Special grace is a term used in Reformed or Calvinistic theology, and it refers to the working of God in the lives of His elect when He regenerates them and reconciles them to Himself. It is “grace” in that it is unmerited favor; it is “special” in that not everyone receives it.
Special grace is often contrasted with common grace, which is the mercy God extends to all of His creation. Special grace is connected to the doctrine of total depravity, which says that every part of man—his mind, will, emotions, and flesh—have been corrupted by sin. Because of our depravity, we cannot do anything to achieve salvation on our own merit. A special act of God is required to rescue anyone from sin.
According to Calvinism, the people to whom God extends His special grace are the elect. They are not elected or chosen based on any merit of their own, but purely by the grace and mercy of God (Ephesians 1:4–5). One prominent Reformed theologian defined election as “that eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation” (Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996, p. 114).
The distinction between special grace and common grace is meant to guard the exclusivity of salvation through Christ (Acts 4:12). Many people may experience guilt over their sin or appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, but these feelings are the result of common grace. Such realizations on their own cannot save anyone. Only faith in Jesus Christ can save an individual from his or her sin (Romans 10:9). And that faith is given through the special grace of God.
The concept of special grace is one way of expressing the truth that no one can save himself, and everyone must rely upon the grace of God for salvation. It is an important part of Calvinist soteriology. The doctrine of special grace distinguishes between the blessings of God experienced by all of His creatures and the specific act of God in calling His elect to faith in Christ. Everyone experiences the blessings of God to some degree (Matthew 5:45), but not everyone receives the gift of salvation.
The Reformed articulation of special grace is a good reminder to all Christians, regardless of theological beliefs, that their salvation is entirely a gift of God. It is “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9).