“Common Grace” in Calvinism
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, September 25, 2009 at 9:17am
A STUDENT WRITES, “Calvinists talk about ‘common grace.’ The idea seems to be that whatever joy we experience in this life is attributed to God’s grace. I don’t remember you mentioning this in Doctrine of Grace. Do you agree with this notion?”
MY REPLY: Not all Calvinists see eye-to-eye on the “common grace” concept. One of my Westminster Seminary professors, Cornelius Van Til, was its main defender. I do mention this concept in my grace course but do not dwell on it. See the section on “The Scope of Grace.” In my book on grace (“Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace”) see pp. 166-167. This view says there are two kinds of grace: saving grace, which is the irresistible grace given only to the elect; and common grace, which is simply God’s good will toward his creation and which is experienced by all human beings in common (thus the name COMMON grace). This would include the blessings of God’s general providence such as rain and sunshine (Matt. 5:45) as given to just and unjust alike, and the rain and fruitful seasons that fill even the pagans’ hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). This common grace is totally different from saving grace, however, and has nothing to do with the salvation of the elect.
Experiencing common grace has a lot to do with the eternal damnation of the reprobate, however. As its advocates explain it, the more common grace the reprobate receive, the more of God’s goodness they are guilty of rejecting; and the more goodness they reject, the greater is their damnation in hell. I challenged Professor Van Til on this point, saying that it is hardly proper to call it GRACE when its main result for the reprobate is to increase their eternal punishment. He did not appreciate my comments.
In class I acknowledge that the Biblical terms translated “grace” sometimes have broader meanings than saving grace; e.g., CHARIS has the general meaning of “a gift” or “a gift that brings joy”; sometimes it is used for gifts that do not include salvation as such. My preference is to reserve the English word “grace” for the saving grace that comes through Jesus Christ.