I took this down on the previous posting. Here it is again, minor revisions, but essentially un-changed. I couldn’t figure a way to revise for better coherence without losing my own train of thought. I do appreciate that I had a reader seriously take time to critique my work here.
Is divine judgement manifest in the good things God provides? Does goodness ultimately mean wrathful justice in the arena of the unregenerate? Paul tells us to return evil with good in Romans:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:17-21
I was asked if I believe in common grace, and what it means. This has been mulling around in my head since I first heard of the term, which wasn’t too long ago, maybe three or so years. I think it’s kind of ambiguous – a term that’s used to blanket a lot of ideas about what’s good and beneficial. Maybe it’s just human nature to generalize terms as soon as possible just to avoid misapplying them.
Such generalization is a ridiculous practice, because eventually it leads to Rob Bellicosity and mysteriofication of everything important in theology. Better to have a specific term for specific ideas, even if it means technical, archaic, hard-to-say or lengthy and unwieldy. Get your labels clear and your package will be received intact and by the right person. This is why I’m a firm believer in confessions and creeds. Keeping straightforward, consistent interpretations of the Bible makes for safer navigation of theological waters.
In doing some definitions reading prior to this post, I came across the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) idea about the Gospel being a matter of common grace. This is not, in my opinion, the appropriate term for what is also called the “well intended offer” of the Gospel. Preaching Christ and Him crucified for our sins is an honest call for all sinners just doesn’t seem to be common grace. It seems more like common preaching. I think a better term should be in place of that idea. This, however, is probably above my knowledge level so I offer a couple of links for further reference:
I think I’d rather treat with what I think is the common version of common grace, a positive view of God’s providence.
Before I’d heard of common grace, I think I operated in a sort of concept where God “just did stuff.” I always tried to apply meaning to whatever happened, looking for a root cause or purpose to every in life. I suspect that this is a holdover from my witchcraft days which is equivalent to a distilled, hopped-up kind of superstition which pervades most religious or “spiritual” parts of culture. I was raised in the light-weight version of it, as a baptistic evangelical type, anyway, looking for purpose in God’s dispensational dealings with His 2nd family (the church). This leads me on a bit of a diatribe here, off-track for a minute.
We Christians need to dispose of the mindset that everything happens to us or because of us. It’s a bloody pagan idea. Essentially, this preoccupation with God’s “meddling” with everything under the sun is a biblicized form of karma or fortune-telling. We have so meshed our minds with “simple-minded” culture that we’ll jump at black cats, rainy days and traffic jams, looking in the Bible as if it were a deck of tarot-cards for meaning to every little stitch of an accident in our lives that applies to us in some way.
This is not a Biblical approach to life. We are not the center of all things, and Christianity is not a purely personal experience. I’d rather say that the personal experience in belonging to Christ is the icing on the cake, like having a best friend, which includes the icing of good feelings and hugging. This general error of “it’s all about me” is making a tiki-god out of our One True God. I’m serious. I actually have prayed for a good parking spot before, and when failing to find one, it actually crossed my mind that perhaps I was being punished because I cut that guy off on the freeway on the way to said parking spot. I kid you not. Now this is an extreme example in my case, though true, and harkens back to my witchcraft days, which brings me back to the real train tracks.
Witches, in my sphere of experience – though I’m sure I don’t speak for all, just most – seek to influence or downright control what’s happening and what’s going to happen through magic. Everything from charms to crystals, ceremonial magic to chanting, all are designed to make something go right for the practitioner. This religious practice is applicable to the mundane (worldly, secular or common) as well as the holy (spiritual, sacred, theologically significant). And it comes from a need for personal meaning, significance and power. Like I said, this is a hyper-ized kind of superstition. I would liken it to the word-of-faith movement in the church world, which is sheer idolatry and mysticism just with a Christian-like context. I doubt I need to go into detail.
So all that superstitious mysticism didn’t just disappear when I was made a child of God. It has taken some serious time and still causes me troubles with things like the Lord’s Table and Baptism. Means of grace in general are something I have to be careful with because it was such a part of my life, ritual and magic and ceremony that were almost analogous to some ideas in sacramental language, that I tend to want to “feel the energy” so to speak. I’ve also had to wrestle with the fact, common to most of us, that I’m not the center of every jot and tittle in the bubble that is my experience.
Anyway, all that is not common grace. Common grace, in my understanding, is God’s providential care for all of His creation. In Calvinism, we tend to think about the elect and non-elect, but as Spurgeon said (my paraphrase), there is no E on the back of every regenerate head in the church. I think this is how God operates as well. ALL thing belong to Him. He cares for His creation, regardless of the fact that some are raised up as vessels for His wrath. God has instilled in all people some measure of the capacity to know right from wrong.
And He has given even the vilest of us the capability to act with kindness and mercy. Even Hitler or some other fiend in history had to have done some kindness toward his wife or dog or some such at some point. The rain brings healing to a ravaged land, whether the people within are unregenerate pagans or not. The same sun shines on the garden of a hoary-headed Bible preacher destined for glory as well as that of a die-hard liberal nutjob destined for the great eternal ideologue pyre (had to put in my personal opine, there).
