Common grace "is every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God"
~ John Murray
Four Manifestations of Common Grace
(1) The first aspect of common grace is what we might call negative or preventative. Its essential characteristic is that of restraint. Although the restraint that God places upon sin and its effects is neither complete (else no sin would exist at all) nor uniform (else all men would be equally evil or good), it is of such a nature that the expression and effects of human depravity are not permitted to reach the maximum height of which they are capable. Thus, the most obvious manifestation of common grace is God's exercise of restraint on the sin of man. Murray explains:
"God places restraint upon the workings of human depravity and thus prevents the unholy affections and principles of men from manifesting all the potentialities inherent in them. He prevents depravity from bursting forth in all its vehemence and violence" (II:98).
...one of the purposes of the Spirit's activity in our world is to impede or inhibit or curb the outward expression of the inward propensities of the sinful heart. Were he not to do so, were he completely to lift or withdraw or suspend this particular activity, our society would eventually be uninhabitable. The wickedness of mankind would engulf the world and bring it to the verge of utter chaos and corruption.
This work of the Spirit in restraining human sin is called "grace" because no one deserves it. That God inhibits their sin is an expression of mercy to those who deserve judgment. It is called "common" because it is universal. Both saved and unsaved, regenerate and unregenerate, are the recipients of this divine favor. It is not restricted to any one group of people and it does not necessarily lead to salvation.
(2) There is a second manifestation of common grace. Besides placing restraint upon the ungodly tendencies of the human heart, God freely suspends the immediate manifestation of his divine wrath due unto sin. That is to say, in common grace God not only restrains the sin of man but also the ready execution of the full measure of judgment which sin demands. This latter element of restraint is especially evident in such texts as Genesis 6:3; 1 Peter 3:20; Acts 17:30; Romans 2:4; and 2 Peter 3:9.
(3) In addition to the manifestation of common grace in the relationship God sustains to his creatures, he also holds in check the destructive tendencies that are part of the curse of sin upon nature. This third dimension of common grace was especially evident with Katrina. The question we should ask is not, "Why did this hurricane occur?" but "Why do not more hurricanes with even greater destructive power occur?" Again, John Murray elaborates:
"Sin introduces disintegration and disorganization in every realm. While it is true that only in the sphere of rationality does sin have meaning – it originates in mind, it develops in mind, it resides in mind – yet sin works out disastrous effects outside the sphere of the rational and moral as well as within it. God places restraint upon these effects, he prevents the full development of this disintegration. He brings to bear upon this world in all its spheres correcting and preserving influences so that the ravages of sin might not be allowed to work out the full measure of their destructive power" (II:101).
(4) The fourth and final aspect of common grace is more positive in thrust. God not only restrains the sinful operations and effects of the human heart, He also bestows upon both nature (see esp. Ps. 65:9-13; 104:10-30; 145:1-16; 136:25) and humanity manifold blessings both physical and spiritual. These blessings, however, fall short of redemption itself.
God not only restrains evil in unredeemed men but also endows them with;
"gifts, talents, and aptitudes; he stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilization of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions. We may regard these interests, pursuits and institutions as exercising both an expulsive and impulsive influence. Occupying the energy, activity and time of men they prevent the indulgence of less noble and ignoble pursuits and they exercise an ameliorating, moralizing, stabilizing and civilizing influence upon the social organism" (II:102-03).
Of this manifestation of common grace we read in Genesis 39:5; Acts 14:16-17; Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:35-36; 16:25. It is because of such operations of common grace that the unregenerate may be said to perform "good" (cf. 2 Kings 10:30; 12:2; Matt. 5:46; Luke 6:33; Rom. 2:14-15). However, Murray reminds us that "the good attributed to unregenerate men is after all only relative good. It is not good in the sense of meeting in motivation, principle and aim the requirements of God's law and the demands of his holiness" (II:107) and thus can in no way commend them to the righteousness of the Father. We must never lose sight of the fact that all such operations of "grace" (so-called because undeserved) are non-saving, being neither in design nor effect such as would produce new life in Christ.
As we approach the second coming of Christ, whether that be one year or one-thousand years in the future, I believe the presence and power of common grace will progressively diminish. The restraining power of the Spirit on the sinful souls of men and women, as well as on the natural creation, will incrementally weaken. The manifestation of human sin and wickedness and unbelief will therefore expand.
Common grace is much like the emergency break on a car that is parked on a steep incline. The weight of the car, together with the force of gravity, would naturally result in its descent down the road and its eventual crash. But the emergency break resists and impedes this otherwise natural inclination. So, too, with human sin. The Holy Spirit is like an emergency break on the human heart. But one day, perhaps imperceptibly and certainly in gradual fashion, the restraint on the sinful and depraved inclination of the human soul will be removed.
Excerpted from a powerful essay by Sam Storms called Katrina, Common Grace, and a Theory about the End of the Age
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