17 December 2017

GRACE & TRUTH

COMMON GRACE

In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus Christ teaches believers that we are to love even our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good to those who hate us, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). Christ makes clear that even the publicans, or tax collectors, show love towards those who love them, and give good greetings to their brothers (Matthew 5:46-47).

The Lord Jesus underlines the kindness of God towards all of His creatures, both to believer and unbeliever. He draws attention to the fact that God causes “his sun to rise on the evil and on the good” and sends “rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). This is an example of God’s general providence or common grace. Common grace has been defined by the American theologian Wayne Grudem in this way: “common grace is the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation”1.

Our world is fallen and decaying because of man’s sin. But because of God’s common grace it is not as loveless, ugly, or chaotic as it potentially could be. Common grace can never save anyone of course. Only saving grace in Jesus Christ can do that. The function of common grace is to restrain sin. It holds us back from being as evil as we potentially could be. It prevents human society from collapsing into total anarchy, and allows ordinary life to continue.

God has provided many good things for all creation. The Apostle Paul reminded those in Lystra that God “gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). God has given countless provisions to all mankind. So many that people can experience gladness. Paul makes further reference to this doctrine elsewhere, reminding readers that God supplies both ‘seed to the sower’, and ‘bread for your food’ (II Corinthians 9:10). God has not only provided the crops, He has also supplied the bakeries. The bakers who apply their God-given skills to make bread are part of common grace. Scientists, artists, musicians, sportsmen, architects, craftsmen, engineers, all use the talents that God has endowed them with.

Creation was drastically affected by the fall. Sin and evil entered the universe, and suffering, disease and natural disasters followed. Our world is subject to frustration and in bondage to corruption (Romans 8:20). However the disruptive effect of sin upon creation is restrained. The Lord Jesus Christ is the sustainer of the universe (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:17). One day He will return and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth. Until that day, in order to sustain a functioning world, God restrains the effect of sin on creation.

The measure of order and security that all of us experience is no thanks to man. So serious is sin that, if God withdrew His restraining hand, man would completely destroy his fellow man. God restrains evil so that His creation may be preserved; that men and women may be enabled to live ordered lives; and ultimately that the gospel may be preached throughout all nations.

The Bible reveals several means whereby God restrains sin. These include: (1) the governing authorities, (2) the fact that actions have consequences, (3) the institution of marriage and the family unit, and (4) the human conscience.

Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-15 teach that the governing authorities ‘are ordained of God’, and are established ‘for the punishment of evildoers’. The state enforces law and order, and imposes penalties on offenders. Fear of legal penalties often serves to restrain the sinful inclinations of the human heart.

Galatians 6:7 warns that whatever a man sows, he will also reap. The Bible contains our Maker’s instructions. When people comply with God’s laws they work in practice; they go with the grain of how we have been designed. An unbeliever who is a diligent employee, a faithful husband, and an upright citizen, will often experience a degree of benefit in this life. None of these things will save that man, or earn him any merit with God, but he will experience some temporal blessing, because a man reaps what he sows.

Marriage and the family unit is a third means of common grace. Genesis 2 records that marriage was instituted by God at creation and hard-wired into human society. It is in the family that parents teach their children right from wrong. The family is also the main way by which values are passedfrom one generation to another. Marriage creates strong networks of wider family relationships which are at the root of thriving societies.

The Apostle Paul argues that the conscience restrains sin. He states that the Gentiles, who did not have the written word of God, “do by nature the things contained in the law”, thereby showing “the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” (Romans 2:14-15). People feel guilty when they do what is wrong; their conscience accuses them. When Christians act as salt and light, and speak out for what is right, then people’s consciences will be provoked. Sin will be restrained.

The world is fallen because of man’s sin, but thanks to God’s common grace, believers and unbelievers experience many temporal benefits in this life. We cannot force people to accept Christian principles, but in a democracy we can argue for them. And we must argue for them if we love our neighbour.

Callum Webster

1 Grudem, Wayne; Systematic Theology, IVP, page 657