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The doctrine of common grace encompasses the biblical teaching about the universal and undeserved goodness of God toward sinners. By common grace, God restrains sin, evil, misery, and wrath in this fallen world, while conferring general, nonredemptive blessings on all mankind. As distinguished from special (saving) grace, common grace is a necessary aspect of the continuance of life in this fallen world. It restrains evil and confers goodness on mankind as a whole, reflecting God’s attributes of goodness, mercy, and justice. God confers common grace on mankind to encourage sinners to repent and trust in Christ. On judgment day, the common grace experienced by the unrepentant and their failure to thank God for it will factor into their punishment. This doctrine has been the subject of no small controversy in over the past century, especially among Dutch Reformed theologians.


The Reformed doctrine of common grace is implicitly taught throughout the Scriptures. In short, common grace includes every undeserved providential act of God’s restraint, goodness, and mercy toward the sinful inhabitants of this fallen world. The general principles of common grace are evident throughout Scripture (e.g., Ps. 145:9; Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; Rom. 2:4; Acts 14:16–17; 1 Tim. 4:10). The Lord Jesus taught one aspect of this doctrine when He appealed to God’s goodness in sending rain and making the sun shine on the righteous and the wicked alike (Matt. 5:44–45; Luke 6:35–36). The restraint of sin and evil is a particular work of God’s common grace. God reveals that He has kept men from sinning against Him (e.g., Gen. 20:6), but this restraint has limits, for there are times when the Lord ceases to continue His former restraint of sinners (e.g., Gen. 6:3; Ps. 81:11–12; Acts 7:42; Rom. 1:24–28; 2 Thess. 2:6–7). Common grace also enables the unregenerate to pursue virtue in their external and civic relations (Luke 6:33; Rom. 2:14). The Holy Spirit is the agent of God’s common grace operations in the world and on humanity, as well as of the general operations in members of the covenant community (Heb. 6:4–5).

The Reformed tradition understands this doctrine as a supplement to the doctrine of total depravity. Since man is pervasively depraved, no continuance of human history, development of culture, or growth in common virtue can occur without some operation of God’s common grace. Despite the fact that all people are “dead in trespasses and sins” by nature (Eph. 2:1–4), God has not removed the general operations of His Spirit from among them. He is constantly restraining evil and manifesting His goodness in this fallen world and among sin-cursed individuals.

The Presbyterian theologian John Murray defined common grace as “every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” He suggests that common grace involves God’s restraint of sin, divine wrath, and evil. It also functions to bestow God’s goodness on men and to excite goodness from men. Common grace bestows goodness and beauty in the bounty of creation. By it, God bestows goodness to the unregenerate, enables them to want to do acts of common goodness, and produces nonsaving influences of biblical truth on the minds of the unregenerate.

The restraining function of common grace also suspends the imminent judgment of the wicked. Common grace is operative whenever God does not immediately destroy the wicked (Gen. 4:14–16). However, those who do not recognize or thank God for His common grace will store up for themselves more severe judgment on the last day.

The common grace purposes of both restraint and goodness are at work in the institution of civil government and the nuclear family. These two aspects of common grace help explain why there is good in a pervasively fallen world.

We must distinguish common grace from special grace. Though common grace is one means by which God carries human history forward, it is not an extension of saving grace by which God prepares men for conversion. Geerhardus Vos explains the way that common grace functions as distinct from saving grace:

Common grace brings about no change in the nature of man as special grace does. Whatever may also be its external manifestations, it does not regenerate man. . . . Common grace is also limited to making man receptive to the influence of the truth that works on him from his consciousness. It works persuasively, by offering motives to the will and by making use of inclinations that are already present, not by creating new habits in man. It can certainly bring the external good still present in man to development, but it cannot produce what is spiritually good from that. It can cause a seed of external righteousness to germinate, but it is not capable of implanting the seed of regeneration.

God makes use of means in giving both common grace and special grace. For instance, food is a means of common grace as the spiritual food of the Word of God is a means of special grace. In both, God reveals aspects of His goodness, righteousness, power, and mercy to mankind. However, common grace differs from special grace as general revelation differs from special revelation. Like general revelation, common grace is insufficient to bring men and women to a saving knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.

Reformed theologians have sometimes distinguished between three kinds of common grace: universal, particular, and covenantal. Universal common grace is the good that God manifests over all His creation. Particular common grace is the way in which God restrains and shows His goodness to particular individuals or people groups. Covenantal common grace is the ways that the Holy Spirit gives temporary gifts to the members of His church. It also involves the Spirit’s granting the unregenerate members of the covenant community an experience of temporal spiritual illumination. Louis Berkhof explained that covenantal common grace is “a grace that is common to all those who live in the sphere of the covenant, whether they belong to the elect or not. It is . . . a grace that is not general, namely, the external privileges of those who are living under the administration of the gospel, including the external universal calling. At the same time . . . this grace, in distinction from general common grace, belongs to the economy of redemption.”

Covenantal common grace involves the influence of the Spirit of God on the minds and hearts of those who are baptized members of the covenant community but who have not experienced the saving grace of the Jesus Christ. They may have intellectual knowledge of the Scriptures and may appear to be true believers. However, as they are not savingly united to Christ. They are the branches cast into the fire and the tares sown among the wheat (Matt. 13:24–30; John 15:2–6).

In the realm of metaphysics and epistemology, Christian apologists sometimes appeal to the doctrine of common grace to explain the philosophy of history and also the antithesis between believers and unbelievers. In the nineteenth century, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck became two of the most widely recognized proponents of the doctrine of common grace, especially within the Dutch Reformed community.


Common grace is distinguished not so much from what we might call uncommon grace, but rather from what we call ‘special grace.’ Common grace refers to several concepts or experiences that we observe as Christians. On the one hand, we realize that in God’s divine providence He pours out benefits that are enjoyed not simply by believers, but by believers and non-believers alike.

R.C. Sproul

A Loving Provision

Tabletalk magazine

As a recipient of such gracious provisions from the hand of a benevolent God, in suppressing the truth about God impenitently, she will incur the wrath of a just God. Without a doubt, common grace that is mocked will result in uncommon judgment. Everyone . . . is without excuse. For we live coram Deo, before the face of a gracious and just God who provides sunshine and rain for both the good and the evil and who has provided an uncommon sacrifice for us, His people.

Burk Parsons

Uncommon Justice

Tabletalk magazine