There’s Nothing Common About Grace

In Matthew five Jesus said, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (compare Luke 6:27-36 as well). This is God’s providential, merciful benevolence to all people—not just the elect. Theologians have referred to this general act of kindness as “common grace.”

Common Grace is normally defined as:
“a theological concept in Protestant Christianity, primarily in Reformed and Calvinistic circles, referring to the grace of God that is common to all humankind. It is “common” because its benefits are experienced by the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is “grace” because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God. In this sense, it is distinguished from the Calvinistic understanding of “special” or “saving” grace, which extends only to those whom God has chosen to redeem.”
-source obtained from

Scriptures used to defend this theological distinctive are: Matt. 5:44-45; Matt. 37-39; Luke 6:35-36, 16:25; Acts 14:15-17; Psalm 33:5; Psalm 145:8-9; 104; 1 Tim. 4:4; Gen. 39:5, etc. This “common grace” can be seen in nature, by believers loving their neighbor and blessing the unregenerate through the fruit of a life of good works that by grace has a right-standing before God. This is what is usually held to as the definition for the phrase “common grace” in summarizing the bounties of God’s providential benevolence and mercy upon all His creatures.

While I agree with the meaning behind the term of “common grace”, biblically grace is never used to describe this universal benevolence and kindness of God.

Grace is used some 124 times in the NT (ESV), and every mention speaks of redemption, salvation, Christ’s person or ministry, our sanctification, God’s provision for us in equipping and providing for ministry, the gospel, the bestowing of spiritual gifts, etc. But not one time is the word grace itself ever used to describe God’s universal benevolence to all of His creatures – specifically the unregenerate.

The Definition of Grace
Grace presupposes sin, guilt, and demerit; it addresses two facts: 1. we have not earned the favor of God; and 2. we have earned the curse of God.

Grace means we don’t get the curse we deserve AND that we get the blessings we don’t deserve. This is because Christ as our divine Substitute has acted fully in our place – imputing to us, by faith, the full merit of His righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).

 The Gospel, therefore, is the message of the grace of God to undeserving, unworthy, sinful people like me and you.

The simple. historically accepted definition of grace is: ‘unmerited favor.’ Though this comes close to understanding grace, in and of itself is an inadequate definition. This is a definition more along the lines of kindness; but to really define grace–it needs to go further.

I was having dinner a while back with a friend of mine Jerry Bridges. He is one of the most profound Bible teachers of our day and his books reflect his deep love for the Lord and His Word. When we were discussing this issue of grace, he gave me a tremendous illustration to communicate the difference between providential benevolence and God’s grace.

He said,

A hungry hobo comes to your door asking for a meal. You give it to him freely, without him doing anything to earn it. This would be considered ‘kindness’, not ‘grace’.

Biblical correct definitions of grace would be: 
1. Grace – ‘God’s favor through Christ to those who deserve His disfavor.’ This version is designed to compare/contrast the historically accepted inadequate definition of grace above.

 Or 2. Grace – ‘God’s blessings through Christ to those who deserve His curse.’ This is the better of the two definitions.

To illustrate this Jerry went on in using his example of the hobo. He continued by saying,

The hobo robs you after eating your free meal. He then returns one month later. Instead of calling the police, you give him another meal.

Key components of the definition:
 1. Christ is the only basis for both our redemption from the curse and our attaining any of God’s blessings. 

2. We have assaulted the holiness of God, but yet have been His grace. Back to our hobo, this takes us from seeing ourselves as the hungry hobo to seeing ourselves as the robber.

IOW, grace is ‘God in action.’ Grace is not just a benevolent attitude on God’s part to all people. Grace is always ‘God in action’ for our good and for His glory. 
every time the Bible mentions ‘grace’ it is always associated with ‘God in action.’ He is: saving us, justifying us, empowering us, sustaining us, equipping us, etc. ‘by grace.’

