In the reformed community there is a debate that continues on whether we are to refer to Gods outward goodness to the non-elect (reprobates) as “common grace” or as “providence”.
My intention in this short article is not to give a full polemic or a refutation but rather to merely share my own view concerning this topic.
My own studies of scripture and historical theology has helped come to the conclusion that the term to be properly used is “Providence”, or may I suggest “common providence”, rather than “common grace” for the following reasons:
1. The phrase nor the concept of “common grace” is found in our reformed confessional standards as correctly noted by the OPC website here.
“First, our confessional standards do not use the term “Common Grace” (nor do they include the 1924 statement of the Christian Reformed Church or CRC), and the concept of Common Grace does not appear to be present in our standards either.” (OPC website Q&A section)
Strikingly, Calvin says that any grace or faith attributed to the reprobate is only “by catechresis”; a tropical or improper form of expression; only because they … exhibit some appearance of obedience to it” (Institutes 3.2.9).
2. The term “charis” used for grace is never once used in Scripture to teach Gods disposition towards the reprobate but only towards the Elect.
““Scripture never uses chen or charis to refer to his blessings on creation generally or on non-elect humanity” (John Frame, The Doctrine of God: a Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2002), pp. 429-30.
“To distinguish the special redemptive work of God from his general providence to all, some have attempted to use terms with more precision. The term “grace” is often restricted to the redemptive work of God toward his elect, and not more broadly of the care of God for all his creatures. The term “common grace” was used by the early reformers in several senses but not as if God works benevolently toward those he has chosen to condemn eternally.” (Dr. Bob Burridge PCA, Effectual calling)
3. It causes grave confusion with many who are stuck between Arminianism and Calvinism as the phrase “common grace” and the idea that God loves all including the non-elect is used by Arminians to justify their Universal Atonement and resistable grace to name a few.
4. The fact that what the non-elect receive from God furthers their condemnation and heap Gods wrath all the more cannot be considered as “grace”. Adding to this concept, the fact that there is a blessing/curse aspect to the covenantal signs and seals absolutely refutes the usage of “common grace” in my opinion.
Calvin writes: “This is invariably true, and is not inconsistent with the fact, that the large benefits which the divine liberality is constantly bestowing on the wicked are preparing them for heavier judgment.” (Institutes of the Christian religion III, ii, 32)
In Romans 2:4-5 it reads:
“4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
Calvin again writes:
“”Not knowing that the goodness of God, etc. For the Lord by his kindness shows to us, that it is he to whom we ought turn, if we desire to secure our wellbeing, and at the same time he strengthens our confidence in expecting mercy. If we use not God’s bounty for this end, we abuse it. But yet it is not to be viewed always in the same light; for when the Lord deals favorably with his servants and gives them earthly blessings, he makes known to them by symbols of this kind his own benevolence, and trains them up at the same time to seek the sum and substance of all good things in himself alone: when he treats the transgressors of his law with the same indulgence, his object is to soften by his kindness their perverseness; he yet does not testify that he is already propitious to them, but, on the contrary, invites them to repentance. But if any one brings this objection — that the Lord sings to the deaf as long as he does not touch inwardly their hearts; we must answer — that no fault can be found in this case except with our own depravity. But I prefer rendering the word which Paul here uses, leads, rather than invites, for it is more significant; I do not, however, take it in the sense of driving, but of leading as it were by the hand.
verse 5. But according to thy hardness, etc. When we become hardened against the admonitions of the Lord, impenitence follows; and they who arc not anxious about repentance openly provoke the Lord.
This is a remarkable passage: we may hence learn what I have already referred to — that the ungodly not only accumulate for themselves daily a heavier weight of God’s judgments, as long as they live here, but that the gifts of God also, which they continually enjoy, shall increase their condemnation; for an account of them all will be required: and it will then be found, that it will be justly imputed to them as an extreme wickedness, that they had been made worse through God’s bounty, by which they ought surely to have been improved. Let us then take heed, lest by unlawful use of blessings we lay up for ourselves this cursed treasure.” (Calvin’s Commentaries)
5. Our reformed confessions of faith also uses the term “providence” to refer to God sovereignty over all things including sin and the restraint of it.
