Common Grace vs. Special Grace

Se gândesc unii la ce nici nu-ți trece prin minte! Noi, românii, n-am despicat încă firul în patru. O fi bine, o fi rău ?

“God is good to all in some ways but good to some in all ways” (JI Packer, Knowing God).

I believe the point of Packer’s quote is to say that there are common graces that apply to everyone. The rain comes down, the seasons change, your heart continues to beat – these blessings are passed out indiscriminately. So God is good to all in some ways.

The Christians are the “some.” Because we have been made sons and daughters of God in Christ, God is good to us in all ways.

Common Grace is a theological concept in Protestant Christianity, primarily in Reformed and Calvinistic circles, referring to the grace of God that is either common to all humankind, or common to everyone within a particular sphere of influence (limited only by unnecessary cultural factors). It is “common” because its benefits are experienced by, or intended for, the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is “grace” because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God. In this sense, it is distinguished from the Calvinistic understanding of “special” or “saving” grace, which extends only to those whom God has chosen to redeem.

Aspects of common grace

In the words of Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof, “[Common grace] curbs 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 science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men,” (Berkhof, p. 434, summarizing Calvin’s position on common grace). The various aspects of God’s common grace to all mankind may be generally gathered under four heads:

Providential care in 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; John 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” (Matt. 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 (Matt. 7:9-10) and raise them to become responsible adults.

Providential restraint of sin – In the Bible, Paul teaches that civil authorities have been “instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1) to maintain order and punish wrong-doing. 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 persons sinful behavior (Gen. 20:6, 1 Sam. 25:26).

In man’s conscience – The apostle 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, ESV). By God’s common grace fallen mankind retains a conscience indicating the 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: 1 Cor. 11:7).

Providential 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.

In summary, common grace is seen in God’s continuing care for his creation, his restraining human society from becoming altogether intolerable and ungovernable, his making it possible for mankind to live together in a generally orderly and cooperative manner, and maintaining man’s conscious sense of basic right and wrong behavior.

Contrasted with special grace

Special grace, in Reformed theology, is the grace by which God redeems, sanctifies, and glorifies his people. Unlike common grace, which is universally given, special grace is bestowed only on those whom God elects to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. This special grace is frequently linked with the five points of Calvinism as irresistible grace or efficacious grace. Common Grace is God working in the heart of the sinner to emulate the Christian life but not effectually saving that sinner. This is a most important distinctive of Historical Calvinism as it is a distinctive made by John Calvin in his book the Institutes of the Christian Religion and by a number of Confessions of faith for Calvinistic denominations originally in Europe. It is also the distinctive made by later theologians such as Abraham Kuyper of the Netherlands and Louis Berkhof and R. C. Sproul. Following Kuyper, Berkhof sees three categories of common grace:

  1. Universal Common Grace, a grace that extends to all creatures;
  2. General Common Grace, that is grace which applies to mankind in general and to every member of the human race;
  3. Covenant Common Grace, a grace that is common to all those who live in the sphere of the covenant, whether they belong to the elect or not.[1]

Theological Issues

Within Calvinism

One of the earliest writers on common grace was the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper. The specifics of the Reformed doctrine of common grace have been somewhat controversial and at times bitterly contested by some Calvinists. Especially in the Dutch tradition, it has been the cause of divisions. For example, in a 1924 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the CRC adopted what became known as the “Three Points of Common Grace.” Certain ministers within the CRC refused to subscribe to those “Three Points,” and they (with the majority of their consistories) were either suspended or deposed from office. Thus began the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. These ministers, and others after them, wrote responses to the decision that was taken and ever since, the Protestant Reformed Churches have maintained that these “Three Points” were contrary to Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.

The position of Herman Hoeksema and all leaders of the Protestant Reformed Churches is unique to the denomination, and is based on a high view of the word “grace” as a Biblical concept of favor applied only to the elect. According to Hoeksema (and any PRC writer) God’s undeserving gifts of sunshine, rain, etc. are “providence” and while providence serves grace for believers, because it adds to their spiritual growth, it is not sent in love to unbelievers and only adds condemnation to those who never believe, in the same way rain is beneficial to a living tree but causes a dead one to rot. Connected to the first point of common grace, which asserts that God’s “common grace” is demonstrated in a “general offer” of the gospel, Hoeksema asserted that such a view is pure Arminianism. While God commands all men to repent and believe and this command must be preached to all, Hoeksema insisted this command, like all other commands to godliness in Bible, is not a “well-meant offer” since it is impossible for unregenerated, totally depraved man to truly perform apart from God’s saving grace.

[edit] Between Calvinism and Arminianism

Both Calvinists and Arminians generally accept the concept of common grace in that there are undeserved blessings which God extends to all mankind. However, the Arminian sees this common grace including what has been termed “common sufficient grace” or the Wesleyan “prevenient grace” whereby the effects of the fall are offset such that all persons now have free will and the moral ability to understand spiritual things and turn to God in Christ for salvation. The Calvinist maintains that God’s common grace does not improve man’s unregenerate nature, nor does it improve his ability to change his moral standing before God.

