The subject of common grace is not only of particular but also of very urgent interest to the person who accepts the witness of Scripture regarding the total depravity of human nature by reason of sin. For if we appreciate the implications of total depravity, then we are faced with a series of very insistent questions. How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilisation? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?
Elementary acquaintance with the history and literature of this world will convince us that even the heathen have their noble examples of what, to human norms of judgment at least, may be called courage, heroism, honesty, justice, fidelity, and even mercy. Common grace concerns itself with the reason and meaning of this “rich stream of natural life” which existed before Christianity made its appearance and even now continues to flow “underneath and side by side with the Christian religion”.1
In this field of inquiry no name deserves more credit than /p. 2/ that of the renowned reformer, John Calvin.2 No one was more deeply persuaded of the complete depravation of human nature by sin and of the consequent inability of unaided human nature to bring forth anything good, and so he explained the existence of good outside the sphere of God’s special and saving grace by the presence of a grace that is common to all yet enjoyed by some in special degree. “The most certain and easy solution of this question, however, is, that those virtues are not the common properties of nature, but the peculiar graces of God, which he dispenses in great variety, and in a certain degree to men that are otherwise profane.”3 The elect alone are sanctified by the Spirit; they alone are healed of sin; they alone are created anew. But all creatures by the energy of the same Spirit are replenished, actuated and quickened “according to the property of each species which he has given it by the law of creation”.4
On this question Calvin not only opened a new vista but also a new era in theological formulation. Having thus stated the question and indicated the line along which the greatest of the Reformers answered it, we may now proceed to attempt an elucidation and exposition of our topic.
Definition of Common Grace
Dr. Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology defines common grace as “that influence of the Spirit, which in a greater or less measure, is granted to all who hear the truth”.5 This definition given at the outset of his treatment is reiterated and unfolded in his ensuing discussion. “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and /p. 3/ imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good. In this sphere also He divides ‘to every man severally as He will.’ (1 Cor. 12:11.) This is what in theology is called common grace.”6 “As God is everywhere present in the material world, guiding its operations according to the laws of nature; so He is everywhere present with the minds of men, as the Spirit of truth and goodness, operating on them according to the laws of their free moral agency, inclining them to good and restraining them from evil.”7 “The evidence therefore from Scripture, and from experience, is clear that the Holy Spirit is present with every human mind, and enforces, with more or less power, whatever of moral or religious truth the mind may have before it.”8 To this presence and influence of the Spirit then, according to Dr. Hodge, we are indebted for all the order, decorum, refinement and virtue, as well as the regard for religion and its ordinances, which exist in the world.9 To it we owe “the skill of artisans, the courage and strength of heroes, the wisdom of statesmen”.10
It is obvious that this series of definitions evinces a rather restricted view of the nature and scope of what is called common grace. The word “grace” in the definition is limited to “the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds of men”,11 and so in accord with that limited concept of the word “grace” the following restrictions are made in the definition of the nature and scope of common grace. (1) Common grace is restricted to the human sphere. (2) It is restricted to the rational, moral and religious spheres. (3) It is restricted to those operations of the Spirit, on the minds, consciences and hearts of men, that are mediated through the truth.
To the same effect is the definition given by Dr. A. A. Hodge. “‘Common grace’ is the restraining and persuading influences of the Holy Spirit acting only through the truth revealed in the gospel, or through the natural light of reason /p. 4/ and of conscience, heightening the natural moral effect of such truth upon the understanding, conscience, and heart. It involves no change of heart, but simply an enhancement of the natural powers of the truth, a restraint of the evil passions, and an increase of the natural emotions in view of sin, duty, and self-interest.”12
There can be no question but these definitions given by Charles and A. A. Hodge embrace what is perhaps the most important phase of common grace, and very often in common usage it is this phase of God’s favour we have in mind when we use the term “common grace”. But this rather restricted definition does not embrace other important aspects of the divine favour which should naturally and logically be included in the definition. It will provide us with a broader basis for discussion of the topic and will be found to be more in accord with the witness of the Scripture on this subject to regard the word “grace” in the title as referring to any gift or favour bestowed upon, and enjoyed by, creatures, rather than, in the more limited sense accepted by Dr. Hodge, as “the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds of men”. If this broader definition of the word “grace” is adopted, it will include the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds of men, but it will also include gifts bestowed upon other creatures as well as upon men and it will also include the grace bestowed upon men that cannot conveniently be defined as an influence of the Spirit upon their minds.
