What do Christians mean when we refer to common grace?
It’s been my observation over the past few years that believers are not well-acquainted with this area of theology. This lack of familiarity is unfortunate because the doctrine of common grace can offer significant insight into our Christian experience if rightly understood and applied. I see at least three reasons why Christians should become conversant with the doctrine of common grace (what we could also call God’s common goodness).1
Three Reasons to Become Well-Acquainted with the Doctrine of Common Grace
First, this doctrine helps us account for relative goodness and virtue in unbelievers. Those who have a strong theology of sin and understand the nature of human depravity may have a difficult time making sense of what appears to be good, wholesome, respectable conduct among those who don’t know the Lord Jesus. How can it be that those who reject Christ raise respectable families, generally act with integrity, build ethically responsible businesses, love their wives, and so on? The doctrine of common grace answers these questions directly.
Second, understanding God’s common grace enables the believer to express thankfulness to God as he recognizes the many ways he provides for his creatures. God supplies humankind—believers and unbelievers—with what we need and many things to enjoy through our mutual inter-dependence with one another. The farmer produces the wheat which the baker uses to make bread for families in the town, one of whom owns the shoe store that supplies footwear for the baker. The doctrine of common grace highlights the way God designed the world and how he provides his people. Most often, God supplies the Christian’s needs through the labor and skill of those who reject their Creator.
Third, understanding God’s common grace helps us distinguish between God’s common grace and his saving grace. Here I’m referring to the necessity for Christians to distinguish between the marks of earthly, natural blessing and spiritual, supernatural blessing.
For example, it is not necessarily a sign that one has come under God’s saving grace if they enjoy significant material blessing and physical health (Ps 49:17-19; 73:4; Prov 16:8). You can be without much in terms of earthly goods but spiritually rich (James 2:5), or you could be overflowing with wealth and headed for eternal judgement (Luke 12:16-21). You can experience much physical suffering in this life in anticipation of a weight of unimaginable glory (2 Cor 4:17-18), or you can be healthy and comfortable but bereft of a relationship with God (Ps 73:4-11). The common blessings of health and wealth are no sign that you are the subject of the spiritual blessing of regeneration.
Defining Common Grace
How should we define common grace? Below is a representative sample of how Christian theologians define this aspect of God’s providential governance.
- Wayne Grudem: “Common grace is the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.”2
- John Frame: “Common grace is God’s favor and gifts given to those who will not be finally saved.”3
- John Murray: “[Common grace is] every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys from the hand of God.”4
- John Bolt: “The doctrine of common grace is based on the conviction that prior to, and to a certain extent independent of, the particular sovereignty of divine grace in redemption, there is a universal divine sovereignty in creation and providence, restraining the effects of sin and bestowing general gifts on all people, thus making human society and culture possible even among the unredeemed.”5
- Louis Berkof: “…when we speak of ‘common grace,’ we have in mind, either (a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through his general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or (b) those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to Him.6
Notice that each definition is framed with reference to salvation. Specifically, common grace includes earthly blessings that all people enjoy but that are distinct from the spiritual blessings that only believers enjoy. When we speak of common grace, we are speaking of God’s kindness to all people during their time on earth, regardless of their present status with him. While it is true that believers will experience both common grace and saving grace, those who are apart from Christ will only experience common grace in this life.
Why Common Grace?
Why refer to these blessings as grace? The most basic reason for why it is right to refer to these blessings as grace is because mankind is unworthy of any good thing from their Creator. Because of Adam’s sin and our own rebellion, we are only worthy of earthly misery, death, and, after this life, eternal punishment (Gen 2:16-17; 3:17ff; Rom 6:23). Nevertheless, God provides for and blesses his human creatures with good things despite the fact that they are, due to their rebellion and sin, undeserving of any good thing (Matt 5:44-49). During their time on earth, God is acting in grace toward his creatures by withholding what they do deserve (earthy misery) and giving them what they don’t deserve (a measure of earthly enjoyment).
Categories of Common Grace
How do humans experience common grace? Wayne Grudem helpfully divides our experience of common grace into two categories: the physical realm and the intellectual realm.7
(1) In the physical realm
Along with providing their needs, God often blesses those who reject him with material prosperity. For example, God blessed Potipher’s household for Jospeh’s sake, granting him prosperity in both his home and his livelihood (Gen 39:5). The Psalmist rejoices when he observes God’s goodness to all people, as he “satisf[ies] the desire of every living thing” (Ps 149:16). In the New Testament we are reminded that God gives rain and food and a measure earthly happiness to all people, whether they love him or are presently his enemies (Matt 5:44-45; Acts 14:16-17).
(2) In the Intellectual Realm
Because he is made in the image of God and a recipient of God’s revelation in creation (Rom 1:20), unredeemed mankind is able to acquire some knowledge of what is true and good and can, therefore, implement laws and governing policies that protect the innocent, uphold justice, and promote the general welfare of society.
