Perhaps you have been around this “conversation killer”. You are at the water cooler with a group of co-workers and the subject of “religion” comes up. Someone jumps in and declares, “You know, all of the great religions of the world teach basically the same thing. There are many different paths to God. No one path is better than any other”. A second person responds with, “But the Bible says that there is only one way to God. Jesus said ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me‘ (John 14:6)…. Christianity beats any other religion. All other religions are false, demonic lies!”
Silence enfolds the water cooler. Awkward glances abound. A couple of folks begin to straggle off back to their offices. Another person tries to break the silence with, “Did you see the Virginia Tech game last night? How ’bout them Hokies??” The first person turns away and mutters, “Christians. They are such narrow people. Why do they think they always have a lock on the truth?”
A wonderfully important Bible verse has been put forth, but has it been presented in such a way that builds bridges with people or erects barriers? I have serious doubts that a “my-faith-can-beat-up-your-faith” approach is really the most effective for the Christian apologist. The conversation is “killed” for now, but the question remains: Is the Christian faith an exclusive club whereby only the “insiders” get membership and receive the benefits? This really is a good question. But perhaps the best way to tackle the question is to look for the questions behind the question. Trying to tackle every aspect of this in one blog posting is impossible, so this is really the first-part of a multi-part series of posts to help frame the discussion topic, looking at just one of those “questions behind the question.”
The Challenge of Pluralism at a Personal Level
“Religious pluralism” means different things to different people. For some it means the ideological construct at the water cooler that there are “many different paths to God” and each one is equally valid. In this brief video from the One-Minute Apologist, William Lane Craig discusses “religious pluralism” in this context and effectively contrasts it with “religious particularism”.
However, there is a more neutral understanding of “religious pluralism” in a cultural sense that I suggest might be more helpful as a prelude to doing Christian apologetics. While Dr. Craig gets to the crux of the issue with “religious pluralism” at a philosophical level, there is also a very human, day-to-day challenge presented by “religious pluralism”. If we step back for a moment, consider the fact that we live in a world where people with different faiths live next door to one another. We may not necessarily understand or agree with the religious beliefs or practices of our neighbor, but we can not deny that our neighbor exists and follows these beliefs and practices. Our curious neighbor shops in the same grocery store as we do. It is with this sense of “religious pluralism” that the term is being used in what follows from here.
For several hundred years in America’s past, questions about “religious pluralism” were rarely seriously considered. Most people in American culture had some type of Judeo-Christian background. But over the last few decades, this is no longer the case. Countries that were once closed to Christian missionaries are now sending their young people to American universities for advanced education. Refugees and immigrants have come to the United States bringing their non-Christian faiths with them. The woman from Thailand at the dry cleaners may give you change for pressing your shirt while you glance at the Buddha-framed calendar on the wall. You learn that your doctor is from Egypt while you overhear his staff discussing the Muslim fast of Ramadan during your annual physical checkup. And don’t forget…. that lady in the computer call center you talked to last night with your PC problem? She is from India, just coming to work after visiting her local Hindu temple. Religious pluralism in the cultural sense is here, and it appears that it is here to stay.
Some people may like the idea of being in an “exclusive” club, but when it comes to religious matters, the idea of “exclusion” has become extremely unpopular. The problem for many people, including some of the folks at the water cooler, both Christian and non-Christian alike, is that they may personally know someone from a non-Christian faith…. and that person is someone who appears to be a great human being. Though such a person may do some quirky things and may have some odd beliefs, this non-Christian comes across as a loving person with fine moral and spiritual character. That non-believer may even be a family member, or a close and caring friend. And then you think about that John 14:6 verse in the Bible. Is the Christian faith so exclusive that it makes no room for others in the “human family?”
Common Grace vs. Saving Grace
However, perhaps there is a better way of framing the question. One approach to consider is this: assuming that the Christian faith claim is true, how does the message of the Gospel account for compelling examples of piety in the lives of non-believers? This is where a theology of common grace and saving grace can probably help us.
The idea of common grace is really rather simple. If “grace” is simply “God’s unmerited favor” towards us as humans, then common grace is God’s grace that is common to all people. God gives good gifts to people, even though they may or may not recognize who the Giver is. This is one reason why we can see noble characteristics of biblical piety, such as compassion, empathy, etc., even among those who do not embrace the message of the Bible. The sun and the rain can be blessings and signs of grace to people, but God’s Word makes it clear that the Lord “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” alike (Matthew 5:45). Every good gift we receive, whether as a believer or non-believer, is a sign of God’s common grace to all humanity.
Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Samaritans in Jesus’ day were theologically suspect. They were the “unrighteous” ones. The Samaritans had permitted religious inter-marriage, contrary to the marriage purity standards of most Jews in Jesus’ day. They even established a different temple for worship at Mount Gerizim, as opposed to the temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Jesus affirmed the merciful behavior of the Samaritan who helped the robbery victim on the side of the road in contrast to the indifference of the religious establishment. Clearly, Jesus’ point is that a “theologically-correct” Christian has no “lock” on Christian virtue.
However, common grace should be distinguished from saving grace. Saving grace is that favor that God bestows on people towards salvation. Saving grace implies having a relationship with Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life with God. Saving grace keeps us from being eternally lost and separated from God forever. So while common grace is something that is shared in varying degrees by all people in this life, saving grace is different. The debate over how extensive God’s saving grace is towards humanity and how this saving grace is appropriated and experienced by individual people is beyond the range of this blog post, but suffice to say that the very essence of all grace, particularly saving grace, is ultimately a mystery that belongs in God’s Hands, and it can not be controlled or determined simply by human wishes or desires. So while common grace is something that can be detected in someone’s life with at least some modest level of confidence, detecting saving grace by us as humans is much more difficult because it requires an eternal perspective that only God has. So while we may have glimpses of the outworking of grace along our spiritual journey, in the final analysis God’s grace is something only known and revealed fully by God Himself.
For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (I Samuel 16:7).
The fact that any human can recognize the outworkings of God’s graciousness is also an example of God’s grace at work itself. We would not be able to observe God’s activity in the world if it were not for God giving us the insight to see it. For Christian believer and non-believer alike, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20)
The Apologist’s Greatest Need: Humility
Critics of Christian “exclusivism” argue that Christian faith promotes a haughty form of arrogance. One has the “truth”, while the other person lacks it. My religion can beat up your religion. To the extent that a misinformed Christian perpetuates such arrogance, repentance is absolutely necessary. But from the perspective of Scripture, it is anyone who thinks they have an inside track on the mind of God who are the truly arrogant. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34). Simply put, the Bible warns us not to be presumptuous as to how and to whom God dispenses his grace. This applies to the Christian but it also applies to the critic of Christian exclusivism, too.
The Christian apologist needs a good, healthy portion of humility when describing the absolute claims of the Gospel to the skeptic. Thankfully, God has given us sufficient knowledge of God’s purpose and workings of grace through the person and work of Jesus Christ. But sufficient knowledge does not mean exhaustive knowledge. We must be modest in considering exactly what can be known. As with the problem of evil and suffering, we must approach the challenge of religious pluralism in the same spirit. As D.T. Niles once remarked, sharing the Christian faith is simply “just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
Jesus Himself cautions us not to be flippant about how we describe the outworking of God’s graciousness. When Jesus was called a “good teacher”, Jesus responded with a wake-up call, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Among other things, Jesus is warning us that while we might be impressed with someone’s outward piety, there could be things going on inside that person at an eternal level that we know nothing about.
When applied to the discussion of religious pluralism, we can see how the concept of common grace may be worked out. For example, a non-Christian religious tradition may emphasize the practice of meditation, which is something many Christians practice, too. A different religious tradition may uphold almsgiving as a virtue, which is consistent with a Christian virtue of having compassion on the poor. A different faith may honor many of the same ethical commands and ideals honored in the Christian Bible. In other words, Christians can and should affirm certain beliefs or practices that people outside of the Christian faith may have as good and gracious things to be celebrated.
