Common grace: Implications for secular work and thought for the Christian and the not

By Brendan Low Shern Leong

A word that is commonly spoken among Christian brethren is “grace”. It is commonly understood to be unmerited favour or getting what you do not deserve. Indeed, we constantly allude to grace in our speech with phrases like “By the grace of God”  (perhaps in lieu of the less evocative “Thank God”), as a reminder of the grace that God has shown us through the withholding of his anger, the death and resurrection of Christ for the atonement of our sins, and other core tenets of the Christian faith. While we frequently talk about grace in Christian circles, there is a risk – due to  our fallible nature – to limit it to something operating only in the ‘inner circle’, warranting the accusation that Christianity is exclusive and self-righteous. The confusion arises from the conflation between saving grace and common grace. The former has to do with the unmerited favour shown to those who are saved, and reconciled with God into the body of Christ, and so receive “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 1:3) including justification, sanctification and glorification. This is probably what most Christians probably think of when they hear the word grace without its antecedent qualification. The latter has to do with the grace that is afforded to all, both the believer and the non-believer.

The basis of common grace

Where do we get this basis for common grace? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that “Your Father in heaven causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Elsewhere, Paul states that God “did good by giving your rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with good and gladness” (Acts 14:17). This is in spite of them committing blasphemy by worshiping the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes and thinking Barnabas and Paul respectively to be those gods! The grace is therefore “common” because, as David Mcllroy puts it, “[s]ome of God’s blessings are indifferently administered and are in no way dependent on belief and faith in Him.[1]” When both Christians and non-Christians understand it, there are huge implications for how we see both our own work and the work of others. Let me start with the implications for Christians.

Implication 1: Seeing secular work

The first step to understanding this implication is to recognise that “God gives out gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty, and skill according to his grace – that is in a completely unmerited way”[2]. In other words, the “fruitful seasons” (Acts 14:17) are enjoyed by all. If we fail to see this, Timothy Keller warns that we may undervalue the work of non-Christians, by inadvertently downplaying its source that is none-other than God’s providence. It is from this misunderstanding that talk arises among Christians of only Christian ministry work, such as that of a pastor or a teacher, being the only work that serves God.

In the early days of the Reformation, those in the Reformed and Lutheran traditions fought strongly against this misunderstanding. They argued that secular work was as much a calling from God as the ministry of a monk or priest. Martin Luther used a particularly apt expression to describe the character of all workers, that they are the “fingers of God”, which Keller explains as all workers being “agents of his providential love for others.[3]” Lee Hardy reports that the later Catholic popes such as Pope Leo XIII, Pope John Paul II and Pope Paul VI gradually shifted towards a similar perspective. For example, Pope Paul VI commenting on Genesis 1:28 where God tells human beings to “fill the earth and subdue it”, states that “the Bible, from the first page on, teaches us that the whole creation is for man, that it is his responsibility to develop it by intelligent effort, and by means of this labor to perfect it, so to speak, for his use.[4]” Thus, there is currently a convergence between the Catholic and Protestant perspectives on secular work.

The united front of Christians from different theological traditions indicates overwhelming support for the proposition that the work done by both Christians and non-Christians displays the role of humanity as agents of God’s creation. It prevents two falsehoods, 1) that Christians can only serve God in church or ministries relating to the church, and 2) that non-Christians do not play a role in tending the garden that is God’s creation. We can glean from this the premise that non-Christians perform the role God intended for them in work, but without knowing it. This is not to say that their true motivation for doing so is to serve God, as non-Christians (and Christians) may be tempted by idols such as money, prestige, or even the work itself, that pervert God’s intention for work. It merely frames the antagonist responsible for the corruption of work differently. Instead of the antagonist being the non-Christian and by extension the vocation typically associated with non-Christians, the true antagonist is sin. But Keller observes a refreshing dynamic when grace is in the picture:

…the doctrine of sin means that believers are never as good as our true worldview should make us. Similarly, the doctrine of grace means that unbelievers are never as messed up as their false worldview should make them…[5]

Until the antagonist that is sin is removed from existence, work and the workers will remain imperfect. The purpose of this quote is to rebut the tendency of misunderstanding the worthiness of the work of non-Christians when viewed through the lens of saving grace. A false conclusion may be formed that only the elect in Christ are in “service” to God and bear the good fruits of creation. Work outside and unrelated to ministry is being gathered to be destroyed on the day of condemnation. This downplaying, and even villainizing, of work done by non-Christians is a symptom of ignorance towards the “doctrine of [common][6] grace”. This ignorance has an extensive effect on our relationships with non-Christians.