WCF chpt. V Of Providence
“I. God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”
This takes care of the restraint of sin in the world
“VI. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as a righteous Judge, for former sins, does blind and harden, from them He not only withholds His grace whereby they might have been enlightened in their understandings, and wrought upon in their hearts; but sometimes also withdraws the gifts which they had, and exposes them to such objects as their corruption makes occasion of sin; and, withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, even under those means which God uses for the softening of others.
VII. As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it takes care of His Church, and disposes all things to the good thereof.”
This takes care of the general good done to all creatures both elect and non-elect BUT in a “special manner” takes care of His Church aka the Elect.
Lord’s Day 10
“27. What do you understand by the providence of God?
The almighty, everywhere-present power of God,1 whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink,4 health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance,7 but by His fatherly hand.”
Dr. Kenneth Talbot President of Whitefield Theological Seminary Writes: “There is nothing common about the “grace” of our God. However, there is a common goodness of God towards all men. Common grace implies a logical implication of universalism. Ricky you are correct, the common goodness of God towards all men is within the context of God’s providence. Goodness must not be confused with grace. Grace is particular – it is only extended to the elect. Goodness however is extended to all men. Got to run.” (on my facebook page)
I argue then that is within sound scriptural exegesis and confessionally sound to rather reject such a notion and refer to Gods restraining of sin and common gifts to men as “Providence” as all the Reformed Confessions teach. To go beyond this proper term leads to Amyraldianism and Universal Atonement, though many would inconsistently reject this conclusion. Grace in Scripture ALWAYS leads to salvation.
God does not in any portion of Scripture states that He loves the reprobate in any way shape or form. This is one of the main reasons “common grace” is rejected because it goes to the extreme by saying God has some sort of secondary class love for the reprobate which is not justified by scripture. When God gives good gifts to the reprobate it is for their condemnation so then that would be wrath and justice not mercy or grace.
The Well Meant Offer of the Gospel
Another doctrine that is often attached to “common grace” is the concept that the offer of the gospel is even unto the reprobate considered as “grace”. This is also an erroneous assertion made by common gracer’s.
Neo-Calvinists have taken this concept to another level and began to teach that God indeed loves every single individual and sincerely offers even unto the non-elect the option of salvation and desires their salvation to which I thoroughly disagree and affirm that this is neither biblical nor logical.
Grace is infinite eternal and unchangeable and since there are no variables in God, there is no other grace. What I want to know is how can one infer God’s intention from His precepts? Yes, God commands everyone every where to repent and believe, yet He only determines the elect to do so, of that, there is no doubt. However, I say that repentance is the reprobate’s duty, but to the elect repentance is a gift. God grants them repentance. Now, is it God’s intention to save the reprobate when He commands them to repent and believe? No.
God has a will of command and a will of decree, that is not to say though that God has two wills. That concept is preposterous. Rather it is emphasizing different aspects of the working of God’s will. A double minded man is unstable in all of his ways. What about a double minded God. God’s will is one. All of God’s attributes are one. It is a bridge too far to change the nature of God in order to postulate a doctrine that scripture refutes. I have no problem with saying God is in a sense good to the non-elect and allows them to breathe and eat etc.. but I believe people go to far when they start asserting that God actually in a very real desirable way Wills or WANTS the reprobate whom He created for a vessel of Wrath per Romans 9 to be saved. That’s the problem with this version of Common Grace. I believe because God is Providential the reprobate get exactly what God wants them to get and ARE USED FOR HIS GLORY JUST LIKE SATAN IS AND PHARAOH WAS AND JUDAS WAS.
