Misinterpreting Common Grace (Part 1)

Romans 2:4-5

Tom Pennington  •  March 15, 2015
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From time to time I have either overheard or personally had a conversation with aging unbelievers who were nearing the end of this life. And as they approach and contemplate their death they console themselves something like this. They say, you know, I can't complain. I've had a good life. Perhaps you've heard them say that as well. What does that mean? Well, for a few who believe this life is all there is, they simply mean this. They've experienced enough good in this life to, in some bizarre way, comfort them as they consider their life ceasing to exist entirely.

But that's not what most mean. Instead, for most, when they say, I've had a good life, they're thinking about the fact of what comes after death. They're thinking about the inevitability of facing God and they are comforting themselves in this way. They're saying, just as I have benefited from and enjoyed many good things in this life, surely that will be the same in the life to come. There is an implication that what they experience here will simply be continued after this life.

That kind of thinking is what theologians call retribution theology. It was retribution theology that absolutely permeated first century Judaism, the Jews whom Paul sought to evangelize. Here's what retribution theology teaches. It teaches that there is a direct link between your circumstances in this life, God's perspective of you, and what you will experience in the life to come. If in this life you enjoy many good things, then that somehow must mean that God is pleased and that you therefore will be okay in the life to come.

It grew out of a misunderstanding of the blessings and the curses dictated in the Mosaic Law. As a result, the Jews of the first century, and especially the Pharisees, believed that the more physical blessing you had in this life, the greater hope you had for the life to come. And in fact, they said that the rich must be especially righteous because of how God had blessed them.

It was this flawed theology of retribution theology that Jesus was addressing throughout his ministry. For example, it's why when Jesus said in Matthew 19, "It's hard for a rich man to enter into heaven." It shocked His disciples. And they responded, well, if a rich man can't get into heaven, "who can be saved?" If those God has amazingly blessed in this life don't have any hope, then what hope do any of us have? This is why Jesus said to the wicked rich of His day, in Luke 6, "woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full in this life." This is why the Pharisees, and even Jesus's disciples, in the case of the man born blind, said, somebody must have sinned, either "this man or his parents." That has to be the explanation for the tragedy in his life, because the circumstances in this life are directly tied, they thought, to God's view of someone.

This is also why Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If I had time I would take you there, but you remember, in the context, in Luke 16:14, Luke reminds us that the Pharisees were lovers of money and they had this flawed perspective we're talking about. And so Jesus tells this story that threw their theology on its head. You remember the story, He talks of two men, a rich man who fared sumptuously every day, had more than enough, lived a lavish lifestyle, had everything he could use and far more. And then there was a second man. There was a beggar named Lazarus who lay at his gate, full of sores, there at the gate of the rich man, hoping to have some of the crumbs that fell from his table. So far so good, they would have been right with him.

But then, He said, these two men died. And the beggar, Lazarus, was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. He made it to heaven. And the rich man opened his eyes in hell. If you had been there that day you could have heard the gasps across the crowd, because this confronted their retribution theology. This turned it on its head. Here were two people they thought they knew God's perspective of and Jesus says, you're all wrong, that's not it at all. The fact that someone enjoys amazing prosperity and blessing in this life says absolutely nothing about God's perspective of him or of his eternal destiny.

Sadly, however, retribution theology is still very much alive and well in the 21st century. You find its extreme forms in the charismatic movement in the prosperity gospel that's taught. If you're really in tune with God, if God is really pleased with you, then you're going to have all you need and more; you're going to be rich. You're going to have health. The more acceptable evangelical version of the retribution theology today goes something like this. Well, you know, if you really enjoy the good life here, then there is reasonable expectation and hope that God is okay with you, that things are okay, and it's going to be okay in the future.

Let me ask you a question. I really want you to answer this question in your own soul. Do you believe, based on the good life that you have (And all of us here in this room, by living in America, are in the top 10 percent of the wealthiest people in the world, and some here are in a higher percentage.), do you really believe that the good things you enjoy in this life are the result of the fact that God is pleased with you? Do you think that God has lavished this kindness upon you because He's okay with you and it's going to be okay at the judgment too?

