Common Grace: A Bible Study by Jack Kettler
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
In this study, we will look at the biblical teaching regarding “common grace.” What does this mean? As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, lexical evidence, commentary evidence and confessional support for the purpose to glorify God in how we live. May God be glorified always!
In this study, I have very few comments. This study is an example of how I approach a topic for ongoing biblical research. I learned a long time ago that it is profitable to write down your personal Bible studies. Not only for your own future reference but also to pass them on to those whom are mentoring their friends.
This study will focus on a positive presentation of “common grace.” In fairness, there are learned Christian teachers who deny that there is such a thing as “common grace.”
For example, Herman Hoeksema, a leading Dutch Reformed theologian/pastor and Professor David Engelsma both from the Protestant Reformed Church deny there is such a thing as “common grace.” In fairness to these men of impeccable character, at the end of this study, there is a link to a debate on common grace that reflects their point of view.
“The grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.” “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.” *
“Common Grace is the grace God gives to creation as a whole, to all unbelievers. In this universal non-salvific form of grace, God allows the sun to shine upon both the righteous and the unrighteous. He does not judge unbelievers right away due to the work of Christ on the cross by which people are saved. God endures with them for the sake of those who would believe. Unbelievers can be doctors, engineers, parents, etc., and function within God’s domain and counsel. God shows his goodness to all people when He feeds them, allows them to work, experience beauty, learn and have joy. It is also common grace that “restrains” the wrath of God until a later time.” **
“The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.” (Psalm 145:9)
The Pulpit Commentary on Psalm 145:9 captures the idea of “common grace” when seen that God does not the desire the death of the wicked:
Verse 9. – The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works. “The Lord is good to all;” he “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and send-eth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). He “wouldeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live,” And his “tender mercies,” or “compassions,” are not only over his human creatures, but “over all his works” – all that he has made – animals as well as men, “creeping things,” zoophytes, all that can feel. (1)
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
From Matthew Poole’s Commentary on Matthew 5:45 also picks up on this when seen that God’s gift is given to the just and unjust alike:
As your heavenly Father hath a common love, which he extendeth to all mankind, in supplying their necessities, with the light and warmth of the sun, and with the rain; as well as a special love and favour, which he exerciseth only toward those that are good, and members of Christ; so ought you to have: though you are not obliged to take your enemies into your bosom, yet you ought to love them in their order. And as your heavenly Father, though he will one day have a satisfaction from sinners, for the wrong done to his majesty, unless they repent; yet, to heap coals of fire on their heads, gives them good things of common providence, that he might not leave them without witness, yea, and affords them the outward means of grace for their souls: so, although you are bound to seek some satisfaction for God’s honour and glory from flagitious sinners, and though you may in an orderly course seek a moderate satisfaction for the wrong done to yourselves, yet you ought to love them with a love consistent with these things; that so you may imitate your heavenly Father, and approve yourselves to be his children. (2)
“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13:1-4)
Common Grace from the Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms:
gratia communis: common grace i.e., a non-saving, universal grace according to which God in his goodness bestows his favor upon all creation in the general blessings of physical sustenance and moral influence for the good. Thus, rain falls on the just and the unjust and all men have the law engraved on their hearts. Gratia communis is therefore contrasted by the Reformed with particular or special grace (gratia particularis sive specialis, q.v.). (3)
John Calvin on Common Grace from Psalm 145:9:
“Jehovah is good to all, etc. The truth here stated is of wider application than the former, for the declaration of David is to the effect, that not only does God, with fatherly indulgence and clemency, forgive sin, but is good to all without discrimination, as he makes his sun to rise upon the good and upon the wicked. Forgiveness of sin is a treasure from which the wicked are excluded, but their sin and depravity does not prevent God from showering down his goodness upon them, which they appropriate without being at all sensible of it. Meanwhile believers, and they only, know what it is to enjoy a reconciled God, as elsewhere it is said — “Come ye to him, and be ye enlightened, and your faces shall not be ashamed; taste and see that the Lord is good.”(Psalm 34:5, 8.) When it is added that the mercy of God extends to all his works, this ought not to be considered as contrary to reason, or obscure. Our sins having involved the whole world in the curse of God, there is everywhere an opportunity for the exercise of God’s mercy, even in helping the brute creation.” (4)
John Knox on Common Grace:
“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.” (5)
Louis Berkhof on Common Grace:
“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?” (6)
Charles Hodge on Common Grace:
“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.” (7)
Common Grace from the Dictionary of Theological Terms:
A term use to describe the goodness of God to a sin-cursed world, not including salvation. By His common grace, God places a restraint upon sin and its natural results and upon the immediate execution of wrath against sinners.
