April 7, 2016

Henry Warner Coray (1904–2002) on Common Grace

When Adam disobeyed his creator and brought the human race into a state of ruin, it was as though he opened earth’s flood-gates and let in all the currents and tides of hell itself. The world would have been transformed into hell had not God intervened. He intervened in two ways: first He promised to send a Redeemer who should some day put away all evil and the author of evil. That event was to take place sometime in the future. Again, He checked the course of wickedness in society. He restrained the extreme powers of sin that gripped human nature, softened the heart and curbed the full energy of Satan’s control over humanity. As Dr. Van Til has expressed it, He “applied the brakes.”

This is one aspect of a most important truth. It is sometimes called the doctrine of common grace. By common grace is meant not that this form of grace is to be valued cheaply, but that it is commonly bestowed on mankind. It is universal in application. All men everywhere receive its benefits, to a greater or less degree. How otherwise are we to understand life? Surely the Biblical portrait of human nature is black indeed. It reveals the heart to be deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Shakespeare accurately has one of his actors declare, “There’s naught but villainy in our cursed nature.” How then do we square this diagnosis with the case of certain individuals who, though unbelievers, nevertheless attain to lofty heights of morality and character? Doubters and infidels are frequently kind and decent. Scoffers are sometimes, paradoxically, less self-centered than professing Christians. What is the explanation? How is this to be reconciled with the Bible doctrine of the total depravity of man? The answer is that God sprinkles the dew of common grace upon many who have never received special or redemptive grace. Negatively He restrains the destructive forces of corruption and positively He grants moral virtues and what the Chinese call “heaven-bestowed-endowments.”

A number of factors are active in repressing sin in society. The conscience, for instance, is a blessing of common grace. Let the imagination play for a moment with the question of what kind of world this would be if every person’s conscience were to be amputated? What a conflagration of iniquity would sweep over the earth! It would reduce the present fire of destruction, devastating as it is, to the proportions of a bonfire by contrast. In God’s providence the conscience checks, to an extent, the impulse to sin, tethers the wild steeds of passion and lust and exercises a mellowing influence on us all. The effect is that in normal times most people are able to dwell peaceably and quietly, even in a non-Christian community.

Civil law is another influence for good in the sphere of common grace. God has ordained the “powers that be,” or governments, for the protection of society. A state of anarchy would mean inevitable misery, untold suffering. Almost any form of law is better than no law and order. In pagan countries law enforcement has a beneficent result. In Japan, for example, strict justice holds crime at a surprisingly low scale. Men refrain from perpetrating evil deeds not from a pure motive, which is to honor God, but rather to stay out of prison. It is clear then that the establishment of governments and ordinances enhances the goodness of God, for it exhibits His solicitude for a sinful race. Yet how pitifully few return Him thanks for this mercy!

Furthermore, public opinion might be said to be a dike that holds back the waves of crime and lawlessness. What men think of us profoundly affects our actions. There are those who do not steal because they are too proud to steal. Others in business are honest for the sake of “gaining face.” Multitudes are courteous not because the Lord enjoins courtesy, but to excite admiration. These are questionable virtues to say the least. But they are instrumental in curtailing the corruption that is in the world through lust.

On the positive side, God’s Word makes it plain that every good thing which contributes to our material and mental comfort flows from the reservoir of divine mercy. Our Lord teaches that God is kind to the unthankful and to the evil as well as to His children. Have the lines fallen to us in pleasant places? We should realize that this is not due to any innate goodness in us but to the loving-kindness of Jehovah. Do we enjoy a goodly heritage of health or wealth or talent? With true thankfulness we should sing, “All that Thou sendest me mercy given” Are we blessed with personal charm, physical beauty, a naturally cheerful disposition? Then let us keep in mind Paul’s penetrating question, “What hast though that thou hast not received? Why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?”

Finally two observations are in order. In the first place, common grace is not to be confused with special grace. The benefits and advantages of common grace will not save the soul, justify the sinner or give eternal life to one dead in trespasses and sins. Esau’s manliness, Balaam’s eloquence, Absalom’s winsomeness, the kindness of the barbarians on the island of Melita, in no wise contributed to their salvation. They were merely ornaments of common grace. Gifts of natural endowments are not to be identified with the fruit of the Spirit.

In the second place, knowledge of the doctrine of common grace should, under the impulsion of the Spirit of God, draw the sinner into the vestibule of the mansion of redemptive grace. Think of it! All of us have by our waywardness and stubborn rebellion forfeited the right to a single blessing from Heaven. But God is rich in mercy and continues to open His hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. He lavishes upon us every good and every perfect gift. May his goodness lead us all to repentance toward Him and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ!


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