Modern Reformed and evangelical Christians inherited the language of “common grace” (Gemeene Gratie) from Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), a pastor, scholar, theologian, newspaper publisher, educator, and politician (he served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands) of enormous energy and accomplishment. He not only helped to organize a major political party but also a new denomination (GKN). He wrote tirelessly for both political and ecclesiastical newspapers and founded the Free University of Amsterdam. James Bratt’s recent biography of Kuyper is well-written and fascinating account of a truly important figure. Scholars sometimes attribute the doctrine of common grace to orthodox writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the “Three Points” of Herman Kuiper argued, in 1928, that Calvin taught the essence of the doctrine of common grace. Be that as it may (I tend to agree that the doctrine did not emerge from nowhere in the 19th century, it had roots in Reformed orthodoxy), prior to Kuyper, however, we did not much use the language “common grace” alway in the way we use the phrase.1 We tended to speak about “mercy,” whereby God restrains evil in the world. As Darryl Hart taught me a long time ago, we tended to speak about God’s general providence (as distinct from his special saving providence for his elect) in the world rather than “common grace.”2 One of the unhappy consequences of the phrase “common grace” is that, in Scripture, grace typically refers to God’s unconditional saving favor toward his people. It is not common to or shared by the elect and non-elect. Grace is particular. In his general, common providence God mercifully makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust (Matt 5;44–48). In light of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5, our theologians (e.g., Petrus van Mastricht) have spoken of God’s general love for all humanity. Believers are to love their enemies even as God loves his enemies. This is what it means, in that case, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Believers and non-believers, elect and reprobate alike (not that all non-believers are reprobate. God is not done calling all his people to faith) have much in common. We are all image-bearers. We all live in God’s world, under his providence. We all suffer from the effects of the fall. We are all recipients of God’s general, natural revelation of his law (Romans 1:18–2:16) Please do not interpret the shared experience and realities as a species of neutrality. Common is not neutral. This is God’s world. By God’s special providence, by his particular grace, in Christ to his elect they have been given new life (regenerated), they have been given the gift of true faith, and through that gift they have been united by the Spirit to Christ. By God’s grace believers see themselves for what they are (sinners) and they see the world for what it is: a witness to God’s justice and a declaration of his glory (Ps 19:1). Believers acknowledge the God who made them. They rest in Christ and in his finished work for sinners. They’ve been transferred from the covenant of works (do this and live) to the covenant of grace (Christ has done for you, now live in light of his grace). Unbelievers live in darkness. They do not acknowledge themselves for what they are (sinners) and they continue to shake their fist at their Creator, even as he restrains the effects of the fall and provides for them despite their rebellion.
However many things that believers have in common with unbelievers the gospel is not one of them. The gospel declares that God loves sinners so much that he gave his only and eternally begotten Son (John 3:16) but the way to God is narrow. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13–14; ESV). Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The gospel is that there is a Savior, that he has come, that he has accomplished redemption for his people and that he is efficaciously applying that salvation to every one of his people. The gospel, however, is particular. Believers and unbelievers do not have the gospel in common. It separates us. It distinguishes between belief and unbelief. In that way the gospel is not like the falling rain or the shining sun. Those are general blessings and mercies. The gospel is not a general blessing. The gospel does not say, “I have done my part, now you do yours.” The law says: “you do.” The gospel says, “Christ has done. It is finished.”
Because the gospel is not general, because it is not common, it must be proclaimed to all universally, seriously, and freely. The first of Synod Kalamazoo’s Three Points was the free or well meant offer of the gospel. God reveals himself as willing that none should perish. So, despite the protestations of a noisy minority, the Reformed have widely taught the doctrine of the free or well-meant offer of the good news. We offer Christ and his grace to all because we do not presume to know whom God, from all eternity, in Christ, has elected. Just as we who believe are the unworthy recipients of favor earned for us by Christ, we offer that grace to all.
