Common grace, as an expression of the goodness of God, is every favor, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God; this includes the delay of wrath, the mitigation of our sin-natures, natural events that lead to prosperity, and all gifts that human use and enjoy naturally.
While humanity is totally depraved and deserving of God’s wrath, God mercifully postpones his destroying wrath and graciously blesses all men, even apart from salvation. This is called God’s common grace. Common grace includes all undeserved blessings that natural man receives from the hand of God: rain, sun, prosperity, health, happiness, natural capacities and gifts, sin being restrained from complete dominion, etc. The doctrine of common grace explains how a man can be totally depraved and yet still commit acts that are, in some sense, “good.” This common grace, however, falls short of salvific grace; all humans still need the saving work of the Spirit to reconcile them to God.
We should acknowledge from the outset that the adjective “common” does not appear in the Bible as a modifier of the noun “grace.” But we are justified in making use of it in view of how God’s dealings with non-Christian people is portrayed for us in Scripture. Our task will be to determine in what sense, if any at all, the grace of God is given to or is operative in the lives of those who persist throughout life in unbelief and rebellion against God. (For a discussion of common “goodness” or “love” vs. common “grace,” see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 429–30.)
There can be no escaping the fact that the biblical portrait of humanity’s condition apart from God’s saving grace is beyond bleak; it is hopeless. The apostle Paul draws upon several OT texts to describe the plight of the human race apart from Christ:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Rom. 3:10–12).
Theologians refer to this as the truth of total depravity. The latter term does not mean that every person is as bad as he/she could possibly be. It simply means that moral depravity and willful spiritual darkness pervade and touch the totality of their being: mind, heart, soul, spirit, body, affections, and will. Some who misunderstand what is meant by “total depravity” find it difficult to embrace for the simple reason that it conflicts with what they see in the world and what they experience in their relationships with other people. There are quite a few extremely evil people in society. However, most of us have close friends and relatives who are not Christians but who are, what we would feel justified in calling, “good” people. They are honest, civil, generous, loving, and show little if any sign of being “totally depraved.” We enjoy their presence and would vouch for their character.
It is this tension that leads John Murray to ask a series of very insistent questions:
How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator? (“Common Grace,” in the Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93)
The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction the Bible draws between what we refer to as God’s special or saving grace, on the one hand, and his common, non-saving grace, on the other. God’s goodness extends to all of his creation, both material and human. But that goodness does not always have as its intended goal the redemption or salvation of those on whom it is showered. We here speak, then, of God’s “common” grace, a grace or expression of divine goodness and favor that is universal, hence common. All mankind are the recipients of this outpouring of God’s grace, but not all experience it in the same degree or in the same manner. Our use of the term “common,” as Gregg Allison points out, “does not mean ‘in the same measure for all’ but ‘universal,’ extended to everyone. Neither does it mean ‘mundane,’ though common grace is often taken for granted and detached from its source, who is God. It is anything but dull and ordinary, as seen in bountiful fields, medical advancements, artistic genius, loving families, global initiatives against human trafficking, and much more” (50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith: A Guide to Understanding and Teaching Theology, 206).
Consider, for example, the common grace of God as seen in Genesis 39:5 where God is said to have “blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake.” At Lystra, Paul declares that God “did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). Jesus himself said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). The Father is described as being “kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35; see also Luke 16:25).
Defining Common Grace
Charles Hodge, 19th century Reformed theologian, believed 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 … This is what in theology is called common grace (see Systematic Theology, II:667).
Abraham Kuyper defines common grace as
that act of God by which negatively He curbs the operations of Satan, death, and sin, and by which positively He creates an intermediate state for this cosmos, as well as for our human race, which is and continues to be deeply and radically sinful, but in which sin cannot work out its end (see Principles of Sacred Theology, 279).
A somewhat shorter and more helpful definition of common grace is given by Murray. Common grace, he writes, “is every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God” (“Common Grace,” II:96). We are now ready to identify the varied manifestations of common grace in our world.
Common Grace and the Restraint of Sin
The goodness of God as seen in common grace is first found in the way it exerts a restraining influence on the expression of human depravity or sin. This preventative operation of God’s goodness is not comprehensive, or no sin at all would ever exist. Neither is it uniform, for if it were all men and women would be equally evil or equally good. What we mean, then, is that the manifestation and effects of man’s moral depravity is not permitted to reach the maximum of which it is capable. The simple empirical fact is that if this were not the case, life on earth would be virtually impossible. There are several areas where the notion of common grace as restraint is operative. John Murray again explains God’s restraint on the personal sins of individual men and women:
God places restraint upon the workings of human depravity and thus prevents the unholy affections and principles of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them. He prevents depravity from bursting forth in all its vehemence and violence (“Common Grace,” II:98).
