For emerging church people, Jesus’ message of kingdom tends to be all about what God is doing here and now. It is about peace, justice, and compassion. The gospel is an invitation to participate with God in this mission.
Participating in God’s kingdom is not about change in status (unsaved to saved), or about affirming certain doctrines. It is about following the example of Jesus as the best way to live.
The problem with this understanding of the kingdom is not in what in affirms but in what it denies or marginalises. In affirming God’s ethical intentions, we must not forget that he is a seeking God, an inviting God, a fatherly God, and a judging God.
Whereas emergent people have a lot to say about Jesus coming to deliver us from evil, they have little to say about his deliverance from sin by his death and resurrection, little to say about the necessity of faith in Christ, and little to say about the kingdom beyond this present age. The question is not, “How can I be saved?” but, “What kind of life does God want? What does life in the kingdom look like?” The good news is that God is at work right now.
The gospel is less about God’s grace, forgiveness and salvation, more about justice, compassion and transformation. But, it has to be asked, where is the good news in this? As fallen people, we need more than refurbished morals. We need a Saviour. And, precisely because this temporal life is so important, we need the encouragement and vision of eternal life. Jesus did not hesitate to speak of eternal, life, Mk 10:30, or destruction in hell, Mt 10:28, cf. Lk 16:19-31.
The emergent emphasis on justice and compassion would be a more helpful corrective if it went hand in hand with a firm, centre-stage commitment to the reality of everlasting punishment and everlasting reward, resurrection to life or judgment, and the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ. It suffers from an over-realised eschatology: too much ‘now’ and not enough ‘not yet’.
Emergent people wish to deal with the effects of sin: poverty, injustice, violence, and so on, without dealing with the root of this in the human heart (Jer 17:7). They do not stress the necessity of the new birth (Jn 3:3), or of repentance (Mt 3:2; 4:17). They understand the kingdom as a blueprint for ordering the world, rather that as the way of holiness for those who have experienced new life in Christ.
In stressing the teaching and example of Jesus, emergent people neglect the shape of the Gospels, which point to his death and resurrection. We are meant to read the Gospels backwards, from his life-giving death and resurrection, to his teaching and example.
In their reaction against the Religious Right, emergents need to be careful that they do not push their own over-politicised message. They are scathing about prolifers and gay marriage opponents, but shouldn’t we care for the poor and the unborn? Should be care about justice and righteousness? Although the message of Jesus does have political implications, let it be remembered that Jesus started no political party, nor did he mount any crusades against social ills. His main business lay elsewhere, and so should ours. It needs to transfer some of its certainty from politics to theology.
And, with regard to theology, many emergent authors are close to discarding historic understandings of the atonement, eternal punishment, and the uniqueness of Christ and his salvation.
Why did Jesus die? Many answers can be given from Scripture. Among these is the answer that he suffered and died in our place to deliver us from God’s wrath. This is the doctrine of propitiation or penal substitution. But this is not the heartbeat of the emergent gospel. Rather, it sees the cross as a moral example, showing ‘God’s loving heart’. Chalke and Mann caricature penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’, showing no sign of understanding of, or sympathy towards, the doctrine as actually taught in Scripture and in evangelical theology.
The cross certainly is a model for our own suffering, but it is also the payment for sin, 1 Peter 2:21-24. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.
Many emergent leaders undermine the serious of sin. Chalke rejects original sin (preferring to believe in ‘origianl goodness), and Tomlinson finds total depravity ‘biblically questionable, extreme, and profoundly unhelpful.’ The cross becomes less a measure of our need before God, but more a measure of how valuable we are to him. The main problem is not guilt before God, but human suffering and brokenness.
God is no longer a holy God angry with sin, who, in his great mercy, sent his Son to die on our behalf so that divine justice might be satisfied. God becomes a vulnerable lover who open shimself up to hurt and rejection in order to be with us because we are worth dying for.
Protestant liberalism was squeamish about hell. It was H. Richard Niebuhr who described the God of liberalism as ‘a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.’ It is difficult for many emergent teachers to avoid the same description. They practice a studied agnosticism about hell and God’s wrath, avoiding the topic as not interesting, relevant or helpful.
God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the prescribed way, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse, forever – that sort of thing.
Hell is more than the consequence of bad choice. Piper writes:-
Hell is not simply the natural consequences of rejecting God. Some people say this in order to reject the thought that God sends people there. They say that people send themselves there. That is true. People make choices that lead to hell. But it is not the whole truth. Jesus says these choices are really deserving of hell. “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to [that is guilty of, deserving or] the hell of fire” (Mt 5:22). That is why he calls hell ‘punishment’, Mt 25:46. It is not a mere self-imposed natural consequence (like cigarette smoking leading to lung cancer); it is the penalty of God’s wrath (like a judge sentencing a criminal to hard labour).
We need the doctrine of the wrath of God in order to
- keep us honest about evangelism – keeping us focussed on
- forgive our enemies – for vengeance is God’s not ours
- risk our lives for Jesus’ sake – knowing that those who our his will be vindicated in the end
- live holy lives – because God is not moacked: we will reap what we sow
- understand what mercy means
- grasp how wonderful heaven will be
- be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters
- be ready for the Lord’s return
Jesus is the only way. There are sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, believers and unbelievers, righteous and unrighteous, those mark with the name of the Lamb and those marked with the name of the Beast. There is an insisde and an outside to the New Jerusalem, Rev 21:14f.
Emergent leaders know that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the turth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”, Jn 14:6. Emergent teachers sometimes re-interpret this to mean, not that Jesus is the only way, but that he is a better way, a deeper way, for a person to live. Their understandable reluctance to equate following Jesus with the Christian religion leads them to blur the boundaries in all kinds of ways. God approves of those who act like Jesus regardless of their creed. Good people go to heaven.
Today’s emergent teachers too often force us to choose between salvation by following Jesus’ teaching and example and a salvation that doesn’t care about good works. But this is a false dichotomy. They need to recall that the gospel is first of all a message about what Jesus has accomplished, and only then a call to live a different kind of life. Jesus was not persecuted and killed for trying to make people kinder and more compassionate, but because he made scandalous claims about himself .
As Chesterton wrote:-
Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrands were slanderers, but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity than those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical society, being martyred in a languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbours, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.
Based on DeYoung & Kluck, Why we’re not emergent (by two guys who should be). Moody 2008. Chapter 9.