Is grace really that common?

Have you heard of the common grace controversy? Unless you’ve delved into the debates among 20th Century Calvinists, many of them Dutch, probably not.

It turns out that “common grace” is an important assumption made by some prominent evangelicals today. It figures in the city evangelism of Tim Keller. Quoting Meredith Kline, Keller writes: 

“The city is not to be regarded as an evil invention… of fallen man…The common grace city has remedial benefits even in a fallen world… [and] as an administrative community of welfare for the relief of those destitute by reason of the cursing of the ground.”((Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 150.))

So, there you have it. God provides common grace through human cultural artifacts (like the city) to offset the common curse of Genesis 3.

Not so fast, said at least one writer. Herman Hoeksema, almost alone, opposed the doctrine of common grace when it was first advanced in the 1920s. He even helped to establish the Protestant Reformed Church because of it.

What could be so bad about common grace? Didn’t God love sinners enough to send His Son to die for them? Yes. But there is nothing common about that, Hoeksema argues. Each regenerated soul is by a special grace from God. The love of God the Father is unique and merited only by His Son Jesus Christ. God’s love for each of us is imputed, vicarious, and through the Son. That alone is worthy to be called grace.

Do you begin to see the problem for Hoeksema?

If relief from God’s curse is common and ordinary, something to be mediated by the administrative city-state, then what need do we have for the mediation of Christ? And if the institutions of human culture can mediate grace, what is to keep them from mediating more and more grace? Grace becomes a kind of social technology, like social media.

To be fair, common grace does not teach that such “city” grace is saving grace; it just says that the city is a means of God’s (non-saving) grace, of His (non-saving) love. To me, this creates a class of sinners whom God loves, but not enough to save, and that truly does make God the monster anti-Calvinists say Calvinists have made Him out to be.

It seems to me that common grace has led to common confusion among evangelicals, without many even realizing it. For instance, why the focus on cities? Why the fascination with media (modern-day image making)? Why the need to be relevant? These are certainly channels through which the gospel message flows, but must we also say that they are standalone means of grace?

If we do, then we have once again succumbed to Roman sacramentalism, to a grace that builds on nature and perfects our striving. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning opined.

But we who are saved are not grasping anymore. In fact, we could never grasp (and weren’t ever really grasping) at all. We were dead (Eph. 2:1). It was Jesus who grabbed hold of us and breathed His Spirit of life into us. It was no ministry of the city, no grace of the state. It had nothing to do with our fallen culture, the by-product of a dead race in Adam. It was by the sovereign will of God. That you or I should be included in God’s love for His Son is a sacred mystery. It cleanses us and what God has cleansed we cannot call common (Acts 10:15).

Therein lies the power of the gospel. Its power is the appeal — the attractiveness — of this mystery.


  • Jake Dell

    The Rev. Jake Dell is the Priest-in-Charge of St. Peter’s Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. He is a member of the board of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion-USA.