Words have Meaning
One of the reasons I enjoy writing (and reading) is that to effectively communicate one must place a high value on words. 
Words mean something. Words in the Word of God mean profound eternal “somethings.” Grace, when used in the Bible, means something weighty, treasured, and valuable. And though the historical or traditional meaning of “common grace” has lent itself to represent a general mercy or benevolence by God for all people (which again I affirm), it seems there is a danger – even if ever so slightly – of weakening the high value and rich meaning of “grace” when we use it in a manner which the Scriptures do not.

By comparison, when we speak of general and special revelation, we clearly have Scripture to support that distinction. Psalm 19:1-6 describes God’s general revelation (the heavens declare His glory); and Psalm 19:7-9 describes His special revelation (the law of the Lord is just converting the soul). And this is done without having to alter the biblical meaning of the word “revelation” in making that distinction.

 To be consistent, the same principle should apply to grace… shouldn’t it?

I also understand the need to answer questions of faith and to look biblically for those answers. Dutch theologian, Louis Berkhof, gives us an example of the kinds of questions this issue of common grace may prompt. He asks:

  • How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin?
  • How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles?
  • How can we account for it that sinful man still “retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior”?
  • What explanation can be given of the special gifts and talents with which the natural man is endowed, and of the development of science and art by those who are entirely devoid of the new life that is in Christ Jesus?
  • How can we explain the religious aspirations of men everywhere, even of those who did not come in touch with the Christian religion?
  • How can the unregenerate still speak the truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives?

…then and to come to the text of God’s Word to answer them truthfully, correctly and biblically. 

I see the answers to the above questions contained in rightly understanding God’s universal providential benevolence–not in the phrase of “common grace.”

 May I say there is nothing “common” about grace; whether the word means a general community, universal application, or to display a pedestrian distinction.

To quote again the profound words of G.S. Bishop when speaking of grace he says,

“Grace is a provision for men who are so fallen that they cannot lift the ax of justice; so corrupt that they cannot change their own natures; so adverse to God that they cannot turn to Him; so blind that they cannot see Him; so deaf that they cannot hear Him; and so dead that He Himself must open their graves.”

Therefore, we can see that grace is not used in the NT in a casual or ad-hoc manner to describe a universal benevolence or mercy given to all created beings. God is kind and benevolent to all people – reprobate and regenerate (Matt. 5:45). But grace is used in a more exalted way to describe God’s work of redemption toward sinful men in the gospel (Acts 20:24; Roms. 5:15; 1 Cor. 1:4; Titus 2:11); and the person and ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord (John 1:14, 17; Acts 15:11; Roms. 1:7; Eph. 2:8-9). Even the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29).

 This is a simple issue for me: when using biblical language, use it in the way that God has in describing the faith.

Some want to discredit this kind of thinking by labeling me a hyper-Calvinist (which I am most definitely not); or by saying this departs from agreed theological nomenclature (which again, I affirm the orthodox meaning behind the phrase).

Why Dumb-Down Grace?
But why dumb-down grace by calling it something biblically it is not. I am not arguing for using only biblical terms in any discussion. What I am contending for, however, is keeping terms that are stated and used in the biblical record true to their meaning and context… biblically. There is a difference. Grace is such a term that is part of the NT record and used in very specific ways over 120 times and carries with it a meaning that is lofty and profound.

 Let’s not alter that…

I.e. – The word “Trinity” is not a biblical term, but serves to concisely represent biblical truth. Terms such as ” the five solas”, “eschatology”, “soteriology” etc. are not biblical terms, but they do clearly represent biblical truth.
 We can use them to unfold categories of theological belief that are “commonly” understood when speaking of certain theological convictions and truths.

One caveat here: the heritage of the phrase “common grace” is well documented and foundational for this issue. But the historical sense of it means little and should not take precedence when the biblical record is so clear.

IOW, I wouldn’t point to the rich reformed historical heritage of paedo-baptism and favor it against the clear biblical record of credo-baptism just because paedo-baptism enjoys a n agreed historical tradition and practice among some of my reformed brothers (I mean, we are not Romanists). Though sadly, some in the reformed camp (no pun intended) stand more firmly on their historical practice over and against the biblical record to justify the baptizing of infants while at the same time deny the baptizing of adults who were once baptized as infants claiming that would be a “rebaptism.”

