Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mediating Common Grace

In theological circles, discussions about God’s grace often identify two categories: “special” grace and “common” grace. These are separate, but linked. Special grace is often spoken of that application of God’s grace that results in acceptance of the Gospel and eternal salvation. This is a work of the Spirit that tends to follow the overt proclamation of Christ and an orthodox sharing of the Gospel. It is a very particular work of the Spirit to regenerate the person. This “special” grace is necessary for someone to be illuminated to the beauty of the Savior, such that they would respond to his offer of dying in their place. Though the Church of Jesus Christ has manifold duties, this is its chief purpose. When Christ commands the first apostles to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” this “special” grace is in view, making the spread of this special grace the primary purpose of the Church.

However, theologians also find biblical support for another type of application for God’s grace altogether. This grace is applied very broadly to humanity and the world in such a way that it does not necessarily result in salvation. The question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” has been a quandary for many. On the other hand, the question “Why do good things happen among fallen people?” can be much more troubling. The believer might expect trouble or persecution from a fallen world, but what about when their atheist neighbor treats them better than people do at church? It can be reliably suggested that God is to be thanked for all goodness (wherever it is found). What this means is that God’s grace was at work in a way that did not result in the neighbors salvation, though it moved them to neighborliness.

This latter view is often called “common” grace. It’s a much more subtle symptom of Christ’s reign in the kingdom of God. It spreads well outside the community of faith. It’s a very broad work of the Spirit (rather than his particular work on the newly-regenerated) that suppresses human depravity, social and natural chaos. For the human race, this results in both individual and communal adherence to natural law, moral order and “common sense.”

For his part, God is complete control of how, and of “type” of grace he extends toward people. Nevertheless, though he is always the ultimate source of grace, he has historically used “mediators” to participate in the work of the One Mediator between God and man - the man Christ Jesus. These little “mediators” have taken the form of prophets and priests in the Old Testament, later chiefly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, but also played out in the apostles of the New Testament. These “little mediators” are not the source of God’s grace, but for reasons which seem good to him, God has chosen to extend his grace to people through contact with these “little m’s.” God saves, but he indeed uses preachers and evangelists to deliver the Gospel that the newly saved person responded to.

Many may be uncomfortable with the use of this "mediatorial" language, fearing that it appears to place into human hands what is the sole prerogative of Christ. Far from being feared, this understanding should be embraced with the "little m" knowing that they are being the "hands and feet" of Christ in how they bring grace to others. For this reason, believers must consciously own their priestly responsibility to mediate grace to people, whatever type of grace God may will. At times, it has been my pleasure and privilege to "mediate" special grace by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Romans 10:14-17 tells me that I have a role in the mediating process Christ employs. In addition though, I must also fully accept my responsibility in how Christ mediates common grace as well.

It is this role in mediating common grace where chaplaincy truly is best understood. Here at the annual conference for the Federation of Fire Chaplains, I'm receiving training on how to better "mediate" that common grace in crisis and traumatic situations for victims, and especially to maintain a "mediatorial" presence among the firefighters the rest of the time. Actually, my primary role is to minister to the firefighters in this manner, reminding them by my presence and practices that God is with them in all their functions. This is "mediating" common grace, and all Christians should feel a responsibility to step in and take such a mantle. However, the role of a fire chaplain is a role set apart and distinct to perform this service to those who serve others. It's a heavy duty, as being an extension of how the Church mediates grace outward to the community, but I love it.

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