Common Grace

Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World: The Historical Section


When God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.

1st Peter 3:20

§ 1 With its appearance in 1878, the initial summons to duty that De Heraut sounded throughout our country once again bore witness to our people regarding the Calvinistic confession of our ancestors, namely, that grace is particular.

From then on the struggle to restore Reformed truth has been ongoing. We thank the Lord, to whom all glory belongs, that fifteen years after engaging in this battle, our struggle has achieved its goal. The particularity of grace, this bastion of our defense, at one time so threatened, is safe once again. In recapturing the particular character of grace, we recaptured the heart of our Reformed confession, which finds its necessary background in the doctrine of the covenant, and still further back, in the doctrine of common grace.

Particular grace deals with the individual, the person to be saved, with the individual entering glory. And with this individual, as child of God, we cannot wrap the golden chain of redemption around his soul unless that golden chain descends from personal, sovereign election.

For that reason, the almighty sovereignty of God, who elects whom he will and rejects those to whom he does not show mercy, remains the heart of the church, the cor ecclesiae, which the Reformed churches must hold firmly until the return of the Lord. The consequence of forsaking this truth would be their vanishing from the earth, even prior to the Maranatha. This doctrine is and remains, therefore, the heart of our confession. This is the testimony that, on the authority of God’s Word, sealed by our personal experience, we shout aloud for all to hear: grace is particular.

Nevertheless, that same child of God is something other than an isolated individual limited to himself. This individual is also part of a community, member of a body, participant in a group identity, enclosed within an organism. The doctrine of the covenant emphasizes and does justice to this truth.

Without the doctrine of the covenant, the doctrine of election is mutilated, and the frightening lack of the assurance of faith is the valid punishment resulting from this mutilation of the truth. If separated from the confession of the covenant, election in isolation attempts to take hold of the Holy Spirit without honoring God the Son. The Third Person in the Trinity does not allow that violation of the honor of the Second Person. Christ himself testified that the Holy Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you” [John 16:14]. Anyone who presumes to trample upon this divine ordinance will not escape the severe anguish with which this unshakeable ordinance wreaks its misery of soul.

Therefore, in Holy Scripture this sovereign, personal election never appears in any other manner but within the context of covenant grace. The individual, this single soul, must experience being incorporated into the community of the saints. We are elected personally, but together we are branches of the one Vine, members of the same body. For that reason, the confession of particular, personal grace is untrue and unscriptural unless it arises within the context of the covenant.

However, this is not the end of the matter.

The divine covenant in the Mediator in turn has its background in the work of original creation, in the existence of the world, and in the life of our human race. As individuals God’s children belong to the community of the saints. But that community of saints also consists of the children of men, born of a woman by the will of man. Consequently they are interwoven and interconnected with all of human living that originated in paradise and continues in its misshapen form even after humanity’s fall from God.

Neither our election nor our attachment to the community of saints negates our common humanity, nor removes our participation in the life of family, homeland, or world.

Therefore, we need to consider not two, but three aspects: first, our personal life; second, our incorporation into the body of Christ; and third, our existence as human beings (that is, our origin by human birth, our membership in the human race).

These three aspects, which our Heidelberg Catechism distinguishes as radiating from God’s triune being, are differentiated in the following way.

First, concerning God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification, it refers to the powerfully personal aspect in God’s dealing with his child. For the first time, in that sanctification one’s personal election becomes a certainty.

Second, concerning God the Son and our redemption, we confess the covenant of grace, of the Head of the body, of the one and only blood through which we find complete reconciliation.

And then third, concerning God the Father and our creation, we confess that our origin is in paradise, our ascent from natural life, our interconnection as human beings in the life of our human race.

Naturally, here the Catechism takes the order, the sequence, in reverse, for it began with our creation, and in this way at the same time proceeds according to the sacred order within the divine Being: first the Father, then the Son, eternally begotten of the Father, and thereafter the Holy Spirit, eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Thus the Catechism treats first our creation, then our redemption, and finally our sanctification. But in the understanding of God’s child, who looks within and reflects on the progress of the soul’s life, and consequently calculates from that point where he now stands, the course presented by experience and recollection is just the opposite. The child of God acknowledges God the Holy Spirit, who assures the believer of his personal election, thereby acknowledging that grace is particular. In none but Christ alone, however, does the believer find that assurance of faith, realizing that he is a member of the body, in the community of the saints, and in this way the glory of the covenant rises up before him.

