A (Sharp) Pastoral Warning to Students in Christian Colleges (4)

Previous article in this series: November 15, 2010, p 76.

Dear Reformed Christian Young People (and their parents),

By now I hope it has become clear to you that, although the issue of church and kingdom is important for Christian college students, it reaches far beyond the Christian colleges. The new views of God’s kingdom affect everything. These views, which make church narrow and kingdom wide, and make church of importance only as it serves kingdom causes, affect all spheres of life. They drive mission works and church planting efforts: churches are needed to redeem culture and transform society, and more churches must be planted, not primarily because by them God gathers His elect people, but because by churches the kingdom comes. Churches are “outposts for the kingdom.” I trust you have heard this language. Understanding this view will help you understand why some service projects and short-term mission efforts do little if any preaching or witnessing. The assumption is: “Even though the gospel is not spoken, the kingdom is being built.”

The implications for one who adopts this view cannot be overestimated.

By the way, and very practically, a couple of important points: 1) When someone contemplates joining a denomination, included in the subjects of consideration must be kingdom. What is their view of kingdom? Not only, What is their view on grace, or on marriage? but also, What is their doctrine of the kingdom? 2) Kingdom must be in view when missionaries teach those who seek membership. 3) And when the churches discuss ecclesiastical relations with other churches, this subject ought to be on the agenda. It is that important.

Last editorial, when I showed that the historic view of the kingdom identified it with the church, that Augustine’s City of God was the church, I promised to trace the new view to its source. If the church of the past, including the Reformers, did not hold this view, where did the view originate?

I will allow the proponents of the new Calvinism themselves to explain. All of them claim that behind their view stands the doctrine of common grace.

No one is surprised that the Standard Bearer raises the subject of common grace. What I want to reveal here is the major place that Reformed churches and writers give to the doctrine today. If the doctrine of common grace were merely a Protestant Reformed bugaboo, of concern only to us whose denomination is rooted in a denial of some long-forgotten doctrine of little importance, that would be one thing. But to hear that the majority of Reformed Christians today regularly claim that common grace is the engine that drives their kingdom-building enterprise ought to make one notice, sit up, and give a hearing.

The proponents of the new kingdom view openly identify common grace as the one doctrine that supports their kingdom teaching. For them, common grace is as essential to the new Calvinism as the Five Points are to the old. Common grace supports their kingdom doctrine so fundamentally that, if this doctrine would fall away, their kingdom doctrine would collapse.

This is what in the last editorial I called the “slim pillar.” I call it a slim pillar partly because of its recent origin (the 1800s), partly because its proponents find no support for it in the Reformed confessions and very questionable support in the Reformers, and partly because Abraham Kuyper, the author upon whom the proponents of common grace depend, used so very little Scripture in his three-volume exposition of this doctrine.

As I said, the proponents of the new kingdom doctrine themselves say that Kuyper’s common grace is its mainspring. I will not clutter this editorial with footnotes, but all references are available for the interested reader. The quotations come from a wide variety of authors, from diverse areas of the Reformed and evangelical church world. They include Hart and Zylstra from Toronto, John Bolt from Calvin Seminary, David VanDrunen from Westminster West, Gary North of the Christian Reconstructionists, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship/ Breakpoint renown, and the popular author T.M. Moore. They could just as well, but for lack of space do not, include names like Bratt, Mouw, Myers, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff. These authors may have slightly different takes on the kingdom, but all would agree with common grace’s fundamental place.

First, the new Calvinism teaches that the kingdom is a larger sphere than the church. Fundamental to this distinction is common grace. In the smaller sphere of church, special grace works, saving souls. In the larger sphere, common grace works, creating the kingdom. The kingdom is creation and culture Christianized by the power of common grace.

Kuyper makes a crucial distinction between saving grace and common grace…. Saving grace brings in something new for God’s people…. [But] there is never anything new in common grace, which preserves and develops the original creation. Common grace plays a critical role in the historical development of culture….

The church…must address herself to the task of maximizing the gifts of common grace as far as possible, in order to serve the kingdom of God…. In so doing, the church will…manifest the kingdom of God on earth.

Second, see special grace’s relation to common grace: Common grace’s coronation is the ultimate goal, and special grace is the means to the crowning of common grace as king.