For a full refutation of this version of the “Well Meant Offer” made more popular and postulated by Dr. John Murray see Dr. Matthew Winzer’s “Murray on the Free Offer of the Gospel: A Review“
We understand the want to use the term “grace” because its undeserved and all that. If you don’t mind me saying, In my analysis of many individuals I have spoken to regarding this they are caught up in the desire to generalize the term “grace” and its definition. The thing is though that while people want to simplify and generalize the definition, Scripture on the other hand gives “grace” a special definition and is reserved specifically for Gods Elect people. Not name calling here but its the same generalizing principle that Arminians do when speaking of the Atonement. They want to simplify Christ atoning death and make it general for all, while we know that Scripture gives the atonement a special definition and is reserved specifically for the Elect. The Amyraldian make the same argument in this regard using common grace and generalizing not only the term “grace” but also generalizing the Atonement for all, Elect and reprobate, but that its effect is only for the Elect. Therefore according to them, the intent of the Cross is for “all” but the effect is for “some”. How do they try to justify this contradiction? The same way those who claim that God loves the reprobate in some way and that God desires the reprobate to be saved but doesn’t save them justify their claim, they quickly pull out the “Two Wills of God” card. The Amyraldians say that God in His Will of Precept intended the cross for all since he desires all to repent and believe but that in Gods Will of Decree did not choose to grant the cross to effect all. Do you see how this abuse of using Gods one will in the divided sense is done from both of these? Yes, God indeed has a Will of Decree and a Will of Command or Precept but this does not entail the above false assertions. We explain this divided sense to Arminians when they object to us Evangelizing to all while maintaining Election among a few things, only then is it proper to use that.
Now, common gracer’s maintain that because the non-elect receive gifts that are underserved that it is obviously “grace”. Ok, we get that. BUT I would argue that the gifts that the non-elect do receive are well deserved, why? Because as we have already maintained, these gifts serve the purpose of hardening them more and adding to their condemnation and destruction. This is the correct way of looking at it biblically. Therefore, if these gifts God gives the reprobate do not serve to whoo them to salvation nor benefit them spiritually in any way but serve to justly condemn them, bringing upon them Gods Holy wrath; brothers and sisters I submit to you that these gifts are curses, wrath and justice WHICH THE NON-ELECT CLEARLY DO DESERVE. I reiterate then that it cannot in any way shape or form be referred to as “Grace”.
I leave you with this scenario:
There is a supervisor of a company that has a constant beef with an employee. Now this employee hates the supervisors with a passion and is constantly acting insubordinate and rebellious, the supervisor in turn also hates the employee because of this malice towards him and everyone else in the company including the employees evidently see this conflict between the two. One morning a company meeting is held and during the meeting in front of everyone the supervisor presents the rebellious employee with a brand new iphone 5. This is to everyone’s shock because they all know about the animosity between the two and cannot for the life of them understand why the supervisor would give the employee who hates him a free gift of that nature or even a gift at all. Everyone leaves the meeting puzzled and scratching their heads as to this issue. The rebellious employee in the meantime continues to enjoy his brand new iphone and making fun of the supervisor who gave it to him and claiming how stupid he is and all that never giving the supervisor any credit or any gratefulness for the gift but nevertheless continues to enjoy the gift. Two days later the rebellious employee doesn’t show up for work and everyone is wondering where he is, as it turns out the iphone that was given to him exploded while he was using it and blew his brains out because the supervisor planted a micro-bomb into the phone before he gave it to the rebellious employee and took out his wrath on him in that way. When the other employees found out about that the supervisor planted a bomb into the phone they then truly understood why he gave the rebellious employee that free gift, it was for his death sentence his condemnation and judgement.
Now, do you think that was such a gracious gift? I for one don’t think so.
What the non-elect receive may indeed seem gracious in the outward perspective looking at it in a temporal manner, but since the scriptures reveal to us the reason and future outcome per Gods Decree for such outward gifts we then should not conclude that these outward gifts are given because God loves the non-elect and desires their salvation in the so called “common grace” of God.
Grace and Peace to the Elect in Christ