In Romans 2 Paul addresses this flawed thinking that was so prevalent among the Jews in the first century. Turn with me to Romans 2. Now, as I've reminded you, as Paul begins the heart of this letter he sets out to show that every single person on the planet needs the gospel he preaches. In chapter 1 verses 18 to 32, Paul indicts unbelieving pagans lost in their idolatry. But beginning in chapter 2 verse 1, running through chapter 3 verse 8, Paul indicts the Jews and the Gentile proselytes who were connected to the true God, but were lost in their self-righteousness. Paul's point in this section that begins in chapter 2 is that even those who claim to worship the true God are sinners and they are desperately in need of forgiveness, they are desperately in need of the gospel of grace, just as much as unbelieving idolaters.

In chapter 2 Paul points out that the Jews, and we could generalize it, moral religious people, need the gospel and they need it for three reasons. They need it, according to verses 1 to 16, because knowing what is sinful and condemning what is sinful in others won't allow you to escape God's wrath. That's what they thought. They knew what was wrong, they saw it in the Gentiles, and they condemned it.

The second section of chapter 2 provides a second reason that moral and religious people need the gospel. Verses 17 to 24, they need the gospel because having the Scripture and knowing its truths will not allow you to escape God's wrath. Again, this is what they thought. They had God's Law, it had been given to the Jews, and they thought this meant it would be okay.

The third section of chapter 2, verses 25 to 29, tell us a third reason that moral religious people need the gospel. Because making a profession of faith, which is essentially what circumcision was to the Jew, making a profession of faith, identifying with God's people and performing biblical rituals and activities, will not allow you to escape God's wrath either. These were all the places the Jews of the first century placed their hope and, unfortunately, these are also the places that many professing Christians who have not yet seen the seriousness of their sin nor really come to Christ in the gospel, this is still how they think today.

Now, we're examining the first reason that even moral religious people need the gospel. It's found in verses 1 to 16. Knowing what is sinful and condemning it in others will not allow us to escape God's wrath. You see, the Jews that Paul spoke to in the synagogue, when he was going through what we have in, for us, in chapter one, they were amen! As he took it to the pagan idolaters, they were saying, preach it Rabbi Paul, we love it. It's exactly right. Although they were committing the very same sins as the pagans in chapter 1, they were convinced that they would escape God's judgment. And they came to this mistaken conclusion because they had terribly flawed views about God.

So Paul set out to correct their flawed views, starting, as we saw last week, with their flawed view of God's justice. We see this in verses 1 to 3, they had a flawed view of God's justice. And as we unfolded these verses I showed you that that flawed view of God's justice demonstrated itself in a couple of ways. First of all, in verse 1 they mistook self-righteousness for real righteousness. The fact that they condemned sin in others, they thought meant they were okay. But Paul says, you condemn it in others, you're really condemning yourself because you're doing exactly the same things and God's not going to let you off the hook.

The second way their flawed view of God's justice demonstrated itself was they forgot, verse 2, the perfection of God's justice. Paul says, God's verdict is always "according to truth." Nobody is graded on a curve. God doesn't overlook anything. He's not going to overlook your sin any more than He overlooks the sins of idolatrous pagans. And then in verse 3, the third part of their flawed view of God's justice was they assumed that they could escape the judgment of God.

Now, today we come to a second flawed view of God that allowed them to think that they would escape God's judgment simply because they knew what was sinful; they condemned it in others. Not only did they have a flawed view of God's justice, they had a flawed view of God's common grace. We see this in verses 4 and 5 of chapter 2,

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.

You see, Paul understood that the Jews he was seeking to evangelize looked at the blessings they enjoyed from God and mistakenly concluded that those blessings must mean God was personally pleased with them. He knew they embraced retribution theology. And so he confronted their distorted perspective of what theologians call God's common grace.

Now notice verse 3, Paul in the flow of thought here asks a rhetorical question, "But do you suppose this, O man," do you come to this calculation that, "when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and then do the same sins yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?" Well, the obvious answer to that is, yes, that is what you're assuming, and you're absolutely wrong to assume that.

Now, notice the beginning of verse 4, the conjunction or. This introduces us to a second rhetorical question. The question is a further development of Paul's thought here. One reason the Jews thought they were exempt from God's judgment is they drew the wrong conclusion from the blessings that they enjoyed. In other words, they misinterpreted God's common grace.

Next week, Lord willing, I hope to examine their mistaken interpretation of God's common grace. But today, as we prepare for communion, I want you to notice just how Paul explains the amazing reality of common grace. I don't want you to notice the negative parts of verses 4 and 5, I want you to notice the positive parts, because in this Paul explains to us the amazing reality of common grace. Look at verse 4, he speaks of, "the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience," and then in the second half of verse 4, "the kindness of God leads you to repentance." This is God's common grace.

