Question: "What is common grace?"
Answer: The doctrine of common grace pertains to the sovereign grace of God bestowed upon all of mankind regardless of their election. In other words, God has always bestowed His graciousness on all people in all parts of the earth at all time. Although the doctrine of common grace has always been clear in Scripture, in 1924, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) adopted the doctrine of common grace at the Synod of Kalamazoo (Michigan) and formulated what is known as the “three points of common grace.”
The first point pertains to the favorable attitude of God toward all His creatures, not only toward the elect. “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9). Jesus said God causes “his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). Barnabas and Paul would later say the same thing: “He 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). In addition to His compassion, goodness, and kindness, God also sheds His patience upon both the elect and the non-elect. While God’s patience for His own is undoubtedly different from His patience with those whom He has not chosen, God still exercises “longsuffering” toward those whom He has not chosen (Nahum 1:3). Every breath that the wicked man takes is an example of the mercy of our holy God.
The second point of common grace is the restraint of sin in the life of the individual and in society. Scripture records God directly intervening and restraining individuals from sinning. In Genesis 20, God restrained Abimelech from touching Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and affirmed it to him in a dream by saying, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6). Another example of God restraining the wicked hearts of evil men is seen in God’s protection of the land of Israel from being invaded by the pagan nations on their border. God commanded the men of Israel that three times a year they would leave their plot of land to go and appear before Him (Exodus 34:23). To ensure the protection of God’s people from invasion during these times, even though the pagan nations surrounding them desired their land year-round, God promised that “no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God” (Exodus 34:24). God also restrained David from taking revenge on Nabal for scorning the messengers that David sent to greet Nabal (1 Samuel 25:14). Abigail, Nabal’s wife, recognized God’s grace when she pleaded with David not to seek vengeance against her husband, “since the Lord has kept you, my master, from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands…” (1 Samuel 25:26). David acknowledged this truth by responding, “As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you…” (1 Samuel 25:34).
This second point of common grace not only includes God’s restraining of evil, but also His sovereignly releasing it for His purposes. When God hardens the hearts of individuals (Exodus 4:21; Joshua 11:20; Isaiah 63:17), He does so by releasing His restraint on their hearts, thereby giving them over to the sin that resides there. In His punishment of Israel for their rebellion, God gave “them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (Psalm 81:11-12). The passage of Scripture best known for speaking of God’s releasing of restraint is found in Romans 1 where Paul describes those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. God “gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans 1:28).
The third point of common grace as adopted by the CRC pertains to “civic righteousness by the unregenerate.” This means that God, without renewing the heart, exercises such influence that even the unsaved man is enabled to perform good deeds toward his fellow man. As Paul said of a group of unregenerate Gentiles, they “do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Romans 2:14). The necessity of God restraining the hearts of the unredeemed becomes clear when we understand the biblical doctrine of total depravity. If God did not restrain the evil that resides in the hearts of all men, hearts which are “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), humanity would have destroyed itself centuries ago. But because He works through common grace given to all men, God’s sovereign plan for history is not thwarted by their evil hearts. In the doctrine of common grace, we see God’s purposes stand, His people blessed, and His glory magnified.