Rachel Lynde: The murder trials in this Boston paper my niece sent me are real interesting, Marilla. Full of heathen, that place. I hope Anne will never go there again. Can you imagine that new minister going on about how he doesn’t believe that all the heathen will be eternally lost? The idea! If they won’t be, all the money we’ve been sending to the foreign missions will be completely wasted. That’s what.
Marilla Cuthbert: I wouldn’t fret if I were you, Rachel. Goodness knows, the world is full of beggars, and it’s a pretty pass if we can’t help out a fellow being in need, Christian or not.
Anne of Green Gables, The Sequel
John Murray once raised the question, “How is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?” The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction made by theologians between God’s “special” or “saving” grace on the one hand, and his “common” or “non-saving” grace, on the other. By God’s design, this common grace is always at work in the broader reaches of human society.
Common grace is hard to miss once we’ve thought about it for any length of time. God clearly bestows blessings on all human beings—believers and un-believers alike. For example, Jesus said his Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). That is, God doesn’t just water the crops of believers; he waters the crops of the unbelievers, too. He gives good gifts to all of humanity—whether they know him or not, believe in him or not, or thank him or not. God’s goodness extends to all his creation.
While God’s general goodness and gifts might not always result in the final redemption of every human being on whom it is showered (after all, at some level, salvation encompasses an individual’s personal belief), common grace is still a magnanimous display of his kindness and generosity to persons made in his image. Indeed, all that is good ultimately comes from God, regardless of whose lap it falls into here on planet earth. Maltbie Babcock’s hymn captures an aspect of common grace with these lines:
This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.
“He shines in all that’s fair.” That’s common grace. Both saint and sinner alike can appreciate a good sunset. Both can enjoy a breathtaking opera. Both can get a lump in their throats when their children get married. Both can enjoy a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a dollop of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a cup of piping hot coffee next to it right after dinner. (Yes, taste buds are a form of common grace!) Specifically, God demonstrates his common grace by:
- Giving all humans a conscience, by which right and wrong can be known (Rom 2:15)
- Sovereignly maintaining order in human society through government (Rom 13:1-5)
- Enabling all people to admire beauty and goodness (Ps 50:2; Dan 2:21)
- Setting up governments and putting leaders in power to maintain peace (1 Tim 2:2)
- Allowing everyone (in or out of Christ) to do good (Luke 6:33)
- Allowing all people to experience a vast array of emotions (Eccl 3:4)
- Giving people the ability to truly love each other (1 John 4:7)
- Allowing people to turn from evil (Job 1:1)
- Protecting people from constant evil and torment (Job 1:8)
- Keeping the ocean within its borders (Job 38:11)
- Allowing everyone to rest (Deut 5:12)
- Providing people with the necessities to live (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:30)
Tim Keller has said, “This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding common grace provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with and learn from non-Christians.” Really? Learn from and be blessed by people outside the formal covenants enumerated in Scripture? Oh yes. God often works that way. Some biblical examples include:
- Melchizedek blessing Abraham
- Rahab serving the Israelites
- Ruth accepting Yahweh and serving an Israelite family
- The pagan sailors acting more ethically than Jonah
- The pagan kings promoting Daniel in their realms
- Cyrus the Persian funding the rebuilding of the temple
- The magi worshiping Christ shortly after his birth
- The Roman centurion acknowledging Jesus’ lordship while the disciples are hiding
- Accurate statements made by unbelievers and cited in the Scriptures to serve the cause of truth
Without an understanding of common grace, believers wind up committing the genetic fallacy on a regular basis. (e.g., “The MBTI is untrustworthy because it’s based on Jungian psychology.” No, it’s validity and reliability must be determined independently of the original proponent.) We also marginalize people who don’t share our faith, preventing them from being a blessing to us as God may intend. But if God can use Cyrus the Persian to bless the Israelites’ journey home from exile, can I not likewise let my dentist bless me even if he’s an unbeliever, or my brain surgeon even if she’s a Muslim? Just get the job done right, thank you very much. On a related note, much of the world’s music can be raunchy, but some of it is rather pleasant or insightful. Common grace allows it to be so.
If common grace is so common—both in Scripture and in the heart of God—should it not be more common in the lives of believers? Indeed, should we not make loving our neighbor more common than it probably is? Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), not me. I cannot make it happen it my own life let alone anybody else’s. Moreover, Jesus said we can trust him to sort out the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (Matt 13:24-30). That’s not our job right now. Nor is it Rachel Lynde’s.
Image Credits: pexels.com; gettyimages.com.
 John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93.
 Tim Keller, Sermon Archives.