gracious’.

  5. I must say that as a Protestant I totally and utterly reject the Roman mass. Reformers died for rejecting such a blasphemy, and if I was to give the go-ahead for Christians to attend a service such as a funeral/wedding in the Roman Church, where the wafer god was being lifted up as an unbloody sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead, then what I am doing, is painting a picture to Protestants, that the mass is not such a serious error, and therefore there is not really a necessity to separate completely from that antichristian system. If we do not need to separate completely from that system, then we are furthering the progress of the ecumenical apostate movement.

  6. Peter (Morrow)

    With regard to your response to Raymond: ‘I can think of all sorts of things that are wrong for the Christian per se, but that doesn’t usually stop us!’

    Are you then saying that it is ok for the Christian to do or attend those things that are sinful and harmful to the their spiritual condition while also offending their God, all because it ‘doesn’t usually stop us’. I don’t think that is a very credible supporting statement for Rev Carson’s
    endorsement of the religious practices of the Roman Church.

    In Matthew 6 our Saviour proclaims that He came not to destroy the law, or the prophets, but to fulfil, the Lord Jesus continues to instruct on this issue of law when he proclaims in v19 ‘Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments,and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven’. I cant see how the language used here could allow any Christian or Christian minister for that matter to break the second commandment, for this is what one would be doing by their endorsement or their attendance at a service held by a religious system which places so much emphasis on idolatry!

    As for brother Stafford’s comments, they were not sensitive but harmful, not thoughtful but wreckless,not practical but unwise, not commonly gracious but commonly cruel to the undiscerning believer.

    Soli Deo Gloria

  7. I too as a Protestant totally and utterly reject the Roman mass, and am quite happy to use all the language my Reformed forefathers arm me with.

    However, the occasion arises when your Roman Catholic neighbour dies and you attend their funeral. As a neighbour it will be known that you’re a Protestant and therefore family etc will respect your non-participation in the mass – I would doubt if they really expected you to, and to be honest I doubt that what you do or don’t do is on their number one list of concerns at such an occasion. (I also wonder, from a Roman Catholic perspective, if technically a Protestant is allowed to take it anyway…) Furthermore, having attended such occasions it turns out many Roman Catholics themselves don’t participate so you don’t really stick out like a sore thumb!

    I can both love my neighbour and sincerely hold WCF XXIX (vi). And as for the ‘progress of the ecumenical apostate movement’, the current Pope scuppered that a few years back when he reaffirmed what Roman Catholicism traditionally teaches regarding other churches… my attendance at a funeral or wedding isn’t going to make him think again.

    ps. a different Stephen than #2

  8. As always, Dr Carson’s blog entries are very informative. The doctrine of eschatology, is something that is generally unknown in many reformed churches. Most Christians simply believe that when they die they go to heaven, but little has been taught to them of the new earth. Philip Ryken, in his short book “What is the Christian Worldview”, says the following-

    “In the celestial city of God, all our relationships and activities will gather to be what they were always intended to become. The life of that last and future world will not be discontinuous with our present experience, but will be its completion and consummation. It is the lost and fallen creation that God will restote, renew and redeem. The Bible makes clear connections between the present and the future, when the glory of the nations will become the glory of God.”

    I would like to respond to J Trimble’s post. 5 years ago, when I was manager of a local bank, I had a 29 year old member of staff who died after being ill for about 6 months with cancer. She was married and left a 2 year old daughter. Her family asked me to read a lesson at her funeral mass in the local Roman Catholic Cathedral. As a Protestant, I did not partake in the celebration of the mass, nor did I bow to the altar when coming forward to read, but I did consider it an honour to have been asked to take part in the service by the family.

    Like J Trimble, I also reject the Roman Mass, but does he really think that I am an “ecumenical apostate” for reading at the funeral service of a valued member of my staff? I personally believe that attending funerals and weddings in Roman Catholic Churches differs greatly from attending their weekly services.

  9. Thomas, hi

    You ask, “Are you then saying that it is ok for the Christian to do or attend those things that are sinful and harmful to the their spiritual condition while also offending their God…?”

    Not at all. I wouldn’t for one moment suggest that we are free to sin, that was not my point. My simple point was that it is easy (very easy) to take a strict view of attendance or non attendance at a Roman Catholic service, while ignoring the weighty matters of our own hearts. Perhaps when we root out, on a regular, corporate and honest basis, those malignancies with the same zeal we use to point out the faults in others we will be in a position to speak more fully.

