Common Grace: The Accepted View

We herewith present our first article of several in which various points of view on the matter of Common Grace a re given. Since Dr. W.H. Rutgers held the chair of Systematic Theology at Calvin Seminary for a number of years and since he had made some special study of the subject, we asked him to give us his conception of what Common Grace is generally taken to mean in the Christian Reformed Church. The views expressed in this and subsequent articles mayor may not coincide with those held by the publishers of this magazine. – COMMON GRACE COMMISSION

It is a rather significant fact that even though the teaching of common grace has been confessed by the orthodox Christian church from the earliest times, it has never been elevated to a doctrinal standard, nor has it been given precise formulation and definition. That does not mean to imply that one does not meet with suggestive hints in the confessional standards of the protestant churches which by way of inference and implication involve the truth of common grace. The Belgic Confession (articles 13, 14 and 36), the Canons of Dort (II, 5, 6; lII; IV, 4, 8 and 9) , and the Westminster Confession (V, 6) suggest and imply that there is a grace of God which is not limited to the elect.



There is another preliminary observation I should like to make, namely, that there is no unanimity of opinion relative to this doctrine among Reformed thinkers. It is of course true that in certain broad generalizations there is a—wide area of fundamental agreement. But we do not find that specific, precise definition which determines the exact bearing and delimitation on such an important question as, for instance, the extent and validity of the knowledge of unregenerate man who has the light of general revelation, or even of such an individual who is privileged to consult the infallible disclosure of God’s will as deposited in the Bible.

Nor is there agreement as to the blessings that common grace gives. Are these blessings limited to man’s moral and rational nature, or do they include the bountiful material blessings—rain, sunshine, material prosperity? There is a difference of opinion as to whether the gifts spoken of in Hebrews 6:1–6 are to be attributed to common grace, that is, the gifts of historical and temporary faith, which are possible only on the predication that such individuals are acquainted with the gospel and hear its proclamation. Moreover, there is difference of opinion as to whether common grace operates mediately or immediately, as to the relationship of common grace to the atonement wrought by Jesus Christ on Calvary, and as to the precise relationship between common grace and saving, sanctifying grace.

It may be trite to say that the last word has not yet been said on the doctrine of common grace, but it is no more commonplace nor less true than to assert that theology deals with profound mysteries. Man’s understanding and formulation of these mysteries will be determined absolutely by the measure of divine disclosure that God is pleased to give in the infallible deposit, and relatively by the measure of penetration of that disclosure by the redeemed, Spirit-filled and Spirit-illumined man. The whole of the history of doctrine is but the defense of the true gospel and the progressive unfolding of man’s understanding of the mystery of that gospel. A challenge of the truth or of the understanding and formulation of that truth by the church, even though it prove in the end to be a defection and an error, is not all loss for it provides the occasion to bring into sharp focus a particular truth, or aspect of a truth, with a specific application. History proves that most controversies have their unlovely aspects. Yet in the lengthening perspective of the years these unlovely features are buried and forgotten and the advance of man’s understanding and the clearer and finer definition of that particular truth is marked down as notable gain. Controversy obliquely serves the truth. Since Christianity is the final and ultimate religion, it by virtue of that fact is a bold and uncompromising challenger of all contenders. Controversy is just inevitable. The anemic, peace-at-any-price faith, a faith paralyzed for fear of rocking the boat or causing disturbance is a faith that lacks luster and brightness and in the end, perhaps unwittingly, yet in reality, betrays the Christian witness and commitment.

Just because Christianity makes the claim to be the one, final, true religion, and just because Christianity, at its best, i.e., Calvinism, has championed the implications of this fact, namely, the sola gratia (by grace only) gospel, man’s spiritual incapacity, his total depravity, the firm decree of predestination with its two parts of election and reprobation; just because it champions particular grace and strictly maintains with emphasis and in the focal point of teaching and preaching the antithesis, just for that reason the question of common grace, a grace not saving and sanctifying which extends beyond the circle of the elect, a grace common to elect and reprobate alike, poses a real problem.

