Saving Grace Before Common Grace (Part 1)

Many Christians are declaring that “all truth is God’s truth” in an attempt to affirm or embrace certain aspects of Critical Race Theory (CRT) or other sociological solutions and arguments that have no Scriptural basis. When Christians attempt to refute these “solutions” or question any viable validity in using them to analyze society, they are quickly reminded that “common grace” allows us to accept them. One example that has been used to declare “all truth is God’s truth” under the umbrella of common grace is validating a medical doctor’s prognosis and treatment, even though the attending doctor is not a professing Christian. Since the Bible does not give answers to cure a particular disease or illness, the argument states that we can receive guidance on scientific non-Scripture related issues, like medical advice, as an extension of God’s common grace, given to both believers and unbelievers alike, which is a fair analysis.

However, we must also take into consideration that not all aspects of science are wholly authoritative or good. Throughout history, many have died due to medical misdiagnoses or failed treatments. Science created technology to kill millions using advanced warfare and babies in the womb. Social media, via computer technology has been helpful for society but in so many ways also harmful, causing various forms of addictions and other mental health concerns, covetousness, and political upheaval across the globe. Most importantly, we must ask questions about the different kinds of science disciplines, meaning, is the field of medical science equivalent to those in the behavioral or social sciences? Before we dive into understanding all these issues surrounding the term “common grace” in an attempt to affirm societal analysis or implement solutions, we must start with what comes before it, saving grace.

Saving Grace Precedes Common Grace

When discussing the meaning of the term common grace, any theologian worth their weight should undoubtedly begin with God’s grace in salvation. To start anywhere else would be to use the term common grace manipulatively, immaturely, and deceptively, because without a grace that saves, there would be no other kind of grace. After our first parents sinned, God delivered curses for their disobedience, but in spite of those curses, He promised to send a serpent skull crusher from the seed (offspring) of the woman (Gen 3:15). It was this declaration of a future Savior that made room for any form of common grace toward man’s state of rebellion.

Though grace is basically God’s unearned, unmerited, loving-kindness, favor towards man, there is nothing basic about it. God’s grace is most exceedingly clear in a person being predestined to receive the gift of faith in Christ, which is not just accepting knowledge of a Bible story or admitting that God exists. When faith is conceived, Calvin describes it as settling deep within a human heart that is so gripping, it does not fade away lightly and includes comprehending not only knowing who God is, but also seeking to know what God’s will is toward us according to his word 1.

Faith is receiving Christ the way the Father offers Christ, who is clothed in the Father’s gospel. Through that gospel, Christ is the appointed goal of faith and the only way to embrace what Christ offers is through the special grace of the Father. In Ephesians 4:20-21, Paul writes that in order to know who Christ is, we have to learn Christ, hear about Christ, be taught Christ, and not just with an “implicit faith” kind of faith that Calvin describes as submitting one’s feeling obediently to the church by an ignorant faith that does not seek God’s knowledge or His will 2.

Since a permanent relationship between faith and the Word exists, we cannot separate faith from the Word. John 20:31 says that the word was written down so that we may believe and those who hear God’s voice (Psalm 95:7; 94:8, Isaiah 55:3; John 20:31) do believe. God distinguishes outsiders and insiders in regards to who are children of his church (Isa 54:13; John 6:45) and he says he will teach his children and they will learn from him (John 6:45) God teaches those who hear voice, who are called believers and disciples made up of men and women 3

In the Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin writes that faith in relationship with the Word is a benefit dripping in grace for those who are his children, and this benefit is not based on any outward goodness, skin color, ethnicity or gender, but also not indiscriminately given to all. Furthermore, if faith veers in any direction away from the Word, Calvin writes it “becomes uncertain credulity and vague error of mind. The same Word is the basis whereby faith is supported and sustained; if it turns away from the Word, it falls. Therefore, take away the Word and no faith will remain4

God reveals himself and draws people to himself through the Word, but it’s not simply to know God for knowledge sake, but to also know God’s character and will toward us, which we perceive through the Word. However, in order for this to be the foundation of one’s faith, there needs to be a preconceived conviction that God’s Word is truth. If one doubts that truth, Calvin writes that their “mind is at war with itself”, which will leave one weighed down with doubt or the Scriptures will be of a weak authority or worse, no authority at all. A person who has faith grounded in the Word will have to believe God is trustworthy (Rom 3:3) and that whatever comes from Him through the Word is “sacred and inviolable truth5

