Common Grace

There is much more to grace than meets the eye. Indeed, to borrow and slightly tweak the title of a song made famous by Bing Crosby in 1955, ‘Grace is a many splendored thing’. Although we instinctively link it to the idea of God’s demerited favour towards sinners in salvation, when we begin to trace its contours throughout the Scriptures, we see facets that only make us appreciate its beauty and blessing more deeply. This kaleidoscope of beauty is worth exploring in its major component parts and my hope is to do this through a series of articles designed to unpack it. In some cases, the vocabulary of grace is used explicitly, in others the concept is present implicitly; but, nevertheless, is clearly grace-full.

We begin our journey through grace with the way God shows his grace – his love and favour – towards all he has made. David explicitly highlights this facet of God’s dealings with all his creatures in Psalm 145, captured in the words, ‘The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all he has made’ (145.9). The absence of the word ‘grace’ should not blind us to the concept of grace that is very much in view. The fact the previous verse states plainly, ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (145.8), indicates that there is an aspect of grace that benefits humanity as a whole – whether we realise it or not.

In a very real sense, the first human being to discover this aspect of the divine favour was Adam in the garden of Eden. Having been warned quite literally ‘on pain of death’ against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Ge 2.17); when he did just that, he was not struck down on the spot. Immediate retribution in its fullest sense did not befall him. As the late Norman Shepherd used to teach in his Prolegomena class, ‘The fact Adam lived to draw another breath after the fall made him realise that God is a God of grace.’ He had not yet experienced God’s redeeming grace when the Lord would symbolically slay two animals to cover his and Eve’s guilt and shame in their sin; but he was nevertheless not dead. As another psalmist declares, ‘If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?’ (Ps 130).

Jeremiah echoes this thought when he says, ‘Because of the steadfast love of the LORD we are not cut off’ (La 3.22 mg). Although the immediate horizon in view is the loyal love [hesed] of God towards his covenant people; there is a wider expression of love here as well. The prophet says God’s mercies ‘are new every morning’ (La 3.23) – not just to the redeemed, but to the world. It was not merely that Israel in her covenant infidelity had not been cut off from God’s presence, the same was true even for the enemies of God. The fallen race into which we are all born is not yet in the hell we deserves for our sin. Going back to what David asserts in his psalm, God, by virtue of his character, is ‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Ps 145.8).

There is a significant implication in this for the way we as Christians present the gospel persuasively. Too often we are inclined to impress the good news of God on sinners by flagging up his threats against them. But even though there is undoubtedly a necessary place for these warnings, they can never be divorced from the love God has towards the race that even in its fallenness still bears his image. Perhaps especially in the world of our day when people more than ever crave and seek love, only to be let down and betrayed on every side. For them to know that, even in their messed-up state, there is a very real sense in which God loves them, is a truth the Holy Spirit can use to draw them to the One who loved sinners and gave himself for them.

Interestingly, Jesus uses this angle on the breadth of God’s love to open people’s eyes to the kind of God who calls sinners to himself. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus challenges his audience over their instinct to hate their enemies by telling them the opposite should be true. Indeed, he tells them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, ‘so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven’ (Mt 5.45) – that is, be like God in their character and conduct. Since God sends rain and sunshine on the evil and the good, the unjustified as well as the justified, we should show love and kindness to them.

So too in the city of Lystra, Paul and Barnabas showed how unlike the gods of the pagans was the God proclaimed in the gospel: ‘He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness’ (Ac 14.17).

The implications of this aspect of grace are legion. It is not just that we do not find ourselves in a world that is hell on earth; quite the opposite, we are surrounded by beauty and good things that defy logic. All people can experience the joy of human relationships, have food, clothing and homes to live in, find fulfilment in work, pleasure in music and the arts. The list goes on and on. Why? Because, despite human sin and all it most surely deserves, ‘The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all he has made.’ As this great truth permeates our hearts and minds it will surely shape how we relate to those around us and, in so doing, the display of God’s common grace may become the door for his saving grace in the gospel.

Mark Johnston