It is a doctrine that preachers might make an offhand remark about. They might toss out the phrase in a sermon, leaving it to the congregants to already understand. And for good reason: they received little teaching about it in seminary and have had little opportunity to read about it. And yet, it is the key that unlocks many doors to understanding the ways of God and making sense of how to live in this world.
Indeed, it solves the great problem that possibly has led as many Christians astray from faith as has the problem of evil—the problem of good. Why is there so much good in a world that is rebellious against God? Why are there unregenerate people, many of whom deny the existence of God, who are kind, who are generous, who seem quite reasonable? It is a puzzle that has taken many a young person off guard as they have left their Christian environment and gone off to a secular school or job. This doctrine gives the answer that makes plain sense.
This marvelous doctrine is the doctrine of common grace. Grasp this doctrine and you can explain clearly the solution to the problem of good. You can also teach your people how to be neighbors to their unregenerate neighbors; how to benefit from the teachings and products and artistry of the unregenerate; how to discern what to be involved in and to partner with in the unregenerate world. So much makes sense once this doctrine is applied to life.
The doctrine of common grace has a word to add to the debate over the local church’s involvement in its community and culture. Common grace, not “redeeming the culture,” is the true motivation and guide for a church discerning what role it might play in its community.
It is common grace that leads the Christian toward resolving the most heart-wrenching concern that he has—namely, how can the unregenerate person he admires and even loves for the good that is in that person be condemned to hell? This is the great quandary—to know people who are nicer than ourselves who nevertheless will be condemned if they do not come to saving faith. It is this question that leads to the next: Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? Yes, we have been taught theologically that everyone is a wicked sinner deserving of damnation, but experientially we know people kinder that ourselves and other Christians—how can that be? And how, then can they be condemned? And seeing how sinful Christians can be and how good unregenerate neighbors can be—just what is it that the gospel is supposedly accomplishing?
Common grace supplies the answer—a surprisingly simple, even satisfying, answer. God, in his mercy, provides the sun and the rain for the unjust, as well as the just (Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35). He provides not only external blessings but internal as well. The result is that goodness and beauty and even truth may exist in and be expressed through the unregenerate. Even unregenerate Gentiles have consciences that correspond with God’s law (Rom. 2:14–15), and pagans can write theological truth (Acts 17:28).
Common grace explains how goodness, beauty, and truth may exist—even flourish—in dead sinners who have yet to be regenerated to life and brought out of darkness into light. The Holy Spirit who regenerates in special grace also bestows light for the unregenerate according to God’s merciful purposes. This doctrine gives us understanding so that we might both sincerely respect the good elements we observe in the unregenerate and, more importantly, give credit and praise to the right source—God.
Whatever good, beauty, and truth may be found in the unregenerate is a gift from God that he bestows out of common grace. That one person may possess more of a particular gift than another (even one unregenerate more than one regenerate) is the result of God’s benevolence, and not from that person’s innate goodness. Why God gives a particular gift to one person and not another; why one person should be given an unusual wealth of giftedness (such as being especially kind)—such reasons are known only to God the giver. The point is that he is the giver. No one possesses a good gift or trait that is not given by the Creator. No one is good of themselves; no one displays any measure of good of themselves.
Thus, God judges no one according to the gifts he has given. He judges everyone according to whether or not they remain in their rebellious state of rejecting him and his redeeming gift of the gospel.
See how common grace unlocks puzzles? It explains how seemingly good and gifted persons nevertheless remain under God’s condemnation even as their good traits and gifts may be honestly recognized and made use of. Much more can be explored, and ministers would do well to study this doctrine more deeply so as to offer practical counsel and guidance for their people.
Helpful resources are:
“Calvin and Common Grace,” The Princeton Theological Review Vol. 7 No. 3 (1909), pp 437-465, translated by Geerhardus Vos. (available online at https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/pdf/bavinck_commongrace.pdf)
“Common Grace,” The Collected Writings of John Murray.
He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace, Richard J. Mouw
Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, 2.2.14–17.
The Problem of Good: When the World Seems Fine without God, ed. D. Marion Clark.