How to Be a Biblical ‘Progressive’ in 10 Easy Steps: Introduction

Matt.15.27-28

Okay, so, maybe there are not 10 “easy” steps to becoming a biblical ‘progressive’.

But when it comes to understanding what ‘the Biblical Basis of Progress’ is, there is a certain book out there that’s been in print for more than three decades which dives headfirst into this topic and brings to the table at least 10 different aspects of this idea of ‘progress’ and how to have a biblical perspective on it, which I think are fairly easy to explain and easy to grasp.  Of course, that’s just me.

Now, we could give this series a more catchy but commercially dubious title like:

The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Biblical ‘Progressives’

But,… I think not.

Anyway, whatever catchy but commercially dubious, grab-you-by-the-theological eyeballs title I choose to give it, the topic at hand is a serious one that warrants some thoughtful consideration.

So, let’s have a seat at this table and get into the meat-and-potatoes of our discussion as we thoughtfully consider 10 highly unique, biblical insights into this idea of what we moderns like to call “progress”.

Now, these are not my insights.  They come from Dr. Gary North’s little book published in 1987 called Dominion and Common Grace — which is 300+ pages of theological tough love directed, first, at a venerable and well-loved figure in the Reformed presuppositional apologetics world, Dr. Cornelius Van Til, and, second, at the amillennial defenders of a certain doctrine of ‘common grace’ that Dr. Van Til spoke of and wrote about during his career as a Westminster Seminary professor.

In Dr. North’s opinion, it has been to the great detriment of the church in modern times and its evangelical mission in the world that a faulty doctrine of common grace as promoted by Dr. Van Til and embraced mostly by the Reformed (Dutch amillennialist) wing of the Christian church has been promulgated — if any doctrine of common grace has been embraced and promulgated at all.

Dr. North’s book seeks to remedy this.

(You can find a new or used copy of his book online or else download it and read it for free as a PDF.  Click here for a free PDF: Dominion and Common Grace.)

So, let’s get started.

Let us unpack this eschatologically hefty baggage and see what’s inside.

What in the World is ‘Common Grace’?

For starters, common grace is not exactly a term that has been in common use among Bible-believing Christians.  Not now, not ever.

It’s one of those doctrines that, like the Trinity, you’ll never find by name in a concordance.  Or even a topical Bible.

And it seems that only the Calvinists have been the ones spending much time debating and discussing the term and what it means.

Dr. North, a PhD in history and an expert in early American, especially colonial American history, points out that colonial American Puritans used the term ‘common grace’ quite a bit.  He says the term goes back at least to Calvin’s writings (Institutes of the Christian Religion , Book II, Chapter II, 1559).

So this conversation has been going on for at least the last five centuries!

Isn’t That Special?  (Yes, It Is.)

The kind of ‘grace’ that the Bible talks about most explicitly is the kind that everyone understands–even unbelievers: unmerited favor, unmerited gifts.  (Unmerited by us, that is. All gifts are merited by Christ.  More on that.)

The unmerited favor demonstrated by God towards his people is especially shown by his unmerited gift of salvation given to them through his Son Jesus Christ.

Theologians call this type of grace, ‘special grace.’

Fine. No argument there.

Now, where the doctrinal pond gets a little murky is where we start to look closely at another type of grace not so clearly shown in the Bible but shown nevertheless: the type of grace demonstrated by God in those unmerited gifts and apparent “favor” (more on that) shown not to his children exclusively but to all of mankind, including unbelievers, regardless of their ethical status before him (saved or lost).

Things like life, health, beauty, law and order, food, clothing, success, prosperity.

Two Kinds of Grace in This World

Here is how I boil it down (based on my reading of Dr. North’s book).

Grace is an unmerited gift.

Special grace is the unmerited gift of salvation given by God to his people.

Common grace is the unmerited gift of temporal blessings and the good things in life given By God to all of his creatures to some degree regardless of their ethical status before him (saved/lost).

Keeping in mind that ALL gifts given by God are merited by Christ his Son, not by us or by any of his creation.

Clear so far?

Well, just you wait.  Here, at the doctrinal watering hole called ‘common grace’, is where good Christian men and Dutch Calvinist theologians and church leaders have sometimes refused to drink together and have parted ways.

About a century ago (1924), the Christian Reformed Church did just that.  Or, I should say, some dissenting members of the CRC did just that.  They parted ways and formed the Protestant Reformed Church over this debate.

Sad.

All they had to do was see things Dr. North’s way.  Then they’d still be together.

Or,… maybe not.

That was then, this is now.  And, now, it helps to have a good visual from Scripture to understand a very abstract concept like this one.

Crumbs = Grace

Thankfully, as Dr. North points out, James Jordan has given us a very helpful “visual” from Scripture: common grace is the equivalent of the crumbs that fall from the master’s table to be eaten by the dogs that are under the table (Matt. 15:27-28).

Perfect!

End of debate, right?

Wrong.  That’s actually the beginning.

You see, the modern debate sparked by the CRC controversy of the early 20th century that resulted in a church split centers on this one key question (actually there are several posed by Dr. North).

Gifts = Favor?

Here is how he frames it:

“For the moment, let us refrain from using the word grace. Instead, let us limit ourselves to the word gift.  The existence of gifts from God raises a whole series of questions:”

Here is the first (and crucial) question.

Does a gift from God imply His favor?

That is a REALLY important question.

Does a gift from God imply His favor?

Spoiler alert: Dr. North says “No.”  And he uses the rest of his book to answer this and several other equally important questions related to this one, which you’ll find listed on pages 8-9.

Now, in his Introduction there are two basic points that he makes about common grace.

One, common grace is continuity.  It runs throughout history, and it increases over time, but only as a prelude to judgment.  (He goes much more into this later.)

Two, common grace is about eschatology.  This is where he parts company with Van Til and his amillennial detractors.  Whereas their whole theory of common grace is built on the inevitable defeat of the church and the Gospel in history before the final judgment, Dr. North’s theory (being that he is a postmillennialist and a theonomist) is built on the inevitable victory of the church and the Gospel in history before the final judgment.

That’s a mighty big difference of opinion!

A big enough difference, in fact, that it puts Dr. Gary North at odds with just about everyone else in the Reformed/Calvinist world on this matter.  Surprise!  There’s nothing new about that.

Well, my friend, it looks like we’re out of time.  (Not eschatologically.)

Next, we’ll cover “Easy Step” (or “Successful Habit”) #1…

What the Bible Really Teaches about the “Favor” of God.

Hint: this is Dr. Gary North, so it’s not what you think or what you’ve been taught.  Make sure you read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of his book so you’ll be primed and ready.

Anyway, until then, keep on enjoying those unmerited gifts of common grace!

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