It is not merely negative. It includes the bestowal of favour and blessing of a general nature, but not of that special kind which leads to salvation. Thus, Prof. John Murray defined common grace as “Every favour of whatsoever kind and degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” (8)
Chapter 10 of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
Section 4.) Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, (1) and may have some common operations of the Spirit, (2) yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: (3) much less can men, not professing the Christian religion be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess; (4) and, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested. (5)
(1) Mt 22:14. (2) Mt 7:22; Mt 13:20, 21; Heb. 6:4 ,5. (3) John 6:64, 65, 66; John 8:24. (4) Ac 4:12; John 14:6; Eph. 2:12; John 4:22; John 17:3. (5) 2 John 9, 10, 11; 1Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:6, 7, 8
While not using the term “common grace,” the Confession of Faith uses the term, “common operations,” which is virtually synonymous.
Common Grace by James Montgomery Boice:
[How do] millions of men and women respond to the true and even greater benevolence of God? All are recipients of what theologians call “common grace,” the provision of God for all persons; yet they fail to acknowledge it or allow it to accomplish the ends for which God dispenses such benevolence. Romans 2:4 speaks of this: “Do you show contempt for the riches of his [that is, God’s] kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?”
If you are not a follower of Jesus Christ, you are in the same position as Joseph’s brothers at this point in the story (see Genesis 43:15-34). You have sinned against your elder brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, by denying his claims and refusing his proper lordship over your life. He has used means to awaken you to your need and bring you to an open confession of sin. But you have gone only so far as God’s tactics have forced you to go; even though he has been most loving and gracious toward you, you have not acknowledged his hand in these benefits.
I want you to awaken to God’s goodness. I want you to see that all you are and all you have are a result of God’s common grace to you.
Let me explain it from God’s perspective. God does not owe you anything. He does not even owe you a chance at salvation. When Adam and Eve first sinned against him in Eden, God could have judged them harshly and have sent them to hell at once; and if he had done that, He would have been absolutely just in his actions. Adam and Eve would have received nothing more than their proper desserts. If, acting in a different fashion, God had instead allowed them to live and produce offspring until there were literally millions of their descendants spread out over the entire earth to occupy it and pollute it by their abundant acts of idolatry, theft, fornication, hatred, greed, and other forms of sin, and then had brushed them all into eternal torment, God would nevertheless still have been just. No one could fault him. The righteous angels in heaven would still be able to cry out, as they do even today, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3).
God owes us nothing. Yet, as we well know, God did not immediately banish Adam and Eve to hell, nor did he later suddenly consign the masses of mankind to torment. On the contrary, though there is a judgment to come, God has continually poured out his blessings on men and women.
You have received such blessings. Donald Grey Barnhouse writes correctly, “You are not a believer in Christ and yet you are still out of hell. That is the grace of God. You are not in hell, but you are on earth in good health and prosperity. That is the common grace of God. The vast majority of those who read these words are living in comfortable homes or apartments. That is common grace. You are not fleeing as refugees along the highways of a country desolated by war. That is common grace. You come home from your job and your child runs to meet you in good health and spirits. That is common grace. You are able to put your hand in your pocket and give the child a quarter or a half dollar for an allowance. It is common grace that you have such abundance. You go into your house and sit down to a good meal. That is common grace. On the day that you read these words there are more than a billion and a half members of the human race who will go to sleep without enough to satisfy their hunger, The fact that you have enough is common grace. You do not deserve it. And if you think that you do deserve anything at all from God beyond the wrath which you have so richly earned, you merely show your ignorance of spiritual principles.”
Romans 2:4 puts the matter of God’s common grace to you and others as a question: “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience?” The answer is, of course, you do–unless you have repented of your sin and turned back toward God through faith in Jesus Christ. By nature human beings are ungrateful. By nature you show “contempt” for God’s kindness. Yet it is precisely this kindness that God is using to bring you to repentance.
I quote Barnhouse again: “To despise the riches of God’s grace is the blackest of all sins. It far outweighs the sins that are a violation of righteousness. Fallen man has a fallen nature. That is why the Lord seemed to overlook the outbreaks of the flesh, knowing man’s frame and remembering that he is but dust (Psalm 103:14). You who boast, perhaps, that you are not guilty of the great fleshly sins should realize that the despising of God’s goodness is a sin that far transcends an act that might be called a crime under human law.
