Understanding Amazing Grace

In Interstellar, one of Christopher Nolan’s best films, Earth has become uninhabitable so NASA secretly devises a space exploration plan to find hospitable planets. Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, is asked to lead the mission of finding a planet where the humans can be transported in order to survive. In the midst of this mission, Cooper has an interesting conversation with another fellow astronaut, Brand (played by Anne Hathaway):

Brand: . . . You know out there, we . . . we face great odds. Death. But, not evil.

Cooper: You don’t think nature can be evil?

Brand: No. Formidable, frightening. But, no, not evil. Well, is a lion evil because it rips a gazelle to shreds?

Cooper: Just what we take with us then?[1]

Brand, who is one of the masterminds behind the mission, reveals her view of nature clearly. She thinks nature is essentially beyond repair.

Brand’s view on nature should make us reflect on our own views of nature. As God’s image bearers, we interact with nature every single day. We plant gardens, make consumer products, and write essays. Despite the many layers of culture, the point is that, as image-bearers, we both shape culture and are in turn shaped by it every day.

The reality of this daily interaction with nature should move us, then, to develop a proper view of nature. Do we think nature can be evil? If so, then what should our response be? Should we try to escape it or to fix it? This article will look at two popular models used to answer these questions, labeled as “Grace Alongside Nature” and “Grace Restores Nature.” These two models will help us in understanding issues involving Christianity and culture.

Grace Alongside Nature

Questions of nature and man’s interaction with it always involve a view of the role of grace. Can nature be redeemed, and if so, how? In the grace alongside nature framework, the world is divided into different realms established by God: a natural kingdom and a heavenly kingdom. God rules both kingdoms, and humanity has obligations to both realms. Proponents of this view have presented two parallel tracks mirroring forms of justice, truth, and order. These tracks, or realms, remain separate and distinct despite their similarities. Historically, this view has been associated with the reformer Martin Luther.

Further definition of these two realms is important for understanding how this framework is applied. In it, the natural kingdom involves only earthly matters. Proponents argue that God rules cultural structures through natural law and common grace. However, they contend that because the two realms are distinct and separate, we should not seek to transform culture. Luther writes, “Therefore we must not drag [Christ’s] words into the law books or into the secular government. . . . With the secular area [Christ] has nothing to do.”[2] How a politician speaks to human rights can illustrate this view. The person might deny the Biblical teaching on the imago Dei and yet still recognize humans as holding dignity and rights because of that image.

The heavenly kingdom, on the other hand, is focused on the life and ministry of the church. Matters in this kingdom are of utmost spiritual importance. God rules the heavenly kingdom “as Redeemer and does so through saving grace and special revelation.”[3] We can pursue good works through cultural institutions, but the important spiritual work belongs to the heavenly kingdom. Thus, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm are two tracks running side by side never intersecting.

What should we make of this account? I’m reminded of what Carl F. H. Henry said about fixing social problems: “If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.”[4] If Christians don’t value God’s redeeming grace in the natural realm, someone else will fill the vacuum. The natural realm is too corrupt to be deprived of God’s grace. As Bruce Ashford notes, “[A]ll people’s hearts are shot through with sin and idolatry; they need God’s special revelation to help them recognize general revelation and interpret it correctly.”[5] As God’s image bearers interacting with God’s creation, we need not fear. God has not left His people without guidance for every area of life (2 Pet. 1:3).

Another area in which this view falls short is in how it subtly separates faith and cultural endeavors. These are two areas of the Christian faith that should never be separated. The path caused by this dangerous separation can lead to social pacifism. Furthermore, how does this model help the paramedic, the painter, and the politician? It fails to understand the range of the Bible’s relevance to cultural endeavors. Tim Keller responds:

The Bible speaks to an enormous range of cultural, political, economic, and ethical issues that have a marked impact on every area of life. . . .We see that while the New Testament may not give believers direct calls to transform society, the gospel faith of Christians clearly had immediate and far-reaching impact on social and economic relationships, and not only strictly within the church. Indeed, then, Christian faith touches on and affects all of life, and to claim otherwise is to be less than fully faithful to the biblical or historical record.[6]

Grace Restores Nature

A second model for understanding the relationship between Christianity and culture does not see special revelation in opposition to the natural realm. Bruce Ashford notes, “[G]race restores the natural realm but also renews it, making the natural realm even better than it was before the fall.”[7] Grace seeks to fix the created order by redeeming it and restoring it to how it ought to be. Furthermore, “God’s Word is the ‘thesis’ to which sin is the ‘antithesis.’”[8] This tension between what ought to be and what stands in opposition to the created order can be seen throughout time.[9]

God meant for His creation to praise Him throughout eternity. However, the Biblical plotline reveals how sin has poisoned our nature. This does not mean that our value is completely lost. The structure of the house is still good. Directionally, however, our nature is misguided right now. Yet, Scripture reveals that the poisoning effects of sin have an end in the future. Paul explains how all of creation eagerly waits for the antidote found in Christ (Rom. 8:19-22). Christ has come to save that which is broken. His desire is not to stand alongside nature and watch it stumble but to renew it instead.

One application of this view is to see the Great Commission as the renewal of cultural mandate spoken into a fallen world. John Frame comments on this connection:

The Great Commission is the republication of the cultural mandate for the semi-eschatological age. Unlike the original cultural mandate, it presupposes the existence of sin and the accomplishment of redemption. It recognizes that if the world is to be filled with the worshippers of God, subduing the earth as his vassal kings, they must first be converted to Christ through the preaching of the gospel.[10]

Frame recognizes the reality of our sinful nature and our need for Jesus’ redeeming grace. The Great Commission now serves as creation of spiritual life. Evangelism is the act by which we herald a message of how to can receive new life to unbelievers. God does not have a political plan for the nations. He has a plan to save the people of the nations and forgive their sins. Evangelism is a declaration of this message because it brings new life. Discipleship is exercising dominion over sin and bringing order to sinful human beings. We now seek intentionally to exercise Christ’s lordship over our lives in school, work, and the home.


Living in a fallen world can be overwhelming at times. It is a cosmic struggle between the thesis and antithesis every day. Some will continue to claim that God’s grace is incompatible with nature. However, Christ has entered into our broken world and seeks to reverse the curse of sin. We should acknowledge His lordship over the entire created order. We hope to transform our society, but we realize that such transformation is not under our control. In fact, complete transformation will not occur until Christ returns.

For some, this tension of living between the transformation and final stage can be overwhelming. Scripture actually speaks a word of encouragement to us in this stage. While we wait, we see “Jesus – made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace he might taste death for everyone – crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death” (Heb. 2:9).[11] Focusing on Jesus, we then allow the gospel to bring order to our lives. We learn to control our appetites. We do cultural work as a matter of faithful witness and obedience. We seek to understand amazing grace, as long as life endures.


[1] Interstellar, Film, Directed by Christopher Nolan (Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 2014).

[2] Luther’s Works: American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958-1986), 21:90.

[3] Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 19.

[4] Carl F. H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 82.

[5] Ashford and Pappalardo, 21.

[6] Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 214, italics added.

[7] Ashford and Pappalardo, 21.

[8] I am indebted to my Theology and Culture professor, Dr. Bruce Ashford, for these ideas in class on February 7, 2017.

[9] Notable proponents of this view include Abraham Kuyper, John Frame, and Craig Bartholomew.

[10] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 310.

[11] All Scriptural quotations and references come from the Christian Standard Bible.

Author: Zach Maloney

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