How should we understand and relate to those who do not yet believe? Is salvation a black and white thing – before I knew Yeshua I was evil and now I am good? ‘Yes’ and ‘no’! Yes, of course we were ‘once darkness’, but now we are ‘light in the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:8)
In Acts 10, however, we read of a Roman centurion, Cornelius, who was, “devout and God-fearing… gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly”. We learn this in the first verses of the chapter, but it is only later that his family believes in Yeshua and is baptized. This is not the pattern of evil behaviour suddenly becoming good. How can this be, unless the Holy Spirit is active in peoples’ lives before new birth?
Common grace, also known by theologians as ‘prevenient’ grace, is that unmerited generosity of God active in people before they are saved. It is ‘common’ because it is available to everyone. Some of this God activity takes the form of conscience, although our consciences can be refused, subdued, or become twisted. Many non-believers of course do sometimes behave in an evil way, as of course so do we believers until we are fully sanctified.
We also see God’s common grace active in the many myths and legends of ancient cultures that point tribal peoples towards God even before they hear the gospel message – especially in the form of legendary ‘Messiah’ figures who die on a tree and so save their people somehow. It seems that God placed within the culture itself such ‘hooks’ which enable people to respond to the Gospel when they hear it.
Why do so many Muslim people receive and respond to dreams of Yeshua, even long before they are saved?
Similarly, why did the sea captain in the boat in the storm with Jonah implore him to pray to his Hebrew God? Because the sailors were receiving revelation as to the powerlessness of their own gods and the potency of Jonah’s God. Later in the chapter they demonstrate the fear of the Lord.
So, understanding common grace:
- Shows us that non-believers are not held at point zero in revelation of God until the point of salvation, but rather accumulate revelation and experience of Him along the way, and are presented with choices to respond. Understanding this helps us to have a higher view of those who are not yet saved and enables us to evangelise in a less patronising and more appropriate manner.
- Helps us avoid being proud by comparing ourselves wrongly with others, especially non-believers.
- Gives us a higher view of newly saved people and helps us in the discipling process.
- Helps us avoid a confused ‘spiritual’ / ‘unspiritual’, or ‘secular’ / ‘sacred’ distinction.
- Helps us Jews understand that God is also active in the Gentile world.
- Helps the Christian Church understand that God has a plan and purpose for Israel.
- Help us all understand the work of God in all creation.
This article originally appeared on Revive Israel, July 17, 2019, and reposted with permission.