Read Acts 4:11–17
I’m preaching unusual messages both this week and next. You don’t often hear sermons these days on the topics I’m addressing, but the topics are important, and they’re biblical. One reason Christians don’t know about these topics is that their pastors don’t preach on them. Their pastors rob them of biblical teaching. That’s a serious pastoral sin. I try not to commit it.
One of those topics not often preached on is common grace. What is common grace? The expression “common grace” isn’t in the Bible, just like the word Trinity isn’t in the Bible, but the idea is certainly there. First I’ll define common grace, and then I’ll tell you what the Bible teaches about it and how to apply this truth to our lives.
Common grace defined
Common grace is God’s goodness and kindness that he sheds on all people and all creation, irrespective of whether they’re Christian. Common grace is different from redemptive grace. We should know what redemptive grace is. Redemptive grace is God’s grace he pours out on sinners who call out to Jesus Christ for salvation. Sometimes people call this “special” grace. The Bible teaches both common grace and special, or redemptive grace. Common grace simply means that God is kind to people who are not Christians. That’s why it’s called common grace; it’s common to everyone.
Impoverished view of creation
One reason that people don’t know much about common grace is because they have a high view of redemption but a low view of creation. Evangelicals, in particular, have this problem. We are are Gospel people. We should be Gospel people, but there’s more in the Bible than Gospel. Creation precedes the Gospel. In fact, if there is no creation, there can be no Gospel. The Gospel is around because Satan spoiled God’s creation (though not permanently). Creation is the foundation for what God did in the Gospel. We see God’s common grace at work first in creation, and if we have a low view of creation, we will likely also have a low view of common grace.
Common Grace in the Bible
But the Bible is clear about common grace. Paul was preaching at Lystra and said about the pagans, “In past generations [God] allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
And Jesus taught (Mt. 5:45), “For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Jesus was teaching his disciples not to hate their enemies, and he’s saying, you’d better not hate them because God loves them and is kind to them.
We read in Psalm 145:8–9:
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.
Did you notice? God’s merciful and kind to all that he’s made, not just Christians.
Common grace and gladness
God grants all people a bevy of blessings. He gives us good food. In the West we eat fresh meat and vegetables — most of us daily. Even in the Third World, where poverty sometimes abounds, most people aren’t literally starving to death. Day by day God provides them food. He satisfies humans’ hearts “with food and gladness.” In other words, God wants humans to be glad. Think of that. They may be his enemies (Rom. 5:10), but he still loves them and gives them tasty food (filet), clean water (right out of the tap), enjoyable drink (merlot or bourbon), just so they can be glad.
Common grace and restraint on sin
God manifests his common grace in another way. He restrains man’s depravity. Man is totally depraved (Rom. 3:9–20), but God doesn’t allow man’s depravity to fully exhibit itself. In Romans 1 we read that God sometimes gives unrepentant, rebellious over to a reprobate mind. This means that most of the time he doesn’t do this. Likewise, in Genesis 20, God tells the pagan king Abimelech, who had seized Abraham’s wife Sarah for himself, thinking that she was Abraham’s sister, “I … kept you from sinning against me.” God keeps the wicked from fully venting their depravity.
And we’d better be thankful. Can you imagine what the world would look like if God fully removed his restraining hand? Likely that’s what hell will look like. All sin, all the time. We get examples of that kind of nearly unimpeded depravity in wartime: pillaging, rape, torture, cannibalism, butchery, debauchery — some of what the Syrians are suffering right now. Yet God keeps these times as rare exceptions.
God keeps his leash on the wicked. He keeps the world from rushing headlong into utter depravity. God holds sin in check. This is his common grace.
Common grace and its benefits from unbelievers
Common grace doesn’t only keep things from being as bad as they could be. It positively makes things very good many times. In Genesis we we read of Cain’s descendants. Except for Enoch, most of them were apparently not godly. Yet the Bible tells that they created musical instruments and forged tools of bronze and iron. In other words, early musical instruments and technology were inventions from Cain’s (likely) unbelieving line.
God showers on humans of all spiritual conditions his amazing gifts. Music and art and science and technology and entertainment and medicine — think of them in our modern world. We talk about “smart phones”; actually, you are carrying around a computer in your hand. Have you thought about the staggering medical advances? How about antibiotics and anesthetic and pain medication? Have you ever marveled at the music of Beethoven or Paul McCartney? Neither was a Christian. And neither was Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Yet every day we benefit from their contribution to human civilization. Philip Seymour Hoffman just died with a heroin syringe in his arm, but he was likely the greatest character actor of all time. Many of the early modern scientists like Michael Faraday (pioneer in electromagnetism) were Christians or influenced by Christianity, but a number were not. Perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, Albert Einstein, was not a Christian. He was a theist, but not a Christian. And yet his theoretical discoveries about space and time have revolutionized modern science.
And this is equally true of less well-known people who benefit society. Many of the people who surround us and benefit us are not Christians: the people who plant and harvest our corn, repair our refrigerators and automobiles, extinguish our forest fires, deliver everything from tennis shoes to power tools to market, keep our streets safe from gangs and thugs, and create and deliver life-saving medicine. We need these people, even if they’re not believers. In fact, God teaches a fascinating truth about this in the Old Testament. God told Israel that he wouldn’t expel the evil nations of Canaan swiftly:
I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. (Ex. 23:29)
We sometimes hear Christians say or imply that they’d like God to rid the world of all unbelievers. If they think about that, but know how utterly stupid that idea is. Our world couldn’t go on without these gifted people. Common grace assures that there is continuity in history. These unbelievers are a great benefit to God’s world, including to us Christians, and we couldn’t operate our world without them. God uses them in our lives to help us — and we help them, too, even apart from preaching the gospel, which, of course, is primary.
Common grace and ingratitude
Now think of how utterly incomprehensible is the ingratitude of unbelievers. God usually gives them delightful food and comfortable shelter and impressive transportation and business opportunities and expendable income and sound health, and what they do? They mock God. They turn their back on him. They act as though these blessings are result of their own ingenuity or hard work. They deplore God’s law. They poke fun at godly Christians. At best, they live their life without reference to God. There is no greater ingratitude in the universe than ingratitude toward God and his kindness.
Yet even here, despite their ingratitude, God drenches unbelievers with his common grace. He gives them abundant time to repent. Got seems at times almost infinitely patient and long-suffering. Peter tells us that in the days of Noah, the days when God seemed to remove his hand of restraint, God still gave the wicked 120 years in which to repent (1 Pet. 3:20). God is full of grace and kindness and mercy to the wicked.
I conclude with one supreme lesson for us Christians: the Bible is bigger even than the Gospel. God’s grace is bigger than the Gospel. God’s grace overwhelms the universe. It saturates creation. It rains down unbelievers. For this reason, God is worthy of worship and praise. Don is fond of saying, “If it’s not worship, it’s idolatry.” And God is worthy of worship not just for his redemption, but also for his creation. In the beginning today we read from Psalm 104. Just now I want you to listen to verse 33.
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. (Ps. 104:33)
We encounter God’s grace everywhere in the world: either his redemptive grace (Christians), or his common grace (everybody). And he is worthy of worship and praise for that grace, wherever we see it.
For Further Reading
John M. Frame, Systematic Theology (P & R Publishing: Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2013), 246–248.
John Murray, “Common Grace,” Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:93–129.
 We read that Cain’s younger brother Seth’s descendants did call on the Lord’s name, apparently in contrast to Cain’s descendants (see Gen. 4:23–26).