Sustaining Christian witness in an increasingly pagan culture…

J. Budziszewski


Things seem to be speeding up!  Challenges to the Christian faith are becoming increasingly common in many different segments of our culture—from healthcare to business to education to campus ministry.  Unfortunately, most Christians are not prepared to bring the mind of Christ to bear on issues in the public square.


Living as salt and light in our increasingly pagan culture requires an understanding of the doctrine of common grace—the important doctrine that addresses those things that we still have in common with our pagan neighbors in spite of our deep differences.


In a talk entitled “Apostles of Common Grace,” J. Budziszewski points to two groups of Christians who have a special responsibility for bringing the mind of Christ into the public arena.


Every Christian should be ready to bear public witness, but it is a systematic necessity for two groups of Christians in particular.


Those of the first group, the evangelists, are called to bear public witness to the “special” or “saving” grace by which God redeems those who turn to Him in faith.


Those of the second group, the sustainers, are called to bear public witness to the “common” or “preserving” grace by which He keeps the unredeemed world from becoming even worse than it is already. It is this common or preserving grace on which we depend when we try to leaven the civil law that we share with our unbelieving neighbors who so outnumber us in the public square, for instance in seeking agreement with them that life in the womb should not be destroyed, that sodomy should not be granted legal equivalence with marriage, or that sick people should be cared for and comforted instead of starved or pressured into suicide. Only by common grace have we a common ground.


In “Apostles of Common Grace,” Dr. Budziszewski provides a very useful summary of the doctrine of common grace as he discusses the cultural task of sustainers.  Please note that, at times, he refers to American culture as “Rome,” since he begins his talk by drawing a parallel between that culture and our own:  “We are in Rome.”


Here are a few introductory excerpts in which Dr. Budziszewski talks about “natural law,” a term he prefers for discussing common grace.


So let us reconsider the biblical basis for a truly Christian doctrine of natural law. Doing so will yield three benefits. First, it will arm us to bear witness in [our version of pagan] Rome, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12). Second, it will enable us to draw discerningly from the natural law tradition, neither repeating what has already done nor accepting what was done incorrectly, Third, it will show us the basis on which those of us who are Evangelical or Reformed can cooperate with our Catholic brothers in opposing the common foe.


Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t make the claim that God’s basic moral requirements are revealed nowhere else but in itself. In fact it tells of at least five other ways in which God by his common or preserving grace has made them known. Because of this universal instruction, this general moral revelation, no human being can honestly claim to be ignorant of the natural law.


First is the witness of conscience. In Romans 2, Paul says that even the pagans know God’s basic moral law because it is “written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness.” Their sins come not from genuine moral ignorance but from stubbornness or denial, for they “hold the truth [down] in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18, KJV) – they “suppress it by their wickedness” (NIV).


Second is the witness of Godward longing. Acts 17 records that the Athenians built an altar to a god they couldn’t name. They knew their gods could never save; they had an intuition of a Holy One who could, a god “in whom we live and breathe and have our being” and who is somehow our Father.


Third is the witness of God’s handiwork. Paul and David say creation cries out about its eternal, glorious, powerful and merciful Creator. (Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 104, Acts 14:17, Romans 1:20.) Not only do the heavens proclaim the glory of God: so do our very forms. “For you created my inmost being,” says David; “you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:13-14a). Any such recognition has moral implications too.


Fourth is the witness of the harvest. As Scripture repeatedly assures us, every sin is linked with consequences; whatever we sow, we reap. (Proverbs 1:31, Jeremiah 17:10, Hosea 10:12.) People may play dumb about these consequences, as our people still play dumb about the harvest of the sexual revolution, but there is a difference between playing dumb and being in genuine ignorance.


Fifth, is the witness of our design. God makes some of His intentions plain just through the way He made us – He stamps them on the “blueprint,” the plan of our physical and emotional design. Why else would Paul call homosexual intercourse “against nature?” (Romans 1:26-27.) In the same way, no one celebrates a D&C, but everyone celebrates a birth.


So it is that unconverted gentiles, who have neither waited at the foot of Sinai nor sat at the feet of Jesus, are still accountable to God.


