Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Common Grace: John Murray

The Purpose of Common Grace
Though it is true that the glory of God is the ultimate end of common grace, as it is of every other phase of God's providence, yet we have to inquire as to the more proximate and specific ends promoted by common grace in subordination to the final end, which is also the final end of all things, namely, the manifestation of the perfections that constitute the divine glory. The specific ends cannot be reduced to the simplicity of a single purpose. There is, however, at least one proximate purpose that is immediately apparent and has already been shown in some of the texts discussed. It is that common grace serves the purpose of special or saving grace, and saving grace has as its specific end the glorification of the whole body of God's elect, which in turn has its ultimate end in the glory of God's name.

The redemptive purpose of God lies at the centre of this world's history. While it is not the only purpose being fulfilled in history and while it is not the one purpose to which all others may be subordinated, yet it is surely the central stream of history. It is however in the wider context of history that the redemptive purpose of God is realised. This wider context we have already found to be a dispensation of divine forbearance and goodness. In other words, it is that sphere of life or broad stream of history provided by common grace that provides the sphere of operation for God's special purpose of redemption and salvation. This simply means that this world upheld and preserved by God's grace is the sphere and platform upon which supervene the operations of special grace and in which special grace works to the accomplishment of His saving purpose and the perfection of the whole body of the elect. Common grace then receives at least one explanation from the fact of special grace, and special grace has its precondition and sphere of operation in common grace. Without common grace special grace would not be possible because special grace would have no material out /p. 23/ of which to erect its structure. It is common grace that provides not only the sphere in which, but also the material out of which, the building fitly framed together may grow up unto a holy temple in the Lord. It is the human race preserved by God, endowed with various gifts by God, in a world upheld and enriched by God, subsisting through the means of various pursuits and fields of labour, that provides the subjects for redemptive and regenerative grace. God could raise up children to Abraham out of the stones. As a matter of fact He does not follow this method but rather perfects His body the church out of those redeemed from among men.

If we view God's redemptive purpose from the viewpoint of the church we find that the latter does not exist in abstraction from the context of the wider history of this world. The church is not of the world but it is in the world. The church, whether we regard it from the standpoint of the individuals that compose it or from the standpoint of its collective organism, exists in relation to what is not the church. The members of the church do business with unbelievers, they often derive their sustenance from pursuits and employments that are conducted by unbelievers. Even the most segregated communities of believers who attempt to separate themselves from the life of the world are unable to isolate themselves from dependence upon the relationships and institutions of common grace. Their existence and even the segregation in which they live are guarded by the state. The food they eat, the clothing they put on, the material out of which their houses are constructed, are derived from the earth blessed with rain, sunshine, verdure, and flocks that benefit the ungodly as well as themselves. It is divine wisdom that speaks of the tares and the wheat, “Let both grow together until the harvest”. And it is by divine inspiration Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to keep company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9, 10).

Even when we deal with the individual who is to become a subject of saving grace, we must not think of his regeneration as effecting a complete rupture with all that he was and was /p. 24/ made to be prior to his regeneration. A radical moral and spiritual change there must indeed be. He is translated fromm the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. And that change affects all of life and every relationship. All that he was undergoes transformation by the regenerative influences of God's Spirit. But all that he was is not nullified and discarded. His personality is not changed, and the various endowments and qualities, gifts and possessions, with which he had previously been blessed of God are not destroyed. In other words, though spiritually he became as a little child, yet he did not have to become psychologically an infant all over again. He enters the kingdom of God and exercises his membership and place in it as the person formed and moulded as to his distinct individuality by the antecedents and processes that fall outside the sphere of saving grace. We need but remind ourselves of Paul as the student who sat at the feet of Gamaliel or of Moses learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. Long lines of preparation in the realm of common grace, designed in the plan of God's all-comprehending providence, have fitted the most blessed of God's servants for the particular rle they were to play in the kingdom of God.

Furthermore, when we come to the point of actual conversion, the faith and repentance involved in conversion do not receive their genesis apart from the knowledge of the truth of the gospel. There must be conveyed to the mind of the man who believes and repents to the saving of his soul the truth-content of law and gospel, law as convicting him of sin and gospel as conveying the information which becomes the material of faith. To some extent at least there must be the cognition and apprehension of the import of law and gospel prior to the exercise of saving faith and repentance. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). But this apprehension of the truth of the gospel that is prior to faith and repentance, and therefore prior to the regeneration of which faith and repentance are the immediate effects in our consciousness, cannot strictly belong to the saving operations of the Spirit. They are preparatory to these saving operations and in the gracious design of God place the person concerned in the psychological condition that is the prerequisite of the intelligent exercise of faith and /p. 25/ repentance. In other words, they place in his mind the apperceptive content that makes the gospel meaningful to his consciousness. But since they are not the saving acts of faith and repentance they must belong to a different category from that of saving grace and therefore to the category of non-saving or common grace.

