Scripture, as God’s good word to his creation, is beautiful and challenging in its depiction of humanity and our call to faithfulness in the world. The Bible paints a compelling picture of creation as inherently good, and yet deeply marred and distorted by the reality of sin. With the entrance of sin to our world, there came a distinction in humankind: those in Adam and those in Christ.

This distinction is true at a base level, and yet it seems to lack explanatory power regarding the abundance of things good, true, and beautiful among believers and non-believers alike. Is some way that we can make sense of good things coming from those who are, according to Scripture, spiritually dead?

The Apostle James wrote, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Referring to this passage, Tim Keller writes in his book The Reason for God:

This means that no matter who performs it, every act of goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty is empowered by God. God gives out good gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty, and skill “graciously”— that is, in a completely unmerited way. He casts them across all humanity, regardless of religious conviction, race, gender, or any other attribute to enrich, brighten, and preserve the world.[i]

The Scriptures talk about God’s grace in two fundamentally different ways. The first is what theologians call special grace. It is the favor of God which results in salvation.

Special grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in calling, regenerating, justifying, and sanctifying individual sinners. Special grace is restricted to those who actually come to saving faith in Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck described the special grace of God as “his voluntary, unrestrained, unmerited favor toward guilty sinners, granting them justification and life instead of the penalty of death, which they deserved.”[ii]  J. I. Packer expressed it this way:

The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity and had no reason to expect anything but severity.[iii]

Yet as Keller implies, special grace is not the only manifestation of God’s grace to this fallen world. Could those who never come to saving faith in Jesus Christ be recipients of another type of divine grace?

The apostle Paul described the universal condition of humanity in bleak terms. In the book of Romans he wrote, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). Theologians call this fallen state, apart from Christ, total depravity.

But total depravity is not utter depravity. We are not as wicked as we possibly could be. We observe unbelievers enjoying God’s gifts and doing things which benefit the world. As John Murray observed, the idea of total depravity forces us to deal with thorny questions:

How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favor and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?[iv]

The great reformer John Calvin was one of the first to suggest that the answers to these questions are found in the distinction the Bible draws between God’s special or saving grace and His common or non-saving grace. Calvin described the capacity for goodness in the non-Christian as a gift from God. He said that an unbelieving mind, “though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.”[v] The concept of common grace is also seen in a number of the Reformed Confessions and further developed by later theologians such as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and John Murray.

Common grace was defined by Abraham Kuyper as “that act of God by which He negatively curbs the operations of Satan, death, and sin, and by which He positively creates an intermediate state for this cosmos, as well as for our human race, which is and continues to be deeply and radically sinful, but in which sin cannot work out its end.”[vi]John Murray defined common grace as “every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”[vii]

Common grace is common because it is universal; it is grace because it is undeserved and given by a gracious God. So although one cannot do good in the fullest sense without the blessings of God’s special grace, one can carry out the commandments of God in an external and temporary fashion. We see examples of unbelieving people doing this in many places in the Scriptures. By common grace a person can choose to commit sins which are relatively less wicked than others. Murray offered this example: “The ploughing of the wicked is sin, but it is more sinful for the wicked not to plough.”[viii]

There are three ways in which common grace manifests itself in the world.

  • Through common grace God restrains sin. Jonathan Edwards said, “If sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone.”[ix] God’s common grace prevents fallen human beings from doing all the wrong they could do. Common grace keeps our total depravity from becoming absolute; it keeps the world from falling into anarchy.
  • Through common grace God restrains His wrath against sinful mankind. It is surprising that human beings receive any blessing from God at all. Common grace even restrains evil by placing restraints on the consequences of sin. For example, even though the ground is cursed due to the sin of Adam, it still brings forth enough to sustain mankind.
  • Through common grace God bestows His blessings, both physical and spiritual, on all of mankind, including those who will reject Christ. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

Common grace empowers the non-Christian firefighter to go up the stairs of the Twin Towers on 9/11 to save a financial worker. Common grace motivates the non-Christian soldier to throw himself on a grenade and sacrifice his own life to save his comrades. However, Murray reminds us that “the good attributed to unregenerate men is after all only relative good. It is not good in the sense of meeting in motivation, principle and aim the requirements of God’s law and the demands of his holiness.”[x] As John Frame writes:

To please God, our works must be done to the glory of God, obedient to the Word of God, motivated by faith and love of God. Unbelievers never do good works in this sense; indeed, even believers’ works always fall short according to this standard. But unbelievers are able to do things that look good to us. They don’t look good to God, for God knows the heart. But they look good to us, and they often bring benefits to society. So non-Christians often improve society through their skills and ideas. They make scientific discoveries, produce labor-saving inventions, develop businesses that supply jobs, produce works of art and entertainment.[xi]

Even though their motives are sinful, unbelievers still reflect the excellence of their Creator and bring glory to God in an imperfect but significant way.