Even with this, the matter is not yet finished, however.

Regarding that covenant, God’s child looks backward to his origin, to his birth, to his ancestry, to the world in which he walks about as a human being. In so doing, he arrives at that third confession, not only that grace is particular, and that this particular grace lies entwined in the bonds of the covenant, but also that God was present before and after his creation, such that by God’s own hand he has been skillfully and wonderfully knit together in his mother’s womb [see Psa 139:13–14]

This is what it means to confess God the Father; and with a voice louder than ever before, this boast of faith resonates from the lips of every believer: “I am elect, I am in Christ, and only for that reason do I believe deeply and fully in God the Father, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, Creator of my being, both body and soul.”

§ 2 Even so, something is still missing here.

Between the creation glory in paradise and one’s own birth lies the fall, and thereby a shadow of death rests upon that world and on that human life in that world, and on one’s interaction with that world estranged from God. The line of grace seems to be broken. In one’s personal election, that grace is particular; that grace is working organically in the covenant; but in the third place, that grace encounters the broken and violated creation. The line does not seem to continue.

For that reason, covenant grace must come to expand into particular grace, but behind covenant grace there is yet a third phenomenon expanding into covenant grace, namely, common grace.

So we find three emanations of God’s grace: a grace that applies to you personally, then a grace that you have in common with all God’s saints in the covenant, but also thirdly, a grace of God that you as a human being have in common with all people.

There is nothing in this that does not glorify God. Your personal salvation is entirely the fruit of sovereign grace. Your blossoming as a branch, together with all the sacred branches of the Vine, is the result of nothing except sovereign grace bestowed upon you. But now also your progress in that redemption as a human being, by virtue of your ancestry, by your birth and your entire human life, is a gift, a kindness, an outworking of the very same grace of God.

Do not stop with your assurance of faith or with the inculcation of your faith, not even with the creation within your soul of the capacity for faith. Rather, keep on moving further back, beyond conversion and regeneration, to your natural birth, yes, in order to bemoan your own sin and guilt, and the fatal guilt of your race, but also in order to extol the grace of your God in that very same natural birth.

Here, then, are three touchstones of grace.

One is entirely personal, a white stone, engraved with a name known only to God and to you. This is wholly particular grace. The second one is the touchstone of the covenant grace, a blessed gift you enjoy in common with all God’s children. The third is the touchstone of a general human grace, coming to you because you are among the children of humanity, yours together with not only all God’s children but in common with all the children of humanity.

§ 3 This new series of articles will treat this third element, in order to supplement both of our earlier series that dealt with particular grace and the doctrine of the covenants.

Only when you comprehend particular grace and covenant grace, as well as general grace, in their essence, significance, and connection, will your thinking find rest in its quest for unity.

We have purposely avoided the expression general grace, and for our title we have chosen instead common grace, that is, gratia communis, to prevent misunderstanding. The assumption could so easily have slipped in that once again we meant [to suggest] that grace belonged to everyone and were thereby attempting again to dislodge the established foundation of particular grace. The notion of “general” grace is so easily misused, as if by it were meant saving grace, and that is absolutely not the case. The only grace that is saving in the absolute sense is particular, personal grace, and even covenant grace receives this title of honor only with certain qualifications. Nevertheless, even though covenant grace in certain instances is saving in terms of its nature and significance, this may never be ascribed to general grace.

In order to emphasize this strongly and forcefully, let it be noted immediately that in some measure animals also share in general grace (see Gen 9:9–10). To differing degrees, general grace is apportioned to all people, including the worst apostates whose consciences are completely seared and who are lost forever.

In itself general grace carries no saving seed within itself and is therefore of an entirely different nature from particular grace or covenant grace. Since this is often lost from view when speaking about general grace, to prevent misunderstanding and confusion it seemed more judicious to revive in our title the otherwise somewhat antiquated expression, and to render the phrase communis gratia, used formerly by Latin-speaking theologians, as common grace.

§ 4 The specialist knows that the discussion of this subject presents unique difficulties for reasons that are obvious.