The word “common” in the title of the topic is not used in the sense that each particular favour is given to all without discrimination or distinction but rather in the sense that favours of varying kinds and degrees are bestowed upon this sin-cursed world, favours real in their character as expressions of the divine goodness but which are not in themselves and of themselves saving in their nature and effect. So the term “common grace” should rather be defined as every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.
This is a comprehensive definition and it is apparent that /p. 5/ the favours bestowed and enjoyed fall into different categories. The best classification with which the present writer has become acquainted is that offered by Dr. Herman Kuiper in the work aforementioned. In classifying the various manifestations of grace recognised by Calvin he gives three groups. The first category is that of the “grace which is common to all the creatures who make up this sin-cursed world…a grace which touches creatures as creatures”.13 This Dr. Kuiper calls universal common grace. There is, secondly, the grace recognised by Calvin as “common to all human beings in distinction from the rest of God’s creatures…a grace which pertains to men as men”.14 This Dr. Kuiper calls general common grace. Thirdly, there is the grace common not to all creatures and not to all men but to all “who live in the covenant sphere…to all elect and non-elect covenant members”.15 This Dr. Kuiper calls covenant common grace. There is, of course, within each classification the general and the particular. For the gifts bestowed upon each group of creatures are not indiscriminately dispensed. In each group there are differing degrees of the favour bestowed. This classification is inclusive and it also provides us with necessary and convenient distinctions. In the order stated we find the circle becomes more limited, but just as the limitation proceeds so does the nature of the grace bestowed become higher in the scale of value.16
The Nature of Common Grace
(I) Restraint. It is natural that writers on this subject should place in the forefront of their discussion the notion of restraint. It is perhaps the most striking and readily granted feature of the non-saving grace that God dispenses to this undeserving and sin-cursed world. God restrains sin and its consequences.
It is not, of course, to be supposed that the restraint God places upon sin and its effects is complete, nor is it uniform. Complete restraint would imply eradication, for even though restraint in itself does not mean eradication, yet a restraint that would be complete would involve the removal of the exercise of sinful affection and impulse and removal of the very primary consequences of sin. Neither does the notion of restraint suppose that such restraint is always present. Paul tells us that because men did not like to retain God in their knowledge God gave them over to a reprobate mind and gave them up to uncleanness so that they were filled with the fruits of unrighteousness.17 But what the notion of restraint does involve is that in the forbearance and goodness of God He does place restraint upon the expressions and consequences of human depravity and of unholy passion.
There are three respects in which the notion of restraint may be applied.
(a) Restraint upon Sin. God places restraint upon the workings of human depravity and thus prevents the unholy affections and principles of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them. He prevents depravity from bursting forth in all its vehemence and violence. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell-fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell: there are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of /p. 7/ them, that are the beginnings of hell-fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments in them as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in Scripture compared to the troubled sea, Isaiah 57:20. For the present God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;’ but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is a thing that is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God’s restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so, if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.”18
This restraint upon the tendency inherent in sin appears very early in the history of fallen humanity. It is, no doubt, exceedingly difficult to know the exact meaning and intent of Genesis 3:22, 23. “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” But it seems rather certain that the eating of the tree of life after man had completely forfeited every right to that of which it was the sign and seal would have been an act of gross presumption, sacrilege and rebellion. It is surely an act of gracious restraint on the part of God that He thrust him out from the garden so as to prevent the commission of so heinous and desperate a sin. This consideration is not offset by the other fact that the expulsion from the garden was an act of /p. 8/ divine judgment for the first sin. A divine act may have diverse grounds according to the aspect from which it is viewed.
Again, perhaps more conclusive and significant is the case of Cain. Profane and godless as he was, a halo of sanctity was placed around his life to protect him from the violence that sinful passion would tend to execute upon him. “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (Gen. 4:15). Provision was made by God to restrain and prevent in others the murderous impulse that was so signally characteristic of Cain himself.
In the case of Abimelech we have a direct statement to the effect that God kept him from sin. “Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her” (Gen. 20:6). We do not have reason to suppose that Abimelech truly feared God, and so we have an example of an unbeliever restrained by divine intervention from the commission of sin. This fact is not in the least disproven by the objection that it was for Abraham’s sake that this restraint was exercised. Whatever may have been the reason or reasons, it is still a fact that God prevented the sin of which Abimelech would otherwise have been guilty.
In the case of Sennacherib his rage against the Lord was curbed and the evil purpose of his mind frustrated. “But I know thy abode, and thy going out, and thy coming in, and thy rage against me. Because thy rage against me and thy tumult is come into my ears, therefore I will put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou camest” (2 Kings 19:27, 28).
