Common grace is one of my very favorite doctrines. I so love it and wish it were better understood and more often celebrated.
“Common grace” points out that God loves the whole world, and exercises patience and kindness even to those who ultimately reject Him. 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.”
This magnificent and beautiful doctrine flows right off the pages of Scripture and is repeatedly confirmed by daily observation. It 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” (Matthew 5:44-45).
We Ask the Wrong Question
Common grace emphasizes the goodness of God. It exactly reverses the standard logic most people use. For example, Rabbi Kushner 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.
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 who 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. It is characteristic of bad people to not think of themselves 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 (Luke 6:35-36). If not for God’s common grace—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.
He Is Good to All
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” (Psalm 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 also 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.
Let’s Praise God for the Breadth of His Grace
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 means human culture has developed much that is good alongside the evil.
I love John 1:9, which says 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.
To me common grace is a wonderful doctrine, true to Scripture and true to the world we see around us. If someone prefers to call it something different, that’s fine (though I like the term), but whatever we call it, it’s biblical and significant, and it causes me to praise God for the breadth of His grace.