As we look over the sweep of history, we find many amazing accomplishments wrought by the hands of men. Not only those who believed in God and trusted in Christ for their salvation, but also those who hated God or knew nothing about Him wrought many wonderful works. The oratory of the famous Greek and Roman pagans Demosthenes and Cicero, the immense learning of the Arab world during the comparatively dark “Middle Ages” in Europe, and the splendor of ancient India, China, and Japan all testify to humanity’s amazing capacity to create stunning and wonderful works. Christians definitely do not have a monopoly on producing beautiful things or on establishing civilizations which rule according to the basic tenets of law.
Why does this happen? Why do unbelievers sometimes make Christians look like fools by comparison in terms of the amazing works they do in this world? It is because in this present age, God is pleased through His providence to continually sustain and pour forth blessings upon this sinful world, even though it is often tossed to and fro by calamitous social and political upheavals. This is called common grace. Even though this world has been thoroughly permeated with sin and groans deeply in pain (Rom. 8:22), God still enables wonderful things to happen and restrains the evil of totally depraved human beings so that they can still establish some sense of order in society and not plunge into perpetual anarchy.
What does God use to restrain evil? He enables sinful men to labor hard for the betterment of society, even though these men do not do it for His glory. He confounds the plans of the wicked, bringing about good things even through evil deeds. And the Lord also uses the labors of believers to influence others and to be salt and light wherever they are. All of these factors work together to create an environment through which God continues to pour forth His special grace: the salvation of His people through the Gospel. Humanity is continually preserved; societies continue to build, labor, and produce food; men and women unite in marriage and produce offspring; the heart of men rejoice in the good things that they ultimately receive from God. Thus common grace, just like general revelation, acts as a handmaid to special grace. It shows human beings just how benevolent God is and how He delights to make His glory known through creation and through the works of those whom He has created. Even though these works are all tainted by sin, they still display a tarnished magnificence that lifts our minds up to higher things. Special grace, a function of special revelation, provides us the answer to this eternal question: How can I have true fellowship with such a wonderful God?
Some believe that God will gradually pour out more and more of His benefits upon this world until the whole earth is gloriously converted, thus uniting common grace with special grace. Others believe that common grace will continue its main function as a preserving influence upon the world in this present age until Christ returns, which is primarily a time of suffering and of perpetual pilgrimage yet also a period of great spiritual perseverance as the Church stands strong and triumphs over the gates of hell. Although there may be debate about this issue, both views agree that God shows through common grace that He is a wonderful Creator and Father. It is a delight to worship and trust in such a God for not only our earthly provision, but ultimately our salvation from sin and hell, so that we may enjoy eternal fellowship with Him forever and ever.
For more reading, see Psalm 145:15-16; Heidelberg Catechism Q. 27; John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapter 2, sections 15-16; and the Canons of Dort, Heads III/IV, Article 4.
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