Dr. Robert Webber, a professor of mine at Wheaton College, suggests in his book, The Moral Majority: Right or Wrong, that the hallmark of evangelicalism is a fine line–the “razor’s edge”–we walk. On one side is the message of special grace, complete with its urgency to win lost and drowning souls to a kingdom of hope, love and eternal security. On the other side lies the domain of common grace: our duty as Christians to enact God’s kingdom in all its glory on a daily basis, even on behalf of those who do not believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Romans 3:23, which says that all have sinned, and 2 Peter 3:9, which tells us God does not want anyone to perish, are key verses for one side of this thin line we daily walk. We see a fallen world in need of a savior and long to be ministers of reconciliation. There is an urgency here, like rescuing those in a burning building from certain destruction.
On the other side is common grace. Jesus said, “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). As Christians, we recognize that God is at work in a fallen world to bring about the common good not just for those who believe, but for all of humanity. Like the children of Israel taken captive in Babylon, we are to seek shalom, the peace and well-being, of the places we have been planted (Jeremiah 29:7). We were created to care for the earth and usher God’s kingdom and his will into a broken world, even on behalf of those who have not been redeemed.
Both of these concepts are conjoined in James 1:27 where we are instructed that true religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” To enact one half of the gospel and not the other is an incomplete faith. This fine line between common and special grace is where Webber suggests evangelicals need to balance their efforts.
Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, according to Marvin Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion, the church relegated the domain of social concern and common grace to the federal government. We once established hospitals, orphanages and institutions of higher learning but backed off from these social interventions and cemented the church’s domain as the spiritual realm. In a sense, at least according to Webber’s reckoning, we stopped walking the narrow line.
As a social worker, I am concerned about common grace and the church’s role as dispensers of it. I fear that we have so personalized and individualized the gospel that we have lost sight of the social needs in our society. Many of us become uncomfortable discussing social justice, call it the “social gospel” and reject it outright. We think in terms of a personal savior, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, personal devotions and personal quiet time. We have lost the ability to reconcile the social teachings of both the Old and New Testaments with our personal conceptions of the gospel. I believe we have lost both perspective and effectiveness in the process.
My years in the mission field of Hollygrove in New Orleans, Louisiana, taught me that people need the individual elements of the faith: a personal relationship with Jesus, a personal quiet time, personal devotions, personal growth into Christlikeness, and similar practices essential to the individual believer. But they also need freedom from the social ills that plague their communities: intergenerational poverty, intergenerational substance abuse, longstanding neglect of urban communities, hundreds of years of racialized separation, the effects of carceral policies that differentially impact young black males and, in New Orleans, the tragic loss life among young, black men to violence.
I agree that people need a relationship with Jesus; my years of evangelistic outreach attest to this belief. But I also believe we may be losing sight of the common grace that we who are evangelicals are to dispense with equal vigor.
Being truly evangelical means walking the Christian’s razor edge as great Christian leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries did when the divide between common and special grace was not so wide and when social causes were not as frightening. Rather than dividing into two camps along a theological fault line of conservative and liberal or personal and communitarian, evangelicals are called to straddle the two, bringing the complete good news that Jesus came to save us not only from our sinful condition, but to bring heaven’s shalom to a broken world. His mission included eternal life and abundant life in the present and future.