‘Co-belligerents, not allies’
In my work with the Christian Institute over the past 20 years I have often been involved in seeking to persuade politicians to propose good laws and resist bad ones.
Comparatively few politicians are Bible-believing Christians. Anyone who is engaged in arguing for a change in public policy has to convince unbelievers of their case. Sometimes we have unusual co-campaigners.
Atheists were as keen as evangelicals to defeat the Government’s religious hatred law in 2006. Today, a consistent defender of the rights of Protestant street preachers is Edward Leigh, a Roman Catholic MP.
When Dale McAlpine, a Cumbrian street preacher, was arrested for saying in a conversation that homosexual practice is morally wrong, homosexual activist Peter Tatchell publicly condemned the police for what they had done. Tatchell believed, rightly, that Dale had not broken any law.
How is it that in campaigns to change legislation Christian believers can find themselves on the same side as those who do not share their faith? The doctrine of common grace provides some answers.
What is common grace? It can be defined as the blessings which God gives to all people outside of salvation. The world is not as chaotic and loveless as it could be. God acts to restrain sin and the cosmic effects of the Fall on creation.
Man is fallen at every point, but not as depraved as he could possibly be at every point. We still bear the hallmarks of the Creator, in whose image we are made. Man is still capable of creativity, artistic and scientific endeavour, and helping his fellow man.
Jesus affirmed that the Father sends his rain and sunshine on the just and unjust. Paul says that it is not only the weather and crops which God provides, but bread too, and by implication the bakers who bake the bread (Acts 14:17; 2 Corinthians 9:10).
Creation itself, though fallen, still proclaims the glory of God (Psalm 19). God maintains the essential patterns of the seasons in creation (Genesis 8:22).
The ‘cultural mandate’ to be fruitful and steward the creation was given to Adam and Eve, but after the Fall was repeated to Noah and his sons (Genesis 8:17; 9:1,2,7). This command for all humanity still stands and is made possible by God’s common grace.
One of the main functions of common grace is to restrain evil. We should thank God that men and women still have a conscience. People still do what is right and are restrained from doing what is wrong through their conscience (Romans 2:15-16). Yes, consciences can become hardened — and we see so much of that in our society today. Yet, even so, conscience remains part of God’s common grace.
In order to make sense of their lives, people borrow from Christian truth all the time. A non-Christian person doesn’t automatically reject every Christian ethic. Though fallen, people still have a conscience which tells them that many things are wrong and that certain things are true.
Public opinion, customs and social conventions all have the potential, in varying degrees, to act as moral restraints. The collective conscience of a culture can be a good thing.
Moral restraint also comes through the State, which is a key institution of common grace. The governing authorities exist to restrain evil and promote what is good. The ‘powers that be’ have usually been non-Christian people. Nonetheless, they are still God’s servants, according to Romans 13.
The apostle Paul wrote the book of Romans at a time when the authorities were hardly sympathetic to Christians. Down the centuries there have certainly been times when the State has required Christian believers to break God’s laws.
In those cases Christians have rightly not obeyed the State. But the general scriptural principle laid down is that we are to obey those in authority over us and pay taxes.
Christians in Britain today serve as judges, police officers and politicians. All these people have to work with colleagues who are unbelievers. Being salt and light is harder than ever in these professions. There are many challenges. But great good is done, all within the field of common grace.
If Christians who work for the Government can work effectively with unbelievers, so too can Christians who use their freedoms as citizens to press for changes in public policy.
We need to make two clarifications here. First, common grace is not saving grace. Some tend to think that common and saving grace are all on the same spectrum: God’s kind gifts in creation are at the bottom end of the spectrum, with saving faith at the top.
This is a defective view, not only of common grace but also of salvation. It’s a reason why some evangelicals won’t speak out on the issues of the day. They think that if we upset unbelievers with ‘unfashionable ethical pronouncements’ it will stop them from becoming Christians.
Of course, we have to be courteous. We should not cause unnecessary offence. And we should not inflame a situation by using provocative language.
That said, speaking out on moral issues can cause a stir; it can get a reaction. But we speak out because we love our neighbour; because God knows what is best for how we should live. And when sin is declared to be sin, it may be that God can use our words to convict people of their sin (Galatians 3:24).
Common grace can restrain the heart but, unlike the gospel, it does not give you a new heart. Saving grace in Christ is quite distinct from God’s compassion over all he has made (Psalm 145:9).
We all experience countless blessings from God both in creation and also in human creativity. We can read Shakespeare and think that he has a remarkable understanding of human nature. That doesn’t make him a Christian believer, just someone who has wisdom because of God’s common grace.
The ultimate blessing of common grace is that it enables great salvation purposes to be worked out in history. Without common grace, the Great Commission could never be fulfilled, since man would completely destroy his fellow man.
Sin has to be restrained to enable the gospel to be preached. Since God acts to care for his creation and restrain evil, so should we. If, according to Romans 13, God uses unbelievers as his servants to restrain sin, we should not be surprised if we find ourselves working with unbelievers in the same task. That is a proper understanding of common grace.
Secondly, a church and an individual believer have distinct roles. There are many things that an individual believer can do which a church cannot do.
Believers inevitably spend large amounts of time pursuing a legitimate secular calling in raising a family or going to work, for example. Individuals glorify God in these tasks, but these are not the roles of a church.
In their work, individual believers have colleagues from many religious backgrounds or none at all. In its work a church or a missionary organisation cannot operate on that basis. An atheist might be a good maths teacher; he can never be a good church youth worker.
A believer may join a political party. A church should not do so, though the church must equip believers to be salt and light. It should speak out on moral issues and encourage its members to do the same. C. H. Spurgeon showed that there is a great deal that a minister can do in this area in speaking out on many moral issues of the day.
However, on many public questions outside the Ten Commandments, the biblical applications may not be clear, especially where questions of fact are in dispute. It follows that ministers have to be restrained in what they preach.
Personally, I have many reservations about wind farms, for example, but I don’t think ministers should preach against them. A believer is free to campaign against wind farms, or to campaign for them. Individuals have the freedom to act in a way that a church ought not to.
When it comes to abortion or euthanasia the issues for biblical Christians are much clearer. They are Ten Commandment issues. Many individual believers join organisations like SPUC or LIFE, which work against abortion.
These are not religious organisations, though many evangelicals, Roman Catholics and others are involved with them as individuals. Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland precisely because all sections of the community have taken a clear stand on this issue.
Francis Schaeffer famously coined the phrase ‘co-belligerents, not allies’. We can legitimately campaign on a single issue with those who do not share our beliefs. Being on the same side over one issue doesn’t mean we are on the same side on other issues.
Some Unitarian MPs strongly supported William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade. But no one was in any doubt that Wilberforce opposed Unitarian beliefs. Josephine Butler, in her successful campaign to raise the age of consent, was assisted by many who did not share her Christian faith.
When it comes to church worship or evangelism, we must not co-operate with people who deny that Christ is the one sacrifice for sins and the only mediator between God and man. Worship and evangelism belong to the realm of saving grace.
But when it comes to the realm of common grace, believers are often in the position of working with unbelievers. And Christians, acting as individual citizens, are in a different position to a church.
There is much more that can be said. Suffice it to say that believers can work with unbelievers over specific public policy campaigns or caring initiatives. In doing so, Christians ‘keep the royal law found in Scripture, love your neighbour as yourself’ (James 2:8).
The author is director of the Christian Institute