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Common Grace and the Wisdom of Secular Authority

OPINION | Richard R. Glover

Thursday 23 October 2014

There is an oft-neglected Christian doctrine of great importance that goes by the name of “common grace”. Common grace is the idea that God shows his grace to all his creatures, whether they acknowledge him or not.

One of the most eloquent exponents of this doctrine was the great John Calvin, who said:

“… the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God.” Institutes, 2.2.15

This idea is expressed in the New Testament on the lips of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount: “… He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44–45).

The New Testament teaches that one aspect of this common grace is the institution of secular authorities. In God’s grace, secular authorities have been established to promote justice and restrain evil. They are “God’s servant for your good” and “an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong” (Romans 13:4), established in order “to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good” (1 Peter 2:14).

In God’s grace, secular authorities have been established to promote justice and restrain evil.

Clearly, governments and other authorities the world over often fail in this calling – one need only look to current events in Iraq and Syria. In our own nation there has been a flurry of acts of non-violent civil disobedience, seeking to call our government back to a course of justice in our treatment of asylum seekers and in our care for God’s creation. These actions have led to much discussion about whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to engage in such activity, particularly in light of New Testament teaching about obedience to the secular authorities, the most well known of which is Romans 13, in which Paul says: “Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

But leaving the debate around civil disobedience aside, the passing this week of Edward Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st Prime Minister (1972–1975), provides us with an opportunity to reflect on God’s common grace to his creation.

Some might argue a kind of myth has developed around Whitlam, no less now that he has passed away. And so it is important to acknowledge the downfalls of his government. There was the scandalous loans affair. There was the attempt to raise election funds for the Labor Party from the Iraqi government. There was Australia’s abject abandonment of the East Timorese. His economic record was poor, with unemployment rising markedly during his tenure and inflation at one stage rising above 20 per cent.

Nevertheless, a startling array of lasting positive reforms were established or birthed through Whitlam’s time in office, and he will be remembered for presiding over a time of rapid social change. As a result of Whitlam’s reforms a great many Australians were able to attain a tertiary education. Those who could not afford legal representation were afforded it by the state. It became illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of race. An element of mercy was introduced into Australia’s judicial system by refraining from executing criminals. Women were to be paid the same as men. 18-year-olds were given the vote. As a result of Whitlam’s reforms Australians have access to free health care, and the process of returning Australian land to its traditional owners began.

Such reforms in many ways reflect the concern for justice for all – and especially those on the margins – that we find in the Christian scriptures. The reforms enacted by Whitlam and his government thus remind us of God’s common grace: his determination to sustain and do good for his whole creation. God the Creator has made the world in such a way that its order is able to be discerned, however incompletely, by all his creatures.

Because even secular leaders are creatures of God, the ability to live life well – what the Bible calls ‘wisdom’ – is open to them. While wisdom is incomplete apart from knowing the God who made it (see Proverbs 9:10, Colossians 1:17b), God’s common grace is shown in that all can perceive something of the right and true ways of his world.

Praise God that in a world marred by sin and death, hatred and violence, the Father nonetheless gives wisdom to secular authorities. Praise God that he may use even those who do not know him to establish justice.

Richard R Glover is a student at Moore Theological College in Sydney. He is married to Alison, churches at Newtown:Erskineville Anglican, blogs sporadically at, and tweets as @richardrglover.




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