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
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
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
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)