Common Grace: Curbing wickedness and Causing goodness

The last few weeks my mind has gravitated toward the theme of common grace. This is a doctrine or truth that I have not spent a whole lot of time thinking about, which I have realized is to my loss. Common grace has been identified as  “a non-saving grace that is at work in the broader reaches of human cultural interaction. This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike” (Keller). In this post, I will give you three helpful quotes from three different articles I recently read on the doctrine of common grace.

This first quote comes from a 3-part article series on common grace by Cornelius Van Til.

Both types of grace, special and common, presuppose total depravity. The difference between the two must be indicated by the different effect they accomplish upon the totally depraved. Regeneration, a gift of special grace, Kuyper argues, removes the cancer of sin by taking out its roots. In the place of sin it gives the power of eternal life. “But common grace does nothing of the sort. It keeps down but does not quench. It tames, but does not change the nature. It keeps back and holds in leash, but thus, as soon as the restraint is removed, the evil races forth anew of itself. It trims the wild shoots, but does not heal the root. It leaves the inner impulse of the ego of man to its wickedness, but prevents the full fruition of wickedness. It is a limiting, a restraining, a hindering power, which brakes and brings to a standstill.”

Thus it is the restraint of the destructive force of sin that is said to be the essence of common grace. Now, as sin has affected the whole universe in the course of its historical development, we find, according to Kuyper, that common grace reaches out everywhere. Summing up his discussion on this point, he asserts: “Thus common grace began in the soul of man, by keeping the ‘small sparks’ from dying out. It took its second point of support in the body of man by supporting its physical powers and thus pushing back the coming of death. In addition to this, common grace had to produce a third type of activity, namely, in the world of man . . .”

This next quote comes from an article by Dennis Johnson on the paradox of common grace.

The problem is not that bad things happen to allegedly-good people, but that good things happen to and through people who are dead in sin, adamant in rebellion against their Creator. This is the “paradox of common grace,” described more elegantly by Professor John Murray in his 1942 essay:

. . . If we appreciate the implications of total depravity, then we are faced with 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 **** 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?

If we could dismiss the biblical doctrine of total depravity, we would have no trouble explaining non-Christians’ intellectual breakthroughs, cultural achievements, and even ethical qualities such as integrity, compassion, zeal forjustice, and pursuit of truth. If our Fall into sin through Adam had not tainted every aspect of human personality, it would not be surprising to find a thousand points of light, radiating truth and goodness, among people who have never bowed the knee to King Jesus.

The final quote comes from a helpful short article on common grace by Tim Keller. Keller spells out the implications of common grace for the Christian worldview. He asserts that without a proper understanding of this doctrine Christians will fall prey to many misconceptions.

• For instance, without an understanding of God’s common grace, the world will be a more confusing place. In the movie Amadeus (1984), Salieri is totally confused and bitter that he, a morally good person, has so little talent, while Mozart, a morally despicable person, has obviously been blessed with a rare, God-given musical talent. Salieri perceived this situation as a failure of divine justice; but in fact his problem was a failure to understand the doctrine of common grace. God gives good gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty, and skill graciously, that is, in completely unmerited ways. He casts them across the human race like seed, in order to enrich, brighten, and preserve the world. Far from being unfair, God’s unmerited acts of blessings make life on earth much more bearable than it should be given the pervasive effects of sin on all of his creation.

• Without an understanding of the doctrine of common grace, Christians may think they can live and work self-sufficiently within a “sub-culture” of other believers. We may feel we should only go to Christian doctors, work with Christian lawyers, purchase Christian music, support Christian artists, and so on. Of course, we ought to remember that every non-Christian is operating out of a distorted worldview. But the fact remains that the gifts God has put in the world for believers he has also showered upon non-believers. Mozart was a gift to us, whether he was a believer or not.5 Jesus himself said that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

• Without an understanding of common grace, Christians may feel no need to study the world and other human cultures in order to get to know God. But the fact is that we need to appreciate truth and wisdom wherever we find it and that studying different cultures, languages, artwork, and music expands not only our appreciation of the created world but also the God who made it.

• Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians in morality and wisdom. The differences between believers and nonbelievers are, sadly, often rather hard to discern. One of the reasons, of course, is the common stain of sin. The other reason is the gift of common grace.

• Common grace is therefore a thread that binds us together in our common humanity, as well as a powerful tool in evangelism. If the glory of God is indeed in all the earth as Scripture testifies, the mission of the people of God is to “name the glory”; to name the unknown-known god (Acts 17:23); to speak of the glory that has come down in the person and work of Jesus Christ.


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