Common grace and the local Church

Younger evangelicals tend to be suspicious of some of the non-negotiable lines drawn by their spiritual predecessors. This is particularly the case where those lines were used to make strong distinctions between those (Christians) who were in from those who were out.

Suspicions only increased where strong emphasis was placed on separation from those outside of the true Church (meaning us) and where the exclusivity of “our” group was emphasized.

This aversion among younger evangelicals is particularly fueled by the fact that the old separatist approach so often came with the hypocritical baggage of legalism. When leaders don’t deal firmly with the logs in their own eyes but readily splinter-check the eyes of others (Matthew 7:1-6), young people are quickly turned off by their hypocrisy.

I think that some of these realities in the Church have indirectly contributed to an increased interest in themes of common grace and shared humanity among many younger believers. Many of them grew weary of the separatist model and became increasingly suspicious of the over-renouncing they experienced in their evangelical upbringings. Instead of  abandoning the faith, they pursued different ways of living it, ways that inclined more toward commonality than separation.

This is not all bad. The separatist model itself was ridden with overreaction. A corrective response was needed as long as it did not become another overreaction albeit in a different direction. There are some glaring examples of such overreaction among a few prominent younger evangelicals. The backgrounds of leaders like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (though a bit older) fit the concern. There is profit in an ongoing conversation about this pattern.

There may also be a need for  deeper reflection on a theology emphasizing aspects of shared humanity. Such theology should be based in the fact that all people are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9). Among other things, this means that all people share deeply significant blessings and responsibilities. All humans live under God’s common grace as recipients of blessings outside of the boundaries of salvation. We need more thoughtful connection between these truths and our practical theology.  Christopher Wright, (following in the steps of his colleague, John R. W. Stott), has recently focused on this theme in his book, The Mission of God.

“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” (C. Wright, The Mission of God).

Scripture reminds us that, ¨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).

In his helpful book on this subject, Richard J. Mouw acknowledged 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.” (He shines in all that’s fair: Culture and Common Grace,” p.80).

I am simply suggesting that effective ministry to younger evangelicals should include concern for these themes. Perhaps attention to the following four questions could facilitate discussion.

Four questions

  1. In what ways does God care about the actions and achievements of unbelievers that are not linked directly to issues of individual salvation?
  2. Are salvation categories adequate to cover all of God’s dispositions toward human beings, both redeemed and unredeemed?
  3. How do we take with utmost seriousness the lines between those who live within the boundaries of saving grace and those who do not, while at the same time maintaining openness and active appreciation for all that is good, beautiful and true outside of those boundaries?
  4. How should answers to these questions be reflected in the ministries of local Churches? 

Scriptures for deeper reflection

Acts 14:15-17

“After the miraculous healing of a crippled man, the people rushed Barnabas and Paul to worship them. Listen to their response:

“Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and 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.” 

These are descriptions of God’s activities—not toward those who believe, but toward unbelievers. “He has not left Himself without testimony” (Verse 17).

Acts 17:24-28

The apostle also addressed these matters to the philosophers of Athens:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each 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.’” 

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Christian worldview, Christianity, Church growth, Citizenship, Common grace, Worldview, Younger Evangelicals. Bookmark the permalink.

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