“We see immediately that grace is inseparably connected with nature, that grace and nature belong together.” –Abraham Kuyper
While many have sought to construct such a vision by trying to align “Christian values” with particular political programs, Ashford and Pappalardo begin by focusing on a more basic theological foundation. Before we even proceed with such questions, we ought to ask ourselves what the Gospel actually implies for all of public life.
Early on, the authors address the question by considering four competing views of grace as it relates to nature, each resulting in its own implications for how we interact (or don’t) with the world around us. Some view grace as working against nature, leading many to outright withdrawal. Others view grace as being above or alongside nature, leading many to relish in various flavors of conflation or compartmentalization.
For Ashford and Pappalardo, however, the proper view includes a grace that renews nature. “In this vision grace is not opposed to the natural realm,” they write, “but neither does it hover above the natural realm or live in tension alongside the natural realm. Instead, grace restores the natural realm but also renews it, making the natural realm even better than it was before the fall.”
And while this certainly opens up a range of discussion on those “next step” questions, the authors remind us that it all begins in basic Christian theology. “This is salvation,” they write, “purification, renewal, liberation, restoration, healing, and reconciliation. None of these terms implies a clean sweep, a replacement of one ‘bad’ world with a newer and better one. The salvation God brings into this world transforms it from the inside out.”
Through this perspective, being “in but not of the world” takes on a new transformational arc:
Living in a fallen world, it may seem to us that God’s grace is incompatible with the natural realm, but we must remind ourselves that the incompatibility is directional rather than structural and that all things will be redirected toward Christ in the end.
This means that we as believers must be redirective in our social, cultural—and, yes, political—activities. We seek to have God’s incarnate and written word shape our words and actions. We inquire about God’s creational thesis for politics and public life, discern the many ways sin speaks an antithesis to this design, and find ways to redirect politics toward Christ. This is an act of love for our neighbors, an act of obedience toward our King, and an act of eschatological hope. By faithfully redirecting the political realm, we paint a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom, when he will renew this heaven and earth.
If we are able to actually to transform culture, improving it through our political preview, then so be it. But that is not the ultimate goal. Any cultural transformation we see will be neither comprehensive nor enduring…But if we trust in the victory Christ has promised…what we preview for the world today will become reality on that last day. Redemption will finally transform us in the totality of our being, across the entire fabric of our lives.
Such a vision transforms our political action in profound ways, expanding our acts of obedience and faithfulness into a realm that many deem too dark, too lost, and inherently corrupt.
Lest we be tempted to wallow in fear and doubt over the prospects of transformation, let us remember that grace has the power to renew nature, even in politics.