    Some have also taken the view that mere attendance at a Roman Catholic service is an endorsement of idolatry, or all that they believe; perhaps that, rather than sin, is the fulcrum of this debate. To quote Stafford, he said, “…a minister attending a service like that does not necessarily mean that he would endorse all that that denomination believes.” The point is very clear, and let’s face it I, and I’m sure other members, don’t endorse all PCI believes!

    But here is a critical point for we Reformed Christians. If we are truly serious about the five solas, and believe that all is of Grace, then it is imperative that we recognise the implications of that for our own salvation, for our own sinful hearts. If, as we say, the cross is central, if I can do nothing to attain my salvation, if all is of God, then even my doctrine, however accurate, will not save me.

    Thomas, I can be accurate about doctrine, I can tick all the theological boxes, I can, and do, affirm all the relevant Reformed creeds, but only Grace breaks my heart, only Jesus transforms and saves, and honestly the knowledge of that pierces my heart more than the rights or wrongs of another denomination.

    To return to the original question, no, I’m not saying that it is ok for the Christian to do or attend those things that are sinful and harmful, rather, it’s worse, for I can go on to say that we do those things all the time, and too often we fail to repent.

    My sin should break my heart, too often it doesn’t.

  10. The question at the heart of this blog seems to be whether it is ever right to attend a service of a denomination or faith to which you do not subscribe. Secondary to this is the question if attendance is acceptable is there a difference between attendance and participation.

    In the past I have attended the wedding of a college friend who was Sikh, I have attended a full Sabboth meal with Jewish friends – did I participate? or was I compromised by my attendance? Personally I didn’t think so, those who invited me knew where I stood on matters of faith and to be fair to them they made allowances for me – I didn’t have to cover my head during papers at the sabboth meal for instance.

    So I believe you can attend without participation and therefore respect for the other person can be shown without compromise.

    Would I read a lesson or play an active role in any such circumstances? No

    To do so would be giving support or endorsement, by reading the scripture at a Roman Catholic service or a Jewish service, that was to be explained or preached on, does come too close to endorsement thus I personally won’t.

    We are sons and daughters of the Reformation, we do hold that our faith is right and we do hold it precious, this does not mean that we cannot show due respect to those of other faiths etc but if we are relying on our attendnace or otherwise at services of other faiths to display our faith then I think we have missed somethings far more important – such as personal witness and walking uprightly before those around us.

  11. sorry to ultonian im not a daughter of the reformation im a child of god!!!!! but i agree with you i also have been at a catholic funeral mass for one of my work colleagues who died very suddenly and i did not endorese the doctirne but i showed love and respect to my work mates – thanks stafford for the blog on common grace its so long since i heard it i had alsmost forgotten – and it makes so much sense! god bless

  12. Let’s face it our church(the presbyterian) is moving away from scripture day in and day out…the “mother church” in scotland is now appointing homosexual ministers, the local congregations in Ulster are now almost entirely beating tambourines and playing guitars and drumkits on the sabbath in contravention of scripture and the regulative principle which the reformers advocated and now instead our churches wear “the badge of popery” as the reformers called instruments in worship, my church has stained glass windows with Our Lord on them and large banners with drawings on the walls…it looks like something from a nursery playgroup rather than a presbyterian church!I had to explain to my old sunday school teacher and 2 elders what Unconditional Election was last week in Bible study because they didn’t even know!! I had to read Calvin’s works myself because my church doesn’t even mention the man! The church no longer sings Psalms and i don’t think the minister even knows what geneva robes are! If i wanted to go to the elim pentecostals and dance about like i’m in a disco i’ll go to the elim not my local presbyterian…and now look the moderator is telling us it’s ok to attend and take part in Romish worship…great maybe you could tell us what the point in the Reformation was when we are just expected to give up on scripture and turn back to tradition, its hard to believe that people were martyred in the most brutal ways for centuries for standing up for God in the face of the Pope and his henchmen and now we have a moderator telling us to go down and take part in the “satanic” “idolatrous” “blasphemus” “heretical” Roman Catholic Mass! If this is the way our church is going then I’ll leave the church completly…the church can do what it wants…but as for me and my family we shall serve the Lord!

