Christian TraditionsCultureReformed

What is Common Grace?

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was a remarkable individual. Playing the roles of pastor, theologian, journalist, and prime minister of the Netherlands, Kuyper is no doubt one of the most prolific Christians in church history. Although Kuyper’s direct lineage today represents only a small portion of Christendom (in America the denominations of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America), and though his thought remains influential primarily within Calvinist evangelicalism, I believe his thought ought to have wider import in the church catholic. In particular, his theological development of the doctrine of “common grace” contains cogent arguments for why Christians ought to faithfully engage with the broader culture.

In a political season such as ours, it is fruitful to reflect on whether or not the Christian faith has relevance to the public sphere–to business, the arts, politics, etc. Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace winsomely argues that it is so. In the entirety of his thought, one repeatedly hears resonances of his most famous quote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”1

What follows is a concocted catechism of Kuyper’s thought on common grace, containing quotes from the book Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader edited by James D. Bratt (all emphases are original). For the comments section, I have a number of questions I’d like to reflect on. First, does Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace have catholic import? That is, can Christians other than Calvinists get on board with Kuyper’s arguments? Second, given that Kuyper was living in a far less pluralistic society than today (i.e. the Church had more influence on culture back then), does Kuyper’s argument that the church ought to “work indirectly for the whole of human society” ring true today? Third, if we find Kuyper’s arguments persuasive (as I believe we should) how ought the church “ignite ever more light” in the broader culture today?

Q: Is Christ only concerned with getting my soul saved? Is Christianity primarily concerned with getting me to heaven when I die?

A: No. “People fall into one-sidedness…if, reflecting on the Christ, they think exclusively of the blood shed in atonement and refuse to take account of the significance of Christ for the body, for the visible world, and for the outcome of world history. Consider carefully: by taking this tack you run the danger of isolating Christ for your soul and you view life in and for the world as something that exists alongside your Christian religion, not controlled by it. Then the word “Christian” seems appropriate to you only when it concerns certain matters of faith or things directly connected with the faith–your church, your school, missions and the like–but all the remaining spheres of life fall for you outside the Christ.”2

Q: Does God care only about humans as individuals, or is he concerned with the entire human race?

A: The latter. “The image of God is certainly much too rich a concept to be realized in one single person. In looking at parents and children we can sometimes see the facial features and character traits of the parents to be spread out over the several children in varying proportions but always in such a way that none displays them in their fullness. How much more do we not have to confess that the image of Eternal Being, if we may so put it, is much too full and rich to be reproduced in one individual. Do we not come closer to the truth by saying that the bearer of the full multifaceted image of God is not the individual person but our entire human race?”3

Q: What are the two types of grace God gives to the world?

A: “We must distinguish two dimensions of grace: 1. a saving grace, which in the end abolishes sin and completely undoes its consequences; and 2. a temporal restraining grace, which holds back and blocks the effect of sin. The former, that is saving grace, is in the nature of the case special and restricted to God’s elect. The second, common grace, is extended to the whole of our human life.”4

“Does not the apostle write to the church of Colosse that the self-same Christ is simultaneously two things: the root of the life of creation as well as the root of the life of the new creation? First we read that Christ is the “first-born of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,” so that he is “before all things and in him all things hold together”[Col. 1:15-17]. It could hardly be stated more plainly and clearly that Christ is the root of creation and therefore of common grace….But we immediately note in the second place that the same Christ is “the Head of the Body and the first-born from the dead” [Col. 1:18], hence also the root of the life of the new creation or of special grace.”5

Q: How are common grace and special grace related to one another?

