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Whatever happened to common grace

April 2006 | by Eric Lane

We who are committed to ‘the doctrines of grace’ tend to confine that grace to our salvation in Christ – ‘salvation by grace’. However, there are other works of God’s grace, which he does equally for the unsaved. These have a large place in the teaching of our great theologians, but seem to have disappeared from our modern pulpits and writings.

This is driving a greater wedge between ‘us’ and ‘them’ than is really necessary. Few things would help our thinking about the unconverted – our praying for them and our witness to them – more than a recovery of this grand biblical truth.

‘Common grace’ may not be the best phrase to describe what we are talking about, but it is the traditional one, differentiating it from ‘special’ or ‘saving’ grace. It is about God’s universal ministry – what he does for all, whatever their race, nation or even religion. It is what Paul preached in Athens in Acts 17 as a preliminary to the gospel of a risen Christ.

Paul on a bad day?

Some think this was Paul having a bad day, but we have no authority for saying that. To do so we would be in danger of monopolising God in the way the Jews did. It was as he expounded his gospel of salvation by faith that Paul warned of this danger: ‘Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too …’ (Romans 3:29).

The world of his day was riddled with religious nationalism – the Greek gods were for Greeks, the Roman gods for Romans, and so on for every pagan nation. Many Jews were seen (and saw themselves) as merely having the ‘god’ of Israel.

But Paul was telling the proud Greeks – that the ‘unknown God’ (v.23) for whom they were beginning to ‘reach out’ (v.27) was not the exclusive possession of Jews but was their God too. This he proved from God’s universal works.

The universal Creator

In Athens Paul proclaimed ‘the unknown God’ as ‘the God who made the world and everything in it … and … gives all men life and breath and everything else’ (v.24). You can’t have anything more universal in scope than that.

When he comes to speak of humanity he is even clearer: ‘from one man he made every nation of men’ (v.26). We are all descended from Adam, whatever our colour, race or nation. If Adam was made in God’s image, so are all his descendants (Genesis 5:1-3).

If this universal truth were universally known it would be the death-knell of all nationalism, including religious nationalism. Would this not solve one of the world’s biggest problems and remove the chief cause of war?

We would look at someone and see, not an African, Indian, Chinese or Russian, but an image of God, more like us than unlike us, neither inferior nor superior, one of ‘God’s offspring’ (vv. 28-29).

Though most of the world’s population is ignorant of this, let us who know it lead the way by treating those of other races, nations and religions with the respect due to those made in God’s image. Only this will breed the humility and compassion essential to our missionary task.

Universally present

The universal presence of God is what we call his ‘omnipresence’. Not only did God make us all in his image but he is present with us all: ‘not far from each one of us’ (v.27). This ‘presence’ is not, of course, what Christians experience, for they also know the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit, the conscious result of regeneration. But God’s universal presence is real, nonetheless.

Because God is Spirit and infinite he ‘fills all things’ (Ephesians 1:23; 4:10). He is present everywhere (Psalm 139), he is aware of everything that happens (he is ‘omniscient’; Hebrews 4:13) and he ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).

The unbeliever is unaware of this, nor would he accept or desire it. He claims he ‘manages perfectly well without God’, not realising that it is God who keeps him alive and provides his needs. This is what Jesus taught when he spoke of God providing rain and sunshine indiscriminately (Matthew 5:45).

But if Christians take this seriously it can be a good starting point for witness, for we can use it to challenge those who say they ‘don’t need God’. We can point out that the very security they feel is due to God’s unseen presence – for ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ (v.28).

To those who are religious enough to say ‘God looks after me’ or ‘God is good’, but are ignorant of the gospel, instead of arguing against this belief, we can go along with it but show they need him for death as well as life – a need that only Christ can meet.

Universally kind

Because God is universally present, all humanity shares the good things of the earth: ‘he gives all men life and breath and everything else’ (v.25; Psalm 145:9-16; Acts 14:17). But, God’s providential care for his creation does not cancel out his judgements. We live in a fallen world and the fruits of Adam’s fall are visible everywhere.

Death, sicknesses and disasters (whether man-made or natural) are continual reminders that ‘He is the Lord our God; his judgements are in all the earth’ (Psalm 105:7). But every benefit experienced by man is also from the sovereign hand of God.

God’s universal kindness can also be seen in other realms. First, he has given to all a moral sense or conscience (Romans 2:26). This is why the majority of people, even atheists, are reasonably honest, truthful, industrious and kind. While this cannot save them, it does help maintain a fairly peaceful and law-abiding society.

Secondly, God’s providence is seen in the intellectual and cultural realm. Man is a thinker, inventive and inquisitive, and we owe our technological progress to such gifts from God. Even though these gifts are often abused, they also bring us much comfort. They are an expression of God’s kindness.

In the cultural realm, art, music, literature and architecture create beauty, so that life is not all work, suffering and squalor. Such gifts came early into the human race and helped offset the moral deterioration initiated by Cain (Genesis 4:20-22).

Let us not despise these gifts ourselves or begrudge them to others, but rather encourage people to see them as from God – and tokens of the even greater wisdom and beauty that is in Christ.

Universally sovereign

In v.26 Paul speaks of God as Lord of human geography, politics and history – his sovereignty is not confined either to Israel of old or Christians today. God’s sovereignty is not only about election and calling, but also about his government of the world and the nations – about Christ as King of Kings.

Genesis 10 records how God organised mankind geographically into nations. The Old Testament prophets (perhaps Daniel specially) show him as the one who ordains human history and the rise and fall of empires.

The Jews generally could not see God in all this – nor can many Christians see God in contemporary history. So they deride politics and politicians and pour scorn on organisations like the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union because these have not delivered peace and prosperity.

But we should take account of what they have achieved. If Paul exhorts us to pray for governments so that the gospel might spread (1 Timothy 2:1-4), does it not imply that God uses human governments to do his will? To write all politics off as ‘ungodly’ does gross injustice to the Bible doctrine of the sovereignty of God.

Universally merciful

Why is God all these things? So that men ‘should seek him and perhaps reach out and find him’ (v.27). Common grace brings no-one to a saving knowledge of Christ, but it is designed to show men the futility of their thoughts and ways – that they might come instead to him (Isaiah 55:6-7; 1 Timothy 2:4). Common grace witnesses to the kind of God he is – a God of mercy and of grace.

Paul makes this point after he calls for prayer for governments in 1 Timothy 2:3-7. Good government secures peace, permitting evangelism and giving maximum opportunity for people to ‘reach after him’.

Isn’t this also the thrust of John 3:16, that humanity as a whole (‘the world’) is the object of God’s love in the sense that his desire is to save and not condemn? While the redeemed are the objects of his special electing love, they must not monopolise the loving kindness of God, which is ‘broader than the measure of man’s mind’.

We do not know whom God has chosen, and our proclamation of common grace alongside the gospel itself may be a means by which he calls his elect to himself.

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