July 14, 2009

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899–1981) on Common Grace

And now I come in the third place, to a most important matter which is so often forgotten. It is the Holy Spirit who is responsible for what is called common grace. Let me give you some definitions of what this means. Common grace is the term applied to those general blessings which God imparts to all men and women indiscriminately as He pleases, not only to His own people, but to all men and women, according to His own will. Or, again, common grace means those general operations of the Holy Spirit in which, without renewing the heart, He exercises a moral influence whereby sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted. That is the general definition. The Holy Spirit has been operative in this world from the very beginning and He has had His influence and His effect upon men and women who are not saved and who have gone to perdition. While they were in this life and world they came under these general, non-saving operations of the Holy Spirit. That is what we mean by common grace.

Now, how does the Holy Spirit do this? Well, there are various answers to that question. You will remember that we are told in the prologue of John's Gospel about 'the true light which lighteth every man' (John 1:9). It does not matter how you translate that verse – 'the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world' says the Authorised Version; 'the Light that lighteth every man was coming into the world,' says another. We are not concerned about that. We are interested in the phrase 'the light which lighteth every man'. And there is such a light. It is a kind of natural light, as we call it, natural understanding. It is the light that is in the conscience and there is that light of conscience in every person born into this world. Now that is one of the operations of the Holy Spirit in what is called common grace. It is a light that comes from Christ, because He is the Head of the human race, but it is the Holy Spirit who puts that light into everyone who is born.

Then this same general light also manifests itself in governments, and in laws, and in the various 'powers that be' as Paul calls them in Romans 13:1. You see, it is not man who decided to set up governments and states; 'the powers that be are ordained of God,' says Paul. God divided up the bounds of the nations. He decided that there must be rulers, governors and magistrates and that they should not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4). This is God's work, and He has done all this and keeps it going by means of the Holy Spirit.

Now I think you see at once, without my emphasizing it, that many Christian people are in grave error with regard to this matter. They seem to have the idea that God has nothing to do with the unsaved world. But that is not scriptural. Even those who are unsaved are under this influence of the Holy Spirit. It is not a saving influence, nor is it a redemptive influence, but it is a part of God's purpose.

Another way in which common grace manifests itself is by what may be called public opinion. There Is such a thing as a general public opinion, a general consensus of opinion about moral subjects. People who are not Christian at all believe that certain things are wrong and should be prohibited, that other things are right and should be encouraged. There is a sense of right and wrong in humanity. Now that is nothing but a manifestation of common grace. If the Holy Spirit were not operative in men and women in this general way, human beings, as a result of the Fall and of sin, would have festered away into oblivion long ago.

Next to that is what is generally described as culture. By that I mean arts and science, an interest in the things of the mind, literature, architecture, sculpture, painting and music. Now, there can be no question at all but that cultivation of the arts is good. It is not redemptive, but it improves people, it makes them live better lives. Now, where do all these things come from? How do you explain men like Shakespeare or Michelangelo? The answer from the Scripture is that all these people had their gifts and were able to exercise them as the result of the operation of common grace, this general influence of the Holy Spirit.

So you see once more that not only sinners and those who do not believe in God deny common grace, but that often even those of us who are Christians do the same. People tend to glory in Shakespeare, as if were responsible for his powers, but he was not. He had only what he had received. All these gifts that man and women have come from God. And that is why true Christians, as they look out, not only upon creation, but even at culture, discover a reason for glorifying and for praising God.

You see, what is wrong with culture is not the thing itself, it is rather that people give their worship, their praise and their adoration to those men and women who have produced the works rather than to the God who enabled them to do it. But if you look at these things under the heading of common grace, you will see that they all bring glory to God because it is through the Spirit that He dispenses these general gifts to humanity. We shall be reminded later of how our Lord Himself tells us that God sends his rain upon the evil and the good and causes His sun to rise on the just and the unjust – it is the same thing. The God who sends rain and sunshine and gives crops to the evil farmer as well as to the Christian farmer, dispenses artistic and scientific gifts in exactly the same way, indiscriminately, to bad and good, saved and unsaved. It is a work of the Holy Spirit.

Then another way in which common grace manifests itself is this. We read in Isaiah 45: 'I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil.' What does this mean? Not that God is the creator of sin, not that He is the author of evil – as such – but that He is the author of the evil consequences that follow certain actions. He controls everything. In that sense He makes peace and creates evil. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who see to it that certain actions lead to certain painful and evil consequences. Those, then, are some of the ways in which common grace manifests itself.