(b) Restraint upon the Divine Wrath. There is restraint upon the divine vengeance, suspension of the full measure of the divine wrath due to sin. It should not be forgotten that all the evil that exists in the world is ultimately traceable to the divine displeasure. Even the evil that is present in the physical realm is the result of the divine curse, and the curse is but the expression of His wrath. But there is also the direct infliction of divine displeasure, an infliction that is the necessary reaction of God’s holiness to sin and guilt. It is the restraint upon this manifestation of God’s wrath /p. 9/ that we have in mind when we speak of restraint placed upon the execution of the divine wrath. Were it not for this restraint the wicked would be immediately consigned to everlasting perdition. The facts demonstrate that this world’s history is a dispensation of the divine forbearance and longsuffering. Restraint is therefore not only restraint upon the unholy passion of man’s heart but also restraint upon the holy wrath of God.
One of the most forcible examples we have of this is in the period prior to the flood. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years” (Gen. 6:3). Whether the word should be translated “strive” or “rule”, this text implies that God did bear with men in His forbearance and longsuffering. Notwithstanding much provocation, the pent-up forces of God’s indignation were to be restrained for one hundred and twenty years. And though the main point of this text is that there is a limit to the divine longsuffering, nevertheless the longsuffering does operate. We have allusion to this on the part of Peter and confirmation is given to the correctness of this interpretation. Peter refers to the period before the flood as the time “when the longsuffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah” (1 Pet. 3:20).
When Paul, referring to past generations of the history of the world, says that the times of ignorance God overlooked (Acts 17:30), he is not referring to any indifference or connivance on the part of God—his first chapter of the epistle to the Romans disproves any such interpretation—but among other things he is making reference to the fact that God refrained from executing the full measure of His judgment. It is true that God did not manifest His grace as now when He commands that men should all everywhere repent, but in the word we have translated “overlooked” there is also implied the “passing by” of forbearance.
Romans 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:919 may have believers particularly /p. 10/ in mind, but, even so, the longsuffering mentioned in both passages involves the suspension of judgment over periods of time, and such suspension of judgment draws even the wicked and reprobate within its scope.
(c) Restraint upon Evil. Sin introduces disintegration and disorganisation in every realm. While it is true that only in the sphere of rationality does sin have meaning—it originates in mind, it develops in mind, it resides in mind—yet sin works out disastrous effects outside the sphere of the rational and moral as well as within it. God places restraint upon these effects, He prevents the full development of this disintegration. He brings to bear upon this world in all its spheres correcting and preserving influences so that the ravages of sin might not be allowed to work out the full measure of their destructive power.
The curse pronounced upon Adam as distinct from that pronounced upon the serpent and upon Eve had particular reference to this effect of sin. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake” (Gen. 3:17). But the ground, though not yielding henceforth its strength and although its strength was to be sapped by thorns and thistles, was yet to bring forth enough for the sustenance of life.
The ferocity of the animals that leads them to destroy human life we must regard as unnatural and as a consequence of the disruption and discord that sin brought in its train. If from no other consideration, we may infer this from the sanction by which the life of man is protected against this form of predatory ferocity, “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it” (Gen. 9:5). But that this destructive impulse in the animal kingdom is restrained is intimated in Genesis 9:2. “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea.” However we may explain the origin of this fear, it cannot be doubted that it holds in check a destructive tendency that is part of the curse of sin upon the animal order.
We thus see that restraint upon sin and its consequences is one of the most outstanding features of God’s government of /p. 11/ this world—the history of this present world exists within an administration that is one of restraint and forbearance.
(II) Bestowal of Good and Excitation to Good. This caption means that common grace is more than negative and preventative; it is also positive, in the bestowal and production of good. God not only restrains the destructive effects of sin in nature but He also causes nature to teem with the gifts of His goodness. He not only restrains evil in men but He also endows men with gifts, talents, and aptitudes; He stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilisation of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions. We may regard these interests, pursuits and institutions as exercising both an expulsive and impulsive influence. Occupying the energy, activity and time of men they prevent the indulgence of less noble and ignoble pursuits and they exercise an ameliorating, moralising, stabilising and civilising influence upon the social organism.
The Biblical evidence to be adduced in support of the immediately foregoing propositions will have to be classified.
