All mankind is under God’s wrath because they are outside of Christ. They are separated from him, and are excluded from any of his blessings, love, grace, and mercy.
This is the view of many evangelicals, particularly fundamentalists.
All mankind are the recipients of God’s love, grace, and mercy regardless of whether they believe in Jesus or not. There is no distinction.
This is generally the view of mainline Protestants and other liberal Christians.
I propose that that there is truth and error in each view. I believe the Bible teaches something more middle ground. I don’t mean middle ground as in wishy-washy or straddling the fence on an issue. We need to construct a balanced view that aligns with what God’s word teaches. This will allow us to think more biblically about God’s attitude toward non-Christians, and allow us to have the same attitude formed in us. I think this will help us minister to those who don’t know Christ more effectively and with more authenticity.
Common grace. Before we hit the practical stuff, let’s consider what theologians refer to as “common grace.” (Note: I’m not ready to call God’s grace “common,” I opt for the phrase general grace.) This is the grace God shows to his whole creation. This is the “goodness” that Paul refers to in Romans 2:4. Like all of God’s grace it is freely given and completely undeserved. But, because of the goodness, love, and mercy of God the whole creation benefits from it, including non-Christians.
Oftentimes, we Christians have a hard time with this. We’re like Jeremiah who questioned, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease” (Jeremiah 12:1). All we have to do is look around us and see unbelievers living as millionaires, having great jobs, holding positions of influence and power, and possessing seemingly happy lives — while many Christians are eking out a living, living paycheck to paycheck, wondering how to afford braces for our children and perhaps save a little to boot.
But we cannot escape the fact that God is good to unbelievers who do not follow him and who deny him. We’re all in the same boat in a sense. Jesus was clear about this in Matthew 5:45, “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (KJV).
This is over against the thinking of many Christians. We like to think of ourselves as “blessed and highly favored” and “children of the King.” Many Christians think that we should therefore enjoy greater financial prosperity, health, and power and material blessings than the non-Christian because we’re in Christ. This idea has creeped into the church because of the teachings of “health and wealth” and “prosperity gospel” peddlers.
God’s attitude toward non-Christians is that he desires that they experience a certain sphere of his grace that all his creation experiences, his common (or general) grace. Because we all experience the rain and sunshine, we share common ground with those who aren’t Christians. We all enjoy many of the same benefits of common grace. These benefits make for great relationship building.
Non-Christians will see Christians as not merely religious, or churchy, but as normal people just like them who often face the same joys, fears, triumphs, and pains as them.
Think about it: when non-Christians see Christians enjoying things like children, the beach, hiking, their job, pets, hobbies, and a million other things, there is a sense of camaraderie that can be built. We do this not to see people as projects, but as a genuine vehicle for building relationships and sharing Christ.This is what it means to be missional.
Now that we’ve established that God shows aspects of his grace to his entire creation, let’s look at his attitude toward non-Christians, and what this means for us as believers.
The first thing we have to remember is that all human beings are created in God’s image, and have meaning, dignity, and worth. Sometimes we meet those in whom we see very little of the image of God. Think Hitler, Stalin, and Dahmer. (In our little world it might be an overbearing boss, or an overly strict teacher, or a bully. Not that any of these these compare to evil dictators or mass murderers, but you get the picture.) But, in order to minister to those who are not presently in Christ, we have to affirm that they, like us, bear the Fall-marred image of God’s creative crown.
When God calls for us to care for the orphan and widow (James 1:27, Isaiah 1:17), he does not make it a prerequisite that they have to be his people in the specific sense. He simply wants his people to care for all people, and meet their needs, because we are all create din his image: The homeless, Hollywood moguls, homosexuals, Girl Scouts, criminals, religionists, et al. As Christians, this should motivate us to specifically reach out to those in need, including those who are not just like us. Obviously, social justice is a part of the whole gospel. The most important thing we can do is share the message of Jesus, the simple gospel that we are all sinners in need of the only Savior.
The next thing we need to remember is that, though recipients of his common grace, unbelievers are under God’s wrath. Why? Because their sin has not been forsaken, nor has Christ been embraced. Though the crowning jewel of his creation, they are still enemies of God (Colossians 1:21). They have not been reconciled to God by repenting of their sins and following his Son. This is why it is so important that we show works of love and compassion (Matthew 5:16) while also presenting the gospel clearly and with love and boldness .
If God is calling men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), then we must see ourselves as his sovereignly appointed audible voice (Romans 10:14). The implications of our embrace of this for missions is amazing.
So, what makes the Christian different from the non-Christian if both benefit from his grace? As I pointed out earlier, all God’s creation reaps the benefits of his mercy and grace in a general sense. Paul asked the church at Corinth, “What makes you different than anyone else?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). I believe this was rhetorical in that Paul wanted them to realize the only thing that set them apart from their sinful culture was God’s saving grace. Reformed theologians like to call this specific grace God’s “special grace.”
It is specific in that it sets his people apart from everyone else. Not everyone receives his special grace. If everyone does, the logical end is universalism, a teaching that says everyone will be saved. The tension is that the Bible never hints that everyone will be saved, yet some people out of every tribe and tongue will be saved (Revelation 5:9). This number is known only to God and is innumerable (Revelation 7:9). If salvation is by free grace alone, then it cannot be by common grace, or everyone would eventually be saved.
Do you see where we’re going with this? This is the place where the doctrine of election must be considered. Some will say God elects based on his forseeing of who will choose Christ. Some will say he elects without condition, and does so based on reasons only he knows, but with his ultimate glory in view. Election should be a cause for fruitful discussion and Scripture searching, not for debating and acting like children.
In summary, God loves non-Christians and extends grace to them. He provides for their needs and oftentimes prospers them. This goodness is intended to reflect the good and kind nature of God, and to open their eyes to the reality of him, perhaps causing them to forsake sin and turn to him in the Person of Jesus Christ. As believers, this is the message we spread in word and deed.
However, God’s saving grace doesn’t apply to all. It only applies to those who’ve forsaken sin and turned to his Son in faith. God’s wrath abides on on non-believers. The church must implore people everywhere to repent and believe in Jesus, the only escape from wrath.
This is God’s attitude toward non-Christians. May it also be our own.