In the Word, one will discover much that makes them tremble and/or afraid or filled with shame at how they miss the mark of God’s will for them. Those without faith turn away from God or question the Word in order to replace and reject the ill feelings one has towards missing the mark of God’s divine will for their lives. Faith, however, causes one to turn to God, to seek God, finding mercy and God’s kindness, and instead of condemnation they find safety and comfort. The only way to approach God as a gracious Father, they have to be drawn by him. To find God’s mercy, he has to reveal that mercy. This is a work of grace.

We need the promise of grace, which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach him in no other way, and upon grace alone the heart of man can rest6

All of God’s mercy and truth is embodied in Christ and the Father’s gospel that points one to Christ is the only cure for hatred, anger, shame or wrath. One can gain knowledge about God’s mercy and truth, but because the natural human mind is filled with remnant thoughts of “did God really say”, that knowledge becomes obscured or hidden. The tendency is to seek man’s knowledge and combine it with God’s knowledge, with the belief that by merging both, one will attain a true knowledge of God’s will. Mixing man’s knowledge with God’s knowledge only causes conflict.

This conflict will lead one to be perpetually doubtful with a tendency to look more towards man’s wisdom instead of God’s. The only way that one can truly rest and trust in God’s Word alone is to have their mind be illumined and enlightened, their heart strengthened, not from man, but from God alone. This is a divine-benevolent-grace-motivated-outside source. God, not man, enlightens the mind and heart, through the Holy Spirit and reveals the truth of Christ, a gift from a gracious Father.

It is important to make a distinction between the kind of knowledge that one gains from man’s sense perception or experiences (aka – empirical knowledge) and the knowledge that is conceived from faith by God’s grace. Calvin writes “faith is so far above the sense that man’s mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. Paul, therefore, beautifully describes it as the power ‘to comprehend… what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge’ (Eph. 3:18–19). He means that what our mind embraces by faith is in every way infinite, and that this kind of knowledge is far more lofty than all understanding. Nevertheless, the Lord has “made manifest to his saints” the secret of his will, which had been “hidden for ages and generations” (Col. 1:26; cf. ch. 2:2). For very good reason, then, faith is frequently called “recognition”( Eph. 1:17; 4:13; Col. 1:9; 3:10; I Tim. 2:4; Titus 1:1; Philemon 6; II Peter 2:21), but by John, “knowledge.” For he declares that believers know themselves to be God’s children (I John 3:2). And obviously they surely know this. But they are more strengthened by the persuasion of divine truth than instructed by rational proof” 7

Faith, in possession of Christ, produces a genuine sincere fear of God that convicts one to repent of sin. Without repentance and forgiveness of sins there is no gospel of Christ (Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31). To claim to have faith in Christ without sins forgiven through repentance is a useless faith, which Calvin describes as “barren and mutilated”. Repentance is a new way of life for a sinner, which is a turning away from an old life, old thinking, old habits, old ideas and beliefs that postulate God’s truth about themselves and others and turning to follow God, which consists of being strengthened and empowered by the Holy Spirit to “mortify the flesh”, or “die to self” or “put to death the deeds of the body” (1 Cor 6:11; 2 Cor 7:10; Rom 6:2-10; Col 3:5). This does not just apply to sins we commit outwardly with our actions, but it also applies to mortifying those sins we commit with our minds, which include our thoughts and all beliefs that are contrary to God’s word. So faith is God’s lavishly given grace and the fruit of that faith is repentance.

Calvin describes it this way, “Christ given to us by the kindness of God is apprehended and possessed by faith, by means of which we obtain in particular a twofold benefit; first being reconciled by the righteousness of Christ, God becomes, instead of a judge, an indulgent Father; and secondly, being sanctified by his Spirit, we aspire to integrity and purity of life8.

