Do you know what an oxymoron is? An example of an oxymoron is the phrase “jumbo shrimp.” With an oxymoron, the words that are used to describe a particular thing seem to be self-contradictory, or at least they are two things that don’t seem to go together. From this perspective, one might say that the phrase “common grace” is such an oxymoron. How can God’s grace be deemed “common?” Though God’s grace in one sense is commonplace, it is always something that He gives that is undeserved by us. That God bestows any grace at all upon us is an uncommon manifestation of His kindness. We don’t earn or deserve such benefits.
Common grace is a term used to describe the goodness of God to all people universally. Common grace restrains sin and the effects of sin on the human race. Common grace is what keeps humanity from descending into the depths of evil that we’d see if the full expression of our sinful nature were allowed to have free reign.
We’re totally depraved—tainted with sin in every aspect of our being (Rom. 3:10–18). People who doubt this ask, “How can people who are totally depraved enjoy beauty, have a sense of right and wrong, perform acts of goodness, know the pangs of a wounded conscience, or produce great works of art and literature? Aren’t these accomplishments of humanity proof that the human race is essentially good? Don’t these things testify to the basic goodness of human nature?”
The answer is no. Human nature is utterly corrupt. “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). But common grace is what restrains the full expression of human sinfulness. God has graciously given us a conscience, which enables us to know the difference between right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). He maintains order in human society through government (Rom. 13:1–5). He allows us to admire beauty and goodness (Ps. 50:2). He gives tokens of His kindness on both the good and the evil (Matt. 5:45). All of those things are the result of God’s goodness to people in general.
Common grace does not pardon sin or redeem sinners, but it is still a sincere token of God’s goodwill to mankind in general. The apostle Paul said, “In Him we live and move and exist … for we also are His offspring” (Acts 17:28). That includes everyone on earth, not just those God saves. God deals with us all as His offspring, people made in His image. “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9).
Acts 14 contains a nice description of common grace. Paul and Barnabas were ministering at Lystra, and Paul healed a lame man. The crowds saw it and someone began saying that Paul was Zeus and Barnabas was Hermes. The priest at the local temple of Zeus wanted to organize a sacrifice to Zeus. But when Paul and Barnabas heard about it, they said, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
That is a fine description of common grace. While allowing sinners to “go their own ways,” God nevertheless bestows on them tokens of His goodness and kindness. It is not saving grace. But it is a genuine manifestation of God’s love to all people.