1. Creation is the recipient of divine bounty.
That the animate and inanimate creation, groaning and travailing in pain and made subject to vanity though it be, yet receives the showers of divine blessing is the theme of some of the stateliest lyrics we have in the Scripture. “By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us, O God of our salvation; who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of them that are afar off upon the sea: which by his strength setteth fast the mountains; being girded with power: which stilleth the noise of the seas, the noise of their waves, and the tumult of the people. They also that dwell in the uttermost parts are afraid at thy tokens: thou makest the outgoings of the morning and evening to rejoice. Thou visitest the earth and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water: thou preparest them corn, when thou hast so provided for it. Thou waterest the ridges /p. 12/ thereof abundantly: thou settlest the furrows thereof: thou makest it soft with showers: thou blessest the springing thereof. Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; and thy paths drop fatness. They drop upon the pastures of the wilderness: and the little hills rejoice on every side. The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing” (Psalm 65:5–13). The majestic music is carried perhaps to even loftier strains in Psalm 104. “He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; and wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart. The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted; where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house. The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies. He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down. Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God. The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens. Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening” (vss. 13–23). It is this review of the riches of God’s goodness in the work of His hand and of the wisdom of the provision and arrangements for each of His creatures that causes the psalmist to exclaim, “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches” (vs. 24). The truth of all this as bearing upon our topic is very directly summed up in the words of another psalm, “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.…The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:9, 15, 16).
Lest we should entertain any doubt as to the character of this teeming bounty as one of grace and lovingkindness we need but be reminded of that psalm which, in the extolling of the praises of creation and redemption, ever reiterates the /p. 13/ refrain, “For his mercy endureth for ever”. At its conclusion we read, “Who giveth good to all flesh: for his mercy endureth for ever” (Ps. 136:25).
2. Unregenerate men are recipients of divine favour and goodness.
The witness of Scripture to this fact is copious and direct. Attention will be focussed on a few of the most notable examples.
In Genesis 39:5 we are told that “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake”. Truly it was for Joseph’s sake and for Joseph as the instrument through whom the chosen people were to be preserved and God’s redemptive purpose with respect to the world fulfilled. But, just as we found already in the case of Abimelech, the reason for the blessing bestowed does not destroy the reality of the blessing itself.
Perhaps the most significant part of Scripture bearing upon this phase of our subject is the witness of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra in Iconium. “Who in the generations gone by suffered all the nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, doing good, and giving rains to you from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16, 17). The “generations gone by” of this passage are the same as “the times of ignorance” mentioned by Paul in his speech on Mars’ hill (Acts 17:30). Paul and Barnabas in this case are referring to the past of those who had served dumb idols. They expressly state that although God allowed them to walk in their own idolatrous ways yet God did not leave them without a witness to Himself. The particular witness mentioned here is that He did good and gave them rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. This is the most direct and indisputable assertion that men, left to their own ungodly ways, are nevertheless the subjects of divine benefaction. God showed them favour and did them good, and the satisfaction and enjoyment derived from the product of rains and fruitful seasons are not to be condemned but rather regarded as the witness, or at least as the proper effect of the witness, God was bearing to His own goodness. And it would be wanton violence that would /p. 14/ attempt to sever this “doing good” from a disposition of goodness in the heart and mind of God. Paul says that the “doing good” and “giving rain from heaven and fruitful seasons” constituted the witness God gave of Himself. In other words, the goodness bestowed is surely goodness expressed.
The testimony of our Lord Himself, as recorded in Matthew 5:44, 45; Luke 6:35, 36, establishes the same truth as that discussed in the foregoing passage. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” “But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Here the disciples are called upon to emulate in their own sphere and relations the character of God, their Father, in His own sphere and relations. God is kind and merciful to the unthankful and to the evil; He makes His sun to rise upon evil and good, and sends rain upon just and unjust. Both on the ground of express statement and on the ground of what is obviously implied in the phrases, “sons of your Father” and “sons of the Most High”, there can be no escape from the conclusion that goodness and beneficence, kindness and mercy are here attributed to God in His relations even to the ungodly. And this simply means that the ungodly are the recipients of blessings that flow from the love, goodness, kindness and mercy of God. Again it would be desperate exegetical violence that would attempt to separate the good gifts bestowed from the disposition of kindness and mercy in the mind of God.
Finally, we may appeal to Luke 16:25, “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now here he is comforted, and thou art tormented”. The rich man was reprobate; but the gifts enjoyed during this life are nevertheless called “good things”.
It is without question true that good gifts abused will mean greater condemnation for the finally impenitent. “To /p. 15/ whom much is given, of the same shall much be required” (Luke 12:48). But this consideration, awfully true though it be, does not make void the fact that they are good gifts and expressions of the lovingkindness of God. In fact, it is just because they are good gifts and manifestations of the kindness and mercy of God that the abuse of them brings greater condemnation and demonstrates the greater inexcusability of impenitence. Ultimate condemnation, so far from making void the reality of the grace bestowed in time, rather in this case rests upon the reality of the grace bestowed and enjoyed. It will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for Capernaum. But the reason is that Capernaum was privileged to witness the mighty works of Christ as supreme exhibitions of the love, goodness and power of God.
