20/9/2020 [Thematic Message 115] www.lifechurchmissions.com
Common Grace and Special Grace <Mt 5:43-48; Ro 2:4,14-15; Gal 5:1, 13, 16-25; Ac 14:16-17>
Prelude: God created and sustains the entire universe in His great grace. Today, He also bestows various types of grace on His created beings according to His goodwill. Usually, when we talk about the “grace” of God, the average believer will limit it to the grace of salvation (grace of forgiveness and forbearance). This can also be called special grace. But in a holistic view, “grace” refers to everything God does for all His created beings who are unworthy and undeserving. Even today, many people still do not know God nor appreciate Him, but God through His abundant grace allows them to have temporal wealth, happiness, success, prosperity, etc. This is like <Mt 5:45> which tells us that God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God does not owe mankind anything, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God <Ro 3:23>, but God did all these purely because of His abundant grace and because He is unwilling to withhold His grace and see mankind perish. Therefore, whether we are believers or non-believers, we generally enjoy family care, social and national privileges, help from charity, medical care, legal protection, and even warnings from our conscience, etc. Some people in particular also receive earthly blessings, such as health, longevity, abundance, intelligence, human love, filial children, etc. These are possessed not only by Christians, but many non-believers also have such blessings, because God is non-discriminatory and gives it to people as He pleases. This is the so-called common grace given to the world by God. But many times, the sinful nature of man makes him despise God's grace. People who do not believe in God take this for granted, while some think that this is what they earn or that it comes from their own good luck. They do not think they need to thank God, let alone believe in Him. In addition, Christians often do not quite understand why God would bestow such great blessings on non-believers. Sometimes they feel very imbalanced when they are tormented through some hardships, but at the same time, they see non-believers living well. Some believers even know that they have been led on by selfish desires, such that they are disciplined by the Lord. Then, on the one hand, he is unwilling to put to death his own selfish desires and on the other hand, he felt tormented because of God's discipline, so he complained, “It is better not to believe in God, things would be happier.” In fact, such people did not enjoy the common grace given to them by God, nor did they see the glorious value of the special grace given to them by God. First of all, we need to know that when God bestows common grace in His good intentions, He gives those who receive this grace the opportunity and way to know the Lord of grace, because there must be a source of blessings. For example: When a person is healthy or has longevity, he has the opportunity to know the Lord. Or when a person has blessings on earth, he may think about how to have eternal blessings and be drawn to God's salvation. Of course, if he is too satisfied with the blessings of this earth and does not think about eternal life, or even refuses the grace of God's salvation, that will also become a clear evidence of his future judgment. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him <Ro 1:21>. In addition, the common grace in non-believers is also God causing all things to work for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose <Ro 8:28>. Think about it, if there are no non-believers to work for the world, how can the whole society function? How do our children get educated? Where do medical facilities come from? How can our livelihood and safety be guaranteed? Therefore, we need not feel imbalanced when we see unbelievers having the blessings of the earth, because what they have is not permanent, but God gives grace to them to point them to the way of salvation. The common grace given to them also blesses us indirectly. As for those of us who have special grace, we should acknowledge that what we have is the best. Therefore, we need to know how to assess everything that happens to us through this special grace (salvation grace), so that we can live a life of thanksgiving and glorify God.
1. The restraint brought by grace
1）In a sinful fallen world, God first wants to restrain the human sinful nature
Every time we talk about God’s grace, we always link it to earthly blessings or things which match our human nature. Some people say, “My academic qualifications are not high, but I still can get such a good job”, or “my marriage failed, but I still have the chance to enter another marriage”. People usually consider grace as getting what they desire. However, people who left God are not aware that in this fallen, sinful world, God’s grace comes from His restraint. If God does not restrain us but permit us to live willfully by our sinful nature, we will do unthinkable evil that leads to our self-destruction. Mankind will also be swiftly wiped out as a result. Thus, the beginning of the Book of Romans talks about God’s wrath. This wrath is revealed in God giving people over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity and to their own lusts <Ro 1:24, 26>. Yet, because of His grace, God does not allow every person to be as such, but He intervenes, and preserves the entire human race.