The “mark” that God placed on Cain, “lest any who found him should attack him” (Gen. 4:15) is one example. God told Abimelech, king of Gerar, that “it was I who kept you from sinning” when the king considered having sexual relations with Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Gen. 20:6; see also 2 Kgs. 19:27–28). The apostle Paul refers to the one “who now restrains” the revelation of the lawless one (2 Thess. 2:7). In each of these cases, God (most likely the Holy Spirit) exerts a preventative influence on what would otherwise be acts of evil.
Thus, one of the purposes of the Spirit’s activity in our world is to impede or inhibit or curb the outward expression of the inward propensities of the sinful heart. Were he not to do so, were he completely to lift or withdraw or suspend this particular activity, our society would eventually be uninhabitable. The wickedness of mankind would engulf the world and bring it to the verge of utter chaos and corruption.
This work of the Spirit in restraining human sin is called “grace” because no one deserves it. That God inhibits their sin is an expression of mercy to those who deserve judgment. It is called “common” because it is universal. Both saved and unsaved, regenerate and unregenerate, are the recipients of this divine favor. It is not restricted to any one group of people and it does not necessarily lead to salvation.
Common Grace and the Delay of Judgment
Another expression of common grace is God’s merciful determination to suspend the immediate manifestation of his wrath and judgment warranted by human sin. Paul puts this truth in the form of a question in Romans 2:4: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (cf. Gen. 6:3; Acts 17:30; 1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 3:9)? In similar fashion, God exerts a restraining influence on the destructive tendencies in the natural creation.
What this means is that in addition to placing restraint upon the ungodly tendencies of the human heart, God freely suspends the immediate manifestation of his holy wrath that is warranted by sin. God’s goodness or kindness in common grace means that he not only restrains the sin of man but also the ready execution of the full measure of judgment which sin demands.
Common Grace and the Natural Creation
In goodness and as an expression of his kindness toward the material creation, God also holds in check the destructive tendencies that are part of the curse of sin upon nature. John Murray elaborates:
Sin introduces disintegration and disorganization in every realm. While it is true that only in the sphere of rationality does sin have meaning – it originates in mind, it develops in mind, it resides in mind – yet sin works out disastrous effects outside the sphere of the rational and moral as well as within it. God places restraint upon these effects, he prevents the full development of this disintegration. He brings to bear upon this world in all its spheres correcting and preserving influences so that the ravages of sin might not be allowed to work out the full measure of their destructive power (“Common Grace,” II:101).
Paul speaks of this in Romans 8 where he describes the creation waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). The material creation, what we refer to as nature, “was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20–21). Peter describes the day when “the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:11). This judgment is temporarily suspended until such time as God will create a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). One explanation for why this sin-cursed earth is not instantly destroyed is God’s common grace in restraining, until the appointed time, his final and inevitable judgment.
Common Grace and the Blessings Earth Receives
Another aspect of common grace is more positive in thrust. God not only restrains the sinful operations and effects of the human heart, he also bestows upon both nature and humanity manifold blessings both physical and spiritual. These blessings, however, fall short of redemption itself. We read in several places where the grace of God results in blessings on the material world:
You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy (Ps. 65:9–13; see also Pss. 104:10-30; 145:1–16; and 136:25).
Common Grace, the Gifts God Gives to Men, and the “Good” They Perform
Murray is again helpful in bringing our attention to the way in which God endows men and women with gifts, talents, and opportunities they don’t deserve. He grants them,
gifts, talents, and aptitudes; he stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilization of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions. We may regard these interests, pursuits and institutions as exercising both an expulsive and impulsive influence. Occupying the energy, activity and time of men they prevent the indulgence of less noble and ignoble pursuits and they exercise an ameliorating, moralizing, stabilizing and civilizing influence upon the social organism (“Common Grace,” II:102–03).
We read about this expression of common grace in Genesis 39:5, Acts 14:16–17, Matthew 5:44–45, Luke 6:35–36, and 16:25. This is why we may speak of people who are totally depraved doing deeds and supplying services that are deemed “good” (see 2 Kgs. 10:30; 12:2; Matt. 5:46; Luke 6:33; Rom. 2:14–15). However, Murray reminds us that “the good attributed to unregenerate men is after all only relative good. It is not good in the sense of meeting in motivation, principle and aim the requirements of God’s law and the demands of his holiness” (“Common Grace,” II:107). Therefore, such deeds cannot in any way commend them to the righteous standards and demands of the Father. We must never lose sight of the fact that all such operations of “grace” (so-called because undeserved) are non-saving, being neither in design nor effect such as would produce new life in Christ.
- Gregg R. Allison, 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith: A Guide to Understanding and Teaching Theology, 203-210
- John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, 429-437
- John Murray, “Common Grace,” in the Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93-11
- Wayne Grudem, “Common Grace,” in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine