You’re just about to save that document on your computer when the everything on the screen freezes in place. Everything but your mouse cursor.
So you move the cursor to the “Save” button and click. No response.
Click. Click. Click. No response.
It doesn’t matter where you click, or how fast, or how many times. Things don’t happen the way they ought to.
Train up a child in the way he should go;Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
The thing about Proverbs like this is…sometimes they don’t work. Typically, children inherit the looks and values and mannerisms of their parents. It happens often enough that it’s a pattern. But then sometimes, it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen photos of parents who are dark-skinned whose (biological) child is lily white. I know parents who are quiet and introverted, and all of their kids are boisterous and outgoing. I know parents who raised their kids to follow in their footsteps as good churchgoing Christians, and their kids walked away from the faith. Things don’t happen the way they ought to.
If wisdom is a formula, the formula is broken.
Wisdom: finding what is good in a confounding world
The wisdom literature of the Bible is not the only wisdom literature we’ve inherited from the Ancient Near East. We have fragments of ancient wisdom writings from Egypt and Babylon. The sages of those days were their version of our scholars, philosophers, researchers, and scientists. They didn’t employ the modern techniques or standards of our post-Enlightenment world. But they knew how to be students of the world around them, observing nature and human behaviour in order “to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things” (Ecclesiastes 7:25).
I searched with my heart…till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.Ecclesiastes 2:3
All of their studies and research and pithy proverbs were intended to find the good life, the satisfying life. They wanted to know what a man was meant to do and how he was meant to do it. They believed that if only one could gain access to and align one’s life with “the scheme of things,” the hidden order that underlies the world, one would then become wise.
Wisdom in Scripture means choosing the best and noblest end at which to aim, along with the most appropriate and effective means to it.J. I. Packer
Wisdom is what we’re all seeking deep down. We want to know “the best and noblest end at which to aim” our lives. We want to know “the most appropriate and effective means” to that end. So we look for the structure, the scheme or pattern, beneath it all.
Proverbs: the full flower of common grace
What we find in the book of Proverbs is a collection of poetry and proverbs designed to make a young man wise. Yet even those of us who are no longer young can benefit from it. The proverbs are not only carefully composed; they are arranged, woven together in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s no coincidence that these two proverbs were positioned adjacent to one another:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,Proverbs 26:4–5
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Here we gain not only a few tips on how to answer a fool. We learn that the collectors of these proverbs did not think of them as ironclad rules that held true in all situations. They thought of them as tools in a toolbox. If you want to remove a nail from a wall, you’ll need a hammer. But if it’s a screw, you’ll need a screwdriver. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly; sometimes you don’t. It depends on who the fool is, and who you are. Knowing when to employ which proverb is just as important as knowing the proverbs themselves, as we learn shortly afterward:
Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless,Proverbs 26:7
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Collectively, these proverbs reveal to us the individual threads in a larger tapestry, in the orderly work of art made by God the Creator. This tapestry or “scheme of things” is presented to the young man who reads the book as a desirable woman, Lady Wisdom:
Does not wisdom call?
Does not understanding raise her voice?…
“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.…
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.…
“For whoever finds me finds lifeProverbs 8:1–35
and obtains favor from the LORD.”
Because wisdom is personified as a Great Lady, so we are led to view ourselves as living in a deeply personal world, infused with personal agency. It is not the austere, impersonal world of Rationalism, governed by natural laws, absent any agency of a personal God. No, it is a world in which the Lord is personally involved. Wisdom is his hidden divine hand. So the one who finds wisdom “obtains favor from the LORD.”
Another word for “favour” is grace.
Wisdom works not because it allows you to hack into the impersonal law and order of the cosmos. Wisdom works because you gain access to the mind and ways of a personal God. Wisdom works only because God showers the world with his unmerited favour, his common grace.
Not sure what common grace is? Read this explanation first before continuing.
Maybe you are asking the question, “Why is all this happening?” Alongside that important question is another one you ought to ask: “Why has it not always been happening?”
However, there is a flip side to this truth. God does not send rain evenly on the world; clouds pass over and vanish, seasons come and go, and years of drought fall even on fertile lands. So it is with the rest of the common grace God gives (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). Sometimes, the order and ease of wisdom malfunctions. The formula is broken. The computer screen freezes up. Nothing works like it’s supposed to.
Job: the departure of common grace
Job is introduced to us as “one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He himself repeats what we are told in the Proverbs, that this is the life of wisdom:
God understands the way to it,Job 28:23, 28
and he knows its place.…
And he said to man,
“Behold, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.”
Yet Job finds himself, a wise man, suffering unimaginable pain. He has lost all his possessions, all his children, even his own health. He has seemed to have lost the good life that wisdom promised. Wisdom has broken down, so that Job grieves:
But where shall wisdom be found?Job 28:12
And where is the place of understanding?
Wisdom is hidden because the Lord has withdrawn his common grace from Job. The rainclouds of grace have passed over Job without a drop and left him exposed to scorching heat and drought.
Job grieves not only the loss of all the good in his life. He grieves because the world no longer makes sense. Wisdom has gone silent. Order has given way to chaos. His world has come apart. This honest sage cannot bear the words of his friends, “miserable comforters” (16:2) who falsely accuse him in order to reassure themselves, so they can cling to their delusions of an orderly cosmos.
Ecclesiastes: the disruption of common grace
The book of Ecclesiastes takes a step back from the personal story of Job, from one man suffering the deprivation of common grace. The Preacher or Speaker of Ecclesiastes is looking for the broad view of “all that is done under heaven…everything that is done under the sun” (1:13–14). He embraces every experience that he can, listens to stories from faraway lands, and seeks out the writings of wisdom, “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (12:9). As we learned earlier, he is “adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things—which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found” (7:27–28).
There are almost no ironclad rules, or formulas, or perfect equations for life which will guarantee success, which will grant us what we are looking for.
In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.Ecclesiastes 11:6
Here where I live, where a mountain valley meets the sea, no one can forecast when and where the rain will fall. This is very inconvenient if I want to go for a trail run in the woods in another part of town. To my exasperation, the weather may be overcast but dry where I live, yet when I arrive where I want to run, I find a downpour there, only a couple kilometres from my home. It’s impossible to predict. There is no pattern to this hyperlocal rainfall, no obvious rhyme or reason. God gives common grace unevenly.
And so, because common grace is disrupted, because it is dispersed in an uneven way across the world God has made, wisdom doesn’t always work the way it ought to. It doesn’t produce the results it should.
I have seen all the activities that have been done under the heavens—and all of it evaporates; it is grasping for the wind!Ecclesiastes 1:14 (my translation)
Job and Ecclesiastes present to us the confounding of wisdom, as common grace is disrupted and even departs. In what John Murray calls “an undeserving and sin-cursed world,” grace cannot be presumed upon, and wisdom cannot produce lasting gain.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.James 4:13–16
To boast, to presume, to take it for granted that wisdom will produce the results we think—this is the height of arrogance.
No wisdom, no understanding, no counselProverbs 21:30
can avail against the LORD.
It only takes a pandemic to prove this point. All the wisdom of the worldwide economy breaks down. The WHO and CDC are confounded and easily corrupted, because even when we sequence the genome of the COVID-19 virus, we are baffled by the course of its disease, SARS-CoV-2.
We are hoping we can develop a vaccine, and produce it soon. The scientific might of mankind is now concentrated on this effort like no other task in history since Babel. But if we can manufacture such a vaccine, and if it is effective for a reasonable length of time, it will be the common grace of God that makes it all possible. And in the meantime, people are dying even in places where governments mandate lockdown measures, and economies are groaning even in places where the government has denied the danger. We do the best we can; we have no assurances. We do not know what tomorrow will bring.
Folly: the stubbornness of the legal spirit
The evangelical church in America has been trained up in the way of America, and it cannot bear to depart from it. We, too, share the can-do optimism in which we seek a “more perfect union,” progressing from one degree of glory to another. This progressive mythos seems to have a basis in reality, of course. We have moved beyond our unenlightened ancestors; the rights of minorities and women are now recognized. “Because it’s 2015,” declared Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to much fanfare—his words now obsolete. Protests over treatment of African Americans reveals a damned spot we just can’t scrub out, which has sometimes been called America’s original sin. Yet we cling to the myth of progress, egged on by the scientific revolution, the sexual revolution, and what Iain Provan calls “the modern economic miracle in the West.”
We understand better than any generation before us, we imagine, how to make the world work for us. We stand on the edge of yet a further revolution in genetics, which will give us substantial control, we believe, of human life itself. All this is the consequence of looking into the nature of things, and it has bred enormous self-confidence, culturally, in our ability to govern ourselves and in due course to usher in utopia.Iain Provan
This is just how the world works, we assure ourselves. And the evangelical church bought it hook, line, and sinker. It perfectly aligns with the effort-reward equation of the legal spirit, the belief that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. We have a stubborn confidence in that equation, just like Job’s friends. We presume upon it.
We need look no further than what is commonly called “the prosperity gospel”—the belief that health, wealth, and prosperity are assured to everyone who believes that God will give it to them, according to a magical-mechanical formula. From the milquetoast Joel Osteen to the wild-eyed Benny Hinn, one of America’s chief exports to the developing world has been this filthy heresy. It is the legal spirit channelled into greedy gain. It is folly run amok.
Then, too, there are other false gospels of the American church. The “social gospel” reassures us that if we just educate enough people and structure our institutions just right, we will finally achieve that “more perfect union” and fulfill the long-deferred promise of “liberty and justice for all.” If we just do the right things, utopia is assured. It is a stubborn folly.
And then, too, the church has fallen for overconfident “wisdom” in the results of obedience to God, “imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). In the ’90s, “purity culture” was all the rage. The idea was that the key to a successful life was a successful marriage, and the key to a successful marriage was maintaining sexual purity before marriage. So the legal spirit hijacked the Christian sexual ethic to serve its own interests. Young women were promised that if you wore a purity ring and wore modest clothes and went to Bible study and church, Prince Charming would fall head over heels for you and give you the happy family you dreamed of. Young men were promised that if you stayed away from porn and refrained from sex and “courted” a girl rather than “dating” her, you would find a smoking hot wife who would give you a dynamite sex life. There was a give-to-get here, a transaction with God and man, the guaranteed formula that the legal spirit loves. The results have not often lived up to the hype. God did not agree to our bargain.
All of these follies are built on a kernel of wisdom. There is value in gaining wealth, in social action toward a just society, in sexual purity—according to biblical standards, not our own. But the stubborn fool within us, the legal spirit that denies common grace, hijacks these good things. It refuses to admit that common grace is disrupted, and many in our world are deprived of it.
In a fallen world, utterly dependent on the common grace of God, wisdom doesn’t always work. Even when a pandemic strikes, we refuse to admit that we live in such a confounding world.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.Ecclesiastes 9:11
The end of the matter: finding what is good in a confounding world
So where is the good news in all this?
The good news is this: you can find rest in a confounding world.
After reflecting on the changing seasons of life, the lovely moments that are meant to pass away, the Speaker tells us:
…[God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.Ecclesiastes 3:11–13
God wants us to be happy. He wants us to find rest and contentment. He wants to free us from our relentless pursuit of wisdom and analysis and figuring out life. He wants to free us to enjoy his common grace.
Eat and drink. Take satisfaction in all your work. Gain wisdom, but recognize its limits. Hold your plans with an open hand. Love and cherish people, and do not cling to them as your security in a confounding world. Grieve and lament and know that in time you must let all these things go. There is only one Refuge, only one Rock that cannot be moved.
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.Ecclesiastes 3:14
In the final analysis, it will be God who weaves the threads of the tapestry together, who sets everything right in the end. He is the one who truly knows wisdom and gives wisdom, because he is the Giver of grace.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.Ecclesiastes 12:13–14
From the moment the serpent wormed his way into the garden of Eden, grace hasn’t felt like grace to us. The devil knew exactly how to get to us, exactly how to turn our eyes against our Creator and against our fellow human beings who are made in his image.
…He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”Genesis 3:1–3 (ESV)
His first words stir up ingratitude in her heart. God had actually said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (2:16) and only forbidden one. The serpent rewrites the narrative; he emphasizes what was withheld, not what was given. The woman corrects him, but joins him in painting God in a severe light. “Neither shall you touch it”—a word God had never spoken.
The devil shrewdly draws her eyes away from common grace, and leads her first down the path of ingratitude.
Not sure what common grace is? Read this explanation first before continuing.
Maybe you are asking the question, “Why is all this happening?” Alongside that important question is another one you ought to ask: “Why has it not always been happening?”
Ingratitude: when common grace feels normal
What at first was our anxiety and dread about the potential lethality of the virus (anxiety which is no less potent now) is gradually being surpassed by our irritability in response to the limitations placed on our physical activity. This irritability is not just a function of our worry about the future; it is also our very bodies letting us know that they are tired of doing what we are asking them to do.…Our bodies are prevented from engaging in the diverse environment they require in order to flourish.Curt Thompson, M.D., “A Body of Work”
The ability to breathe freely I take for granted, until I come down with a cold. The ability to walk freely I take for granted, until I injure a knee or toe. And our ability to function as human beings we take for granted until a pandemic ensures that we cannot easily gather together, cannot embrace one another, cannot even shake hands. These experiences of being physically present are deeply precious, but we never knew how good they were until they were taken away from us. God withdraws some of his common grace, and only then do we see the grace in it.
If the words of the serpent are any indication, this tendency to overlook grace—until it is withdrawn—is a subtle form of disdain for God our Creator. He looks at the world that he has made and sustains, and he sees that it is good. We look at the world he has made and sustains, and we stifle a yawn. There is something within us that wants common grace to feel normal, to feel default, to be the assumed background of our lives.
I live in Squamish, British Columbia. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The image above is a view I can see from my bedroom window. I live where the mountains, sea, and sky all intersect. All this glory, all this common grace, has become the background of my life, as I occupy my mind with plans and ventures. I become blind and deaf to goodness and grace. The greenery becomes the banal and generic. I no longer notice the flowers and grass and trees, red alders and balsam poplars bursting out of every square inch of ground across the street, each green shoot a work of art designed to reveal the glory of God.
If all of this is merely normal, then I don’t have to recognize that glory. I don’t have to see myself as an undeserving recipient of grace.
So I am deeply motivated to think of my own surroundings, my relationships, my experiences as normal. I am deeply motivated not to listen to anyone who would challenge my sense of what is normal.
If one gives an answer before he hears,Proverbs 18:13
it is his folly and shame.
We trust our own experiences, our own sense of what’s normal. We do not easily listen to others; we log on to Facebook and Twitter and give an answer before we hear. I’ve noticed this pattern on social media, as we endure the hard measures of pandemic response. The pandemic is distributed unevenly across the world, crippling one region, sparing another, often with little rhyme or reason to it. People living in cities where their friends and families are dying by the thousands are speaking up and warning others about what is coming. Health care workers in these places share their stories of exhaustion and failure, of deciding who is worth saving. Meanwhile, many people live in areas that are untouched by the disease. To them, they feel the social and economic hardship, but they have no first- or second-hand experience of Covid-19 itself. This freedom from illness, they believe, is normal. They trust their own experiences and dismiss the disease as media hype. What they are experiencing is a goodness—a common grace—that isn’t normal. There are others who have not received it.
On social media, it seems that most of us are responding in some way to the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For many of us, seeing a nine-minute video of a black man suffocating under the knee of a police officer opened our eyes to injustice. We sensed that our own experience of common grace, of deferential treatment by officers of the law, is not the experience of every American. It is not normal for African Americans. But others of us have doubled down on our experiences, on our own perception of normal. We know the common grace of a just policing and a just court system; we have never felt this grace withdrawn. “All lives matter”—that is the rallying cry, because there is no need to focus on black lives. All lives are certainly treated with the same dignity that mine is! The goodness and grace of God in my life is normal!
This mindset wells up from a deeper, darker place than mere racism. We are speaking foolishly if we are labelling it racism and moving on. The sin runs deeper than that and is far more complex. Perhaps the taproot of modern “racism” is the fundamental ingratitude toward God, ingratitude from a light-skinned majority who have benefited from common grace. We are biased to think the goodness we see around us is normal, and to dismiss the stories of those who have not experienced the same goodness. We are determined not to see the goodness of God, or at least not to see it as grace.
Oh that you would keep silent,Job 13:5–6
and it would be your wisdom!
Hear now my argument
and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Not even Job’s friends would listen to his experience of affliction. They could not deny his suffering, but they could try to fit it into their stubborn sense of normal. Eliphaz tells him, “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). So in reference to the death of Job’s children, Bildad cruelly asserts, “If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression” (8:4). And then Zophar blames Job, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (11:6).
It is in their interest to see Job’s suffering as God’s punishment for his own sin. That fits their sense of normal life experience. To them, that’s how the world works. They refuse to believe Job’s protest that he has not earned the suffering he is receiving. They can’t bring themselves to believe that any goodness they have experienced is given freely, graciously from the hand of a good God. They want to think they have deserved it.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.Romans 1:21
What is the outcome of ingratitude? The outcome is the disintegration of wisdom. Our minds become disordered, confused, incapable of understanding what is happening around us. We are convinced we are wise, even when we are fools.
This plague of ingratitude is present not only in a sinful, fallen world. It has corrupted the church as well. White evangelical Christians in America have experienced more common grace than almost any other people in history, and we are profoundly ungrateful for it. It is no wonder so many of us have grown so blind. When you no longer see grace, you no longer see anything at all.
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.”Genesis 3:4
The woman knows that God has told her husband, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). She repeats that warning, with less emphasis: “Lest you die” (3:3). But the serpent tells her that there ought to be no emphasis at all. He assures her that it’s an empty threat. God will not call her to account for her disobedience. He will not curse her with a swift and final death.
The serpent began by encouraging the woman to doubt the goodness of God. Now he doubles back, encouraging her to presume on the very goodness he has questioned. A God of love and grace would never punish; he would surely let her go for such an infraction!
Having followed the serpent into the sin of ingratitude, she now joins him in the sin of presumption.
Presumption: when common grace feels expected
Being black in America, I mean…you already born dead…Unknown demonstrator, interview with Sergio Olmos, May 30, 2020
The serpent’s words were a half-truth. When their sin was uncovered, God did not immediately end the physical life of Adam and Eve. Their hearts continued to beat, their feet continued to walk, and their lungs filled with breath. But from this point forward, they became the walking dead. They persisted “in the likeness of God” (Genesis 5:1), but the image was defiled and corrupted. Their lives took on the shape of hell on earth. They were already born dead, cast out of the garden, driven from the presence of the living God.
Some people know this more than others. Some of us feel in our bones the absence of grace and hope, as we suffer pain or oppression. For example, those in America with dark or coloured skin don’t experience the same common grace that you do if you’re white. Those anthems celebrating the bounty of “America the Beautiful” leave you an outcast.
On the other hand, some of us have enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, a harvest a hundredfold what we have sown. We look at our possessions, our families, our careers, the stability of our communities, and we conclude that our prosperity is God being fair to us. There’s something about us, something about who we are and what we have done, that ensures this goodness.
I doubt we would say any of this aloud, but in our heart of hearts we believe it. There is something exceptional about the nation I’m a part of, or the way I was raised, or the skills and capabilities I offer, or the hard work I’ve done. Whatever prosperity I enjoy—it is God being fair to me.
We might call this sense of just dessert the legal spirit that is deeply rooted in the fallen nature of mankind. Common grace is misinterpreted; we think it’s an unspoken legal contract with God. This is not an American phenomenon but a human one. We keep falling back into the thinking that bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. We call this arrangement karma, or The Secret, or Your Best Life Now.
Jesus Christ loathed this mindset. When his disciples encountered a man born blind, they asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). They interpreted the man’s suffering as God’s punishment for a family sin; after all, bad things happen to bad people. Jesus, however, rejected their assessment. And when a crowd asked him about his fellow Galileans who had been slaughtered by their Roman oppressors, he replied, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–3).
Jesus hated the legal spirit that presumes on grace, that is convinced that not only have have we deserved the good we receive, but we can expect to continue receiving it as we have before. In his hatred, he aligns himself with the Old Testament scriptures which reveal the good and gracious character of God. He aligns himself against Job’s “friends” who are entrenched in the legal spirit. God chastises them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8). Job, at least, allowed his sense of normal to be shattered, and with them his presumption. Job no longer believed that God was operating with the same legal spirit that Job’s friends possessed.
We subconsciously lapse into this legal spirit, lapse into presumption, so that God has to warn us again and again in scripture, and shake us loose from our mental slavery.
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.Deuteronomy 7:7–8
Why have we received common grace from God up till now? Why can we expect that he will be good to us in the future? Not because of anything in you and me. Not because of any of our “inalienable rights,” or merits, or status, or pedigree. “It is because the LORD loves you,” and because he keeps his promises. That is all. There is nothing he sees in us, nothing good or unique in us that he is responding to. Grace flows freely from his heart. He is not kind to us because we deserve it; he is kind simply because he is kind. We are immersed in common grace, unmerited favour that we have not deserved and cannot presume upon.
We just don’t get grace. We can’t comprehend it. I’ve witnessed people blame and accuse others for not showing them grace when they have sinned. And in my heart, I too have raged against others for failing to show me the grace I’ve demanded from them. How often do churches wrongly demand that victims of spiritual, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse start trusting their abusers again, so that these untrustworthy sinners can be restored to positions of authority and everything go on as it was? The whole point of grace is that it isn’t deserved and cannot be demanded. I can request grace from you, but the moment I begin to demand it, I show that I have no understanding of grace, that I am consumed with the legal spirit. I only know ingratitude and presumption.
Then, too, a spirit of unforgiveness reveals that we do not understand grace. That’s the point that Jesus makes in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21–35). He is not speaking of restoring trust to an untrustworthy sinner, but of showing mercy and granting reconciliation to an unworthy sinner. When we are unwilling to grant grace, we reveal that we do not understand the grace we have received, for we too are consumed with the legal spirit. “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33).
Jesus concludes his parable with a threat of judgment from God. This, too, is a frightening implication of the grace we have received. As I write this, rehearsing the common grace I have been shown, grace beyond my ability to fathom, I am keenly aware of Jesus’ warning to me:
And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.…Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.Luke 12:47–48
Remember the proverb from the Spider-man comics and movies? “With great power comes great responsibility.” And the same is true with grace. “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Jesus said it first. When you and I stand before the judgment seat of God, those who have experienced common grace in abundance will face a deeper wrath.
…Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.Romans 2:4–5
These hard words from the apostle Paul are simply an expansion of the point that Jesus is making (see also Matthew 11:20–24). A vast wealth of kindness and forbearance and patience has been given to me, the common grace of a good God. I say this with fear, knowing that apart from Christ I have no answer and no excuse for my ingratitude and my presumption.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.…God gave them up to dishonorable passions.…God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.Romans 1:18–32
A sense of God’s grace brings an end to all the self-righteousness which corrupts his church. Have I not also been unrighteous, suppressing the truth through my own ingratitude and presumption? Yes, I have also joined in Adam’s sin, the common sin of the human race. And Paul says that when God’s future wrath spills over into our present, it looks like this: God gives people up to become what they would be apart from his grace, to dehumanize themselves as they dehumanize one another.
The worst thing that God can do to me is to let me be myself, apart from his restraining grace. As C. S. Lewis observed, there are those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” That ought to be me. So any righteousness in me is the grace of God. If I am good, it is because he is good. If I receive good, it is because he is good. There is no place for presumption. If I am spared disease, violence, and any measure of evil, I can only talk about the preposterous kindness of God for me.
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.Genesis 3:5
With these words, the serpent levels his final critique against God. He has encouraged the woman toward ingratitude, and toward presumption. And now he levels against God the charge of inequity. He is assuring her, “God is being unfair to you. He wants to keep you down, to keep you from being like him, from knowing and discerning what is good and what is bad as he does.”
This accusation of inequity, and a feeling of unfairness, is one of the hardest things to understand about grace. To those who have received it, grace feels normal and expected. To those who haven’t received it, grace feels unfair.
Inequity: when common grace feels unfair
For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
So the last will be first, and the first last.Matthew 20:1–16
I think it’s important to print this parable in full, to feel the weight of these words from Jesus Christ. Does the conclusion of this parable bother you? Does the master seem unfair? Would you call him generous—or unjust?
Grace continues to rub us the wrong way. It feels like injustice for God to grant one person common grace that he does not grant to another. The unevenness of grace troubles us. We’ve succumbed to the legal spirit and forgotten the truth that Jesus is telling us. Any common grace we receive from God is given from his generous heart. It is not the fulfillment of an unspoken contract. We cannot demand what we are not owed.
The fact that this inequity feels wrong shows that our instincts are leading us astray. To us, it seems wrong—but not to Jesus. He knows how to receive goodness, how to relate to a gracious God. We do not. The fault is not in God, but in ourselves.
The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.Bryan Stevenson, in “Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests” by Isaac Chotiner
There is a deep error in our thinking. We don’t understand the distinction between inequity and inequality. That second word, inequality, is a buzzword, poorly defined and sometimes misleading. But it does capture something that Stevenson describes in the quote above: as individuals and as a society, we function as though some people “aren’t the equals” of other people. They are “less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving.” Conservatives recognize that the unborn are treated as less human than the rest of us. Progressives recognize that women and minority groups are treated as less human. To treat another as “less human” is at the heart of injustice. This is captured by the word inequality.
When God gives grace to some and not to others, he is not guilty of inequality. He is not treating some as “less human” than others. The whole point of grace is that it is unmerited, unearned, undeserved. Grace is not given to the more-human. Neither is it given to the more capable, the more worthy, the more deserving. It is given instead to the incapable, the unworthy, the undeserving.
Grace is not a form of inequality. It is a form of inequity. It is the goodness of God distributed unevenly, given to some in different measures from others. It is not wrong for God to do this. If we declare him in the wrong, we are reducing him to our level, as though he were merely a man like us, subject to our own unspoken social contracts.
…I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The LORD.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.Exodus 33:19
God is free to distribute goodness, to show favour, to grant common grace to whomever he sees fit. He is not constrained; he is not our subject. He is our Sovereign; he is free.
