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On Common Grace

Feb 8, 2020

We sometimes forget about the important reality of God’s common grace:

As I somewhat anticipated, the article I penned yesterday on moral ability and accountability was misunderstood by some Christians or rather unnecessarily criticised. In my piece I responded to the common notion that we hear so often: ‘You can’t expect a nonbeliever to act like a believer.’

In my article I offered a yes and no response. Yes, the non-Christian is a sinner through and through, and needs God’s supernatural grace to get saved and start living a fully God-pleasing life. But no, that does not mean they are unable to do right things on occasion, nor that they are not morally accountable for what they do or do not do. The piece is here: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/02/07/yes-non-christians-are-morally-accountable/

But various folks objected to what I had to say. As always, I have to ask if some of these folks even bothered to read my entire piece, and to read it carefully. But the main sorts of criticisms centred on various biblical truths which I did in fact address in my article.

Some of the criticisms involved confusing different theological matters. Some thought that when I said that non-Christians are morally accountable and can do some morally praiseworthy things, that I was saying people could save themselves by their own efforts. I was not, and that of course is mixing apples with oranges.

Many Christians have latched on to those biblical passages which speak of nothing good being in us. I had mentioned some of those texts. What many of them were doing – whether they were aware of it or not – was promoting a theological view often but not always associated with Reformed theology. And that includes the doctrine of original sin, which says we are all born sinners, and somehow inherit a sinful nature from our first parents. I obviously fully subscribe to that doctrine, as I have written elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/18/on-original-sin-part-one/

And here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/18/on-original-sin-part-two/

As I said in there, we must not misunderstand what this term means. Total depravity does NOT mean that every person is as evil and rotten as they can possibly be. It means that every part of their being is impacted by the fall – mind, will, emotions, etc.

I raise the theological pedigree of such notions because those who speak the most about man’s inability to save himself are often found in the Reformed camp, and those who speak the most often about common grace tend also to be those found in the Reformed camp, especially the Dutch Reformed camp.

Thus I am trying to point out to my critics that if they strongly affirm man’s total depravity and his moral inability to save himself, then they should also affirm a corresponding doctrine, that of common grace. So let me now explain what this term means.

John Murray’s much-repeated definition of common grace 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” is well worth running with here. And the classic passage to illustrate this is Matthew 5:45: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God’s general grace – as opposed to his redemptive grace – falls on all people – both Christian and non-Christian.

Because of that common grace people can do some good things, and be restrained from doing some evil things. We see the reality of this on a regular basis. A non-Christian can do many good and morally acceptable things. Here are just a few of them:

-A non-Christian parent can love and sacrificially care for his or her children.
-A non-Christian can find a wallet with a wad of money in it as he is walking along, and instead of keeping it for himself, he will turn it in to the authorities and hope its owner is able to be contacted and reunited with his missing item.
-A non-Christian can feel real empathy and concern for those who are suffering or are less fortunate than they are.
-A non-Christian can go above and beyond the call of duty in the workplace, in his home, on the battlefield, and so on.

All these are markers of God’s common grace. These morally praiseworthy actions do NOT mean he is saving himself and making himself right with God merely by good works and his own efforts. He is still a lost sinner in need of saving grace, and that is provided by the finished work of Christ at Calvary.

But as mentioned, both the idea of man’s sinfulness and God’s common grace are especially stressed in Reformed thought, so let me simply quote from a few recent works written by those mainly in the Reformed camp to see that this is indeed a biblical doctrine that we can adhere to.

While the words of John Calvin or Abraham Kuyper could be included here, let me turn to some newer expressions of this. Marguerite Schuster says this: “It would seem to be best to say, as the Reformed tradition generally has, that every sign of good in the world, human or natural, should be attributed to God’s common grace. As the familiar hymn puts it, ‘This is my Father’s world; He shines in all that’s fair’.”

Calvin scholar Richard Gamble in the first of his 3-volume systematic theology offers four commonly accepted aspects of common grace: “Common grace is first a demonstration of divine bounty… Second, common grace is God’s restraint upon sin, wrath, and evil… Third, common grace is God’s bestowal of good and excitation to good… Finally, unregenerate men receive operations and influences of the Spirit in connection with the administration of the gospel…”

John Frame lists six aspects of common grace: “God restrains sin… God restrains his wrath… God gives temporal blessings to all… Unregenerate people do good… Unregenerate people know truth… Unregenerate people experience some blessings of the Holy Spirit.” As to his fourth point about non-Christians doing good, he says this:

In one sense, no one can do good apart from the saving grace of God. We have seen that man is depraved (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Rom. 3:9-18). “Those who are in the flesh [instead of God’s Spirit] cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). Good here is good in the highest sense: good works done to the glory of God, obedient to the Word of God, motivated by faith and love for God. But Scripture does attribute good, in lesser senses, to the unregenerate, such as King Jehu (2 Kings 10:29-31). Jesus said that even the wicked do good things to those who do good to them (Luke 6:33).

