Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
Bookmark and Share

Does Acts 14:16-17 Teach Common Grace?

Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof


Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.  Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:16-17).

First of all, we wish to remark that we fully understand the reasoning of some in regard to this text. They say that God did good. In doing good in the Old Testament, He gave rain and fruitful times, food and gladness also to the heathen. Now the heathen had no right to that. Therefore, because they receive something which they did not deserve, God gave the heathen grace—common grace.

Naturally, we agree wholeheartedly that God gives the gifts of this natural life to all. All men have in common the whole of natural life as it develops out of creation. We do not deny that these gifts of natural life are good. Who would deny that God does good? Who would deny that God always does what is good? Therefore, everything that comes from God is also good. The heathen receive from God good rain and good fruitful times, good food and good gladness. There is no difference whatever in that regard.

The question is whether God also gave grace to the heathen. That is exactly what we deny and Scripture never teaches. If at the moment when the murderer lifts his arm to strike the victim, God did not give him good strength, that cruel arm would at that very moment drop lamely. God therefore also does good in that instance, for He gives good strength. But who will still say that God gives him grace?  When God gives to the Greek artistic skills, and He gives him the good marble, and the Greek then makes an idol, who would dare to assert that God gave grace along with the skill and the marble? When God gives to the Roman the sword and natural jurisprudence, and that Roman stands before Jesus and says, “You are innocent, but I crucify you,” who calls that grace? And when God gives to the world a glad heart to wild pleasure and revelries, who will say that grace is hidden in that gladness of the world? Therefore, let it be said again: grace is not in things, but in the good favor of God, who works blessing in and through the means. The things are always common in this world, but grace is never common.

Besides that, we must not forget that this idea does not even touch the actual point of common grace. That actual point, according to the doctrine of common grace, is always that sin is restrained and that the natural man is thereby qualified to live a somewhat good life in creation before the face of God. What does Acts 14 tell us? We have seen that common grace is denied in the prologue of the gospel of John. The light did shine, but the darkness was not improved by it and did not grasp the light [John 1:5]. It was no different in Romans 1. Far from teaching that a certain operation of God’s common grace can be detected in the history of the heathen world whereby sin is restrained in its course, Paul rather teaches us that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven [Rom. 1:18], whereby the heathen world became foolish and debauched [Rom. 1:18-32]. That is the very opposite.

Is it different in Acts 14:16-17? Absolutely not. Just listen: “Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.” Is that not surely the very opposite of “restraining” the wicked in their way? The ways of the heathen are sinful ways, and God allowed them to walk in these ways. He did not restrain them, did not hold them back in their walk, but allowed them to continue. And this was true even though they were not without a witness of God. For God did not leave Himself without witness in that heathen world. No, He revealed Himself in rain and fruitful times, in food and gladness, as a God who did good. But that brought no change whatever in the ways of the heathen. If a change should be brought about, God would have to give them grace. But that is exactly what He did not do (v. 16).

Scripture does not teach a restraint of sin by grace but an organic development of sin. The whole of natural life is a place to serve that purpose. Spiritual death works from within, so that the total depravity of the natural man continues to develop in all wickedness. The whole of natural life stands at his disposal, and he subjects it to the service of sin. And from heaven the wrath of God is revealed against the sin and godlessness of mankind, and directs and punishes it in such a manner that man becomes ever more foolish and more debauched, unless divine grace intervenes. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him [John 3:36].”

(Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof, Sin and Grace [Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 2003], pp. 248-250)