The Word “Grace”

Doubtless much of the confusion in the minds of the uninitiated arises from a lack of proper and precise definition of terms. Discussion on the subject often becomes meaningless because the opposing sides are not in agreement as to the inclusiveness or delimitation of the term grace. That word is capable of a more narrow and of a wider interpretation, that is, we can employ it in a more absolute or in a more relative sense. That distinction in the usage of terms, that is, absolute and relative, is not only perfectly legitimate but is also acknowledged by all sensible men. When, for instance, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What does it mean that He suffered?” and the latter part of the answer declares, “that…He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness and eternal life,” I take it that grace in that context is to be understood in the more absolute sense of the term. Similarly when John declares that “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,” grace in this instance is equated with Jesus Christ, the very core and essence of the gospel grace, the mystery of God’s amazing love, Christ the very embodiment of grace.

But besides this more absolute and narrow definition of the term it also bears a wider, more relative connotation, such as, goodness, liberality, kindness, love, mercy, good wiII, clemency, favor, blessing. If grace is delimited to signify the favor of God in Jesus Christ which issues in pardon for sin, adoption as children of God and the entitling to eternal life, in a word salvation—then naturalIy the non-elect, the reprobate do not share grace, and the term common grace would be misleading and erroneous. Grace, however, in its radical sense is defined as unmerited favor. With this connotation the term allows of wider latitude than saving, sanctifying grace. In the radical sense grace stands opposed to merit. Under the arrangement of the covenant of works man could by his obedience merit the promised good. This privilege he has forever forfeited by his rebellion and disobedience.

So complete was the fall, so drastic and shattering the consequences that unless God intervenes with his sovereign, irresistible, saving grace, man cannot be saved, nor can he answer the purpose for which he was created.

Roman Catholic theology is fundamentally an attempt to reinstate the arrangement under the covenant of works, for it teaches that by sanctifying grace, grace infused through the sacraments, man is once again elevated to the supernatural realm and enabled intrinsically to earn (merit) salvation, be it more or less. Good works are not rewarded in that system because of grace, hut rather because of intrinsic merit. Bavinck made the observation and developed the thesis that the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity, setting it apart from all pagan religions, is grace and not revelation. Since communion with God is the end of religion, this end can now be attained only through grace. But despite sin God did not leave himself without witness to all men. There is an operation of the Holy Spirit, a measure of illumination by the Logos in all men, testifying of God. This is done mediately through conscience, reason, history or the works of God in nature; and a priori it is not impossible that the Holy Spirit does so immediately. All pagan religions are a technique designed to make possible communion with their deities, and in all of them there is a deeply entrenched notion of attaining such communion by an arrangement of merit. Man’s sin, however, forever abolished such a possibility, and consequently the core, the essence of the gospel is precisely the announcement of how communion with God can be restored. And this is solely and wholly by grace.

Consequently the Calvinist draws a sharp line of distinction between common grace and special grace, a not-sanctifying, not-saving grace and a sanctifying and saving grace. Common grace in no sense of the term shades off into special grace; nor are the fruits and benefits of common grace some sort of stepping stone to a preparatory technique or agency for the reception of special grace. We must be vigilantly on guard lest we overplay common grace, for if we do the creeping paralysis of the idea wiII set in that the fruits of common grace in relation to general revelation lead to a point where the sharp line that marks off general from special revelation is blurred or eventually erased. Thus, to state it differently, the whole of the antithesis goes into eclipse. This would lead us directly into the arms of liberalism and modernism, into the embrace of pure rationalism. Our controversy with those who deny common grace has at least alerted us and forcibly reminded us of such a danger. Calvinists who maintain their faith in the teaching of common grace ca n hardly be said to be, sailing in Arminian waters and thus heading towards liberalism. This can hardly be true so long as they emphatically preach and teach salvation solely by sovereign, irresistible grace, that the core and essence of the gospel is grace; that Christianity is the one true religion and so long as they maintain the absoluteness of Christianity, and, hence, the antithesis.

