2. Common Grace

Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993

Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and regard not the majesty of the LORD. ISAIAH 26:10

A number of years ago a New York rabbi named Harold S. Kushner made a splash in the publishing world with a book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for months. The thesis of the book was that bad things happen to good people because God is not omnipotent and things simply get away from him. At the end of the book Kushner advises us to forgive God and, like him, just try to get on with life and do the best we can.

How different from what the Bible teaches!

In the thirteenth chapter of Luke there is an incident from the life of Jesus that has no exact parallel anywhere in the New Testament. People had come to Jesus to ask Harold Kushner’s question, citing two contemporary examples. In the one example, the soldiers of King Herod had attacked some pilgrims who

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had come to Jerusalem from Galilee and had killed them when they were in the very act of offering their sacrifices at the temple. In the other example, a tower in the district of Siloam collapsed and killed eighteen apparently innocent passersby.

The fact that the victims seem to have been innocent in both cases was an important part of the question, because the questioners wanted to know why tragedies like that could happen if God is good and if he is in control of things, as we want to believe. Perhaps he is not a good God. Or is it the case — such things are possible — that these apparently good people were actually secret sinners and that this was God’s way of striking them down for their transgressions?

For people accustomed to reason as most of us do, Jesus’ answer was startling. He replied,

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? . . . Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will likewise perish. (Luke 13:2-5)

Jesus was saying that we are actually asking the wrong question when we ask why bad things happen to good people. The question is not why bad things happen to good people but why good things happen to bad people. We are all bad people, and good things happen to us every day of our lives. And in profusion! The real question is: Why didn’t the tower fall on us? Why weren’t we struck down by Herod’s soldiers? Indeed, why did God allow such wicked persons as ourselves to awake this morning, get out of bed, go to work, and add to the mushrooming misery of the world?

The answer is grace, of course. God is a gracious God — gracious even to sinners. But the answer we are seeking goes even

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further than these statements. In theological language, we are talking about common grace, the fact that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45), and the question we are asking is why common grace is so very common. We are asking God’s purpose in allowing so many good things to happen to bad people.

Good Things Do Happen

When I began looking at this subject I was surprised to find that very few books of theology consider common grace. An exception is Louis Berkhof, who discussed it under three headings: (1) the nature of common grace, (2) the means of common grace, and (3) the effects of common grace. But most books of theology skip it, understandably, I suppose. Theologians stress the special grace of God in salvation. Nevertheless, the neglect of common grace is surprising if only because the early Christians seem to have used common grace as a natural starting point for preaching the gospel to Gentiles. Two examples of it are:

1. Paul’s sermon at Lystra

Acts 14 tells of the arrival of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra in Asia Minor on the first missionary journey. Usually Paul began his work in a given city by preaching in the Jewish synagogue, if there was one. But in this case, the missionaries were confronted by a lame man almost as soon as they had entered the city, and Paul healed him. When the crowds saw it, they assumed they had been visited by the gods and called out in their Lycaonian language. “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14:11).

In the ancient world almost everyone spoke Greek, even if it

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wasn’t their native tongue. But here in Lycaonia the people seem to have been more at home in their tribal language, for when the miracle took place and they began to babble to themselves about it, at first Paul and Barnabas did not understand what was going on. They noticed that the people were impressed. But when the people said in their own language, “The gods have come down to us in human form” (v.11), the missionaries did not understand what they were saying.

The apostles were therefore innocently proceeding on their way when they came upon a procession moving out of the city toward them. A priest was leading an animal that had been made ready for sacrifice. The apostles must have thought, We seem to have come here on a feast day, a religious day. They are practicing their pagan rites. We will have to speak to them about that in time. But they soon discovered to their horror that the people were coming to do sacrifice to them.

Why to them? Because they believed, as the missionaries quickly discovered, that Barnabas was Zeus in human form. Zeus was the greatest of the gods. And Paul, who was the chief speaker, was presumed to be Hermes (Mercury), the gods’ spokesman.

This could have happened in any ancient city, but it is particularly significant that it happened here because of something the Roman poet Ovid wrote in his celebrated masterpiece Metamorphoses (viii, 620-724). In this work Ovid collected the mythological stories that had to do with people being changed into something else, and at one place he records a story concerning this very area. According to Ovid’s story, Zeus and Hermes had visited a valley near Lystra. They went from door to door, but the people refused to take them in. Finally, they came to a very poor house occupied by a man named Philemon and his wife Baucis. These elderly people received the two gods, and they stayed the night. In the morning the gods took the couple out of the city to a mountain, and when they looked back on the valley,

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they saw that Zeus and Hermes had flooded it, drowning everyone. Then, while they were still looking on, Philemon and Baucis saw that the gods had transformed their poor hovel into a great temple with a glittering gold roof.