Implication 2: The Competitive Christian

Jealousy is one of the first sins mentioned in the Bible, dating back to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain (Genesis 4). His jealousy allowed him to be overtaken by “sin crouching at the door” because God “had regard” for Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. A consequence of his was that when Cain works the ground, it shall no longer “yield to [him] its strength”. These are remarkably telling statements of the effect that the sin of jealousy has on, 1) others and 2) our own work. On others, it is straightforward that jealousy leads to the harming of others, even our closest relatives. Today, jealousy poses the same risk to our adelphoi, or our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is usually the clearest lesson that is gleaned from the Cain and Abel account.

The subtler point is the effect on our own work. God’s punishment for murdering Abel out of jealousy was to this effect: When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (Genesis 4:12). The work of creation, which God put under the stewardship of man (Genesis 1:26-31), had inversely and ironically not submitted or “yield[ed]” itself to Cain. This reversal of roles contrary to God’s creation account shows the distorting effects of jealousy. It is shocking how jealousy which is commonly understood to drive people forward actually makes the work more toilsome!

In practice, this toilsome effect may manifest itself in several ways, one example being the feeling that our own work is never enough when compared to the work of others. There may be some standard of ‘progress’ that we want to reach that brings us above, perhaps even far above, our peers. We want to control the degree of “fruitfulness”, the “fruitfulness” that comes about by common grace. This can take place between two Christian brethren, two unbelievers, and between a Christian and an unbeliever. It is the third category I want to focus on here.

Timothy Keller warns that:

Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians morally and in wisdom.[7]

Indeed, common grace provides not just the explanation of jealousy but also the humbling reason to curb it. Grace, by definition, is unmerited favour, and we bow down in gratitude to God who has saved us apart from our own works, by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). All Christians know this because of the emphasis placed on  unmerited favour when being taught about saving grace. But there is a risk that we forget to apply this concept of unmerited favour to the non-Christian as well, granting room for the sin of jealousy to sprout in our lives.

Unmerited favour means that our talents, abilities, skills and other vocational capacities are a gift from God. God made us stewards of his creation not by our own doing, but simply because He chose humanity for this. Like we as Christian adelphoi humbly value others above ourselves because of our unity in Christ and sharing in the Holy Spirit (Phillipians 2:3), likewise we should humbly value the achievements of unbelievers because of our unity as God-appointed agents of creation. If we recognise this, it is remarkably freeing, because we can view and celebrate the achievements of non-Christians with the same genuine conviction that arises from God’s saving grace.

Implications 3: The non-collaborative Christian

Keller lays out another warning for Christians who lack understanding of common grace, that is the risk of “believ[ing] they can live self-sufficiently within their own cultural enclave”. By this he means that:

Some might feel that we should go only to Christian doctors, work only with Christian lawyers, listen only to Christian counselors, or enjoy only Christian artists.[8]

Indeed we are called to model the early church community that was so close-knit that they shared all their earnings and property (Acts 5:32-37). Modelling the early church today could take the form of provision of services at low cost or even for free to brothers and sisters in Christ. This would naturally lead Christians to support more frequently the endeavours and enterprises of one another. This is expected and perfectly acceptable. The problem arises when this is done to the extent of forgetting the gifts of common grace granted to all. While not a definitive sign, exclusivity shows that it is highly likely that a cultural enclave is being formed. This has invited allegations that Christianity is an exclusive and unwelcoming club. More importantly, it downplays our appreciation of the gifts God has bestowed to non-Christians.

Implication 4: The Self-deprecating Christian

The argument actually works both ways. If we fail to appreciate that common grace operates in jobs outside those pertaining to Christian ministry, we may have a negative view of this sort of work. Psychologist and counsellor David Murray characterises this as a sort of “mistaken identity”. Using a caricature known as “Justin the Just a…” to demonstrate his point, Murray comments:

I’ve met many Justins in the church. They usually answer my question, “What do you do?” with, “I’m just a plumber,” “I’m just a salesman,” or “I’m just a teacher.” At the root of such answers is an unbiblical view of vocation, the wrong idea that only ministry callings are divine callings, that only overtly Christian work is worthwhile work[9].

The problem is with the word “just”. Other vocations are wrongly treated as “just” that, something that is meaningless as it does not contribute to the ministry. This false understanding may lead us to the wrong proposition that we are living the true ‘Christian life’ when we quit our secular job to become a ‘pastor or teacher’. As mentioned earlier, key figures in the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions spoke against this. Murray’s purpose of noting this was from the perspective of the counsellor to Christians, asking them to write “one sentence or phrase” that defines them, and “Justin the Just a…” was the response of an actual person he heard from. If we as Christians wrongly define our work apart from Christ, because our work is so closely bound-up with our daily comings and goings, we are likely to experience an inner dissonance. Our desire to repent and turn to Christ though good-intentioned, will turn into self-deprecation. This is all because of the error we make when thinking about our work without a robust view of common grace.

