He Shines in All That’s Fair: Why Common Grace Should Be More Common

Rachel Lynde: The murder trials in this Boston paper my niece sent me are real interesting, Marilla. Full of heathen, that place. I hope Anne will never go there again. Can you imagine that new minister going on about how he doesn’t believe that all the heathen will be eternally lost? The idea! If they won’t be, all the money we’ve been sending to the foreign missions will be completely wasted. That’s what.

Marilla Cuthbert: I wouldn’t fret if I were you, Rachel. Goodness knows, the world is full of beggars, and it’s a pretty pass if we can’t help out a fellow being in need, Christian or not. 

Anne of Green Gables, The Sequel


John Murray once raised the question, “How is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”[1] The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction made by theologians between God’s “special” or “saving” grace on the one hand, and his “common” or “non-saving” grace, on the other. By God’s design, this common grace is always at work in the broader reaches of human society. 

Common grace is hard to miss once we’ve thought about it for any length of time. God clearly bestows blessings on all human beings—believers and un-believers alike. For example, Jesus said his Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). That is, God doesn’t just water the crops of believers; he waters the crops of the unbelievers, too. He gives good gifts to all of humanity—whether they know him or not, believe in him or not, or thank him or not. God’s goodness extends to all his creation. 

While God’s general goodness and gifts might not always result in the final redemption of every human being on whom it is showered (after all, at some level, salvation encompasses an individual’s personal belief), common grace is still a magnanimous display of his kindness and generosity to persons made in his image. Indeed, all that is good ultimately comes from God, regardless of whose lap it falls into here on planet earth. Maltbie Babcock’s hymn captures an aspect of common grace with these lines: 

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

“He shines in all that’s fair.” That’s common grace. Both saint and sinner alike can appreciate a good sunset. Both can enjoy a breathtaking opera. Both can get a lump in their throats when their children get married. Both can enjoy a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a dollop of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a cup of piping hot coffee next to it right after dinner. (Yes, taste buds are a form of common grace!) Specifically, God demonstrates his common grace by:

  • Giving all humans a conscience, by which right and wrong can be known (Rom 2:15)
  • Sovereignly maintaining order in human society through government (Rom 13:1-5)
  • Enabling all people to admire beauty and goodness (Ps 50:2; Dan 2:21)
  • Setting up governments and putting leaders in power to maintain peace (1 Tim 2:2)
  • Allowing everyone (in or out of Christ) to do good (Luke 6:33)
  • Allowing all people to experience a vast array of emotions (Eccl 3:4)
  • Giving people the ability to truly love each other (1 John 4:7)
  • Allowing people to turn from evil (Job 1:1)
  • Protecting people from constant evil and torment (Job 1:8)
  • Keeping the ocean within its borders (Job 38:11)
  • Allowing everyone to rest (Deut 5:12)
  • Providing people with the necessities to live (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:30)

Tim Keller has said, “This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding common grace provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with and learn from non-Christians.”[2] Really? Learn from and be blessed by people outside the formal covenants enumerated in Scripture? Oh yes. God often works that way. Some biblical examples include:

  • Melchizedek blessing Abraham
  • Rahab serving the Israelites
  • Ruth accepting Yahweh and serving an Israelite family
  • The pagan sailors acting more ethically than Jonah
  • The pagan kings promoting Daniel in their realms
  • Cyrus the Persian funding the rebuilding of the temple
  • The magi worshiping Christ shortly after his birth
  • The Roman centurion acknowledging Jesus’ lordship while the disciples are hiding
  • Accurate statements made by unbelievers and cited in the Scriptures to serve the cause of truth

Without an understanding of common grace, believers wind up committing the genetic fallacy on a regular basis. (e.g., “The MBTI is untrustworthy because it’s based on Jungian psychology.” No, it’s validity and reliability must be determined independently of the original proponent.) We also marginalize people who don’t share our faith, preventing them from being a blessing to us as God may intend. But if God can use Cyrus the Persian to bless the Israelites’ journey home from exile, can I not likewise let my dentist bless me even if he’s an unbeliever, or my brain surgeon even if she’s a Muslim? Just get the job done right, thank you very much. On a related note, much of the world’s music can be raunchy, but some of it is rather pleasant or insightful. Common grace allows it to be so.