Now, the expression "common grace" is really a misnomer, because it turns out that common grace is neither technically grace nor is it common in the sense of ordinary or pedestrian. By common we mean that it is universal to all men without exception. There has never been one human being on the planet who has not experienced God's common grace. That's why we call it common. It's common to all men. It's not technically grace. Listen carefully, it's important to understand this, there is no indication in the Scripture, none whatsoever, that those who remain unbelievers throughout their lives and die as such, ever experience God's grace in a technical sense of that word. God reserves His grace, in that sense, for the elect.

However, God does, because He's loving and He's generous and He's kind, God does universally display certain attributes of His character toward all men, even those who will remain His enemies forever. This is called common grace. Now, notice how Paul explains it. I want to drill down into this a little more. Notice how Paul describes, first of all, its richness, the richness of common grace. Verse 4, he speaks of "the riches of His kindness." The word riches means a plentiful supply, a wealth, an abundance. There is no shortage of these things in the character of God or in how He shows them to His creatures. God is overwhelmingly generous. He's not a miser when it comes to the display of these things. In the original language here, it's clear that the word riches modifies each of the three nouns that follow. In other words, to all men God shows "the riches of His kindness, the riches of His tolerance, and the riches of His patience."

That brings us then to the components of common grace, the parts of common grace. Common grace is an expression of a blend of several of God's attributes. Notice the ones Paul delineates here. In verse 4, first of all, His kindness, "the riches of His kindness." The leading Greek lexicon defines it as, "The quality of being helpful or beneficial; goodness, kindness, generosity." You see God is, in His nature, good. When God expresses that goodness, when He demonstrates that goodness, it is kindness. This is the primary expression of common grace. It's speaking of the fact that in His common grace God provides overwhelming temporal blessings to every single person.

John Murray defines common grace this way. He says, I love this definition, "It is every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God." Every favor, every expression of goodness, short of salvation, that God shows to sinners. That's common grace.

Scripture is replete with illustrations of God's common grace, His amazing generosity to fallen sinners. For example, in Psalm 145:9 the Psalmist writes, "The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works." Later in that same Psalm, verse 15,

The eyes of all look to You, [God,]
And You give them their food in due time.
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desire of every living thing.

This is our God.

I love the way our Lord puts it in the Sermon on the Mount. We looked at this in detail when we studied it together, but in Matthew 5:44-45, Jesus says to us, "I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Why are we to love our enemies? "So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." In other words, love your enemies because your Father loves His enemies. And how does He demonstrate that love? Jesus says, "for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

Listen, the atheist that lives down your street, the rain falls on his yard as well. The sun rises on his life just as it rises on yours. Why? Because of God's nature, because God is good and He loves even His enemies. This is His common grace. If it weren't for God's common grace there would be no rain on the yards of His enemies. There would be no sun in the lives of those who hate Him.

In Acts 14 Paul is talking to a pagan audience of idolaters and he says this, in Acts 14:17, about the true God, "He did not leave Himself without witness, in that," here's how He witnessed to you, "He did good and He gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." Paul says, that's God's common grace. It's His witness to you of His nature. You see God, our God, this is who He is, He can't help Himself. He is generous. He is overwhelmingly generous. He does good, even to His enemies. He's kind to all.

Every legitimate joy in life is ours because of God's common grace. What does James say in James 1:17? "Every good gift given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights." There is not one good thing one person on this planet has ever enjoyed that didn't come from God's common grace, His kindness, "the riches of His kindness."

There's a second part of God's common grace. Notice in verse 4, it's "the riches of His tolerance." The word literally means to hold oneself back. It came to mean exercising self-restraint, to endure, to bear, to put up with someone. That's what it means. The noun form occurs only twice in the New Testament, here and another time in Romans, which I'll show you in just a few minutes.

In secular Greek this word tolerance was used to describe a temporary cease fire, not the end of the war, not the end of hostilities, but a temporary truce. You see, our sin, the very moment that we sin, provokes the justice of God, and it calls for that sin to be punished and to be punished immediately. But because God in His common grace holds Himself back, He restrains what we deserve the very moment we sin.

The reason there are so many sinners who live to so long a life, who enjoy all of God's good things, the reason you and I are alive, is because God holds Himself back. In His common grace He patiently puts up with our provocations. You know, the sad thing to me about this is, as fallen human beings we come to expect this from God. It's like we deserve God to hold things back and not to do what we deserve. And so when bad things happen how do we respond? You know, tragedy strikes, people die, and what do most people ask? How could a good God let this happen?

