The Difference Between Reformed Common Grace and Arminian Common Grace


Berkhof distinguishes the very different conception of Common Grace that Reformed folk have in contrast to the Arminian notion of it, with regard to how reformed theology usually speaks of it, namely, as the gracious benefits that God bestows upon man in the created sphere and in His moral influence upon mankind for the better.  Shedd distinguishes the difference more closely with regards to the sincere inward strivings of the Holy Spirit with the unconverted (who resist and overcome them) in the gospel call.  




Louis Berkhof  1949

Systematic Theology, 1949, Part 4, Section 3, Common Grace, page numbers are to the Banner of Truth, 2005 edition

p. 436-7

In general it may be said that, when we [reformed persons] speak of ‘common grace,’ we have in mind, either (a) those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted; or, (b) those general blessings, such as rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shelter, which God imparts to all men indiscriminately where and in what measure it seems good to Him.

This conception of common grace should be carefully distinguished from that of the Arminians, who regard common grace as a link in the ordo salutis [order of salvation applied] and ascribe to it saving influenceThey hold that, in virtue of the common grace of God, the unregenerate man is perfectly able to perform a certain measure of spiritual good, to turn to God in faith and repentance, and thus to accept Jesus unto salvation.  They go even farther than that, and maintain that common grace by the illumination of the mind and the persuasive influence of the truth incites the sinner to accept Jesus Christ and turn to God in faith and repentance, and will certainly achieve this end, unless the sinner obstinately resists the operation of the Holy Spirit.  The Canons of Dort have this in mind where they reject the error of those who teach ‘that the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (by which they understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left in him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, that is, the evangelical or saving grace, and salvation itself. (III-IV.  Rejection of errors 5.)


p. 439

1. Do Special and Common Grace Differ Essentially or Only in Degree?

Arminians recognize alongside of sufficient (common) grace the grace of evangelical obedience, but aver that these two differ only in degree and not in essence.  They are both soteriological in the sense that they form part of the saving work of God.  The former makes it possible for man to repent and believe, while the latter, in co-operation with the will, causes man to repent and believe.  Both can be resisted, so that even the latter is not necessarily effectual unto salvation.  Reformed theology, however, insists on the essential difference between common and special grace.  Special grace is supernatural and spiritual: it removes guilt and pollution of sin and lifts the sentence of condemnation.  Common grace, on the other hand, is natural; and while some of its forms may be closely connected with saving grace, it does not remove sin nor set man free, but merely restrains the outward manifestations of sin and promotes outward morality and decency, good order in society and civic righteousness, the development of science and art, and so on.  It works only in the natural, and not in the spiritual sphere.  It should be maintained therefore that, while the two are closely connected in the present life, they are yet essentially different, and do not differ merely in degree.  No amount of common grace can ever introduce the sinner into the new life that is in Christ Jesus.


p. 444

G.  Objections to the Reformed Doctrine of Common Grace

1.  Arminians are not satisfied with it, because it does not go far enough. They regard common grace as an integral part of the saving process.  It is that sufficient grace that enables man to repent and believe in Jesus Christ unto salvation, and which in the purpose of God is intended to lead men to faith and repentance, though it may be frustrated by men.  A grace that is not so intended and does not actually minister to the salvation of men is a contradiction in terms [according to Arminians].  Hence Pope, a Wesleyan Arminian, speaks of common grace in the Calvinistic system as ‘being universal and not particular; being necessarily, or at least actually, inoperative for salvation in the purpose of God,’ and calls this a ‘wasted influence.’  He further says: ‘Grace is no more grace, if it does not include the saving intention of the Giver.’ (Christian Theology II, pp. 384 f.)  But, surely, the Bible does not so limit the use of the term ‘grace’.  Such passages as Gen. 6:8; 19:19; Ex. 33:12,16; Num. 32:5; Luke 2:40, and many others do not refer to what we call ‘saving grace’ nor to what the Arminian calls ‘sufficient grace.’




William G.T. Shedd  1893

Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, 1893, New York, pp. 100-103

What now is the difference between the Calvinistic and the Arminian view of common grace?  This is a question of great importance…

Calvinism asserts that common grace cannot be made successful by the co-operation of the unregenerate sinner with the Holy Spirit, and thereby be converted into special or saving grace: Arminianism asserts that it can be

The Arminian contends that the ordinary operations of the Divine Spirit which are experienced by all men indiscriminately will succeed, if the unrenewed man will cease to resist them [by his own power] and will yield to them.  Ceasing to resist and yielding, he contends, is an agency which the natural man can and must exert of himself, and this agency co-working with that of the Holy Spirit secures the result—namely, faith and repentance.  Faith and repentance [according to Arminianism] are thus the product of a joint agency: that of God and that of the unregenerate sinner.  Neither party originates faith and repentance alone.  Neither party is independent of the other in this transaction.  If the sinner does not cease resisting and submit, God will fail, and if God does not assist him by common grace, the sinner will fail.  Each conditions the other; and consequently the Arminian, from his point of view, is consistent in asserting that the Divine election to faith and repentance is not sovereign and independent of the sinner’s action but is conditioned by it.