This counterintuitive sense of God’s prerogative is so difficult for a fallen humanity to grasp. Over the centuries, Protestant Christians grappled with God’s freedom to give saving grace. Arminian theology was developed to re-establish some sense of equity in God’s grace. Concepts such as “prevenient grace” were invented out of whole cloth to explain how God can be equitable yet not everyone be saved from their sin.
Yet, in the realm of common grace, a realm which we can far more easily observe, there is no way to pretend, no way to assert the equity of God. Those who do so are quickly exposed as heartless, legalistic, and cruel. We are forbidden by the bad example of Job’s friends, who insisted that God must be treating Job equitably. We are forbidden by the Psalms, which give a voice of lament to those suffering without apparent cause, and a voice of thanksgiving to those who experience a goodness they did nothing to earn.
And we are shown by the Parable of the Prodigal Son how this inequity is a beautiful thing (Luke 15:11–32). The older brother rails against his father for the inequity he has shown, lavishing grace on the undeserving younger brother. But Jesus tells us that even when the younger brother “was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (15:20). The father is not interested in equitable treatment. He is not interested in being fair. He is deeply, personally affected by his son. The world is overflowing in grace because it is a world filled and enriched with the personal agency of a personal God.
I remember once, when I was a boy, getting upset at my mom because she let my younger brother get away with something that I would have been disciplined for. Mom took me aside and reminded me that my brother’s personality was different than my own. She was treating us inequitably because she knew what was best for each of us. I wasn’t convinced at the time that her unfairness was good, but I am now. Real relationship is characterized by personal knowing, by grace, and not necessarily by fairness.
Why is it that God praises Job when he tells Eliphaz, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8)? Didn’t Job go too far in accusing God of injustice toward him? Yes, he did. But Job did, at least, recognize something that his friends refused to see. He recognized that God was inequitable. And admitting God’s inequity is the first step toward understanding and receiving his grace.
You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.Deuteronomy 24:17–18
There is an extraordinary irony to all this: Embracing God’s gracious inequity is necessary if we are to pursue a just equality with one another.
Five times in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel, “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22; see also 10:19). Each and every time, it is given as a rationale for justice and concern for the vulnerable and oppressed among them: widows and the fatherless, servants and slaves, resident aliens, even domesticated animals. The point is clear: God freely, graciously showed you favour. Go and do likewise. Be a channel of God’s common grace to others, because you have received saving grace and common grace from God. Know God rightly, and you will care rightly for others.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.Luke 6:35–36
So what evil is God exposing in the white evangelical church in America? The same thing that is wrong with America. The same thing that is wrong with the whole human race. Grace doesn’t feel like grace. And in particular, common grace doesn’t feel like grace. We have responded with ingratitude, thinking his goodness is normal. We have responded with presumption, expecting goodness that we are not owed. We have disavowed or grumbled against his inequity, thinking that God ought to treat us fairly.
This is the heart of what it means to be a sinner. This is what we need to confess to God and to one another. We need to repent and be forgiven.
What I’ve written, I’ve written with a heavy heart, knowing that I am guilty of the same things. At the same time, God is opening my eyes to see goodness and beauty all around me, grace that I never noticed before.
In the weeks to come, I’ll have further reflections on the subject of common grace: how the church in America fails to understand it, how we can grow in our recognition and appreciation of it. I won’t write at such great length, though. If you’ve read to the end, I’m grateful for your time and attention, and I’m praying that God will use this to open your eyes to his grace.
It is June 2020 in America. Cable news and social media feeds are brimming with pandemic, riots, deception, and injustice. It may feel as though the world you know is buckling and collapsing around you. It may get far, far worse.
Maybe you are asking the question, “Why is all this happening?” Alongside that important question is another one you ought to ask: “Why has it not always been happening?”
As I’m watching, listening, and reading Americans who are responding to our national crises—especially white evangelical Christians in North America—I’m noticing a critical gap in our mindset. This gap is a doctrine taught abundantly in the Bible and further developed by Reformed theologians such as John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Cornelius Van Til. Yet this doctrine is noticeably absent from all of the breathless and thoughtless commentary I’m reading on such matters as the Covid-19 pandemic, racial reconciliation, and the place of human government. It is absent even among most Christians, among those who ought to know better.
We are missing the doctrine of common grace.
I am not beginning a series of articles on common grace because I’ve developed an expertise in it. Lord knows I have much more study to do in even this relatively neglected doctrine. I would prefer to wait, to study more, to learn more. But I’m writing now because I’m sensing that the North American church has a window of opportunity to think, speak, and act wisely regarding the controversies in our world. I think it’s better to write my sloppy and imperfect thoughts now, rather than waiting to write more precise and perfect thoughts a year later, when the opportunity has passed.
This first article will be more systematic, analytical, and linear than even I would prefer. I’m writing it as a primer, a “crash course” meant to introduce this doctrine. Over the next few weeks, the articles that follow will be more personal, reflective, and confrontational.
What is common grace?
Sin is a term used to describe the disposition, attitude, and activity of human beings in opposition to God, contrary to his law of love revealed in the Bible. It is the corruption of the image of our Creator within ourselves. It is a personal slander against the good character of God.
Grace is commonly defined as unmerited favour. More specifically, it is the favour or kindness that God shows to us sinful human beings who have done nothing to earn it and possess no right to claim it.
When Protestant Christians talk about grace, we are usually referring to saving grace (also known as special grace or particular grace). This is the grace of God that brings people to salvation from the penalty they owe for their sin, from the power of sin over them, and ultimately from the presence of sin within and among them.
