The Neo-Calvinistic doctrine of common grace is of serious importance. It has its roots in a strong biblical theology, and it answers a distinctly Reformed “problem” due to its affirmation of the doctrine of total depravity. How can people who are at root depraved do good – the good that we see non-believers do every day, from the mundane (lining up as one waits for the bus instead of forcing one’s way in) to the extraordinary (say, an extraordinary act of altruism in the form of adoption). Common grace also accounts for the proper functioning of the rationality of sinners. Sin, after all, has affected not only our wills but also our minds – our minds, without this grace, would be wholly darkened, incapable of affirming any form of truth at all, for all truth communicates the presence of God, a presence that all sinners seek to suppress. Yet here we are, using laptops engineered by sinners, whether regenerate or unregenerate, learning the sciences discovered by humanity alike, and trusting the say so of journalists, teachers, and academics, and (almost) always doing so without feeling the need to identify their respective religious convictions. Without common grace, so the Neo-Calvinist wants to affirm, all of these good things that we enjoy, that everyone can do in common, would be impossible. Sinners, apart from regeneration, do good and think rationally in spite of who they are, and due to the sovereign and active work of God.
This doctrine, particularly, defends us from two alternatives. Two, i think, problems.
The first is isolationism or Christian world-flight. This sort of position, affirms the antithesis between the unregenerate and regenerate without affirming common grace. Given such a belief, the proper thing a Christian ought to do is to flee the world and depravity, to explain away the “seemingly” good things that unbelievers do every day, and to refuse to depend on them as a matter of principle. Engagement with the world, in this position, is a sign of compromise, and the regenerate believers must live on their own, with their own principles, and with their own norms.
The second is to affirm that there exists some “neutral” common ground between believer and unbeliever. One does not need common grace, so this position would say, to account for the good or the rational that unbelievers could do. Regeneration has no effect on such matters – whether people will uphold moral values, or function rationally, is accountable by an appeal to who they are as created, who they are as natural human beings (or by an appeal to some natural law). On this common level, there really is no essential difference between Christian and non-Christian. On this position, the Christian is advised to embrace the world, and to cooperate with it in all of these natural matters, and to claim no privileged knowledge. Theology and regeneration affects the church, and there we can do specifically Christian and churchly things, but in the natural and neutral sphere, we simply function as human beings. An appeal to special revelation’s principles is simply unnecessary.
So, common grace causes us to evade world-flight, on the one hand, and an wholesale embrace of the world on the other. For, on the soil of common grace, we can engage the world, and even cooperate with all of the signs of goodness and rationality in it. But never once do we, in this engagement and cooperation, think that we are on common ground, or on neutral territory. Unbelieving good is accounted for due to the work of God – a work that unbelief fails to acknowledge – a failure that will impoverish it from the ability to account for the good work that it does. Christian witness becomes clear: to engage the world, and to show how the goodness and rationality that the world already shows has its organic home in Christianity by cooperation, and to, simultaneously, challenge in a way that demonstrates how these positive features cannot grow in any other worldview. The doctrine of common grace keeps us from the isolationism of mysticism or Anabaptism on the one hand, and two-tiered Thomism on the other.
Here, then, is a joy that stems from common grace. A clean conscience when one engages the world, reaping and learning all that one can from God through the world, and a powerful witness – an apologetic – that neither neutrality nor world-flight can conjure up.
These are powerful fruits, fruits exemplified by Kuyper the public theologian, Bavinck the systematician, and Van Til the apologist – Neo-Calvinism at its best.