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.
Today we will look at some of the institutions that God has given to all humanity as a blessing. These institutions serve a variety of purposes, but they serve the same purpose for all people regardless of their status as Christians or non-Christians. There are three broad categories, each with related sub-categories.
Marriage and Family
God instituted marriage as a blessing for all people. We see this throughout the Bible that marriages are recognized regardless of the relationship of God that a given person has. While marriage serves several purposes, here are a few of the biggest.
- Restraining Sin – Marriage has the effect of restraining several sinful acts. Beyond the obvious sin of fornication, marriage tends to drive a person to live less selfishly, to grow in maturity and responsibility. Although without the regenerative act of the Holy Spirit, a person’s motivations can never be fully free of sin, marriage even seems to change a person’s internal motivations. A man is more likely to avoid lusting after women who are not his wife, he is more likely to put others first, and is more likely to act in a responsible way.
- Reflecting Christ – Marriage between a man and a woman is also a reflection of Christ. One of the common grace blessings we will see below is the proclamation of the Gospel. However, in its own way, marriage itself is a proclamation of the Gospel. A married man and woman are a living parable of the Gospel and as such are constantly having the Gospel preached to them.
The existence of a family is a blessing that nearly all people have. The first punishment God handed out after the curses of the fall was the exile of Cain. This common grace blessing was removed from him, at least in part. There are few people on earth who are more pitied than orphans with no family connections, and being disowned and disinherited is much more than a financial loss. As it is so closely related to marriage, family serves many of the same purposes, albeit in slightly differing ways.
Government and Society
The government is an institution put in place by God. Even the most evil and corrupt governments are generally more stable than utter anarchy. The government serves one primary purpose, and that is to restrain and punish sin. God has given rulers (whom Paul calls ministers of God) the power of the sword. While this is probably a direct reference to execution, it extends to all forms of penalty that the government applies. That is not to say that Governments cannot act in inappropriate ways concerning this power, but it is nevertheless a power that they indeed hold.
As I said above, government is better than anarchy. This is true even of informal government. While it is not a government per se, when groups of people gather and share common commitments to each other a society is formed. These societies, even when not under the jurisdiction of a formal government, also have the effect of restraining sin. The primary difference between a society and a government, at least as far as our conversation is concerned, is the power of the sword. In order to execute the power of the sword, a society would have to appoint someone to do so and as soon as that happens you have a government. However, there are certain de facto penalties that often come with disobedience to a shared commitment in a society. Most common is exclusion from the society and a removal of the benefits of membership therein.
Church and Gospel
The Church is a special institution which God has placed on earth. It is the locus of God’s ongoing activity and redemptive work on earth. While membership in the Church is not a common grace blessing, the presence of the Church itself is. The Church as a societal force has radically shaped the morals and ethics of the entire world, and often stands as a bastion against sinful behaviors. It thus has the same effect, in a different way, as the Government in the restraint of sin. The very presence of a Christian, who is a representative of the Church in everything he or she does, will often change the outward behavior of those he influences. This happens both explicitly as he or she acts morally and outwardly stands for moral behavior. But it also happens implicitly. I often find that non-Christians are apologetic for sinful language and seem uncomfortable engaging in sinful behaviors when I am around. This, I think, is largely due to the unique presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of a believer, and that unique presence affects and influences people around the Christian.
Now, some would disagree with me on this, and that’s okay. But the proclamation of the Gospel is a common grace blessing to those who hear it. Hearing of what God has done for sinful people is a gift unlike any other. It is the outward call to forgiveness and salvation, and even though the inward call of the Holy Spirit is required for obedience to the Gospel command, it is common grace to even be given that command. Disobedience of course results in condemnation, and rightfully so. However, the fact that even the reprobate are given the chance to hear and obey is a grace that God extends to all, indiscriminately. After reading that, you’re probably thinking “This guy thinks he is Reformed?!?” It’s a longer discussion than we can have today, but people do not reject the Gospel because they are unable to accept it. They reject the Gospel because they hate God and do not want to accept it. I would point you to episode 110 of the Reformed Pubcast for a discussion I had with the hosts regarding Free Will, particularly the distinction between Freedom from Necessity (which no one has) and Freedom from Compulsion (which defines what it means to be a free agent).