In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the people, “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” (Matt. 5:44–45). Statements such as this one and others like it in Scripture, raise a significant theological question about the grace of God, namely: Does the grace of God extend to all men, or does it extend only to those who have been chosen by God for salvation?
In order to answer this question, we must first understand the meaning of the word grace. In Scripture, the word grace refers to “unmerited favor.” In other words, it is favor that is not earned in any way. Not only is grace unmerited in the sense of not being earned, but when it is demonstrated toward sinful man, it is favor that has, in fact, been completely forfeited. Fallen man is not merely in a neutral position with regard to the favor of God. Fallen man is in a wholly negative position.
The question, then, is whether God’s unmerited favor extends to all men or only to His people. In exploring this question, Reformed theologians have typically used the terms “special grace” and “common grace.” It is important to understand that the use of these different terms does not mean that God’s attribute of grace is somehow “divided” or that it exists in different “kinds.” The terms are used to distinguish between the different ways that God’s one attribute of grace is manifested.
“Special grace” has to do with the unmerited favor of God demonstrated toward the elect that results in their salvation. “Common grace” has to do with the unmerited favor of God demonstrated toward mankind or creation in general. The Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof explains that when we speak of common grace, we mean “either (a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or, (b) those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to Him” (Systematic Theology, p. 436).
Theologians have further distinguished between several kinds of “common grace.” Universal common grace refers to the grace extended to the entire creation. General common grace refers to the grace shown to man in general. Covenant common grace refers to the grace shown toward all who live within the covenant community regardless of whether they are among the elect (see Berkhof, 434). It should be observed at this point that the Reformed concept of common grace differs significantly from the Arminian concept. Arminianism holds that all men have been given the ability to exercise saving faith. This is said to be due to common grace. Thus common grace in Arminian theology would be part of what Reformed theology refers to as “special grace” or “saving grace.”
There are several lines of evidence in Scripture indicating that God does, in fact, extend grace, or unmerited favor, to all men and not only to His people. In Genesis 3, for example, we read of the Fall. We also read there of the first promise of redemption (v. 15). The fact that God did not immediately destroy man is an example of His unmerited favor. Another example is found in the flood narrative of Genesis 6–8. After the flood, God promises that He will never again destroy all creatures on account of the sinfulness of man (see Gen. 8:21–22). This promise demonstrates an unmerited favor toward all mankind and all of creation.
The common grace of God is also evident in His restraining of sin. The thoughts of man’s heart are said to be “evil continually” (Gen. 6:5; see also 8:21). Were God to remove His restraining hand and allow the evil thoughts of man’s heart to come to full fruition, the entire world would soon be as Sodom and Gomorrah. It would be a hell on earth. As John Calvin explains, “For if the Lord gave loose rein to the mind of each man to run riot in his lusts, there would doubtless be no one who would not show that, in fact, every evil thing for which Paul condemns all nature is most truly to be met in himself” (Institutes, II:ii:3). God, however, has provided institutions such as human government to restrain sin (see Rom. 13:1–4).
God also provides natural blessings such as rain and food to all mankind in general. Paul says precisely this when he tells the men of Lystra about the living God, “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 by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16–17). Scripture also indicates that some sense of true morality is retained in the hearts of fallen man. Paul, for example, says of the Gentiles that they “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:15).
The knowledge of the existence of God is known to all through general revelation. Paul says, “What can be known about God is plain to them [all mankind], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19–20). As the Psalmist exclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
Despite the fact that God’s unmerited favor is extended to all mankind, this common grace must not be confused with special grace (that is, saving grace). God’s common grace leaves man with no excuse (Rom. 1:20), but common grace alone is not salvific. It does not and cannot save. Salvation is found exclusively in Jesus Christ. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In order for man to be saved, the special grace of God is required.
Unlike common grace, which extends to all mankind, the special grace of God is the unmerited favor that God extends to His people. By means of common grace, God restrains sin in the world. By means of special grace, Jesus Christ bears the curse and penalty of sin for His people. In common grace, God gives good things to all men. In special grace, God gives the very righteousness of Jesus Christ to His people. Through common grace, God provides unmerited favor to all mankind for a time. Through special grace, God provides unmerited favor to His people for all eternity.