Common grace, then, describes the grace of God that doesn’t (on its own) bring people to salvation. It is defined in this way by John Murray in his Systematic Theology:
Every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.(Murray, p. 96)
How is common grace given?
Murray goes on to explain that God works his common grace in our world, in both a positive and negative manner:
- Negatively, “God restrains sin and its consequences” (p. 97).
- Positively, God bestows and produces good (p. 102).
Where is common grace given?
Although the exact phrase common grace doesn’t appear in the Bible, scripture is thoroughly drenched in the concept, so that I can only give a small sample of what God says about it. In his own Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem outlines a number of different “realms” of human experience in which God’s common grace is revealed (pp. 657–668):
The physical realm
- Positively: Material needs, natural beauty, even life itself are all bestowed by God. (Psalm 19:1; 145:15–16; Acts 14:17; 17:24–25)
- Negatively: Harm from the natural world (such as diseases and natural disasters) are somewhat restrained. (Genesis 3:17–19; 9:2, 11)
The moral realm
- Positively: God enables even the worst of sinners to do relatively good things. (Luke 6:32–34)
- Negatively: God doesn’t give people up to be fully corrupted by sin, but restrains them from sinning through conscience, consequences, and human customs. (Genesis 20:6; Proverbs 3:33–35; Luke 6:32–34; Romans 2:14–15)
The intellectual realm
- Positively: God bestows intelligence and understanding on people, even giving them a rudimentary knowledge of God himself. Science, technology, medicine, etc. are products of these intellectual endeavours. (Proverbs 2:6; Acts 17:22–23; Romans 1:21)
The creative realm
- Positively: God bestows creativity and skill, as well as the ability to appreciate these things. (Analogous to the special grace found in Exodus 31:1–6)
The societal realm
- Positively: God gives family, friends, government, and other organizations (businesses, charities, etc.). (Psalm 127:3; Proverbs 1:7–9; 18:22; Romans 13:1)
- Negatively: God restrains evil through these relationships and organizations, particularly government. (Romans 13:4)
The religious realm
- Positively: God gives blessings even to unbelievers, and his gospel is proclaimed to them as well. (Matthew 5:44–45; 1 Timothy 2:1–4)
- Negatively: God delays his judgment of the world. (Acts 17:29–31)
For what purposes does God give common grace?
- To secure his plan to save sinners, in concert with his saving grace. (2 Peter 3:9–10)
- To influence and enrich the church.
- To reveal his glory by…
- Demonstrating his goodness. (Psalm 145:9)
- Modelling kindness and love for one’s enemies. (Luke 6:35–36)
- Demonstrating his justice in condemning sinners. (Romans 2:4–5)
- Revealing his greatness and goodness on display in his creatures.
How should we respond to God’s common grace?
- Ingratitude and entitlement. We fail to recognize grace as grace, feeling instead that it is our due. (Romans 1:21)
- Presumption. We assume without warrant that God will continue to be gracious. (Genesis 3:4; Romans 2:4–5)
- Lack of discernment. Christians spurn the common grace of God when we reject wholesale the good deeds and wisdom of unbelievers. (James 1:17)
- Honour God. Through our thoughts, words, and actions, recognize and reflect his goodness and greatness. (Psalm 147:12–15; Romans 1:21)
- Give thanks. Recognize all the good he has given and respond with gratitude. (Psalm 147:7–9; Romans 1:21)
- Steward well. Work wisely and well to become a faithful steward of the gracious gifts God has given. (Matthew 25:20–21)
- Extend grace. As you have received, so become a channel of God’s common grace to others. (Luke 6:35–36)
What else would you add to flesh out this introduction to common grace? What other important things does scripture have to say on this subject?
There is a political argument, common to the Left and the Right, that is wrong and lazy, and harmful to democracy in general and the United States of America in particular.
A vote for anyone other than Hillary Clinton is a vote for Donald Trump who is mentally unstable and is not qualified to be President.
The fact of the matter is that either Trump or Clinton will be president. Hillary WILL appoint the most radical leftist Supreme Court judges which will alter the course of the nation for decades to come. Sitting at home on one’s moral high horse will not alter that fact.…Doing nothing is a vote for Hillary.
(Source: Random people on Facebook)
This is an argument from pragmatism. It keeps appearing on social media and in political op/eds. The “lesser of two evils” argument is used by Trump and Clinton supporters to guilt and browbeat their fellow citizens into voting for someone they don’t want in office.
Perhaps you don’t like either candidate, and a friend or relative has targeted you with this argument from pragmatism. Let’s look at the essence of the argument, why it’s wrong and lazy, why it’s harmful, and how you should instead vote for the candidate you want. Then I’ll answer a couple objections that might occur to you.
The essence of the argument from pragmatism
Here are the logical steps that form the argument.
- Candidate “Bad” and Candidate “Worse” are the only viable options in a civic election.
- The candidate who receives the most votes will win the election.
- It is morally unacceptable for Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
- A voter who fails to vote for Candidate “Bad” is enabling Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
- Therefore, one should vote for Candidate “Bad.”
Can you identify the weak link? Premises 1, 2, and 3 are true. It’s premise 4 that is false. Let me show you why.
Why the argument from pragmatism is wrong and lazy
Here’s a brutal reality that no politician will ever tell you: Your vote has zero practical value.
