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Unbelievers’ Culture Can Be Good

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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The third principle that emerges from the idea of culture as behavior is that fundamental antithesis exists between the values of Christians and unbelievers, but not always between their behaviors. Up to this point antithesis has been emphasized to the degree that the separatism of the Radical Reformers may seem the most biblical approach to the culture of unbelievers. If culture is an expression of worldview, and if there exists a fundamental antithesis between the worldview of believers and unbelievers, then certainly Christians can have no commonality with the culture of unbelievers.

However, two additional biblical realities alter the picture. First, the transformationalists are correct in that God gives a certain measure of common grace to all people. God’s common grace enables even unbelievers to possess certain biblical values and thus behave in biblical ways. The classic definition of common grace comes from John Murray: “every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which the undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.”1 Matthew 5:44-45 and Luke 6:35 relate God’s favor to unbelievers in this way. Common grace enables unbelievers to maintain relatively peaceful and successful civilizations. In fact, the institution of government itself is an act of grace from God.

The reality of common grace leads to another recognition, the fact that unbelievers can indeed behave in biblical ways. Jesus himself said that sinners can do good.2 This is perhaps explained through the two-kingdom doctrine of natural law, expressed in passages like Romans 2:14-15:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do (ποιῶσιν) what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

This passage uses another “behavior”-related term, ποιέω (poieō; “do”) and expresses that even Gentile unbeleivers can “do what the law requires” since “the law is written on their hearts.” This may reflect the two-kingdom’s “natural law,” or it may be what transformationalist Greg Bahnsen calls “borrowed capital”3 —unbelievers borrowing biblical values in certain areas of their lives. Either way, scripture is clear that sometimes the behavior of unbelievers is good, and thus in such cases commonality can exist between the culture of believers and unbelievers.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 96. []
  2. “And if ye do good to those that do good to you, what thank is it to you? for even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:33). []
  3. “The unbeliever lives on borrow capital; that is, he knows the truth deep down and even secretly assumes it, but he has not righto believe it on his own presuppositions—he must borrow from the Christian worldview” (Greg L Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, First. [American Vision, 2007], 103). []