Point of Focus
What do you think of when you think of the word “grace”?
Hopefully, Christians associated with a Christ-centered church or ministry regularly call to mind the grace that God has shown us in Christ through the gospel. Rather than paying the penalty for the grievous wrong we’ve committed against God, our sin has been paid for on the cross of Christ. We have been set free from sin’s power, are in the process of being remade after the image of our Creator, and will one day be with Christ in glory.
Certainly, we should never neglect these truths. However, we would also do well to add to them an understanding of what theologians have often called God’s “common grace.” Biblically speaking, God’s gracious activity is not limited to the salvation of his people through the work of Christ. In fact, God bestows some good gifts to humanity in its entirety, including those who have rebelled against him.
Biblical Examples of Common Grace
Numerous biblical passages that demonstrate the reality of common grace. A few examples:
The compiler of Proverbs makes use of the thirty sayings of the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope, for example, as he proffers God’s wisdom in 22:17-24:22. The sayings are freely adapted and put into the larger context of trust in Yahweh, but a reliance on pagan sources is evident. 2
Proverbs, then, indicates that the authors of Scripture were not afraid to recognize wisdom and truth wherever it could be found, readily adapting it (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) for the purposes of the One in whom it originated
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” (Acts 17:26-28)
Both of the quotations Paul employs in these verses originate from pagan sources. The first is likely attributed to Epimenides of Crete, and the second from a poet named Aratus. 3 As is the case in the book of Proverbs, we find Paul acknowledging the insight and wisdom of those outside of God’s people and adapting it for his purpose.
Solomon asserts that, in this particular respect, the craftsman of Tyre exceeded those belonging to God’s people. And he willingly employs them in the service of building Israel’s place of worship.
Implications of Common Grace
The reality of common grace has significant implications for the way we should approach people in general, as well as the art and culture all around us.
No less a theologian than John Calvin offers these challenging words:
Therefore, in reading the profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from it’s original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art…were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on the heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. 5
1 See Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 18-19. The Bible, in fact, is clear that fallen man retains the image of God: see Gen. 9:6, James 3:9).
2 Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 65.
3 On the authorship of these quotes, see I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 288-89; Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 529-530.
4 See note #2 above.
5 Institutes of the Christian Religion , II, ii, 15 (emphasis added).
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