Understanding General Grace

Beyond grace that saves us from Hell (i.e., fire insurance), does God offer grace and mercy to non-believers?

This is a controversial theological question, made even more controversial by the fact that, for all practical purposes, many conservative or evangelical Christians are effectively Deists. They believe that God sent his Son to die for our sins, and that if we believe in him we will have everlasting life. However, they also believe in practice–if not as an explicit theological tenet–that the last miraculous act God ever did on Earth was at the time of the Apostles. Since to them eternal salvation defines the extent of God’s intervention in human affairs, God’s grace equals salvation from Hell and the perfection of the believer, and little more.

However, this does not line up with Scriptures. Hebrews 13: 8 teaches us that God is the same same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, while James 1: 17 tells us that God never changes, and there is no shadow of turning in him. If God was the God of miracles and divine intervention in the Old Testament and then in the New, then he must offer us the same grace He has always offered mankind. God hears our prayers, and sometimes miraculously intervenes to provide for our needs even when we do not seek him. This has always been true, and is true today. People who deny such truths are selling God and his mercy short, and refusing to recognize the grace that even now he is giving them in their daily life.

Yet, if God hears believers’ prayers and offers them grace in daily life, what of non-believers? Is there a kind of general or common grace at work in human life which does not necessarily lead to eternal salvation?

There are three possible answers to this question:

  1. God does not offer general grace to non-believers and does not answer their prayers at all. Any grace they receive in daily life is just a side effect of their living with or interacting with believers, or a side effect of their living on Earth and enjoying the abundance that God has provided mankind. Non-believers are saved not because they sought God or prayed to him, but because God willed it. The initiative for salvation came purely from God, and the prayer of salvation was an outworking of that initiative, so God’s offering of salvation was not a response to the prayer itself, but something that was preordained beforehand.
  2. God offers general grace to non-believers and answers their prayers, but only so they can be saved. This viewpoint is nearly identical with the first position, but it allows God to hear and respond to the prayers of non-believers when–and only when–they ask for salvation, or in very limited cases which always lead to eternal salvation.
  3. Notwithstanding proof texts from the Bible which say that God does not hear the prayers of people living in iniquity, God hates sin and evil so much, and his mercy and concern for humanity is so large, that on occasion he offers general or common grace to non-believers. If they seek his mercy, they will find it, even if this is just a measure of mercy for daily life and they do not come into the full knowledge of his saving grace. If they call to him earnestly in prayer, he will respond, as he would never turn away from someone who earnestly calls out to him. Meanwhile, God’s promises are unconditional, which means that there is a blessing–a grace, if you will–for those who follow his commands and walk in righteousness, even if they do not know him.

For a number of reasons, I am firmly in the third camp.

Before I get a lot of letters from people saying why I am wrong, let me first say that I am entirely uninterested in anything John Calvin had to say. It is not that he was entirely wrong, only that the way he framed the discussion was entirely wrong and entirely unbiblical. There, I said it. If God wanted the Bible to be a theological treatise in which all the secrets of his grace and his will were spelled out in great detail with the technical brilliance of a stereo manual, he would have written it that way. Yet, that is not the Bible God provided us. Instead, God wrote his Scripture on the human heart, and made his Word come to life in the form of a man. God is not bound by our narrow theological restrictions and our limited conception of his grace. God is only bound by his love.

In truth, the Bible has a lot of examples where God listened to the prayers of non-believers, and offered them general grace. This is such a prominent feature of the Bible that you really have to be blind not to see it.

One of many examples on the Bible is Nineveh in the time of Jonah. This is what happened:

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 3: 1-10

Now the important point is that, in the Old Testament, people would have had to join the Mosaic covenant, become circumcised, follow its laws, and offer sacrifices in order to receive eternal salvation. There is no record that the Ninevites did this. Meanwhile the author of Hebrews makes a big point that even under the Mosaic covenant people received grace purely by faith, and that there were thus people who received eternal salvation apart from the Mosaic covenant. However, there is no record that the Ninevites ever had this kind of saving faith either.

Indeed, there is no hint in Jonah that the people of Nineveh were offered or even received eternal salvation. Instead, God saw how they had humbled themselves, how they had repented for their evil ways and violence, and heard their prayers, and he decided to relent and not destroy their city. There is no record anywhere that the Ninevites stopped committing idolatry, turned to monotheism, and started to follow God. Their repentance was limited, as was their salvation. And in the end, the city was overthrown because of their sin and because they never had a saving knowledge of God. Jonah’s word came true–it just occurred many generations later. So, what the Ninevites received was not necessarily saving grace leading to eternal salvation. However, it was grace all the same.

Which was exactly what Jonah was afraid of:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4: 1-3

Yet, God’s answer to Jonah affirmed that he had grace and concern for people who were still very much unsaved:

“Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4: 11

The people of Nineveh could not tell their right hand from their left–even though the calamity had been averted, they still had no saving knowledge of God. However, God was concerned for them, and even for their livestock. That they had so little knowledge of him made his concern so much greater still.

This has rather profound implications for ourselves and how we interact with non-believers, which I hope to address in later posts.

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7 Responses to Understanding General Grace

  1. I am with you, firmly in the third camp. I know God hears the prayers of the unbeliever because I was one of those whom He heard. I was young, certainly, but I was on the path to sure hellfire. God has altered events in my life, despite my ignorance of Him, because I would have actually died physically, or been terribly harmed, had He not. I have no doubt that God hears the unbeliever and actually acts when He must. And when the unbeliever calls out to Him out of a sincere heart, He WILL most definitely answer.

  2. jlue says:

    I believe that prior to the cross, people were saved through repentance and faith just as they are after the cross.Those who trusted God to send the Messiah were trusting God just as those who trust Him now are saved. The ‘law’ was there to show men that we are unable to keep the law
    perfectly or work our way to heaven.

    There is certainly mercy for unrepentant people:

    Lam. 3:22 [It is of] the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.

    We know the rain falls on the just and the unjust. That is grace, isn’t it? So I have to agree with you.

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