In the 1950s, a very popular song proclaimed “He’s got the whole world in his hands!” Insofar as it had any theological content, it presumably spoke of the beneficent control by the Lord of all that He has made. That is not too far from the meaning of “common grace.” That is to say, in spite of the world’s sin and God’s just judgment upon it, the mighty Creator-Redeemer has never abandoned His creation; He always keeps His hand upon it so that it will be sustained, pardoned, and renewed in order to fulfill its purpose to bring Him eternal glory.
God, whose covenant is ordered in all things and sure, has His hand upon “the whole world.” Central to His eternal purposes is the calling out of a covenant people (in both Old and New Testaments) in order to redeem them from sin to lasting fellowship with Himself, to restore the whole cosmos as their environment of bliss, and through it all to glorify His holy and loving character. The Holy Scriptures pre-eminently are concerned with the multitude of saints who are divinely chosen to be transformed from corruption into the likeness of Jesus Christ Himself. Everything else is working together for that supreme purpose (see Rom. 8:28–30). Above all else, God’s hand is upon this elect people.
Yet, notwithstanding His particular and exquisite care over His chosen people, “He has the whole wide world in his hands.” Those who are not among His chosen, as well as every aspect of their environments — seen and unseen — are in the divine hands. How else could “all things work together for good to those who love the Lord,” unless He had under His control “all things”? Thus, Ephesians 1:11 makes it clear that He “works all things after the counsel of his own will.” The eternal, now incarnate, Son of God has “all things under his feet” (Eph. 1:22) in order that He may minister to the grand development of His body, the Church. This eternal Son is “before all things” and in Him “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). All things are “of him and through him and to him,” and one day all of them will bring Him glory (Rom. 11:36)!
God’s constant control of all reality is such that one day both the saved, on their way to heaven, and the lost, on their way to hell, must unite in one last confession (gladly voluntary from the former, and unhappily forced from the latter): “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11). The biblical doctrine of common grace reminds us that every aspect of creation (including sin, punishment, and hell) must ultimately redound to the honor of Christ and the glory of the Father. Some of the more visible and happy results of God’s control of this “whole wide world” for the triune glory in a redeemed cosmos must await the future, for it is true that “… we see not yet all things put under him” (Heb. 2:8). But a gladsome, hidden day is coming, which, as Hilary of Poitiers once said, makes visible all other days. Until that day, Christ, to the glory of His Father, is progressively “putting down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:24–26).
To this God-glorifying, redemptive purpose, the Sovereign One generously extends His non-saving, and yet undeservedly beneficial grace, to multitudes of people who willfully ignore and hate Him, and He even extends such grace to wild animals, parched grounds, and stormy seas. For long years, He held back the devastating flood of Noah (Gen. 6:3,13). Before the incarnation of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God kindly withheld His judgment from idolatrous, pagan nations (Acts 17:30) until they should have time to repent. Indeed, He sent the pagan nations wonderfully good gifts: “rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). God mercifully poured beautiful sunshine and refreshing, life-giving rain upon the just and the unjust, as Christ reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:45). The “nature Psalms” often celebrate God’s good favors (His common gifts of non-saving grace) upon fields of corn, pastures clothed with flocks, singing birds, mellow wine, fragrant oil, and cedars full of sap (for example, Psalms 65, 104, and 145).
God granted the indescribable blessing of mutual, human friendship to otherwise selfish persons who live and die rejecting the divine love (see Matt. 5:46). Loving friendship, if not rooted in the love of God is no evidence of eternal salvation; yet it is an undeserved benefit from God’s goodness, nonetheless. Splendid abilities have been divinely lodged and spiritually “watered” within talented sinners, who will never be regenerated. Not only do the hanging gardens of Babylon owe their beauty to God, mathematics and astronomy owe their utility to the Spirit of God.
Every direction we turn, there are signs of God’s gracious favors freely given to all of nature and all of humanity for divine purposes to be accomplished even through the recalcitrant and ungodly. Let us turn the eyes of our faith very briefly to four channels (or means) of God’s common grace: family, culture, state, and church. These means are being employed by God to prepare for His Son’s final triumph on the Last Day.
The Puritans called marriage one of the sweet relics of Eden. Marriage of a man and woman is ordained of God as the nursery of church and state, and the presupposition of all the blessings of human culture. It is the normal context for the development of psychological wholeness and moral consciousness, the first and last school, a life-long safety-net, and, for many, the anteroom of a happy eternity. Human families (even very ungodly ones) are the birthing places where many who receive that second birth come from. Without the benefits (genetic and environmental) that they derived from unsaved families, they could never have become what they were made in the kingdom of God. Is it any wonder that Satan is so viciously attacking normal family life in our declining Western culture? It is a means of common grace, whence those who are chosen to saving grace are so often taken, and for that reason alone, the enemy of men’s souls hates it.
The broad stream of human culture has always been a means of non-saving grace that has benefited the saints and glorified the Lord. Saint Augustine spoke of using pagan culture similar to the way that the departing Israelites “spoiled the Egyptians.” Basil the Great, in an address called “The Advantage of Pagan Classics for Young Christians,” spoke of Moses benefiting from Egyptian learning and Daniel from Babylonian science (chap. 3). Saul of Tarsus was “graced” by the teaching of Rabbi Gamaliel, as John Murray has pointed out (Works, II, p. 115). It has been a two-way street: although the church has made possible viable law codes, science, technology, parliaments, universities, and hospitals, it could not have done so without considerable raw material from the broader culture.
Human government was ordained by God to prevent anarchy by punishing the wicked and praising the good (1 Peter 2:14). Thus, as believers we are to pray for the government (1 Tim. 2:1–2) and pay our taxes (Rom. 13:6–7) that we may live godly and honest lives. Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship in order to avoid an unnecessary flogging (Acts 23:24–29), and he appealed to the court of Caesar to avoid being torn apart by the Jerusalem Jews (Acts 25:11). Thus the Apostle to the Gentiles lived to preach more sermons, write more letters, and win many a soul to Christ. So, while legal systems cannot convey saving grace, they may well convey non-saving gr
ace (not to be belittled in the advancement of the Gospel).
God’s Church is primarily focused on providing the means of saving grace to the elect. Yet it has always conveyed very gracious benefits even to those who will not be saved. Sir Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that the British Empire began collapsing when the pulpits no longer proclaimed the realities of heaven and hell. Where the Church is strong, crime is low and good manners prevail. These alone may not save the soul, but they are gracious benefits from God that keep life on earth from being hellish for all persons, and establish an atmosphere in which many find the Lord. Like other channels of common grace, they provide the context for many for entrance to that city “which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11: 10). And they show the human race something of who God really is (Matt. 5:45), and nothing could be more significant for all of His image-bearers.