(From Wikipedia)

Quotes

  • “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good.” – Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology
  • “The word ‘common’ in the title of the topic is not used in the sense that each particular favour is given to all without discrimination or distinction but rather in the sense that favours of varying kinds and degrees are bestowed upon this sin-cursed world, favours real in their character as expressions of the divine goodness but which are not in themselves and of themselves saving in their nature and effect. So the term ‘common grace’ should rather be defined as every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” – John Murray, Common Grace
  • “There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell-fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell: there are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are the beginnings of hell-fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments in them as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in Scripture compared to the troubled sea, Isaiah 57:20. For the present God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;’ but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is a thing that is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God’s restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so, if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.” – Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

Notes

  1. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 434, summarizing Calvin’s position on common grace.
  2. The Three Points of Common Grace adopted by the CRC in 1924.
  3. Grace Uncommon by Rev. Barry Gritters at PRCA.org.

*********************

Common And Special Grace

God’s grace is manifested in two ways: common and special grace. Common grace is the grace shown by the Creator to and for His creation. This “common” grace is given regardless of the recipient’s awareness and acceptance of it. Special grace is bestowed upon those who enter into a personal relationship to the Creator through Jesus Christ. Those who are ambassadors for Christ must be about both graces. The former grace often opens the door for the latter grace.

What do the pituitary gland, Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and the parking meter person have in common—other than being alliterative voiceless bilabials? They all are expressions of what is theologically known as “common grace”; i.e., the Creator’s expressions of divine favor (grace) to and for his Creation. What do the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, and the Church share in common?

They all are expressions of what is theologically known as “special grace”: God’s special and divine favor bestowed on anyone who would respond personally to him.

Common Grace

The Pituitary Gland

When was the last time you thought about your pituitary gland—that peanut sized “master gland” that hangs at the base of your brain near the center of your skull and regulates your body’s growth as well as a number of vital bodily functions? The pituitary gland is an example of the first and most basic expression of common grace: the wildly excessive and indiscriminate life sustaining favor of God to all humankind (and every other “kind” for that matter) as seen through his provision of such common, elemental things as sun and rain. In fact, this aspect of God’s grace is so common that we take it for granted because of its 24/7, “3-D, digital surround sound” nature. Whenever we speak of grace being “uncommon” we are almost invariably making reference to ourselves and not to God.

Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

After reading my friend’s radio adaptation of Milton’s classic poem, I found myself transported to the burning borders of heaven and hell. The power of Milton’s words (and my friend’s editorial skill) to forge powerful images of beauty and brutality in one’s mind is an example of the second expression of common grace: the tendency for humankind not only to be about the avoidance (or at least an awareness) of “wrongness” and ugliness but also to be about the appreciation and expression of “rightness” and beauty in its many forms. How is that possible for a fallen people in a fallen world? Although the children of Adam and Eve have lost paradise, its memory still echoes within their souls and finds expression in their attempts to recapture paradise lost through myriad philanthropic endeavors such as the Arts, arboretums, and education. God’s image within humankind may have been marred but it hasn’t been removed.

The Parking Meter Person

Okay, the pituitary gland and Paradise Lost make some sense, but the parking meter person?

What gives? The parking meter person is the third expression of common grace: humankind’s propensity to set up systems of law and order. Imagine if there were no parking meter persons in a crowded city. Paradise regained? For all our minor complaints at getting parking tickets or towed vehicles, we would all be experiencing minor strokes if our city streets were totally clogged at any hour of the day because folk didn’t hesitate to park their cars wherever they wanted to because they knew bad consequences did not follow wrong actions. This basic idea of restraint because of unwelcomed repercussions can be extended to every facet of a civilized country. It’s what keeps humanity from totally wiping itself off the face of the planet. All would agree that there are no perfect forms of human government. So, too, most would agree that without some degree of human government human existence would be worse off. To some, order destroys freedom, but if history has rubbed our face in anything it’s the cyclical pattern of destruction that results from unrestricted freedom and the tyrannical forms of order that rise to meet it.

Special Grace

Much has been (and should be) said about special grace, at least within most “Christian” circles.

In a nutshell, special grace (e.g., the lasting fruit of the Gospel, the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, entrance into the body of Christ, etc.) flows to all who would receive it. We at CGM believe that special grace is bestowed on anyone who wishes to enter into a personal relationship with the God of the universe and to live with, by and for him.