The Calvinist, on the contrary, holds that the unregenerate man never ceases to resist and never yields to God of his own motion, but only as he is acted upon by the Holy Spirit and is thereby ‘persuaded and enabled’ to cease resisting and to yield obedience.  Ceasing to resist God, he [the Calvinist] contends, is holy action, and so is yielding or submitting to God.  To refer this kind of action to the sinful and unregenerate will as its author [as the Arminian does], the Calvinist asserts [this] is contrary to the Scripture declaration, that ‘the carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be,’  Rom. 8:7A will at enmity with God never of itself ceases resisting Him, and never of itself yields to Him It must be changed from enmity into love by ‘the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost’ in order to sweet and gentle submission. 

The sinner, as such, cannot, therefore, assist and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in this work of originating faith and repentance, but the whole of it must be done by that Almighty Agent who can turn the human heart as the rivers of water.  Christ, through the Spirit, is the sole ‘author of faith’ (Heb. 12:2).  When the Holy Spirit puts forth a higher degree of his energy than He exerts in his ordinary operation, He overcomes and stops the sinner’s resistance instead of the sinner’s overcoming and stopping it of himself, and [the Holy Spirit] inclines the sinner to yield to the Divine monitions [admonitions] and impulse instead of the sinner’s yielding of his own accord [as the Arminian says].  If the sinner’s resistance is ‘overcome’, it is overcome by God’s action [according to the Calvinist]; but if it ‘ceases’, it ceases by the sinner’s action [by his own power, according to the Arminian]. 

To say that common grace [in the sincere, common strivings of the Spirit in the gospel call] would [hypothetically] succeed if it were not resisted by man, is not the same as saying that common grace would succeed if it were yielded to by man[‘s independent power, as in Arminianism].  [Hypothetical] Non-resistance is different from ceasing resistance [of the Arminian].  In the former [hypothetical] instance there is no opposition by the man [and thus the common, gracious striving of the Spirit in the gospel call would result in saving grace]; in the latter there is opposition, which is put a stop to by the man[‘s independent power, on the Arminian view].

The doctrine of a co-operating and conditioning action of the unrenewed sinner [in Arminianism], by which common grace may become saving grace, so that all mankind stand in the same relation to election, and there is no preterition by God, because the difference between the elect and the non-elect is not made by the Divine decree, but by man’s action in yielding or not yielding to common grace, is clearly expressed in the following extract from the Confession of the Arminian Remonstrants [Protestors]:

‘Although there is the greatest diversity in the degrees in which grace is bestowed in accordance with the Divine will, yet the Holy Spirit confers, or at least is ready to confer, upon all and each to whom the Word is ordinarily preached, as much grace as is sufficient for generating faith and carrying forward their conversion in its successive stages.  This sufficient grace for faith and conversion is allotted not only to those who actually believe and are converted, but also to those who do not actually believe, and are not in fact converted.  So that there is no decree of absolute reprobation’ (Confession, ch. xvii.).

This view of grace is synergistic [both man and God work together] Every man that hears the gospel receives a degree of grace that is sufficient for generating faith and repentance, provided he yields to it.  If, therefore, he does not believe and repent, it must be because of the absence of some human efficiency to co-operate with the Divine; and therefore the difference between the saved and the lost, the elect and the non-elect, is partly referable to the human will, and not wholly to the Divine decree.  So far as the Divine influence is concerned, the saved and the lost [in Arminianism] stand upon the same common position and receive the same common form and degree of grace, which is sufficient to save provided it be rightly used and assisted by the sinner.  The saved man makes the common grace effectual by an act of his own will, namely, yielding and ceasing resistance; while the lost man nullifies it by an act of his own will, namely, persisting in enmity and opposition. 

According to the monergistic [God alone working] or Calvinistic view of grace, on the contrary, no man receives a grace that is ‘sufficient for generating faith’ who does not receive such a measure of Divine influence as overcomes his hostile will; so that he does not stop his own resistance but it stopped by the mercy and power of God; so that his faith and repentance are not the result in part of his own efficiency, but solely of the Holy Spirit’s irresistible and sovereign energy in regeneration.  In a word, the dependence upon Divine grace in the Calvinistic system [in being saved] is total; in the Arminian is partial In the former, common grace cannot be made saving grace by the sinner’s co-action; in the latter it can be.





Related Pages

Common Grace

The Common Operations of the Spirit

On the Compatibility of Resistible and Irresistible Grace

The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel