Spiritual Antithesis: Common Grace, And Practical Theology -- By: Dennis E. Johnson

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 64:1 (Spring 2002)
Article: Spiritual Antithesis: Common Grace, And Practical Theology
Author: Dennis E. Johnson


Spiritual Antithesis:
Common Grace, And Practical Theology

Dennis E. Johnson*

[*Dennis E. Johnson is Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. This essay is his inaugural lecture given April 20, 2001.]

I. The Paradox of Common Grace

“Why do good things happen through bad people?” This question, which virtually turns inside out the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s twenty-year-old best-seller,1 expresses the real enigma that faces us when we try to interpret human experience in the light of the biblical doctrine of man. The problem is not that bad things happen to allegedly-good people, but that good things happen to and through people who are dead in sin, adamant in rebellion against their Creator. This is the “paradox of common grace,” described more elegantly by Professor John Murray in his 1942 essay:

… [I]f we appreciate the implications of total depravity, then we are faced with a series of very insistent questions. How is it that men who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that men who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts, and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others? How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization?2

If we could dismiss the biblical doctrine of total depravity, we would have no trouble explaining non-Christians’ intellectual breakthroughs, cultural achievements, and even ethical qualities such as integrity, compassion, zeal for justice, and pursuit of truth. If our Fall into sin through Adam had not tainted every aspect of human personality, it would not be surprising to find a thousand points of light, radiating truth and goodness, among people who have never bowed the knee to King Jesus.

But Father Adam’s rebellion has spread its infection across the whole human race, and the malignancy has invaded every recess of our personalities. Sin spreads throughout the race: “There is none righteous, not even one, none who understands, none who seeks God … none who does kindness, not so much as one” (Rom 3:10–12). And sin permeates the individual, from his lying tongue,

poisonous lips and cursing mouth,...

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