“A rich stream of natural life”

But having said this we do not fail to acknowledge that there is in this world among the en lightened non-regenerate and even among-pagans a “rich stream of natural life.” There are culture, government, a social organism, the development of the arts and sciences, shining and commend· able virtues and actions. How can we account for all this? How can we explain the comparatively orderly life; the fact that God still leaves a witness of himself, gives a measure of illumination, leaves indelible the sensus deitalis, (sense of deity), the semen religionis (seed of religion)? How can we account for the fact that even the non-regenerate have a sense of justice, of right and wrong, have some regard for virtue, good behavior in society? How can we explain the special gifts that men possess in the arts and sciences? How is it to be explained that some unregenerate men do good to others, speak the truth, lead outwardly virtuous lives? Are the material blessings of rain and sunshine, prosperity and the enjoyment of the inventions of science, which are shared by elect and reprobate alike, are these a blessing, a favor to the reprobate, or a curse? Are these manifestations a demonstration that God is favorably disposed even to those outside the circle of the elect? That man can and does abuse these gifts, fails to acknowledge the Giver and thank him for it, titus transforming these blessings into a curse and unto his own destruction, that is one thing. But the question precisely is not what man does with the favors. The question is this: are these favors, grace of God, goodness, blessings, mercy, kindness? What is it that curbs, restrains, checks the mad rampage of sin in this world, which if left to itself would lead to anarchy and swift destruction?

We claim this is common grace. Grace is unmerited favor, and say what we will, by reason of sin man is righteously deserving of God’s wrath, of his curse. But God intervenes with grace, with his goodness and mercy. He still allows life to continue; there is a rich How and development of natural life. All that man receives, be he reprobate or elect, is undeserved; it is grace, favor. Life itself is such a grace. This however in no sense of the term means to argue that all grace is of similar intent and efficacy. The grace that saves, that is embodied in Jesus Christ, only the elect receive. But these other blessings, favors, grace as mentioned above, are common to elect and the non-elect.

Though this has been acknowledged by the orthodox church from the beginning, the doctrine of comman grace did not receive equal emphasis in all ages. This was occasioned by historical reasons. Space limitations in this journal forbid tracing the historical development of this doctrine. Calvin has been recognized as the first to bring this truth into prominence and give it some clarity and application. Reformed theologians have not really added much in a material way to Calvin’s basic position relative to this truth. During the age of the decline of Calvinism this doctrine suffered an almost entire eclipse. Charles Hodge has the distinction of giving it consideration in his systematic theology. The doctrine was revived especially through Abraham Kuyper in his monumental three volume work, De Gemeene Gratie, and barring shades of difference it has been maintained through his successors, Bavinck and Hepp.

Bavinck on Common Grace

The scholarly Bavinck published a masterful small treatise entitled De Algemeene Genade; and in the volume Calvin and the Reformation he wrote an article entitled “Calvin and Common Grace.” Comparing those two articles we note that in the main Bavinck subscribes wholeheartedly to the position of Calvin, so that in setting forth Calvin’s view, Bavinck is at the same time giving expression to his own. In most of what is said in these excellent articles we heartily concur. However there are a few statements from which we decidedly demur and to which we would not subscribe. For instance we cannot unqualifiedly subscribe to a statement like this: “Only gradually could the church rise to the higher standpoint of trying all things and holding fast to that which is good, and adopt an eclectic (italics mine) procedure in its valuation and assimilation of the existing culture.” We demur much more when we read these startling statements: “The three sisters, logic, physics and ethics, are like unto the three wise men from the East, who came to worship Jesus the perfect wisdom.” (In the context he is speaking of the unregenerate, who share common grace.) “The good philosophical thoughts and ethical precepts found scattered through the pagan world receive in Christ their unity and center. They stand for the desire which in Christ finds its satisfaction; they represent the question to which Christ gives the answer; they are the idea of which Christ furnishes the reality. The pagan world especially in its philosophy, is a pedagogy unto Christ; Aristotle, like John the Baptist, is the forerunner of Christ. It behooves the Christians to enrich their temple with the vessels of the Egyptians and to adorn the crown of Christ, their King, with the pearls brought up from the sea of paganism.” To this we cannot subscribe and we cannot but observe that this badly fits the basic thrust of Bavinck’s and all Reformed theology, with its emphasis on the antithesis, the ultimacy and absoluteness of the Christian religion and all the implied doctrines which run like a golden thread through all of Bavinck’s writing.