I wish I had time to take you to Luke 13, but let me just remind you, in Luke 13:2-5, some people come to Jesus and they bring up two tragedies, one of them was Pilot, mingling the blood of some worshipers with their sacrifices on the Temple Mount. He killed them while they were there making sacrifice. And the other was a tower falling and killing a group of men. And they're asking Jesus to explain this, basically to reconcile this with the goodness of God. And Jesus says to them, you're asking the wrong question. Listen to what Jesus says. This is Luke 13:4-5, "'do you suppose that those who died were worse sinners than all the men who live in Jerusalem?'" Is it because they were the really bad people? Jesus says, "'I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'" Wait a minute Jesus, that's not very comforting. What's He saying? Jesus is saying, the question is not, why did those "innocent" people die? The real question, Jesus says, is why does God let any sinner live? That's the real question, and the answer is, because of God's tolerance. He holds Himself back.

There's a third part of God's common grace there in verse 4. It's His patience, "the riches of His patience." This word means long suffering, a slowness to avenge wrongs, the self-restraint which doesn't quickly retaliate for a wrong suffered. It's slowness to anger even when that anger has been legitimately provoked and would be rightly shown. God is, as He tells us in Exodus 34:6, "slow to anger."

I love that expression. Those of you who have been a part of our church any time at all have heard me use this illustration, but every time I see that, my mind goes back to my first year of Hebrew in seminary, because in that first year we had to translate, I think it was the second semester of the first year of Hebrew, we had to translate the Book of Jonah. And I was working my way through, as we all were, and I came to chapter 4 and that revelation of God's nature, and it was late at night and my mind was tired, I was trying to get ready for the class the next morning, and I'm translating and I translated it and I wrote my translation down and then I blinked and looked at it again and I thought, that can't be right. Because what I had translated was, Jonah says, God I knew that you were long of nose. Oh that, you know, it's late, I need to look at that again. But that's exactly what the Hebrew says. God says, I am long of nose. The second thought I had was, I can appreciate that. What does that mean, long of nose? We associate the nose with anger. Even in cartoons, when you want to describe a bull who's mad, you see the snort sort of coming out of its nostrils. That's a very common illustration. What God was saying to us is, it takes Me a long time to get hot. God is long-tempered versus short-tempered.

As William Barclay writes, "If God had been like us He would long ago, in sheer irritation, have wiped the world out for its disobedience." Aren't you glad God is not like us? You see, tolerance is God holding back His Justice and His wrath. Patience reminds us that God holds back for a long time. God is by nature patient.

If you want an illustration of this, I Peter 3:20. Peter uses this illustration, he says, "the patience of God," same word as in our text, "the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark." You know the story, in Genesis 6 God said, every thought of every human being "was only evil continually." I'm going to destroy the world, but because God is patient, He waited and He waited, for how long? A hundred and twenty years. This is our God. In His common grace, God displays His kindness and His tolerance and His patience to fallen men, and He does so in abundance.

Now, why does God do this? Well, let's consider the purpose of common grace, it's purpose. Look again at verse 4, "the kindness of God," same root word, "the kindness of God leads you to repentance." God never intended that our enjoyment of His many blessings in our lives would lead us to think we deserve them or are therefore immune from future judgment. Instead, God intended those things to lead us to repent and believe in His Son.

Let me ask you today, do you enjoy the incredible display of God's goodness in your life? If you're not in Christ, do you know why God did that? He did it to lead you to Himself. He did it to lead you to turn from your rebellion against Him and to embrace His Son. It's His invitation to His kindness in Christ.

If God has allowed you to live for 20 years, you have lived 20 years longer than you deserve to live. If you've lived 40 years or 60 years or 80 years, why, why has God let you live that long? And why has He continued to lavish you with good if you're not in Christ? There's only one reason, and that is to lead you to repentance, to turn from your rebellion against your good Creator and accept the offer of reconciliation with Him and His Son. And by the way, by the kindness He's already lavished you with, He has illustrated to you exactly how He'll respond to you if you will turn to Him, kindness and grace.

So God's incredible kindness toward you is not an excuse to continue living apart from Him or to imagine that it's going to be okay at the judgment. Paul says it's not going to be okay. We'll see that next week. It's not going to be okay. No, His goodness to you in this life is to lead you to repentance, to draw you to Him.