This is why it is so important to distinguish between the sacred and the secular, because the latter is a common and not a particular realm. God has placed his law in the conscience of all but he has not placed his gospel in everyone’s heart. In the secular realm, on the basis of God’s law revealed to all and known by all, we can and should make common cause, in the secular realm, under God’s twofold kingdom, with believers and non-believers. We all live together in the same space. We interpret the significance of that shared space differently, but it is shared space nonetheless. The gospel is sacred, not secular. The secular is law and not gospel. Our common, secular civil life together with unbelievers is governed by God’s moral law (particularly the 2nd table). As far as believers are concerned it is not neutral, i.e., uninterpreted by God or outside of God’s norms but it is not sacred. I’ve been discussing these distinctions in the series on God’s moral law on the Heidelcast (begin with episode 77). I discussed this particular in the episode on the third commandment (episode 81).
All this to say that we should question the wisdom of a panel, to be held as part of the upcoming conference by The Gospel Coalition, composed of believers and non-believers discussing various matters of social justice. The problem is not social justice. That’s a good to be desired by all members of a civil society. The problem is not a panel discussion composed of believers and non-believers. Under God’s twofold kingdom believers and non-believers should cooperate toward shared goals. The hungry care not whether food is provided by believers or non-believers. The question is the wisdom of conducting such a panel under the aegis of an organization devoted to the promulgation of the gospel of Christ. Confessional Reformed Christians may wonder about the propriety of another organization devoted the promulgation of the gospel since our Lord Jesus established his own in Matthew chapter 16, 18, and 28. To that organization, the visible church, he gave the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:13–20; Heidelberg Catechism 82, 83) and to her he gave the great commission:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18–20; ESV)
Setting aside the question of agency, however, we should still question the wisdom, the propriety of common, civil conversations under the banner of the particular, saving, gospel grace of Christ. Yes we are co-belligerents. Yes, we may make common cause for social good but the gospel is not social nor is it common, even if it is to be offered freely to all. There is no social gospel. The very phrase is an oxymoron. What is social is not gospel and what is gospel is not social. Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) but he did not transform first-century society and neither did the apostles. Does the gospel have consequences? Yes, certainly. The epistles are replete with concrete instructions to Christians about how to live in light of the gospel. We ought not be in trouble with civil authorities (1 Pet 2:20). We ought to live quiet and godly lives. We are to honor the king (1 Tim 2:2) but there’s nothing of a social gospel in Holy Scripture.
Let us meet and talk with non-Christians. Let us talk with them about our shared concerns. Let us cooperate as we can. Let us talk with them, if they will hear us, about Christ, his kingdom, and his grace but let us be careful to be clear under what banner we come. When we come under the gospel banner, we have a single, unequivocal message: Christ’s kingdom has come. Today is the day of salvation. Repent and believe in the Savior who laid down his life for his people and who took it up again for their justification. The gospel is too precious and the salvation of his elect is too important to be anything less than crystal clear about these things.
1. A search of 721 documents from the period of Reformed orthodoxy turned up 125 uses (68 of which belong to Richard Baxter, which does not encourage its use) and finds a few usages of common grace in the sense in which as used by Synod Kalamazoo but other uses seem to have a different sense. William Perkins, A Treatise Of The Manner And Order Of Predestination (1617), 626:
Secondly, Grace is either natural, or supernatural; as Augustine himselfe teacheth. Natural grace is that, which is bestowed on man together with nature: and this is either of nature perfect or corrupt. Perfect, as the Image of God, or righteousness bestowed on Adam in his creation. This grace belonged generally unto all, because we all were in Adam: and whatsoever he received that was good, he received it both for himselfe and his posterity. The grace of nature corrupted, is a natural inlightning (whereof John speaketh: He enlighteneth every man that commeth into the world,) yea and every natural gift. And these gifts truly by that order which God hath made in nature, are due and belonging unto nature. But that grace which is supernatural, is not due unto nature, especially unto nature corrupted, but is bestowed by special grace, and therefore is special: This the ancient writers affirme. Augustine saith: Nature is common to all, but not grace: and he only acknowledgeth a two-fold grace: namely that common grace of nature, whereby we are made men: and Christian grace whereby in Christ we are againe borne new men.