This story must have been known in Lystra. So when Paul and Barnabas healed the lame man, the people inevitably thought that Zeus and Hermes had returned. And if they had, the last thing in the world they wanted to do was offend them, because they remembered what had happened the first time around.

When the missionaries discovered what was going on, they were aghast. They tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you” (v.15).

Then Paul began to preach.

This sermon should be compared with the sermon in chapter 13, spoken to a largely Jewish audience. In that chapter Paul quotes the Old Testament frequently, rehearsing God’s great acts in the Old Testament period. That is not the case here. Here Paul is speaking to a Gentile or pagan audience that had no knowledge of the Scriptures. He could not have told these people about God’s acts in the Old Testament time because they would not have known what he was talking about. So he started where they did have understanding and spoke of God as the Creator of all things and as the source of common grace:

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:15-17)

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This is a substantial statement of what common grace is about. It has at least these four elements.

Rain from heaven. It is hard to imagine that Paul said this without knowing and perhaps consciously remembering Jesus’ words about God causing “his sun to rise on the evil and the good” and sending “rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Clearly God does not discriminate between people in the distribution of nature’s blessings.

Crops in their seasons. The ancients attributed the regular rotation of the seasons to their nature gods, sometimes to nature itself. But Paul says that the seasons and the annual summer or fall harvests flow from God’s grace to all persons. Even the wicked are able to sow and harvest their crops in the right seasons and profit by them.

Joy. This may refer to the joy of harvesttime specifically, but it probably has a broader meaning. We remember James saying that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). This means that every joy, every pleasure, every happiness in life is from God, whether we know or acknowledge it or not. These three things — rain from heaven, the crops in their seasons, and joy — testify both to God’s existence and to the essential goodness of his nature.

Delay of judgment. The fourth expression of common grace is the delay of God’s judgment, which Paul expressed by saying that “in the past, he [God] let all nations go their own way.” It brings us back to Jesus’ teaching about the Galileans who were killed by Herod’s soldiers. The amazing thing is not that bad things happened to these people, but that so many good things happen to everyone. And the most amazing thing of all is that God had tolerated the evil of the unbelieving Gentile world for so long and had postponed (and continues to postpone) judging it severely.

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2. Paul’s sermon in Athens.

A few chapters further on, in Acts 17, we have an account of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Athens. It also deals with common grace, following a line similar to Paul’s sermon at Lystra.

After calling the people’s attention to their altar “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” and declaring his intention of proclaiming this “unknown God” to them, Paul said:

The God who made the world and everything in it . . . is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (Acts 17:24-26)

This sermon does not mention rainfall and the seasons, probably because the life of Athens was far less agricultural than life at Lystra. But the theme is similar. In this sermon Paul mentions:

The breath of life. We may use our breath to curse God, but even the atheist who shakes his fist at heaven, shouting, “There is no God,” does so with the breath, speech, intellect, and strength that God has given him.

A place to live. This is a significant statement about the territories possessed by the world’s nations. These are not arbitrary possessions, still less the rightful spoils of war, according to Paul’s teaching. Rather they are the gift of a gracious God to all the world’s peoples. The bottom line is that we should be thankful to God for such bounty.

Everything else. Paul may have elaborated this in the actual delivery of his sermon, since the biblical accounts are undoubtedly shortened versions of what happened. But we can supply

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what this includes ourselves, since it is similar to James’ mention of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).

What in your life do you regard as very good? Make a list.

Your job? It has been given you by God. If you reply that you got it by hard work and by possessing talents and skills that someone else did not have, I reply that it is God who has given you those skills and endowed you with both the will and capacity to work hard.

Your family? The people you love were created by God and have been given to you as a part of his benevolent ordering of life’s events.

Times to relax and enjoy the results of your hard labors? It is God who has made relaxation possible by prospering the culture in which you live and by giving you enough free time to enjoy your possessions.

Peace? God is the author of peace.

Whatever good thing you can think of, it is God who has given it to you or made it possible for you to enjoy it. You enjoy it only because God is a gracious God. If he were some other kind of god, your very existence would be unimaginably different.

There is one more thing we need to learn about common grace from Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill. It is in the words that immediately follow those I quoted earlier. Having spoken of grace, Paul concluded, “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). This is important. For it is a way of saying that God also has a good purpose in his good actions. He wants us to recognize his goodness, to turn from sin, to reach out and find him, and so be able to express our gratitude in true faith and proper obedience.

