The Common Neglect of Common Grace (Part 1)
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Today I happened to glance through one of those Christian bookstore catalogs that show up in the mailbox periodically, when I noticed a product that caught my eye. It was a video game that lets you “play” along with hit rock bands through a customized, guitar-shaped controller. If you’re thinking this is the hit game “Guitar Hero,” then you’re close, but you’re way off.
This my friends is a game called “Guitar Praise,” which is nearly identical to its secular counterpart, but features an (ahem) “improved” soundtrack consisting of popular Christian groups.
To be honest, I wasn’t terribly surprised. I had already seen the “Christian” version of “Dance Dance Revolution” a few years ago. Back then I was alarmed to note that
(A.) such a product existed
(B.) my seminary bookstore carried said product and
(C.) the day I heard about it, they were sold out .
I should also point out that the only other seminary in the vicinity was Southern Baptist, and you know those guys aren’t buying it.
And then there was the film Sunday School Musical, a blatantly “Christianized” knock-off of the hit film franchise (thanks to Amy, Ashley and Grace for their discovery of this cinematic gem).
THE LOSS OF COMMON GRACE
Granted, I understand that parents want to be a bit more intentional about the types of media consumed by their children. But what these trends signal to me is a chronic failure to navigate culture in an intelligent way, favoring ostensibly “religious” alternatives to secular trends.
Usually this is a reaction against the “worldly” values that popular culture allegedly represents, creating a long list of rules and regulations concerning what is and is not “appropriate.” On this phenomenon, Lewis Sperry Chafer writes:
“There almost always comes into being another group of Christians which rises up and begins to work against such a list of taboos; thus there is a tendency toward a struggle in Christian circles between those who set up a certain list of taboos and those who, feeling there is something wrong with this, say ‘Away with all the taboos, away with all the lists.’ Both of these groups can be right and both can be wrong, depending on how they approach the matter.” (Lewis Sperry Chafer, True Spirituality)
This sacred-secular dichotomy speaks loudly of the loss of what the reformers called “common grace.”
It was John Calvin who had first articulated the concept of gratia communis or “common grace.” Contemporary theologian Bruce Demarest defined common grace as “God’s undeserved goodness to every person in the form of His general care. It includes the provision of basic human needs, the restraint of evil, the delay of judgment, and the maintenance of civil order.” (Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, p. 64)
The area most often neglected in such definitions is the arts. Biblically speaking, man is created in the imago Dei, the “image of God” (cf. Ge 1:26). In the context of the creation narrative of Genesis 1, one of the most immediate implications of the imago Dei is innate capacity for creativity.
Admittedly the imago Dei was marred by the sin, but it was never eradicated. Like tarnish on a piece of silver, there remains some measure of creative goodness within each person, granting him not only the capacity for creativity but also for the discernment of truth. Wayne Grudem observes: “…the earth does not produce only thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:18) or remain a parched desert, but in God’s common grace it produces food and materials for clothing and shelter, often in great abundance and diversity.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 658)
Therefore there may be elements of truth found in places we often neglect. It was John Milton who compared Truth to the “mangled body of Osiris,” scattered across the land. The arts represent these fragments of truth, scattered in the context of God’s general revelation. Engaging with these elements gives us better understanding not only of human nature, but also of God’s truth. Calvin writes:
“Whenever we come upon [truth] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole source of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself nor despise it wherever it shall appear….Those men whom Scripture calls ‘natural men’ were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.”(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Rather than pulling away from culture, we are encouraged to be both “salt and light.” Author Mike Metzger observes:
“Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves. For example, if you only practice purity apart from proximity to culture, you inevitably become pietistic, separatistic and conceited. If you live in close proximity to the culture without also living in a holy manner, you become indistinguishable from fallen culture and useless in God’s kingdom.”
How do we balance these elements of “purity” and “proximity?” The task must surely seem daunting. In tomorrow’s post we will look at the more practical elements of the notion of common grace, with special attention paid to practical living.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.