  13. Concerned Clavinist.

    The matter of the Church of Scotland aside, I think I might be able to comment on some of your other concerns.

    I’m not a big fan of drums and guitars in a Presbyterian Church, primarily because they make people uncomfortable, and anyway, the Pentecostal churches just do ‘rock music’ better! I’ll take it though that you hold to an exclusive Psalmody and unaccompanied singing position, because let’s face it once you introduce one instrument it’s pretty difficult to defend excluding others. A friend of mine, when he worships with me in PCI, refuses to sing any of the hymns, ancient or modern, and doesn’t even like the organ, at least he’s consistent, and he actually thinks I’m compromiser just for being a Presbyterian, and he’d probably think you were one too!

    On Psalms, yes I miss them too; if nothing else I can learn my bible by singing them and be certain of the value of the words, indeed, were I fail to sing with sincerity (which is often) then I know that One sang the words with sincerity in my place, and the Psalms call me to look to Him.

    Banners. Yes, banners are a bad idea, but we don’t seem to mind them on The Twelfth. Again, my friend thinks the Williamite Settlement was compromise!

    You say that 2 elders didn’t know about Unconditional Election. Only two! You should try asking them what they know about the Ordo Salutis!

    On Calvin, well I actually have heard about him in church, but I can understand that many don’t.

    As for the mod. I doubt very much that he is telling us to ‘take part in Romish worship’, as I said before that wasn’t what he said. And while we’re on that point we might as well ask the Culture and Sports Minister why he’s happy to serve in a Secular Government!

    As to the point of the Reformation and martyrdom, well, now it’s going to get tricky! First of all because the Reformation isn’t a fixed and finished event, we’re supposed to understand what Semper Reformanda means (maybe you could ask your elders!) and, we need to be clear that in the highly politicised atmosphere of 17th and 18thC Europe we Protestants did our own fair share of killing too. We need to face up to that aswell.

    But all of this is all well and good, I could debate it all night; as I said before, I know the technical terms, I know the doctrine and I know a good deal of church history too, but what of my heart?

    When was the last time you, or I had a conversation with anyone else in which we were able to speak of the the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. (You know, the aspects of our thoughts, for example, which we wouldn’t want others to know about) Call it Sanctification, Perseverance of the Saints, Mortification, it doesn’t matter, what matters is if or when the reality of Grace and the Cross were last a central theme in our fellowships, and I don’t mean in the sermon, in mean in the organic lives of the congregation.

    When did we last, as the body of Christ, work out our salvation together?

    That’s real Reformed Christianity!

  14. yes semper reformanda not compromise…when was the last time our church looked at ways of reforming itself in light of scripture? Banners on the twelth are not used as part of religious worship…banners in church are… As for the “mod” isn’t he saying something different to previous moderators and even the reformers? wouldn’t he be better telling us the reasons we need to reform rather than telling us he has no problem with us attending roman Catholic worship? Which is denounced in the westminster confession as blashpemus! Only two elders attended the bible study..the rest sat at home. I too feel that the williamite settlement was compromise and i do not support our goverment whatsoever for religious reasons.Salvation is not dependent upon us and just because a person is a member of a congregation does not mean they are to be saved, A person doesn’t have to be sanctified by grace to be justified by it. We do not have to tell of our sinful lives because our entire lives are sinful except when grace was given to us…and the amount of sin a person does doesn’t affect weather or not they are saved…its not because of merit or a lack of it that we are saved, that would be arminianism not reformed worship but jesuit inspired false doctrine, we cannot work out why we may or may not recieve salvation so what then is the purpose of discussing it? Only the elect are part of the body of Christ…not everyone who calls themselves christian or presbyterian.

    “I can hardly pray when I think on them without cursing. I cannot say, Hallowed by thy name, without adding, Cursed be the name of the Papists, and of all those who blaspheme God! If I say, Thy kingdom come, I add, Cursed be the Popedom, and all kingdoms that are opposed to Thine! If I say, Thy will be done, I add, Cursed be the designs of the Papists, and of all those – may they perish! – who fight against Thee! In this way I pray daily, and with me all the true faithful in Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, I have a good and loving heart for all the world, and my greatest enemies themselves know this well.” —
    Martin Luther

    “There are many who think and complain that I am too fierce and keen against the Papacy. On the contrary, I lament that I am too mild. I wish I could breath thunderclaps against Pope and Popery, and that every word was a thunderbolt!The Kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of mercy, grace, and goodness. The kingdom of the Pope is a kingdom of lies and damnation!” — Martin Luther

    “I don’t think we would want to cause offence or hurt in any way.” — Stafford Carson

    Well it’s nice to know our leaders are following in the tradition of the reformers and aren’t afraid of standing up for scripture…

  15. Interestingly when we place man’s teachings – or pronouncements above G-d we are in danger idolatory. So it must be fair to say that the men, Luther, Calvin and Carson and their pronouncements are just that men and their pronouncements.