If common grace is so common—both in Scripture and in the heart of God—should it not be more common in the lives of believers? Indeed, should we not make loving our neighbor more common than it probably is? Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), not me. I cannot make it happen it my own life let alone anybody else’s. Moreover, Jesus said we can trust him to sort out the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (Matt 13:24-30). That’s not our job right now. Nor is it Rachel Lynde’s.

Image Credits: pexels.com; gettyimages.com.


[1] John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93.

[2] Tim Keller, Sermon Archives.

Still Humming: The 20th Anniversary of Enya’s ‘A Day Without Rain’

Soft. Soothing. Ethereal. Diaphonous. These are words that come to mind when I think of the music of Eithne Ni Bhraonain, more commonly known to the world as Enya. I like the style of this gifted Irish sensation, not because her tracks are lyrically sophisticated but precisely because they’re not. They don’t need to be. Her unique translucent sound often transports me to new and wonderful places. Gently and contented I go, as if floating on a cloud without a care in the cosmos.

Even when the tempo picks up with her signature cello burps, pizzicato riffs, and other rhythmic pulsations, the effect is still light, airy, and non-threatening. Amidst the noise and nonsense of this broken and complex world, it’s nice to glide somewhere rather than be shoved, musically or otherwise. The world would be a better place if all of us took a healthy dose of musical Xanax once in a while.

Enya’s fifth studio album, A Day Without Rain, was released twenty years ago this week. It was a commercial succes with its lead single, “Only Time,” a piece that found much resonance in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. How revolting to see her breezy meditation resurrected in a Kraft Mac & Cheese commercial this year. That misalignment comes close to warranting a boycott of the international food conglomerate.

My favorite Enya album is her most recent, Dark Sky Island, which was released in November 2015, fifteen years to the day after A Day Without Rain. The lyrics are more substantive, and the musical style is quintessential Enya. In it she’s both clever and clandestine. As one would expect, she’s haunting, spellbinding, and cathedralesque from start to finish. Her explorations venture from the seen to the unseen realm (e.g., from “The Humming” to “The Forge of the Angels”). Bridging the two realms is “Sancta Maria,” a devotional to the Mother of Christ. No part of the universe exceeds the reach of her curiosity and musicality.

Also finding poignant expression in Dark Sky Island are the universal themes of love, heartbreak, and a journey’s end (e.g., “So I Could Find My Way,” “Even in the Shadows,” and “I Could Never Say Goodbye”). The most delightful and adventuresome piece is “Pale Grass Blue,” named for a small butterly in southern Asia. Both the lyrics and the melody are razor sharp as they capture something of the dance and flutters of nature.

Enya is truly one of a kind. All told, her career has been steady and impressive, recluse though she may be for long periods of time. New albums from her small studio team, however, are always worth the wait. Aren’t we due for another one soon? Who can say? Only time.

Now, what’s an evangelical like me doing listening to New Age music? In short, I like some of it. Not all of it, but Enya’s version of it—yes. Sometimes it helps me relax. Sometimes it helps me reflect. Sometimes it trips me into the boundless. And not once has it ever lured me into consulting crystals for guidance. Spiritual discernment doesn’t evaporate when the music around me gets all soundscapey. 

Besides, this is my Father’s world. “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres,” as Maltbie Babcock put it. And that’s the theological issue here. It’s called “common grace.” More on that neglected doctrine in a future post. Until then, I’ll be listening to my favorite Enya tunes, translucent though they may be.

Image Credits: enya.sk; walpaperflare.com.