Common Grace Versus Special Grace

Most mornings I drive my girls to school. The 20-minute drive to school is our time to talk and to pray together. Yesterday morning, after I dropped them off, thinking about how blessed I am to be their dad, I saw another father with his daughter on their way to school. As I watched them talk and laugh while reflecting on my relationship with my daughters, I could not help but become emotional, grateful, and in awe of God’s grace to give his creation such wonderful gifts.

God has filled this world with wonderful gifts of grace. God grants these gifts to all people in all places. Beautiful scenery. The companionship of a pet. The thrill of falling in love. Ecosystems that sustain and cause life to thrive. Mathematical, biological, and scientific realities by which, we (through the intellectual faculties he has given us) are able to meet many needs. God gives to all people the gifts of family friends, and food.  

Genesis 1 tells us that God declared that his creation was “good” or “habitable.” This begs the question: good or habitable for whom? The sixth day answers that question. God has made a good and habitable creation for mankind. This is grace from God to create and to actively sustain what he has created. Read Job 38-39 to see God’s sustaining grace over all of creation and read what Jesus says about God’s provision for ravens or lilies in Matthew 6.

Theologians call this grace, “common grace.” Common grace is grace that God gives to all of creation. “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:9). For example, it is by God’s grace that Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and Muslims all over the world have air to breathe and lungs to breathe it. This grace is common to all. In his grace he creates and sustains our ability to breathe. God’s common grace meets many of our needs, is a source of great joy, and gives us numerous reasons to worship him; just as I rejoiced and worshipped God for the gift of my family.

There is another kind of grace that we see in the Bible. In fact, this grace is the kind of grace that is most emphasized in the Bible. Theologians call this grace, “special grace.” Special grace is grace that creates and sustains an eternal relationship with the living God. Special grace is grace that enables us to know and to follow Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Special grace is the grace that causes a person to be born-again. Special grace is the grace that causes a person to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Special grace is the grace that enables a believer to repent of sin and to love and live for God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Special grace is the grace that causes the gospel to go forth in power to all nations, to overcome powers and principalities in the heavenly places, and to endure trials of various kinds.  

Muslims cannot experience the special grace of God as Muslims. Atheists cannot experience the special grace of God as Atheists. Buddhists cannot experience the special grace of God as Buddhists. Nor can nominal or cultural Christians experience the special grace of God. Only repentant believers in Jesus who are supernaturally born again by the Spirit of God can experience his special grace.

This does not mean that common grace is not grounds for joy or praise. It most certainly is. However, God did not create us merely to receive common grace – but to receive the special grace of knowing Jesus by faith. Whereas common grace gives temporal gifts, special grace gives eternally enduring gifts.

As I praised God and thanked him for his common grace yesterday morning, I thought to myself, “If the common grace of being a father brings me so much joy and fulfillment – how much more joy and fulfillment is there to be found in God’s special grace?” Or to put it another way: If the normal and common gifts of this life can give me so much joy and satisfaction, then how much more should the supernatural and eternal gift of knowing and worshipping Jesus bring me joy and satisfaction? I prayed, “O Lord, give me eyes to see!”

In John 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. Jesus tells the woman in verse 10, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Do you see what Jesus is saying to her? He is contrasting common grace with special grace. Physical water (common grace) is not her greatest need, nor should it be her ultimate desire. Jesus, God the Son, can give her living water (special grace). “Everyone who drinks of this water (physical water) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

In John 6, after Jesus supernaturally feeds 5,000 people, he says to them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” (John 6:27).

If we only drink common grace water we will be thirsty again and common grace bread will perish, but the special grace that Jesus, the Son of Man, will give to us will become a spring welling up and enduring to eternal life.

If common grace gifts like food, family, and friends gives us joy and satisfaction, even though they will not endure to eternal life, then how much more will the special grace gift of knowing and following Jesus give us reason to rejoice? How much more will he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead also give life to our mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in us? (Romans 8:11) Therefore, seek Jesus today, friends. Take hold of what special grace has secured for you. Fellowship with the Spirit of God by faith in Jesus Christ. Obey him with gladness. Commune with him in prayer. Hear from him in his Word. Love, serve, and evangelize in his name. Taste and see that the Lord is good!