There are, no doubt, numerous deficiencies in the church, her leaders, and this author as a result of cultural disobedience. One of the devastating effects of disobedience results in functioning dualism that is crippling the church’s understanding of herself, and her role in society—not to mention confusing and frustrating the public square. We will see how the doctrine of common grace is uniquely able to sweeten the bitterness of such dualism.
Tim Keller defines dualism as an unchristian worldview that “separates the spiritual/sacred from the rest of life.” Keller says, “Under [dualism’s] influence Christians look to their faith for personal salvation, but the rest of their lives is shaped by popular culture…” Late twentieth century American Christianity became dualistic in practice because of an increasing separation, a secularity, between people of faith and the public square institutions in which they functioned. The application of Enlightenment secularism in the law and practice of American culture paralleled similarly rapid advancements in communications and media. Artistic expression in cinema, popular music, and literature reached global masses as never before, and introduced morally ambivalent, if not outright immoral images, words, ideas, and practices. So the avant-garde flirtation with the edges of social morality were no longer confined to Gertrude Stein’s Parisian salon. Elvis, the Beatles, and Madonna brought their explicit gyrations into all of our living rooms and now our cell phones.
Traditional-values voters were increasingly marginalized, both in the public square and from their culturally exposed children. Some Christ-followers began to pull back culturally seeking safety and purity from the perceived tainting of American culture. By pulling back, evangelicals embraced a Christ against culture orientation as articulated by Niebuhr. One may have been a Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist, each with unique theological responses to culture. Yet, Enlightenment ideas and the rapid advancement of pop culture formed practicing Anabaptists removing themselves from the public square and her influences.
Likewise, as Andy Crouch suggests in his book Culture Making, Christians also copied the cultural artifacts around them, only furthering a dualistic mindset. Christian became an adjective as alternative options to the elements of American culture were developed. Christian music and Christian movies mimicked much in mainstream culture but without expletives or cleavage. Christian chambers of commerce, Christian parenting methods, and Christian financial services are but a few examples. For the most part, the term Christian has served only as a label, rather than a cue to the public that the way we do life and business (regardless of industry) is about mastering the craft and never forgetting the promotion of flourishing and human dignity even in the context of profits.
Therefore, today many Christians become confused when their experience at work does not match the dualistic categories within their malformed worldview. Christians go to work, experience artistic expression in many forms, and increasingly interact with neighbors of divergent ethnicities, religions, and races. When the non-Christians are nicer and more kind and innovating much more beautifully than we are, we wonder, “How is this possible if I am one who carries the Holy Spirit as a result of God’s grace?” We look at cultures in which the Gospel has not been at work historically, and we wonder, “If God is the source of all good things, and this country has not the church and Gospel at work, how did they, mired in their depravity, come up with roads, electricity, and government, much less better interstates, innovative energy solutions, and more beautiful art?” One begins to suspect, “Could God be at work outside of His grace in Jesus Christ?”
In the midst of our disobedience and dualism, we are left lacking a mature understanding of what to do or how even to think about people, institutions, and culture itself. Such immaturity stunts personal evangelism and one’s participation in a diverse, multiethnic, multi-religious democracy is blocked by unease and fear. This confusion and incoherence described here permeates today’s American church and cripples her and her people to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the pursuit of common grace, we will achieve clarity and confidence because it resets dualistic thinking and embraces the entire work of Christ in all of creation. Common grace properly expands who we are and who God is.
A resurgence of common grace teaching is a critical component to answering our cultural disobedience and dualism of the church.
The next two posts in this Common Grace blog series will unpack the doctrine itself more fully.
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 Are We Thinking About
QUOTE. God is glorified in the total development toward which human life and power over nature gradually march on under the guardianship of “common grace.”
– Abraham Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader
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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.