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A young mother who is a friend of mine told a story about teaching her kids how to share. She explained to them that because everything we have comes from God, we should be willing to share what we have with others. (Sounded good so far.)

She then told about a time she and her children went for a playdate with a neighborhood family. One of the neighbor’s children took a toy from one of her children and wouldn’t give it back.

Later, when my friend was talking with her children about the incident, she said, “Those children don’t know how to share. They can’t share, because they don’t know Jesus.”

At the time, I knew that approach felt wrong, but I couldn’t explain why.

Now I understand more and I want to talk to you about it. Not to pick on the mom in this story, but because the theology behind this perspective has much bigger implications in our parenting.

What is Common Grace?

When we talk about “God’s grace” we often think about his saving grace - the fact that he sent his son to die on the cross and pay the penalty for our sins and reconcile us with God.

And that is definitely the most profound and beautiful example of his grace. But in addition to “saving grace” there’s also “common grace”.

In other words, there are lots and lots of good and gracious gifts that God gives to his creation that are not dependent on salvation or limited to those who are trusting in Christ. Here are some examples of that from the Bible.

One passage that demonstrates this clearly is found in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:43-45 says:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

God blesses people with rain and sunshine, food, clothing, and many other basic provisions, regardless of their spiritual condition.

But he doesn’t just gift us with material goods. He also gifts us with intellect, talent, skills, and creativity.

For example, in Genesis, we learn about the descendants of Cain. Genesis 4 tells us that Cain “walked away from the presence of the Lord” and yet his descendants went on to be inventors and creators.

And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.

But the gifts of common grace are not limited to material provision or even vocational skills and gifts. God actively provides for us by promoting virtue and morals in individuals and systems. Theologian John Murray said it this way:

[God] stimulates them with interest and purpose to the practice of virtues, the pursuance of worthy tasks, and the cultivation of arts and sciences that occupy the time, activity and energy of men and that make for the benefit and civilization of the human race. He ordains institutions for the protection and promotion of right, the preservation of liberty, the advance of knowledge and the improvement of physical and moral conditions.

We see this is Jesus’s teaching as well.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. (Luke 6:32-34)

Believers and unbelievers alike have consciences that urge them to virtuous behavior.

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. (Romans 2:14-15)

In fact, believers and unbelievers in the church may look so similar on the outside that it may be difficult to distinguish between them. Jesus says there’s a danger that we might mistake a believer for an unbeliever!

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, the farmer says that there are weeds mixed in among the wheat. But when the servants ask if they should go and pull up the weeds, the master says,

“No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.”

Why Does This Matter?

OK, so we've defined Common Grace and given examples of it in the Scripture. But what does this all have to do with parenting?

In the next article, we’ll get into more details of how this understanding of God’s grace plays out in our parenting, but for today, I want to point out a few general observations:

  1. Christians do not have a corner on the market of manners and social decorum. God has written his law on everyone’s hearts. All people have an innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad behavior. And we all struggle with temptation and fall prey to wrong thinking and behavior.

    In other words, yes, unbelieving friends can share their toys! And, believing children can be selfish and unkind!
  2. We cannot divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys”. Yes, the Jesus says that if we are not for him, we are against him. There is a clear distinction between those who are in Christ and those who are not, but it isn't so simple in terms of our outward experience with other people.

    Everyone is a mix of good and bad motives, good and bad actions. We can appreciate the good, be blessed by it, and encourage good in others, whether they are trusting in Christ or not.

    Our primary posture towards our neighbors ought to be one of love and grace, not of fear, suspicion, or avoidance. Believers and unbelievers alike can be good friends, neighbors, bosses, employees, leaders, and volunteers.
  3. The Holy Spirit indwells believers in a redemptive, and sanctifying way. He is continually making us more and more like Christ. But God is omnipotent. He also has authority over the behavior of unbelievers and is able to restrain them from evil.

    No one is as bad as he could possibly be. One example of this is that human development and maturity also contribute to behavior and self-awareness. This means that whether or not someone is saved, he or she is still able to grow in discipline, thoughtfulness, diligence, and other virtues.

In the next article, we’ll get a little more specific and talk about how this shapes both our perspective on parenting and our parenting practice.

But today, I want to leave you with this thought: God’s grace is abundant, overwhelming and generous. And it extends far beyond his grace in salvation.

Is the concept of Common Grace a new idea for you? How might (or does) this perspective inform your parenting?

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Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.