I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The sonnet “Ozymandias,” written by Percy Shelly, is a marvelous commentary on the hubris of man. It could well have been entitled “Vanity of Vanities,” as it fits in well with the teaching of Ecclesiastes. Here is the folly of man who believes in his own ability to produce a lasting legacy for himself. Vanity of vanities. And yet, the man who wrote the poem did not believe in God, certainly not the Christian God. Where then did he get such insight; even more to the point, how did he obtain such creative powers?
Here is another quandary for me. I had a neighbor who does not know Christ. She is kind and generous. How? How can one who has not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit nevertheless possess much of the qualities of one who follows Christ?
This is the problem of good. How is it that the dark world possesses much divine truth? How can those who are unregenerate nevertheless live in many ways according to the law? Indeed, how can unregenerate people do what is right, while their regenerate neighbors do what is wrong? How can beauty, goodness, and truth be known and expressed by those who do not know the God of beauty, goodness, and truth?
The problem of good strikes our beliefs in two ways. One, we ask ourselves just how necessary the gospel is to possess a fulfilled life. We are always hearing how we cannot be happy without the gospel and that persons without the benefit of being regenerated – born again – by the Holy Spirit are sinners. And yet we all know disbelievers of the gospel who are seemingly living productive, happy lives, at least as productive and happy as ours. How necessary, then, is the gospel for an abundant life?
The second tender spot that the reality of “good” people hits is our belief about hell. As much as we may be convicted about our own sinfulness and personal guilt, can we really believe that neighbors who act kindly will end up there? Is it just of God to condemn them to eternal punishment? But if he doesn’t condemn them to hell; if they are accepted into heaven, or at least avoid hell’s flames, then, again, how necessary is the gospel?
And so, the problem of good. What is the answer? It comes from the little discussed doctrine of common grace. The doctrine is succinctly stated in our hymn: “All good gifts around us are sent from heav’n above.” God sends good gifts to both the regenerate – those to whom the Holy Spirit has given new life in Christ – and the unregenerate – those who do not and never will receive the gift of salvation. Let’s consider how this doctrine plays out. It can be divided into two parts – a restraining activity by God and a gifting activity.
“I’m bad to the bone,” the rocker proclaims. Scripture would agree with that assessment, not because he is a rocker who gets his way with women, but because, since Adam’s and Eve’s fall, their descendants have had a sin condition that gets down to the bones.
Theologians describe this sin condition as total depravity. It can be a misleading term, as it seems to mean that every person acts as depraved as he can be. Our problem, though, is not that we act as badly as we can, but that sin has so infected our hearts that everything we do has some sin component in it. Simply put, we are not pure. Our best thoughts and deeds have the sin infection.
So why doesn’t the infection take over so that we do act completely depraved? The answer lies in common grace. God has exercised such grace in all of us so as to restrain sin. Thus, though we were truly born to be wild, God’s grace restrains how wild we could truly be.
How does God restrain sin? One way is by using divinely given institutions of government and family. God also uses the restraining influences of a civilization’s culture, which serves to “civilize” us and to restrain our wild impulses.
But beyond using outward restraints to moderate evil tendency, God restrains the very hearts of men and women. The clearest teaching of this principle is found in Romans 1:18-32 which traces the downward spiral of men and women. Three times we are told how “God gave them up” to indulge in sin.
God had been restraining their hearts and even their minds, their ability to reason. He had placed a check on how far they could go, and they could not go further until he released them. This is the case for all of us. Without common grace restraining our sin impulse, we truly could be all that we can be – not fulfilling of our God-given talent, but following fully the path of depravity that is in our nature to do.
Restrains God’s Just Wrath
By common grace God places restraint not only on us but himself. Whereas he restrains our sin, he restrains his just wrath against sin. The psalmist reflects with thanks that God “does not deal with us according to our sins nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Why is this? One important reason is to give people opportunity to repent and turn to him for salvation, as noted in 2 Peter 3:9. Romans 2:4 in its warning against presumption, reminds us of this same purpose: “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?”
On the other side of the coin, this same patience that provides opportunity for repentance also provides opportunity for the impenitent to demonstrate the true condition of their hearts. The very next verse somberly explains: “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.”
