Summary: Presents the doctrine of common grace and how it answers the question of how there can be good in a fallen world.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The sonnet “Ozymandias,” written by Percy Shelly, is a marvelous commentary on the hubris of man. It could well have been entitled “Vanity of Vanities,” as it fits in well with the teaching of Ecclesiastes. Here is the folly of man who believes in his own ability to produce a lasting legacy for himself. Vanity of vanities. And yet, the man who wrote the poem did not believe in God, certainly not the Christian God. Where then did he get such insight; even more to the point, how did he obtain such creative powers?
Here is another quandary for me. I had a neighbor who does not know Christ. She is kind and generous. How? How can one who has not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit nevertheless possess much of the qualities of one who follows Christ?
This is the problem of good. How is it that the dark world possesses much divine truth? How can those who are unregenerate nevertheless live in many ways according to the law? Indeed, how can unregenerate people do what is right, while their regenerate neighbors do what is wrong? How can beauty, goodness, and truth be known and expressed by those who do not know the God of beauty, goodness, and truth?
The problem of good strikes our beliefs in two ways. One, we ask ourselves just how necessary the gospel is to possess a fulfilled life. We are always hearing how we cannot be happy without the gospel and that persons without the benefit of being regenerated – born again – by the Holy Spirit are sinners. And yet we all know disbelievers of the gospel who are seemingly living productive, happy lives, at least as productive and happy as ours. How necessary, then, is the gospel for an abundant life?
The second tender spot that the reality of “good” people hits is our belief about hell. As much as we may be convicted about our own sinfulness and personal guilt, can we really believe that neighbors who act kindly will end up there? Is it just of God to condemn them to eternal punishment? But if he doesn’t condemn them to hell; if they are accepted into heaven, or at least avoid hell’s flames, then, again, how necessary is the gospel?
And so, the problem of good. What is the answer? It comes from the little discussed doctrine of common grace. The doctrine is succinctly stated in our hymn: “All good gifts around us are sent from heav’n above.” God sends good gifts to both the regenerate – those to whom the Holy Spirit has given new life in Christ – and the unregenerate – those who do not and never will receive the gift of salvation. Let’s consider how this doctrine plays out. It can be divided into two parts – a restraining activity by God and a gifting activity.
“I’m bad to the bone,” the rocker proclaims. Scripture would agree with that assessment, not because he is a rocker who gets his way with women, but because, since Adam’s and Eve’s fall, their descendants have had a sin condition that gets down to the bones.
Theologians describe this sin condition as total depravity. It can be a misleading term, as it seems to mean that every person acts as depraved as he can be. Our problem, though, is not that we act as badly as we can, but that sin has so infected our hearts that everything we do has some sin component in it. Simply put, we are not pure. Our best thoughts and deeds have the sin infection.
So why doesn’t the infection take over so that we do act completely depraved? The answer lies in common grace. God has exercised such grace in all of us so as to restrain sin. Thus, though we were truly born to be wild, God’s grace restrains how wild we could truly be.
How does God restrain sin? One way is by using divinely given institutions of government and family. God also uses the restraining influences of a civilization’s culture, which serves to “civilize” us and to restrain our wild impulses.