What is Common Grace?

Question
What is Common Grace?
Answer

Common grace refers to that grace of God that all men in common enjoy. It is not, as some say, calling anything that God does as merely common. All God's gifts, whether common or special (saving grace) are glorious.

In common grace, God in his great love pours forth his mercy and goodness in many ways. He pours this love in various ways to all people. God sends forth his rain on the just and unjust the same (Matt. 5:45). Both the elect and non-elect share the sunshine, rainbows, the beauty of a rose, a gentle flowing stream, and the beauty of a simple and yet complex sunset.

Evil is not as bad and widespread as it could be. Even Hitler was not all he could be to the glory of Satan alone. Various types of evil are restrained in different ways, by many means (secular governments, laws, law enforcement, balances of power, et. al.). We live in a world of wickedness, but it is not as wicked as it could be. God in his common grace restrains much of it.

Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968, pp. 432-446) states:

The origin of the doctrine of common grace was occasioned by the fact that there is in the world, alongside of the course of the Christian life with all its blessings, a natural course of life, which is not redemptive and yet exhibits many traces of the true, the good, and the beautiful. The question arose, How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles? How we can we account for it that sinful man still retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior? What explanation can be given for the special gifts and talents that with which the natural man is endowed, and of the development of science and art by those who are entirely devoid of the new life that is in Christ Jesus? How can we explain the religious aspirations of men everywhere, even of those who did not come in touch with the Christian religion? How can the unregenerate still speak truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives?

Charles Hodge in his Systematic (vol. 2, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997, pp 654-675) states:

That there is a divine influence of the Spirit granted to all men, is plain both from Scripture and from experience To the general influence of the Spirit (or to common grace) we owe: 1. All the decorum, order, refinement, and virtue existing among men 2. To the same divine agent is due specially that general fear of God, and the religious feeling which prevail among men, 3. The Scriptures refer to this general influence of the Spirit those religious experiences, varied in character and degree, which so often occur where genuine conversion, or regeneration does not attend or follow.

Francis Turretin also addresses this topic under the heading concerning providence (Institutes of Elenctic Theology). He says:

. . . we believe that all things without exception are under divine providence: whether heavenly or sublunary, great or small, necessary and natural or free and contingent. Thus nothing in the nature of things can be granted or happen which does not depend on it. The reasons are: (1) God created all things, therefore He also takes care of all things. For if it was glorious for God to create them, it ought not to be unbecoming in Him to take care of them. Nay, as He created, He is bound to conserve and govern them continually, since He never deserts His own work, but ought to be perpetually present with it that it may not sink back into nothingness.

John Knox in "On Predestination" (p. 87), said:

After these common mercies, I say, whereof the reprobate are often partakers, he openeth the treasure of his rich mercies, which are kept in Christ Jesus for his Elect. Such as willingly delight not in blindness may clearly see that the Holy Ghost maketh a plain difference betwixt the graces and mercies which are common to all, and that sovereign mercy which is immutably reserved to the chosen children.

Robert Harris, a Westminster Divine, said:

There are graces of two sorts. First, common graces, which even reprobates may have. Secondly, peculiar, such as accompany salvation, as the Apostle has it, proper to Gods own children only. The matter is not whether we have the first sort of graces, for those do not seal up Gods special love to a man's soul, but it must be saving grace alone that can do this for us.

I saved some quotes by John Calvin because of the false assertion of some (often called Hyper-Calvinists) that he was against such a doctrine. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In his Institutes, Calvin states:

Paul, accordingly, after reminding the Athenians that they "might feel after God and find him, immediately adds, that he is not far from every one of us," (Acts 17:27); every man having within himself undoubted evidence of the heavenly grace by which he lives, and moves, and has his being. (Book 1, Chapter 5:3).

Read Demosthenes or Cicero, read Plato, Aristotle, or any other of that class: you will, I admit, feel wonderfully allured, pleased, moved, enchanted; but turn from them to the reading of the Sacred Volume, and whether you will or not, it will so affect you, so pierce your heart, so work its way into your very marrow, that, in comparison of the impression so produced, that of orators and philosophers will almost disappear; making it manifest that in the Sacred Volume there is a truth divine, a something which makes it immeasurably superior to all the gifts and graces attainable by man. (Book 1, Chapter 8:1).

