Common Grace, Part 1

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

One of the big questions we have to wrestle with as we seek to build a Christian philosophy of education is how much good, if any, is there in non-believers? This comes up for two reasons–

1) I want an approach to education that works not just for believing children and the children of believers but for all children. If we are going to educate such children, we need to know if they are even capable of recognizing and accepting what is good and true.

2) A lot of what passes for human knowledge comes to us through non-Christians. Can we accept such knowledge and if so, how? How are we to view things that seem good and true but come to us through fallen, unredeemed minds?

The underlying question behind both of these is: How do we reconcile that good that unredeemed men seem to do with the doctrine of total depravity? The answers which are usually given involve the phrase “common grace.”

I came to faith some 25 years ago and to a more reformed understanding maybe 5 to 7 years after that. Along the way I acquired some notion of “common grace” though I honestly can’t ever remember having specific teaching on the topic.  If you’d asked me anytime in the last 20 or so years, the first thing that would have come to mind is “rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous” (my half-remembered recollection of Matthew 5:45). Reformed theology always seemed to say: “Man is fallen and, apart from the saving faith which comes through grace, is incapable of choosing or doing good but common grace means that it is not really quite so.”  This is not a very satisfying explanation but somehow in those 20 or so years I never had cause to push farther and sort it all out. This is me pushing farther.

Among the various books I have been reading on education, Cornelius Van Til’s Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974) has risen to the top as one I keep coming back to. One of the many things I realized reading Van Til’s work is that there is probably a lot more to common grace than I realized:

“Common grace does not overlook ultimate differences  . . .  On the contrary, common grace helps to point out that things which look alike are not ultimately alike.” (Van Til, p. 191)

For Van Til, the goal of education is no less than the fulfilment of God’s original design for Creation (see this post on the goal of education). All things, he seems to say, work towards the end that their Creator originally intended. Education works within that plan. Common grace also works within that plan.

“If God’s gifts of common grace such as ‘rain and sunshine,’ are thus seen as being part of God’s general call to repentance, then believers must also include that in their ‘testimony’ to unbelievers . . . God intends to accomplish his ultimate end, the establishment of his kingdom. That is the reason why you are now able to contribute positively to the coming of that kingdom. The harps you make, the oratorios you produce, the great poems you have written, the scientific discoveries you have made will, with your will or against your will, all find their place in the unified structure of the kingdom of God through Christ.” (Van Til, p.91)

There are two aspects here to common grace: It is part of the general call that goes out to all humanity (Matt. 22:14; Rom. 1:20) and it is the outworking of God’s design for all creation. He uses the unsaved in this plan as He used Joseph’s brothers (Gen. 50:20), Pharaoh (Exod. 7:3), and Cyrus king of Persians (2 Chr. 36:22-23).

Philip Ryken makes a similar argument:

” . . .God accomplishes his gracious purpose in the world even through non-Christians. Their work, their science, and their artistry being some glory to God, even if that is not their explicit intention.” Philip Graham Ryken, What is the Christian Worldview? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006) p. 36

If this understanding of common grace is correct (and I will revisit it in part 2; these are somewhat provisional answers for now), how would this affect our answers to the two questions above? With regard to the latter — how we are to understand the truth and beauty which seem to come to us through non-Christians — the answer seems to be that they, like Cyrus, are capable of doing “good” insofar as God uses them within the larger framework of His plan. Like Joseph’s brothers, their intentions may not be good, and we know that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebr. 11:6), but to the extent that their works are part of the divine plan they are good because they work to that end. Van Til acknowledges that in both the arts and sciences non-Christians can make real contributions.

The first question was: How can we educate the unredeemed? Is education effective without saving faith? The (again, provisional) answer seems to be that education, as it contributes to God’s overarching plan, is part of that call which goes out to the whole world. By itself, it cannot save, but, like the sower casting his seeds (Matt. 13:1-9), we are to spread it abroad and it is up to God where it shall take root.

I like both these answers. They feel true. But there are some ifs involved — if I am understanding Van Til correctly and if he is giving a reliable picture of mainstream reformed thought. So my next step in this — and what we will cover in part 2 — is to look at some other writers and to see if their take on common grace, and their answers to these questions, follow the same lines.

Until then,


12 responses to this post.

  1. […] In part 1 of this post, we began to look at the idea of “common grace” as it relates to education. The questions before us are: […]


  2. […] recent weeks, we have been discussing common grace as affects our understanding of education (see this post and this one). Specifically, I have spent some time trying to answer the question: How shall we […]


  3. […] recent weeks we have been discussing common grace and education (see this post and this one). One of the big questions we have been wrestling with is whether there is anything […]


  4. […] fate.  In theological language, this is the External Call which goes forth to all humanity (see this post). […]


  5. […] final note before we leave the methodology aside — one of my informing ideas is that truth, God’s truth, can come to use through non-Christian sources.  When we are looking at the science especially but even the more philosophocal arguments, we must not […]


  6. […] Another implication of covenant theology which is often assumed but rarely directly addressed is how it affects the ability of the child to be educated and how then should be educated in Christian schools. The question is actually more about those outside the covenant than those in it. Simply put, we have to ask: Are those outisde the covenant educable? And should we then include them in our (Christian) schools or not? A surprising number of reformed thinkers seem to assume that all the children on their schools will be covenant children (Gaebelein is an exception. He argues for the inclusion of children from all backgrounds). My own desire is for a philosophy of education which applies to both covenant and non-covenant children. I have discussed this issue previously here. […]


  7. […] knowledge” (p. 219). The tension here is one I tried to address in some earlier posts (see here and here). On the one hand, there is very real knowledge that comes to us through non-believers. A […]


  8. […] The second and bigger assumption is that there is nothing to be gained by studying non-Christian works. This is a big idea that has been in the Church a long time. (Tertullian in the second century AD famously asked what Jerusalem has to do with Athens.) There are some foundational questions here about how Christianity relates to culture. The Reformed approach has been for Christians not to withdraw from culture but to seek to engage and transform it (see this post, especially the second half). With this, there is some acknowledgment that truth and beauty can come to us through non-Christian sources. Because all truth is ultimately God’s truth and because of a thing we call common grace, we can expect to find truth among non-Christian writers (and artists and musicians), though at times they may not realize it themselves (see this post). […]


  9. […] law. I don’t want to rehash everything that has been said before but I would refer you tothis post on common grace andthis one on Fesko’s recent book Reforming […]


  10. […] good, so He uses the scholarship of non-Christians to advance human knowledge as a whole (see this earlier post for a fuller argument of this point). While I agree with the advocates of the worldview-based […]


  11. […] we educate non-believers. If they are chosen by God, then they will ultimately respond in faith. But if they are not, the ultimate purpose is to further condemn them. Their knowledge is a curse and not a blessing to them, but God is still glorified. Because all […]


  12. […] many true things and their scholarship and creative arts may be useful to and appreciated by us. (Common Grace, Part 1; Christianity, Science and […]


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