My husband was not raised in the church. His parents did not teach him the gospel as he was growing up. But his parents did teach him many important values and character traits.
They taught him to be responsible and hard working. They taught him to look out for others. They taught him to respect women. They taught him how to be a kind and effective communicator.
No, none of those things are enough to save him. He still needed the saving grace of God to transform his heart. But those years were not wasted.
When my husband heard the gospel and trusted in Christ at age 21, he wasn’t starting from scratch in terms of his maturity and character development. And many of those values that his parents imparted to him have made him a fabulous husband and father and a great blessing to us and others.
What Common Grace Looks Like in Action
All people are created by God and created in his image. Part of what it means to be created in God’s image is to display characteristics that resemble the character of God.
For example, God created the world, and people made in his image bring order and beauty to the world.
God is the author of truth, and people made in his image observe, discover, and communicate true things about the world and people.
God is love, and God has given people created in his image the ability to show compassion to other and bring healing both physical and emotional.
But sometimes as Christians we fail to take advantage of the many good blessings God has provided because we are hesitant or even skeptical of the gifts he has given to those who are not believers.
Why Do We Misunderstand Common Grace?
Proverbs 9:10 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” A right understanding of our purpose and calling in this world begins with an understanding of God, his character, and our relationship to him.
But sometimes we take this to mean that those who are not trusting in Christ for their righteousness cannot know anything true or worthwhile.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
It is important to remember that God has not left us in the dark about the truth of salvation and what we need to know to obey him.
He didn’t give us just a few puzzle pieces and then expect us to connect the dots with educated but risky guesses like a game of eternal salvation Minesweeper. If God intended us to know something essential for our salvation and obedience, he included it in his word.
Theologians refer to this idea as the “Sufficiency of Scripture”.
But sometimes we take that to mean that if someone doesn’t use the Bible as their foundational text of reference for their writing, or prove their point with Scripture verses, they must be contradicting the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Or we worry that looking to academic disciplines outside of theology means that we’re seeking “worldly” wisdom rather than God’s wisdom, which can only be found in the Bible.
What Does it Look Like When We Get Common Grace Wrong?
This way of thinking about wisdom, truth, and the purpose of God’s word can get us into quite a few tight corners. Here are two that I’ve observed.
We deprive ourselves of the blessing of secular learning and innovation.
Our pastor regularly reminds us, “secular” doesn’t mean “bad” or “against the Bible” it just means “not sacred”. Sacred things are special, holy, set-apart things. Secular is everything else.
For example, we are free to choose an auto mechanic, lawyer, doctor, electrician, or pastry chef based on his or her knowledge and skill in that field, not based on their religious affiliation or beliefs.
Yes, it’s wonderful to find a service provider who shares similar beliefs and values. But it isn’t essential to have a well-tuned car, or a safely-wired home.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem at all odd to you to welcome and rely on the gifts and talents of both believers and unbelievers in these service fields.
But what about seeking information in areas like parenting, mental health, or marriage communication?
Common Grace in Mental Health and Behavioral Science
The closer we get to the inner operations of our minds and hearts, the more hesitant we may be to accept secular research or books.
And it’s not an unreasonable desire to look for teaching or writing that helps us to understand these issues from a gospel-centered perspective.
But we need to be careful not to shun the good gifts God has given us in this world because we are suspicious of the sources. We also need to be careful not to suggest that the words of Scripture are the limit of anything true or worth knowing about how our minds and emotions operate.
Sometimes Christians discount the existence of mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or trauma.
Those who seek to find cures for every mental health struggle or learning difference in the pages of the Bible sometimes end up reducing every form of suffering or challenge to a sin problem that calls for repentance.
They might say, “Your child doesn’t have ADHD. He’s disobedient and he needs better discipline.
Or “You don’t have depression, you’re discontent and you need to repent of your idolatry and find joy in the Lord.”
God gifted men and women - both those who are in Christ and those who are not - with great intellect and creativity and he did this for our good and his glory.
We honor God’s goodness when we recognize the gifts and understanding that he has given to all kinds of people that help and bless us.
We Forget How to Read and Think Critically
It takes careful attention and thought to read a secular book about parenting and mental health and filter the information through our understanding of who we are as fallen human beings made in God’s image.
It’s so tempting to narrow our focus to books written by those who hold to doctrines and beliefs very similar to our own. And those kinds of resources truly can be an amazing blessing!
But we fall into spiritual and intellectual laziness if we think that our job is to find “the good guys” and then just read and unquestioningly adopt their perspective on everything. No matter who is teaching or writing, we have a responsibility to compare what we read with Scripture. No human author is exempt.
The Apostle Paul himself said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed."
Every denomination or stream of Christian thought has its strengths and weaknesses. If we limit our reading too narrowly, we become like closely inbred families whose genetic deficiencies are magnified further with each generation.
We need to be willing to read and consider perspectives outside of those that feel “comfortable” and “normal” to us so that we can continue to grow and be challenging in our thinking.
How Does Common Grace Free Us?
As we grow in rightly understanding Common Grace, we begin to realize and experience the real freedom we have in Christ. The real of Common Grace is an area of Christian Liberty.
In other words, these are areas where we have freedom to make choices based on the general principles God has given us in Scripture in conjunction with our own understanding and needs.
Areas of common grace include things like:
- Mental health
- Birth control
- Jobs or careers
- Entertainment and music
- And even parenting approaches!
Were you surprised to hear me mention parenting as an area of Common Grace?
We typically think of parenting as an area that is tightly shaped by our Christian faith and belief. And it is certainly true that the underlying principles of our approach to parenting should be founded solidly on an understanding of the gospel and what God says about our hearts and our need for him.
But when you think about it, probably 95% of the decisions you make in parenting are matters of common grace.
You have A LOT of freedom in how you answer these kinds of questions!
- How should I feed my baby?
- Where should my baby sleep?
- How much should I carry my baby?
- Should my child have this vaccine or medicine?
- How many children should I have?
- How long should I wait before having another baby?
- Should we use birth control?
- How should I dress my child?
- What should my child’s daily schedule look like?
- What food should I feed my child?
- What kind of shows should my child watch?
- How should I educate my child?
- How should I handle a highly-energetic child?
- How should I help an easily distractible child?
- What guidelines should I give my teen about dating?
The list could go on and on!
Sometimes it can feel scary to consider the freedom we have because we want certainty and detailed answers. And the truth is that there are plenty of teachers and authors out there who are happy to spin a web of Bible verses which supposedly narrows down your choices to just one right answer.
That may seem appealing until we realize that we’re unable to keep up that lifestyle or habit. How often do we unnecessarily burn ourselves out or drive ourselves to despair trying to jump through hoops that God just didn’t put in our path!
God cares deeply about your freedom and does not take kindly to those who would encroach on it.
Paul says “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is."
It is wonderful to remind ourselves of the freedom we have in Christ. But sometimes it isn’t enough to just say, “You have freedom in this area” because our consciences have been burdened by the laws of men connected together with Bible verses that make them seem like laws of God.
So let’s work together to peel away and toss aside of some of those burdens, shall we?