Theology 101

Understanding Common vs. Special Grace

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The Prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). Paul told the Galatians, “…as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).

At the same time, there is other Scripture that seems to say the opposite. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, “they plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35-36). Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and unrighteousness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). When the Jews returned from Babylon, the Samaritans were not allowed to help the people of God rebuild the temple (Ezra 4:1-3). As Daniel Strange writes, being “in the world but not of the world” is more complicated than it first appears!

The Apostle James wrote, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Referring to this passage, Tim Keller writes in his book The Reason for God:

This means that no matter who performs it, every act of goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty is empowered by God. God gives out good gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty, and skill “graciously”— that is, in a completely unmerited way. He casts them across all humanity, regardless of religious conviction, race, gender, or any other attribute, to enrich, brighten, and preserve the world.

The Bible talks about God’s grace in two completely different ways. The first is what theologians call special grace, and it is the favor of God that results in salvation.

Special grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in calling, regenerating, justifying, and sanctifying individual sinners. Special grace is restricted to those who actually come to saving faith in Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Yet as Keller implies, special grace is not the only manifestation of God’s grace to this fallen world. Could those who never come to saving faith in Jesus Christ be recipients of another type of divine grace?

Total Depravity

The apostle Paul described the universal condition of humanity in bleak terms. In the book of Romans, he wrote, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Theologians call this fallen state, apart from Christ, total depravity.

But total depravity is not utter depravity. We are not as wicked as we possibly could be, and we observe unbelievers enjoying God’s gifts and doing things that benefit the world. As John Murray observed, the idea of total depravity forces us to deal with thorny questions:

How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? …To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favor and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?

Common Grace

The great reformer John Calvin was one of the first to suggest that the answers to these questions are found in the distinction the Bible draws between God’s special or saving grace and His common or non-saving grace. Calvin described the capacity for goodness in the non-Christian as a gift from God. He said that an unbelieving mind, “though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.”

Common grace was defined by Abraham Kuyper as “that act of God by which He negatively curbs the operations of Satan, death, and sin, and by which He positively creates an intermediate state for this cosmos, as well as for our human race, which is and continues to be deeply and radically sinful, but in which sin cannot work out its end.” 

Common grace empowers the non-Christian firefighter to go up the stairs of the Twin Towers on 9/11 to save a financial worker. Common grace motivates the non-Christian soldier to throw himself on a grenade and sacrifice his own life to save his comrades. Again, John Murray reminds us 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.”

Even though their motives are sinful, unbelievers still reflect the excellence of their Creator and bring glory to God in an imperfect but significant way.

An appreciation for common grace enables us to effectively pursue relationships, evangelism, work, cultural engagement, and arts and entertainment through positive interaction with all of God’s creation. Common grace gives us both a theological and a practical answer to how we can work with those who are not followers of Jesus Christ while not becoming “of the world.” 

Christians: Operate from Saving Grace

As Christians, we must remember as we work in our churches, families, communities, and vocational callings, we do so in the context of saving grace. While we benefit from common grace, we never operate out of common grace. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For all who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s children.” (Romans 8:14)

The Christian employee, surrounded by non-Christians at work, can take great hope from the doctrine of common grace. As Scott Kauffmann writes, “Common grace helps us to acknowledge that there are times to embrace culture warmly, and times to be in stark, prophetic opposition to it. And the only durable, Biblical way to do both is to see culture through the lens of common grace.” This doctrine helps us make a strong Biblical case for engaging the culture while embracing the gospel.

Wherever we work, we can rest assured that God can use us through our vocational calling to influence our fellow employees, our company, our city, our nation, and the world for the glory of God.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a longer article and is reprinted with permission from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture. Read the full article here.

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