Common Grace

Introduction

What is grace?

Grace is favor.

 

What does the word “grace” mean in Scripture?

The Bible uses the term grace to refer to the favor that God shows to His people.

 

What is unique about the Bible’s usage of this term?

The favor shown by God is unmerited and even forfeited because of sin.

 

To whom does God show grace?

In one sense, God shows grace to all people.  In another sense, He shows grace only to His elect.

 

How is this?

Because the Bible teaches us to understand God’s grace in two ways.  First is God’s common or universal favor which He shows to all people.  Second is God’s special grace which He shows only to His people.

 

What is common grace?

This is any favor of God shown to a person that does not result in their salvation.

 

What is special grace?

Special grace is that favor God shows to His elect people which results in their salvation.

 


Genesis 8:20-22

What is taught in this passage?

In this passage, we have the account of Noah leaving the Ark and offering a sacrifice to God.  God then promises Noah that He will never again destroy the entire creation.

 

Why is this text important for our understanding of God’s favor to men?

Because here we have an example of God showing favor to every human person, and even animals.

 

Why do you say so?

Because the recipients of God’s favor here are said to be “every living thing” (Genesis 8:21) and every living creature. (Genesis 9:10, 12)  Furthermore, Genesis 8:21 makes it clear that God gives this favor to mankind in spite of the fact that they remain totally depraved.  Notice the description given here of man’s depravity:

And Jehovah smelled the sweet savor; and Jehovah said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, for that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

This should be compared with God’s previous verdict given us in Genesis 6:5.

 

If mankind remains totally depraved even after the flood, then why does God not immediately punish them and cast all of them into eternal condemnation?

The reason is because of the propitiatory sacrifice which Noah offered after he had left the ark.  We read of this in Genesis 8:

And Noah built an altar unto Jehovah, and took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar.  And Jehovah smelled the sweet savor; and Jehovah said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, for that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:20-21)

 

Why do you call this a propitiatory sacrifice?

First, note that God smells Noah’s offering.  This means that God accepts the offering and is pleased with it.  The opposite can be seen in Amos where God will not smell the offering:  I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. (Amos 5:21)

Second, a propitiatory sacrifice is a sacrifice that removes God’s wrath.  This is seen especially in the word here translated “sweet” (see here) which has the sense of soothing or quieting.  Edersheim calls it “a savor of rest” or “of satisfaction,” the point being that God’s anger was pacified or caused to rest by Noah’s sacrifice.  source   This word is the same word used to describe the effect of the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus. (Leviticus 1:9, 13,17, etc.)  It is important not to miss the typology here.  In light of future revelation, Noah’s sacrifice is clearly a type of the sacrifice of Christ which is what really removes God’s wrath against sinners. (John 3:36; Romans 5:9)

 

Why do you say that Noah’s offering was a type of the sacrifice of Christ?

Because Paul teaches us to think of the death of Jesus as “an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” (Ephesians 5:2)

 

What does Noah’s offering here teach us about God’s general favor toward all men?

It shows us that even the blessings of God’s common grace were purchased for us by the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, here typified in Noah’s offering.

 


Psalm 145:9

Where does the Bible teach that God has a grace that extends to all people?

The Bible teaches this in Psalm 145:9: The LORD is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made.

 

This verse seems to teach that God loves all His creation but not necessarily all people?

The expression “all that He has made” would certainly include people since they are also created by God.

 

But what about the following verse?

The next verse is v10: All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you

 

In this verse, we see that “all” is in parallel with “all your saints”.  Does this not imply that “all that He has made” in v9 is really referring to God’s saints and thus not referring to a goodness of God that extends to all people?

Let us recall that in Hebrew poetry, we expect the second line to carry forward the idea contained in the first line and not merely to repeat it.  It is a hermeneutical error to view both lines as perfectly synonymous. Longman, How to Read the Psalms, 97–98.  In v10, the first line states a basic truth; i.e. that all creation gives thanks to God.  The second line carries this thought forward and highlights the specific activity of God’s chosen and sanctified people.

 

What else must be kept in mind as we seek to understand the meaning of this verse?

As with any Scripture, we must not choose a meaning which we consider to be a possible meaning, but what is its natural and most plausible meaning in this context.

 

Matthew 5:44

Where else does the Bible teach that God has a common favor for all people?

Jesus teaches us this in Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  (Matthew 5:44-48)

 

What is being taught here?

In these verses, Jesus commands us to love all people, even those people who are most obnoxious to us;  i.e. our enemies.

 

How does this teach us that God has a common favor towards all people?

Because of the reason given to enforce this command.

 

What is that reason?

We are told to love all people because God loves all people, even His enemies.

 

Are we to conclude that God’s “enemies” include both elect and non-elect people?

The text here gives us no reason to think otherwise.

 

Why cannot this verse be understood to teach that God loves all His elect people, even His elect enemies?

Because then God would be commanding us to do something that He Himself does not do.

 

How so?

Assuming this interpretation, then God would be loving only His elect people and hating the rest, all the while commanding us to love everyone in the same way He He does.

 

How do you know that God is commanding us to love in the same way He does?

