Common Grace: How God Blessed the Nations in the Age of Abraham

rainbowGod’s covenant with Noah is often described as the covenant of common grace, and rightly so. In the wake of God’s judgment on the earth, the heart of humanity remains unchanged (cp. Gen. 6:5 and 8:21), yet for God to bring redemption to the world, some measure of preservation must be granted. Therefore, with strong covenantal language—berith occurs 7 times (vv. 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) in Genesis 9—God promises to uphold creation: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (8:22).

These promises to Noah envelope all creation and articulate God’s common grace—his universal beneficence towards a world filled with sin. In other words, common grace is common because it encompasses all humanity universally, not because it is mundane. Common grace is distinct from saving grace in that the former does not atone for sins or grant eternal life. Rather, it grants “grace” to the righteous and the unrighteous (cf. Matthew 5:45) and provides a historical context for saving grace to operate.

That being said, common grace is not equally apportioned. It is not like the periodic table, where every element possesses the same atomic weight. Rather, common grace is specific in that it often depends upon the saving grace given to God’s chosen people. In other words, just as common grace is promised through the Noahic covenant, so common grace continues to be mediated through other covenantal mediators. In Scripture, the first instance of this is Abraham.

Common Grace in the Age of Abraham

The forming of Abraham, along with the covenant God makes with him, takes more than eleven chapters to develop (Gen. 11–22). In those chapters God makes many promises to Abraham about his place in God’s redemption of the world. In response, Abraham believes and it is credited to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). Also, Abraham demonstrates faltering faith as he (twice) lies about the identity of his wife (ch. 12, 20) and sires a son with Hagar at the behest of his wife (ch. 16). The opening chapters of Genesis brim with excitement as God works in the life of Abraham, whose exemplary faith (see Rom. 4) and sinful stumbling are used by God to begin a work of salvation that spread to all nations.

This is the context where we see how saving grace and common grace interact on the stage of redemptive history. Similarly, as God leads Abraham and as Abraham’s life impacts those around him, we can see many ways God brings common grace to the world through this man who alone (at that time) has experienced “saving grace.” Therefore, it is worth examining the way saving grace and common grace interweave in the life of Abraham, as it may help us better understand the way Yahweh rules and blesses his (now fallen) world.

Three Evidences of Common Grace

1. Abraham’s Intervention Protects Lot’s Life—Twice!

The first place we see Abraham serving as a conduit of grace, perhaps its better to say blessing, is when his nephew Lot is taken captive by marauding kings (14:12). In response, Abraham takes his 318 trained men and defeats these kings and rescues Lot (vv. 13–16). In this instance, Lot receives physical security through the means of Abraham whom God had blessed.

Later, Lot again is rescued by Abraham when the latter intercedes on behalf of the former. In Genesis 18 God indicates he will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham responds by pleading for the safety of the righteous in that city (vv. 22–33). In the end, God agrees to spare the city if 10 righteous people exist within it (v. 32). Yet, from the events of Genesis 19 it is clear, 10 righteous ones do not exist in Gomorrah. Instead, God visits Lot and spares him from the city before its destruction.

The connection between Abraham’s “prayer” and Lots preservation comes in Genesis 19:29, which reads, “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.” From this episode we see how God granted grace to Lot by means of Abraham. The New Testament makes a further connection with Abraham’s prayer for the righteous in Sodom and Lots rescues, when it calls Lot a righteous man (2 Pet. 2:7).

In sum, we see the power of prayer in this episode and we see the way God brings grace to others. Without making a judgment on the eternal status of Lot and his daughters, these two episodes of physical deliverance stand on the side of (not-so-common) common grace. They are not elements of new covenant blessing, but physical protection and preservation which accord with the principle: God preserves the world and its inhabitants through his elect.

2. The Presence of Righteous People Protects a City

God’s common grace is evidenced even further in Genesis 18. In the intercession of Abraham we learn a principle of how God looks at cities.

When God told Abraham he would visit Sodom and Gomorrah to decide its fate (18:20–21), Abraham responded by drawing near and pleading for the righteous in the city (vv. 23–33). Starting with 50 righteous persons, he moved to 10 righteous persons, securing the safety of the city on behalf of the righteous. Clearly, this is not a case of man twisting God’s arm; God’s favorable response evinces his own divine will. God agreed to spare the city for the sake of the righteous, because (1) it would have been unjust to punish them and (2) the presence of Lot afforded the city a measure of safety.

This interchange is staggering because of how it indicates that the fate of a city is related to the righteousness of the inhabitants therein (cf. Jeremiah 29:7). Somehow in the economy of God’s common grace—the way he brings sunshine and rain on the earth, marriage and children, joy and happiness to unbelieving people—depends upon the presence of righteousness of a city. And here it is not based upon the overall righteousness of that city, but the presence of certain persons contained in that city.

This observation comports with what God said earlier in Genesis 15, that the sins of the Amorites had not yet reached the point of punishment (15:16). God is not trigger happy to bring judgment, but at the right moment—when the sins of a people are manifest, he will bring judgment. This also foreshadows what will happen later with Israel: God will bless other nations through the exalting of Israel in righteousness. However, when Israel would sin it would result in calamity for others, a principle of common grace we also see in Abraham.