The decree of reprobation is of course undeniable. But denial of the reality of temporal goodness and kindness, goodness and kindness as expressions of the mind and will of God, is to put the decree of reprobation so much out of focus that it eclipses the straightforward testimony of Scripture to other truths.
3. Good is attributed to unregenerate men.20
We have no reason to suppose that Jehu truly feared and served the Lord God of Israel. We are told that “from the /p. 16/ sins of Jereboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from after them, to wit, the golden calves that were in Bethel, and that were, in Dan” (2 Kings 10:29). Yet we are told that the Lord said to Jehu, “Because thou has done well in executing that which is right in mine eyes, and hast done unto the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, thy children to the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel” (2 Kings 10:30). Jehu did what was right in God’s eyes in executing vengeance upon the house of Ahab. He did what was good, and for this good temporal reward was administered to him and to his house.
Because of his defection after the death of Jehoiada there is good reason to doubt that Jehoash truly feared God.21 Yet we are told that he “did that which was right in the sight of the Lord all his days wherein Jehoiada the priest instructed him” (2 Kings 12:2).
In the context of passages already discussed Jesus says to His disciples, “For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?” (Matt. 5:46), “For if ye do good to them who do good to you, what thanks have ye? Sinners also do the same” (Luke 6:33). Here love, at least of some sort, love as bestowed upon fellow-men, is attributed to publicans, and sinners are said to reciprocate in doing good to one another. It is indeed true that the form /p. 17/ in which the exhortation to the disciples is cast implies a low standard of motivation among the publicans and sinners of whom Jesus speaks, and upon the disciples He enjoins the disinterested love worthy of children of the Most High. But even recognising this to the fullest extent the fact still remains that sinners do become the beneficiaries of a love and a good that sinners bestow upon them. This must be recognised and appreciated for what it is.
The statements of the apostle in Romans 2:14, 15 have been the occasion of much discussion anent the subject of common grace. Admittedly the text offers difficulties in the matter of exact interpretation. And such difficulties it is not the purpose of this article to solve. So far as the thesis of the present subdivision of the subject is concerned, it is not dependent upon Romans 2:14, 15 for its establishment. But this text does add to the evidence in support of the thesis and it presents certain propositions wholly pertinent to that thesis.
Paul is, no doubt, speaking in this text of those who are outside the pale of special revelation. They do not have the law written upon tables of stone. But while ignorant of this special revelation they are not without the work of the law. In other words, they are not entirely removed from the operation of the law. The law has another way of making its demand and influence felt, and the law makes its impact upon these Gentiles in that way. Hence they are affected by it.
The following propositions may readily be elicited from the text. (1) The Gentiles are the subjects of the work of the law. (2) They are the subjects of this work because it is written in their hearts. The work of the law is engraven upon that which is constitutive and determinative of their personal life. (3) As a result they do by nature the things of the law. In other words, they evince, to some degree at least, a certain conformity to the law. Their conduct is characterised to some extent by the things required by the law. (4) Their consciences bear joint witness. This is just saying, in effect, that the work of the law is not something that escapes consciousness. The work of the law rather pushes itself into their consciousness and registers itself there in the attestations of conscience. That the work of the law is not mechanical but drawing within its embrace the conscious /p. 18/ functions of personality is further confirmed by the presence of self-accusing and self-excusing reasonings or judgments.
All of this has important bearing upon that phase of the subject we are now discussing, to wit, that relative good is attributed to unregenerate men. Romans 2:14, 15 lays the basis for such predication. The norm of moral good is the law of which Paul is speaking. It is only in relation to that norm that any predication of moral good can be made. The text we are now discussing establishes the fact that that precise norm is operative in men to the end of producing conduct that in the sense and to the extent intended by the apostle may be said to be conformable to it. The divinely established norms of conduct have relevance to, and even effect upon, those who are outside the pale not only of redemptive grace but also of that special revelation that is the medium of its application in the hearts and lives of men.22
4. Unregenerate men receive operations and influences of the Spirit in connection with the administration of the gospel, influences that result in experience of the power and glory of the gospel, yet influences which do not issue in genuine and lasting conversion and are finally withdrawn.
There are a few passages in the New Testament which so plainly attest the reality of such influence and resultant experience that no detailed exegesis is necessary.
