To combat the cultural disobedience and dualism that plagues the American church, common grace provides six practical benefits for individual discipleship and for the local church with her role in the public square (the first three come from the Christian Reformed Church’s 1924 Synod statement and subsequent revisions.)
First, through common grace God shows favor to the whole of His creation. Believing this to be true, elitism and partisanship dissipate in churches as Christians see themselves as keepers of a covenant, not possessors of salvation. Common grace is a sweet morsel countering the exclusiveness of the Gospel by the non-believer.
Second, in spite of the fall, God restrains the effects of sin through common grace. This enables humanity to pursue and achieve good because while all is depraved and broken, not all is lost. While there are many places that could be called ‘hell on earth’, like the slums of New Delhi, abandoned inner cities of America, or worn torn landscapes in Syria, there are many more places of natural and cultural beauty in which brokenness is present, but not dis-abling flourishing from occurring. God’s restraint of the brokenness in such places enable his children to grow, laugh, and live, as well as lends hope for places on earth thought beyond repair.
Third, non-Christians’ positive contribution to society is affirmed as civic righteousness. Christ followers are to join them in the pursuit of civic righteousness for the benefit of all. Civic righteousness as a category for one’s co-worker’s contribution makes sense, and enables a much deeper integration of faith and work hitherto impossible when a dualistic vision of materiality confuses.
Steeped in this viewpoint, Christians learn to appreciate the cultural contributions of others and dampen church clubbiness. No longer is one left to live in a dualistic mindset that suggests only Christians and the church produce anything worthy or good. The brokenness and the malformation of all elements of this world are to be shared equally by Christ followers, and her institution (the church). Likewise, common grace is a benefit God gives even to non-Christians and the good and beauty that comes forth is worthy of appreciation.
Cornelius Van Til asks in his seminal work, Common Grace and the Gospel, “How much more then shall common grace to sinners imply the fact that it is for the purpose of placing men before a significant choice?”
Today’s Christ-follower, steeped in the benefits of common grace at work around him or her, fourthly, learns to frame their own work as an expression of God’s mission to the world. This insight by Van Til closely aligns with the Wesleyan view of prevenient grace in the way it leads to justification. The work of common grace on the assembly line, in courts of justice, or on a playdate with small children contrasts with God’s special grace of salvation in Jesus Christ. An evangelism opportunity emerges in day-to-day activities as the Christ-follower shares the work of the whole gospel, common and special grace with someone. Likewise, we are able to frame a non-believer’s potential place in God’s mission to the world. Salvation becomes not a selfish endeavor to secure one’s fire insurance, but rather an invitation to bring one’s life and, particularly, vocation, greater meaning and (eschatological) purpose.
Van Til’s other benefit of common grace, our fifth, one that energizes the narrative of today’s missionally oriented church, is that the works of common grace themselves proclaim the glory of God. He writes, “To say that the facts of rain and sunshine in themselves do not tell us anything of God’s grace is to say in effect that the world and what is therein does not speak forth the revelation of God.” To God be the glory.
The sixth and final benefit common grace offers the church is humility. One’s work and cultural contribution being on equal footing with others is humbling for Christ followers. We are emerging from Christendom in which cultural superiority and the gospel are often intermixed. Such a humble orientation is essential; otherwise union with Christ and incarnational aspirations are stifled. Members of Christ’s bride are free to pursue work in joy rather than in competition, arm-in-arm with others for the greater good.
For the church as institution, active teaching of common grace in the life of a Christ follower provides a church missional vigor. The church is more than re-imagined; she is rightfully imagined as a missional outpost in need of active disciples executing God’s mission in both one’s daily life and institutionally.
In personal discipleship, common grace teaching brings forward a faithfully Biblical framework with intellectual categories to equip believers for today’s post-modern milieu. Common grace resets the missional orientation of a church, and the individual disciple, aiming to serve God and advance His kingdom. Avoiding the mistakes of yesteryear, it equips Christians to serve the public square with a vibrant witness and meaningful purpose.
In closing, the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history coincided with our ancestors’ journey during the kingdom of Judah, Babylonian exile, and return to Jerusalem. During this era Shi Jing 148 was written by a Chinese poet:
In the low, damp grounds is the carambola tree;
Soft and delicate are its flowers,
With the glossiness of its tender beauty.
I should rejoice to be like you, [O tree], without consciousness.
When beauty emerges in times and places otherwise unexpected, like ancient China, we see our God’s amazing common grace echoing a sweet, sweet sound. Yet, few Christians today would be equipped to see God’s work in the Shi Jing, and fewer still can place God’s work in today’s increasingly volatile cacophony called the public square.
As a people we were once handed over by God to the Babylonians to learn a hard lesson about faithfulness. At times in her history the church has gotten too big for her britches causing uproar in society. Yet, time and again the Holy Spirit brings about renewal and redirects the church in her historic mission. May common grace reach deep in the heart of Christ’s disciples to ignite both a missional effectiveness and a gracious welcome in the American public square.
This blog post is an excerpt from a larger work on common grace to be published in the Westminster Society Journal, Vol. 3, Spring, 2019.
What We Are Thinking About
QUOTE. [Common grace is] every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.
– John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2
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Case Thorp is moderator-elect of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the senior associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, and leads The Collaborative.