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God’s Ordinary and Salvific Graces

aymon de albatrus


"…. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Mat 5:45)

"Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom 2:4)

"What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction," (Rom 9:22)

Common Grace (or a better term Ordinary Grace) is a theological concept in Reformed Christianity referring to the grace of God that is given to all humankind. It is "common" because its benefits are experienced by the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is "grace" because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God to be distinguished from the understanding of "special" or "saving" grace, which extends only to those whom God has chosen to redeem.

Special Grace (or a better term Salvific Grace) is the super grace by which God redeems, sanctifies, and glorifies his people. Unlike ordinary grace, which is universally given, special salvific grace is bestowed only on those whom God elects to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. (Act 13:48)

Common Grace limits the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of the practical application of science, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men. It is the convenient outworking of the Almighty God’s benevolence towards His creation.

The various aspects of God's common grace to all mankind may be generally gathered under four headings of ordinary providence:

Care for His creation: God’s sustaining care for His creation, called divine providence, is grace common to all. The Bible says, for instance, that God through the Son "upholds the universe by the word of his power" (Heb 1:2-3; Joh 1:1-4). God's gracious provision for His creatures is seen in the giving of the seasons, of seedtime and harvest. It is of this providential common grace that Jesus reminds His hearers when He said God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mat 5:45). We also see evidence of God’s common grace in the establishment of various structures within human society. At a foundational level, God has ordained the family unit. Even pagan parents typically know that they should nurture their children (Mat 7:9-10) and raise them to become responsible adults.

To restrain sin: Paul teaches that civil authorities have been "instituted by God" (Rom 13:1) to maintain order and punish wrongdoing. Although fallible instruments of His common grace, civil governments are called "ministers of God" (Rom 13:6) that should not be feared by those who do good. God also sovereignly works through circumstances to limit a person’s sinful behaviour (Gen 20:6, 1Sa 25:26).

To act in man's conscience: Paul says that when unbelieving Gentiles "who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, . . . 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 2:14-15). By God's common ordinary grace fallen mankind retains a conscience indicating in some ways differences between right and wrong. This may be based on the fact that human beings, though fallen in sin, retain a semblance of the "image of God" with which they were originally created (Gen 9:6; 1Co 11:7).  But this aspect is not sufficient to motivate the unregenerate man to seek God, to be saved (Rom 3:10,11). 

Providing blessings to mankind: Human advancements that come through the unredeemed are seen as outcomes of God's common grace. For example, medical and other technological advancements that improve the lives of both the redeemed and unredeemed are seen as initiated by common grace.

Therefore, common grace should be seen as God's continuing care for His creation, He restrains human society from becoming altogether intolerable and ungovernable, He makes it possible for mankind to live together in a generally orderly and cooperative manner, and maintaining man's conscious sense of understanding basic ‘right and wrong’ behaviours. With His ordinary common grace God allows the continually evil imagination of the thoughts and actions of man’s heart to go so far and no more, according to His purposes. (Gen 6:5)

Yet, God owes us nothing, indeed ALL we are and have, including our lives and souls are Gracious gifts of God, we are the debtors, totally: "……. and what have you that you did not receive? now if you did receive it, why do you glory, as if you had not received it?" (1Co 4:7) If God were to recall His sustaining Spirit we will disappear in the nothingness from whence we came from: "….. when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust." (Psa 104:29; 103:14) We are to be highly grateful to God for His Holy faithfulness and with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning from His promises. (Jam 1:17)

But rebellious man in his blackest of all sins despises the riches of God's grace. Fallen man boasts that he is not guilty of the great fleshly sins, but he should realize that the despising of God's providential goodness is a sin that greatly offends the Creator. For a starter, by this, he negates the existence of God and of His Christ and that is the ultimate sin that sends the unbelievers to Hell: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." (Joh 3:36)

But not all are agreed on the concept of "common grace". We guess that it depends mostly on the angle one visualises the whole concept. Here are some of the divergences:

They say that the First Point that common grace teaches is a favourable attitude of God towards all men in general, and not only toward the elect. They say that the proof given for this point as "rain and the sunshine" that the unbelievers receive from God and they do not mean that the rain and sunshine the wicked receive are not good. They are good. On this they are agreed but their difficulty is in that they perceive that common grace teaches that God gives those good things to unbelievers in His love for them or His favour towards them. But common (ordinary) grace does not teach that, for how can God love those who hate Him when Scripture says that God has continual wrath towards those: "…….. whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." (Joh 3:36) Moreover, how can God love someone He knows very well that will hate Him all his live and that at his death God will send immediately to Hell?  Surely we are not inconsistent with our beliefs as the Arminians are.

God has created His own creation for His own purpose and will bring to pass every one of His plans, and God has deep love for those who He has called to Himself and He will make sure that His common grace, all over His creation will limit the evil of the heathen so that His people will have reasonable lives on this earth, as they live amongst them. Indeed common grace is not so much for the benefit of the unbelievers but for the believers’ advantage.

Their second point of common grace they say teaches that God restrains the unimpeded (unhindered) breaking out of sin, by the general operation of the Holy Spirit. Their objection to this second point is not with the truth that God restrains sin. God does indeed restrain sinners from doing every conceivable wicked deed. It that was not the case, the world would be chaos, they agree. But their objection to the second point is that it teaches that God restrains sin by a gracious operation of His Spirit and in an attitude of favour toward unbelievers. Again, God does not restrain the sinners as a favour towards them, but as mentioned before, He restrains the unbelievers for the benefit of His people.

