Grace Perfecting Nature

In the period between the early post-apostolic church (e.g., the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD) and the Reformation (beginning in the early 16th century AD) the church came to develop some unbiblical and therefore unhelpful and unhealthy ways of relating creation and redemption or nature and grace. By the high Middle Ages (11th century AD), most theologians had come to think that nature was inherently defective. It was broken or corrupt simply by virtue of being finite. It is not that they did not affirm the inherent goodness of creation per se against their ancient enemies the Gnostics and the Manichaeans, both of whom denied the essential goodness of creation. They did affirm that God made everything good but as they sought to explain the problem of evil and the fall they fell into the temptation of blaming our finitude for the fall. The biblical approach to the problem of evil, of course, is to call it a mystery. No creature really knows why Adam, who was made good, righteous, and holy and able to obey, freely chose to disobey and to plunge himself and us into sin and death. That mystery is comprehended in the divine decree and providence but it remains a mystery.

As a result of this way of approaching the problem of evil our theologians in this period tended to think that the role of grace is to “perfect” nature. Of course, there is truth in this if we consider that Adam was not yet in his perfected state, that a state of glory lay before him should be complete the probation, obey moral law, love his God with all his faculties and his neighbor (Eve and us) as himself. He did not and you know the rest of the story.

If, however, we think of nature as inherently broken (infected with concupiscence or lust) that changes the role of grace. It becomes a medicine necessary for creation per se without respect to glorification. Under the influence of this way of thinking, Christians began to think of the sacred and secular spheres not as two co-equal spheres but as a hierarchy. If nature and grace (or the secular and the sacred) are related hierarchically, then grace (or the sacred) is better than nature (or the secular). The church came to think of calling (vocation) in hierarchical ways. “The calling” became reserved for those “called” to withdraw from the world in monasteries (monks) or to the priesthood. In short, vocation came to thought of almost exclusively relative to the sacred and not at all relative to the secular.

This is still how Rome tends to think and talk about vocation. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about vocation under the heading of grace. Nature is something that must be transformed by grace. The Reformation took a different approach and one which evangelical Protestants and especially confessional Lutheran and Reformed Christians ought to adopt again.

Grace Obliterating Nature

Christians with roots in the modern Evangelical tradition (and those influenced by Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice) May chafe and struggle here since there is another approach to nature and grace that has influenced American evangelicals since the 18th and 19th centuries. It is the approach of the Anabaptists, who viewed nature as something that needed to be obliterated (painted over) more than perfected (Thomas) or renewed (the Protestants—more on this below). The Anabaptists, and those influenced by those movements, tended to be deeply suspicious of nature. They had a highly realized eschatology. Their ecclesiology (and approach to the sacraments) reflects that eschatology and that view of nature.

You have seen this approach to nature and grace even if you did not recognize its roots. When evangelicals and fundamentalists burned rock and roll records and comic books in the 1950s–70s and when they taught young people that after conversion it was ungodly to continue have interest in competitive athletics, that their entire life ought to be taken up in a sort of quasi-monastic quest for purity and the Vision of God, they were reflecting radical relationship of nature of grace and thus to vocation. Under this scheme, creation per se is evil. It is Manichaean insofar as it sees the world as two competing spiritual powers, where the Devil is co-equal to God and humans cast the deciding vote.

Grace Renewing Nature

The Reformation approach to nature and grace, and thus to vocation, was different from the medieval and Anabaptist views. The Protestants saw that the world was made good but they did not tend to imply that there was a kind of sin baked into the world because of finitude. They did not think of nature and grace in a hierarchy, where only the call (vocation) to the sacred was good and everything else was dirty.

