Common and Special Grace



The distinction between common and special grace is closely connected with the Calvinistic doctrine of election and pretention. If it is denied or explained away, it is impossible to hold the Calvinistic view on these latter points. This will appear by considering the distinction as taught in Scripture, and formulated in the Westminster Standards.

Common grace is a lower degree of grace than special. The latter succeeds in overcoming the enmity of the carnal mind and the opposition of the sinful will; the former does not succeed. Says John Howe, "When divine grace is working but at the common rate; then it suffers itself oftentimes to be overcome, and yields the victory to the contending sinner." This was the case with the people of Israel as described by Stephen, "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost, as your fathers did, so do ye." Acts 7: 51. The same complaint was made against resisting Israel by Isaiah, " They rebelled and vexed his Holy Spirit; therefore he was turned to be their enemy." Isa. 63: 10. The same failure of common grace to subdue the sinner is noted in Gen. 6 : 10, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." Whenever man quenches conviction of sin and plunges into temptation in order to get rid of serious and anxious thoughts, and the Holy Spirit leaves him to his own self-will, this is common grace. The process is described in the solemn words of God himself, " Because I have called and ye have refused; I have stretched out my hand and no man regarded, but ye have set at nought all my counsel and would none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity, I will mock when your fear cometh." Prov. 1: 24-26. In common grace, the sinner is too obstinate and self-determined in sin for it to succeed.

In special grace, on the other hand, the Holy Spirit does not leave the sinner to his own self-determination, but continues to operate upon his resisting will until he subdues it. He " makes him willing in the day of his power." Ps. 110 : 3. He " works in him to will and to do of his good pleasure." Phil. 2 : 13. He " makes him perfect in every good work to do his will, working in him that which is well pleasing in his sight." Ileb. 13 : 21. This grade of divine grace is higher than common grace. It is denominated " irresistible," not in the sense that no resistance is made by the sinner, but in the sense that it conquers all his resistance. It is also denominated " effectual," because it secures salvation. It is also called " regenerating," because it changes the disposition of the sinful heart and will by "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost." Tit. 3:5.

These two forms and grades of grace, so plainly described in the Scripture texts above cited, are mentioned in the Westminister Confession, vii. 3, "Man by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that [legal] covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace, wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained to life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe." According to this statement there are two things contained in the covenant of grace: (a) An offer to sinners of life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and (b) & promise to give unto all those that are ordained to life the Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. The "offer" in the covenant of grace is made to all sinners without exception, but the "promise" in the covenant is made only to "those that are ordained to life," or the elect. The " offer" is common grace; the "promise " is special grace. The "offer" is taught in such Scriptures as, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth shall be saved." Mark 16 : 15. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." John 3: 16. The "promise " is taught in such Scriptures as, " A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will 1 put within yon, and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh." Ezek. 36: 26, 27. "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me [because given by the Father] I will in no wise cast out. No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me, draw him." John 6: 37, U.

The following then, are some of the marks of distinction between common and special grace: (a) In common grace God demands faith in Christ, but does not give it; in special grace God both demands and gives faith, for " faith is the gift of God." Eph. 2: 8. When God says to a sinner: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved," he makes no promise or pledge to originate faith in him. The sinner, in this case, must originate his own faith, and any sinner that originates it will find that God will be true to his word, (b) In common grace man must of himself fulfil the condition of salvation, namely, believe and repent; in special grace God persuades and enables him to fulfil it. (c) In common grace the call to believe and repent is invariably ineffectual, because man is averse to faith and repentance and in bondage to sin; in special grace the call is invariably effectual, because his aversion and bondage are changed into willingness and true freedom by the operation of the Holy Spirit, (d) Common grace is universal and indiscriminate, having no relation to election and pretention. No man is elected to it, and no man is " passed by" in its bestowment. AH men who come to years of self-consciousness are more or less convicted of sin (Rom. 1: 32 ; 2 : 14, 15), are more or less commanded to repent (Acts 17: 30), are more or less urged to repentance (Rom. 2 : 4), and are more or less striven with by the Holy Spirit (Gen. 6:10; Acts 17: 26, 27)—all of which belong to the common operations of divine grace. Special grace, on the contrary, is particular and discriminating, and is connected with election and pretention. God does not originate faith and repentance in all men, nor does he promise to do so. He does not persuade and enable every man without exception to believe and repent. Only those whom he chooses before the foundation of the world are the subjects of that higher degree of the energy of the Holy Ghost by which these wonderful effects are wrought in the sinner. Respecting special grace, God "saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." And St. Paul from this draws the inference, " Therefore he hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth" [leaves in sin]. Rom. 9 : 15, 18. In accordance with these and similar Scriptures, the Confession (vii. 3) declares that it is only to " those that are ordained to life" that God "promises to give his Holy Spirit to make them willing and able to believe."