A: “Common grace averted the lethal consequences of the curse and made possible and certain the continued, be it afflicted, existence of all that came from the original creation….Special grace not only restrains things but creates new things….That far-reaching distinction is this: in common grace there is never anything new, never anything but what can be explained from the original creation; on the other hand, in special grace nothing arises from the creation but everything is new and can only be explained from the new Creation or Re-creation.”6

“Common grace opens a history, unlocks an enormous space of time, triggers a vast and long-lasting system of events, in a word, precipitates a series of successive centuries. Though it pass through periods of deepening darkness, this change has to ignite ever more light, consistently enrich human life, and so bear the character of perpetual development from less to more, a progressively fuller unfolding of life….Those who are in Christ must not oppose such development and progress, must not even distance themselves from it. Their calling also in this cultural realm is rather to be in the vanguard.”7

“[Christ] determines all things so as to make their origin, development, and outcome answer to the ultimate goal of all things, that is to his own self-glorification along with that of the Father and the Holy Spirit…And since the Eternal Word exists before the decree, is in the decree, and in that decree maintains the unity of creation and redemption in his own person, the work of redemption accomplished by special grace cannot stand isolated from the life of the world. The two, proceeding as they do from a single decree and from the self-same person in the triune Godhead, are and remain basically one…So also it is one and the same person who enjoys God’s ‘common grace’ in the life of society and enjoys God’s ‘special grace’ on holy ground. It is one and the same I who is a citizen of the country and a member of the church….Therefore, common grace must have a formative impact on special grace and vice versa. All separation of the two must be vigorously opposed.”8

Q: How does/ought the Church relate to culture?

A: The Church exists both as an “institute” and as an “organism.” “Institute is related to organism as that which has been built to that which has grown. All that has been constructed of parts and pieces or established by force from without is an institute; an organism, on the other hand, is anything which its vital parts have produced on their own and which, subject to changes in its form, perpetuates and enlarges its own life.”9

“Though the lamp of the Christian religion only burns within that institute’s walls, its light shines out through its windows to areas far beyond, illumining all the sectors and associations that appear across the wide range of human life and activity. Justice, law, the home and family, business, vocation, public opinion and literature, art and science, and so much more are all illuminated by that light, and that illumination will be stronger and more penetrating as the lamp of the gospel is allowed to shine more brightly and clearly in the church institute.”10

Q: Should the Church be distinct from the government?

A: Yes. [Kuyper is arguing against proponents for a national Dutch church] “We and they agree that Christ’s church and its means of grace cover a broader field than that of special grace alone. Both sides acknowledge that the church does two things: (1) it works directly for the well-being of the elect, lures them to conversion, comforts, edifies, unites, and sanctifies them; but (2) it works indirectly for the well-being of the whole of civil society, constraining it to civic virtue. We differ in how to reach that good goal: they include civil society in the church, whereas we place the church as a city on a hill amid civil society.”11

“The struggle against the national church….is possible only on a Calvinistic basis because only the Reformed have clearly perceived the distinction between “special grace” and “common grace.” As long as one remains blind to this distinction, one can know no other grace than that existing within the circle of the church. One is therefore virtually obligated to incorporate, if possible, all one’s fellow citizens if one does not wish to abandon civil society to demonic powers.”12

Q: Does this mean that religion has no place in politics?

A: No. Strict separation of church and state, religion and politics, is “folly….After all, both parties, humanist and Christian, very well understand religion’s great importance for the basic values of the nation and vice versa, but the humanist parties are bent on converting the Christian character of those underlying values into one that fits their humanistic system.”13

“We can exert power for good, therefore, only if we are prepared to drum it into our heads that the church of Christ can never exert influence on civil society directly, only indirectly. Therefore its goal must remain (1) to assure the church full freedom of action and full authority to maintain its own unique character; (2) to avert any attempt to introduce pagan concepts and ideas into the country’s laws, public institutions, and public opinion in place of Christian ones; and (3) to continually expand the dominance of nobler and purer ideas in civil society by the courageous action of its members in every area of life. In a nutshell: what we want is a strong confessional church but not a confessional civil society nor a confessional state.”14

Q: What are some examples of common grace operating in civil life?

A: “This influence leads to the abolition of slavery in the laws and life of a country, to the improved position of women, to the maintenance of public virtue, respect for the Sabbath, compassion for the poor, consistent regard for the ideal over the material, and — even in manners — the elevation of that is human from its sunken state to a higher standpoint.”15

As the reader can easily recognize, Kuyper was not one to shy away from polemics, especially when it came to defending the claim that the church ought to have broader influence on the culture. In the comments section, I would love to engage with your thoughts on Kuyper’s arguments. Should his polemics be embraced, softened, updated, or abandoned for a 21st century America and 21st century Church?

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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