Common Grace, Common Ground, and the Common Good (Part 1)
by Rick Love
Have you ever watched CNN Heroes? Every year CNN searches the globe for unheralded heroes - everyday people who are changing the world - and this annual broadcast highlights their stories. I cry all the way through it. My heart stirs seeing and hearing how ordinary people develop, at great personal cost, I might add, practical ways to alleviate suffering and facilitate human flourishing.
I get excited, too, when celebrities use their influence to better the world: Angelina Jolie who works with the United Nations to be a voice for millions of refugees who suffer under great duress; George Clooney who leverages his star status to direct attention to Sudan; billionaire businessman Bill Gates and wife Melinda who are working to address global inequality in the areas of health, poverty and development, and education.
Some of these 'heroes' are followers of Jesus; some are not. So, how do we make sense of the many good deeds done by those who do not follow Jesus? The way we answer this radically impacts how we relate to people and how we engage culture. That’s why I consider it an indispensable issue for peacemakers.
As a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student in 1983, I was concerned about these things and brought them up in conversation with my mentor, the late Dr. Harvie Conn of Westminster Theological Seminary. He pointed out that many Reformed theologians tend to focus so much on "depravity" and the fact that humanity "suppresses the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom 1:18). He pointed out that they minimize the fact that humanity also has a true yet imperfect knowledge of God (Rom 1:19-21). He was fond of saying that we find the "footprints of God" in other cultures and religions.
N.T. Wright describes something similar to the “footprints of God” in his book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. Wright argues that there is a hunger for justice, a thirst for spirituality, a longing for relationship, and a recognition of and desire for beauty in everyone. He calls these traits an echo of God’s voice in all people.
My friend, Jeff Cannell, the pastor of the Central Columbus Vineyard, has a great saying: “Many people get gripped by the agenda of the King before they know the King of the agenda.” In other words, many people who do not know Christ are drawn to justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty before they recognize that their heart-longings come from God.
The footprints of God, the echo of God’s voice, and the agenda of the king find their basis in what theologians call “common grace.”
"Common grace" refers to the concept God’s grace overflows to every creature on earth. This common grace gives us the common ground that supports all human endeavors that promote the common good. Through giving elements of His grace to all people, whether they know Him or not, God has given humanity four gifts:
1. All people enjoy the blessings of the physical world
We live in a world filled with brilliant colors, stunning beauty, and breathtaking scenes. This is God’s common grace to all: “The LORD is good to all and His compassion is over all that He has made” (Ps.145:9). God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God “has not left himself without testimony. He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17).
2. All people have the ability to do good (implying restraint of evil as well)
Jesus makes two profound comments about human nature: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:11)! Jesus says we are both evil and we can do good deeds. He makes a similar point in Luke: “If you do good to those who do good to you what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:33). According to Jesus, bad people do good things.
This kind of ethical tension resides in the heart of every human. The spark of the divine, known as the "image of God" (Genesis 1:26-28) enables us to do good deeds. At the same time, because of humanity’s rebellion against God (Genesis 3), the image has been defiled, resulting in a bent towards the dark side. Theologians describe this tension in terms of “dignity” and “depravity.”
3. All people have a general knowledge of God or a sense of the divine
All people have some knowledge of God and an inward sense of right and wrong – as Paul makes clear in Romans:
For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - His eternal power and divine nature-- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made… (Romans 1:20).
Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32).
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2:14-15).
4. All people are culture makers
Because we are created in God’s image, we reflect God’s creative ability. We naturally figure out ways to rule the earth! We make culture; we build; we produce. Science, technology, music, and art testify to this inherent drive and creative capacity in everyone.
In developing and exercising dominion over the earth, men and women reflect the wisdom of their Creator. They demonstrate God-like qualities of skill and moral virtue. Though all of these activities are tainted by sinful motives, they still reflect the excellence of our Creator and therefore bring glory to Him.
By common grace, unbelievers do good; in fact they often do amazing things. And we should see God’s hand in it. We should be grateful that God’s common grace operates in every friendship, every act of kindness, every scientific discovery, and every technological advance. For all of this is ultimately from God.
An understanding of common grace helps every follower of Jesus see things differently. We see the footprints of God, the echo of God’s voice, and the agenda of the King in people around us, and this leads to a profound gratefulness. God IS working in people around us. His beauty shines through them – even though imperfectly and without them realizing that God is the one who is actually working through them.
Common grace shows us that we have common ground, and this leads us to seek the common good. Common grace, common ground, and the common good are indispensable keys for peacemakers. They help us build bridges for peace, partner for human flourishing, and bear witness with wisdom and grace (see my next post for more about the relationship between these).