Paul writes the same thing in Romans, observing that the “kindness, tolerance and patience” of God are meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

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Even Bad Things Can Be Good Things

Not all of us repent nor do we live lives characterized by repentance continually. But before we explore that sad fact, there is something else that needs to be noted about common grace. Up to now we have been considering the truth that good things happen even to bad people. But bad things also happen to them, to remind us of the destructive nature of sin, the shortness of life, and the need for redemption, so that we will seek God and find him, if not through the unmixed good things, then through the bad things.

Earlier I suggested some of the things God’s common grace supplies: a job, your family, times to enjoy life’s pleasures, and personal peace. Clearly, each of these can also be taken away. But if they were, losing them should have a good rather than a bad effect on those who do not know God.

The loss of a job should teach us of the uncertainty of everything in life and of the need to seek our only true or lasting security in God. The loss of a family member should remind you of eternity and of the need to prepare for it. That is why we often read words from Psalm 90 at funeral services:

The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away . . . Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:10, 12)

The loss of good things should turn you from the rampant materialism that surrounds you and remind you that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” as Jesus said (Luke 12:15).

The loss of peace, whether personal or political, should cause you to seek “peace with God” through the work of Jesus Christ

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(Romans 5:1) and to pray for the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

Toward the end of the Old Testament there is a minor prophet who deals with these subjects just as I have been treating them in this chapter. It is Joel. The land had experienced a devastating invasion of locusts in Joel’s day, probably identical to a notable invasion of Palestine by locusts in 1915, as described by John D. Whiting in the December 1915 issue of National Geographic magazine. In 1915, the locusts consumed everything in the region so that there was literally nothing to eat. In a predominantly agricultural economy, which Judah’s was, this was an unmitigated disaster, and Joel does not hesitate to call it exactly that. In fact, in his opening chapter he calls on various classes in the society to recognize the evil and weep because of it.

But that is not all he wants. As the prophecy continues, Joel makes three more important points: (1) God is responsible for the disaster. (2) Although it was dreadful, the invasion of the locusts would be followed in time by an even greater disaster: God’s final judgment. He calls it “the day of the LORD” and describes it as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (Joel 2:1-2). (3) The present evil and the greater coming evil should lead people to repent of their sin and seek God. Joel’s classic words are:

Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing. (Joel 2:13-14)

The people did not return, of course. They continued in their perverse, unrepentant ways, and the result was the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the nation as a result of the Babylonian invasion of 586 B.C.

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Bad People Misuse Good Things

This brings us to the final text I want to consider in this study of common grace:

Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and regard not the majesty of the Lord. (Isaiah 26:10)

Jesus once compared his ministry and that of John the Baptist. John was an austere figure who lived in the desert and preached a sober message of repentance from sin. Jesus moved among the masses and participated in such joyful affairs as weddings. But the people did not listen to either John or Jesus. So Jesus said:

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’ ” (Matthew 11:16-19)

It is the exact point I have been making. People do not respond to common grace. It does not matter whether common grace expresses itself in the good things of life that should lead us to seek out and thank God who is the source of all good things, or whether it expresses itself in bad things, like natural disasters, that are intended as a warning of the even greater disaster of God’s final judgment. The wicked responded to neither, as Isaiah says. Therefore, if anyone is going to be saved from sin and brought to true faith in God and obedience, it is going to be by

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special grace and not by common grace, that is, by the electing grace of God, which reaches down to regenerate lost sinners and turn them from their destructive ways.

I return to the situation at Lystra.

After Paul and Barnabas had stopped the crowd from sacrificing to them as if they were gods, they taught them the Word of God. But enemies of the gospel from Antioch and Iconium came to Lystra and turned the crowd against the two missionaries. As a result, the same crowd, which days before was ready to worship Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes, then stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city and left him for dead. What fickle people these were! Yet they were no different from people in our time. People are always fickle until God brings true stability into their lives through the gospel. If anything of any permanence is to happen — if lives are to be changed, if the seed of the Word is to fall into good soil and bear fruit, and do it year after year — it will only be through the special electing and regenerating grace of God.

This is what happened in Lystra, as well as in the other cities Paul was visiting. Because of the stoning, Paul left Lystra the next day. He went to Derbe and taught there. But shortly thereafter, we read that Paul and Barnabas went back through the cities they had visited, including Lystra, “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith” (Acts 14:22). This means that God had worked in the lives of some of these unstable, pagan people to bring them to faith in Jesus Christ.

Common grace saves no one. But although common grace saves no one, the special grace of God operating by the preaching and teaching of the Word of God does, which is why we must study it carefully in the next chapters.

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