Theology 101

Common Grace for the Common Good

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The plowing of the wicked is sin, but it is more sinful for the wicked not to plow.

– John Murray

What gives the non-Christian firefighter the courage to charge up the stairs of the Twin Towers on 9/11 to save a financial worker? What motivates the non-Christian soldier to throw himself on a grenade and sacrifice his own life to save his comrades? As Christians, we would answer, “common grace.”

However, theologian John Murray reminds us in his essay Common Grace that, “the good attributed to unregenerate men is after all only relative good. It is not good in the sense of meeting in motivation, principle and aim the requirements of God’s law and the demands of his holiness.”

John Frame, in his book The Doctrine of the Christian Life, writes that in order for our works to please God, they must:

  1. Be done to the glory of God
  2. Be obedient to the Word of God
  3. Be motivated by faith and love of God.

He further explains,

Unbelievers never do good works in this sense; indeed, even believers’ works always fall short according to this standard. But unbelievers are able to do things that look good to us. They don’t look good to God, for God knows the heart. But they look good to us, and they often bring benefits to society. So non-Christians often improve society through their skills and ideas. They make scientific discoveries, produce labor-saving inventions, develop businesses that supply jobs, produce works of art and entertainment.

Understanding common grace is important because it is one of the means by which Christians can work with others to serve the common good of their neighbors and transform the culture. It allows us to work alongside non-Christians for a common purpose.

In this regard Abraham Kuyper writes:

God is glorified in the total development toward which human life and power over nature gradually march on under the guardianship of ‘common grace.’ It is His created order, His work, that unfold here. It was He who seeded the field of humanity with all these powers. Without a ‘Common Grace’ the seed which lay hidden in that field would never have come up and blossomed. Thanks to ‘Common Grace,’ it germinated, burgeoned, shot up high and will one day be in full flower, to reward not man but the heavenly Farmer. . . . A finished world will glorify God as builder and supreme Craftsman. What paradise was in bud will appear in full bloom.

The reformer, John Calvin further insisted that it is the Spirit of God who establishes all human competence in arts and sciences “for the common good of mankind” and that common grace is a tool given by God that should not be neglected.

In his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin says, “but if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer punishment for our sloths.”

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