Kuyper…demands that special grace leaven common grace for its better functioning…. The Christian spirit…must modify, transform, and Christianize the various organic connections of human life upheld by common grace…. Common grace does not exist solely for the benefit of special grace, simply to provide a necessary backdrop for the history of redemption. Instead, common grace has its own independent purposes…. Through common grace, the human race constructs an edifice of human culture to greet Christ at his return. Kuyper, therefore, presents a grand picture of the fulfillment of the creation mandate through the blessing of common grace….

This grand fulfillment of the creation mandate is the “primary and independent purpose of creation” that I referred to last month. And Kuyper’s common grace is the main functioning power for this “primary and independent purpose” of creation.

What receives emphasis, then, is not the “Great Commission” but the “cultural commission,” driven by common grace. This is Chuck Colson’s aim:

In addition to the Great Commission, God has given us a cultural commission: Not only are we to be agents of God’s saving grace— bringing others to Christ—we are also agents of His common grace.

Colson’s Breakpoint commentaries quote both Francis Schaeffer and Abraham Kuyper often. In one of these commentaries, one of Schaeffer’s students asked where Schaeffer had gotten his kingdom/culture perspective. The answer was not difficult:

It was from his Calvinist mentors, particularly the Dutch Calvinists who had continued the tradition of Abraham Kuyper, that Schaeffer acquired his underlying theology of culture.

Third, see how the church relates to the kingdom: church exists in society for the sake of the common grace/ kingdom realm:

For Kuyper, the church is fundamentally organism, not institution, and should pervade every aspect of society precisely as an organism, working its influence on the realm of common grace. (Emphasis mine: BG)

One of the not-surprising consequences of this mind? By common grace, the Christian church joins together with the antichristian church and the non-Christian world in an unequal yoke for kingdom causes.

Common grace, therefore, allows a certain measure of cooperation among believers and unbelievers in cultural life….

There are areas in which, by God’s common grace, we may cooperate with non-Christians in seeking to realize our Christian objectives [BG: he means “advance the kingdom”]. Hence we gladly cooperate with orthodox Jews and Moslems against all shades of atheism, and with Catholics…. If…we are offered the support of concerned Jews, Moslems, and Catholics, we willingly welcome and utilize such support.

In the end, common grace, now more important than saving grace, is crowned king.

Kuyper…demands that special grace leaven common grace for its better functioning. The Christian spirit…must modify, transform, and Christianize the various organic connections of human life upheld by common grace.

Helpfully, some authors are candid about the origins of this doctrine in Abraham Kuyper, not before. After commending Kuyper’s view that “the life of common grace permitted God’s original designs for the world in the creation mandate to be accomplished,” and that “common grace did not simply exist for the benefit of special grace,” one said, “Earlier Reformed theologians, to my knowledge, never articulated things quite in this way.”

Reflecting in particular on the powerful influence of Kuyper’s common grace on Protestantism broadly, another said: “It is certain that Christianity as we have known it in America is undergoing a systemic shift.” Because of Kuyper’s common grace.

In conclusion, trace the development of thought: First, the kingdom is made larger than church. Common grace is the way. Then, even if the church for a while remains the more important reality, common grace soon gives kingdom an independent purpose. Finally, kingdom usurps church and predominates: the church is only a tool to establish this greater, independent, and primary work of God. The people of God are called to do “missions” without witnessing or bringing the gospel. Mission organizations send teams to fields and include ordained pastors right alongside of the equally important social workers and agricultural experts.

One Reformed magazine so closely relates the church’s mission and kingdom in culture that a recent issue is dedicated to “celebrat[ing] TV at its emerging best.” The magazine is carrying out its mission “to express the Reformed faith theologically” and thus “contribute to the mission of the church.” By celebrating TV, and praising “Homer Simpson,” Lost, 24, the church promotes the kingdom! The “common grace” view of the kingdom has led to this.

This is a view of church and kingdom radically different from that of our Reformed forefathers, not very many years ago. But this is what many Christian colleges are teaching as Reformed truth. The kingdom is not the church. The church is not the main thing. Our goal is Christianized culture. Christ’s precious and glorious church must stand aside for this more glorious kingdom, built by Christians and non-Christians in cooperation.

All supported by the slim pillar of common grace.