The preceding editorial contended that the explanation of the continuing existence of creation after the fall is the providence of God. Providence also accounts for the splendid natural gifts of totally depraved men and women. Fallen men and women remain human, and to their humanity belong some remains of the excellent gifts with which God endowed man at creation.
Those who attribute the existence of the world and the natural abilities and accomplishments of the fallen race to a common grace of God confuse grace and providence.
Providence, which is an aspect of God’s great work of creation (providence is His power of maintaining and governing the world He made), is also the basis of the Christian’s full, free, but antithetical, life in earthly society. Not a common grace of God, but the providence of God is the biblical, Reformed answer, in part, to the question of “the Christian and culture.”
This question of “the Christian and culture” is the great concern of Dr. Richard Mouw in his book, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001). “On what basis,” Mouw asks, “do we posit a commonality between those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ and those who have not done so?” He continues: “This question has particular importance as we try to articulate a biblical perspective for Christian involvement in public life in our contemporary context” (p. 6).
The basis of the Christian’s earthly life in the world is God’s upholding of the world that He made. The reason why the believer may breathe, eat, drink, move, work, and enjoy the tranquil twilight of the fall season is that God created this world, created it good, and now preserves it in its created goodness, though under His curse.
Common grace has nothing to do with this fundamental aspect of the Christian life in the world.
The ground in I Timothy 4:1ff. of the apostle’s vehement condemnation of an asceticism that despises material reality and preaches world-flight as the Christian life is the goodness of this material world as created by God. The error of the heretics is that they are contemptuous, and fearful, of a world “which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (v. 3). They deny creation and providence. Abraham Kuyper and the Christian Reformed Church would have accused them of denying common grace.
Paul taught that the Christian may live a full earthly life in this world and may use and enjoy all the creatures, in a manner appropriate to each, because “every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving” (I Tim. 4:4).
The basis of the Christian’s active involvement in the various ordinances, or spheres, of earthly life is also creation and providence. In creating the world for man in the beginning, God Himself structured human life in the world by certain “human ordinances” (I Pet. 2:13). These include the ordinance, or institution, of marriage and the family, the ordinance of labor, and the ordinance of civil government. The fall did not efface these institutions. The providential power of God maintains them. As structures of creation, these institutions are good. The saints live their earthly life in these ordinances, and are thus busy with “culture,” because creation and providence so structure human life. Not common grace, but the providence that upholds creation explains why Christians are actively children in a family; husband or wife in marriage; parents in their own home; farmer, businessman, or laborer; and citizen of a nation.
Implied is the legitimacy, on the basis of creation and providence, of a Christian’s energetic engagement with all aspects of God’s rich creation. He may write books. She may paint pictures. He may explore the Amazon. She may discover drugs that alleviate the pain of arthritis. He may be president of a Christian college or a seminary. Communication, beauty, discovery, medicine, education—all are aspects of creation. In the course of this work, or recreation, the Christian may lawfully avail himself of the gifts, knowledge, discoveries, and inventions that divine providence has bestowed on, and produced through, the ungodly. All these things are simply part of the world that God gives to His children.
As regards the Christian’s motivation for life in the human ordinances, it is, on the one hand, obedience to God’s calling. God commands the believer to live the Christian life in the ordinances, not outside them in asceticism and world-flight. “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (I Pet. 2:13). Renunciation of creation and flight from ordinary human life in it are not superior holiness, but the “doctrines of devils” (I Tim. 4:1). The reason is that God wants His holy people to show His glory in everyday, earthly life against the dark background of the ungodliness of the wicked in these same ordinances. Therefore, on the other hand, the motivation of the Christian life in the human ordinances is the desire to glorify God. But common grace has nothing to do with this aspect of the Christian’s life in the world.
Creation and providence are also the basis for the believer’s association and cooperation with unbelievers in everyday, earthly life in society. In the world, living in the ordinances of labor and civil government, the Christian must, and may, associate and cooperate with unbelievers in the neighborhood, at work, and in national life.
Scripture expressly approves, and requires, this association and cooperation. Forbidding the members of the Corinthian church to “company” with fornicators and other public sinners in the congregation, the apostle states that he is not forbidding them to “company” with fornicators and other public sinners “of this world,” that is, the openly wicked outside the church. If he were to forbid the members of the church to associate with the wicked outside the church, the people of God would have to “go out of the world.” But this is both impossible and contrary to the will of God for His people (I Cor. 5:9-13).
So far did the apostle go in permitting association with the ungodly in everyday, earthly life that he allowed for a Christian’s accompanying an unbeliever to a feast at which food was served that had been sacrificed to idols (I Cor. 10:27). The meal was social, not religious. The Christian accompanied the unbeliever to the feast in the course of doing business, much as a salesman today would play golf with an unbelieving client (rebuking him for any swearing) and take him out for dinner afterwards (where the Christian would pray before the meal).
Association and working together in everyday, earthly life are lawful on the basis of a shared creation, upheld and governed by a common providence. This is the “commonality” of Christian and non-Christian in earthly life that Dr. Mouw is after. Common grace has nothing to do with this “commonality.” Again and again, Herman Hoeksema replied to his critics, “Believers and unbelievers have everything in common except grace.”