Let’s suppose you were a US citizen who supported Mitt Romney in 2012. On Election Day, you were walking out to your car to drive to the voting booth, but you slipped on a patch of ice and fell and broke your hip. As a result, you failed to vote for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Did your failure to vote change the outcome? Would Romney have won if only your fragile hip had survived the fall intact? Of course not. Your vote had precisely zero influence on the 2012 presidential election. It had no practical value whatsoever. Only in the smallest civic elections might your vote have even a tiny chance of making a difference.
If you were truly behaving pragmatically in 2012, you would not have voted at all. You would have saved your half-hour at the polls and spent it on a more productive task—shopping for groceries, or vacuuming the house, or researching hip replacement surgery. The only reason that a pragmatist votes is that he or she has not followed this pragmatic line of thinking to its logical conclusion, but has quit thinking halfway to the end. He or she is a lazy thinker, blurting out an argument that is lazy and wrong.
So if your friend or relative is going to urge you to act pragmatically on Election Day, follow their argument to its foolish end. Tell them that the brilliance of their pragmatism has persuaded you. Tell them you have decided not to vote for Clinton and not to vote for Trump. Tell them you have decided not to vote at all, but rather to spend that half-hour on election day with a pragmatism and productivity that will put theirs to shame. For that half-hour, they can find you at home, folding your laundry.
Why the argument from pragmatism is harmful
The argument from pragmatism is harmful for at least three reasons.
First, it encourages people not to vote.
Why is voter turnout so low in many democratic elections? It’s because people are acting pragmatically in the months leading up to Election Day and on the day itself. They’re not spending their time learning about the candidates and their platforms and their merits. They’re not spending the time to vote. They’re doing other things that have genuine practical value. They’re not lazy; they’re pragmatic. They are following the argument from pragmatism to its logical conclusion.
Second, it enables bad candidates and corrupt parties.
How have the Democratic and Republican parties maintained the two-party system for the last 150 years? They have employed the argument from pragmatism. They have manipulated voters into believing that their vote must be cast for a candidate from one of their parties. It is in the interest of both parties to perpetuate this nonsense. Anyone who repeats this argument is either speaking as a cynical manipulator or working to recruit you as a fellow pawn.
Third, it guts our democratic process of its dignity.
It encourages realpolitik, the embrace of amoral pragmatism and Machiavellian politics. It encourages citizens to vote out of fear, hatred, and loathing of the opposition candidate. It ensures that wicked campaigners will gain power, and corrupt elites will remain in power, by infesting voters with their fear, hatred, and loathing of the alternative. If all this sounds like America circa 2016, it’s because we have made our bed, and now we are lying in it.
Vote for the candidate you want
Your vote, and my vote, has no pragmatic value. It will not sway the results of all but the smallest civic election. So why do we vote?
You and I vote not because it’s practical, but because it’s our duty and our dignity. We vote for ideological reasons. We are citizens of a state that, for all its faults and corruption, protects us from harm, enforces justice, and promotes what is good. It is my responsibility to the state to vote in a civic election, because my vote is my voice. I use it to communicate what kind of person I believe should be in office, and what kind of platform they should run on. I want my community, my state or province, and my country to be led by someone who is virtuous and just and wise, and who makes decisions with virtue, justice, and wisdom.
There is only reason to vote for a candidate for public office: you vote for the candidate because you want him or her to hold that office. It is a violation of your civic duty, a betrayal of your citizenship, to vote for someone you don’t want.
If you’re an American citizen, here’s how you should vote in the 2016 presidential election:
- If you want Donald Trump to be President, then vote for Donald Trump.
- If you want Hillary Clinton to be President, then vote for Hillary Clinton.
- If you don’t want either one to be President, then research your third party alternatives, find a candidate that you do want to be President, and vote for that candidate.
- If you can’t find a third-party candidate that you want to be President, then write in the name of a person you would like to be President, if your state permits it.
- If your state does not permit a write-in vote, or restricts it to names you don’t find acceptable, then do not cast a vote for President. (Do, however, cast a vote for other elected offices on the ballot.)
Remember: Your vote has no practical value. It will make no difference. And so you are free to vote for the candidate you want.
If everyone thought this way, then Candidate “Worse” might be elected!
Don’t forget that if everyone were thinking this way, then the supporters of Candidate “Worse” would also be thinking this way. Many of them would vote for someone else. Remember, they are voting for this candidate only because in their opinion, it is Candidate “Bad” who is the worst! Given an alternative, many would choose someone better. So in the end, this objection only leads to speculation and worry, both of which are hardly pragmatic.
Al Gore lost Florida to George W. Bush by 537 votes. If the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader had instead voted for Al Gore, then Gore would have won Florida—and the election. So didn’t this ideological voting for Nader cost Gore the 2000 presidential election?
Once again, it’s speculation to assume that Ralph Nader’s supporters would have voted at all if Nader weren’t an option. And if we’re going to speculate, why not speculate about the party nominations in that election? Would Al Gore and George W. Bush have even been nominated as candidates if party members had voted ideologically rather than pragmatically? And would prior presidential elections have been reshaped by ideological voting, fundamentally altering the political landscape for the 2000 election? We don’t know.
The point is this: It’s not your civic responsibility, or mine, to speculate about the results of your voting. It’s your civic responsibility to vote for the candidate you want.
Furthermore, you are not responsible for other people’s votes, but only your own. And if you had been one of those Nader supporters, changing your vote to Al Gore would not have won him the election. With your help, he still would have lost—by 536 votes.