The Protestants re-ordered nature and grace, the secular and the sacred. They recognized that every Christian has a vocation from God to love his neighbor (believer or unbeliever) as himself. Every Christian has a vocation to serve God in all that he does. Contrary, however, to some modern constructions of nature of grace (and vocation) which have found great purchase in some Reformed quarters over the last fifty years, the Reformation and post-Reformation era Protestants did not speak of “redeeming” nature nor of “transforming” nature or creation. They tended to restrict redemption to the obedient, saving work of Christ for sinners and they tended to restrict the language of transformation to the gradual work of the Spirit in the lives of believers in sanctification as a consequence of justification. For the old Protestants, grace renews nature not cosmically but in salvation. Christians are renewed. Cosmic renewal was postponed to the new heavens and the new earth.

The old Protestants had a place for creation in their theology and thus a doctrine of secular vocation. When they wrote about creation and nature, they were not just thinking and speaking about the initial act of creation in the beginning (Gen 1—2), which they heartily affirmed but about an entire sphere of life. They distinguished nature (creation) from grace (redemption). It was under the category of nature that they understood the degree of commonality that believers and unbelievers share. This is why one looks in vain, in the works of the old Protestants and in the works of the old orthodox writers, for talk of Christian plumbing or Christian softball or Christian this or Christian that. As far as they knew, there is the Christian faith and the Christian life but when Christians plumb, build, or pave roads, they were fulfilling their secular vocation to serve God and their neighbors. In their view, common work is not morally unclean or impure. It is just as valid a vocation as a call to sacred service, i.e., a call to pastoral ministry. There is no hierarchy.

Neither did the old Protestants and the old Reformed orthodox writers seem to feel the need to sanctify secular callings (e.g., civil government, plumbing, house painting) by attaching them to the Kingdom of God. When they spoke about the Kingdom of God they almost invariably did so relative to the visible, institutional church. Secular work did not need to be made into kingdom work in order to be made good. As the Reformation traditions understood nature (secular) and grace (sacred), an honorable secular vocation is a good vocation. It did not need washing or transforming to be good. It was inherently good.

To be sure, the old Protestants were quite aware of the consequences of the fall. They knew that, outside of grace, one is dead in sins and trespasses. They understood that all human endeavors, whether sacred or secular, are touched and trained by sin. In that way they tended to be quite realistic about the prospects for improvement or perfectibility in this life. The Wesleyan idea of “entire perfection” and the Enlightenment doctrine of human perfectibility and social progress were quite remote from the doctrine of humanity as taught by the old Protestant theologians and churches. Theirs was more a doctrine of muddling through, of pilgrimage than a doctrine of progress and perfection.

Your Good Vocation

All this means that every Christian has a vocation and all honorable vocations are good and to be pursued before the face of God (Coram Deo), not in order to sanctify or transform them but in order to serve God and neighbor by them. This approach to vocation also demystified the process of discovering one’s vocation. In contrast to some approaches, the old Protestant approach was not a quest for a secret, special Word for God. The discovery of one’s vocation certainly requires prayer but it is a prayer for wisdom, for self-knowledge, for maturity, for awareness of the world around us, and for the graces necessary to fulfill one’s vocation in God’s world.

If a Christian can think of no greater way to start the morning than to start a tractor, one’s vocation is almost certainly farming. If one is built to help others directly, then one’s vocation may well be in one of the helping professions (e.g., medicine, teaching, or law enforcement). If one is minded to add beauty to the world, if one has a creative bent, then one’s vocation may be to create art or otherwise to beautify things. These are all good, clean, and honorable vocations. They should be pursued with joy and vigor.

Creation was good but it was corrupted in the fall. Still, it remains essentially good. By his grace Christ grants new life, true faith and through that faith alone (sola fide) he grants to us righteousness and all his benefits but there is a life to be lived in light of that grace and that life is a good life. The Lord blesses his people with the visible church, ministers, and the means of grace and through that ministry he equips us all to serve him every day, in every sphere of life (family, church, state), in the sacred and in the secular, under nature and under grace to the glory of his name and in the service of our fellow image bearers.

R. Scott Clark

Here is the entire series so far.

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