On the other hand Bavinck points up in a lucid way the real problem in these words: “what is the connection between nature and grace, creation and regeneration, culture and Christianity, earthly and heavenly vocation, the man and the Christian?” Calvinism sets forth the biblical, Pauline, Augustinian antithesis of sin and grace; it spurns and absolutely rejects the Roman Catholic antithesis of nature and grace, its dualism of the natural and the supernatural, its view of grace which is basically gratia elevans, on which the whole hierarchical system is built. The theology of Roman Catholicism retains an unresolved dualism; it has a twofold conception of man, of the moral law, of love, of the purpose of man. It led to asceticism, the despising of nature and earthly delights in order that individuals might consecrate their all to the supernatural order, on dIe one hand; and on the other, it excused human weakness, for it taught that natural man too was good, he also spoke the truth, performed good works, only it was a goodness and a truth of a lower order, that is, that of natural man minus the donum superadditum (superadded girt of righteousness), gratia sanctificans (sanctifying grace) . This dualism was not reconciled by the Anabaptists, who exalted grace at the expense of nature, a leaven which is found in greater or lesser degree in much of American Evangelical Fundamentalism and which makes for an “uneasy conscience” among the more enlightened. Nor was this dualism resolved by the Socinians and the rationalists, the modernists and liberalists of every hue, who exalt nature at the expense of grace.

The Reformers broke entirely with this dualism, and most consistently was this done by the Calvinists, who returned to a biblical conception of truth, grace and good works. The Calvinist seeks to give an “explanation of the origin, development and goal of the world-process” which is consistent with the gracious and efficacious will of God. The will of God, the absconditum Dei consilium (secret counsel of God) is the “ultimate ground for both the existence of the world and its being what it is,” is the cause of all the variety and diversity in this world. With this sure footing the Calvinist maintains the absolute sovereignty of God as expressed in dIe doctrine of predestination with its two parts of election and reprobation, the gospel of pure grace. And he regards it a lack of propriety and piety to try to pry into the secrets of that decree beyond the information God has been pleased to reveal. He recognizes that the human race is consequently divided into two camps: elect and reprobate, saved and unsaved, recipients of sanctifying, saving grace and those who are not sharers of that grace. Yet, he equally and emphatically asserts that all that men have and are, be they elect or reprobate, they have and are by grace, unmerited favor. Only we must sharply distinguish between a saving grace and a common grace. The first is efficacious unto salvation, the second is not in any sense of the term saving. There is a grace that renews, recreates inwardly; and there is a grace which only restrains, curbs and checks the onward rampage of sin, the execution of the evil thoughts and desires that rise in the hearts of men. God still has a purpose with this world even after the fall.

Charles Hodge on Common Grace

Charles Hodge gives us the following exposition of common grace. He begins by saying that common grace is that influence of the Spirit which in a greater or lesser measure is granted to all who hear the truth, That might lead one to suspect that he limits the sphere of common grace to those who hear the gospel. But evidently this is not what he means for on the next page he tells us that there is an influence of the Holy Spirit distinct from and accessory to the influence of the truth, which must not be confused with God’s ordinary work of providence. This is the fundamental thesis which he develops. He restates it in these words: “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 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. This is what in theology is called common grace.” As for its is sues, he claims that this truth, namely, that the Spirit of God is present with every human mind, restraining from evil and exciting to good, accounts for all the order, decorum, and virtue, as well as the regard for ‘religion and its ordinances, which exist in the world. From this it appears that he restricts the fruits of common grace to the rational and moral life of man.

