Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries. — Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book VII
Through our study of Scripture, we have been able to observe how common bushes are set aflame, and we have considered the means by which God shines His mercy “over all that He has made” (Ps. 145:9). Let us now explore three crucial areas of application of the doctrine of common grace.
Common Grace is Uncommon
Jesus teaches that belief in common grace is in reality a most uncommon thing.
One might think that common grace would be a commonly believed doctrine, but Jesus declares, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14). To live alert and alive, believing in God’s blazing grace, is the narrow and hard way. In order to believe, we must return to the beginning of the hard path, to the doctrine of original sin.
The Bible teaches that death is spread to us all, because in Adam all sinned (Rom. 5). So we are entitled to nothing, to no grace at all. Pascal explains, “Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet, but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.”
This is the reason why so few believe in common grace, because the human heart will not admit that a world without common grace is what we deserve. Believers sometimes consider the horrible conditions that, apart from God’s saving grace, would await us in the next life. But how often do we consider the conditions that, apart from God’s common grace, would prevail in this life?
What would it be like to wake up tomorrow to a world not just partially but completely overtaken by curses (Deut. 28:15)? What if there were no prosperity or peace to be found in any corner of the world, but if every nation were at war and every people continually robbed, oppressed, and enslaved (Deut. 28:16–36)? But the world you live in is not like this! How good God is! Do you see that earth is crammed with heaven and that the world is ablaze with grace? Do you believe this, or are you a grumbler?
Thankfulness without Grumbling
The one who believes the doctrine of common grace lives without grumbling, but with thankfulness in the heart to God (Col. 3:15–17).
The church is called to minister saving grace to the world by being a people who believe in common grace! When we live without grumbling and complaining in a grumbling and complaining culture, we shine as lights in the world (Phil. 2:14–15). But tragically, public opinion polls show that most Americans think of evangelicals as complainers and whiners. This is not all misperception, either.
God calls us to put our complaining to death, and to put on gratitude and thanksgiving as our garment and cologne. Martin Luther shows us the way: “The method of the Spirit of God is to think less about evil things and more about good things: to think that if a cross comes, it is but a little one, but that if a mercy comes, it is a great one.”
Hunger for Righteousness
At the same time, the one who believes the doctrine of common grace will hunger and thirst for righteousness, and work for cultural reformation (Matt. 5:6, 16).
Those who believe in God’s common grace want its warmth spread everywhere! Whenever evil is operative, whether in boardrooms or on battlefields, in classrooms or courtrooms, God’s grace needs to blaze.
But, called to be His pyrotechnists, how prone we are to dangerous mistakes! J. I. Packer’s classic work, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, guarded the church against mishandling the fire of saving grace. His words are helpful as we consider how God would have us minister His common grace.
First, we must remember that it is silly to think that any cultural reform technique, however skillful or widespread, could of itself guarantee reformation. God is sovereign, and He alone chooses whether a culture will reform or deform.
Second, because “madness is in men’s hearts while they live” (Eccl. 9:3), we must not be surprised if at any time our efforts at cultural reform fail to bear fruit.
Third, we must remember that the terms of our calling are that we should be faithful, not successful. Failure is not ipso facto proof of unfaithfulness. Think of how heretical a charge that would be with regard to evangelism, and yet we hear it all the time with regard to cultural reform, as if the presence of evil in a culture (abortion, for example) is definitive proof of the church’s unfaithfulness. Yet, Christ commends His people in Smyrna and Philadelphia (Rev. 2–3) — small and impoverished churches having no discernable success in terms of cultural reform.
Finally, we must learn to rest all our hopes for cultural reform upon the omnipotent grace of God, who “is in the heavens and does all that He pleases” (Ps. 115:3). With humbled and thankful and repenting hearts, let us dare to believe the doctrine of common grace, and let us minister it everywhere, trusting God alone for the results.