What now is the difference between the Calvinistic and the Arminian view of common grace? This is a question of great importance just now, because the Northern Presbyterian Church has decided by a large majority that it will make no alteration of its Standards that will impair their Calvinism. Calvinism asserts that common grace cannot be made successful by the co-operation of the unregenerate sinner with the Holy Spirit, and thereby be converted into special or saving grace: Arminianism asserts that it can be. The Arminian contends that the ordinary operations of the Divine Spirit which are experienced by all men indiscriminately will succeed, if the unrenewed man will cease to resist them and will yield to them. Ceasing to resist and yielding, he contends, is an agency which the natural man can and must exert of himself, and this agency co-working with that of the Holy Spirit secures the result—namely, faith and repentance. Faith and repentance are thus the product of a joint agency: that of God and that of the nnregenerate sinner. Neither party originates faith and repentance alone. Neither party is independent of the other in this transaction. If the sinner does not cease resisting and submit, God will fail, and if God does not assist him by common grace, the sinner will fail. Each conditions the other; and consequently the Arminian, from his point of view, is consistent in asserting that the Divine election to faith and repentance is not sovereign and independent of the sinner's action but is conditioned by it.

The Calvinist, on the contrary, holds that the unregenerate man never ceases to resist and never yields to God of his own motion, but only as he is acted upon by the Holy Spirit and is thereby "persuaded and enabled" to cease resisting and to yield obedience. Ceasing to resist God, he contends, is holy action, and so is yielding or submitting to God. To refer this kind of action to the sinful and unregenerate will as its author, the Calvinist asserts is contrary to the Scripture declaration, that "the carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." Rom. 8:7. A will at enmity with God never of itself ceases resisting him, and never of itself yields to him. It must be changed from enmity into love by "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost" in order to sweet and gentle submission. The sinner, as such, cannot, therefore, assist and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in this work of originating faith and repentance, but the whole of it must be done by that Almighty Agent who can turn the human heart as the rivers of water. Christ, through the Spirit, is the sole "author of faith" (Heb. 12: 2). When the Holy Spirit puts forth a higher degree of his energy than he exerts in his ordinary operation, he overcomes and stops the sinner's resistance instead of the sinner's overcoming and stopping it of himself, and inclines the sinner to yield to the Divine monitions and impulse instead of the sinner's yielding of his own accord. If the sinner's resistance is " overcome," it is overcome by God's action; but if it "ceases," it ceases by the sinner's action. To say that common grace would succeed if it were not resisted . by man, is not the same as saying that common grace would succeed if it were yielded to by the man. Non-resistance is different from ceasing resistance. In the former instance there is no opposition by the man; in the latter there is opposition, which is put a stop to by the man.

The doctrine of a co-operating and conditioning action of the unrenewed sinner, by which common grace may become special or saving grace, so that all mankind stand in the same relation to election, and there is no pretention by God, because the difference between the elect and the non-elect is not made by the Divine decree, but by man's action in yielding or not yielding to common grace, is clearly expressed in the following extract from the Confession of the Arminian Remonstrants; "Although there is the greatest diversity in the degrees in which grace is bestowed in accordance with the Divine will, yet the Holy Spirit confers, or at least is ready to confer, upon all and each to whom the Word is ordinarily preached, as much grace as is sufficient for generating faith and carrying forward their conversion in its successive stages. This sufficient grace for faith and conversion is allotted not only to those who actually believe and are converted, but also to those who do not actually believe, and are not in fact converted. So that there is no decree of absolute reprobation" (Confession, ch. xvii.). This view of grace is synergistic. Every man that hears the gospel receives a degree of grace that is sufficient for generating faith and repentance, provided he yields to it. If, therefore, he does not believe and repent, it must be because of the absence of some human efficiency to cooperate with the Divine; and therefore the difference between the saved and the lost, the elect and the non-elect, is partly referable to the human will, and not wholly to the Divine decree. So far as the Divine influence is concerned, the saved and the lost stand upon the same common position and receive the same common form and degree of grace, which is sufficient to save provided it be rightly used and assisted b}7 the sinner. The saved man makes the common grace effectual by an act of his own will, namely, yielding and ceasing resistance; while the lost man nullifies it by an act of his own will, namely, persisting in enmity and opposition. According to the monergistic or Calvinistic view of grace, on the contrary, no man receives a grace that is " sufficient for generating faith" who does not receive such a measure of Divine influence as overcomes his hostile will; so that he does not stop his own resistance but is stopped by the mercy and power of God; so that his faith and repentance are not the result in part of his own efficiency, but solely of the Holy Spirit's irresistible and sovereign energy in regeneration. In a word, the dependence upon Divine grace in the Calvinistic system is total; in the Arminian is partial. In the former, common grace cannot be made saving grace by the sinner's co-action; in the latter it can be.

