Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Common Grace Prophets and the Reprobate Mind

Joe Biden speaks at a town hall.
This article is not about Joe Biden exclusively.


Something is going on out there.

The world is a really scary place if you let your carnal mind guide you. But, as Christians, we shouldn't do that. We have the Spirit of God who searches the mind of God and reveals to us through the word of God all things we need to know pertaining to life and godliness.

As tempting as it is for us to return to our vomit, let us remember that we've been delivered from carnal thinking. Paul the apostle wrote these inspired words in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16:

A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.

I don't intend for this article to be a comprehensive review of American culture today; however, I would like for your mind to be provoked as you interpret the world around you in consideration of what is written here. I want us to think together about the depravity of man, the grace of God, and how these things work together in the culture for God's glory. Let's aim to be critical in our thinking and biblical in our discernment. 

The Reprobate Mind

Romans 1 is critical to the Christian worldview. There is so much in this chapter that teaches us about God and man. Most interestingly, as the sinfulness and rebellion of man is described in this passage, God is described as giving fallen men over to their sin three times (vv. 24, 26, 28). The last of these descriptions states that God gave men over to a depraved, or reprobate, mind.

A reprobate mind can be defined as a disposition that opposes God in every way because God has removed His restraining influence in such a person's life. states: "Those who have reprobate minds live corrupt and selfish lives. Sin is justified and acceptable to them. The reprobates are those whom God has rejected and has left to their own devices." defines the reprobate: "It is a person who rejects God and does what is self-serving instead of what God desires. Therefore, someone who is reprobate is under the condemnation of God."

Outside of Romans 1, the New Testament uses the word for reprobate in reference to those who oppose the truth (2 Tim 3:8) and those who confess to know God but actually deny Him, as evidenced by their deeds (Titus 1:16). Therefore, reprobation can be generally discerned by observing the application of a person's worldview. If a person or group of people advocates for, teaches, or practices things that are explicitly condemned by God's word, it can be said that such people exemplify a reprobate mind.

Romans 1 goes on to characterize those who possess a reprobate mind, stating that they are "filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful," (vv. 29-30). God has revealed to us that He will demonstrate His power through such people by displaying His wrath in their lives. This was certainly true of Pharaoh. God has a purpose for the reprobate -- and that purpose is ultimately that He will receive honor and glory from them. "The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil," (Prov 16:4).

Because the human condition hasn't changed, examples of such reprobate minds abound today. It's an election year here in America, so everybody believes the candidate they most oppose is the epitome of reprobation, and, to a degree, we're all right. Neither one of the main presidential candidates is a convincing disciple of Jesus Christ, and yet most of us recognize that one of them is going to bring about more sin and judgment from God than the other.

So it's fair to say that all non-Christian cultural influencers will fail to uphold a biblical worldview in a smattering of ways, but not all will fail to the same degree. There's a sense in which there are levels of depravity in this and this is a key point in this whole conversation. Not all candidates are putting forth the same level of wickedness. Some will champion sins worthy of death; others will champion sins worthy of fines

Yet still, there will be ways in which "non-Christian cultural influencers" will protect and even expand the Christian cause. How is this possible? It's God's grace.

Common Grace

Speaking to Paul's line of thinking in Romans, John Calvin once wrote, "For did the Lord let every mind loose to wanton in its lusts, doubtless there is not a man who would not show that his nature is capable of all the crimes with which Paul charges it...If every soul is capable of such abominations (and the apostle declares this boldly), it is surely easy to see what the result would be, if the Lord were to permit human passion to follow its bent," (ICR, Book 2, 3:3).

In other words, "Evil is not as bad and widespread as it could be...We live in a world of wickedness, but it is not as wicked as it could be. God in His common grace restrains much of it," as Joseph Nally has written.

God has shed His grace on all people over the face of the earth through every age from the beginning of creation. This grace is known as common grace, as opposed to the special grace needed for a person to be saved. Whereas only the elect of God experience special grace, all people everywhere experience common grace. In 1924, the Christian Reformed Church in North America put forth three aspects of God's common grace that fairly and helpfully sum up this doctrine. Here's what they've stated common grace is:

  1. In addition to the saving grace of God, shown only to those who are elected to eternal life, there is also a certain favor, or grace, of God shown to his creatures in general.
  2. Since the fall, human life in society remains possible because God, through his Spirit, restrains the power of sin.
  3. God, without renewing the heart, so influences human beings that, though incapable of doing any saving good, they are able to do civil good.