“Why is God so good toward the lost? He declares that the purpose of the riches of his goodness, forbearance and longsuffering is to lead man to repentance; and he further declares that man does not know the object of God’s goodness. Is this not a further picture of the state of man by nature? Can it not be seen that the dark ignorance of unbelief has brought a further fruit of ignorance of the grace of God? You are in good health? Why does God permit it? The answer is that he wants you to turn to him and acknowledge his goodness and accept the riches that he has for you. You have other blessings that come from the common grace of God. The purpose of such riches is to cause you to turn about-face and come to Him for further blessing.” (Donald Grey Barnhouse, “God’s Wrath,” The Book of the Revelation, vol. 2 Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1953)
God’s Love Commended
I have spoken of “common grace” in the sense that God’s genuine affection has been poured out upon all persons regardless of who they are or what wrongs they may have done. As Jesus said, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Common grace? Yes! But in another sense, it is not at all common. It is most uncommon. It is extraordinary, and it leads us to the most uncommon or extraordinary love of all. We find it in Romans 5:6-8: “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
It is “while we were still sinners” that God has done everything for us. Here is love at its fullest. It is while we were still sinners and, in fact, oblivious both to the extent of our sin and to the uncommon kindness of God toward us in all things that God sent his own son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die for us.
Moreover, God goes to the unheard of length of commending his love to us by this fact. The word commend (KJV; “demonstrate,” NIV) is used in two ways in the New Testament. It sometimes means “to establish, prove or make certain.” In this sense the death of Christ certainly “proves” God’s love for us, the meaning the NIV translators have favored. But “prove” is a cold word. It has the temperature of algebraic axioms and corollaries. It seems remote. The other use of “commend” is “to recommend or set forth in such a manner that the matter appeals to the heart.” This surely is the fullness of the meaning here. The death of Jesus Christ proves the reality and demonstrates the nature of God’s unfathomable love. But more than that, it commends it to us in such a manner that we will repent of our sin–which left unrepented of keeps us from God–and instead leads us to embrace Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior.
Have you done that? If not, notice that the word “commend” (“demonstrate”) is in the present tense (“commends” or “demonstrates”) rather than in the past tense (“commended” or “demonstrated”). That is, it is not merely a past happening that today may be forgotten. It is a present reality, as much a force today as it has ever been. It is today–right now–that God is commending his deep and genuine love to you by Jesus’ death.
Today you and I may look back at Joseph’s brothers and fault them for their ignorance of Joseph’s identity and their slowness to repudiate past sin. But if we try, we can find at least some partial excuses for them. Their sin was long past. There was nothing they could do to change its consequences. As far as their recognition of Joseph was concerned, how could they possibly guess that this powerful Egyptian was the despised brother they had last seen as he was led off as a teenager into slavery?
There are no such excuses for us. We know there is God; the Bible says that only fools deny it (Ps. 14:1). We know that all we are and have come from God’s hand; the Bible says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). When we stop to think about it, we even know that God sent the Lord Jesus Christ to save us by giving his life in our place. But do we acknowledge this? We do not–unless God awakens our consciences and turns us from our manifest ingratitude.
That is what you must allow God to do for you–if you have not turned from sin previously. You must allow him to turn you to faith in your older brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, who has loved and continues to love you perfectly. (9)
Comments in closing:
Anything that God does in revealing His will to man can be called common grace. Revealing anything to man is gracious. Any providential action whereby blessings come to the just and unjust alike is common grace. The opposite of grace would be judgment and wrath. It is a blessing to the unjust that a famine ends, a nation is spared from war, murders and thieves are brought to judgment rather than rape and pillage. That the unjust are not immediately consumed, is God’s grace. Many sinners, rather than experience calamity, produce works of art, contribute to science in which both the just and unjust are blessed.
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Psalms, Vol. 8, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p.371.
2. Matthew Poole, Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), p. 26.
3. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Academic, paperback 1995), p. 130.
4. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary, Psalms, vol. 6, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, reprinted 1979), p. 276.
5. Ed David Laing, The Works of John Knox, (vol. 5, Wodrow Society, Edinburgh, 1856), On Predestination, p. 87.
6. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), p. 432.
7. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), pp 670-671.
8. Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms, (Emerald House Group, Ambassador Productions, LTD), p. 93.
9. James Montgomery Boice, (Quotation from Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. He served as an ordained ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He worked in and retired from a fortune five hundred company in corporate America after forty years. He runs two blogs sites and is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
*** Reformed answers http://reformedanswers.org/
The Myth of Common Grace by Garrett P. Johnson http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=28
Transcription of A Debate on Common Grace 9/12/ 03 distributed by the Evangelism Society of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church Grand Rapids, Michigan