Friday, October 3, 2014

Common Grace

The next few blogs posts will contain John Murray's article on the doctrine of common grace. The subject is both spiritually uplifting and intellectually stimulating. Enjoy!

The subject of common grace is not only of particular but also of very urgent interest to the person who accepts the witness of Scripture regarding the total depravity of human nature by reason of sin. For if we appreciate the implications of total depravity, then we are faced with a series of very insistent 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? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilisation? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?

Elementary acquaintance with the history and literature of this world will convince us that even the heathen have their noble examples of what, to human norms of judgment at least, may be called courage, heroism, honesty, justice, fidelity, and even mercy. Common grace concerns itself with the reason and meaning of this “rich stream of natural life” which existed before Christianity made its appearance and even now continues to flow “underneath and side by side with the Christian religion”.

In this field of inquiry no name deserves more credit than /p. 2/ that of the renowned reformer, John Calvin. No one was more deeply persuaded of the complete depravation of human nature by sin and of the consequent inability of unaided human nature to bring forth anything good, and so he explained the existence of good outside the sphere of God's special and saving grace by the presence of a grace that is common to all yet enjoyed by some in special degree. “The most certain and easy solution of this question, however, is, that those virtues are not the common properties of nature, but the peculiar graces of God, which he dispenses in great variety, and in a certain degree to men that are otherwise profane.” The elect alone are sanctified by the Spirit; they alone are healed of sin; they alone are created anew. But all creatures by the energy of the same Spirit are replenished, actuated and quickened “according to the property of each species which he has given it by the law of creation”.

On this question Calvin not only opened a new vista but also a new era in theological formulation. Having thus stated the question and indicated the line along which the greatest of the Reformers answered it, we may now proceed to attempt an elucidation and exposition of our topic.

Definition of Common Grace
Dr. Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology defines common grace as “that influence of the Spirit, which in a greater or less measure, is granted to all who hear the truth”. This definition given at the outset of his treatment is reiterated and unfolded in his ensuing discussion. “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and /p. 3/ imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good. In this sphere also He divides ‘to every man severally as He will.’ (1 Cor. 12:11.) This is what in theology is called common grace.” “As God is everywhere present in the material world, guiding its operations according to the laws of nature; so He is everywhere present with the minds of men, as the Spirit of truth and goodness, operating on them according to the laws of their free moral agency, inclining them to good and restraining them from evil.” “The evidence therefore from Scripture, and from experience, is clear that the Holy Spirit is present with every human mind, and enforces, with more or less power, whatever of moral or religious truth the mind may have before it.” To this presence and influence of the Spirit then, according to Dr. Hodge, we are indebted for all the order, decorum, refinement and virtue, as well as the regard for religion and its ordinances, which exist in the world. To it we owe “the skill of artisans, the courage and strength of heroes, the wisdom of statesmen”.

It is obvious that this series of definitions evinces a rather restricted view of the nature and scope of what is called common grace. The word “grace” in the definition is limited to “the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds of men”, and so in accord with that limited concept of the word “grace” the following restrictions are made in the definition of the nature and scope of common grace. (1) Common grace is restricted to the human sphere. (2) It is restricted to the rational, moral and religious spheres. (3) It is restricted to those operations of the Spirit, on the minds, consciences and hearts of men, that are mediated through the truth.
To the same effect is the definition given by Dr. A. A. Hodge. “ ‘Common grace’ is the restraining and persuading influences of the Holy Spirit acting only through the truth revealed in the gospel, or through the natural light of reason /p. 4/ and of conscience, heightening the natural moral effect of such truth upon the understanding, conscience, and heart. It involves no change of heart, but simply an enhancement of the natural powers of the truth, a restraint of the evil passions, and an increase of the natural emotions in view of sin, duty, and self-interest.”

There can be no question but these definitions given by Charles and A. A. Hodge embrace what is perhaps the most important phase of common grace, and very often in common usage it is this phase of God's favour we have in mind when we use the term “common grace”. But this rather restricted definition does not embrace other important aspects of the divine favour which should naturally and logically be included in the definition. It will provide us with a broader basis for discussion of the topic and will be found to be more in accord with the witness of the Scripture on this subject to regard the word “grace” in the title as referring to any gift or favour bestowed upon, and enjoyed by, creatures, rather than, in the more limited sense accepted by Dr. Hodge, as “the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds of men”. If this broader definition of the word “grace” is adopted, it will include the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds of men, but it will also include gifts bestowed upon other creatures as well as upon men and it will also include the grace bestowed upon men that cannot conveniently be defined as an influence of the Spirit upon their minds.

The word “common” in the title of the topic is not used in the sense that each particular favour is given to all without discrimination or distinction but rather in the sense that favours of varying kinds and degrees are bestowed upon this sin-cursed world, favours real in their character as expressions of the divine goodness but which are not in themselves and of themselves saving in their nature and effect. So the term “common grace” should rather be defined as every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.


This is a comprehensive definition and it is apparent that /p. 5/ the favours bestowed and enjoyed fall into different categories. The best classification with which the present writer has become acquainted is that offered by Dr. Herman Kuiper in the work aforementioned. In classifying the various manifestations of grace recognised by Calvin he gives three groups. The first category is that of the “grace which is common to all the creatures who make up this sin-cursed world…a grace which touches creatures as creatures”. This Dr. Kuiper calls universal common grace. There is, secondly, the grace recognised by Calvin as “common to all human beings in distinction from the rest of God's creatures…a grace which pertains to men as men”. This Dr. Kuiper calls general common grace. Thirdly, there is the grace common not to all creatures and not to all men but to all “who live in the covenant sphere…to all elect and non-elect covenant members”. This Dr. Kuiper calls covenant common grace. There is, of course, within each classification the general and the particular. For the gifts bestowed upon each group of creatures are not indiscriminately dispensed. In each group there are differing degrees of the favour bestowed. This classification is inclusive and it also provides us with necessary and convenient distinctions. In the order stated we find the circle becomes more limited, but just as the limitation proceeds so does the nature of the grace bestowed become higher in the scale of value.

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