    So maybe it would be best to focus on the Scripture and see what G-d’s word says. “Love your neighbnour as yourself” now in seeking how we love our neighbour as ourselves maybe we can look again at respect and Chritian charity. yes opposing what is wrong and heretical is showing love but also respecting other is showing love.

  16. Concerned Clavinist

    Ultonian makes a important point, and it was one to which my attention was drawn when I read your quote from Luther.

    I have to say I hadn’t come across that one before and it disturbed me somewhat. Not the cursed filled prayers and the associated additions to Scripture (although that was worrying too :-), rather it was this sentence, “Nevertheless, I have a good and loving heart for all the world”

    Well, I don’t know about Luther’s heart, but I do know what God says about mine, it is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”.

    It’s why I need a Saviour. It’s why I need grace. And grace mesmerises me.

    Something else interests me too, you say, “We do not have to tell of our sinful lives because our entire lives are sinful except when grace was given to us…and the amount of sin a person does doesn’t affect weather or not they are saved…its not because of merit or a lack of it that we are saved, that would be arminianism.”

    Well, yes, the latter part of that comment might well be Arminianism, (my Ordo Salutis remarks earlier takes care of that point) but to fail to acknowledge our own sin or blasphemy, while at the same time noticing the sin in other’s is, well, I guess we know what it is.

    Really, it’s easy to oppose ‘heresy’, or presumed heresy in others, opposing our own is much more difficult.

    It’s that reformation of the heart bit again, in comparison, kicking out the drum kit and wearing Geneva robes is easy! In fact it’s so easy we can do that bit without Jesus, and that would be a worry.

    Concerned Clavinist, I don’t mean to sound harsh and I’m not setting out to ‘have a go’ at you, it’s just that I’ve been able to learn a little bit about what I’m like and in light of that I’ve no business cursing others.

  17. So we should go hand in hand with the Roman Catholic Church dand turn our backs on God in the interests of “Respect”? Are you going to stand up for God for turn away from him? I recognise my sin but i fail to see why i should have to tell my sins on a blog lol should i not take it to God myself or is this some sort of online confessional? “presumed heresy” i’m sorry but isn’t that what our church teaches about rome? that it includes blasphemus heresy and fables? Have i not pointed out the heresy in our own church in my first post? I think you guys are trying to ignore all that which is wrong in the interests of pleasing men.

    Ultonian has no point whatsoever…its the sort of message i’d expect from the whitewell, he says i’m showing love but i’m not showing the type of love he wants me to show…am i to please God or Ultonian?
    Where have i placed man’s teaching over God? I hold to scripture alone, do you? or do you ignore the bots of scripture that go against your world view? The difference is some men are preaching God’s word and other are simply not…

  18. Sorry CC if you can’t see my point – but then there are none so deaf etc. THe point is and remains maybe Luther was wrong when he made those statements, maybe they are not loving, maybe Stafford was wrong with what he said, but as men – sinners saved by grace – they can be wrong.

    When considering the issues you have raised my personal and firmly reformed view is – the scriptures only should determine our actions, we can be influenced by the views of men but all must be tested in light of the scripture.

    Too frequently for the a variety of reasons we make pronouncements that fit our own views – often sinful views -certainly manmade views and then attribute them to our love for the gospel and for G-d but are we being true to the calling of Christ to “love our neighbour as ourselves”?

    All I am suggesting is that we should show caution and examine ourselves and our motives before we condemn others – the pharisees believed Jes-s shouldn’t have ate or sat with sinners, they certainly cornered the market on legalistic rules but they were painted tombs !

    Legalism has and will continue to strangle the church and personally when anyone pronounces a dogma I tend to treat them with caution – hopefully respectfully treating them with caution but caution all the same!

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