“For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”. – Matthew 5:45b
When Jesus taught us to love our enemies, one of the justifications He gave to us for doing so was that the Father is the caretaker of even the wicked. God gives good things to even those who hate Him. The examples Jesus gives are rain and sun – even the unrighteous man gets these good gifts, and they benefit him. There are people all over this world that hate God, who worship false gods, to whom our Lord’s grace is expressed. Their crops grow, they enjoy good meals, they love and are loved, they have children, and good comes their way by the abundant grace of God. They gain from God even though they reject the very God who gives grace.
This kind of grace is called common grace. It is the grace that is given to all of God’s creatures simply because He is God and He tends His creation. He sustains both the evil and the righteous.
This doctrine differs from special grace. Special grace is saving grace. It is only given to God’s elect. They receive a unique and free gift of God that transforms them from being locked in bondage to sin. They are made alive to Christ, regenerated, and called into the very household of God by a kind of grace that is particular, meaning it is special, reserved only for Christ’s sheep.
Common grace sustains a person in the “here and now”. It allows even the wicked to be nourished and to live. Ultimately, common grace glorifies God by demonstrating His generosity, patience, and eventually His judgment. Common grace provides ample justification for the final judgment of those who reject God.
Special grace sustains a person in the here and now, but also for eternity. It causes the recipient of grace to perceive God, to worship God and to give thanks to God. It opens his eyes to the reality of God and makes the believer a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The recipient of special grace becomes a member of God’s own household, adopted as a son or daughter. Ultimately, special grace serves to glorify God by demonstrating His love, compassion, and generosity in salvation.
When people speak of God’s grace, we sometimes confuse these two categories. Grace sustains all people, but all grace is not equal. The truth is, all people, unbelievers included, benefit richly from practicing principles of God’s Word and from living life in contact with Christian culture. While there are limits to the benefits of this common grace, unbelievers do profit. They owe thanks for every good thing in their lives to the God they refuse to acknowledge.
Take the book of Proverbs for an example. Here we have God’s manual for practical holy living intended to bless His people. Yet the unbeliever can practice and gain good benefits by applying many of the rich truths found in the Proverbs. Many of the wisdom sayings in the book of Proverbs also exist in pagan wisdom books in similar form, and some would say such wise sayings are just common sense. It is true that much of what we learn in Proverbs is also able to be acquired in the school of hard knocks. However, all truth belongs to God. So even truth gained by learning the hard way, by rough experience, is God’s truth.
While the unbelieving world may read the Proverbs, use them, and try to make good with them, they are hampered by the fact that they don’t fear God, and thus they do not gain like a Christian gains. Proverbs 1:7, the motto of the whole book, says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction..” The fool who despises God may gain from the book of Proverbs, but he will merely gain the temporal benefit, the common grace.
Maybe you have heard that saying from our day, “even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.” This is a perfect illustration of the difference between common grace and special grace. Imagine the picture:
You are walking through a park in the fall and you see all the squirrels busy gathering nuts. They are fat from eating, they have been hard at work storing up insulation for the winter. But they have also been gathering nuts and hiding them away to sustain them through the coming months of scarcity. You look upon this pastoral scene and see God’s little creatures all doing what God designed them to do and it’s a lovely sight.
But then you notice a skinny squirrel. He’s not like the others. He is sickly, emaciated and awkward. This squirrel seems oblivious to the others. He is slowly working through the park lawn looking for nuts, and then you realize he is blind. He can’t see. But as the saying goes, even this blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes. You see him find a pecan, and he almost seems surprised by the discovery. He quickly devours the nut, it will sustain him for another day or two.
That little nut is truly an actual gain for him. It is real food, it is a good find. Like all the other squirrels, God has provided food for this squirrel. This common grace of God has been a real benefit to the squirrel. But the sad fact remains – this squirrel remains blind! He fails to see the source of his find, the majestic and bountiful pecan tree which towers over him and is rich with countless nuts that would sustain him for a lifetime. And not seeing, he wanders past the greater blessing and the source of ongoing life. Winter comes, the blind squirrel has no lasting sustenance, and without food he dies.
But for you and I, Christians, our eyes have been opened in an act of special grace. Though we were born blind, now we actually see the source of our sustenance. We gain the immediate good benefits from God’s provisions, but we also gain the lasting and eternal benefits because we see the Provider.
Using the Proverbs again as an example, as we apply the truth of God’s wisdom, we are not merely doing the same raw wisdom that the blind pagan does. After all, special grace has opened our eyes and we see the great tree that holds for us an unending source of sustenance. We are not merely gaining a single nut that has fallen on the ground because of God’s common grace. And seeing more of God’s very character in the Proverbs (or any other truth), we are driven by our spiritual vision to acknowledge God, to fear Him more and to give Him worship and thanks.
Common grace means that even the unbeliever can and does benefit from the truth of God’s Word and from living in and around Christian culture. In this manner, God blesses all men. God’s common grace blesses the heathen and brings good results for the fool, but special grace brings its recipient to the tree of life, causing greater intimacy with God.