If you’re a Christian, you probably think of the gospel when you hear the word grace. You think of Christ, the crucifixion, and the forgiveness of sins. You think of receiving the gift of eternal life even though you deserve eternal death.
That’s what theologians sometimes call special grace. It’s the grace received only by those who have faith in Christ. It’s the heart of Christianity.
So what’s common grace? Maybe you’ve heard the term. It refers to grace—God’s favor toward those who deserve his disfavor. But it’s common. It’s God’s grace toward everyone. It doesn’t offer forgiveness of sins or eternal life. If you’ve ever wondered, though, why the sun rises every day and why stable societies exist in a world broken by sin, common grace is the answer.
Grace in the Garden
Sometimes people talk about God being gracious to Adam and Eve from the very beginning. God, of course, is always good and loving. Human existence is a gift. God didn’t need to create us—he’s free.
But grace isn’t just a synonym for God’s goodness, kindness, and love. Grace refers to something more specific: God’s favor toward those who deserve condemnation. God shows his grace when he blesses those who deserve to be cursed, when he gives life to those who deserve death. So, there couldn’t have been grace before Adam and Eve sinned because there was nothing to forgive. No punishment was deserved.
Yet there’s grace in the garden. After Adam and Eve sin, God doesn’t execute them. He curses the serpent, the ground, and the woman’s future child-bearing (Gen. 3:14–19). He says growing food and giving birth will become painful and hard. But there will be food and children will be born. God sustains the human race, even though “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Instead of cursing Adam and Eve, God says a seed of the woman will be born who will destroy the serpent—the enemy of God and human beings (Gen. 3:15). This shows the relationship between common grace and special, redemptive grace. God sustains the world so that “at that right time” (Rom. 5:6), he can send his Son—the promised “seed of the woman”—to save his chosen people.
The Common Grace Covenant
Outside Eden, Adam and Eve have children (Gen. 4:1–2). When one of their children, Cain, kills his brother, Abel, God curses Cain but allows him to live (Gen. 4:11). In fact, he protects him from those who will want to kill him (Gen. 4:15). Cain and his offspring then begin to build cities and human culture (Gen. 4:17–22). Abel, who had pleased God, is dead, but his killer lives and even prospers.
The story never shows Cain repenting. No atonement is made for his sin. God allows Cain to live because of his common grace. God has his own plans—his justice is delayed but not forgotten.
Judgment comes two chapters later. By this time, the human population has exploded, but “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). So God eradicates the human race (Gen. 7:21–23).
“Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark” (Gen. 7:23). Noah alone had found “favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). He received grace. And this special grace leads to God’s covenant of common grace (Gen. 8:20–9:17). After the flood, God promises—unconditionally—that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11). He makes this covenant with “every living creature” and “all future generations” (Gen. 9:12).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that God the Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Why does God do this? Because he promised he would: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). God promised to uphold the natural order that sustains human life.
God’s covenant with Noah is the covenant of common grace.
What Does Common Grace Include?
So, in his covenant with Noah and the rest of his creatures, God promises not to destroy the earth with another flood. He promises regular natural cycles. Is that it?
No. God’s goal is the preservation of a world wracked by sin. In particular, he wants to preserve the human race so that it can continue to grow. This is mainly so that the Promised Seed can come into the world to save people from among all the nations that have filled the earth. And preserving humanity requires more than regular seasons.
Primarily, this preservation requires the restraint of human sin. For this reason, the covenant with Noah gives humanity a way to administer justice: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.”
This authorizes humans to use violence in order to check murder and lawlessness. It also provides a basic standard of proportionate justice. The punishment should fit the crime: nothing more and nothing less. This lays the foundation for human government, which is one of the fundamental ways God’s restrains human evil and preserves human life (Rom. 13:1-7).
God also promises to provide people with food (Gen. 9:3-4) and repeats the command he gave to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen.1:28; 9:7).
All of this is for the human race as a whole, not for any special group. God’s assessment of the human race hasn’t changed. He still says, “For the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). All humans, even Noah’s offspring, are wicked, and all of them receive his common grace.
But there’s no redemption, no atonement, no offer of forgiveness of sins. This covenant doesn’t bring eternal life. It’s temporary, delaying the final execution of justice. It lasts only “while the earth remains” (Gen. 8:22).
Do Christians Benefit from Common Grace?
God establishes his covenant of special grace—his redemptive covenant—with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-9; 13:14-18; 15; 17). He again makes unconditional promises, but this time to Abraham and his offspring, not all human beings (Gen. 12:1-3). And he makes this covenant by passing through the halves of a sacrificial animal, showing that this covenant involves atonement, the forgiveness of sins (Gen. 15:17). He promised Abraham a son, Isaac, but this “seed” is a type—a sign—of the Seed that would come far in the future. Abraham’s line would lead to Jesus, the seed of the woman God referred to in the garden (Gen. 3:15).
Does this mean that God calls his special people to live apart from the common world and its promises? Yes and no. God calls his people to live holy lives. They should not love what the world loves. They’re mainly concerned with eternal life, not the preservation of this life. As the book of Hebrews says about Abraham, “He was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). God’s people live mainly for the new creation God has promised.
For now, though, we live in this world. We live in societies sustained by common grace. It’s impossible for us to live separate from a particular nation, and any attempt to do so is artificial. The apostle Paul says that to avoid doing things in common with sinful human society, we “would need to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:10).
We see this in the life of Abraham. He avoids the wickedness of Sodom (Gen. 13), but he makes contracts with unbelievers (Gen.14:13; 21:22-32), buys property from them (Gen. 23:14-18), and is even rebuked by pagan monarchs for his cowardice and lies (Gen. 12:18-19; 20:9). Abraham lives amidst “common” society and benefits from the common grace God gives these societies.
When society is prosperous, Christians often benefit. They receive food, justice, and family comforts along with their non-Christian neighbors. This common realm isn’t abandoned by God. And it’s not morally neutral. All humans continue to know God’s natural law and, by common grace, obey it to varying degrees. We see evil all around us in the world, but we also see good. People who aren’t Christians often act with kindness, courage, and integrity. Likewise, the sometimes extraordinary achievements of human culture—whether in technology, the arts, or politics—benefit Christians and bring glory to God, regardless of the motives of those who create these things.
God’s people live in cities built by the heirs of Cain.
Common Grace and the Gospel
The wisdom literature of the Bible focuses on the realm of common grace. It’s given to us in God’s sacred word because we need wisdom to live godly lives in the common realm, while we wait for Christ’s return.
But when he returns, the age of common grace will end. The apostle Peter writes about those who ask, mockingly, why Christ still hasn’t come:
For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
—2 Pet. 3:5-7
Peter connects the world before the flood to the present world, which awaits the final judgment. As God delayed justice for Abel, so he now sustains a world “stored up for fire.” Justice for “all the oppressions that done under the sun” (Eccles. 4:1) will come.
But this age of common grace is also the age of special grace. God delays his return so that the gospel can spread and bring forgiveness to all who believe it. Peter continues, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
The Promised Seed lived a perfect life, fulfilling the law in our place, and was crucified to pay for our sins. By faith, we look to his coming and the new creation, our eternal home “whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). On that day, there will be no more common grace because there will be no more sin.