Now if all of this is true, then modern ethics is going about matters backwards. It assumes that the problem of human sin is mainly cognitive – that it has to do with the state of our knowledge. In other words, it holds that we really don’t know what’s right and wrong and that we are trying to find out. Actually the problem is volitional – it has to do with the state of our will. In other words, by and large we do know what’s right and wrong but wish we didn’t, and we are trying to keep ourselves in ignorance so that we can do as we please.


Do you see the implications? Most defenses of moral evil reflect self-description rather than real intellectual difficulties. Our main task is to remove the mask from such self-deceptions and bring to the surface what people really know.


They will, of course, resist. They would rather remain in denial. That is why Naomi Wolf has recently been so roundly criticized by her fellow feminists. Like them, Miss Wolf is pro-abortion. The difference is that she has let the cat out of the bag. For years, she says, feminists have been pretending not to know that the fetus is a baby, but really they do know. For years they have been pretending not to know that abortion is murder, but really they know that too. She forthrightly declares that abortion is real sin that incurs real guilt and requires real atonement, and that we have known it all along. The only problem is that Miss Wolf does not carry her reasoning to its conclusion. She wants women to go on aborting, but proposes that they hold candlelight vigils at abortion facilities afterward to show their sorrow. For Miss Wolf is pretending too; she too is in denial. She pretends not to know that God is not mocked.


You see that denial presents a paradox. The natural law is really known, and yet it is really suppressed. Among my Catholic friends, who see the knowledge, I stress the suppression; among my Reformed friends, who see the suppression, I stress the knowledge. Sometimes people think that suppressed moral knowledge is the same as weakened moral knowledge with weakened power over behavior. On the contrary, pressing down one’s conscience doesn’t make it weak any more than pressing down a wildcat makes it docile. It only makes it violent. One woman had an abortion to punish her husband for unfaithfulness. By the time she became pregnant again she was finished punishing him, yet she aborted a second time. Her reason? “I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby.” Her aim was to atone without repenting. Outraged conscience revenged itself by driving her to repeat her sin.


By the way, the power of conscience to revenge itself is one of the reasons that, when a culture turns aside from the narrow path, it so swiftly gets worse and worse. The reason it plummets so quickly lies not in the weakness of conscience but in its strength, not in its shapelessness but in its shape. We aren’t gently wafted into the abyss as our inhibitions grow hazy and dim; rather we propel ourselves into it as the held down conscience buckles. The propulsive force is even greater in a culture like our own, for people here have more to hold down than in some places. After all, our country once had a Christian culture. Consequently, the people of our generation must hold down not only the present knowledge of general revelation but also the troubling memory of special revelation.


So it is that things stand in Rome today. …


Dr. Budziszewski ended his talk with a charge to his audience of politicians, political scientists, and students.  His closing comments are edited here to highlight how his charge to that audience has relevance for those of us who would follow Jesus as sustainers in our version of pagan Rome.


I charge you to find the ways to stir up that present knowledge and arouse that troubling memory.


We know that the knowledge and memory can be stirred and aroused in private conversation. A young man proclaimed to a colleague that morality is relative, that we don’t even know that murder is really wrong. My colleague asked him, “Are you at this moment in any real doubt about murder being wrong for everyone?” After a long uncomfortable silence the young man realized that he wasn’t.


And we know that the knowledge and memory can be stirred and aroused in the classroom. A student confessed to me one day that my lecture about Aristotle had frightened him, and I saw that he was trembling. All the old pagan’s talk about virtue had made him realize, he said, that he had not led a virtuous life. How interesting that God could use such an instrument to bring the conviction of sin.


The charge I set before you is to find out how to stir the same knowledge and memory in the public square. …


I set it before you because it pertains to your calling, your vocation. … You are called to a public apologetics that connects the dots of our nation’s fragmented moral consciousness, and reminds people of what they know already. You are called to a civic rhetoric that dissipates smokescreens and disperses self-deceptions. …


I charge you to be sustainers of this perishing world.


I charge you to be strewers of preserving salt.


I charge you to be apostles of common grace.


J. Budziszewski is professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He is the author of numerous books including The Line Through the Heart, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, The Revenge of Conscience, Ask Me Anything, and How to Stay Christian in College.


Apostles of Common Grace” was presented as the inaugural address at the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College.




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