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Common Grace

By James Montgomery Boice


      [How do] millions of men and women respond to the true and even greater benevolence of God? All are recipients of what theologians call "common grace," the provision of God for all persons; yet they fail to acknowledge it or allow it to accomplish the ends for which God dispenses such benevolence. Romans 2:4 speaks of this: "Do you show contempt for the riches of his [that is, God's] kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?"

      If you are not a follower of Jesus Christ, you are in the same position as Joseph's brothers at this point in the story (see Genesis 43:15-34). You have sinned against your elder brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, by denying his claims and refusing his proper lordship over your life. He has used means to awaken you to your need and bring you to an open confession of sin. But you have gone only so far as God's tactics have forced you to go; even though he has been most loving and gracious toward you, you have not acknowledged his hand in these benefits.

      I want you to awaken to God's goodness. I want you to see that all you are and all you have are a result of God's common grace to you.

      Let me explain it from God's perspective. God does not owe you anything. He does not even owe you a chance at salvation. When Adam and Eve first sinned against him in Eden, God could have judged them harshly and have sent them to hell at once; and if he had done that, He would have been absolutely just in his actions. Adam and Eve would have received nothing more than their proper desserts. If, acting in a different fashion, God had instead allowed them to live and produce offspring until there were literally millions of their descendants spread out over the entire earth to occupy it and pollute it by their abundant acts of idolatry, theft, fornication, hatred, greed, and other forms of sin, and then had brushed them all into eternal torment, God would nevertheless still have been just. No one could fault him. The righteous angels in heaven would still be able to cry out, as they do even today, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3).

      God owes us nothing. Yet, as we well know, God did not immediately banish Adam and Eve to hell, nor did he later suddenly consign the masses of mankind to torment. On the contrary, though there is a judgment to come, God has continually poured out his blessings on men and women.

      You have received such blessings. Donald Grey Barnhouse writes correctly, "You are not a believer in Christ and yet you are still out of hell. That is the grace of God. You are not in hell, but you are on earth in good health and prosperity. That is the common grace of God. The vast majority of those who read these words are living in comfortable homes or apartments. That is common grace. You are not fleeing as refugees along the highways of a country desolated by war. That is common grace. You come home from your job and your child runs to meet you in good health and spirits. That is common grace. You are able to put your hand in your pocket and give the child a quarter or a half dollar for an allowance. It is common grace that you have such abundance. You go into your house and sit down to a good meal. That is common grace. On the day that you read these words there are more than a billion and a half members of the human race who will go to sleep without enough to satisfy their hunger, The fact that you have enough is common grace. You do not deserve it. And if you think that you do deserve anything at all from God beyond the wrath which you have so richly earned, you merely show your ignorance of spiritual principles."

      Romans 2:4 puts the matter of God's common grace to you and others as a question: "Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience?" The answer is, of course, you do--unless you have repented of your sin and turned back toward God through faith in Jesus Christ. By nature human beings are ungrateful. By nature you show "contempt" for God's kindness. Yet it is precisely this kindness that God is using to bring you to repentance.

      I quote Barnhouse again: "To despise the riches of God's grace is the blackest of all sins. It far outweighs the sins that are a violation of righteousness. Fallen man has a fallen nature. That is why the Lord seemed to overlook the outbreaks of the flesh, knowing man's frame and remembering that he is but dust (Psalm 103:14). You who boast, perhaps, that you are not guilty of the great fleshly sins should realize that the despising of God's goodness is a sin that far transcends an act that might be called a crime under human law.

      "Why is God so good toward the lost? He declares that the purpose of the riches of his goodness, forbearance and longsuffering is to lead man to repentance; and he further declares that man does not know the object of God's goodness. Is this not a further picture of the state of man by nature? Can it not be seen that the dark ignorance of unbelief has brought a further fruit of ignorance of the grace of God? You are in good health? Why does God permit it? The answer is that he wants you to turn to him and acknowledge his goodness and accept the riches that he has for you. You have other blessings that come from the common grace of God. The purpose of such riches is to cause you to turn about-face and come to Him for further blessing." (Donald Grey Barnhouse, "God's Wrath," The Book of the Revelation, vol. 2 Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1953)

      God's Love Commended

      I have spoken of "common grace" in the sense that God's genuine affection has been poured out upon all persons regardless of who they are or what wrongs they may have done. As Jesus said, God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45). Common grace? Yes! But in another sense, it is not at all common. It is most uncommon. It is extraordinary, and it leads us to the most uncommon or extraordinary love of all. We find it in Romans 5:6-8: "At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

      It is "while we were still sinners" that God has done everything for us. Here is love at its fullest. It is while we were still sinners and, in fact, oblivious both to the extent of our sin and to the uncommon kindness of God toward us in all things that God sent his own son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die for us.

      Moreover, God goes to the unheard of length of commending his love to us by this fact. The word commend (KJV; "demonstrate," NIV) is used in two ways in the New Testament. It sometimes means "to establish, prove or make certain." In this sense the death of Christ certainly "proves" God's love for us, the meaning the NIV translators have favored. But "prove" is a cold word. It has the temperature of algebraic axioms and corollaries. It seems remote. The other use of "commend" is "to recommend or set forth in such a manner that the matter appeals to the heart." This surely is the fullness of the meaning here. The death of Jesus Christ proves the reality and demonstrates the nature of God's unfathomable love. But more than that, it commends it to us in such a manner that we will repent of our sin--which left unrepented of keeps us from God--and instead leads us to embrace Jesus Christ as our own personal Savior.

      Have you done that? If not, notice that the word "commend" ("demonstrate") is in the present tense ("commends" or "demonstrates") rather than in the past tense ("commended" or "demonstrated"). That is, it is not merely a past happening that today may be forgotten. It is a present reality, as much a force today as it has ever been. It is today--right now--that God is commending his deep and genuine love to you by Jesus' death.

      Today you and I may look back at Joseph's brothers and fault them for their ignorance of Joseph's identity and their slowness to repudiate past sin. But if we try, we can find at least some partial excuses for them. Their sin was long past. There was nothing they could do to change its consequences. As far as their recognition of Joseph was concerned, how could they possibly guess that this powerful Egyptian was the despised brother they had last seen as he was led off as a teenager into slavery?

      There are no such excuses for us. We know there is God; the Bible says that only fools deny it (Ps. 14:1). We know that all we are and have come from God's hand; the Bible says, "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). When we stop to think about it, we even know that God sent the Lord Jesus Christ to save us by giving his life in our place. But do we acknowledge this? We do not--unless God awakens our consciences and turns us from our manifest ingratitude.

      That is what you must allow God to do for you--if you have not turned from sin previously. You must allow him to turn you to faith in your older brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, who has loved and continues to love you perfectly. (A Quotation from Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987)

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