We are conditioned at times to think that grace and theology are confined to the spiritual realm—to believers and the church. Outside of the church independent forces like politics dominate. But when President Obama uttered the words “These tragedies must end” in the wake of the massacre at Newtown, CT, he was offering us a robust theological expression of common grace. He concurred with God in identifying moral vice; he expressed clearly the want of moral ought; he lent the considerable weight of divine authority as the “minister of God” to his statement of resolve (Rom 13:4). We might even put a theological spin to his statements by inserting biblical themes: “We must restrain depravity and promote holiness through policy,” the President said, in effect. That’s the biblical purpose of government (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Tim 2:2; 1 Pet 2:14), and to the degree that the President understood this, his statement was altogether fitting.
The question, then, turns to the nature of the policies necessary to the elimination of such tragedies. For many, two policies rise to the fore: we should (1) ban guns and (2) turn our schools into fortresses of absolute safety. Or, put in more general terms, the secret to societal progress and safety lies in the general restriction of freedom and the total insulation of the vulnerable. Call me a cynic, but as a long-time proponent of the fundamentalist label, I find something oddly familiar about these proposed solutions to the problem of moral vice—and something very troubling: the model leaves no room for divine grace.
Two caveats are immediately in order: (1) I’m not saying that Christian experience and civil society are the same (the latter is established upon the special grace of regeneration, whereas the former most emphatically is not) and (2) I’m not calling for a total ban on rule by law—law is absolutely necessary to an orderly society.
What am I saying, then? I’m saying that restrictive laws alone are incapable of accomplishing all that they intend. Laws can no more produce perfect societies than rules can produce perfect Christians. While laws are necessary to sanctification, they must be attended by the positive cultivation of grace to achieve their desired end. Christian sanctification advances primarily through the cultivation of the special grace of regeneration—the development and disciplines of godliness wrought by the Holy Spirit through the new man. Civil society, of course, has no access to special grace, but that does not mean that the grace element is totally absent. Civil society is entrusted instead with common grace and is charged with cultivating it.
The question, then, is what this common grace looks like, or, specifically, how our government might successfully produce Scripture’s “tranquil” society that is “not afraid.” This is the end that everyone, irrespective of party affiliation, is seeking in the aftermath of this tragedy. Let me offer three common grace suggestions:
- First, human government must cultivate the grace of the nuclear family. This is one of the earliest expressions of common grace known to mankind (Gen 2:23–24). Human government should punish the evil of sexual and marital aberration and praise those who do well by sustaining the family.
- Second, human government must cultivate the grace and dignity of work. This grace is, in fact, the very first grace granted to mankind (Gen 1:26; 2:15). Human government should punish the evil of idleness (which, to follow Paul’s lead in Acts 17, even your own poets have identified as the “devil’s workshop”), and praise those who work hard.
- Third, human government must cultivate the grace of human dignity. This grace is discoverable in God’s sole directive when he first established human government (Gen 9:6). Human government must severely punish all those who devalue human life and capitally punish those who unjustly terminate human life. We must ask how a society can possibly remain sensitive to the senseless one-time slaughter of 20 children with a semi-automatic rifle when they have become habituated to the senseless slaughter of 3000 children every day with a sanitized blend of chemical poisons and, if necessary, the savage thrust of a pair of forceps.We might also add to the latter that the government might consider restricting the development and dispensing of media that celebrate wanton and unjust human death (i.e., gratuitously violent games and motion pictures), and especially those that employ role-playing features that allow users to both practice and experience the thrill of murder without guilt or consequence. This latter suggestion, of course, impinges on our first amendment rights, but if society is exercised enough to question the second amendment, why not put this one on the table, too?
Such measures are not likely to satisfy a public seeking an immediate solution to the problem at hand. Indeed, there is no panacea that can immediately insulate us from the ravages of a society that has deliberately and progressively given itself over to sin. But the Christian Scriptures do not leave us without hope: they offer us two things: (1) the special grace whereby individual members of society may be made citizens of a new kingdom through the Gospel, and (more to the point in today’s discussion) (2) the common grace whereby society in general may become “tranquil” and “unafraid.” May God give our governors grace to cultivate such a society by the means that God has supplied.