It is an open question between the two great evangelical divisions of the Christian Church which of these two views of grace is most correct and most conformed to Scripture. But it is not an open question whether one view is the same thing as the other. Yet the discussion respecting the revision of the Westminster Standards shows that some who claim to be Calvinists adopt the doctrine of co-operation, and make election and salvation depend parti}' upon human action. Consider the following statement of an advocate of revision: "There is a human and a divine side to regeneration. God determines how many and who will be saved, and every man determines for himself whether he will be among that number." Here are two "determiners" who co operate in regeneration, God and the sinner. And if the sinner "determines for himself whether he will be among the number of the saved," then certainly it is not God who "determines how many and who will be saved." It is the sinner who determines this. This is not Calvinism.

Common grace is connected with God's legislative will, or will of desire; special grace with his decretive will, or will of purpose. (See p. 52, note.) These two modes of the Divine will are presented by St. Paul and St. Peter in two passages that are often misapprehended. The texts, "God our Saviour will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2: 3, 4), and "The Lord is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3 : 9), are often quoted as if they were identical in their teaching, and as if both refer to common grace. An examination will show that the first text is universal in its meaning, and refers to the general offer of the gospel; but the last is particular, and relates to the effectual call and actual salvation of the elect alone.

In 1 Tim. 2 : 4, the Greek is o? iravrat avSpdnrow; SeXei acodrjvai (who desires all men to be saved). In 2 Pet. 3 : 9, it is fif/ fiouXofievo'; riva<; airoXeaSat, aXXa iravrai eh fieT&voiav ywpvprai (not purposing that some should perish, but that all should go on to [perfect] repentance). The employment of #e\a) in the first passage, and of fiovkofiai in the second, indicates the first point of difference. The former denotes the will of desire, the latter the will of purpose. An examination of the texts in Bruder's Concordance will plainly show that in the New Testament this is generally the use of these two words. The Septuagint use is not so strict as that of the New Testament, and the classical is still more loose. The distinction generally given by lexicographers is, that [3ovXofiat involves deliberation and intention along with desire (" deliberate consilio aliquid volo, cupio, decerno"), while SeXco denotes simple desire only (" simpliciter volo"). In 1 Tim. 2 : 4, St. Paul declares that God "desires all men to be saved," but not that he purposes that they all shall be. In 2 Pet. 3: 9, St. Peter declares that God " does not purpose that some [of us] should perish, but that all [of us] should go on to repentance" (complete sanctification).

And this brings us to the second point of difference. The action of &e\ec in 1 Tim. 2: 4 terminates on iravTa<; av&pdairow;; that of j3ov\6i*evo<; in 2 Pet. 3: 9 terminates on Tivw} (avSpdyirovs). All men are the object of the Divine desire; some are the object of the Divine decree. Who these latter are is shown by the immediately preceding context, "The Lord is long-suffering to us-ward (et? f)(ia<;), not purposing that any [of us: rjfiwv] should perish." St. Paul is writing to the children of God, and it is concerning such that he affirms that none of them shall perish, because this is the decretive will of God.

It is to be regretted that the terms desire or inclination, and purpose, intention, or decree, have not been more carefully employed in both the Authorized and Revised versions to mark the difference between Qekrjfia and ^ovXrjfia. In liom. 9: 22, the meaning of St. Paul would be more clearly expressed if the translation were, "What if God, [though] inclined (Se\cov) to shew his wrath and make his power known, [yet] endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction." The apostle asks the objector what he would say in reply if the fact were (as it actually is), that God shows infinite patience and forbearance toward the obstinate and impenitent sinner in putting a restraint upon his holy displeasure against sin, which inclines him to the immediate punishment of it. In Rom. 9:19, the meaning would be free from all ambiguity if the rendering were, "Who hath resisted his decree {fiovXruiaTi)?'' Every human being has resisted God's " will" in the sense of desire, as used in Matt. 5: 10, "Thy will (Si\vfia) be done." In Heb. 6 : 17, the writer's thought would be more exactly presented if the rendering were, "Wherein God, intending (/3ov\o/Aevo<f) more abundantly to show nnto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel," etc. The rendering in the Authorized version, " willing to show," might mean willing in distinction from unwilling, or willing in the sense of desiring, neither of which expresses the definite purpose of God in the case. The Revised version renders, "being minded to show." But "minded " denotes desire and inclination rather than purpose or intention; as in Rom. 8:6," To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." In Matt. 1 : 19, both SeXco and /3ov\o/j,ai are found, and wonld be precisely translated in this manner: "Then Joseph her husband being a just [law-respecting] man, and [yet] not wishing (SeXcov) to make her a public example, intended (iftovXrjSr]) to put her away privily."