The first point of God's common grace has to do with His compassion on all His creatures. We woke up breathing today -- and it's likely we all enjoyed a tasty food or fun conversation at some point. Grace.

The second and third points have more to do with society in general, including those cultural influencers. God holds back the sins (and sinful desires) of people to various degrees, and at times He releases His hold so that their sin would be put on display unrestrained. Psalm 81:11-16 provides a great summary of how God did this with Israel.

Romans 2 teaches that by common grace, the Lord has worked in Gentiles' lives to restrain sin and in some cases He has even spurred unregenerate men on to some good deeds that benefit other creatures (v. 14). Romans 1, of course, teaches what happens when that common grace is removed from Gentiles. Thus, the only power standing between men and total, unabashed reprobation is the grace of God -- both special and common. As we analyze the culture, we must understand this dynamic. 

Some people have been (1) saved and given a new mind, some are (2) lost, but restrained by common grace, and there are yet others who have been (3) fully given over to their a reprobate mind. Identifying each soul's particular condition is a job fit only for the Omniscient; however, as we look at the world through these lenses, we can at least see the factors at play.

Battling for cultural influence, each of these groups struggles with the others. However, the middle group will play both sides of the fence. Christians perceive that many in this group appear to be well-intentioned and sympathetic toward godly motivations and objectives, which, in turn, makes many Christians susceptible to being deceived and played by these people. Lured by their bold articulation of convictions that match their own, many of God's children get hooked on "lost, but restrained" people who need to be reconciled to God. 

It's imperative that Christians recognize the reality of the condition of the lost and not be fooled into regarding them as some sort of group of prophets that speaks for God.

Prophets of This Age

One of the many mind-boggling things God does in this world is raise up prophets. Now, I'm a cessationist, meaning I don't believe God is raising up inspired prophets anymore. He's no longer in the business of issuing new authoritative words through human officers. The church has for a foundation the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20) and no other foundation needs to be laid.

However, the Lord is still bringing up influencers in the church and in the culture. In the church He has His gifted children leading and evangelizing. In the culture, He is using what I have dubbed "common grace prophets." There are people in the culture who don't know God but are being used by Him to restrain sin and promote lawful and wise deeds. They do not speak for God today, but they are simply used by Him as He, to a degree, steers their lives (Prov 21:1). Examples of such common grace prophets can be found in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Consider the following people:

  • Jethro. Moses's father-in-law was a Midianite priest. Yet, God used him to advise Moses in his leading of the people Israel in Exodus 18. It is unclear if Jethro was a part of spiritual Israel.
  • Balaam. This prophet lived along the Euphrates River when he was summoned by the King of Moab. He was a wicked man, but he understood that God's blessing was on Israel. He heard from God and spoke rightly at times -- he was even directly led by the Spirit of God. He eventually led Israel into grave idolatry and the New Testament compares false teachers to him.
  • Rahab. Perhaps most famously, this Canaanite prostitute defended and protected some Israelites in Joshua 2.
  • The Queen of Sheba. In 1 Kings 10, this pagan woman traveled a great distance to behold the splendor of Solomon. She was able to recognize God's goodness in that nation though it is unclear if she became a follower of Yahweh herself. Jesus used the account in 1 Kings as an example of a non-Israelite who was able to perceive the reality of God and His means of blessing (Luke 11:31).
  • Naaman's servants. The king of Aram sent his army's captain, Naaman, to the prophet Elisha to be healed of his leprosy. When he was told to wash himself in the river seven times, he scoffed; yet his servants gave him good advice and told him to follow Elisha's command. 

In our day and age I see such common grace influencers everywhere. These kinds of people show up in a local and personal context quite a bit. We're all familiar with individuals who don't have saving faith in Jesus but have a great deal of common sense, respect for morality, and care for others. It's because of countless examples such as these that sin has generally been restrained in the culture -- all of the small examples add up to a large phenomenon. Mayberry existed because of common grace, not because of genuine, biblical repentance.

In a rarer sense, common grace influencers can be seen on the national and global stage. Ben Shapiro, for example, is a voice of reason in the culture. But he's also a Jew who rejects Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Jordan Peterson has influenced many young men to live responsible and respectable lives, but he's very liberal in his theology. Others will point to President Trump as a needed voice to restrain evil. Some will see liberal elected officials in that way.