Implication 5: The non-appreciative[10] Christian

The gifts of common grace, from God, exist in all industries, sectors and areas of talent. For the sake of conciseness, allow me to use literature as the example for this article, due to the ability of literature to convey the deepest human longings with the most telling effect.

All Christians would have heard of Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis, whose character Aslan in the novel the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the creator of the world of Narnia, served as an allegorical Jesus, particularly in Aslan’s death and resurrection. Indeed, portrayals such as these are the most explicit and intended result of common grace. But remember, common grace by virtue of its “common-ness” manifests itself among the works of those who, though are not Christians, unintentionally reveal a longing that Christians share.

Most readers would have heard of the widely known novel (not least because it has been made several times into a musical) Les Miserables. The author of the novel, Victor Hugo, was not a Christian and even professed anti-Catholic views in his later years. Yet, in his writings Hugo articulates with accuracy some profoundly Christian ideas. Take this quote for example:

The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved: loved for ourselves- say rather, loved in spite of ourselves.

Here Hugo identifies the power of unconditional love, a love that is strengthened by the fact that it is given without any need for met criterion. Similarly, Christ’s death for undeserving sinners in spite of our sinfulness is evidence of his unconditional love for us.

Perhaps a more powerful quote by Victor Hugo is Jean Valjean’s inner turmoil after the Bishop whom he stole from not only let him go but gave him more silverware, telling him to use this gold to become a better man. The narrator, commenting on the event:

[Jean Valjean] could not yield to the evidence of what was going on within him. He hardened himself against the angelic action and the gentle words of the old man. “You have promised me to become an honest man. I buy your soul. I take it away from the spirit of perversity; I give it to the good God.”

This recurred to his mind unceasingly. To this celestial kindness he opposed pride, which is the fortress of evil within us. He was indistinctly conscious that the pardon of this priest was the greatest assault and the most formidable attack which had moved him yet; that his obduracy was finally settled if he resisted this clemency; that if he yielded, he should be obliged to renounce that hatred with which the actions of other men had filled his soul through so many years, and which pleased him; that this time it was necessary to conquer or to be conquered; and that a struggle, a colossal and final struggle, had been begun between his viciousness and the goodness of that man[11].

Here we see the “struggle” that began by virtue of the transforming power of grace. He described the “pardon of the priest” as an attack, “the greatest assault”!. But instead of destroying him, the attack put into motion an inner battle where the consequence of losing was to “renounce the hatred” towards other men. Furthermore, in the course of this deliberation, Valjean began to marvel at the goodness of that man. This event in the novel demonstrates the transforming power of grace, with a totally undeserved act by God (represented by the priest), pardoning and forgiving humanity (represented by Jean Valjean), enabling us to break free from our hatred and move towards forgiveness. Victor Hugo saw the reality of this astutely because, as John Piper puts it beautifully, “Hugo was brilliant in his blindness. The imago dei and the remnants of his Christian roots break forth – to the praise of his maker.”[12]

It would be a mistake to dismiss this imago dei reflection as something of the past, only pertaining to writers of an ‘outdated’ era. Rather, it is a narrative that spans decades as writers in all decades are human, and by definition reflect the imago dei. One narrative that is common in shows that you may notice in movies is that of hubris and hamartia . Take the movie-musical The Greatest Showman released in 2017 for example. The narrative is one where the fictionalised PT Barnum realises he has been blinded by the pride and hubris of being famous, and almost loses his family and his circus as a result, revealing the hamartia. Let us compare this with the authoritative word of God revealed in Proverbs 18:10-12:

The name of the LORD is a strong tower;

the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

A rich man’s wealth is his strong city,

and like a high wall in his imagination.

Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty,

but humility comes before honor.

Barnum desired to stand on the “high wall in his imagination”, as he kept on seeking fame. This almost brought him to – and note the strong connotation of the word – destruction! He was “haughty” or arrogant to his father-in-law just prior to his downfall in reputation (due to being kissed by the fictionalised Jenny Lind) and the destruction of his circus. Yet, humility, shown by Barnum’s willingness to hand over the circus to his protégé enabled him to end the narrative with the honour of being a family man. Interestingly enough, hamartia, the literary device which captures the essence of the downfall, is also the Greek word used in the Bible that is translated as sin. Therefore, it seems that writers are aware of the Christian idea that pride leads to the downfall of man while conversely humility brings honor. They merely had yet to extend that idea into recognising that God is the “strong tower” that they should “run into”, and in doing so naturally humble themselves to be able to trust that they are “safe” and secure in Him.

