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.