The Christian must see these players for what they are. I mentioned above that the "lost, but restrained" are prone to play both sides of the fence, meaning that they have a foot in the Christian camp and a foot in the world. God's people are particularly vulnerable when it comes to following these notable common grace voices. Many Christians have been inclined to follow the Shapiros and Petersons and Trumps of the world more closely than their Savior. And this should not be so. They are faulty support harnesses; having functioned rightly for awhile now, they could fail at any moment. Jesus, on the other hand, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Francis Schaeffer wrote in The God Who Is There, "Mature Christians must summon the courage to distinguish, under the Holy Spirit, between unchangeable biblical truth and the things which have only become comfortable for us." There's a lot to chew on in that sentence, starting with his use of the word "courage." It takes courage for us to separate biblical mandates and from mere culture wars, and to make efforts to prioritize the former. It requires us to face our idols and false prophets, and that's painful. We can recognize the truthfulness and importance of the message from common grace cultural influencers, but we can't pretend as though they will deliver us from the wrath to come.

He Who Restrains

Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica about the coming man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians:

You know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming.

Some have interpreted the "restrainer" in this passage to be the rule of law, used by God to restrain sin in nations by His common grace. Others interpret the restrainer as common grace itself, that God will remove from the earth. I understand the restrainer to be the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, who will be removed at the time of the rapture. I preached through this passage in recent history, so if you're interested you can check out parts one and two.

In any case, it is to be noted by those who fear God that there is a coming day in which full reprobation will be on display. This time of tribulation will be unlike any other time in world history because sin will be unrestrained completely. The world will suffer in great peril as famine, plagues, and war abound. 

Christians, however, will not be overtaken; rather, believers in Jesus Christ will be delivered from the wrath to come (1 Thess 5:1-11).

With this in mind, it is vital that we recognize the trajectory of this world. It's all passing away, Scripture says; therefore, we are not to affix our hope, peace, or contentment to it. We must look to our glorious inheritance and find all of our hope, peace, and contentment in the God who has saved us. Christians are not of this world and that should be evident by the way we live and the things we speak.

This is not to say that we are to check-out of world news. We must be informed and engaged -- it is our duty as ambassadors for Christ to involve ourselves with the world's dealings. But we must have a biblical view of the voices we hear and messages that affect us.

In His grace, God has placed on this earth people who work to restrain sin, both knowingly (the born-again folks) and unknowingly (the respectable pagan family down the street). As Christians, our priority in loyalty is given to other Christians (Gal 6:10) because we are family members in God's house and we hold to the same confession. We stick together and work things out together because we love each other. We're the primary instrument in God's hand as He restrains sin in the world; therefore, we should be in lock-step with one another as much as possible, building one another up in the truth.

Once we have that going, we are then able to look to those non-Christian cultural influencers and rightly offer a measure of loyalty to them. But there's one big decision to make in the process. 

Restrained or Reprobate?

Let's consider the U.S. presidential election again in this context. For the sake of appeasing (or upsetting) everyone, let's assume that neither of the two main candidates know the Lord. Can a Christian present his loyalty to either of them, believing that one is more of a restrainer of sin than the other? Can a believer truly discern whether one candidate exemplifies less of a reprobate mind than the other? 

As stated above, there's some obvious variation in the degree of depravity each candidate exemplifies. They don't put forth the same level of wickedness and I think we all see that. The problem is that we don't all agree on who is more restrained by God's common grace. I should mention again that only God knows the hearts of men and He alone is able to properly categorize every soul.

However, here's a thought I've had that you may want to consider. I wouldn't invite either of the two major candidates to lead a Bible study in my home; yet, only one of them is advocating for sexualizing elementary-age children and the continued slaughter of our pre-born neighbors. Who is more restrained? Who is more opposed to truth and morality in the land?

It seems as though on this side of heaven we won't find full agreement in the church when it comes to these common grace prophets. Yet, as Christians, we must be willing to recognize that some are more restrained than others. Some are worse than others. A total opposition to biblical morals and an advocation of the opposite is indefensible for the believer.

Additionally, we do well to recognize the coming judgment of God and the trajectory of the world. As the culture continues to spiral down into deeper levels of depravity and God gives men over to reprobation, we must summon the courage Francis Schaeffer talked about. We must confront our own proclivities and presuppositions through the lens of a fiercely biblical worldview. We must be willing to give up what God desires for us to give up. 

Thank God for His common grace today and the ways He restrains sin in our culture. Ask Him for wisdom when it comes to being influenced by non-Christians in the culture. Get counsel from brothers and sisters in your church regarding the loyalties you've offered the common grace prophets of our day. Be willing to change and be teachable; don't quench the Spirit.

Oh, and don't forget to vote.

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