The intersection of common grace with special grace is on my mind today, but not for a particularly “spiritual” reason. Bow season has begun here in Michigan and I’m anticipating the pleasure of taking one of my boys out this afternoon to see if one of us can woo a deer close enough for a clean shot. This is my favorite time of year in Michigan—the weather is perfect and the activities invigorating.
One might assume that I see this activity as existing in complete independence from my work of teaching systematic theology here at DBTS, but I don’t. Since the broad task of systematic theology involves the discovery of a framework that incorporates and validates all truth, then in fact no activity exists outside of it. The joy of seeing God’s handiwork in nature, his provision of pleasures peculiar to his diverse creatures, and his delight in satisfying us with good things are significant parts of God’s plan for mankind (see, e.g., Ps 104). And yet, there is an adornment even of common grace (i.e., the kind of gifts that people get irrespective of their ultimate standing before God) that renders these things even more satisfying for the believer than they are for the unbeliever. As one songwriter has written,
Heav’n above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen.
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know, I am His, and He is mine.
I used to think that this hymn text drank more deeply at the well of mysticism and existentialism than it did biblical substance. Is the Christian’s sky really more blue? His garden greener? His flowers more beautiful? And, to the point, his deer-hunting experience more pleasant?
But the more I’ve studied systematic theology, the more sense this song makes. While an unbeliever enjoys nature in much the same way I do, he does so illicitly and with little comprehension of why he is enjoying it. He is, as Greg Bahnsen says, “borrowing capital” from the Christian worldview and pasting it into his own sorry worldview. He is snatching one of God’s perfect gifts and consuming it greedily without any regard for the giver. And to that degree, he does not enjoy God’s common grace nearly so fully as does the recipient of God’s special grace. That is because the believer receives these gifts gratefully from God’s hand and recognizes the Giver in the gift. All that the believer receives from God makes perfect sense, because our gracious God has provided him with all the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of any event, circumstance, discipline, or pursuit.
No, the fall colors will be no more brilliant for me this afternoon than they are for anyone else, but the awareness of God above allows us to truly see something in every hue that Christless eyes have never seen. As another hymnwriter has opined,
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.
This is my Father’s world. The birds their carols raise;
the morning light, the lily white, declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me everywhere.
And most especially, as I tie it all back together with the unifying center of all God’s activities in his universe,
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world. The battle is not done;
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
and earth and heav’n be one.