We may thus say that in the operations of common grace we have what we may call the vestibule of faith. We have as it were the point of contact, the Anknüpfungspunkt, at which and upon which the Holy Spirit enters with the special and saving operations of His grace. Faith does not take its genesis in a vacuum. It has its antecedents and presuppositions both logically and chronologically in the operations of common grace.24
Both in the individual sphere and in the sphere of organic and historic movement, the onward course of Christianity can never be dissociated from the preparations by which it is preceded and from the conditions by which it is surrounded, preparations and conditions that belong not only to the general field of divine providence but also to the particular sphere of beneficent and gracious administration on God's part, yet gracious administration that is obviously not in itself saving, and therefore administration that belongs to the sphere of common grace.

To conclude this part of the discussion, common grace provides the sphere of operation of special grace and special grace therefore provides a rationale of common grace. It does not follow that the achievement of God's redemptive purpose is the sole rationale or sole end of common grace. While it is assuredly true that the elect people of God, the righteous, are the salt of the earth, and while it is probably necessary to apply on the wide scale of the world's history /p. 26/ the principle expressed by the prophet that “except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have been like unto Gomorrah” (Isa. 1:9), and while it is true that it is for the sake of the wheat that the tares are allowed to grow until the harvest, it still does not necessarily follow that the whole purpose of common grace is to serve the interests of special grace. Special grace is a precondition of the operation of common grace and yet the purposes served by common grace may go beyond the interests that are peculiar to special grace. This follows from the simple distinction that one fact may be the condition of the existence of another fact and yet not be the sole end of the existence of that other fact.

What the other ends promoted by common grace may be it might be precarious to conclude. Of one thing we are sure that the glory of God is displayed in all his works and the glory of His wisdom, goodness, longsuffering, kindness and mercy is made known in the operations of His common grace. In subservience to that ultimate end it may well be that a group of proximate reasons is comprised within that goal of glorifying Him, of whom and through whom and to whom are all things.

The Practical Lessons
As special grace supervenes upon the platform of life provided by common grace we must not suppose that it negatives everything it finds in that sphere. It is indeed true that we must jealously guard the distinction between the grace that is common and the grace that is saving. To change the terms, we must not obliterate the distinction between nature and grace. Saving grace differs in its nature, it differs in its purpose and it differs in its effect. But we must beware of a false dualism whereby we incline to regard special grace as nullifying or annihilating the good things it finds in that sphere upon which it falls. Common grace is after all God's grace. It is a gift of God and “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17). Special grace does not annihilate but /p. 27/ rather brings its redemptive, regenerative and sanctifying influence to bear upon every natural or common gift; it transforms all activities and departments of life; it brings every good gift into the service of the kingdom of God. Christianity is not flight from nature; it is the renewal and sanctification of nature. It is not flight from the world; it is the evangelisation of the world.

The practical effect of this principle is very great. It means a profound respect for, and appreciation of, every good and noble thing, and it is this philosophy and ethic that has made Christianity in its true expression a force in every department of legitimate human interest and vocation. Christianity when true to its spirit has not been ascetic or monastic. Rather has it evaluated everything that is good and right as possessing the dignity of divine ordinance. It has recognised the measureless variety of God's gifts in nature, not only for the subsistence of man and beast but also for their pleasure and delight. It has appreciated the endless variety of human aptitude, skill, art, and vocation. It has not spurned the most humble and menial tasks. It has embraced the divine command, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Eccl. 9:10). It has placed around all the halo and dignity of divine vocation. It has sought to bring all of life into the service of the King of kings. It has striven to give expression to the Christian faith in politics, economics, industry, education, art, science and philosophy, for its controlling conception has been the absolute sovereignty of God in all of life. While it has recognised itself as constituted in those who are pilgrims and strangers in the earth, looking for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God, it has sought to give full-orbed expression to the truth of God in all the paths of their pilgrimage. It has not been isolationist with respect to the life that now is while waiting for the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. Its anthem has been “The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1), “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches” (Ps. 104:24). And its practical outlook has been, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, /p. 28/ if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4, 5).


It is true that Christianity in its truest expression has been awfully severe and it has realised the cost of holiness, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Matt. 18:9). Christianity must know severity, for it is a warfare not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Its war is with sin in all its agents and manifestations. But it is just for the reason that its war is with sin and the agents of sin that Christianity has been severely jealous not to dissipate its forces and miss its holy crusade by making war on the good gifts and blessings, ordinances and institutions, of God. Sin does not reside in the creatures and institutions of God but rather in the hearts of men and demons. And so Christianity has sought to encompass all of God's grace and bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. In that warfare it is upheld by the conviction that the prince of this world, though active, has been cast out, that the Captain of salvation spoiled principalities and powers and made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in his death, and that “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law” (Isa. 42:4). “All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee. They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power; to make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of his kingdom. Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:10–13).

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