Because Jesus says, “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”  This means that we are sons of God when we imitate God’s action.

 

But does this verse tell us why God gives these gifts to His enemies?  Perhaps these gifts come to the elect from God’s favor and to the reprobate from His hatred and wrath?

The meaning of this text is that we are to love the same way God loves.  We could paraphrase Jesus’ words this way:

I give you this command:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you would be just like your Father who is in heaven who also loves both the good and the evil by sending them sunshine and rain.

Thus, this text is teaching us that these good gifts flow from God’s love as the parallel passage in Luke confirms, “…for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6:35)

 

Romans 2:4

Are there other passages which teach common grace?

Consider Rom 2:4 where Paul is speaking to those who are going to experience the judgment of God falling on them.  The rhetorical question in v3 sets the tone here:  Do you suppose, Oh man that you will escape the judgment of God?

 

How does this teach common grace?

Because the next verse speaks of the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience which God shows to them in order to bring them to repentance.

 

How do you prove that this kindness is shown to those who are reprobate?

Because v3 shows that these people will surely not escape the judgment of God.  Also in v5 and v9, Paul speaks of these people as going into everlasting punishment.

 

How do those who deny the doctrine of common grace understand this text?

They interpret it as teaching that the wicked despise God’s goodness shown to His elect people.  So they would paraphrase the text this way:

Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience which God is showing to His elect people, not knowing that God’s kindness to them is meant to lead you to repentance?

 

What can be said of this interpretation?

It makes this text teach that God’s kindness and love for His elect people is meant to lead the wicked to repentance.  Reading this text, however, leads us to believe that it is because the wicked receive from God kindness and love and that this very kindness is meant to break their heart, show them their wicked ingratitude, and to lead them to repent of their evil and to turn to God.  In other words, if the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience were meant to lead the wicked to repentance, then it’s hard to see how they are not also the recipients of these gifts.  The other interpretation teaches that the wicked should look at all the good things God does for His elect people and this should lead them to repentance.  This is a strained way to understand this text motivated it seems not by textual concerns but by theological concerns.

 

The text speaks of forbearance and patience.  Is it not more plausible to see these actions of God as exercised towards the wicked than God’s elect people?

It certainly is.  God certainly does exercise forbearance and patience to His elect people; but in this context, it makes more sense that it is the wicked who are receiving God’s forbearance and patience.

 

Since Scripture always seems to use the term “grace” for His redemptive favor that results in the salvation of His people, should we dispense with the term “common grace”?

Some have said that we should.  John Frame, for instance, writes:

To my knowledge, Scripture never uses hen [the Hebrew word translated “grace”] or charis [the Greek word translated “grace”] to refer to his blessings on creation generally or on non-elect humanity. So it would perhaps be better to speak of God’s “common goodness”, or “common love”, rather than His “common grace.” The word grace in Scripture tends to be more narrowly focused on redemption than goodness and love, though the latter terms also have rich redemptive associations.   Frame, The Doctrine of God, 429–430.

There is one verse, however, which contradicts Frame.   Isaiah says, “Let favor be showed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness will he deal wrongfully, and will not behold the majesty of Jehovah.” (Isaiah 26:10)  The word favor here (see here) is the verb form of the word hen which Frame mentions above.

 

Is this an issue on which other Christians have spoken?

Yes, Mastricht writes:

From this emerges a threefold love of God, that is, toward his creatures:

(1) a universal love (Psalm 104:31; 145:9), through which He created, conserves, and governs all things (Psalm 36:6; 147:9).

(2) A common love, extending itself particularly to men, certainly not to each and every individual, but yet indiscriminately to anyone, as much the reprobate as the elect, of which kind is also the love that dispenses the benefits that are mentioned in Hebrews 6:4–5 and 1 Corinthians 13:1–2.

(3) A love proper to the elect, by which he dispenses saving benefits to them, benefits that accompany salvation (Hebrews 6:9), which accordingly are different from nature and natural benefits. For it is most terrible to confuse nature and grace.  Theoretical-Practical Theology vol:351.

Gill (p115):

All that God has made is the object of his love; all the works of creation, when he had made them, he looked over them, and saw that they were good, very good, Gen. 1:31; he was well pleased, and delighted with them; yea, he is said to rejoice in his works; Psalm 104:31; he upholds all creatures in their beings, and is the Preserver of all, both men and beasts; and is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works, Psalm 36:6, and 145:9; and particularly, rational creatures are the objects of his care, love, and delight: he loves the holy angels, and has shown his love to them in choosing them to happiness; hence they are called elect angels, 1 Tim. 5:21; by making Christ the head of them, by whom they are confirmed in the estate in which they were created, Col. 2:10; and by admitting them into his presence, allowing them to stand before him, and behold his face, Matt. 18:10; yea, even the devils, as they are the creatures of God, are not hated by him, but as they are apostate spirits from him: and so he bears a general love to all men, as they are his creatures, his offspring, and the work of his hands; he supports them, preserves them, and bestows the bounties of his providence in common upon them, Acts 17:28, and 14:17, Matt. 5:45;

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