After all, in former times this subject never enjoyed separate treatment. Among the various main sections into which people usually divided academic theology, none bore this title. They treated the topics of holy Scripture, God, the decrees, creation, sin, Christ, salvation, the church, the sacraments, the state, and the last things, but a separate main section treating common grace or general grace appeared nowhere.

When in the footsteps of Calvin, the attention primarily of Reformed theologians was specially directed to this extremely important subject, they managed to work out its main features, but without devoting a separate chapter to it. The subject was treated mostly in connection with “the virtues of the heathen,” “civic righteousness,” “the natural knowledge of God,” and so on, but without ever arranging all the various elements belonging to this subject into one ordered, coherent discussion. Nor does our Heidelberg Catechism treat it separately, and this in turn prevented us from completing a discussion of common grace in its own set of chapters in our commentary, E Voto Dordraceno.

Although we have repeatedly drawn attention to this common grace since 1878, and even though we took note with gratitude and interest of the well-formulated address on “Common Grace” published by Dr. Herman Bavinck in 1894, this weighty subject has until now not yet been treated with any degree of coherence and completeness. It remains for us then, with this work, to open our own path, with absolutely no pretense of finishing once and for all this section of dogmatics. Rather, since this subject reaches so deeply into life and into our present struggles, our goal is to offer an initial sample that could lead later to a more developed and polished doctrinal treatment.

§ 5 Among the perfections of God, it is particularly his forbearance that is not exhausted in this common grace, but rather is magnified in a moving way.

God’s holiness and majesty respond against all sin, not merely in part, but completely, in the most absolute sense. If this outworking of God’s holiness against sin were to proceed unimpeded in all of its dreadfulness, there would be no common grace. But the Lord our God is not merely holy, but also in his holiness he is at the same time forbearing, and it is from that forbearance, which yields the divine patience of the Almighty for bearing temporarily with sin, that common grace is born.

In his Institutes, Calvin formulated the profound understanding of this common grace most clearly when he answered the question of how we can explain the fact that uprightness and nobility excelled among pagans and unbelievers so often to such a high degree. Most people who expressed their views always made it appear as though this fact provided proof against the deep and pervasive depravity to which our human nature had sunk through sin. “You slander our human nature,” so they argued, “if you confess that through sin we are inclined to all evil and incapable of any good. Those many excellent pagans, who do not know Christ and who nevertheless often put us to shame, prove the opposite. And unbelievers as well who live among us often surpass many a child of God in quiet, sober devotion to duty.”

Calvin protested against this view.

Their claim would indeed be valid if these people were like that in and of themselves. But precisely this must be refuted, and the explanation sought rather in the claim that “amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God’s grace; not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly.”Already in the first French edition of his Institutes Calvin formulated the matter this way: “When speaking of universal corruption, we need to consider that God’s grace does somehow occur, not in the sense that he will alter the perverse nature, but bridle and restrain it from within.” The formulation in the Latin edition is shorter and stronger: “grace does not purge our sin, yet dwells within us,” something he repeats even more pointedly at the end of that paragraph: “God by his providence bridles the perversity of nature, that it may not break forth into action; but he does not purge it within” Here lies the root of the doctrine of common grace, together with the explanation of why it forms such an indispensable part of the Reformed confession. It arose not from philosophical invention, but from the confession of the deadly character of sin. Our Reformed ancestors have always insisted on sin’s lethal character. They unanimously confessed, “Dead by nature through sin and trespasses.”

However, this did not appear to fit with reality.

There was in that sinful world, outside the church, so much that was beautiful, that was worthy of esteem, that provoked jealousy. This placed a choice before people: either deny all this good, contrary to better knowledge, and join the ranks of the Anabaptists, or suggest that fallen humanity had not fallen so deeply after all, and thereby succumb to the Arminian heresy. Placed before this choice, the Reformed confession refused to go with either one. We may not close our eyes to the good and the beautiful outside the church, among unbelievers, in the world. This good exists, and that had to be acknowledged. At the same time we may hardly minimize in any way the pervasive depravity of sinful [human] nature. So then the solution of this apparent contradiction lay in this, that outside the church grace operates among pagans in the midst of the world. This grace is neither an everlasting grace nor a saving grace, but a temporal grace for the restraint of ruin that lurks within sin.

Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World: The Historical Section

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