Common Grace, 2.36

Common Grace, 2.36 May 11, 2021

This post is part of a series walking through the second volume of Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace.

As a city on a hill, the church must “glow… into the distance.” This begins with “admiration for valor” through persecution. Then follows “reverence” for “purity of life” and earnestness “in the ecclesiastical sphere.” Then “sympathy” for the “love and compassion that develops in the church.” Lost, “it must purify and raise general understanding, elevate public opinion,” and cause people to accept these principles and live a higher life in society. (308)

We see this over time in history. Through persecution into prominance,

  1. the church was “confirmed” as a city on a hill;
  2. society flourished upward.

The first of these is the result of particular grace, but 2. is common grace at work.

It’s true that in our own time there has been a decline both in the church’s state as a city on a hill and in society’s flourishing, but let’s not lose sight of our relative blessings. By way of example, Kuyper points to the treatment of women in the Christian-influenced Western world as opposed to the Muslim and pagan worlds. True, we have a long way to go with regard to this issue, but there’s no real comparison between the different settings in Kuyper’s view.

Such an influenced society is named “Christian” or “Christianized.” The national church cannot hold to this, and abandons both the confession and discipline with the goal of bringing in everyone. So we see, for example, the collapse of baptism in the national church. By contrast the particular grace/common grace distinction lets us keep a pure church while recognizing good things in society. To be sure, there’s common grace in pagan and Muslim societies as well, but because of the church’s influence there is more in our society (though robust attempts are being made to weaken the church’s direct influence and long-established common grace legacy, especially with regard to marriage). (310-311)

Some say that only through the expansion of the historical national church can we influence society. In reality, we can never directly influence society, but only indirectly. Therefore we should always:

  1. work so the church has “full freedom of action and full power to maintain its own character;”
  2. resist attempts to replace Christian ideas with pagan ones in the laws, public opinion, and institutions;
  3. expand the dominance in all of society “of nobler and purer notion by the courageous behavior” of church members. (311)

A confessional church must be held to, not a confessional state or society. A secular state/society “is one of the deepest foundational notions of Calvinism,” though it takes a while for this to filter through history. “Moral triumph” is the tool of the Calvinist church in society, “not the establishing of confessional ties, nor the exercise of authoritarian dominance.” (312)

The United States is an example of this in practice. This nation alone [the US] distinguishes properly between the church and the world. The national church [in the Netherlands] confuses these two spheres, so we must clarify the difference. Then the church will resist the world’s influence while influencing it for good in turn. We all care for the nation; the difference is in how: directly via the national church? Or indirectly through influence? (Though obviously we are to pray for the conversion of all, we know it will never happen.)

As we’ve seen, the national church obscures common grace all the way back to repentance and conversion. And yet, we see a stark difference between a converted pagan and a converted (former) member of the national church. Common grace explains some of the difference, and we are led to the suggestion that particular grace tends to generally use common grace as a springboard more in the ‘higher’ common grace-filled nations. Which is not to say that conversion is the result of common grace (and so Kuyper doesn’t quite get to racial or ethnic conclusions here), just that there seems to be a pattern akin to that which we see in farming well-prepared soil as opposed to soil first put to use.

More on this topic in the next chapter.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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