The Basis of God’s Common Grace
Ben Stein once put this question to Richard Dawkins: “What if, after you died, you ran into God and he said, ‘What have you been doing, Richard? I’ve been trying to be nice to you. I gave you a multi-million-dollar paycheck over and over again with your book, and look what you did!”
God is uncommonly kind not only to people who are ignorant of him but who are openly hostile to him. Why is that? Or more to the point, how is that? If sin merits nothing but God’s disapproval, wrath, and judgment, on what grounds can God be kind to unrepentant sinners and still maintain his holiness, purity, and justice?
This is not just an abstract theoretical quandary. This post emerged from a question posed to me by a thoughtful seminary student. What, he wanted to know, is the scriptural justification for God’s demonstrating common grace to the unsaved? You could just say, “God is gracious to all because that’s His character.” But in the case of people who deserve the death sentence, it seems incongruous, if not inappropriate, for the Judge not merely to put up with them but to show them positive and profound kindness, unless he has a grounded reason. It’s easy to find passages that describe common grace, but do any passages explain the reasoning for God’s common grace?
“Just as we differentiate,” says Bruce Demarest, “between general revelation and special revelation and between a general call and a special call to salvation, so we distinguish between two forms of grace that differ in kind, not merely in degree” (The Cross and Salvation, 76). Common grace is a systematic theological deduction from biblical theological roots with two major components: (1) it describes God’s indiscriminate kindness to all men, believers and unbelievers, through the abundant and daily blessings of earthly life (e.g., Ps 145:9; Acts 14:17), the restraint of the power and effects of sin (Gen 6:3; 2 Th 2:6-7), and the delay of judgment (Rom 2:4); and (2) it describes any behavior or product of (particularly unregenerate) man that mirrors either divine truth or divine character (e.g., Acts 17:28). It seems apparent that common grace in the sense of (2) is rooted predominantly in the remnants and influence of the imago dei. The more debated sense (1) of common grace seems rooted primarily and directly in the character of God, but secondarily and indirectly in the atonement.
First, let me address the analogy of the judge raised in my student’s query. Berkhof approaches the question in the same way:
How is it to be explained that a holy and just God extends grace to, and bestows favor upon, sinners who have forfeited everything, even when they have no share in the righteousness of Christ and prove finally impenitent[?] The question is exactly, How can God continue to bestow those blessings of creation on men who are under the sentence of death and condemnation? As far as the elect are concerned this question is answered by the cross of Christ, but how about the reprobate?
When a judge pronounces a death sentence, he does not deny the prisoner food and drink until the sentence is carried out. There is a measure of humaneness (linked, I would argue, to the imago dei) that prevails, and a judge who condemns a criminal legally may (should) still show a level of grace personally.
Most of the passages used to describe common grace do, it seems, root it in the character of God. Matthew 5:43-48 teach that being good even to your enemies is being like God. Acts 14:17 simply asserts that common grace is one of God’s ways of ‘witnessing’ to His existence and character. And Acts 17:24-31 seems to imply the same function of common grace. In short, God is Judge, but He is also Creator; and those roles call forth different actions and behaviors that do not inherently conflict or contradict each other.
Those who ground all grace (common and special) directly in the atonement may appeal to Isaiah 53:4 and its context; since sickness, disease, degeneration, and death are consequences of the Fall, Jesus could partially and temporarily remove these consequences (as a manifestation of common grace) on the basis of the cross. This seems, however, to unnecessarily conflate the healing ministry of Christ (Isa 53:4 à Matt 8:17) with the spiritual healing inherent in the atonement. Matthew 8 applies 53:4 (surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows) to the healing ministry of Christ, not to the atoning work referenced in 53:5 (but he was wounded for our transgression, he was bruised for our iniquities). It is entirely in keeping with the telescopic nature of prophecy for 53:4 to refer to the physical ministry of Christ (as Matthew states) while 53:5 refers to the spiritual healing supplied in the atonement (as 1 Pet 2:24 implies). Indeed the last verse of Isaiah 53 completes the image—just as he bore (nasa’) our sicknesses and carried our pains in his life (53:4), he bore (nasa’) our sins in his death (53:12).
Wayne Grudem devotes an entire chapter of his systematic theology to common grace. I think he is on the right track when he argues (Systematic Theology, 657-58) that common grace
does not directly flow from Christ’s atoning work, since Christ’s death did not earn any measure of forgiveness for unbelievers, and therefore did not merit the blessings of common grace for them either. However … common grace does flow indirectly from Christ’s redemptive work because the fact that God did not judge the world at once when sin entered it was primarily or perhaps exclusively due to the fact that he planned eventually to save some sinners through the death of his Son.
Grudem doesn’t cite it, but I think the implication of Romans 3:25 (specifically 25b) corroborates this view. Paul’s statement implies some linkage between the cross and common grace, but the linkage is indirect. Namely, God “forbore” the sins that are past (i.e., he did not punish them immediately) because he was going to deal with them via the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. But even here, God’s ability to do that is again linked to His character, since it is extended “through the forbearance of God.” (Grudem also discusses the realms in which common grace is manifested: physical, intellectual, moral, and creative. The link between common grace and the divine character seems clear in the physical realm, while the link between common grace and the imago dei seems clear in the last three areas.)
If anyone would argue for grounding common grace directly in the atonement, I would have expected Berkhof to do so. But even he (and according to him, most Reformed theologians) corroborates Grudem on the indirectness of the linkage between common grace and the atonement.
It is not necessary to assume a specific judicial basis for the bestowal of common grace on man in view of the fact (a) that it does not remove the guilt of sin and therefore does not carry pardon with it; and (b) that it does not lift the sentence of condemnation, but only postpones the execution. Perhaps the divine good pleasure to stay the revelation of His wrath . . . offers a sufficient explanation for the blessings of common grace. . . . All that the natural man receives other than curse and death is an indirect result of the redemptive work of Christ.
Berkhof develops this thought further, but this is the sum of his solution (Part 4, III. C. of his Systematic Theology). This view is, of course, consistent with particular atonement (which both Berkhof and Grudem hold) but it does not necessitate it, since even a universal atonement is ultimately effectual only for those who believe. It would be difficult to show any textual basis for common grace blessings flowing directly from the atonement to the unregenerate and finally impenitent. But, as I say, common grace is a systematic theological deduction from biblical theological roots. That being so, it seems easier to see logical grounds for common grace in a universal atonement than a particular atonement, since the former is, by definition, intended as a provision for all.
God’s common grace that sustains the life and breath of every unbeliever (cf. Dan. 5:23) and that permits the unregenerate to partake of the multifaceted pleasures and blessings of life in God’s creation (cf. Ecclesiastes) is, indeed, a manifestation of God’s good and gracious character. At the same time, his propitiatory provision for all sinners in the atonement of Christ seems to supply the rationale for extending such grace to such people for so long.