God’s Saving Grace and God’s Common Grace
By Donald P. Shoemaker
Reprinted from GraceConnect (Fall, 2015)
I was finishing some yard work in front of my home on a recent Saturday morning when I saw them coming—a group of eight Jehovah’s Witnesses. I went to my porch and read the front page of the morning paper and then piddled in the yard until they reached me. The two who talked to me spoke of the importance of good fathers. So did an article on the front page of my newspaper. In both cases, I rejoice in the grace of God that was revealed! More about that experience later.
“Grace” is God’s unearned, undeserved, unobligated favor.
Christians are well acquainted with God’s “saving grace”. We usually have this in mind when we speak the word “grace”. But there is another important dimension to God’s grace—his “common grace” to all humanity.
We’ll explore both dimensions of God’s grace. But I will emphasize common grace for it is the dimension we tend to overlook.
God’s saving grace operates as we are brought into the sphere of faith and forgiveness. Grace is seen in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross so our sins may be forgiven (Ephesians 1:7) and God can declare us righteous (Romans 3:24). By grace we are saved through faith, which itself is a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Because of God’s saving grace, we sing “Amazing grace…that saved a wretch like me.” No matter how great our sin, God’s grace is greater (Romans 5:20).
God’s saving grace continues actively in us as we walk our Christian pathway “through many dangers, toils and snares.” We are not passive under grace—we must continue and grow in this grace (Acts 13:43; 2 Peter 3:18).
God’s grace especially sees us through our weaknesses, low points, and when prayer isn’t answered our way (2 Corinthians 12:9). It makes us strong and steadfast when we suffer for Christ (1 Peter 5:10).
By God’s grace, spiritual leaders are called to their positions and believers have spiritual gifts (“charismata”—works of grace) bestowed on them for service (Ephesians 4:7, Romans 12:6).
Saving grace is never without good morals. Grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives” (Titus 2:11-12 New International Version). Like a sleek train designed to speed on carefully laid rails, God designs us to do the good works he has already set before us (Ephesians 2:10)!
And on the great day when Jesus appears, saving “grace will lead me home” (1 Peter 1:13).
Common grace is a different dimension of God’s grace. The term is an umbrella we give to a number of biblical thoughts we pull together. Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, 657) defines it as “the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.” People benefit from this grace whether they love God, believe in God, obey God or not.
One obvious common grace is the vast blessing God gives humanity through his abundant creation. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). God “makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth, wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart” (Psalm 104:14-15). And you know? God enjoys every minute of it (Psalm 104:31)!
God’s many ways of keeping our humanity humane are works of common grace. Fundamental to this is the value and dignity that flow from our being made in the image and likeness of God. Because we are all made in God’s image, human life at all stages is precious and must not be taken except as God requires or permits. We must treat others respectfully, especially in our words. We can’t bless our Creator and then curse people made in God’s likeness (James 3:9-10).
God has also bestowed to everyone a basic sense of right and wrong. When the Protestant reformers talked about our “total depravity” they nonetheless spoke of this universal sense of morality. The Canons of Dort (1619), which articulated the Calvinist doctrine of depravity, also said, “Unbelievers retain glimmerings of natural light that provide some knowledge of God, of natural things, and the difference between good and evil.”
Parenting and family structure show God’s grace. Even unrighteous people want what is good for their children (Matthew 7:9-11). When God permits this grace to be lifted, we see the resulting family and societal chaos.
Human intelligence, creativity, artistry, achievements (cultural and scientific), and wholesome enjoyments are all by God’s grace. All can be corrupted, of course, but this does not change the fact that they are capabilities bestowed by God’s gracious providence.
Another common grace is how God uses human authority to promote justice, punish evil, encourage good, and secure peace (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). No government is perfect—certainly not the Roman government of Paul and Peter’s time. But God works his grace through this instrument of clay and calls his children to honor it, though this doesn’t at all mean that we shouldn’t address the injustices of the state when they occur.
Last, we note God’s restraint of evil, lest the world become even more intolerable and ungovernable. God may restrain individuals (Genesis 20:6) or the whole of humanity (2 Thessalonians 2:7). We don’t know how much God does this, and we must acknowledge much mystery because we see so many instances of ruthless depravity in history and the present.
Should we cooperate with God’s common grace? Absolutely!
• Encourage good stewardship of God’s creation.
• Bless others—just or unjust—with good, as our Father in Heaven does.
• Reason with non-Christians about good and evil, faith and unbelief, and ultimate issues—God is the author of logic.
• Strive for points of commonality with opponents to enhance peace in a diverse society.
• Cooperate with non-Christians for the good of the culture.
• Encourage and participate in wholesome deeds (Reformation thought recognizes the “civic good” unbelievers may perform).
• Commend good and oppose evil in society.
• Work to diminish grief and suffering.
• Participate in government at all levels.
Finally, remember that if we emphasize either saving grace or common grace and minimize the other, we easily fall into error. Minimize common grace and you may fall into cultural withdrawal, abandoning all efforts in the world except evangelism. Minimize saving grace and become fulfilled in what you accomplish with your non-Christian colleagues and you may fail to tell them the way of salvation.
Now back to the story of my morning newspaper and Jehovah’s Witnesses who came by. Whether from a secular source (the newspaper) or from a religious source not at all orthodox, truth came forth. Families hurt and society suffers when fatherhood fails. Where fatherhood is uplifted and strong, people thrive. This truth overflows all secular and religious borders. Strong fatherhood, wherever it blossoms, is God’s common grace at work!
[Donald P. Shoemaker is Pastor Emeritus of Grace Community Church of Seal Beach, California where he served as Senior Pastor 1984-2012. He is Chairman of the Social Concerns Committee in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. His Website is: donaldshoemakerministries.com.]
© 2015 Donald P. Shoemaker