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.
This is the final in our four-part installment discussing Common Grace. I wanted to close by acknowledging that there are some concerns and objections which are voiced in relation to this doctrine.
Grace is Redemptive
Some object to the idea of common grace on the basis of grace being a redemptive category. This takes two forms. First, the blessings that are pointed to as common grace are blessings which Adam and Eve enjoyed prior to the Fall. For example, Adam and Eve enjoyed marriage prior to the Fall, and presumably would have enjoyed sexual intimacy with each other had the Fall not occurred. Thus we cannot call it grace because grace is God’s act toward sinners, specifically oriented toward redemption. The other form is similar in that we cannot call blessings toward the reprobate to be grace, because they cannot be redemptive actions. While it isn’t quite so easy to avoid these by simply calling the idea something else (Unmerited Blessings, or something similar), simply understanding that not all gracious actions are redemptive does the trick. This is a definitional problem, not a substantive one.
Common Grace Condemns
The more substantive objection is that God’s blessings, shown to the reprobate, ultimately serve to further their own condemnation. When someone is shown the beauty of a sunset, and obstinately refuses to acknowledge that there is a Creator who designed that sunset to redound to his own glory, that blessing later becomes evidence which serves to condemn. Critics of the concept the doctrine of Common Grace point this to say that these are not actually blessings in any way. Their purpose is to bring further judgement, and so to conceptualize them as having any real benefit is misguided. This objection is not definitional in the sense that it does not rely on objecting to terms. Rather, it is an objection based on the idea that God does not, and cannot, show any actual favor to those who he has not elected for salvation. This is sometimes attributed to God’s holy nature, but more often not is rooted in the logical extrapolation that whatever temporary benefit a person may gain from enjoying a good meal, a sunset, or the joy of marriage and family… those temporary benefits simply have no value when compared to the eternal suffering of divine wrath.
Wrapping it Up
Overall, I think the doctrine of Common Grace is a valuable contribution to theology and that it is well established in Scripture by both explicit warrant, and by good and necessary consequence. I think that the definitional objection is easily overcome, but will acknowledge that the substantive has some force. I’ve often said that the discipline of Systematic Theology is largely about learning where to play your mystery card, and I’m satisfied with this being one of those places.