The Lord lavishes all people with His kindness, even those who ignore, belittle, or are hostile toward Him. Today, Barry Cooper explains that God’s universal patience toward a sinful creation reflects His glory in unique ways.
One of my best friends is an atheist. We met when we were English literature undergraduates at the same university, and we bonded over our mutual love of the English poet Philip Larkin. My friend knew I was a Christian, and I remember him once asking me, “How is it that you can enjoy someone like Larkin, who clearly didn’t believe in God?”
The answer to that question has to do with what theologians call “common grace.” Common grace is the idea that God showers gifts not only on those who love Him but also on those who don’t. God gave Philip Larkin a particular sensibility and a facility with words, which meant that he could describe the world—and human nature—with uncommon insight and beauty. He was, in a very literal sense, God’s gift to poetry.
There is, of course, a real irony here. Larkin was a man who was given a gift by someone, and then used that gift to claim that the Giver didn’t exist. But there’s another irony. Every time Larkin wrote, he was revealing a genius that could only have come—as far as I could see—from God Himself, the very person he was denying.
Now, why does God do this? Why give gifts to people who know will never say thank you? Or who will take those gifts and try to attack you with them—like a child you kindly lift up from the ground, who then uses that vantage point to deliver a roundhouse kick to your larynx? (Not that I’m speaking from bitter experience.)
God showers His gifts quite indiscriminately. This is what Jesus meant when He said that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good”; He “sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
This is common grace. “Grace” because it’s God’s undeserved goodness; “common” because it’s universal. He lavishes all people with His kindness, even those who ignore, belittle, or are hostile toward him.
One of these acts of common grace which God showers on the world is to restrain sin and its effects. As the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper wrote, when God “negatively curbs the operations of Satan, death, and sin,” that’s common grace.
So why does God do all this?
Well, first of all, common grace demonstrates the utter goodness of God to everybody. Though it’s true He demonstrates His grace especially to those He saves—this is called “special grace”—nevertheless, His goodness isn’t restricted only to those He saves. It overflows to everyone. Psalm 145 says, “The Lord is good to all; his mercy is over all that he has made.”
Secondly, without common grace, there would be no opportunity for God to bestow His special grace. Or to put it another way, if God didn’t restrain sin and its effects and His own rightful wrath at sin, there would be no human beings left for Him to save. We would all be destroyed. Scripture tells us that God “is patient toward [all people], not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God’s patience and goodwill toward all is an act of common grace.
Thirdly, common grace vindicates the justice of God. Romans chapter 1 says that God has made plain to people His existence and power through every good thing we enjoy. For example, we see the sun rise every morning. It shines—as Jesus said—on the just and the unjust alike. And as beneficiaries of that constant and unmistakable goodness, it will not be convincing if we one day say to God, “I didn’t think there was enough evidence of Your existence.” Our condemnation, having enjoyed a lifetime of these common-grace blessings, will be entirely deserved.
Finally, as is the case (I believe) with Philip Larkin, God’s common grace means that His glory is reflected even by those who do not know Him and who don’t want to reflect His glory. We are all of us mirrors, whether or not we want to be, however distorted those mirrors may have become. And even a broken mirror can reflect the light in dazzling ways.
The reality of common grace ought to utterly change the way we relate to the world, especially the way we relate to those who don’t believe. It gives us eyes to enjoy reflections of God’s glory wherever they appear—often in the unlikeliest of places, and in the unlikeliest of people.