Common Grace refers to the grace of God that is common to all humankind. It is "common" because its benefits are experienced by the whole human race without distinction between one person and another, believers or unbelievers. It is "grace" because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God. In this sense, it is distinguished from the Calvinistic understanding of "special" or "saving" grace, which extends only to those whom God has chosen to redeem.

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Aspects of common grace

In the words of Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof, “[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.”^[1]^ The various aspects of God's common grace to all mankind may be generally gathered under three heads:

Providential care in creation

God’s sustaining care for his creation, called divine providence, is grace common to all. The Bible says, for instance, that God through the Son "upholds the universe by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:2-3; John 1:1-4). God's gracious provision for his creatures is seen in the giving of the seasons, of seedtime and harvest. It is of this providential common grace that Jesus reminds his hearers when he said God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). We also see evidence of God’s common grace in the establishment of various structures within human society. At a foundational level, God has ordained the family unit. Even pagan parents typically know that they should nurture their children (Matt. 7:9-10) and raise them to become responsible adults.

Providential restraint of sin

In the Bible, Paul teaches that civil authorities have been "instituted by God" (Rom. 13:1) to maintain order and punish wrong-doing. Although fallible instruments of his common grace, civil governments are called "ministers of God" (Rom. 13:6) that should not be feared by those who do good. God also sovereignly works through circumstances to limit a persons sinful behavior (Gen. 20:6, 1 Sam. 25:26).

In man's conscience

The apostle Paul says that when unbelieving Gentiles "who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, . . . They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (Rom. 2:14-15, ESV). By God's common grace fallen mankind retains a conscience indicating the differences between right and wrong. This may be based on the fact that human beings, though fallen in sin, retain a semblance of the "image of God" with which they were originally created (Gen. 9:6: 1 Cor. 11:7).

In summary, common grace is seen in God's continuing care for his creation, his restraining human society from becoming altogether intolerable and ungovernable, his making it possible for mankind to live together in a generally orderly and cooperative manner, and maintaining man's conscious sense of basic right and wrong behavior.

Contrasted with special grace

Special grace, in Reformed theology, is the grace by which God redeems, sanctifies, and glorifies his people. Unlike common grace, which is universally given, special grace is bestowed only on those whom God elects to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. This special grace is often linked with the Five points of Calvinism as Irresistible grace or Efficacious grace.

Theological Issues

Within Calvinism

The specifics of the Reformed doctrine of common grace have been somewhat controversial and at times bitterly contested by some Calvinists. Especially in the Dutch tradition, it has been the cause of divisions. For example, in a 1924 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the CRC adopted what became known as the "Three Points of Common Grace."^[2]^ Certain ministers within the CRC refused to subscribe to those "Three Points," and they (with the majority of their consistories) were either suspended or deposed from office. Thus began the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. These ministers, and others after them, wrote responses to the decision that was taken and ever since, the Protestant Reformed Churches have maintained that these "Three Points" were contrary to Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.^[3]^

Between Calvinism and Arminianism

Both Calvinists and Arminians generally accept the concept of common grace in the sense of undeserved blessings which God may extend to all mankind. However, the Arminian sees this common grace including what has been termed "common sufficient grace" or the Wesleyan "universal prevenient grace" whereby the effects of the fall are offset such that all persons now have free will and the moral ability to understand spiritual things and turn to God in Christ for salvation. The Calvinist maintains that God's common grace does not improve man's depraved unregenerate nature, is exclusive of changing a person's heart, and separate from his salvific purposes.

Quotes

  • "The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good." - Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology
  • "The word 'common' in the title of the topic is not used in the sense that each particular favour is given to all without discrimination or distinction but rather in the sense that favours of varying kinds and degrees are bestowed upon this sin-cursed world, favours real in their character as expressions of the divine goodness but which are not in themselves and of themselves saving in their nature and effect. So the term 'common grace' should rather be defined as every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God." - John Murray, Common Grace
  • "There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell-fire, if it were not for God's restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell: there are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are the beginnings of hell-fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments in them as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in Scripture compared to the troubled sea, Isaiah 57:20. For the present God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;’ but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is a thing that is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God's restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so, if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone." - Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

Notes

  1. ? Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 434, summarizing Calvin’s position on common grace.
  2. ? The Three Points of Common Grace adopted by the CRC in 1924.
  3. ? Grace Uncommon by Rev. Barry Gritters at PRCA.org.

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