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! – Matthew 7:7-11
I don’t like the idea that every act of God that is good for His Chosen People is also a proclamation of judgement on those who hate Him. I think it’s reaching too far into the pages to find such a belief. Does it work? Yeah, I guess so. But it’s probably more like Occam’s Razor (a favorite theme of mine, anyway). There is judgement implied in God’s favor. To An Extent! A sweet call to repentance instead of a condemnation of sin is still a call to repentance. God works in both ways. He can and does call the cops as well as the robbers.
Jonah was the speaker for Nineveh’s call to repentance. It was a threat of judgement. Jesus dealt sweet mercy to the sick and bereft during His ministry, a call that was hardly a threat of judgement (not at all to say that Jesus had any alternate theology from Jonah whatsoever). Goodness wins over the masses just as often as a good “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon (though I’ll beg to wonder about what is beginning to look a lot to me like emotional manipulation and crowd psychology in that era of revivalism, but that is for another day).
Okay, so here’s the rub. I think this is a problem of terms. Common grace isn’t really the right term. In reading Berkhof, who needs much more attention from me (poor me, without a book fund – sniffle), I find that grace should be more like Grace. Grace really seems to be better suited to relating to God’s special intervention in our lives in either a soteriological or sanctifying manner.
For example, being hit over the head by the 2×4 of belief after reading Romans is grace. Also, being hit over the head by Covenant Theology is grace. Both are a seriously definitive event beyond the mundane. Perhaps a revision is in order, at least in my dictionary. Providence sounds like a better word. I’d like to redefine, however, or prefix a meaning to providence, making it to say “beneficial providence” and “detrimental providence” instead.
I’m not talking about any kind of effect or dealing from God here that is salvific or leading to salvation, though certainly either of these providence types can be instrumental in conversion. The subject is really just the daily ordering of an ordered creation. God is organized, holds things together, and with His hand deals both trial and blessing upon all His creation. So it is a fundamental of our routine existence we’re dealing here, not a soteriological issue.
Beneficial providence is that event which is to be considered good by the common judgement of common people everywhere, from cleansing rain to hearty food and good company. Detrimental providence is everything from lost keys to a miserable flu that just won’t stop making the rounds. I don’t think we can assign degrees to these, per say, defining when providence crosses over into grace, for that is relative to the individual. It’s just that we can’t say that everything is a catalyst for the end-times. I hope that isn’t too extreme an analogy to make the point.
In summary, the issue is really whether God is kind to just Christians or also to those who are not and never will be. Which introduces another question, does God reserve His wrath for the reprobate only or do Christians have to face it in their lives as well? I would hazard a rough guess (not too rough, actually), that there’s a lot going for God dealing both sweet and sour to both saved and damned. The problem, if we come to the conclusion that God is just and loving, should end up at the cross. As our pastor said so well, Justice and Love kissed at the cross. God poured out His full measure of wrath upon the innocent Jesus and simultaneously poured out the full extent of His love on His fully guilty creation.
Here’s a section from Berkhof (from http://www.theologue.org/CommonGrace-Berkhof.html)
3. Another objection to the doctrine of common grace is that it presupposes a certain favorable disposition in God even to reprobate sinners, while we have no right to assume such a disposition in God. This stricture takes its starting point in the eternal counsel of God, in His election and reprobation. Along the line of His election God reveals His love, grace, mercy, and long-suffering, leading to salvation; and in the historical realization of His reprobation He gives expression only to His aversion, disfavor, hatred, and wrath, leading to destruction. But this looks like a rationalistic over-simplification of the inner life of God, which does not take sufficient account of His self-revelation. In speaking on this subject we ought to be very careful and allow ourselves to be guided by the explicit statements of Scripture rather than by our bold inferences from the secret counsel of God. There is far more in God than we can reduce to our logical categories. Are the elect in this life the objects of God´s love only, and never in any sense the objects of His wrath? Is Moses thinking of the reprobate when he says: “For we are consumed in thine anger, and in thy wrath are we troubled”? Ps. 90:7. Does not the statement of Jesus that the wrath of God abideth on them that obey not the Son imply that it is removed from the others when, and not until, they submit to the beneficent rule of Christ? John 3:36. And does not Paul say to the Ephesians that they “were by nature children of wrath even as the rest”? Eph. 2:3. Evidently the elect can not be regarded as always and exclusively the objects of God´s love. And if they who are the objects of God´s redeeming love can also in some sense of the word be regarded as the objects of His wrath, why should it be impossible that they who are the objects of His wrath should also in some sense share His divine favor? A father who is also a judge may loathe the son that is brought before him as a criminal, and feel constrained to visit his judicial wrath upon him, but may yet pity him and show him acts of kindness while he is under condemnation. Why should this be impossible in God? General Washington hated the traitor that was brought before him and condemned him to death, but at the same time showed him compassion by serving him with the dainties from his own table. Cannot God have compassion even on the condemned sinner, and bestow favors upon him? The answer need not be uncertain, since the Bible clearly teaches that He showers untold blessings upon all men and also clearly indicates that these are the expression of a favorable disposition in God, which falls short, however, of the positive volition to pardon their sin, to lift their sentence, and to grant them salvation. The following passages clearly point to such a favorable disposition: Prov. 1:24; Isa. 1:18; Ezek. 18:23,32; 33:11; Matt. 5:43-45; 23:37; Mark 10:21; Luke 6:35: ROM 2:4; I Tim. 2:4. If such passages do not testify to a favorable disposition in God, it would seem that language has lost its meaning, and that God´s revelation is not dependable on this subject.