Common Grace Versus Special Grace—What’s the Difference?

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In his common grace, God provides many blessings for his creation, including food and shelter, sunshine and rain, the restraining of evil, and countless innovations and advancements. Special grace, which we find in God’s covenant of grace, is limited to those who trust in Christ alone through faith alone.

The covenant of grace is first mentioned in Genesis 3:15.

We find the first mention of the covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15 where God promises a savior to come who will crush the serpent’s head and conquer Satan, sin, and death forever.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:15)

The relationship that existed between God and Adam had a condition placed upon it, which was Adam’s obedience. The reward for obedience was life, and the consequence for disobedience was death. Adam represented all of humanity in this covenant (Rom. 5:12, 17-19).

The serpent, a fallen angel also called the devil, wanted the glory for himself (Isa. 14:12-15; Matt. 4:8-10; Luke 4:5-8). He enticed Adam and his wife Eve to disobey God by eating the only forbidden fruit in the entire garden, falsely claiming that the fruit would make them “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).

There would be no covenant of grace without Christ, the mediator of the covenant.

Because of Adam’s disobedience and fall, all people bear Adam’s guilt, because Adam represented all humanity. Furthermore, Adam’s sin caused the corruption of his nature, and all his posterity—including you and me—now bear that same sinful nature.

Humans are utterly unable to keep God’s law perfectly because of their fallen state in Adam. Without the God-man, Jesus Christ, who was born in the flesh and kept God’s law perfectly and was the once-for-all sacrifice for sin, we would have no hope. Jesus is the mediator of the covenant of grace between God and humans, in which the righteousness of Christ is counted to them and eternal life is theirs, and this is all God’s gift.

As Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele write in Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored,

The covenant of grace tells God’s story of redemption; it traces the unfolding drama from Genesis to Revelation. It shows us that the Bible is actually one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. (p. 70)

In his redemptive plan, God instituted the Noahic covenant to preserve the earth.

In the Noahic covenant, God made a promise to Noah to never again bring a flood to destroy the earth (Gen. 9:1–17). God instituted the Noahic covenant as a covenant of common grace to preserve the earth so that humans would not destroy each other, in order that the Savior, Jesus Christ, could come at the appointed time in God’s redemptive plan:

“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth.  I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen. 9:9-11)

While both covenants are gracious, one is common in its administration and the other is special.

The Noahic covenant of common grace is very different from the covenant of special grace. By contrasting the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9) with the covenant of grace (Genesis to Revelation), we recognize key differences of each covenant:

  • The Noahic covenant is universal, whereas the covenant of grace is particular.

  • The Noahic covenant is temporary, whereas the covenant of grace is eternal.

  • The Noahic covenant is preservative, whereas the covenant of grace is redemptive.

One day the Noahic covenant will come to an end, but the covenant of grace is everlasting.

Even now God continues to uphold the Noahic covenant for us as he patiently waits for all God’s people to come to repentance. In the new heaven and new earth, there will no longer be a need for the Noahic covenant. Yet, the covenant of grace (special grace) is God’s everlasting, unconditional, redemptive promise that all who are in Christ have been born again to new life by the Spirit. They are secure in their adopted status as God’s children and will enjoy their Savior for all eternity.

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Le Ann Trees is managing editor of Beautiful Christian Life.


Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Second Edition) by Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele.