I have been asked to engage a brief, four-part series on the subject of Common Grace. This concept, which is present in every Christian tradition to lesser or greater degrees, is especially prominent in Reformed theology.
To start, let’s explore the biblical passages that play into our topic.
Genesis 3 and 9
Some may think that it is strange to look at the Fall, and the conclusion of a period of nearly universal judgement, to gain an understanding of grace. However, these are two areas where the federal nature of God’s interactions with humanity are at their clearest.
After the fall there are two primary ways that God’s common grace is revealed. First, although the ultimate end of the punishment is death, and a sentence that all humans will eventually serve… this sentence is delayed. God grants all humans time to live and exist on the earth, enjoying various aspects of his common grace (which we will return to later).
In [God’s pronouncement of judgement] lies the origin and guarantee of continued existence, the expansion and development, the struggle and victory of humankind as a whole.
– Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:216
God had every right to simply destroy Adam and Eve, and with them humanity as a whole. However, rather than execute that right he instead pronounced a judgment which contained within it the promise that Adam and Eve would not immediately be destroyed. (See Genesis 3:14ff)
We see a similar dynamic in the flood account, culminating with the promise not to destroy the earth with a flood. Beyond simply making a covenant with Noah, God makes a covenant with Noah, his offspring, the animals, and the very earth itself. (See Genesis 9:1-17) Having once destroyed the world in near entirety with a flood, he promises never again to do so. This means that when the rain comes, we no longer have to look at it with utter fear, because there will always be an end to it.
Romans 1 and 2
Again, a passage which seems at first to be condemnatory shows us something of God’s common grace.
In Romans 1 and 2, the argument is made by Paul that everyone knows fundamentally right from wrong. It is this innate knowledge of God’s law that establishes a reality where no one is free from accountability to God’s moral standard. However, people ignore this law which is written on their hearts, and eventually turns them over to their own desires.
However, the fact that he turns them over after a time entails the idea that until that point he restrains them from their self-destruction. The unbeliever is not as evil as they could be. The unbeliever does not destroy themselves at every turn. Instead we live in a world where, despite their evil inclinations, not everyone is a rapist and a murderer. Despite their self-destructive and deceptive tendencies, there is still an innate valuation of truth and justice. It is evidence of God’s common grace toward all humanity that he does not immediately allow the non-believer to destroy themselves, even if he eventually grants them their evil desires.
There are many things necessary for life. Food, water, shelter, just to name a few. Related back to the judgement promise upon Adam that the ground would now produce thorns in addition to food, there is a blessing given to all humanity which generally includes these basic needs. The ground does discriminate between a Christian farmer and a Non-Christian farmer. It produces both thorns and food for each.
This is the principle that Christ is affirming when he states
He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Contrary to our modern notions, rain is not seen here as judgement. Rain, a relatively rare commodity in Israel, is a source of life. It brings water to sustain our bodies, and moisture to cultivate crops. God provides this blessing indiscriminately, as is the case with many of the rest of God’s blessings.
Finally, beyond simply providing for sustenance, God has actually given to his rebellious creatures blessings of enjoyment.
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.
Both a believer and an unbeliever can enjoy the beauty of a sunset, the joy of marriage, and the satisfaction of a good meal. Hard work and the accomplishments that come with it, although fleeting, are available to all.
God, beyond all expectations or obligation, has given it to man to work hard and find enjoyment in that work. If that is not common grace, I’m not sure what is.