By Peter Sanlon
Loving God is so important for satisfaction and joy in life, that it is easy to mistakenly think only spiritual concerns are important in life. There are many ways for this error to arise: We can think the only truly valuable vocation is that of full time Christian ministry (and expend all our energy in urging people to take up that vision); We can give the impression that time spent acquiring skills in the arts, sciences, tech or academia are time wasted or gifts squandered; We can think that the only really important thing is to save people through evangelism (with all the consequent guilt people feel when other obligations demand time); a group can develop heavy shepherding tendencies – controlling the details of life as if they only have virtue if under religious instructions.
In these and other ways people who have their eyes opened to the vital importance of making their salvation sure, can let the thrill of that foster the sin of calling good things God has made, either sinful or wasteful.
One of the problems that besets us when we think the destination of heaven devalues the significance of things in this life, is that much that concerns people’s daily lives then appears to be irrelevant to our relationship with God. For example, much of our lives and time is affected by institutions such as governments, work places, schools and the media. We not only engage in such institutions – we read reams of news stories about them! If none of these institutions have value or significance in comparison to the heavenly city – how can God really have anything to say to them other than ‘stop wasting your time and energy on them!’
Augustine realised in the 5th century that, ‘Some human institutions may be extravagant and superfluous – but others are necessary to life.’ Augustine concluded, ‘All human institutions which contribute to the necessary ordering of life are certainly not to be shunned by Christians.’
Reformed theologians developed these insights into what became known as the doctrine of Common Grace. God distributes a genuine good of underserved grace to all people as humans made in his image. This common grace is experienced by individuals in many gifts of skill, ability and thought, and corporately in families, nations and institutions. The common grace in no way denies that there is a special grace of salvation granted only to some. How to practically live in the light of both common and special grace? That is wisdom. Ignoring common grace involves not listening to Jesus who said ‘My Father sends rain on the just and unjust.’ (Mat.5:45) The wise person listens to the Word and trusts that we should care about the Word, and care for more than the Word.
Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk