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In recent years, we have been treated to the invention of a word previously unknown, or at least not used. That word that has entered into the general vocabulary of our time is the word oxymoron. A typical example of an oxymoron might be the phrase “jumbo shrimp.” The words that are used to describe a particular thing seem to be self-contradictory, or at least standing in an antithetical relationship. From this perspective, one might say that in theology the phrase “common grace” is such an oxymoron. I say this for this reason: God’s grace can never be reduced to the level of experience that may be deemed “common.” Though God’s grace in one sense is commonplace, it is always and everywhere an expression of something that He gives that is undeserved by the creature. That God bestows any grace at all upon fallen creatures is indeed an uncommon manifestation of His sovereign generosity. We neither merit nor deserve such benefits.
Having said this, however, we need to look at the specific intent of the use of the term common with respect to grace. Common grace is distinguished not so much from what we might call uncommon grace, but rather from what we call “special grace.” Common grace refers to several concepts or experiences that we observe as Christians. On the one hand, we realize that in God’s divine providence He pours out benefits that are enjoyed not simply by believers, but by believers and non-believers alike. With respect to such benefits and such activities, the common grace of God is linked closely to two distinct aspects of the love of God. As I explained in my article from the May 2004 issue of Tabletalk, we distinguish among three distinct types of the love of God, two of which involve common grace.
The first of these aspects is God’s love of benevolence. The term benevolence means simply “good will.” And God’s love for the human race may be defined in terms of His having a generally kind disposition to all of His creatures, fallen as they may be. This, of course, does not negate God’s stance of wrath and anger towards those who continue in disobedience and in resisting the proper worship and gratitude the creature owes to God. But God’s love of benevolence reflects His good will towards all creatures.
This disposition, or kindness, that God displays towards all creatures indiscriminately is linked to the second type of love that we use to define God’s character. That is His love of beneficence. Where benevolence has to do with God’s will, beneficence has to do with God’s actions as they pertain to His activity on behalf of the whole created realm. We see that He not only has a divine kindness towards His creatures, He acts with a loving provision for the whole human race.
Jesus said that rain falls upon the just as well as the unjust. If we have two farmers living side by side, laboring each day to bring forth produce from the soil, we know that both farmers require the light of the sun, as well as a sufficient amount of rain to bring forth a healthy crop. If the two farmers are distinguished in terms of faith, one being a regenerate believer and the other an unregenerate non-believer, we don’t expect the sun simply to shine on the believer’s fields and the rain simply to moisten his crop, while at the same time God withholds the gifts of rain and sunshine from the unregenerate. On the contrary, both farmers reap the benefits of the grace of God. He owes neither farmer the gifts of rain and sunshine, as both of those come from His sovereign bounty. Nevertheless, He pours out these gifts to both believer and unbeliever, commonly. So, in this respect, when we speak of the love of God in His beneficence, His beneficence is common, that is, the whole world benefits from God’s grace to a certain degree.
We look also to the gifts that God gives and provides for people. We can go to unbelieving medical doctors who practice their trade perhaps with a superior skill than believers. It is not simply the believer who is a gifted physician, a gifted musician, or a gifted accountant. God blesses all sorts of people with gifts and talents, and these gifts all flow from His grace. They are not restricted simply to believers.
In like manner, God’s law is given to benefit the whole of mankind. God established government initially with an angel guarding the entrance to Paradise. Such government involves a restraint of evil. When God gives such restraints to evil, that restraining power gives benefit to the whole world. As fallen as the world is, and as many atrocities that are committed by wicked individuals or corrupt governments, the world would manifest much greater depravity and decadence if not for the restraint of evil by God’s common grace. We see that God, in His common grace, restrains evil from going unchecked, even among the most wicked people and nations.
Finally, those endeavors to which we as Christians give our attention that have salutary benefits for the whole are acts of common grace. For example, we march with the atheist and those of other religions to combat common evils such as abortion and human rights violations. These issues are not issues reserved for Christians but for the welfare of the entire human community. Common grace matters call the Christian often to work in arenas where there is a mixture of wheat and tares growing together.
In the final analysis, the grace that is most significant for our concern is that special grace of regeneration, or that special love of God called His love of complacency, the benefits of which are directed solely to His elect. Only the elect receive that grace, and that’s what distinguishes the elect from the non-elect. We must not think of common grace as a saving grace given indiscriminately or provided indiscriminately by God’s intent to the whole human race. That would be to step into a semi-Pelagian or Arminian understanding of common grace. Common grace does not include within it the divine and sovereign selective grace that is reserved for His elect.