If the last few weeks of your life have been anything like mine, you’ve been spending more time at home. The physical distancing suggestions and rules given by governors, mayors, and even the president of the United States in order to deal with COVID-19 have closed stores, restaurants, sporting arenas, and many other places. Many of us, including me, are working almost exclusively from home. Instead of worshiping with other believers in a church building, we’re participating in weekly Lord’s Day worship as best we can via livestream. My wife or I go out to the grocery store once a week to get groceries and occasionally pick up takeout, leaving the other spouse and the children at home. As a family, we go for a neighborhood walk almost every evening. Other than that, we are staying put at the Rothwell homestead.
At present, we face a lot of unanswered questions. How many people will die from this virus? How badly will these lockdowns damage the world economy? How effective are these restrictions at preventing the spread of the virus? How many people have actually had the virus, experienced no symptoms, and are now immune? Are local and state governments or the federal government overstepping their authority in any way? If we contain the virus now, will it come back in the winter? Will those who have been furloughed or who have lost their jobs be able to get their jobs back once life returns to “normal”? Will this episode fundamentally change our society, or it will it be a hardship that, once overcome, causes no permanent alteration to our way of life? I could go on.
The virus is simultaneously reminding us that we live in a fallen world and that just about everything in this world is related to other things in incredibly complex ways. Try to fix one thing, and we often break something else. Right now, we’re trying to stop the virus from spreading, but we’re damaging the economy. Yet, amazingly, life is continuing, albeit with much difficulty for many of us. Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are making valiant efforts to preserve life. Truck drivers and ship captains are transporting necessary goods around the world. Power plant technicians are keeping our lights on. Grocery store managers, cashiers, and stock clerks are keeping shelves stocked with what we need to carry on. I could go on here as well.
In the midst of this global pandemic, we are seeing God’s common grace at work.
Grace, of course, is any goodness that the Lord shows to us that we do not deserve. And, you might remember that the Bible, broadly speaking, refers to God’s grace in two main ways. First, there is God’s special or saving grace. This is the grace referred to in texts such as Ephesians 2:8–10 and Romans 9–11. John 3:1–17 is also a key text on special or saving grace, though the word grace never appears in that passage. Special or saving grace is the grace that brings about our salvation. God must give it to us if we are to be saved, and it is special because God does not give it to everyone. The Lord gives special grace only to the elect, and not because the elect are better than anyone else but simply because He has chosen to save His people.
Common grace, on the other hand, refers to the goodness of God toward all people. It is common because everyone, elect and nonelect, benefits from it. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), and so the human race can grow food for itself. God has also made a covenant with nature that the regular rhythms of nature, including the seasons and the physical laws of the universe, will continue as long as the earth remains (Gen. 8:22). How often do we remember that without this covenant, science and technology would be impossible? There would be no scientific advancements or technological improvements if we could not count on the world to carry on as it always has. Without a predictable natural order, we could not conduct repeatable and testable experiments and form hypotheses. If the laws of the universe were constantly changing, we could not adapt to them or learn anything from them.
Also, one doesn’t have to be a Christian in order to love his family, deal honestly with customers and business partners, keep his neighborhood clean, or even enact wise laws that benefit many others. Sometimes, nonbelievers do what the law requires (Rom. 2:14). Of course, this is an outward obedience that cannot please God because it is not motivated by love for Him. Nevertheless, these good works do benefit others, even Christians. At least in the United States, we can still count on the police, firefighters, doctors, and many others to help us even when the people in these positions have not trusted in Christ for salvation.
Fallen as we are, we often take God’s common grace for granted. But without it, we would be in dire straits indeed. Just think of what has to happen for us to put milk on our tables. We need a dairy farmer who knows how to care for cows. That farmer and his farmhands have to get up at the right time every day and have a work ethic sufficient to motivate them to milk the cow properly. A truck driver has to transport the milk to a pasteurization and bottling plant, and if he is behind schedule, the milk could go bad. At the pasteurization and bottling plant, workers have to rely on the scientific discoveries of Louis Pasteur and equipment crafted by engineers to pasteurize and bottle the milk. A truck driver has to get it to the store on time. The grocery store must have dependable refrigeration, which depends on somebody in years past discovering how to generate and conduct electricity and on workers in the present to show up on time at the power plant and do their jobs well enough to keep things running. Then, a stock person and a cashier must be sufficiently committed to their jobs to show up for their shifts in order to stock and sell the milk. I could multiply many other variables, and this is just for milk! Think of everything else.
This world is complex indeed, and at any one point, something little could throw an entire process off track and cause much damage. Yet, things carry on. Even in a pandemic. That is God’s common grace sustaining the energy and wills of human beings to know how to do things and to get them done. Do bad things happen at times? Of course. We sinners are good at making a mess of things. Yet, by and large, society continues and needs are met. This is better in some places than in others, to be sure, but we haven’t wiped ourselves or the world out. That is God’s common grace.
In the days ahead, frustrations are sure to continue. Even once the virus is passed, we will still have the everyday thorns and thistles brought into our work by Adam. Yet, we can be grateful that the Lord has sustained us for millennia, and he will do so as long as earth remains. When a cure or vaccine comes, we will be able to thank God for His common grace that made it possible for both Christian and non-Christian scientists who develop it. In the meantime, we can thank the Lord for His common grace that is evident in how people of all backgrounds are working together, each in their own specific spheres, to keep things running. And in the future, when this is behind us, we can thank Him for His common grace that makes life in this fallen world more tolerable.