We have spoken of this experience on the part of unregenerate men as that of the power and glory of the gospel. In the parable of the sower those who are compared to the rocky ground are those who hear the word and immediately with joy receive it. This implies some experience of its beauty and power. Yet they have no root and endure but for a while. When tribulation and persecution arise they just as immediately stumble and bring forth no fruit to perfection. The passages in Hebrews 6:4–8; 10:26–29 refer to experience that apparently surpasses that spoken of in the parable of the /p. 19/ sower. At least, the portraiture is very much more elaborate in its details and the issue much more tragic in its consequences. The persons concerned are described as “those who were once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4, 5), as those who had received the knowledge of the truth and had been sanctified by the blood of the covenant (Heb. 10:26, 29). We shudder at the terms in which the experience delineated is defined.23 Yet we cannot avoid its import, nor can we evade the acceptance of the inspired testimony that from such enlightenment, from such participation of the Holy Spirit and from such experience of the good word of God and the powers of the age to come men may fall away, crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, put him to an open shame, tread the Son of God under foot, count the sanctifying blood of the covenant an unholy thing and do despite to the Spirit of grace. Here is apostasy from which there is no repentance and for which there is nought but “a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries”.
It is here that we find non-saving grace at its very apex. We cannot conceive of anything, that falls short of salvation, more exalted in its character. And we must not make void the reality of the blessing enjoyed and of the grace bestowed /p. 20/ out of consideration for the awful doom resultant upon renunciation and apostasy. As was pointed out already in other respects, it is precisely the grace bestowed in all its rich connotation as manifestation of the lovingkindness and goodness of God that gives ground for, and meaning to, the direful judgment that despite and rejection entail.
The teaching of such passages is corroborated by others that are to the same or similar effect. Peter in his second epistle devotes a considerable part to similar instruction and warning, and concludes with what is clearly reminiscent of the teaching of the epistle to the Hebrews. “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Pet. 2:20–22). And Paul in his first chapter of the epistle to the Romans portrays for us the process of inexcusable abandonment of knowledge and of worship by which the heathen nations had lapsed into idolatry and superstition. But the knowledge they had relinquished is plainly represented as good, as that which should have been jealously cherished and as that for which they should have been thankful.
5. The institution of civil government is for the purpose of restraining evil and promoting good in the whole body politic.
Civil magistrates are sent by God “for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Pet. 2:14). Notwithstanding all the miscarriage of justice and all the faults that have characterised civil government in the course of history, the purpose of this divine institution has not completely failed. The Roman state in the days of the apostles was characterised by gross corruptions that defeated the very end for which government was instituted. Yet it was of such government that Paul could say, “For rulers are /p. 21/ not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good” (Rom. 13:3, 4). While particular governments do themselves often perpetrate the grossest injustices, yet the testimony of Scripture and of experience is that apart from the restraints imposed and the order promoted by civil government the condition of this world would be one of moral and economic barbarism.
Civil government as such is not a redemptive ordinance. But it provides, and is intended to provide, that outward peace and order within which the ordinances of redemption may work to the accomplishment of God’s saving purposes. It is on this basis and to the end of fostering in believers the recognition and appreciation of it that Paul says to Timothy, “I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings, and all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:1, 2).
The tranquillity and order established and preserved by the ordinances of government are benefits enjoyed by all. This blessing arising from divine institution we must regard therefore as a common blessing and therefore as one of the institutions of common grace.
The evidence drawn from Scripture, then, compels the conclusion that the world as a whole, though subject to the curse incident to sin, receives the showers of manifold blessing, that men who still lie under the divine condemnation of sin, including even those who will finally suffer the full weight of that condemnation in perdition, are the recipients in this life of multiple favours that proceed from God’s lovingkindness, that of unregenerate men is predicated moral good that externally or formally is that required by the law of God, that unregenerate men who come into contact with the revelation of God’s grace in the gospel may even taste the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and that in the institutions of civil righteousness and order we have a divine provision that insures even for the ungodly restraint upon their evil works and outward tranquillity and peace. So that viewing God’s government of this world, even from /p. 22/ the aspect of His common or non-saving grace, we may say, the earth is full of the glory of the Lord and all peoples see His glory.
The Purpose of Common Grace
Though it is true that the glory of God is the ultimate end of common grace, as it is of every other phase of God’s providence, yet we have to inquire as to the more proximate and specific ends promoted by common grace in subordination to the final end, which is also the final end of all things, namely, the manifestation of the perfections that constitute the divine glory. The specific ends cannot be reduced to the simplicity of a single purpose. There is, however, at least one proximate purpose that is immediately apparent and has already been shown in some of the texts discussed. It is that common grace serves the purpose of special or saving grace, and saving grace has as its specific end the glorification of the whole body of God’s elect, which in turn has its ultimate end in the glory of God’s name.