But let us look now at the effects of all this. The first is that the execution of the sentence of judgment upon man and woman in sin was delayed. Have you not sometimes asked yourself the question: Why was it that God did not immediately punish sin by bringing the world to an end in the Garden of Eden? the answer is that God decided, in His own inscrutable and eternal will, not to do so.

But the further question is: How can the world go on existing at all in sin? The answer is that it is kept in existence by this power that the Spirit puts into it. It is the Spirit who keeps the world going. Human life is prolonged both in general and in particular. 'The goodness of God,' says Paul in Romans 2:4, 'leadeth thee to repentance.' Peter says the same thing in his second epistle: 'The Lord . . . is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish that all should come to repentance' (2 Pet. 3:9). God is patient and long-suffering; to Him a thousand years are as one day and one day as a thousand years. He keeps the world going by the Holy Spirit instead of pronouncing final judgment.

The second effect of common grace is that the Holy Spirit strives with men and women. Take that statement in Genesis 6:3: 'My spirit shall not always strive with man.' It does not exhaust the meaning of those words, but it does, at any rate, mean that a time was coming when instead of keeping men and women alive, in spite of their sin, God would stop and the flood would come and they would all be destroyed. The striving, in other words, has two meanings. It means 'keeping in existence, keeping going', and it also means that God was there, as it were, pleading through His Spirit, trying to get men and women to see the enormity of their sins and of their actions before it was too late. You find the same idea in Stephen's sermons recorded in the seventh chapter of Acts. He says, 'Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost' (Acts 7:51). The Holy Ghost is there, with this general work of conviction, but people resist it instead of yielding to it.

And, again, in Romans 1, we see the same thing. Paul there teaches that 'God gave them over to a reprobate mind' (Rom. 1:28). Read again in the second half of that chapter the terrible description of the moral iniquity, the horrible, foul perversions, of the world at the time when Paul was writing. Why was this? Paul's answers [sic] is, 'God gave them up unto vile affections' (v. 26). Now up to a point He did not do that. Up to a point, God, by the Holy Spirit, restrained men and women from these vile affections and that is why the world is not always as bad as it might be. God, through the Holy Spirit, restrains the foulest manifestations of sin, but there are times when He gives people up to them. Are we, I wonder, living in such an age? Compare the twentieth century with the nineteenth. It is obvious that the moral level is very much lower today. That does not mean that everybody was a Christian in the Victorian era, but it does mean that even people who were not Christians were better men and women, speaking generally, than people now. Why? It was because of the general influence of the Holy Spirit. But it does look as if again, today, God is giving humanity over 'unto vile affections' as Paul outlines in Romans 1.

Therefore I deduce that one of the results of the operation of the Holy Spirit in common grace is that God does restrain men and women. He does specifically restrain sin. That is why God has appointed governments, authorities, magistrates and powers: it is to keep sin within bounds. Though God knows that there are certain people in the world who will never be saved, He does not allow them to live just as they please and to give fuller manifestation to sin; He restrains it in them.

In other words, there is a general sense of morality and right and even of religion in the world, apart from a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. We all know many people, do we not, who are religious but who are not Christian. There are many people who would say that they believe in God and who are concerned about practicing religion, and some of them make great sacrifices for their religion. They do not believe that they are so sinful that nothing but the death of Christ can save them. They are not Christian in our sense of the term, but you have got to grant that they are religious. What is it that makes a person religious? It is nothing but the operation of common grace. It is one of God's ways of restraining sin, of keeping it within bounds. So every sense of morality and rightness and religion, the belief in goodness, beauty and truth, such as you have in the Greek philosophers – it is all the result of the operation of the Holy Spirit. Paul puts it clearly in Romans 2:14, 'For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.' That is the basis and the authority for saying all that.

And then lastly, under common grace, we have, as I have already mentioned, those common blessings which God gives – the sun and the rain. Our Lord spoke about it in the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:44–5. Paul spoke about exactly the same thing at Lystra, where he healed a man who was lame and then made this remarkable statement:
Sirs . . . we also are men of like passion with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities [these gods] unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: who in times past suffered all the nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness. Acts 14:15–17
And, lastly, we have that statement of the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 4:10 where he talks about Christ as 'the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe'. That phrase, 'the Saviour of all men', does not mean salvation in the sense of the soul being saved but that He is the sustainer, the one who is kind and good to men and women.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "Creation and Common Grace" in Great Doctrines of the Bible: God the Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 2:24–28.


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