What does “common grace” mean, and is it something I should believe?
Question from a reader:
I have read about common grace, and heard that it is a term invented by John Calvin, and not found in Scripture, and that he used it to slice up the concept of grace, and who God offers grace and who he doesn’t. What does “common grace” mean, and is it something I should believe?
Answer from Randy Alcorn:
I do not see common grace as an invention of John Calvin or any other man. Rather, I see it as a magnificent and beautiful doctrine that flows right off the pages of Scripture and is repeatedly confirmed by daily observation.
In his excellent book Bible Doctrine, Wayne Grudem says, “Common grace is the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation. The word common here means something that is common to all people and is not restricted to believers or to the elect only.”
Any Bible-believing Christian should agree that some people are saved and others aren’t. No matter how you understand the “elect” (whether God elects them, as I believe, or that they somehow “elect” themselves) it is a biblical term, used of people about ten times in the New Testament, and of angels at least once. All “common grace” does is point out that God loves the whole world, and exercises patience and kindness even to those who ultimately reject him. In my opinion, an Arminian (non-Calvinist) could agree with that also, and probably would if he didn’t know John Calvin had used the term. (I’m wide open to another term, by the way; it’s the doctrine that I wouldn’t want to part with.)
Regardless of the reasons for it, if someone doesn’t become saved he doesn’t experience saving grace, correct? But he does experience other aspects of God’s grace, what is here called “common grace.” To me this just shows the depth and breadth of Christ’s love. Common grace is demonstrated in Christ’s words, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45). If not for this, we would have “all grace to believers, no grace to unbelievers,” and this would be impossible, since if no grace was shown to someone in rebellion against Christ, he couldn’t draw his next breath, let alone commit his next sin.
Common grace emphasizes the goodness of God. It exactly reverses the standard logic, e.g. Rabbi Kushner who asked “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” and concluded in his bestselling book that God is either not all-good or not all-powerful. He bailed God out (so he thought), rescuing Him from not being good by concluding God is not all-powerful. This has become the predominant logic. Understanding neither God’s holiness nor the reality and extent of our sin, we fail to realize that the question of why bad things happen to good people is exactly backwards. It’s the wrong question. The real question, which angels likely ask (having seen their angelic brethren permanently evicted from Heaven for their rebellion) is “Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People?” If we understood how God is and how we are, that is exactly the question we would ask.
This is the wonder and awesomeness of the doctrine of common grace. God graciously and kindly brings good to people who deserve the fires of Hell not simply eventually, but right now. (This goes back to the doctrine of human depravity.)
It is characteristic of bad people to not THINK of themselves (i.e. ourselves) as being bad. We imagine we are good (not perfect, but good enough). So we fail to marvel at God’s common grace. When a tsunami happens we ask “Where is a good God?” But when a tsunami doesn’t happen we usually fail to thank Him for restraining from us the devastations of a world in rebellion against God. And certainly we never say “Where is a just God? Why hasn’t He struck me down for my sin today?” Instead, we moan that we can’t find a close parking space on a rainy day.)
Jesus appeals to God’s common grace as a basis for our extending grace to others, even those who hate us (cf. Luke 6:35-36). If not for God’s common grace, i.e. if God brought immediate terrible judgment on unbelievers, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist. Among other things, no one would have an opportunity to come to Christ, since we would be immediately cast into Hell.
Paul said to unbelievers, “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16-17). I find this a very touching statement of God’s grace toward all, and an appeal for all people to realize his love, even in a world under the curse. Satan is taking his toll on this world in bondage to sin, but even though none of us deserve his grace, God extends it to us. This world gives foretastes of both Heaven and Hell. Tragically, it is the closest to Heaven the unbeliever will ever know, and wonderfully, it is the closest to Hell the child of God will ever know.
David says, “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. . . . The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:9, 15-16). God cares for his creation and extends his grace to all, not only people but animals, though they suffer under the curse and will until Christ’s return.
Another thing I appreciate about common grace is its irony. God gives atheists not only food to eat and air to breathe, but the very minds and wills and logic that they use to argue against him. The man who says God cannot be good since he allows suffering doesn’t grasp that God is withholding from him the full extent of suffering he deserves for his evil, and that is the very thing that gives the man the luxury of formulating and leveling his accusations against God.
Common grace, along with the fact that we are created in God’s image, also explains how sinners can still do good. Jesus says, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:33). This explains how human culture has developed much that is good alongside the evil. I love John 1:9, that Jesus came as the light that “enlightens every man.” I think this reflects that fact that all people in history have benefited from the coming of Christ, even those who reject him. The model of Christ, his grace and truth, his elevation of women and conciliatory words created a reference point for bringing freedom and civil rights to many societies. As far as we still have to go, the progress in affirming the rights of women and racial minorities in our own culture is due not to the current beliefs of moral relativism, but to the teaching and model of Christ which sowed the seeds for later reversal of the injustice (including slavery, women unable to vote, etc.) that still hung over this country when it was founded.
As for distinguishing between common grace and saving grace, don’t we agree that not all people will be saved and go to Heaven (even if we disagree on the meaning of election), yet all people are nonetheless recipients of many of God’s kindnesses and provisions and acts of grace? Personally, I think John Wesley could have coined the phrase “common grace” as easily as John Calvin (though of course he would have attached different nuances to it). To me it is a wonderful doctrine, true to Scripture and true to the world we see around us.
If someone prefers to call it something besides “common grace,” that’s fine (though I like the term), but whatever we call it I think it’s biblical and significant, and it causes me to praise God for the breadth of His grace.
For more information on this subject, see Randy Alcorn's book The Grace and Truth Paradox.