The exclamation ‘Eureka!’ (‘I have found it!’) is attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes, after he discovered how the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision. He had stepped into a bathtub and noted that the rise in the the water level (which could be measured) equalled the volume of the parts of his body he had submerged. A ‘Eureka moment’ now describes finding the answer to a puzzling question.
At one point during my student days, I began to wonder why some of my good-natured and talented friends, who were antagonistic to the Christian faith, were easier to get along with than some of my Christian friends. My ‘Eureka moment’ came through reading a book which explained the difference between Common Grace and Saving Grace. I found it so helpful that when I was asked to speak at meetings, and to choose the subject, I often suggested ‘Common Grace’. As people have been kind enough to say, over the years, that they find the distinction helpful, and as I am no longer able to speak at meetings, here are the notes I used for these talks…
The goodness of the unbeliever
Our Lord recognised, as we must, that there are ‘good’ people who have no (orthodox) religious belief. He drew a lesson from the way in which the despised tax-collectors reciprocated friendship, and how those whom he called ‘pagans’ cared for their own. (Matthew’s Gospel, 5:46-7). Elsewhere, he praised the Good Samaritan’s care for a stranger. (Luke’s Gospel, 10:30-37).
I had been brought up to believe, and still believe, the Bible teaching that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’. (Romans 3:23). While I was a student, I began to wonder why some of my teachers, who were openly humanists, were so good-natured and devoted to their pupils; why some doctors and nurses, who were agnostic and ridiculed the idea that God had any part in the healing process, had treated me with kindness and devotion; and why, when I started an apprenticeship, concurrent with my university studies, I met men and women who had no time for the Christian faith, and yet they had exemplary business standards? How could unbelievers be good and kind and honest and nice-to-get-on-with – putting some Christians to shame by their helpfulness and consideration?
The book I mentioned directed me to Matthew 5:45, which provided a clue to the answer. Jesus said: ‘Your Father in heaven causes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ The book used this to illustrate the Christian teaching on Common Grace, and went on to distinguish it from Saving Grace.
Good manners, a sense of humour, musical gifts, common sense, academic ability, bravery and much else that we admire in people, are not the prerogative of Christians; in the same way as the sun shines and the rain falls without distinction, what is true and good and beautiful may flourish outside the Christian faith, because these are God’s gifts to all his creation.
It’s called Grace because it is the unmerited kindness of God. We can’t demand that God makes us clever or healthy or artistic – he will give these gifts to whom he wishes. It’s called Common, because God gives it as freely to those who do not believe in him as to those who do. Why should God care for those who ignore him – even for those who blaspheme his name? Because whether we recognise it or not, we are all the creation of Almighty God – in that sense, we are all God’s children. A human father may love and provide for even his most disobedient children and certainly God does –‘he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.’ (Luke 6:35).
Ironically, because some people are ungrateful and selfish, non-Christians may have a greater share of the material things in life than followers of Jesus. The rich man in the parable in Luke 16:19-31 enjoyed the best clothing and food, while the ultimate winner, Lazarus, got the scraps that were left. Punch’s magazine parodied the Lord’s words about the sun and the rain:
The rain it raineth every day Upon the just and unjust fella, But more upon the just because The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.
The apostle Paul used the metaphor of sunshine and rain during his visit to Lystra on his first missionary journey. He had healed a cripple and the local priest wanted to fete him. Paul was horrified and said that he come to tell them about the God who ‘has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’ (Acts 14:17). They had never heard about the ‘living God’ until that day, so this was no reward for faithfulness, and yet over the years God had provided for them. A useful definition of Common Grace is ‘all the blessings in life other than salvation’. Paul told the people of Lystra that he had come to ‘bring you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God’.
Common Grace in restraining
In the first book of the Old Testament, Abraham was travelling with his wife, Sarah, and was concerned that the king of Gerhar, Abimelech, might murder him in order to have Sarah for himself. Abraham therefore told Abimelech a half-truth, that ‘she is my sister’. (Genesis 20:2). The king took Sarah into his harem, although he did no wrong to her. During the night, God told him in a dream, ‘she is a married woman’. Abimelech protested his innocence, first that he been deceived, and secondly that ‘he had not gone near her’. God’s reply to Abimelech was the extraordinary statement, ‘Yes … I have kept you from sinning … I did not let you touch her’. (v.6). God had restrained him by Common Grace from doing wrong.
Throughout history, conscience has been one of God’s gifts of Common Grace, telling us the difference between right and wrong, encouraging humane feelings towards others, and prompting a decent moral life in the eyes of society.
When theologians talk about ‘total depravity’, they doesn’t mean that everyone is as wicked as sin could make them, but that every part of human nature is tainted. A good illustration is putting a drop of ink into a glass of water. Soon, every molecule of the water is tainted, but it is not as black as it might be. ‘Total depravity’ means that every aspect of human nature is affected by sin, our thoughts, deeds and feelings, but Common Grace intervenes to prevent us from being as wicked as we might otherwise be, making it possible for us (mostly) to live together in an orderly and cooperative way.
The first work of Saving Grace is to remove the guilt and the penalty of sin. Its second work is to help regenerate people deal with the spiritual challenge of living a Christian life – ‘no longer shall sin have dominion, though present to tempt and annoy’. Its third work is to take us, one day, from the very presence of sin. No amount of Common Grace, no amount of human goodness, can bring us into that relationship with God. That requires Saving Grace, given to all who believe in Jesus Christ as saviour: ‘For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God.’ (Ephesians 2:8). To see our sinfulness, to see God’s mercy, to receive Christ as saviour and then to grow in the knowledge of his will, these are gifts of Saving Grace and the non-believer, however wise and good and kind, does not have that.
“God has done more than
provide for our creature
comforts in Common Grace”
A proper balance
Let’s not despise any of God’s good gifts in life – home, friendship, art, music, human goodness – these are all God’s gifts to us. Those who have experienced God’s Saving Grace should pray for God to give more of his Common Grace to our leaders and to our friends in all walks of life, for wisdom and integrity and to encourage all forms of goodness. But God has done more than provide for our creature comforts in Common Grace. He has given us Jesus, who alone will bring us into a saving relationship with him.
The Roman centurion, Cornelius, described in Acts 10:1-2, 44-48, illustrates the difference. He had lived an upright life and Common Grace had made him a good man. However, when the apostle Peter told him about salvation through faith in Jesus, and when he believed, he moved beyond Common Grace and received Saving Grace as well.
To be a talented, helpful, kindly Good Samaritan is not in itself to be a Christian – the crowning work of God’s Grace is to bring us to faith in Christ. Unbelievers should never be allowed to think that because they enjoy the Common Grace of God, in any of the ways mentioned, they have no need of Saving Grace.
Both aspects are splendidly summed up in the words of the General Thanksgiving:
Almighty God, we give you most humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and lovingkindness to all humankind …
… but above all for your inestimable love is redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ …
… We beseech you, give us that sense of all your mercies that our hearts may be thankful, and that we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Further reading disclosed three different understandings of Common Grace. (1) The Calvinistic contrast of it with special or saving grace, which extends only to those whom God has chosen to redeem. (2) The Protestant Reformed Churches of America, who had adopted Three Points of Common Grace. (3) The Arminian view that Common Grace includes ‘common sufficient grace’. Needless to say, none of these distinctions were mentioned in my talks.