Why God Enjoys Baseball
A firefighter risks his life to rescue a child from a burning building. We don't ask if the hero is a Christian or an unbeliever. We just cheer him.
A newspaper columnist describes in evocative detail the pain of growing up fatherless. A reporter opens our eyes to the plight of people who have no health insurance. An editorialist takes to task politicians who line their pockets at the people's expense. We don't normally ask whether these writers are Christians or unbelievers. We gratefully take their insights to heart.
Yet how we think about the good works and deep insights of nonbelievers makes a difference. It makes a difference in our evangelism. It makes a difference in our political involvement. It makes a difference in our local communities.
Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw has written a book to help us think about the good things that happen through unsaved people. Mouw draws his book's title, He Shines in All That's Fair, from M. D. Babcock's old hymn "This Is My Father's World." That hymn welcomes all the good things in the world—regardless of their apparent origin. And it stands in contrast to an old gospel song that begins, "This world is not my home; I'm just a passin' through." The revival chorus rejects the world and longs for heaven. The classic hymn finds heaven shining through "all that's fair" in this world. This latter attitude is at the core of what some Calvinist theologians call common-grace thinking.
Flashes of Light
In 1924, the Christian Reformed Church, then a denomination of immigrant Dutch Calvinists, officially declared "that there is indeed a … non-salvific attitude of divine favor toward all human beings." While "saving grace" is imparted only to the elect, this "common grace" manifests itself in three ways: "the bestowal of natural gifts, such as rain and sunshine, on all creatures," "the restraining of sin in human affairs," and "the ability of unbelievers to perform acts of civic good." Not all members of the Christian Reformed Church saluted the declaration. Mouw mines the ensuing debate for contemporary relevance, and he extends the categories of common grace beyond the strict definitions of 1924. Today's non-Calvinist, non-Dutch Christians can find the questions raised in this book to be important guides for thinking about the good things that happen through unsaved people.
One important question is how the "true light, that enlightens everyone" operates. Is it a steady illumination? If we conceive of all human nature as always and everywhere graced, as many contemporary Catholic theologians do, what would be the result? On the one hand, we would be genuinely open to truth, insight, and goodness wherever we find them. We would also recognize that God is behind that truth and goodness. Unfortunately, considering divine illumination this way often blurs the distinction between the saved and the unsaved. Some theologians begin to treat the good impulses of those who do not know Jesus as if they have the potential to save. Noble Buddhists and Hindus, whether they want it or not, get labeled "anonymous Christians." The constant illumination model does not require us to end up with hope-so universalism, but it has often led Christians there.
One alternative to the steady illumination model is the lightning flash. Mouw cites John Calvin: "The pagan philosopher's awareness of God's purposes … is like that of 'a traveler passing through a field at night who in a momentary lightning flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of the night before he can take even a step.' " Mouw thinks lightning flashes occur more often than Calvin thought they did, but he finds that bolt-out-of-the-blue model most helpful. Lightning-flash thinking takes with utter seriousness the darkness of fallen human nature while it honors the insights into the human predicament and the glimpses of grace and reconciliation we find in the best non-Christian philosophy, art, and political theory. It is simply biblical to take the lasting results of the Fall seriously. But it is also biblical to recognize the hand of God at work in society.