Many younger evangelicals are reticent about a Christianity perceived more as a destination one arrives at or a conclusion one reaches. Perhaps their position is reactionary to the tight lines drawn by their spiritual predecessors. These lines distinguished those who were in from those who were out and made much of separation from those outside of the Church. Often the separatist approach also came with the baggage of legalism– a definite turn-off to younger evangelicals.
Growing up in an atmosphere of radical relativism with a strong emphasis on tolerance has also shaped their thinking. It’s not surprising then that themes related to common grace have taken on renewed significance among younger evangelicals. They are drawn toward emphasis on shared humanity rather than the old emphasis on differences between believers and unbelievers. It’s a desire to seek commonality over separation and isolation from the “world”. Since we have all been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9), we share much in common. We all live under God’s common grace as recipients of certain blessings outside of the boundaries of salvation.
A writer who recently offered seasoned reflection on common grace is Christopher Wright. His book The Mission of God would be helpful reading to all who desire to think deeply on these matters. He reminds his readers that, “Every human being on the planet is known by God, considered and evaluated by God, called to account by God” “To be human is to be addressable by one’s Creator—with no regard for ethnicity or covenant status. God can speak to an Abimelech or a Balaam or a Nebuchadnezzer as easily as an Abraham, a Moses or a Daniel.”
Scripture states: ¨To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” (Deuteronomy 10:14). ¨The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1). ”Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).
Belonging Before Believing:
Emerging churches led by younger evangelical leaders tend to be more open to common grace themes. They often emphasize a belonging before believing approach to Church participation. They feel comfortable enlisting those who have not yet come to faith to use their gifts in the service needs of the Church. If you’re a gifted violinist or artist, your gifts should be celebrated in the gatherings. I am not sure how much this approach is knowingly validated on a doctrine of common grace but it would give it the best possible read.
Most evangelical Churches welcome non-believers to use abilities like carpentry or cooking skills in the Church. But are the Church “work days” the only places for non-believers to get involved? Are we uncomfortable with an unbeliever being part of our worship team or in our choir (if we still have one)? I am not limiting my exploration of the questions below to this matter but it facilitates a discussion point. How would you answer these questions? How do texts like Acts 14 and 17 relate (see below)? What about Psalm 19 and Romans 1?
Helpful reminders about common grace:
The knowledge about God is obtainable on two levels: rational apprehension and revelational apprehension. Rational apprehension is accessible through God’s common grace and revelation of himself in creation.
Rational apprehension: universally accessible to every language
The first level of knowledge is described well in Psalm 19:1-4.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
The Psalmist invites us:
Look up at the heavens. Look at the skies. Be still and listen because their voice and their words go out to “all the earth,” to “the ends of the world.” Their voice and their words are universally accessible to every language on earth as they testify to the glory of their Maker and proclaim the work of His hands!
The apostle Paul adds force to this truth by reminding us that those who reject the knowledge of God accessible in the created world will be without excuse before God.
“since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20).
Romans 1:28 mentions those who “did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God” (NIV). Another translation says, “they did not see fit (edokimasan) to acknowledge God” (ESV). This is a reminder that some form of rational apprehension of God is available and can be rejected. To be “without excuse” implies some measure of accountability for rejecting a sufficient knowledge to invite you to look to God.
God fills your hearts with joy:
After the miraculous healing of a crippled man, the people rushed Barnabus and Paul to worship them. Listen to their response to the people:
“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. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 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” (Acts 14:15-17).
These are descriptions of God’s activities toward unbelievers: “He has not left Himself without testimony.” The testimony involves direct activities of God that theologians view as common grace toward those who have not yet believed. The apostle also told the philosophers in Athens that “He (God) is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:28).
Skepticism, agnosticism and atheism:
Skepticism about God is unnecessary. Remaining agnostic about God is unnecessary. Atheism is an absurd, arrogant and irrational denial of clear evidence. God has made Himself known in creation, the material universe and in the human conscience– the moral impulse common to all people. Although this universal accessibility to God is not always received and often suppressed, its existence can form a starting point for knowing God.
God, the Creator, made Himself rationally accessible through revelations of himself in the material universe. This knowledge about God is sufficient to render those who reject it “without excuse.” As universally accessible knowledge about God, it evidently conveys enough to invite humans to turn toward God. But this knowledge alone will not reveal the way one can know God in a personal and relational way based on forgiveness and reconciliation. This knowledge must come through a specific or special revelation from God (See: John 1:1-3,14; 3:16; Hebrews 1:1-3).
Four questions for discussion:
1. How should our knowledge of God’s common grace and His revelation of Himself through creation affect our approach toward those who have never trusted Christ? Does it provide a helpful starting point?
2. How should our knowledge of God’s common grace and His revelation of Himself through creation be reflected in the outreach ministry philosophy of the church?
3. Are salvation categories adequate to cover all of God’s dispositions toward human beings, both redeemed and unredeemed?
4. How do we take with utmost seriousness 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 maintaining an openness to—even an active appreciation for all that is good, beautiful and true that takes place outside of those boundaries?