In addition to faith and repentance, God’s grace is evident in a person being justified by God (Rom 3:21-26, 5:16-19, 2 Cor 5:21), which is a primary characteristic of the Christian faith. Being justified by faith is when someone, without reference to the righteousness of works, grasps by faith the righteousness of Christ, and when clothed with that righteousness, appears before God’s face, not as a sinner, but as righteous 9

All of this makes up God’s system of grace. It’s a gift of grace with a purpose: to reveal explicit truth, to build God’s kingdom one regenerated heart at a time, and to create a spotless bride to present to a King. The work of saving grace is a supernatural gift, influenced by God’s very Spirit. It’s often called special grace, saving grace, salvific grace, efficacious grace or particular grace.

This saving grace is the Holy Spirit’s work in a believer’s life for the purpose of sanctifying a believer to grow in holiness in their day to day lives. Grace of the Spirit works on the mind, first in regeneration so that one can be receptive to receive the truth of God revealed in Scripture about Christ and sin, and then in sanctification, so that one can align their heart (feelings and emotions) and their behavior (morality and actions) with God’s will. Since humans use reason, which is the mind processing information (aka- thought process) to understand ourselves and the world around us, the grace of the Holy Spirit convicts a person of sin by convincing the reason of the mind of a believer with God’s truth, exposing untruths in that process, ultimately for the purpose of leading the believer to repentance. It is through repentance that a believer reveals they are dependent on God for all things, tangible and intangible. God’s grace, through the working of the Holy Spirit, influences people who will be saved to turn to and depend on God for forgiveness of their sins. That same grace of God also influences people who are already saved and justified to continue to depend on God for all things. God’s grace not only provides a faith that not only saves, but sustains faith.

The Spirit also controls a believer’s conscience and governs the overall life and mind of converted, regenerated Christians, both the inward characteristics of our person-hood, which make up the mind and thoughts, as well as outward characteristics, which are our actions driven by one’s thoughts, both godly thoughts as well as ungodly thoughts. God’s system of grace is not only used in predestined election, sanctification and eventually glorification of a people for God’s kingdom, but also directs the totality of those who have been set apart through saving grace. It’s important to point out that sanctification does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit 10

However, there is another kind of grace of God and in spite of its name, there is nothing common about “common grace”. It’s not “left over” grace or grace that can be used to erase or distort the truth that God initially reveals to regenerated believers. It is not a graduated kind of grace that believers grow out of once they are saved through saving grace. The truth that is revealed in saving grace does not take a backseat to the grace that is common to man.

Regardless of the assumption that there are more than one “type” of people, evidenced by the popular use of the term “race”, which was originally used to differentiate people by outward observable characteristics (scientific or biological race) and is now used to differentiate people through either global geographical origin or skin color, according to God’s word, there are only two types of people, saved and unsaved. Part of the problem in differentiating people based on unbiblical distinctions is the need to solve those problems with unbiblical solutions, like social race theories.

Throughout the Old and New Testament, it is clear that God had set apart certain people and tribes for a purpose. Naturally, if there are some that are set apart, there must be some that are not. In the OT, God set apart a people to preserve a line for the coming Messiah, which was foretold at creation. Scripture is clear in describing who they are in comparison to the surrounding people and tribes God’s people interacted with.

We see God’s pattern in setting apart a people continuing in the NT, which are those who by faith are saved by God’s saving grace, again, differentiating between those who are not saved.  The saved and unsaved make up various “tribes, nations and tongues”, which is the Biblical denotation of the term ethnicity. The Spirit of God influences the saved and unsaved in different ways. There is Biblical evidence of a grace from God towards the unsaved, or rather, the people not set apart, that does not lead to salvation. This kind of grace is still from God, working through the Holy Spirit, but it’s not saving grace. It is grace that is common to man, hence the term common grace.

However, before we can understand why common grace is used as an umbrella of sorts to validate social theories in church or among those who profess Christ as King, we must understand where the term common grace came from.

This is a short series on Common Grace in respect to Critical Race Theory. Part 2, Common Grace: Historical Context is HERE

  1. Calvin, John. (2014) Institutes of Christian Religion: A New Translation of the 1541 Institutes. Banner of Truth Trust (
  2. Calvin, John. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (The Library of Christian Classics) Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
  3. Calvin, John. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeil (The Library of Christian Classics) Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Calvin, John. Institutes of Christian Religion: Translated by Henry Beveridge.
  9. Calvin, John. (2014) Institutes of Christian Religion: A New Translation of the 1541 Institutes. Banner of Truth Trust
  10. Berkhof, Louis (1938) Systematic Theology

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