Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Common Grace and Evangelism (1): Introduction

God is by nature a loving God. He is a gracious God.

This is a foundational truth. This is how God reveals Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious...". It is what many of the Psalms delight in. Psalm 136 repeatedly tells us "...his steadfast love endures forever." It is what Jonah recognises when he says "...I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful..." (Jonah 4:2). It is what we are told of the Lord Jesus, that He is "...full of grace and truth..." (John 1:14). It is what John recognises when he says: "God is love." (1 John 4:16). God is a gracious God.

What implications does this have for how we speak with our non-Christian friends and family members? How does knowing a gracious God equip us to do evangelism?

In a short series of posts I want to explore this question by looking at a specific aspect of God’s grace, and examining its significance for how we do evangelism. I am going to look at an area of doctrine that theologians call ‘common grace’.

It's always good to be clear on what I'm talking about. So, what do I mean by common grace? A helpful definition of what we mean by common grace is given by the theologian John Murray. He defines common grace like this:
Common grace is “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”
We shall come back to this later. However, before we can explore common grace further and the significance it has for how we do evangelism, we need to recognise something important about human nature first. This is what I want to focus on on this post.

Understanding Ourselves
What we are about to look at in this series of posts will only make sense if we understand something about ourselves first. We won’t be able to grasp God’s common grace, and its implications for evangelism, unless we first recognise what human nature is like.

The Bible teaches that human beings are, by nature, sinful. That is why we sin. We sin because we are sinful by nature. This is a deep problem. Sin has affected the whole of who we are, down to the very root of our being. This is what theologians call ‘total depravity’.
Jesus teaches this in Mark 7:21-22. He says:
"...from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a person."
Jesus says that the heart of our problem is our heart. All the evil that humans do comes from the heart. In Bible language, the heart is the control centre of all of who we are. It affects the whole of the rest of our being. Our hearts have been tainted and corrupted by sin, which means that all of the rest of us is also tainted and corrupted by sin.

Ephesians 2:1-3 sheds a little more light on our condition. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus :
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Notice the imagery here. Paul says that we were dead. We were spiritually dead. Before we became Christians we were spiritual corpses. This means that we were unable to make a single move towards God or think or feel rightly about him. More than this, we couldn’t help but sin. Verses 2-3 say that we actively followed the world, the devil and our sinful desires (which come from our hearts). We were unable to do anything pleasing to God, and were helpless to do anything about it.

Sin has affected the whole of who we are, right down to the very core. So, there is not a part of us that remains uncorrupted by sin. Our minds and thinking, our wills, desires and emotions, all of who we are has been affected. There is not one part of us that we can say, ‘this is alright. We can trust this’.

An Important Question
Now all of this leaves us with a question. It’s a question that is right at the heart of what we are looking at in this series of posts. The question is this:
If this is the case, if sin has affected our whole person, then why is there so much good in the world?
Now, I’m not talking about Christians here. We can understand why Christians do so much good. The Bible tells us that they are ‘new creations’ in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). No, the question has got to do with those who are not Christians. How is it that those who are not Christians can do so many good things? Why is it that non-Christians can be faithful husbands, loving parents, good members of society? If ‘total depravity’ is true, then why are unbelievers capable of doing so much good?

The answer to this question is found in what the Bible teaches about God's common grace. This is what we’re going to spend the rest of this series exploring. It is vital that we answer this question rightly, otherwise we could find ourselves wanding down some very unhelpful roads.

Over the next while I shall, God willing, explore this under three headings:
1) God is Gracious to All
2) How God is Gracious to All
3) A Gracious God and Evangelism
For the moment, however, I shall leave you with an unanswered question: How can bad people do good things? That is, if people are totally depraved, why is it that they are capable of so much good?