Shall We Preach the Gospel or Morality? Part Two: Natural Virtue and Common Grace

June 28, 2013

Some contemporary Christians think it is counterproductive or even sinful to proclaim moral standards to unsaved people. One of the reasons they think this is because unsaved people are totally depraved. One of the effects of total depravity is that, apart from special or saving grace, people have no ability whatever to please God. Furthermore, apart from the administration of divine grace, natural humans will never even believe the gospel. Therefore, the question is, “Why do we expect people who openly admit to having no knowledge of or experience with God to act like they know God?”

The first and most obvious answer to this question is that they do know God. Knowledge of God is hardwired into all human beings. What can be known of God is obvious in them because God has made it evident to them (Rom. 1:19). God’s invisible attributes—namely, His eternal power and His theiotes—have been clearly revealed in the things God has made (Rom. 1:20). That is why all people are without excuse, whether or not they have seen a Bible, heard the name of Christ, or encountered the preaching of the gospel.

The problem is not that humans do not know God. The problem is that, even though they know Him, they do not honor Him. Consequently, they have been ushered into the realm of worthless speculation and their insensible heart has been darkened (Rom. 1:21). In their folly they have exchanged the worship of God for all sorts of created things, even vermin (Rom. 1:23, 25). They see all the right things and draw all the wrong inferences. In order to protect themselves in their rejection of God’s person and authority, they invent idols.

The knowledge of God, however, has not gone away. It exerts enormous pressure upon the depraved consciousness, like the force of a mighty river behind the fragile dam of sinful rebellion. Cracks are constantly opening in the dam, and whenever they do, the knowledge of God floods in.

God is not separate from His moral law. This law is not above God, controlling Him. Neither is it beneath God, as if it were an arbitrary construct of His caprice. God’s moral law flows from and is integral with His character. Because God is always the same God, His moral law must be the same law in all possible universes. It is universal and transcendent. God could imaginably have made a world in which different physical laws would apply. He could never make a world in which moral laws worked differently.

Nor is moral law something that stands over against creation, as if it were an accessory to be selected at will. Because creation is God’s poiema and because He has made Himself evident within it, moral law has been worked into the very created order. Humans live in a universe, not a multiverse. The universe is an ordered system in which the same principles of causation are at work always and everywhere, whether those principles are physical or moral.

Ultimately, no one can break God’s moral law, any more than one can break God’s physical laws. Somebody could defy the law of gravity, perhaps by stepping off a tall building—but no one can break that law. Anyone who defies gravity will eventually have to face the reality that gravity wins. The law of gravity breaks the person who defies it. In the same way, God’s moral law will break the people who defy it—and break them in the present order, not merely in some eschatological judgment. No one rejects morality with impunity, not even here and now.

Since God’s moral law has been worked into His creation, it can be known—however partially and fallibly—through general revelation. In other words, special revelation is not at all a necessary condition of morality. Humans can gain proximate knowledge of at least some moral standards simply by paying attention to creation and conscience. Of course, these standards are not adequate to save, for depraved humans universally fail to keep them (Rom. 2:1-3). In the end, morality without salvation increases condemnation. It would be wrong to infer, however, that morality is therefore pointless or futile.

Even Gentiles who do not have the written Scriptures are capable of perceiving and implementing some level of virtue (Rom. 2:14-16). Humanity is created in the image of God, and whatever else the image entails, it means that God’s moral law is at least partly imprinted upon the conscience. Indeed, no human life or society would be possible without the recognition and pursuit of some level of virtue. Granted, when unsaved people seek virtue, they are illicitly attempting to hold on to a part of the very revelation that they have already rejected. But they cannot avoid doing so, for to reject all morality would plunge them into a darkness deeper than any human can embrace.

Pagan virtue is hardly uncommon. Unsaved people can and sometimes do live in ways that are at the natural level more visibly prudent, just, temperate, courageous, generous, kind, compassionate, truthful, honest, perceptive, pure, commendable, excellent, and noble than the lives of many who profess to believe the gospel. Every Christian has met some of these people. Their virtue is not sufficient to save them (indeed, because they trust in their own righteousness rather than submitting to the righteousness that comes from God, it is part of what damns them), but it does make their lives and the world around them better than it would otherwise have been.

Depravity does not mean that all people are equally bad. Some people do live better lives than others, even without special revelation or saving grace. Their ability to do so is an aspect of common grace. It is a reflection of the natural law (which is simply God’s moral law worked into the created order) that is available to all humans through general revelation.

In short, one need not quote a Bible verse in order to justify every moral position or to make every moral appeal. If pagans can live virtuous lives, then pagans ought to live virtuous lives. Some pagans are liars, lazy gluttons, and vicious animals: they need to be rebuked sharply (Titus 1:13). Part of Christian witness is not merely to separate from the unfruitful works of darkness, but to reprove them (Eph. 5:11). One does not reprove evil works in the abstract, but in the specific instances in which they are committed.

In short, part of Christian duty involves both the positive and negative proclamation of moral standards. Positively, Christians are responsible to explain how God has made the world to work, and they have a duty to point to the natural, this-worldly consequences of ignoring God’s moral law. Negatively, Christians are responsible to rebuke the works of darkness, shining the light of truth on those works so that people can see them for what they are. Preaching morality never takes the place of preaching the gospel, but it remains a non-negotiable obligation for Christians.


Love Constrained to Obedience
William Cowper (1731-1800)

No strength of nature can suffice
To serve the Lord aright:
And what she has she misapplies,
For want of clearer light.

How long beneath the law I lay
In bondage and distress;
I toil’d the precept to obey,
But toil’d without success.

Then, to abstain from outward sin
Was more than I could do;
Now, if I feel its power within,
I feel I hate it too.

Then, all my servile works were done
A righteousness to raise;
Now, freely chosen in the Son,
I freely choose His ways.

“What shall I do,” was then the word,
“That I may worthier grow?”
“What shall I render to the Lord?”
Is my inquiry now.

To see the law by Christ fulfilled
And hear His pardoning voice,
Changes a slave into a child,
And duty into choice.

This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.