The power of the intellect, secondly, with regard to the arts. Particular gifts in this respect conferred on individuals, and attesting the grace of God. (Chapter 2, heading)

In that some excel in acuteness, and some in judgment, while others have greater readiness in learning some peculiar art, God, by this variety commends his favour toward us, lest anyone should presume to arrogate to himself that which flows from His mere liberality. For whence is it that one is more excellent than another, but that in a common nature the grace of God is specially displayed in passing by many and thus proclaiming that it is under obligation to none. (Book 2, Chapter 2:17).

But we ought to consider, that, notwithstanding of the corruption of our nature, there is some room for divine grace, such grace as, without purifying it, may lay it under internal restraint. For did the Lord let every mind loose to wanton in its lusts, doubtless there is not a man who would not show that his nature is capable of all the crimes with which Paul charges it. (Book 2, Chapter 3:3).

Still, the surest and easiest answer to the objection is, that those are not common endowments of nature, but special gifts of God, which he distributes in divers forms, and, in a definite measure, to men otherwise profane. For which reason, we hesitate not, in common language, to say, that one is of a good, another of a vicious nature; though we cease not to hold that both are placed under the universal condition of human depravity. All we mean is that God has conferred on the one a special grace which he has not seen it meet to confer on the other. When he was pleased to set Saul over the kingdom, he made him as it were a new man. (Book 2, Chapter 3:4).

The reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace; but that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition. When he shows himself propitious to them, it is not as if he had truly rescued them from death, and taken them under his protection. He only gives them a manifestation of his present mercy. In the elect alone he implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end. Thus we dispose of the objection, that if God truly displays his grace, it must endure for ever. There is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent. (Book 3, Chapter 2:11).

As by the revolt of the first man, the image of God could be effaced from his mind and soul, so there is nothing strange in His shedding some rays of grace on the reprobate, and afterwards allowing these to be extinguished. (Book 3, Chapter 2:12).

God is undoubtedly ready to pardon whenever the sinner turns. Therefore, he does not will his death, in so far as he wills repentance. But experience shows that this will, for the repentance of those whom he invites to himself, is not such as to make him touch all their hearts. Still, it cannot be said that he acts deceitfully; for though the external word only renders, those who hear it, and do not obey it, inexcusable, it is still truly regarded as an evidence of the grace by which he reconciles men to himself. (Book 3, Chapter 24:15).

For, since the fall of Adam had brought disgrace upon all his posterity, God restores those, whom He separates as His own, so that their condition may be better than that of all other nations. At the same time it must be remarked, that this grace of renewal is effaced in many who have afterwards profaned it. (Commentary on Deuteronomy 32:6).

But prosperity, and the happy issue of events, ought also to be attributed to his grace, in order that he may always receive the praise which he deserves, that of being a merciful Father, and an impartial Judge. About the close of the psalm, he inveighs against those ungodly men who will not acknowledge God's hand, amid such palpable demonstrations of his providence. (Commentary on Psalm 107).

That God indeed favours none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate; for they are renewed after his image and receive the earnest of the Spirit in hope of the future inheritance, and by the same Spirit the Gospel is sealed in their hearts. But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts." (Commentary on Hebrews 6:5).

He is therefore rightly called the Spirit of grace, by whom Christ becomes ours with all his blessings. But to do despite to him, or to treat him with scorn, by whom we are endowed with so many benefits, is an impiety extremely wicked. Hence learn that all who wilfully render useless his grace, by which they had been favoured, act disdainfully towards the Spirit of God. It is therefore no wonder that God so severely visits blasphemies of this kind; it is no wonder that he shows himself inexorable towards those who tread under foot Christ the Mediator, who alone reconciles us to himself; it is no wonder that he closes up the way of salvation against those who spurn the Holy Spirit, the only true guide. (Commentary on Hebrews 10:29).

There are sons of God who do not yet appear so to us, but now do so to God; and there are those who, on account of some arrogated or temporal grace, are called so by us, but are not so to God. (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, p. 66).

Common Grace is a Reformed Doctrine.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).