3. Abraham’s Sin Results in Curses for Others

While Abraham’s presence brought blessing to those in his family, and Lot’s presence in Sodom served ostensibly to preserve that city, so too the sins of Abraham also brought ruin on others. For instance, in the two instances when Abraham lied about his wife’s identity, it not only threatened the promised seed, it also caused harm to others. Likewise, when Abraham took Hagar to have Ishmael he sired a nation that forever opposed God’s chosen people. For sake of space, we’ll focus only on the two instances of deception (Genesis 12, 20). We’ll consider the common grace in the story of Hagar another time.

First, in Genesis 12 when Abraham entered Egypt, he asked his wife to hide her identity in order to protect himself. This cowardly action showed that Abraham’s faith had much room for growth. At the same time, it also revealed how his lack of faith afflicted others. For, verse 13 records that on account of Sarai God afflicted the men of Egypt: “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (12:17).

To be sure, this affliction “with great plagues” foreshadows the coming plagues God will bring upon Egypt because Pharaoh refused to let Israel go. Nevertheless, in both instances—with Abraham and the sons of Abraham—their is culpability. Abraham misled Pharaoh and Egypt suffered; likewise, Israel worshiped the idols of Egypt and thus God brought judgment against the land—Israel (Ezek 20:7–8), Pharaoh, and the gods of Egypt (Exod 12:12). In the midst of this judgment, there was saving grace, but that doesn’t change the fact that in both instances the judgment of the nations was exacerbated by the sins of God’s elect.

Next, the same results occur in Genesis 20 when Abraham again misleads Abimelech about his wife. Fearing the people of Gerar (20:11), Abraham lies about his wife and leads Abimelch into sin, as Abimelech laments: “Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.'”

As before, Abraham’s deceit endangers Abimelech and leads to great suffering in his household. Verses 17–18 record that all the women are made barren because of Sarah. Thus, Abraham’s misplaced fear afflicts Abimelech. Yet, in the same episode we see again God’s grace. For instead of letting Abimelech, Genesis 20 records how God kept the king in check. Verses 3–7 records,

But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

In this exchange, we see how the Lord is able to turn the heart of king in his hands (cf. Prov 21:1). Instead of turning Abimelech over to sin, he protects him. Is this an instance of saving grace or just a strong dose of common grace? It is difficult to say. Abimelech clearly shows himself as one who blesses Abraham (cf Gen 12:3), yet at this early stage of redemptive history it is difficult to be certain of his salvation.

Nevertheless, what we learn is that Abraham’s sin nearly destroyed this man and his kingdom. Yet, in his (common) grace, God intervened and saved this man from earthly ruin. He kept him from sinning in his innocence and after much travail, he opened the wombs of his household and restored the relationship.

In fact, after Abraham’s deception was exposed, it was Abraham, a prophet of God (Gen 20:7), who would intercede for Abimelech. In other words, whereas Abraham’s sin nearly destroyed this man, his prayer was the instrumental means of blessing. Though it seems strange to understand how Abraham as sin-inducer could also be sin-reducer, it comes from his election as God’s chosen vessel to bless the nations. Of course, all of these events are but blemished types of Christ’s coming mediation, but in Abraham we learn how God’s choice to bless him will impact the world. And thus we learn much about how common grace is mediated through the vessels of mercy who have received saving grace.

How Do We Apply This Today?

In the age of Abraham, we learn that common grace—the preservation of a city, in this case—came as a result of the presence of righteousness in Sodom and Gomorrah. Also, we see that when righteousness was removed from the city, the judgment of the Lord could fall fully on the city. Likewise, when Abraham prayed for Abimelech God healed his household, even after Abraham was the instrumental cause of their affliction. Accordingly, we learn much about how common grace is grace mediated through God’s covenant people.

Still, these observations raise a host of other questions, especially in light of the distance between Genesis and today.

  1. Because the Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled and eclipsed by the new covenant, does this relationship between common grace and saving grace remain? If so, are there are points of discontinuity?
  2. Relatedly, because Abraham functions both as a type of Christ and a model of faith, we need to ask, are these observations best applied to Christ or to the presence of the church?
  3. If righteousness protects a city or if the presence of Christians bless a city, what are we to make of natural disasters today? Are we to condemn a city as unrighteous if it faces such a perilous disaster? If not, why not?
  4. Does the direct judgment of God on Sodom and Gomorrah and the fact that these cities become paradigms for eschatological judgment change our approach here? In other words, are our findings only applicable to the final judgment? Or is there something else we can glean today?
  5. What else does Scripture say about the relationship of God’s elect and the preservation of the non-elect?

At present, I am persuaded to see some ongoing relationship between saving grace and common grace. And I believe Genesis 18 plays an important role in explaining that. However, as with any Old Testament passage, it must be read in the light of the whole canon, and in light of the covenantal changes brought about by Christ’s new covenant. For that reason, I withhold (at this point) any direct or one-to-one applications to our day.

That said, there is enough evidence in history of Christianity to support a principle that says: As the flourishing of the church goes, so goes the flourishing of a culture. As Rodney Stark and others have argued, the impact of Christianity and the people who have experienced saving grace has been a boon to the world. Thus, it seems there continues to be ongoing evidences of saving grace being a means to communicating common grace. But I will leave it at that.

What do you think? How do you read it? Or for that matter, what has been the most helpful book you’ve read on common grace?

Soli Deo Gloria, ds