The redemptive purpose of God lies at the centre of this world’s history. While it is not the only purpose being fulfilled in history and while it is not the one purpose to which all others may be subordinated, yet it is surely the central stream of history. It is however in the wider context of history that the redemptive purpose of God is realised. This wider context we have already found to be a dispensation of divine forbearance and goodness. In other words, it is that sphere of life or broad stream of history provided by common grace that provides the sphere of operation for God’s special purpose of redemption and salvation. This simply means that this world upheld and preserved by God’s grace is the sphere and platform upon which supervene the operations of special grace and in which special grace works to the accomplishment of His saving purpose and the perfection of the whole body of the elect. Common grace then receives at least one explanation from the fact of special grace, and special grace has its precondition and sphere of operation in common grace. Without common grace special grace would not be possible because special grace would have no material out /p. 23/ of which to erect its structure. It is common grace that provides not only the sphere in which, but also the material out of which, the building fitly framed together may grow up unto a holy temple in the Lord. It is the human race preserved by God, endowed with various gifts by God, in a world upheld and enriched by God, subsisting through the means of various pursuits and fields of labour, that provides the subjects for redemptive and regenerative grace. God could raise up children to Abraham out of the stones. As a matter of fact He does not follow this method but rather perfects His body the church out of those redeemed from among men.
If we view God’s redemptive purpose from the viewpoint of the church we find that the latter does not exist in abstraction from the context of the wider history of this world. The church is not of the world but it is in the world. The church, whether we regard it from the standpoint of the individuals that compose it or from the standpoint of its collective organism, exists in relation to what is not the church. The members of the church do business with unbelievers, they often derive their sustenance from pursuits and employments that are conducted by unbelievers. Even the most segregated communities of believers who attempt to separate themselves from the life of the world are unable to isolate themselves from dependence upon the relationships and institutions of common grace. Their existence and even the segregation in which they live are guarded by the state. The food they eat, the clothing they put on, the material out of which their houses are constructed, are derived from the earth blessed with rain, sunshine, verdure, and flocks that benefit the ungodly as well as themselves. It is divine wisdom that speaks of the tares and the wheat, “Let both grow together until the harvest”. And it is by divine inspiration Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to keep company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9, 10).
Even when we deal with the individual who is to become a subject of saving grace, we must not think of his regeneration as effecting a complete rupture with all that he was and was /p. 24/ made to be prior to his regeneration. A radical moral and spiritual change there must indeed be. He is translated fromm the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. And that change affects all of life and every relationship. All that he was undergoes transformation by the regenerative influences of God’s Spirit. But all that he was is not nullified and discarded. His personality is not changed, and the various endowments and qualities, gifts and possessions, with which he had previously been blessed of God are not destroyed. In other words, though spiritually he became as a little child, yet he did not have to become psychologically an infant all over again. He enters the kingdom of God and exercises his membership and place in it as the person formed and moulded as to his distinct individuality by the antecedents and processes that fall outside the sphere of saving grace. We need but remind ourselves of Paul as the student who sat at the feet of Gamaliel or of Moses learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. Long lines of preparation in the realm of common grace, designed in the plan of God’s all-comprehending providence, have fitted the most blessed of God’s servants for the particular rle they were to play in the kingdom of God.
Furthermore, when we come to the point of actual conversion, the faith and repentance involved in conversion do not receive their genesis apart from the knowledge of the truth of the gospel. There must be conveyed to the mind of the man who believes and repents to the saving of his soul the truth-content of law and gospel, law as convicting him of sin and gospel as conveying the information which becomes the material of faith. To some extent at least there must be the cognition and apprehension of the import of law and gospel prior to the exercise of saving faith and repentance. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). But this apprehension of the truth of the gospel that is prior to faith and repentance, and therefore prior to the regeneration of which faith and repentance are the immediate effects in our consciousness, cannot strictly belong to the saving operations of the Spirit. They are preparatory to these saving operations and in the gracious design of God place the person concerned in the psychological condition that is the prerequisite of the intelligent exercise of faith and /p. 25/ repentance. In other words, they place in his mind the apperceptive content that makes the gospel meaningful to his consciousness. But since they are not the saving acts of faith and repentance they must belong to a different category from that of saving grace and therefore to the category of non-saving or common grace.
