What do Christians mean when they refer to common grace?

It’s been my observation over the past few years that believers are not well acquainted with this area of theology. This lack of familiarity is unfortunate because the doctrine of common grace can offer significant insight into our Christian experience, if rightly understood and applied. I see at least three reasons why Christians should become conversant with the doctrine of common grace (what we could also call God’s common goodness).

Here are three reasons to become well-acquainted with the doctrine of common grace.

1. Common grace helps us account for relative goodness and virtue in unbelievers. 

Those who have a strong theology of sin and understand the nature of human depravity may have a difficult time making sense of what appears to be good, wholesome, respectable conduct among those who don’t know the Lord Jesus. How can it be that those who reject Christ raise respectable families, generally act with integrity, build ethically responsible businesses, love their wives, and so on? The doctrine of common grace answers these questions directly.

2. Common grace enables the believer to express thankfulness to God as he recognizes the many ways he provides for his creatures.

God supplies humankind — believers and unbelievers — with what we need and many things to enjoy through our mutual inter-dependence with one another. The farmer produces the wheat which the baker uses to make bread for families in the town, one of whom owns the shoe store that supplies footwear for the baker. The doctrine of common grace highlights the way God designed the world and how he provides his people. Most often, God supplies the Christian’s needs through the labor and skill of those who reject their Creator.

3. Common grace helps us distinguish between God’s common grace and his saving grace.

Here I’m referring to the necessity for Christians to distinguish between the marks of earthly, natural blessing and spiritual, supernatural blessing.

For example, it is not necessarily a sign that one has come under God’s saving grace if they enjoy significant material blessing and physical health (Ps. 49:17-19; 73:4; Prov. 16:8). You can be without much in terms of earthly goods but spiritually rich (James 2:5), or you could be overflowing with wealth and headed for eternal judgement (Luke 12:16-21). 

You can experience much physical suffering in this life in anticipation of a weight of unimaginable glory (2 Cor. 4:17-18), or you can be healthy and comfortable but bereft of a relationship with God (Ps 73:4-11). The common blessings of health and wealth are no sign that you are the subject of the spiritual blessing of regeneration.

What is common grace?

How should we define common grace? Below is a representative sample of how Christian theologians define this aspect of God’s providential governance.

Wayne Grudem: “Common grace is the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.”

John Frame: “Common grace is God’s favor and gifts given to those who will not be finally saved.”

John Murray: “[Common grace is] every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys from the hand of God.”

John Bolt: “The doctrine of common grace is based on the conviction that prior to, and to a certain extent independent of, the particular sovereignty of divine grace in redemption, there is a universal divine sovereignty in creation and providence, restraining the effects of sin and bestowing general gifts on all people, thus making human society and culture possible even among the unredeemed.”

Louis Berkof: “…when we speak of ‘common grace,’ we have in mind, either (a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through his general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or (b) those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to him.

Notice that each definition is framed with reference to salvation. Specifically, common grace includes earthly blessings that all people enjoy but that are distinct from the spiritual blessings that only believers enjoy. 

When we speak of common grace, we are speaking of God’s kindness to all people during their time on earth, regardless of their present status with him. While it is true that believers will experience both common grace and saving grace, those who are apart from Christ will only experience common grace in this life.

Why common grace?

Why refer to these blessings as grace? The most basic reason for why it is right to refer to these blessings as grace is because mankind is unworthy of any good thing from their Creator. Because of Adam’s sin and our own rebellion, we are only worthy of earthly misery, death, and, after this life, eternal punishment (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:17ff; Rom. 6:23). 

Nevertheless, God provides for and blesses his human creatures with good things despite the fact that they are, due to their rebellion and sin, undeserving of any good thing (Matt. 5:44-49). During their time on earth, God is acting in grace toward his creatures by withholding what they do deserve (earthy misery) and giving them what they don’t deserve (a measure of earthly enjoyment).

If you are a pastor or a teacher in a local church, it’s vital that your people understand common grace. It’s not often taught, but it’s important for Christians to understand how God works in his world.