Whatever all his reasons may be, God’s restraint provides opportunity for life to go on. The combination of restraint on his own wrath and restraint on our sin, permits the history of the world to progress. For without restraint on either activity, human life would have ceased long ago. Either God would have destroyed the world, or man’s own proclivity for evil would have brought self-destruction.
Besides restraining sin and wrath, God through his common grace provides good gifts both outwardly and inwardly to the regenerate and unregenerate alike. Psalm 145:16 says that God the Creator is the generous bestower of good gifts. “You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
The most notable references are made by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. “For he [God the Father] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Jesus’ point is that God the Father sends forth blessings that land on the regenerate and unregenerate alike, not because he cannot avoid stray blessings landing on them but because he is indeed gracious.
In Luke 6:35 Jesus presents the same teaching with slight variation. “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” God is kind to those who do not acknowledge him. He provides gifts that they do not deserve.
In Acts 14:16-17, Paul tells the residents of Lystra that they should worship the true God, whom he explains in this way: “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
These blessings should be understood to mean not only those blessings of nature but all other blessings that God grants man, including the gifts of character and skill. And so, though Adam’s fall resulted in marring the image of God in man, a remnant of the image remained nevertheless. Just as dying embers can be blown upon to rekindle a fire, so the Holy Spirit blows upon the embers of God’s image in man to assure that such faculties as reason, intelligence, and moral sense function even as the image remains unrestored. Though man became morally infected with depravity, yet God preserves and kindles virtue and compassion within all of us to a degree.
Common grace thus explains how good can exist, even flourish, within men and women who are unregenerate. God has not left them bereft of good qualities. His mercy so works even within the unregenerate as to give the temporal blessing of goodness to each person. And so your unregenerate neighbor is given the blessing of being kind through the kindness of his Creator, whether or not the neighbor acknowledges the Creator.
What other gifts has God granted to all through his common grace? There is the great gift of companionship – family, marriage, and friendship. God has granted us government, societies, tribes, and civilizations that we might not only live together, but be productive together, provide for common needs, and enrich our lives.
And then there are the gifts of talent, skill, and temperament distributed among men and women. God has given the gift of language, be it writing or speaking. God created music and distributed the talent of composing and performing it. God has given the talent of creating works of art. He has given skill in mathematics, logic, physics, and all other fields, and he has done so liberally without respect to anyone’s status, including their relationship with him. And so, such skills have flourished among the unregenerate and regenerate, so much so that there is no discernible pattern of gift distribution.
The result of all these provisions is a world filled with natural beauty and with man-made beauty. Man has invented and produced wonders that inspire, heal, preserve and improve life, that make us feel spiritually ennobled even as we deny the spiritual. The result of all these provisions is that most people will not kill but even try to save life. Most people will say “please” and “thank you.” Most people will not cut in line at the store nor steal from the store. Whatever may be lurking in our hearts, however depraved the heart may be, most of us will experience decent behavior from our neighbors and in turn act decently.
All this will take place because of God’s common grace bestowed on mankind.
How, then, do we as Christians live in light of common grace? For one thing, we may sincerely admire and respect the good that comes from the unregenerate through common grace. John Calvin makes this point in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Therefore, in reading [secular] authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its 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…. 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 heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods.
As Christians, we wonder if it is okay to read works by nonChristians. Should we not stick with authors who are at least attempting to represent a God-honoring perspective in their writings? There is good reason to read mostly Christian authors so as to keep us grounded and not blowing with the wind of opinion. But as we have seen, the Holy Spirit does not confine himself to distributing gifts of perception and expression, so that truth may be found even in those who do not acknowledge the God of truth. By common grace God has granted unregenerate authors and thinkers and scientists the ability to discern, illustrate, and reveal, not new truth, but truth that is already taught explicitly or in keeping with Scripture.
He has also through common grace used the gifts he has given indiscriminately to supplement what is in his revealed Word. By common grace he has given commonsense to know how to apply the commands of God. So, when Scripture commands fathers not to exasperate their children, commonsense has been relied upon by the unregenerate father to know how that is applied to the willful child and the compliant child. Commonsense has guided the unregenerate mother to know when and what to say to her husband when he is oblivious about his exasperating behavior!