Of Coins and Composite Creatures

Some folk see common and special grace as two separate expressions of grace; we see them as the “head” and “tail” of the same coin. In Genesis we are told that we humans came from the dust of the earth, and thus there is a natural, material element to our being. Secondly, we are told that God “breathed” life into us, creating us in his own image. Thus, there is a supernatural, spiritual element to our being. These two elements, material and spiritual, were perfectly wedded in Eden; however, after the “fall” a schism arose between the two. Although food would still be provided (with our contribution of toil and sweat) for the sustenance of the body, no longer would God’s Spirit be in communion with our spirit. From that point forward, common grace would be given freely, but special grace would have to been freely chosen. Thus, in our experience of these two sides of Grace, common grace always precedes special grace. Before we enter the family of God, we enter the family of the Goddards, Gonzalezes, Gorbachevs or Gotos (or whatever your family name happens to be). Before we see the light of heaven, we see the light of day. Before we taste the fruit from the tree of life, we taste the fruit from the trees of DelMonte and Chiquita. Before we inhabit the “mansions” of heaven, we must dwell in our modest abodes here on earth.

An Unbalanced Coin?

There are those who would say, “Special grace is all that matters; i.e., getting people saved. This common grace thing is the invention of well meaning yet totally miss guided left-wing liberals who let their bleeding hearts rule their theologically empty heads. Sure, God provides the sun and rain, but that’s nothing compared to the provision of his Son. The spirit is everything. The flesh profits nothing. No one was, is, or ever will be saved by common grace. Only special grace can save a soul!” True, no one can be saved by common grace alone. But neither can anyone be saved by special grace alone. No one was ever saved by common grace alone, but, we argue, no one was, is or ever will be saved without it. Yes, the Spirit gives birth to spirit, but a person in order to enter heaven must be born before he can be born again. We believe that it is the very commonness of common grace that blinds us to this simple yet critical truth. We fail to see that without common grace, special grace would be null and void. Why? Because without common grace (i.e., without the sun, rain, air, food, etc.) everyone and every living thing would be nixed, nothing, nada; i.e., dead. Now if everything and everyone is dead, who would be around to respond to God’s special grace? Not only would there be nobody around to receive it, there wouldn’t be anyone around to proclaim it. God is not only concerned about the hereafter; he’s also concerned about the here and now. Both matter and spirit matter to God.

Like Father Like Son

Jesus said that if anyone has seen him he has seen the Father; i.e., Jesus came to show “up close and personal” his Father’s heart. By looking at the way Jesus did things, we get a picture of how the Father had always been doing things for his creation since the genesis of all things. When tempted by the devil in the desert to turn stones into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Jesus wasn’t saying that humankind doesn’t need bread (i.e., food) to live; he was saying that bread alone can’t sustain all that a human being is. And so we see Jesus offering loaves of bread to five thousand men along with their families on a field of grass to satisfy the hunger of their bodies, and we also see Jesus as the Word of God offering himself as the Bread of Life to five billion plus people in the world to satisfy the hunger of their souls. We see Jesus not only helping a paralytic to take up his mat and walk home; we also see him taking up the paralytic’s sin so that one day he can be taken up to his eternal home. We see Jesus turning water into wine to make the heart merry, and we also see him shedding his blood on the cross to make the heart pure. We see Jesus not only giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s, but to God what was God’s.

Jesus was about common and special grace because his Father was about common and special grace.

Two Terrible Tendencies

The church has always known about and practiced common and special grace. However, history reveals that the church has had a difficult time with balancing both expressions.

One tendency has been to use common grace as a ruse to reel in the unregenerate: “You will be served a hot meal after brother Smith preaches the Gospel.” There are untold thousands who have been “saved” more then once in order to get a hot meal or a place to lay their weary heads. This mercenary approach to sharing the Gospel goes against the heart of our Lord. God allows sun and rain to shine and fall on the righteous and unrighteous regardless of their response to (or even awareness of) him. God never says, “Let’s see…Okay, no sun or rain for Mr. Smith today. He’s not a believer yet.” Another tendency is to be about a one-sided coin. To be about the body while neglecting the soul produces “hollow” men and women, “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” (2 Tim. 3:5) To be about the soul while neglecting the body produces hypocritical Gnostics (i.e., flesh haters) whose faith and love are dead: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:15)

Like Son Like Us

How should we, who believe in the Son, then live? Simple. We must be about expressing both sides of the coin of grace. In our churches, in our organizations, in our institutions, in our individual lives we need to be about the pituitary gland, Paradise Lost and the parking meter person; i.e., we need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, provide for the poor; we need to create beauty and express joy through art and architecture, through education and example; we need to be law abiding citizens who give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, who are involved in the “law and order” of our countries. We also need to be about the Word of God who alone can satisfy the emptiness of the human soul; we need to listen and learn from the lost among us, proclaiming the Gospel while living it; we need to show the heart of our Lord by allowing him to live in and through us; we need to allow our brokenness to be a contact point with the world’s brokenness.

Then we will truly be sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.



Categories: Teologice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: