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.