Association, not Friendship
But association is not friendship. Friendship with the unbeliever is both impossible and forbidden. Friendship demands oneness in Jesus Christ. My friend and I must have God as our God together. Whoever is an enemy of God is my enemy. This is the answer to Dr. Mouw’s question about the rightness of George White-field’s friendship with Benjamin Franklin. If Whitefield cultivated friendship with the godless Franklin, Whitefield sinned. God had no pleasure in the bonhomie of those two notables. The evangelist was prone to this sin. He also strove for friendship with John Wesley, one of the bitterest enemies of the gospel of grace who ever blasphemed predestination.
Where lawful association becomes illicit friendship can hardly be defined with rules. Every Christian must see to it that his contact with the wicked in earthly life does not develop into forbidden and ruinous fellowship. But Scripture is clear and insistent: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteous-ness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (II Cor. 6:14-18)
No Cooperative Kingdom-Building
Nor is cooperation of believer and unbeliever in everyday, earthly life a working together to build the kingdom of God in history. Defenders of common grace always leave the impression that the cooperation of believer and unbeliever they desire and that is supposed to be effected by common grace aims at the creation of the kingdom of Christ. In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper spoke of the “Christianizing” of the world.
Believers cooperate with fellow believers, and only fellow believers, to extend the kingdom of Christ—in the true church, in good Christian schools, in various forms of witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This work is powered by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is exactly the dreadful result of the fall into sin that the unregenerated can neither see, nor desire, nor work for Christ’s kingdom.
The Christian can and may live earthly life, freely and fully, in necessary association with non-Christians, on the basis of creation and providence. But the power by which he lives earthly life is the (saving) grace of God in Jesus Christ. If there is anything about the Christian life that is clear in Scripture, it is that the Christian life is lived in the power of the Spirit of Christ. All of the Christian life, the child of God lives by the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The Christian worships God on the Lord’s Day by the grace of the Spirit of Christ. But he also works at his job on Monday by this same grace (Eph. 4-6; I Pet. 2:11-5:14).
We opponents of common grace have this against the theory, that it leaves the distinct impression, if it does not expressly teach, that Christians are to live their earthly life in society—their “cultural” life—by the power of common grace. Special grace is for worship on Sunday, as for prayer and Bible study, throughout the week. Common grace is for the rest of life—for life in the world. This is the inherent thrust of the theory of common grace, for common grace is proposed as the source of the union of Christian and non-Christian. The Christian then must be living by the power of this common grace.
Abraham Kuyper seems to have taught this fatal dualism. He wrote, “You find them both [common grace and particular grace] in one and the same human heart.” Corresponding to Christ’s creation of all things as the eternal Son of God and His redemption of the elect as the Word become flesh, two graces are enjoyed by a Christian: “And thus now it is one and the same man, who enjoys God’s common grace in the life of society and God’s particular grace in the holy sphere” (Abraham Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, vol. 2, Kok, 2nd ed., pp. 634, 638; my translation of the Dutch).
To teach that the Christian’s life in the world is to be lived by any other power than the mighty grace of God in Jesus Christ that regenerated him and now sanctifies him is attempted murder of the Christian life. Nothing less.
Since the Christian lives earthly life by the power of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, his life is in total spiritual opposition to the life of the non-Christian with whom he shares all things earthly and with whom he associates in the human ordinances. In the human ordinances, the Christian submits to the Lordship of Christ. The non-Christian is a rebel against the risen Christ. The Christian seeks the glory of God everywhere. The non-Christian seeks his own glory, or the glory of mankind. This is the antithesis: the spiritual separation and opposition between the holy church and the unholy world of wicked men, between the believer and the “infidel.”
Basing the Christian’s life in the world on creation and providence does full justice to the antithesis. Basing the Christian’s life on a common grace of God destroys the antithesis, for now Christian and non-Christian share the favor and blessing of God, the power to do the good, and the glorious task of building God’s kingdom on earth. Richard Mouw does not agree with this judgment. But he is sensitive to the danger, and uneasy with the effects of the assimilation of culture by evangelicals and Calvinists.
Dutch-American Calvinists and other evangelicals who saw themselves as living on the margins of the dominant culture a few generations ago are no longer in a position to debate whether to assimilate more. That dominant culture has infiltrated our lives through new technologies and social mobility to such an extent that our conversations about common grace are now perhaps better framed this way: to what degree has the commonness that we have embraced in the culture that we share with our non-Christian neighbors compromised our commitment to the gospel? (p. 11)
If the believer lives antithetically, if he “will live godly” in the world, fellowship with the wicked and conformity to the depraved culture will not be the problem. The problem will be persecution. The ungodly will hate the believer. They will chase him out of labor, out of society, and finally out of earthly life itself.
But the believer does not himself run out of the world. Nor do the Protestant Reformed Churches think or teach so.
Not because of common grace.
But because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (I Cor. 10:26).