Furthermore, God endows his creatures with intellectual gifts for the benefit of the greater society. Even those who reject their Creator still retain the capacity to create and enjoy the blessings of excellent literature, medical technology, and much more. Each of these blessings are granted to God’s creatures through the exercise of intellectual gifts. Grudem again comments:
This common grace in the intellectual realm also results in an ability to grasp truth and distinguish it from error, and to experience growth in knowledge that can be used in the investigation of the universe and in the task of subduing the earth. This means that all science and technology carried out by non-Christians is a result of common grace, allowing them to make incredible discoveries and inventions, to develop the earth’s resources into many material goods, to produce and distribute those resources, and to have skill in their productive work”8
Grudem’s definition is helpful here, but it is not precise enough to say that “all science and technology carried out by non-Christian is a result of common grace.” We must first define what we mean by the word “science,” and establish some ethical criteria to determine the goodness of such technology. I think it is better to refer to “true science” and “legitimate and beneficial” technology when discussing common grace.
Concerning how Christians should think of the work of “secular writers,” John Calvin helpfully comments,
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shinning 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…Those men who Scripture calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature after it was despoiled of its true good”9
Calvin’s point is that due to God’s kindness to the whole human race, fallen humankind is still able to exercise gifts for the common good, despite our perversion and sinfulness. According to Calvin, such realities should cause the believer to thank God for his grace toward his rebellious image-bearers.
John Frame offers a few more categories that fit within and overlap with Grudem’s two-fold designation:
- God restrains sin (Gen 4:15; 11:6; 20:6; 2 Kings 27:28; 2 Thess 2:7).
- God restrains his wrath (Matt 19:8; Acts 17:30; Rom 3:25).
- God gives temporal blessings to all (Matt 5:45; Ps 65:5-13; 104; 136:25).
- Unregenerate people do good (2 Kings 10:29-31; Luke 6:33).
- Unregenerate people know truth (Rom 1:20; Matt 23:3-4).
- Unregenerate people experience the blessings of the Holy Spirit (Num 22:1-24:25; 1 Sam 10:9-11; Matt 10:5-8).10
Common Grace: A Theater for Redemptive Grace
Importantly, common grace also provides the sphere for special grace. John Murray explains:
Without common grace special grace would not be possible because special grace would have no material out of which to erect its structure. It is common grace that provides not only the sphere in which, but also the material out of which, the building fitly framed together may grow up into a holy temple in the Lord. It is the human race preserved by God, endowed with various gifts by God, in a world upheld and enriched by God, subsisting through the means of various pursuits and fields of labour, that provides the subjects for redemptive and regenerative grace.11
Common grace, therefore, is prior to and provides the grounds for special grace. Without a realm in which human creatures can live, engage with one another, and experience God’s kindness through his regular providence against the backdrop of a fallen and cursed earth, we have no theatre in which special grace can perform its glorious work.
Good Works and the Unbeliever
As I noted above, an important component of this discussion and one with which Christians often struggle is how to account for the “good works” that unbelievers perform. If bereft of the Holy Spirit and presently in rebellion against their Creator, can we even speak of unbelievers doing “good?” It may surprise you that this question was addressed with careful theological nuance over 400 years ago. Consider the Westminster Confession of Faith‘s response to this inquiry:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.12
From one perspective, then, an unbeliever can perform a multitude of works that benefit others and that conform, at least externally, to God’s word. John Frame offers helpful insight at this point when he speaks of “The Virtuous Pagan” in the context good works. According to Frame (following the WFC), a work is genuinely good if it meets these three criteria:
A righteous deed is one that (1) obeys the proper standard, God’s law (James 4:11; 1 John 3:4); (2) seeks the proper goal, God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31) and the success of his kingdom (Matt 6:33), and (3) is motivated by true faith (Rom 14:23) and love (1 Cor 13:1-3).13
In light of his definition of what constitutes a good work, we can say, along with Frame, that it is possible for an unbeliever to do an act that “is good for society, at least at a surface level,” without that act fulfilling three-fold criteria of a good work. Specifically,
Some people contribute much to the well-being of society—by helping the poor, by becoming great artists, musicians, authors, and public servants, and in other ways—without a heart to serve God. This is often called civic righteousness in the theological literature.14
It is important, therefore, to make a distinction between a work that conforms to the external requirement of God’s law but fail to fulfill its internal requirement, and works that do conform to the law’s external and internal requirements. We can speak of “good” done by an unbeliever because we are judging the goodness of the action considered from the perspective external assessment not the heart (attitude, motive) from which the action originated.
While this blog post can only touch on the basics of this doctrine and consider a few of its implications, I hope it has helped you the importance of rightly understanding God’s common grace. In the end, the doctrine of common grace should provoke thankfulness to our good Creator and Savior, and stand in awe of his mercy, as he sends rain on the just and the unjust.
1 John Frame, Systematic Theology, “To my knowledge, Scripture never uses hen or charis to refer to his blessings on creation generally or on nonelect humanity. So it would perhaps be better to speak of God’s common goodness, or common love, rather than his common grace” (246).
2 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 657.
3 Frame, Systematic Theology, 68n16.
4 John Murray, “Common Grace,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:96; cited in Frame, Systematic Theology, 247.
5 See Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:17.
6See Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, 436. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 658ff.
7 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 658ff.
8 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 659.
9 John Calvin, Institutes, II.2.15.
10 See Frame, Systematic Theology: 247-48.
11 Murray, “Common Grace,” 113.
13 Frame, Systematic Theology, 848-49.