We may thus say that in the operations of common grace we have what we may call the vestibule of faith. We have as it were the point of contact, the Anknüpfungspunkt, at which and upon which the Holy Spirit enters with the special and saving operations of His grace. Faith does not take its genesis in a vacuum. It has its antecedents and presuppositions both logically and chronologically in the operations of common grace.24
Both in the individual sphere and in the sphere of organic and historic movement, the onward course of Christianity can never be dissociated from the preparations by which it is preceded and from the conditions by which it is surrounded, preparations and conditions that belong not only to the general field of divine providence but also to the particular sphere of beneficent and gracious administration on God’s part, yet gracious administration that is obviously not in itself saving, and therefore administration that belongs to the sphere of common grace.
To conclude this part of the discussion, common grace provides the sphere of operation of special grace and special grace therefore provides a rationale of common grace. It does not follow that the achievement of God’s redemptive purpose is the sole rationale or sole end of common grace. While it is assuredly true that the elect people of God, the righteous, are the salt of the earth, and while it is probably necessary to apply on the wide scale of the world’s history /p. 26/ the principle expressed by the prophet that “except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have been like unto Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:9), and while it is true that it is for the sake of the wheat that the tares are allowed to grow until the harvest, it still does not necessarily follow that the whole purpose of common grace is to serve the interests of special grace. Special grace is a precondition of the operation of common grace and yet the purposes served by common grace may go beyond the interests that are peculiar to special grace. This follows from the simple distinction that one fact may be the condition of the existence of another fact and yet not be the sole end of the existence of that other fact.
What the other ends promoted by common grace may be it might be precarious to conclude. Of one thing we are sure that the glory of God is displayed in all his works and the glory of His wisdom, goodness, longsuffering, kindness and mercy is made known in the operations of His common grace. In subservience to that ultimate end it may well be that a group of proximate reasons is comprised within that goal of glorifying Him, of whom and through whom and to whom are all things.
The Practical Lessons
As special grace supervenes upon the platform of life provided by common grace we must not suppose that it negatives everything it finds in that sphere. It is indeed true that we must jealously guard the distinction between the grace that is common and the grace that is saving. To change the terms, we must not obliterate the distinction between nature and grace. Saving grace differs in its nature, it differs in its purpose and it differs in its effect. But we must beware of a false dualism whereby we incline to regard special grace as nullifying or annihilating the good things it finds in that sphere upon which it falls. Common grace is after all God’s grace. It is a gift of God and “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17). Special grace does not annihilate but /p. 27/ rather brings its redemptive, regenerative and sanctifying influence to bear upon every natural or common gift; it transforms all activities and departments of life; it brings every good gift into the service of the kingdom of God. Christianity is not flight from nature; it is the renewal and sanctification of nature. It is not flight from the world; it is the evangelisation of the world.
The practical effect of this principle is very great. It means a profound respect for, and appreciation of, every good and noble thing, and it is this philosophy and ethic that has made Christianity in its true expression a force in every department of legitimate human interest and vocation. Christianity when true to its spirit has not been ascetic or monastic. Rather has it evaluated everything that is good and right as possessing the dignity of divine ordinance. It has recognised the measureless variety of God’s gifts in nature, not only for the subsistence of man and beast but also for their pleasure and delight. It has appreciated the endless variety of human aptitude, skill, art, and vocation. It has not spurned the most humble and menial tasks. It has embraced the divine command, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Eccl. 9:10). It has placed around all the halo and dignity of divine vocation. It has sought to bring all of life into the service of the King of kings. It has striven to give expression to the Christian faith in politics, economics, industry, education, art, science and philosophy, for its controlling conception has been the absolute sovereignty of God in all of life. While it has recognised itself as constituted in those who are pilgrims and strangers in the earth, looking for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God, it has sought to give full-orbed expression to the truth of God in all the paths of their pilgrimage. It has not been isolationist with respect to the life that now is while waiting for the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. Its anthem has been “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1), “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches” (Ps. 104:24). And its practical outlook has been, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, /p. 28/ if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4, 5).
It is true that Christianity in its truest expression has been awfully severe and it has realised the cost of holiness, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Matt. 18:9). Christianity must know severity, for it is a warfare not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Its war is with sin in all its agents and manifestations. But it is just for the reason that its war is with sin and the agents of sin that Christianity has been severely jealous not to dissipate its forces and miss its holy crusade by making war on the good gifts and blessings, ordinances and institutions, of God. Sin does not reside in the creatures and institutions of God but rather in the hearts of men and demons. And so Christianity has sought to encompass all of God’s grace and bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. In that warfare it is upheld by the conviction that the prince of this world, though active, has been cast out, that the Captain of salvation spoiled principalities and powers and made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in his death, and that “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law” (Isa. 42:4). “All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee. They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power; to make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of his kingdom. Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:10–13).