I have a growing concern about the lack of thoughtful consideration of the activities of God outside of the context of redemption. I don’t mean activities disconnected from redemptive work because everything traces a degree of connection.
We need to ask if God cares about the conditions, actions and achievements of unbelievers in ways that are not immediately linked to individual salvation?
How do we respect the lines between belief and unbelief, between those who live within the boundaries of saving grace and those who do not, while at the same time honoring (with active appreciation) all that is good, beautiful and true outside of those boundaries? This question could have significant identity and mission implications for individual believers and local Churches.
What I am interested in is divine actions that fit into categories of common grace and general revelation. In a broad sense, these categories have been acknowledged for many years by most theologians and teachers. Yet they too often remain at a lofty distance from the life of the believer and the local Church.
- How should our knowledge of God’s common grace and His revelation of Himself through creation be reflected in the ministry philosophy of the church?
- How much do these truths impact our approaches to people and our activities outside of the community of the redeemed?
- What is the connection between these truths and our practical theology?
Several recent works have brought attention to these matters. Richard J. Mouw’s brief but engaging book, “He shines in all that’s fair: Culture and Common Grace” is a fine conversational piece for deeper reflection. Mouw echoed my concern, suggesting that,
“The standard formulations of common grace teaching have often had an unfortunate feel of passivity for Christians. They have depicted a transaction between God and unbelievers with virtually no attention to the active role of the Christian community in ‘delivering the goods,’ so to speak, of common grace.” (p.80).
Mouw encouraged his readers (as he did in his earlier work, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World) to recognize deeper aspects of the Imago Dei (image of God) in connection with common grace themes and to apply these truths by commitment to imitatio Dei (imitation of God) through “common grace ministries.”
Is it possible that “passivity” on this important subject has encouraged the Church to institutionalize itself in ways that wrongly isolate it from culture? I am concerned that the church has increasingly become a body of people who largely speak to themselves, about themselves and exist for themselves. Is it possible that much of the Church (at least in western cultures) has abrogated divine callings by narrowly focusing emphasis on the spiritual dimension of humanity?
Why does the Church seem largely irrelevant to so many people? Have we compromised our “salt and light” identity? These are the questions that have burdened me over the past decade. On more than a few occasions, I have suggested that limiting Christian calling and influence to the spiritual dimension is a betrayal of both the Imago Dei (image of God) and imitatio Dei (imitation of God).
Consider some key Scriptures that invite us to reflect on a wider focus:
The apostle Paul and Barnabas were ministering in Lystra and God performed a miraculous healing of a lame man. The people who saw this began to worship Paul and Barnabas as if they were gods.
“But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
Perhaps we feel comfortable with attributing divine activity and witness to the common grace of “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food,” but what does it mean that God “fills your hearts with joy”? What is this activity of God in the lives of those who do not know Him?
The apostle Paul is speaking to polytheistic philosophers in Athens. Notice how he portrays the activity of God in the lives of all people.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth … He gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
The universal reach of God’s activity is emphatically stated. God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” The apostle encourages those who are unredeemed to recognize the nearness of God as so significant that, “in him we live and move and have our being.” He exhorts them to view themselves as God’s offspring and to respond to his universal command to repent.
Jesus called his followers to a radical response to the unredeemed based on imitatio Dei (imitation of God).
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36)
“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
“God has indeed lawfully ordered his creation, and there are biblical passages — Romans 2:15 is an obvious case in point — that make it clear that all human beings have some sort of cognitive access to that lawfulness.” (Mouw)
The Belgic Confession states clearly that in addition to God’s revelation in Scripture, “[w]e know him…by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his eternal power and Godhead”—all of which is “sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse.”
How do we translate these truths into our theology and our activity in the world?
Another more recent book addressing these themes is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, I resonated with Hunter when he suggested that,
“… believers themselves are often found indifferent to and even derisive of expressions of truth, demonstrations of justice, acts of nobility, and manifestations of beauty outside of the church. Thus, even where wisdom and morality, justice and beauty exist in fragments or in corrupted form, the believer should recognize these as qualities that, in Christ, find their complete and perfect expression. The qualities nonbelievers possess as well as the accomplishments they achieve may not be righteous in an eschatological sense, but they should be celebrated all the same because they are gifts of God’s grace.”
Fear of theological compromise
Perhaps those who feel hesitant about these emphases worry that, “Christian presumptions of an available common moral discourse signal that we have negotiated an unfaithful compromise with the fallen order” (Mouw).
But by taking these truths seriously, “…we do not make our witness in the larger world on the assumption that humankind has been made more receptive to the truth of the gospel by some kind of across-the-board upgrade.”
Hesitations (particularly among those committed to a reformed theology) to embrace common grace theology in a way that becomes missional is often based in fear that emphasis on “general revelation, natural law, natural theology, and similar notions … can lead to a categorical endorsement of the moral and rational capacities of human beings in general. Either the radical effects of the fall are denied outright, or they are acknowledged and then quickly modified by the idea of a prevenient grace, an across-the-board upgrading of our original fallen state, so that some significant segment of our shared human consciousness has been repaired and our depravity is no longer in effect.” (Mouw)
So, as Mouw advised, “We proceed with caution, knowing that the rebellious manifesto of our first parents — ‘We shall be as gods!’ — still echoes all around us. But we also know — and this is an important message for common grace theology — that the Spirit of the reigning Lamb is indeed active in our world, not only in gathering the company of the redeemed from the tribes and nations of the earth, but also in working mysteriously to restrain sin in the lives of those who continue in their rebellion, and even in stimulating works of righteousness in surprising places. And so, while we proceed with caution, we also go about our business in hope.”
Fear of theological messiness
Mouw acknowledged that endorsing “a common grace theology is to learn to live with some theological messiness.”
In view of what Mouw called “a large measure of messiness” he cautioned that, “we must seek the common good with the clear awareness that in the public square we are surrounded by people “who call good evil and evil good, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). And yet it is in these circumstances that we hear again the Lord’s ancient call to his redeemed people to seek the welfare of the city of our exile. This messiness, then, isn’t something that we can hope to eliminate; nor can we minimize it as we develop our strategies for public witness. … But …all of our theological probing will eventually bring us to a humble acknowledgement of the divine mysteries” (Mouw).