Common Grace: Waning Grace? (1/5)

This blog is one of a five-part series of articles on Common Grace. Common Grace is not often a topic for sermons or conversations, and yet it is vital if we hope to “live by faith not as a single act, but something habitual and permanent.” (David Clarkson, Works)

Americans have good reason as of late to question the social benefit of the church. Mega-church pastors have fallen from grace infused with what Andy Crouch calls “celebrity power”. The Roman Catholic pedophile scandal and systemic cover-up pushes both non-believer and believer alike to wonder if the church is predatory. As if our own institutional problems as churches weren’t enough, leaders in the public square grow ever more skeptical. Senator Dianne Feinstein questioned a highly qualified Christian nominee for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals noting with grave concern that “the dogma lives loudly within you.”

Is it any wonder that the “Nones” are the fastest growing segment of Americans, those who check the box “none” when asked about their religious affiliation? We, the church, have seemingly lost our relevance and others are noticing.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul describes his hope for the church to be radiant, “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27, NIV.) That vision of Christ’s bride motivates me as a pastor and many of my colleagues. As leaders aiming for Paul’s vision of Christ’s bride, we, to varying degrees, patiently endure the reality of human brokenness that keeps the bride wrinkly and blemished: church gossip grapevines, unmet expectations by pastors, small groups gone bad,  congregants who are more interested in business connections than a connection with the Holy Spirit, etc.

These are realities that mature Christians grow to expect, and skilled pastors learn to navigate. We strive to balance healthy doctrines of sin with the promise of redemption in Christ. Although we fail at having a perfect church, the balancing between sinful realities and the hope of redemption looms large. These doctrines are the guardrails of Christian community enabling the church as an institution to function centuries on end.

Sadly, our larger culture sees the church quite differently. Furthermore, celebrity cults, financial malfeasance, and sexual predation represent more than mere human brokenness, but institutional decay and dis-ability. If not careful, fellow institutions in society will use the law, on top of societal pressure, to limit or eliminate institutions such as ours perceived to be disabled and destructive.

The very future of the church and religious liberty are at stake in 2019.

This series of blog posts demonstrates that the successful American church of the twenty first century must be one that executes her historic mission in such a way that society does not reject or eventually outlaw the church. The church risks her relevancy with our corruption, lethargy, and missional waywardness. Unless we move beyond scandals, reclaim a missional vigor, and deeply bless the common good in the name of Jesus Christ, we risk quickening the pace of our exile and placing the hope of the Gospel beyond the reach of many.

In upcoming blog posts, I will further explore the cultural disobedience that has shaped the conversation and practices in today’s churches. For the institution that I love and serve most, I suggest a classic theological teaching of old, common grace, that, if reclaimed and widely taught, can work to reinvigorate the church, deepening individuals in their discipleship journey, and translate into a common good blessing that others want and encourage. Truly a win win.

What is common grace and why does this forgotten doctrine have potential to invigorate today’s church and renew the public square?

Al Wolters in Creation Regained describes common grace as, “God’s goodness to all men and women, believers and unbelievers alike.” So, Christians and non-Christians each have been ‘graced’ in a common manner to do and bring about good things. Examples would be the kindness people demonstrate, intellectual discovery, the ability of non-Gospelized cultures to build great roads, paint beautiful paintings, or send relief supplies to people in distress. It is the grace God pours out in common to everyone, as opposed to saving grace reserved to those who confess faith in Christ.

For too long, some American Christians have explicitly suggested or subtly assumed that God’s goodness and grace was reserved for those with saving grace. Non-believers were corrupt, without hope, and therefore the work of their hands less good and capable than that of a Christ follower, the thinking goes. In this blog series we are going to explore this dynamic, how it hurts the cause of becoming a vigorous church that contributes to the public square in a relevant and productive fashion, and ways to re-learn common grace for today.

In the next blog post we look even more deeply at today’s church, and it is quite challenging.

This blog post is originally appeared on The Collaborative, and is an excerpt from a larger work on common grace to be published in the Westminster Society Journal, Vol. 3, Spring, 2019.

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