Common Grace - Part 2

Theme: Good Things Do Happen

This week’s lessons teach the doctrine of common grace, and how it should lead people to the praise of God and, through saving grace, to faith in Jesus Christ.

Scripture: Isaiah 26:10


When I began to work on this subject I was surprised to find that very few books of theology consider common grace. An exception is Louis Berkhof, whose work deals with it under three headings: 1) the nature of common grace; 2) the means of common grace; and 3) the effects of common grace. But most books of theology skip it, understandably, I suppose. Theologians stress the special grace of God in salvation. Nevertheless, the neglect of common grace is surprising if only because the early Christians seem to have used common grace as a natural starting point for preaching the gospel to Gentiles. Here are two examples.

Paul's sermon at Lystra. Acts 14 tells of the arrival of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra in Asia Minor on the first missionary journey. Usually Paul began his work by preaching in the Jewish synagogue, if there was one. But in this case, the missionaries were confronted by a lame man almost as soon as they had entered the city, and Paul healed him. When the crowds saw it, they assumed they had been visited by the gods and called out in their Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us inhuman form” (v. 11).

In the ancient world almost everyone spoke Greek, even if it wasn't their native tongue. Bu there in Lycaonia the people seem to have been more at home in their tribal language, for when the miracle took place and they began to babble to themselves about it, at first Paul and Barnabas did not understand what was going on. They noticed that the people were impressed. But when the people said in their own language, “The gods have come down to us in human form,” the missionaries did not understand what they were saying.

The apostles were therefore innocently proceeding on their way when they came upon a procession moving out of the city toward them. A priest was leading an animal that had been made ready for sacrifice. The apostles must have thought, “We seem to have come here on a feast day, a religious day. They are practicing their pagan rites. We will have to speak to them about that in time.” But they soon discovered to their horror that the people were coming to do sacrifice to them. Why to them? Because they believed, as the missionaries quickly discovered, that Barnabas was Zeus, the greatest of the gods, in human form. And Paul, who was the chief speaker, was presumed to be Hermes (Mercury), the gods' spokesman.

This could have happened in any ancient city, but it is particularly significant that it happened here because of something the Roman poet Ovid wrote in his celebrated masterpiece Metamorphoses (viii, 620-724). In this work Ovid collected the mythological stories that had to do with people being changed into something else, and at one place he records a story concerning this very area. According to Ovid's story, Zeus and Hermes had visited a valley near Lystra. They went from door to door, but the people refused to take them in. Finally, they came to a very poor house occupied by a man named Philemon and his wife Baucis. These elderly people received the two gods, and they stayed the night. In the morning the gods took the couple out of the city to a mountain, and when they looked back on the valley they saw that Zeus and Hermes had flooded it, drowning everyone. Then, while they were still looking on, Philemon and Baucis saw that the gods had transformed their poor hovel into a great temple with a glittering gold roof.

This story must have been known in Lystra. So, when Paul and Barnabas healed the lame man, the people inevitably thought that Zeus and Hermes had returned. And if they had, the last thing in the world they wanted to do was offend them, because they remembered what had happened the first time around.

When the missionaries discovered what was going on they were aghast. They tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, humanlike you” (v. 15). Then Paul began to preach.

This sermon should be compared with the sermon in chapter 13, spoken to a largely Jewish audience. In that chapter Paul quotes the Old Testament frequently, rehearsing God's great acts in the Old Testament period. That is not the case here. Here Paul is speaking to a Gentile or pagan audience that had no knowledge of the Scriptures. He could not have told these people about God's acts in Old Testament times, because they would not have known what he was talking about. So, he started where they did have understanding and spoke of God as the Creator of all things and as the source of common grace: “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony. He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (vv. 15-17).

This is a substantial statement of what common grace is about. It has at least these four elements.

Rain from heaven. It is hard to imagine that Paul said this without knowing and perhaps consciously remembering Jesus' words about God causing “his sun to rise on the evil and the good” and sending “rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Clearly God does not discriminate between people in the distribution of nature's blessings.

Crops in their seasons. The ancients attributed the regular rotation of the seasons to their nature gods, sometimes to nature itself. But Paul says that the seasons and the annual summer or fall harvests flow from God's grace to all persons. Even the wicked are able to sow and harvest their crops in the right seasons and profit by them.

Joy. This may refer to the joy of harvest time specifically, but it probably has a broader meaning. We remember James saying that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). This means that every joy, every pleasure, every happiness in life is from God, whether we know this or not or whether we acknowledge it or not. These first three things— rain from heaven, the crops in their seasons, and joy—testify both to God's existence and to the essential goodness of his nature.

Tomorrow we will look at the last expression of common grace from Acts 14.


Study Questions:

  1. What reason does Dr. Boice give for why a neglect of the doctrine of common grace by theologians is surprising?
  2. How is common grace spoken of in Acts fourteen?

Application: Make a list of how common grace has touched you and your family. Praise God for how he has demonstrated his grace toward you in these ways.

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