2）The restraining power of common grace
In fact, this world is operating under the restraining power of God’s common grace, thus it can be preserved. The restraining power of common grace includes this world’s religions, human conscience, laws of the country, law-enforcers, judges, moral education, positive thinking, duty of kinship, etc. All these more or less become our restraints, especially when we fall into some lusts, even wanting to take certain risks, or do certain bad things; without these restraints, we may have already done it. Some people say, “Since God restrains, why are there still wars, or terrorists, or the killing of the innocent, adultery, theft, etc, in this world?” We must know that if God has not set up the restraining power of common grace, mankind not only will commit the above-mentioned sins, but they will also commit them all the more rampantly without restraint. Therefore, we cannot annul what the Lord has done in common grace, but should instead clearly know why these are important. If we are law-enforcers, or civil servants, or teachers, or high-level executives in certain companies in this society, we must regard highly our positions given by the Lord, as well as, the duties within the positions. For example: Policemen should enforce the law justly, teachers should teach students good moral values, superiors should manage justly. We also cannot look down on those who are performing their duties to ensure the stability of the society. However, we must know that such restraining forces have no way of redeeming and sanctifying the human soul. This is like a policeman solely enforces the law justly, but he cannot let people know God. No matter how well a teacher teaches moral values, he/she also cannot let the students know the eternal words of life. They cannot resolve the root problem of sin. Thus, even if believers live and act under the principles of common grace, they have the duty to preach the gospel, so that people can know the source of all righteousness and love.
3）The restraining power of special grace
It is different when a person is restrained in the Lord versus someone who is restrained outside the Lord. Those who are restrained outside the Lord are like a tool. God restrains them in order to preserve this world, and maintain the balance on earth. However, those who are restrained in the Lord are restrained because of relationship. If we see others’ children vandalizing, we restrain them in order not to let them cause public damages, but if we restrain our children from vandalism, it is because we love them, and also care about their character, thus we want to let them know how to conduct themselves properly. Thus, God restrains His children so that they may know His righteousness and love, in order that they may share in His holiness <Heb 12:10>. Therefore, sometimes we ask God why did He not let us be as rich, successful, healthy, etc, as the non-believers? Then we must confirm for ourselves, when we were ever rich, successful, healthy, how did we spend our days? Some believers have great talents, but they do not have much accomplishments for their whole lives and they grumble because of that. Yet, God may be restraining them, so that they would not fall into the trap of going after vain fame. Some people are like Jonah who clearly received God’s calling, but because of his own personal will, he was unwilling to obey God’s instructions, but wanted to run away from God instead, yet God restrained him, so that he could be involved in the Lord’s work of saving sinners. Such restraint is blessed restraint indeed, this is the restraint of God on those who received special grace. Thus, if a person thinks that having received grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit then he has freedom without restraint, he is greatly mistaken. Because the Bible clearly tells us that when we leave room for the old self within us, the Holy Spirit of God will be grieved <Ep 4:30>, and the Holy Spirit’s grieving is a form of restraint in our hearts. If we continue to ignore this grieving and live as we please, God’s discipline will come upon us. Some believers do not like to hear the term “discipline”, and they cannot see discipline as God’s grace. However, the restraining power of discipline is indeed God’s love, to prevent us from suffering loss of eternal rewards.
2. Particularly, special grace enables us to walk by the Spirit
1) Christ’s redemption brings us freedom, so that we are no longer burdened by the yoke of slavery
When believers hear “restrain”, they are not that excited. They think that “freedom” is what God gives us. Indeed, <Gal 5:1> tells us that Christ has set us free, so that we can have freedom. However, we must know that many believers fall quickly into the yoke of slavery after believing in the Lord. This is the state of Galatian believers. Many pastors and teachers, in explaining the yoke of slavery, only refer to a faith that is “justified by obedience to the law”. This is because Paul in <Gal 1:4>, wanted to dispel Galatians’ wrong belief that they need to obey the law (be circumcised) to be justified. Therefore, in <Gal 3:2>, he said, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” Therefore, this is the bondage of belief, or can be said to be bondage of knowing the gospel wrongly. However, another form of bondage is in <Gal 5:13> when we “indulge in flesh”, and <Gal 5:17> tells us the flesh itself is a form of bondage, causing us to not to do what we want to do. Therefore, grace helps us to hear the right gospel, so that we can be justified by faith, and not be burdened by the yoke of slavery. On the other hand, grace also enables us to walk by the Spirit, so that we do not indulge in flesh.
2) Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh
When talking about the Holy Spirit, some believers enter into a pattern which denies rationality and experiences God through our senses. If not, it is about hearing some mysterious voice or gaining some supernatural power. Some other believers, when talking about walking by the Spirit, may carelessly combine things of the Holy Spirit and desires of the flesh as one thing. Some people speak of Holy Spirit as eating, drinking, laughing, shopping, feasting, achieving and prospering in the Holy Spirit. We are not against believers coming together to have joy in fellowship and communion, neither are we against believers leading vibrant or successful lives. However, we cannot reduce the sacred work of the Holy Spirit to these things. If we ask ourselves, sometimes our joking will evolve into gossiping. Our shopping becomes a desire, buying things we should as well as should not buy. We find our satisfaction from pursuing worldly success. We cannot say that we have done these things by the Spirit just because we feel good after doing them. So what is walking by the Spirit? The Bible gives us 2 clues: (1) <Gal 5:17> tells us the Holy Spirit and the flesh are in conflict with each other. In other words, the convictions that the Holy Spirit brings to our heart and the prompting that flesh brings to our heart are different. We are born to only understand flesh. After we are born-again, we can sense the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Formerly, we naturally indulge in idolatry, hatred, jealousy, lust, lies, hypocrisy, but after the Holy Spirit dwells in us and challenges these desires of the flesh, it leaves us with no choice but to nail all these sinful desires to the cross. (2) <Gal 5:22-23> tells us clearly the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When one walks by the Spirit, this is the fruit that will be borne in the heart. It does not come naturally, but it is a fruit borne from battling with the flesh, when we live by the Spirit.
3) Those who bear fruit from walking by the Spirit are not restricted by the law
Restrictions from the law, conscience, state regulations, codes of conduct, come from common grace. We cannot say they are of no use, but these will not enable us to draw near to God, and accomplish greater things in Him. We can give two examples here: For example, because we are aware of social norms and etiquettes, so when we are with relatives and friends, we do our part in our roles. Sometimes, we may attend functions they organise, give them a red packet to bless them. However, only the Holy Spirit tells us how we can bless them further and share the gospel with them. We cannot give favour just out of obligation. This is meaningless, and is in fact a form of bondage. Another example is the current pandemic situation, the government strictly enforces social distance and the size of gatherings. If not, everyone will not be wearing masks and observing hygiene practices, and consequently the virus will spread wider with higher mortality. But believers must know that under the system of common grace, the spiritual lives of humans cannot be built up. The human body can be protected, but the soul is not being protected. Some can stay at home out of fear, but they may also lose the opportunity to be edified through the word of God and the communion of saints. Therefore, a person who walks by the Spirit must ask how he can receive the grace above common grace. If not, when the believer stays at home for 1 or 2 years, his faith will grow cold. Slowly, the physical and mental health will deteriorate. Therefore, Christians should seek how they can walk by the Spirit under the special grace granted by God.
3. How can those who live in special grace bless those who are contented with only common grace?
1）Must awaken those believers who are contented with only common grace
Today, many believers in the church are only contented with blessings under common grace. Why do they thank the Lord for? Basically, it is because their jobs are stable, marriage is blissful, children excel in studies and character, and they themselves are living in a very affluent and stable society now, without any major storm or crisis. In fact, the grace of God which they see are only all these, and they are only contented in the Lord because of all these. If a person truly knows God’s special grace, and knows how great His redemptive grace is, then if he is only contented with these blessings under common grace, his heart will surely rebuke him. Why? Because from a spiritual angle, he is spending his time in vain now, and occupying the land for nothing. Think about it, what should a believer who has received special grace be contented with? He should be contented with God’s salvation and with spreading this gospel which can save people of the world, and should find it worthwhile to even suffer a little for the sake of the gospel. But today, not many believers can be contented with these. Why? Because the church pulpit keeps talking about the blessings under common grace, thus church believers have no awareness about receiving the call of special grace.
2）Preach the words of eternal life to non-believers who are only contented with common grace
In <Ac 14:15-17>, Paul and Barnabas preached to those in Lystra who were worshipping Greek gods. These idol worshippers did not know the eternal God who created the universe and everything in it. They could only recognize blessings in the material world, which are brought by common grace. In fact, our hearts must first have compassion on them, instead of envy them, and we should all the more not fret because of their excellent conditions. Furthermore, we should also be careful not to deny the blessings they received under common grace. We must be mindful not to criticize their religions, or deny their moral values, or look down on their earthly accomplishments. We only have to tell them “all these that they possess are good, but not good enough”, so as to point them to the goodness of the gospel. Perhaps they have more knowledge, status and wealth than us, but we who received special grace are already bearing the God-given Great Commission of preaching the gospel. Perhaps when we evangelize to them, they are not too receptive. However, from the time we start to evangelize to them, God’s work has already started. Later on, whatever they encounter gradually are all a result of us evangelizing to them. Even if we may face certain opposition, let us not be discouraged. Because God will surely fulfill the gospel which we preach. In the case of Paul and Barnabas, after they were greatly persecuted in Lystra, they left for Derbe the next day, and little did they know that many people would believe over there, and would also become disciples <Ac 14:21>.