Now, there's one other aspect of common grace and it's amazing reality we need to see, and that is, it's vindication. It's not here in chapter 2. It's over in chapter 3. Turn over there with me. You see, the ultimate source of common grace is the love of God for all men, as Jesus describes it in Matthew 5. But even God's common grace had to be purchased by our Lord at the cross. That's the amazing truth that's taught in this text. This text, by the way, Romans 3:25 and 26, is absolutely foundational. Much is taught here. We came here last week for another reason. Let me show you another truth that's taught here. Verse 25, God publicly displayed Jesus Christ. That's the crucifixion. He made Him a spectacle on the cross. Why? "As a propitiation," as the satisfaction of God's wrath against sin, "in His blood," that is, through His death. And we experience the satisfaction of God's wrath; it becomes ours when we exercise faith in His Son, it's "through faith."

Now, notice he goes on to describe why the cross, God publicly displayed Christ, He made Him a spectacle on the cross, "to demonstrate His righteousness." Now, in this context, a legal context, the word righteousness can be translated justice. So Jesus had to die for God "to demonstrate," to prove, His justice. Why is that? Well, notice how he goes on in verse 25, "because in the forbearance of God." Now, the word forbearance here is exactly the same Greek word as tolerance back in chapter 2 verse 4. "Because in the holding back of God's wrath He passed over the sins." "Passing over" here, by the way, does not refer to forgiveness. It simply means letting go unpunished; not punishing right now, at this time. "He passed over the sins previously committed." That could refer to the sins that people committed before Christ came in the incarnation. Or, it could refer, as Luther taught, to the sins that each of us committed before our conversion. Either way the point is the same.

God has every right to destroy sinners the moment they sin. Justice demands our death. The very first sin you committed, listen to God's verdict. Genesis 1, or excuse me, chapter 2 verse 17, "in the day that you eat," in the day that you sin, in the day that you rebel, "you will surely die." That's what God's justice demands. But in His tolerance, God holds back and allows guilty sinners to live. Not only does He let them live, He shows them amazing kindness, He lavishes them with good things.

Now, here is Paul's point. Please don't miss this. This is the crux of what Paul is saying here. Even the goodness that God shows sinners in sparing their lives and in providing them with temporal blessings in this life, could undermine His justice. So at Calvary, God had to vindicate His character. Christ's death made it possible for God to show unbelieving sinners common grace without staining His justice. That's not the primary purpose of the atonement. It's not the primary reason for the death of Christ. The primary reason is earlier in verse 25, to make Christ "a propitiation," a satisfaction of His wrath. And in verse 26, so that He could justify "the one who has faith in Jesus." Nevertheless, this is an important reason, an important point in the death of Christ. Let me put it to you this way. If God had not poured out His wrath on Christ on the cross, He would have stained His character by letting us live one moment longer than our very first sin.

What I want you to see, what Paul is saying, is every good thing you enjoy comes to you from the cross. John Piper put it this way, "Every good thing was obtained for us by the cross of Christ. Apart from the death of Christ, the sinner gets nothing but judgment. Apart from the cross of Christ, there is only condemnation. Therefore, everything that you enjoy is owing to the death of Christ." Every blessing that's ours flows to us through the cross, even the simplest of human joys.

I want you to think for a moment about the kindness of God that you've enjoyed just this week, the love of family and friends, a comfortable home or apartment, good food, reasonable health. Those are all expressions of God's common grace. Perhaps, as I have had the opportunity this week, you were able to take in the beauty of a sunrise, the beauty of a sunset, a rich moment a family life. Maybe you enjoyed a moment of laughter with friends. Those too are evidence of God's common grace. And we don't deserve any of those things. Not one of them. In fact, all we deserve is God's eternal wrath. But the cross of Jesus Christ bought us those moments and every earthly joy.

If you're not a Christian, understand that God's plan was that those expressions of His common grace that you enjoy every day would lead you to repent of your sin and to believe in His Son. Lord willing, next time we'll consider the other side of this man's tragic response to common grace.

Our Father, we're so grateful for the reality of sins forgiven. Thank You that in Christ You judged our sins so that there's only forgiveness and reconciliation for us. Father, thank You that at the cross You purchased our redemption. But even as we're reminded this morning Father, thank You that at the cross You vindicated your justice in showing us common grace. We're so grateful that every blessing that we have flows to us through Christ and His cross. Help us to live in the understanding of that, in the shadow of that, every day of our lives. And for those who are not in Christ, Lord, may this be the day when they truly come to know You. May Your goodness in their lives lead them, even today, to repentance. We pray in Jesus's name, amen.