Some of you might remember, or were even there, when R.C. Sproul debated John MacArthur on this issue several years ago. R.C. conceded in his opening remarks that John had already won the debate because they had agreed to make their respective cases from the scope of God’s Word. Simply, John had the weight of Scripture behind him on this issue, R.C. did not. Both of these men are tremendous pastors, teachers and theologians whom I greatly appreciate, love and respect in my life and ministry. But I was so encouraged that R.C. paid homage to the truth of God’s Word over the historic tradition — even though he ultimately didn’t change his conviction on infant baptism. The biblical teaching should always trump the historic tradition. That same principle should govern our thinking when we are defining key and essentials aspects of Christianity.

Graciousness vs. Grace
In Jerry’s hobo illustration, I do see the response as being one of graciousness–but to me that’s not an act of grace, but an act of mercy and benevolence. IMHO, those two things are different. 

Gracious implies genial, affable, urbane, merciful, compassionate. But an act of God’s grace is redemptive, salvific. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but I don’t think it’s ta-MAY-toe, ta-MA-toe.

 Again, words mean something; and grace is too important of a word to concede to theological labeling.

Psalm 145:8-9 that some site in defense of the phrase “common grace” are some of my favorite verses on the benevolence of God.

“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The LORD is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works.”

Spurgeon’s commentary on these verses is especially profound. He does mention “his plans and his poses all manifest his grace, or free favour”; but then he does clarify it more as his commentary unfolds on the whole of it pertaining to these verses by emphasizing God’s mercy, longsuffering, and compassion.

Consider these words:

“To all living men his aspect: he is gracious, or full of goodness and generosity. He treats creatures with kindness, his subjects with consideration, and his saints favour.”

“To the suffering, the weak, the despondent, he is very pitiful: he feels for them, he feels with them: he this heartily, and in a practical manner. Of this pitifulness he is full, so the compassionates freely, constantly, deeply, divinely, and effectually.”

“What an ocean of compassion there must be since the Infinite God is full of Slow to anger. Even those who refuse his grace yet share in long suffering. When men do not repent, but, on the contrary, go from bad to worse, averse to let his wrath flame forth against them. Greatly patient and anxious that the sinner may live, he “lets the lifted thunder drop”, and still bears. “Love suffereth long and is kind”, and God is love. And of great mercy. This is his attitude towards the guilty. When men at last repent, find pardon awaiting them. Great is their sin, and great is God’s mercy, need great help, and they have it though they deserve it not; for he is good to the greatly guilty.”

This discussion comes down to a simple recognition that grace, biblically defined, does have a meaning that doesn’t carry with it the idea of a universal or common benevolence or kindness. But something more powerful: redemption, salvation, conformity to Christ; justification; imputation; propitiation; and glorification.

is also representative of God’s character (the grace of God) and of Jesus Christ (full of grace and truth; the word of His grace; as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.)

This is the heart and soul of it… To those with whom I disagree, I think we are on the same page here–just using different phrases to express the same, important truth.

To be clear, I have never claimed that grace is only used in a soteriological sense (though that is the majority of its usage in the NT). I listed above that grace is used in matters of provision and equipping for ministry (2 Cor. 9:8; 2 Tim. 2:1) ; in our sanctification (Col. 4:6; Titus 2:12); for the use and purpose of spiritual gifts (1 Peter 4:10); and also in relation to the character of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (cp, Col. 1:2; John 1:14-17; Heb. 10:29).

Grace Upon Grace
In closing, there is a wonderful phrase in the first chapter of John’s gospel where he says,

“For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.”

“Grace upon grace. Literally, as Dr. MacArthur referred to this in a sermon by saying, “we are graced with grace” (cf, Eph. 1:5-8; 2:7). This is speaking to the super-abounding grace given to us. “Where sin once abounded, grace super-abounded…” I am a great sinner; but He is a greater Savior.