But while followers of different religious traditions may hold many good things in common, common grace alone does not necessarily imply the existence of saving grace in any particular person’s life. In the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-31, the man had an impressive list of good deeds, a testimony to common grace. He did not murder, he did not commit adultery, he did not steal, etc. Perhaps this rich young ruler is like some “good Christian” or “good Muslim” or “good Buddhist” that you know. But Jesus noted the one thing that he lacked. He had an attachment to his riches. The rich man went away sad, unable to do all of the good things Jesus had asked. Jesus’ disciples charged that Jesus’ standard made salvation impossible. But Jesus, the greatest theologian of grace, came back in verse 27 and declared that “with man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Objections to Common Grace Theology
It should be noted, however, that the concept of common grace is not uncontroversial. Some are quick to point out that outward indicators of piety can indeed be counterfeit from God’s point of view. In Isaiah 64:6 the prophet laments that “all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags“. Critics argue that any form of “righteous” living unconnected from saving grace is no more than a deception at best. Goodness in other religious traditions make look “good” on the outside, but they are no more than “filthy rags” in camouflage. Outward good can be a cloak to cover up an insidious evil.
Other critics continue on by saying that any endorsement of common grace theology is simply a trojan horse argument for diluting the purity of God’s saving grace. Such critics contend that the only type of grace is saving grace. Grace that does not save is no grace at all. Placing the Christian like a frog inside a kettle of the cool water of “common grace” may look attractive at first. But slowly turn up the heat of pluralistic culture and the distinction between common and saving grace gets boiled away and the Christian, like the frog, gets cooked!
There is an important warning here that must be heeded. Any theology of common grace based on the Bible requires spiritual discernment when applying it. I would agree. But the difficulty with these type of criticisms is that while it is surely wrong to call something that which is “evil” as “good”, it is equally wrong to label something which is “good” as “evil.” The Christian apologist should be able with the Holy Spirit’s discernment to affirm the presence of goodness and piety wherever it maybe found. If something is truly an outworking of God’s grace, we dare not malign our Creator who freely gives His gifts. Let us be thankful for His common grace that He freely bestows to all people, even when many continue in revolt against Him.
Conversation at the Water Cooler Revisited
So the next time you are at the water cooler and someone expresses the view that “all religions teach basically the same things”, it might be helpful to first talk about any of those good things that Christians share in common with others. Such an approach can go a long way towards building bridges towards fruitful dialogue instead of just killing the conversation. Let us celebrate God’s common grace in our conversations with others.
The irony here is that the more you begin to discuss the things shared in common the more you begin to discover where the real differences are, particularly as they relate to the things that are beyond the scope of common grace. And you do not need to be comparative religious studies major to do this. For example, consider asking this: when Jesus talks about the Way, the Truth and the Life, is this the same thing that a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Hindu means by “Way”, “Truth” and “Life”?
Closer examination through these type of questions shows some very striking differences. Furthermore, if someone wants to go further and claim full tolerance of all religions, then we must learn to treat all religions with respect….. and this means respecting their differences as well as the commonalities. How do we live in a world with our deepest differences and conflicting truth claims? From there, it follows to identify what are the specific truth claims of the Christian faith. Are these truth claims unique and can they be validated or disproved? And finally, what is the relationship between these claims of the Christian Gospel and the millions and millions of others who may or may not know this Gospel? Alas, these are questions that require future blog posts to address in detail.
While it is important for the Christian apologist to respond to the skeptical friend that the message of the Gospel is indeed uncompromising, the Gospel still gives an adequate explanation for why we see evidence of goodness among those who do not consider themselves as followers of Christ. Common grace can be a useful theological idea for positively appreciating the good things in non-Christian faiths without compromising the central uniqueness of the Gospel claims.
Pastor/teacher Kevin DeYoung offers a three-minute explanation of what common grace is:
The subject of humility with respect to doing Christian apologetics is ably presented by John Stackhouse in Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today. Stackhouse has followed in J.I. Packer’s position as a professor in theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Stackhouse argues that how we go about doing apologetics is just as important as what we wish to communicate in our apologetic conversations. Here is a brief interview with John Stackhouse explaining the need and purpose of his book. Highly recommended.
Extra Credit for the Theology Geek: At a more scholarly level, the doctrine of common grace has had an up and down history. Detailed reflection on this doctrine began with Saint Augustine, and it was revived among the leaders of the Reformation, particularly John Calvin. In more recent times, common grace theology became an important feature of the Dutch Reformed tradition, led by Abraham Kuyper in the late 19th century. Kuyper served as the prime minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905. Kuyper’s work proved controversial among some Dutch Calvinists, but it has since gained more interest as our world becomes more diverse, both secularly and religiously. A relatively brief book by Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace explores the theology of common grace within the context of the Reformed theological tradition.