October 31, 2018
Preaching through Genesis 1-11 means that there is a lot of important content left on the proverbial “cutting room floor” in sermon preparation. We just can’t cover everything! For example, last week we saw that Cain built a city and that his descendants advanced rebellion against God forward greatly until the time of Noah and the Flood. Yet there was one major biblical truth that I did not mention at all in the sermon: the doctrine of common grace.
The story of Genesis tells us that even in the midst of the rebellion of the line of Cain, we see the love of God. Lamech’s three boys were the “fathers” of some of the mainstays of human culture: “Jabal was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brothers’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-Cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron” (4:20-22). So this godless and evil city produced significant cultural artifacts: animal husbandry, musicianship, and metal-working. Theologians refer to this as “common grace.” Common grace is any blessing of any degree, short of salvation, that the sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God. John Calvin writes about common grace in his Institutes: “We ought not to forget those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he wills, for the common good of mankind…It is no wonder, then, that the knowledge of all that is most excellent in human life is said to be communicated to us through the Spirit of God.” Calvin’s point is that the contributions towards the flourishing and benefit of mankind from people who are in rebellion against God is another demonstration of the love of God for his world.
Why does the doctrine of common grace matter? Here are two reasons:
First, common grace helps us come to terms with the complexity of humanity. On the one hand, the Genesis narrative teaches us that every single person is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27-28); but on the other hand, it teaches that “every intent of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time” (6:6). So, which is it? Is man an image-bearer or is man full of evil? The answer is both! People are complex mixtures of beauty and brokenness. Even Christians are broken and tarnished by sin. This is because of the effects of the Fall. But, it is also true that even non-Christians are often filled with beauty, creativity and purpose. This is because of God’s common grace. Common grace helps us come to terms with this complexity because it teaches that people who are separated from God by sin and living under the curse of sin can still make beautiful and significant contributions to society. One does not have to be a Christian to produce good and helpful things for this world. Just think about advancements in the 20th century alone in the fields of medicine, technology, government, and science that have made the world a much better place - all led by non-Christians. As Jesus said, “God makes the rain fall on the just and unjust” (Matt. 5:45).
Second, common grace means that we can appreciate and enjoy the gifts of God that are produced by people who reject God. This applies to all different spheres of life: enjoying art and music, enjoying food and drink, enjoying beautiful cities, enjoying modern technology. We don’t have to feel guilty or compromised if we appreciate and celebrate the contributions that many non-Christians make to the world. Rather, we should see these as gifts from God who shows his common grace to all. Non-Christians do improve society through their skills and ideas. They make scientific discoveries, produce labor-saving inventions, develop businesses that supply jobs, and produce works of art and entertainment. These are indisputably good things, and things that Christians should enjoy and be thankful for.
Genesis points us to the manifold mercy of God towards all that he has made. Praise God for his common grace to all, and for his redemptive grace towards us!