My personal favourite observation of common grace manifesting itself is in the messages conveyed by unbelievers in love songs. Love songs are uncompromising in emotion, sharing deep feelings of joy, pain, anger, despair, desire and feelings which words cannot capture in the most passionate arrangement of lyric, rhythm and beat. They therefore reveal the unfiltered emotional longing of another, whether it be a case of first love, long-time devotion, or severe heartbreak. Consider this then, both my Christian and non-Christian readers, that the emotional resonance we feel as we listen to love songs is due to the fact that our Creator too longs for that emotional resonance with us. One of my favourite lyrics that I think reflects this is that of James Arthur’s Empty Space. Recall the chorus that goes:

I’m alone in my head

Looking for love in a stranger’s bed

But I don’t think I’ll find it

‘Cause only you could fill this empty space

I wanna tell all my friends

But I don’t think they would understand

It’s somethin’ I’ve decided

‘Cause only you could fill this empty space[13]

You can hear in his tone that he feels frightened at the prospect of being alone and is desperately searching for someone to fill the gap or ‘empty space’ that his departed partner has left. He even goes to the extent of “looking for love in a stranger’s bed”, and his characterisation of the other person as a “stranger” shows that no emotional connection had been formed even in that encounter. Yet, he honestly reflects that “I don’t think I’ll find it”. All this while he feels “alone in [his] head”, and why does he mention the “head” in particular? We know he is not alone since he has friends to “tell”. Perhaps is because it’s the emotional emptiness that hurts him, the acknowledgement that without one to connect to he is alone. Perhaps, likewise, because we reflect the image of God, the pain we feel in the loss of a romantic partner, captured by the “love song” narrative, too reflects the pain God feels at our departure from Him! The only difference, the pain God feels is amplified because of the vast number he loves.

Pastor Matt Waldock, in an address to the attendees of the UCCF Forum 2020 points to Isaiah 53:3-4, where Christ is described as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) and Isaiah 53:4 tells us why, “He took on our infirmities and carried our sorrows”[14]. Imagine the disproportionate pain of that burden. Jesus, being able to perceive the thoughts of others (Luke 5:22), and so able perceive their rejection of him, was sent by God the Father to bear this burden of sorrow. He knows how it feels to have a loved one depart from him, for he bore the amplified rejection.

Implication 6: The Non-Christian

The first five implications of common grace sought to bring the Christian closer to the non-Christian, in both work and thought. This fifth implication now seeks to bring the non-Christian closer to the Christian. To non-Christian readers, consider the implication of common grace operating in your life. You too take part as “fingers of God” tending to his garden. You too have talents that have been given by God. You too tell stories that reflect the God of the Bible. This indicates that you do indeed sense God, by virtue of His common grace. Indeed, you must grant that St Paul is profoundly astute in his letter to the Romans:

what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made[15].

The “creation of the world” and how we work and form our thoughts in light of it, are evidence enough that “God is plain to [you]”. “Invisible attributes” are “clearly perceived”, and this is not a paradox. Rather, it is because Paul is making a “radical thesis”[16]: that, as Keller puts it, “people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know”[17]. The basis of this thesis comes directly from Romans 1:18. Non-Christians reading this might initially feel a need to deny this proposition and dismiss its assumptions.

However, I implore you to take a step back and consider this argument in light of yourself. By this I mean that I encourage you to examine yourself, particularly the way you work, think and live. Look carefully at the reflections and investigate the resonance further. Because if the Bible is right, this would mean that you already have an acquaintance with God, but  whether consciously or not, you are suppressing rather than recognising it. And as long as the pressure is not released, the footprints of God in your work and thought will always just remain clues.

 

References:

[1] Mcllroy, Biblical Perspectives on Law and Justice, Pg 29

[2] Keller, Every Good Endeavour, Pg 145

[3] Keller, Every Good Endeavour, Pg 18

[4] Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work [Eerdmans, 1990], 71

[5] Keller, Every Good Endeavour, Pg 145

[6] The qualification in brackets is included because Keller stated this in the context of common grace.

[7] Keller, Every Good Endeavour, Pg 145

[8] Ibid.

[9] Murray, Reset, Pg 109

[10] By “non-appreciative” I do not mean to address Christians who are not grateful for the work of non-Christians, but rather Christians who fail to see the work of non-Christians as a reflection of God’s creation.

[11] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Volume 1 Book 2, Chapter XIII Little Gervais

[12] Piper, The Gift of Victor Hugo

[13] James Arthur, Empty Space, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/jamesarthur/emptyspace.html

[14] This was later quoted by St Matthew in Matthew 8:17

[15] Romans 1:19-20

[16] Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Pg 130

[17] Ibid.

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