This “grace upon grace” reality flows from the “fulness of Christ.” As Calvin says,

“He begins now to preach about the office of Christ, that it contains within itself an abundance of all blessings, so that no part of salvation must be sought anywhere else. True, indeed, the fountain of life, righteousness, virtue, and wisdom, is with God, but to us it is a hidden and inaccessible fountain. But an abundance of those things is exhibited to us in Christ,”

This is the language of sufficiency beloved.

Paul echoes this in Colossians: Col. 1:18

“He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. Col. 1:19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, Col. 1:20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” 

AND, “that is, Christ Himself, Col. 2:3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Col. 2:9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, Col. 2:10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;”

If we look at the flow of this section of Scripture (John 1:14-18) the outline unfolds according to Pink as follows:

  1. Christ’s Incarnation—”The word became flesh”: John 1:14.
  2. Christ’s Earthly sojourn—”And tabernacled among us:” John 1:14.
  3. Christ’s Essential Glory—”As of the only Begotten:” John 1:14.
  4. Christ’s Supreme excellency—”Preferred before:” John 1:15.
  5. Christ’s Divine sufficiency—”His fulness:” John 1:16.
  6. Christ’s Moral perfections—”Grace and truth:” John 1:17.
  7. Christ’s Wondrous revelation—Made known “the Father:” John 1:18.

Therefore, I would conclude the “all” in verse 16 pertains to all believers; for no unbeliever is partakers of His fulness and recipients of “grace upon grace.” It could also be argued, I guess, that the all could mean: “John appeals to all his own contemporaries as participants with him in the fulness of the Logos.” (Robertson)

As to the example of Ezra: the context is not the general pagan world, but to the people of God. We know this to be certain for Ezra writes in 9:8: “that our God may enlighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.” Ezra’s address is a penitent confession of sin, the sin of his people. Let this be the comfort of true penitents, that though their sins reach to the heavens, God’s mercy is in the heavens. 

And part of that favor, as you say, is evidenced in releasing a remnant from captivity.

As some have rightly said, “there are so many things God has done for every single person in the world which we do not deserve.” Amen! His providential kindness and benevolence rests on all the sons of Adam.

I also like how John Gill approaches this phrase when he says,

“the meaning is, grace is for the sake of grace; for there is no other cause of electing, justifying, pardoning, adopting, and regenerating grace, and even eternal life, but the grace, or free favour of God;” “…I also think, the abundance of it, at first conversion, with all after supplies, is intended; and that grace for grace, is the same with grace upon grace, heaps of grace;”

The superabundance of grace that comes through Jesus. I’m certainly not married to the phrase “graced with grace” – but I thought it reflected well the “grace upon grace” plentifulness found in Christ Jesus our Lord. “Favor given to one who has already received favor” also says it well.

Grace imparted; grace increasing.

Grace not being static, but active. AT Robertson says,

“Hebrews 12:2 where “joy” and “cross” are balanced against each other. Here the picture is “grace” taking the place of “grace” like the manna fresh each morning, new grace for the new day and the new service.”

I know that Dan has an extensive knowledge of Greek and I would be interested on his thoughts as well. I’ll defer to his wisdom on this.

Grace-Focused Worship
But here’s the wonder and majesty of this issue for me in all this beloved. I awoke this morning worshipping the Lord and praising Him for His matchless, abounding, fathomless saving-sanctifying-glorifying grace. 

 This discussion about grace has caused me a fresh to reverence God today with joy. Why? Because He is a God of grace; and aren’t you glad? Instead of His wrath He has given me His grace; instead of His justice, He has given me His mercy; and instead of His enmity, He has given me His unfailing love. Amen?

What hope, what promise, what forgiveness, what life and victory is given to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus Christ IS our all in all…

Further Study and Reading:
1. “The History and Theology of Calvinism” by Curt Daniel, Ph.D.
2. “Dogmatic Theology” by William G.T. Shedd
3. “Systematic Theology” by Wayne Grudem

The amazing photos used above were shot by Timmy Brister.
I would encourage you to view other excellent photographs of his as well.

this has been a timely encore presentation