On this point they put forward other explanation such as one from Augustine; he explained that the wicked were so busy pursuing one lust that they did not commit all of them. If they were lovers of money, for example, they would forgo all kinds of other sins (drunkenness, drug use, gluttony) in order to pursue this one lust of theirs, to get as much money as possible, of course.

It is said that unbelievers have some regard for good order and decency in society because they see it is profitable for them. A man refrains from murder, but not necessarily because God restrains him; he refrains from sinning because he knows the miserable consequences if he murders; he wants to save his own skin. In a nutshell, the obvious reason for the restraint is that men do not desire to suffer the painful consequences of evil.

But all this is still a consequence of Common Grace for under that God has provided magistrates as His ministers bearing the sword of punishment, feared by the ungodly: "For he is the minister of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil." (Rom 13:4)

Their third point is that common grace teaches that unbelievers who are not regenerated can do good works, not saving good, but civil good. They say that their objection should not be taken to mean that unbelievers couldn’t do anything useful, profitable, or outwardly correct. Their objection to the third point is simply this: "The unbeliever cannot do anything for which God is pleased with him personally. There are no works that unbelievers perform which God approves, about which He says ‘good work’, and upon which He puts His stamp of approval. All works of unbelievers are unrighteous." Common grace does agree with this, i.e. all the works of unbelievers are morally unrighteous and have no approval from God, especially when considering that these works are done under their own volition and do not come under the works that God has prepared for His people, before time began, thus there is no issue here. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them." (Eph 2:10Although God remains totally sovereign over His creation and nothing happens over which He has no control. 

And so for all other objections to the concept of Common (Ordinary) Grace must be seen on the milieu that God in His love (Agape) towards His elect has provided this benevolent intervention not necessarily for the benefit of unbelievers, but for the wellbeing of His people. To be noted that all believers at one stage were unbelievers and sinners (1Co 6:9-11). But God in His Omniscience knew very well (because of His decrees before time began Rom 8:30) who were His and on those he poured His marvellous abundant particular benevolence even though they were yet sinners and not converted nor regenerated and enemies (from our part): "But God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8,10; Col 1:21)

When we speak of unbelievers, we do not mean those that at the appointed time will be "born again" by God (Eze 36:26,27) and become believers, for these were ordained to salvation before time began (Act 13:48; Joh 10:26,27) and for a time were "unbelievers", but we consider those who are truly unbelievers and lost forever (Rom 9:22; Jud 1:4). On the former He grants His Salvific Grace from the onset as soon as they are born, while they were yet sinners, whilst on the latter He restrains with His Ordinary Grace for the sake of His elect.

Some points about these two Graces: Special (Salvific) and Common (Ordinary):

  • Salvific grace is limited to the elect, while common grace is not so limited, but is granted to all men indiscriminately. It cannot even be said that the elect receive a greater measure of common grace than the non-elect. It is a matter of common knowledge, and has frequently been observed, that the wicked often possess a greater measure of common grace and have a greater share in the natural blessings of life than the pious. After all the unsaved are the one who need a greater Common grace to be restrained.

  • Special salvific grace removes the guilt and penalty of sin, changes the inner life of man, and gradually cleanses him from the pollution of sin by the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit. Its work invariably is paramount in the salvation of the sinner. Common grace, on the other hand, never removes the guilt of sin, does not renew human nature, but only has a restraining effect on the corrupting influence of sin and in a measure mitigates its results. It does not effect the salvation of the sinner it only restrains him.

  • Special grace is irresistible to change the heart; it makes man perfectly willing to accept Jesus Christ unto salvation and to yield obedience to the will of God. Common grace is resistible, and as a matter of fact is always more or less resisted. Paul shows in Romans 1 and 2 that neither the Gentiles nor the Jews were living up to the light, which they had. In common grace the call to believe and to repent is external and invariably ineffectual, because man is disinclined to faith and repentance, but he is in bondage to sin (Psa 10:4; Rom 8:7). It is ineffectual unto salvation because it leaves the heart unchanged.

  • Special salvific grace works in a spiritual and re-creative way, renewing the whole nature of man (Eze 36:26,27), and thus making man able and willing to accept the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to produce spiritual fruits. Common grace, to the contrary, operates only in a rational and moral way by making man in a general way receptive for the truth, by presenting motives to the will, and by appealing to the natural desires of man. This is equivalent to saying that special salvific grace is immediate and supernatural, since it is wrought directly in the soul by the immediate energy of the Holy Spirit, while common grace is persuasive and the product of the operation of the Holy Spirit through the truth of general revelation and by moral persuasion.

  • This conception of common grace should be carefully distinguished from that of the Arminians, who regard common grace as a connection in the order of salvation and ascribe to it saving significance. They hold that, in virtue of the common grace of God, the unregenerate man is perfectly able to perform a certain measure of spiritual good, to turn to God in faith and repentance, and thus to accept Jesus unto salvation. They go even farther than that, and maintain that common grace by the illumination of the mind and the persuasive influence of the truth spurs the sinner to accept Jesus Christ and to turn to God in faith and repentance, and will certainly achieve this end, unless the sinner obstinately resists the operation of the Holy Spirit. But this is none other than that reoccurring Pelagian heresy of old.

Praise God for His Common Ordinary Grace that He pours on His creation by which we can live reasonably peaceful lives on this earth.

Praise God to the highest for His Sovereign Special Salvific Grace that He has Granted to His elect, His people, by which their sins have been blotted out in the precious Blood of Christ and they can look forward with certainty at eternal life in the bliss of His effulgent presence, AMEN.

"As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our sins from us." (Psa 103:12)