How Powerful is Common Grace?

A friend wrote to me recently:

We’ve spoken of this often, but I still struggle with the teaching of Total Depravity whereby, it is asserted, sin affects everything, including the mind on spiritual and earthly matters. Practically speaking, I am not satisfied with the answers I receive concerning some of the most rank pagans producing work far superior to Christians. How is it that self-indulging men like Wagner can produce  Ride of the Valkyries and a homosexual like Tchaikovsky can produce The Nutcracker and his First Piano Concerto? If we say that common grace can lift them to such intellectual heights, then aren’t we practically saying the same thing as those who say that man’s mind is not completely corrupt?

The Arminian says that because of sin, man is a 5.

The Calvinist says that because of sin, man is a 0, but common grace can take us to a 5 and beyond.

So practically, what is the difference? Prevenient grace or common grace takes us to a 5 and beyond.  

That question is so thoughtful, that I wanted to post it with a portion of my reply:

You present a tricky dilemma, but isn’t the difficulty removed by an appeal to the gospel? In the gospel though they can do many wonderful things because of common grace, sinful men can never savingly seek God without special grace. And though Tchaikovsky did some wonderful things because of common grace, he never savingly sought God.

In expanded form, special grace is that power to seek God savingly. Common grace is that power to image the beauty of God implicitly regardless of the sinner’s humility, repentance, conformity to Christ, or lack of these Christian graces. Saving grace has an effect on the mind, but it is not the only way for the mind to be improved. The epistemic damage done by sin can be reversed or at least alleviated in many ways, which is one reason why careful thought about art, beauty, and enduring forms is essential.

I think your argument could be recast with just two clarifications:

“The Arminian says that because of sin, man is a 5 in terms of his moral ability.

The Calvinist says that because of sin, man is a 0, but common grace can take us to a 5 and beyond in terms of skill and beauty that don’t explicitly require the sinner to humble himself and submit to Christ’s Lordship.”

Thoughts?

Seth

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About Seth

Planting churches with the Baptist Confession in one hand and Tolkien in the other.
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3 Responses to How Powerful is Common Grace?

  1. David says:

    Edwards’ solution was to distinguish between primary and secondary beauty. He saw secondary beauty as that reflection of primary beauty seen in music, the arts, nature, etc. Men are capable of perceiving this secondary beauty, and producing it themselves, being made in God’s image and through common grace. Primary beauty is being’s consent to being, or the beauty of the Three Person’s love for one another. To love this beauty is to gain an inward relish and delight for God, or specifically, to gain the Father’s love for the Son, and the Son’s love for the Father, through the Person of the Spirit. Since this primary beauty is a consent to being, man’s unwillingness to love God means he finds no delight in this primary beauty. Unless he is regenerated, he has only distaste for this beauty. He is naturally able, but morally unable to see God as beautiful. He refuses to love God, and so cannot see God’s beauty.

  2. Seth says:

    Who is this “Edwards” guy? With insights like that, he should be famous.

    Do you know of any Christian authors who take Edwards work and flesh it out in application to contemporary culture?

  3. David says:

    Just some American preacher-dude. Works on Edwards are legion, but I’m not familiar enough with the corpus to name authors. Ryan Martin will hopefully publish his work on Edwards and the affections (http://religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-theology/congratulations-to-ryan-martin/).

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