Other passages could be mentioned in this regard. For example, in Romans 2:14-15 Paul says, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts either accusing or defending them.”

Not all those in the Reformed camp have been happy to speak about God’s grace being applied to the non-believer. Herman Hoeksema is one such figure. But others, such as Robert Letham in his new systematic theology, have offered a response (pp. 650-651).

Image of All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight
All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight by Array Amazon logo

Let me finish with some helpful words from Wayne Grudem:

This inward sense of right and wrong that God gives to all people means that they will frequently approve of moral standards that reflect many of the moral standards in Scripture. Even those who are given up to the most base sin, Paul says, “Know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32). And in many other cases this inward sense of conscience leads people to establish laws and customs in society that are, in terms of the outward behavior they approve or prohibit, quite like the moral laws of Scripture: people often establish laws or have customs that respect the sanctity of marriage and the family, protect human life, and prohibit theft and falsehood in speech. Because of this, people will frequently live in ways that are morally upright and outwardly conform to the moral standards found in Scripture. Though their moral behavior cannot earn merit with God (since Scripture clearly says that “no man is justified before God by the law,” Gal. 3:11, and “All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one,” Rom. 3:12), nevertheless, in some sense less than earning God’s eternal approval or merit, unbelievers do “do good.” 

And again: “We must be careful not to reject the good things that unbelievers do as totally evil. By common grace, unbelievers do some good, and we should see God’s hand in it and be thankful for common grace as it operates in every friendship, every act of kindness, every way in which it brings blessing to others. All of this – though the unbeliever does not know it – is ultimately from God and he deserves the glory for it.”

So the biblical Christian can and should simultaneously affirm two basic biblical truths: we are all fallen sinners who have a natural bent away from God and toward self and sin; but we also are able on occasion to do some good, by the grace of God.

Let me conclude with a less theological but more practical extrapolation of what I have been saying. It comes from a Christian social worker who deals with non-Christians and their problems on a regular basis. What she said in relation to my earlier article on this matter is quite important:

Well, I might as well not go to work then if I can’t call people out for bad behaviour. It’s a significant part of my job. I spend all day every day 5 days a week trying to get people to recognise and admit to their moral accountability in a family breakup. More often than not, I’d say I’m not successful, but when it does work, I usually build an excellent ongoing working relationship with that person. It’s wonderful when someone admits they were wrong and that they are now ready to face up to what they’ve done. They appreciate having someone stick with them as they face up to things and move forward. It can be touch and go with some who can’t face up to what they’ve done. I’ve recently started working with a man (not a Christian) who is now facing up to his guilt. Up to now, he hasn’t needed anyone to tell him of his guilt – conscience has been working overtime. God’s law is written on his heart as with any believer – he was so low yesterday that I feared he was contemplating taking his life. But I knew he had to speak it out as well as feel it to start moving forwards. I let him talk but constantly reflected back to him, being forthright and specific where he was hedging, getting him to clarify things and reflect back to me in his own words – encouraging him to own and recognise his accountability – there was no ‘pussy-footing’ pretence around any thing. Getting him to speak this himself was important, though I was a little anxious for his mental state overnight. While I was busy at another appointment this morning he called several times leaving messages for me to get back to him, which I did eventually with all trepidation. Today he sounded so different – clear, lucid and determined to do some hard work. No one likes being called out for bad behaviour – but in 7 years I have had only 2 clients flatly refuse to work with me, because I challenged them. Others who don’t like it just choose not to come back. But many do appreciate it and grow by it, as my handful of longstanding faithful clients will testify.

For further reading

Many volumes can be offered here, but let me mention just two. Richard Mouw’s He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001) is quite helpful indeed. And a new book by Mouw on this subject is coming out later this year: All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight (Brazos Press, June 2020).

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3 Responses to On Common Grace

  • I realise it is only with God working within one that we can wisely counsel those blinded by their own selfishness, or be counselled. Blessed be that Christian Social Worker above, for they rely on this, and put themselves out there selflessly to shine light where there is darkness. Thank you too brother Bill.

  • I have come across similar criticism and it makes me wonder if these people had never heard of Jesus telling us about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). If they didn’t know the story came from Jesus would they be there complaining that you can’t expect non-believers to do good things and that the story is expecting people to save themselves when we are saved by grace etc., etc. All the usual irrelevant nonsense. Of course we can’t save ourselves. Duh!

    Did Jesus not preach to non-believers as well as believers? The story of the Good Samaritan was in response to a lawyer who was trying to tempt Jesus. So much for not expecting good things from non-believers. Have these people never read the Gospels? The Gospels are full of Jesus preaching to and teaching non-believers and Jesus is meant to be our example.

    Absolutely bizarre!

  • Excellent article, Bill! Thanks!

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