Christian Reformed View

The views of Kuyper, Bavinck and Hepp and the position held generally by the membership of our church is more in line with that of Calvin. The sphere of operation of common grace is as extensive as is sin in this sin-cursed world. By common grace sin is curbed, in the heart of the individual and no less in this world. By common grace we explain the relative good accomplished by the unregenerate, the virtues found among the pagans. God still witnesses to all men through nature and reason, in heart and conscience; sparks of divine glory glimmer in every part of the world; the semen religionis is ineradicable in man’s heart. Man’s natural gifts have certainly been corrupted, but they have not been entirely withdrawn. Reason and judgment have not been wholly lost; man still distinguishes between god and evil, truth and error; the divine logos still gives a measure of illumination to every man, leaving him without excuse; the arts and sciences are developed and these are good and necessary gifts. Due to common grace the institutions of the family and the state are maintained; there is a measure of agreement as to justice and equity making possible an ordered society. God even allows men to share material blessings beyond the measure of bare necessity; “prosperity, abundance, luxury are gifts of God to be enjoyed with gratitude and moderation.” There is a sense of truth, virtue, natural love between parents and children. We would contradict all of human experience and we would be guilty of grossest ingratitude if we did not recognize these things as precious boons, gracious favors, grace, unmerited favors coming’ to sinful man from the Father of Lights above, the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Bavinck adds a remark like this: “En dat is het gezonde standpunt van alle goede GGereformeerden geweest.”1

Hepp believes that the doctrine of common grace belongs to the very foundations of Calvinism, and that the history of Calvinism becomes a riddle if this truth is looked at as something accidental which one can dismiss and forget.

The Central Critical Question

In the debate about common grace the central critical question is this: Is there besides particular grace and sin, a third principle or power operative in this world, a second kind of grace creating a sphere where the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman meet on common ground and are really one? Or to restate this in other terms: Can God in any sense be graciously, inclined to the reprobate? Are not the reprobate always subjects of God’s wrath? The problem implies two questions: (1) Objectively speaking can God ever, for time or eternity, in any manner be graciously inclined, assume an attitude of favor and love toward the naked sinner outside of Christ Jesus? If so, on what basis? If not, how can we speak of common grace?

(2) Subjectively considered, is there in the heart of natural man any receptivity for the grace of God in the true sense of the word, so that to him the outward privileges and blessings become real blessings or grace? If so, where does this receptivity find its origin? If not, how can even these common privileges be blessings of grace to the wicked?

By delimiting and narrowing down the concept of grace to favor received and enjoyed in Jesus Christ, that is, forgiveness of sins, adoption, the title to eternal life—in a word, salvation; and secondly, reasoning entirely from the viewpoint of God’s secret decree of predestination with its two parts of election and reprobation, the only answer that could be given to the above questions is negative. Such a position logically leads to a denial of the bona fide offer of the gospel and the practical issue is that mission endeavor and enthusiasm becomes a rarity. Certainly Calvin believed and preached predestination, tha t the grace that saves is particular and that the firm decree of predestination is the cor ecclesiae (heart of the church), that the faith that believes is the gift of God and the issue of election; that salvation is wholly of grace. And this is what is preached and taught too by all true Calvinists toelay. But it would be a hideous blunder to suppose that all that Cal yin preached and taught was the decree of predestination. Examination of his writings will prove Bavinck’s appraisal of Calvin when he said: “The truth is that no preacher of the gospel has ever surpassed Calvin in the free, generous proclamation of the grace and love of God.” Biblical preaching and teaching recognizes the firm, unalterable decree of God as the ultimate and final ground for all that is and how it is; but it no less recognizes that here much is secret, known only to God. It recognizes moreover that there is a revealed will of God too, and that revealed will emphasizes man’s responsibility. It is utterly futile and presumptuous for man to suppose that he can reconcile God absolute sovereignty on the one hand with man’s responsibility on the other. We ought humbly to recognize that there are limits to human reason and that we cannot encase God within the confines of finite logic.

Admittedly the doctrine of common grace has wide and trenchant implications for preaching and teaching. Important as it is, it should never supplant the proper and focal emphasis of the gospel and the central strand of the Reformed witness, namely, particular grace, the uniqueness of Christianity, the essential difference between a grace that is saving and a grace that is non-saving; a grace that recreates and a grace that restrains; that the human race is divided into two opposing camps; that the new birth makes for a basic, fundamental radical difference between men; that there is a radical difference between the man illumined and blessed by common grace and possessing general revelation and the man illumined and blessed by special, particular, saving grace and sharing special revelation; in a word that we do not in any sense dim and blur the sharp antithesis. It is quite possible to over-play the truth of common grace, and this would be our undoing.

1. “And that has ever been the healthy point of view of all truly Reformed people.