God also uses common grace to work out His redemptive plan for His creation. Paul was a student who sat at the feet of the Jewish teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s court and learned the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22). “Long lines of preparation in the realm of ‘Common Grace,’ designed in the plan of God’s all-comprehending providence, have fitted the most blessed of God’s servants for the particular role they were to play in the kingdom of God.”[xii] Again John Murray states, “Of one thing we are sure that the glory of God is displayed in all his works and the glory of his wisdom, goodness, longsuffering, kindness and mercy is made known in the operations of his common grace.”[xiii]

An appreciation for common grace enables us to effectively pursue relationships, evangelism, work, cultural engagement, and arts and entertainment through positive interaction with all of God’s creation. Common grace gives us both a theological and a practical answer to how we can work to fulfill the Cultural Mandate with those who are not followers of Jesus Christ, while not becoming “of the world.”

John Calvin insisted that it is the Spirit of God who establishes all human competence in arts and sciences “for the common good of mankind” and that common grace is a tool given by God that should not be neglected.

But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer punishment for our sloths.”[xiv]

We often meet people who are not Christians but who agree with a Christian stance on a certain cultural issue, and therefore they are willing to work together with Christians toward resolution. We should be open to working with them for a common goal.

Francis Schaeffer popularized the use of the term co-belligerence to express the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. He explained, “A co-belligerent is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice.”[xv]

Schaeffer emphasized the importance of avoiding the extremes of separatism on one side and compromise with non-believers on the other side. Christians must realize that there is a difference between being a co-belligerent and being an ally. At times we will seem to be saying exactly the same things as those without a Christian base are saying. We must say what the Bible says when it causes us to seem to be saying what others are saying. But we must never forget that this is only a passing co-belligerency and not an alliance.[xvi]

Although “we must be careful though that we do not become a stumbling block for other Christians, and that our co-belligerence does not communicate to a watching world the possibility of neutrality and the dilution of the exclusivity of Christ and the gospel,”[xvii] we must not miss opportunities presented to us through God’s providence to further the Kingdom. According to Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

We must be ready to stand together in cultural co-belligerence, rooted in a common core of philosophical and theological principles, without demanding confessional agreement or pretending that this has been achieved. We must contend for the right of Christian moral witness in secular society. We indeed need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves to know how to contend for Christian truth.[xviii]

The Christian employee, surrounded by non-Christians at work, can take great hope from the doctrine of common grace. “Common grace helps us to acknowledge that there are times to embrace culture warmly, and times to be in stark, prophetic opposition to it. And the only durable, Biblical way to do both is to see culture through the lens of common grace.”[xix] This doctrine helps us make a strong Biblical case for engaging the culture while embracing the gospel.

Wherever we work, we can rest assured that God can use us through our vocational calling to influence our fellow employees, our company, our city, our nation, and the world for the glory of God.

Adapted from Hugh’s book How Then Should We Work?.

[i]Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 53.

[ii] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, tr. William Hendriksen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 208.

[iii] J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 120.

[iv] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 93.

[v] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15.

[vi] Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 279.

[vii] Murray, Writings, 96.

[viii] John Murray, “Common Grace,” Westminster Theological Journal, 5, no. 1 (Nov. 1942): 28.

[ix] Tracey D. Lawrence, ed., The Greatest Sermons Ever Preached (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 98.

[x] John Murray, “Common Grace,” Westminster Theological Journal, 5, no. 1 (Nov. 1942): 28.

[xi] John Frame, The Doctrine of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 431.

[xii] Murray, “Common Grace,” 25.

[xiii] Murray, Writings, 117.

[xiv] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 75.

[xv] Francis Schaeffer, Plan for Action: An Action Alternative Handbook for Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1980), 68.

[xvi] Francis Schaeffer, “The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Vol. 4 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 30.

[xvii] Daniel Strange, “Co-belligerence and Common Grace: Can the enemy of my enemy be my friend?” The Cambridge Papers, Sept. 2005, vol. 14, no. 3.

[xviii] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Standing Together, Standing Apart,” Touchstone, July/August 2003, 17.

[xix] Scott Kauffmann, “The Problem of Good” <www.qideas. org/essays/the-problem-of-good.aspx> (accessed May 1, 2010).

Hugh is the Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (“IFWE”). Founded by Hugh in 2011, IFWE has reached millions around the globe with the life-changing message that your everyday work matters to God. A native Floridian, Hugh earned a bachelor of arts in sociology from the University of Florida and a master of arts in religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. Hugh and his wife Leslie now live in Loudoun County, Virginia. As an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, he serves in leadership at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia.

Meet Hugh