Common Grace in Every Culture
By Austin N. Hunt
Have you ever wondered how that the entire world is full of depraved human beings, yet is a generally safe place to live and minister the gospel? Or, have you ever noticed that in culture there seem to be certain things that aid gospel witness? In this paper we are going clarify how the presence of common grace in every culture provides a platform for gospel witness. We will begin by legitimizing the fact that every culture is affected by and has common grace. We then will explain how common grace is a platform in culture for evangelism, and show how we can use this platform in evangelism.Since this paper contends that common grace exists within every culture, it is necessary for me to define common grace and its affects and its existence within every culture. First, I will legitimize the idea of common grace by defining it and giving a brief summary of the arguments against it. Then I will show how every culture partakes of the blessings of common grace. ! First, what is common grace? John Murray explains that common grace is “every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God”(Murray, p.4). Common grace then is anything good or any favor that God pours out on humanity as a whole.
Calvin would qualify by arguing that even though man may seem to do outwardly
good things (A result of common grace), man still cannot do truly good works apart from special grace (Calvin, 2.2.6). Common grace then is God’s unmerited favor on “both the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:44 – 45) “for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).
There is overwhelming scriptural and theological evidence for the doctrine of common grace. It answers major objections like: “How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles?…How can the unregenerate still speak the truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives?” (Burkhof, p.444-5) The Scriptures are clear that God shows a certain measure of goodness and favor on the unjust and just (Grudem, pp. 657-65; Burkhof pp.440-44) . This is the doctrine of common grace.
There are at least four major objections to the doctrine of common grace.1
The two most important arguments to address are the objections that common grace: (1) “presupposes a certain favorable disposition in God even to reprobate sinners” and (2) recognizes good in the sin-cursed world (Berkhof, p.444-5). Both views share1 The other objections are 1) that it is not enough (Arminian), 2) that it leads to universal atonement theology, and 3) that it leads to the recognition of good in the “natural order of things”. (Anabaptist)
Burkhof has a more detailed refutation of these views.(see Louis Berkhof, p.444-5) see also http://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/commongrace.htm a similar tension: How can we justify God’s showing “unmerited favor” or “grace” upon any sinner who justly deserves God’s wrath and anger in a world enslaved by sin? Berkhof relieves this tension well by stating: Are the elect in this life the objects of God’s love only, and never in any sense the objects of his wrath?…Evidently the elect can not be regarded as always and exclusively the objects of God’s love. (p.444-5) He argues, therefore, that since the elect are in some cases the objects of God’s wrath, we can rightly say that the non-elect can be the objects of God’s goodness and kindness (Luke 6:35). We can conclude that this goodness on the non-elect proceeds from the character of God,2 because his showing common grace to sinners does not “remove the guilt of sin” or “lift the sentence of condemnation” from the nonelect (Burkhof, p.438).
Burkhof warns: “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.” (p.445) ! We have looked at a definition of common grace3, but now let us answer how common grace affects culture. All cultures receive either knowingly or unknowingly a certain measure of goodness from God. This goodness can be seen in the physical realm, intellectual realm, moral realm, creative realm4, and societal realm. Like we discussed earlier in Romans 2, these things are the “riches of his kindness” to all cultures, peoples, and individuals.
While others discuss each of the affects of common grace (see Grudem, p.658-61), I will focus on God’s restraining moral influence on man in his cultural context. We can see vestiges of God’s restraint in Romans 1 when Paul is describing the slippery slope to complete moral debasement. Paul uses multiple references to God’s “giving them up” to even greater evil, implying that God at one point was restraining them.5
The Bible clearly teaches that God has written the law on man’s heart, and “their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts either2 There are some who would argue that there needs to be an “ethical basis” on which God has to base common grace and that this basis would be the work of Christ on the cross. A good question to ask is: Does God need to have an ‘ethical basis’ to show goodness, grace, favor, love, or anything undeserved by the sinner? We can say that “all that the natural man receives other than curse and death” is an indirect result of Christ’s redemptive work (See Burkhof 437-39), but God does not need a judicial basis on which to base his goodness because “(a)…[his goodness] does not remove the guilt of sin and therefore does not carry pardon with it; and (b) that it does not lift the sentence of condemnation, but only postpones the execution” (p.438).3 For an extended discussion on common grace in reformed theology see Myers pp.35-424 Culture is in some ways affected by common grace in a very physical way. For more information on how culture is affected by geography (a form of God’s goodness) see “http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/ socst/grade3/geograph.html”.
It is significant to note is that to destroy man for his sinfulness, God only has to release his restraining hand on man’s sin. Man will essentially self-destruct if left to his own vices. Also, God’s wrath is being stored up for the day of judgment though he shows patience and kindness to man. (Romans 2:5) accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15). A culture’s moral values are defined by the collective conscience of the individuals in that culture.6
Since the morality in a culture is determined by the common moral values of a group of individuals that result from the “law of God written on [man’s] hearts”, all cultures have some moral restraint and moral values that align with God’s law. For example, African cultures tend to place value on relationships. This positive aspect of culture is part of God’s restraining the sinful tendency of man to disregard others. The question is: does this part of culture come from man’s natural ability to do good? No! The heart of man is wicked, and even this seemingly good part of African culture is tainted by man’s sinful motives of deception, manipulation, and greed. Even so, part of God’s restraint on man’s sinfulness includes some of his culture’s moral value system if it aligns with God’s word.
Although every culture exhibits the effects of common grace, every culture also exhibits traits that are directly against God’s law. Although some cultures (such as Zambian culture) value relationships, these same cultures have some deeply immoral and fundamentally wrong practices that clearly contradict the law of God.
This shows the other side of Romans 1 where God “gives them up” to these wrong practices due to their disregard of the Creator. The willful rejection of the “law of God written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15) results in God’s “giving them up to dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:26). We can conclude that common grace acts as a moral preservative which restrains some expressions of depravity. ! In conclusion, common grace is present in every culture, because culture is made up of people’s value systems, and people are recipients of common grace. On this foundation we can identify what this platform is and how it can aid in the task of evangelism.
Austin Hunt is a first year student at CABC
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