Here Perkins wrote of “natural grace” or “the grace of nature” corrupted in the fall, which he distinguished from supernatural or special grace. It’s not clear that he intended by this to communicate exactly the same thing taught by Synod Kalamazoo.
In his Cases of Conscience (1617 edition), 113 he did speak in the way Synod later would: “For example, chastity in Joseph was a grace of Gods Spirit, renewing his heart; but chastity in Xenocrates was a common grace, serving only to curbe and restraine the corruption of his heart.”
The heading de gratia commune does not occur frequently in Reformed orthodox texts. An electronic search of hundreds of texts shows no occurrences. The expression “gratia communis,” which was the expression that Abraham Kuyper cited in his Stone Lectures occurs more frequently. Nevertheless I’m able to find only 12 uses in hundreds of Latin texts. See Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism: Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton (New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899), 63.
1. NAME. The name “common grace” as a designation of the grace now under discussion cannot be said to owe its origin to Calvin. Dr. H. Kuiper in his work on Calvin on Common Grace says that he found only four passages in Calvin’s works in which the adjective “common” is used with the noun “grace,” and in two of these the Reformer is speaking of saving grace. In later Reformed theology, however, the name gratia communis came into general use to express the idea that this grace extends to all men, in contrast with the gratia particularis which is limited to a part of mankind, namely, to the elect. In course of time it became evident that the term “communis” admitted of various interpretations. In Dutch theology it is often regarded as equivalent to “general,” and as a result it became customary to speak of “general grace” (algemeene genade) in the Netherlands. Strictly speaking, however, the term communis, as applied to grace, while implying that it is general in some sense of the word, stresses the fact that this grace is communal, that is, possessed in common by all creatures, or by all men, or by those who live under the administration of the gospel. Thus Dr. H. Kuiper classifies the common grace of which Calvin speaks under three heads, namely: (1) Universal Common Grace, a grace that extends to all creatures; (2) General Common Grace, that is a grace which applies to mankind in general and to every member of the human race; and (3) Covenant Common Grace, a grace that is common to all those who live in the sphere of the covenant, whether they belong to the elect or not. It is quite evident that Reformed theologians also subsumed under the term “common grace” a grace that is not general, namely, the external privileges of those who are living under the administration of the gospel, including the external universal calling. At the same time they point out that this grace, in distinction from general common grace, belongs to the economy of redemption. Finally, it should be noted that the term gratia communis is susceptible of, and has actually received, not only a quantitative, but also a qualitative interpretation. It may denote a grace that is common in the sense of ordinary. The ordinary, in distinction from the special, operations of the Holy Spirit are called common. His natural or usual operations are contrasted with those which are unusual and supernatural. This is the meaning of the term “common” in the Westminister Confession X. 4; and the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 60. W. L. Alexander declares of the common grace enjoyed by those who live under the gospel: “The grace thus bestowed is common, not in the sense of being given to all men in common, but in the sense of producing effects which are ordinary, and may fall short of a real saving efficacy.” So understood, the grace of God may be common without being general or universal.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 434–35.
2. The expression “common grace” is not widely used in the Reformed confessions. It is used negatively in the Canons of Dort (1619), Rejection of Errors 3/4.5:
We reject the error of those who teach: That the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, that is, the evangelical or saving grace, and salvation itself; and that in this way God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since He applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion. For both the experience of all ages and the Scriptures testify that this is untrue. “He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them” (Ps 147:19-20). “who in past generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). And: “Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. After they had came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them” (Acts 16:6-7).
This paragraph addresses the Remonstrants and thus is not speaking to the point made by Synod Kalamazoo.
The Savoy Declaration (1658) used the expression in 14.3 to distinguish true saving faith from the “common grace of temporary believers….” Again, though the expression is the same, it is not quite the same doctrine as Synod Kalamazoo.