Likewise, Christian parents can learn from the disciplined studies of even secular psychologists and behavior specialists who have studied how infants respond to different stimuli and treatment. We can learn from counselors and business managers and teachers and anyone else who have spent years studying human behavior. They may not be able to accurately explain spiritual truth, but they can nail down how people react to the way they are treated.
Common grace would even have us appreciate the role of nonChristian rulers and government leaders. It is by the reality of common grace that the apostle Paul could speak of pagan authorities as servants of God for upholding good and restraining evil (cf Romans 13:1-7).
Common grace solves the double-sword dilemma spoken of in the introduction, namely how to explain the good that exists in those who are unregenerate, and how to accept that persons with good qualities are nevertheless condemned. Common grace solves the dilemma by giving credit where it is due – to our Creator and Provider. And so, we can admire all these qualities and gifts of our unregenerate neighbors because in doing so we are crediting and glorifying God who gives these common grace blessings.
Our mistake psychologically is that we regard the gifts of our neighbors – be it temperament or talent or even virtues – as autonomous achievement. We regard them as not gifts but rather personal traits and accomplishments obtain by help from no one else other than the individual’s own self will. The irony to such a view is that even secularists do not hold to such a view. There is no philosopher or scientist who holds to the concept of complete self-autonomy. They attribute most, if not all that we are, to genetic and environmental causes. We are who we are because of forces outside our control.
But common grace teaches who controls those forces. As 1 Corinthians 4:7 notes: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). The answer is nothing. Your nice neighbor is nice because God’s Spirit constrains her tendency to be selfish and cruel. She is nice because God’s Spirit has granted her a genetic make-up and given her experiences that induce her to be nice. This is common grace.
If this is the case, then we should marvel, not that God would punish good people but that God would grant good gifts to wicked people, which is what all of us are without Christ. Think of this. In God’s mercy he grants his enemies (those who are under his just wrath) gifts that induce a measure of good in them, so much so that we now question how he could condemn such “good” people! We think we question God’s ability to judge wisely, when what we are really questioning is his choice to restrain sin and his wrath. Far from questioning God, we should be glorifying him for keeping sinners from being their worse and for even granting to them a measure of goodness so that their temporal lives are not filled with evil and ugliness.
We should credit God, not man for what man has received.
And then, we should love our neighbor. The context of the passages in Matthew and Luke about God the Father making his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sending rain on the just and on the unjust, and of his being kind to the ungrateful and the evil is that we then are to love our neighbors. God is our model; indeed, it is necessary to love all of our neighbors to be identified with him.
Understand what is being said here. We should desire the salvation of our neighbors, but our love for them is not to be based on their prospects for being saved. In these passages, Jesus does not call upon us to love our enemies because we once were like them. He does not speak of what our love might do for the souls of our enemies. The point is that God our Father provides blessings for the evil just as he does for the good. Both receive the benefits of the sun and the rain. He does not discriminate in parceling out common good gifts to mankind. We then should not discriminate in showing good and giving gifts to our neighbors.
And so, be kind to your neighbor regardless of his creed or race or gender or morality or anything else that distinguishes him or her. Or, as Jesus would rephrase it – be a good neighbor to anyone. Do not determine what you will do for your neighbor by his faith or lack of it. Do not determine what you will do according to its evangelistic potential.
Realize this, that we as Christians are vital vessels for the outpouring of God’s common grace. We ought to be involved in the daily common activities of the world in order that we might be sun and rain to the evil and the good, to the just and the unjust. Our tendency is to segregate ourselves into Christian-only societies for our own protection and comfort zone. But we should be joining our neighborhood and civic associations; we should patronize the businesses of our neighbors who don’t have a fish or cross on their windows. We should strive to be agents of common grace for we know the Bestower of all good gifts and want to be like our Father. We know the most excellent gift of our Savior.
Who knows? Perhaps our common grace love will be used by the Holy Spirit to transmit the love of God’s special grace. When our neighbors see love that is reflective of God the Father, perhaps they will be drawn to the love demonstrated on the cross? When they are appreciated for who they are now, when they do not feel like a prize to be won, perhaps then the so-called stubborn spirit that we are baffled by will yield to the mercies of our God.
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