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DON'T STOP BELIEVING
Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough
By MICHAEL E. WITTMER
Copyright © 2008
Michael E. Wittmer
All right reserved.
Chapter One ARE PEOPLE GENERALLY GOOD OR BASICALLY BAD?
My conservative upbringing taught me to fear the world, the flesh, and the Devil - and pretty much in that order. The world was full of public school teenagers who swore, had sex, and listened to rock and roll. I was taught to fear them because their sins might become mine, but in truth I feared them because they seemed bigger and better at everything my Christian school tried.
Their teams were taller (the star of our varsity basketball team was an eighth grader), their concerts were cleaner (our clarinets squawked their way through the "Twelve Days of Christmas") - even their buses were bigger (we rode to school in conversion vans).
Yet despite the fact that they were better - or perhaps because of it - we took comfort in knowing that we were "in." We belonged to the family of God and were bound for heaven, while most of those talented brutes were headed for hell. They were already suffering the effects of removing God from their schools - rising drug use and violence - and unless they repented, their problems would only get worse.
Sometimes we took our comfort a bit too far. There is a denomination in my part of the country that was founded on the idea that God hates the nonelect (those sinners he did not choose to save). Our hearts may break for the Jewish father who grimly stood with his son before a German firing squad, but God feels no pity. Inasmuch as Jews are not Christians, they are loathed by a holy God who sheds no tear for their demise. Who said Calvinists weren't lovable?
Although these extreme friends managed to make even Jesus seem mean, we did agree with them that we were different. To quote a more generous Calvinist, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dutch leader named Abraham Kuyper, there is an antithesis between Christians and those who have not been born again. In his words, "there are two kinds of people" doing "two kinds of science." Kuyper meant that while Christians and others - say secular humanists - may agree on many things, their different foundational beliefs will produce dramatically different views of the world.
For example, both groups may cooperate on clinical trials for a new vaccine. Both know how to separate control from experimental groups, administer a placebo to one and a live virus to the other, and add up the results to determine whether the vaccine should be available to the public. But when we step back and ask what it all means, the Christian scientist will praise God for creating a stable world in which experiments are possible and for empowering his children with the intellectual ability to join his work of redemption. The nontheist, on the other hand, will likely suppose that our apparently predictable world is grounded in random chance and that his work on the new vaccine is merely another step in the survival of the fittest - one man's lonely attempt to stave off the extinction of the human race, which is doomed anyway because our rapidly expanding universe will continue to pull apart until it inevitably disintegrates into countless cold, dark pieces of antimatter.
Kuyper's antithesis, and my childhood memory that we Christians were different from the world, is grounded in an awareness of our own depravity. We believed that we were different because we were very much the same. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth, some of us were "sexually immoral ... idolaters ... adulterers ... male prostitutes ... homosexual offenders ... thieves ... greedy ... drunkards ... slanderers ... [and] swindlers." The only difference between us and them is that we "were washed ... sanctified ... justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
We had a low view of the world because we had a low view of ourselves. We often hung our heads and mournfully sang during the Lord's Supper: "Alas! and did my Savior bleed? And did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?" One pastor began his sermon by asking his congregation what it meant to be human. "What are you?" he asked. "Sinners!" they shouted back. Of course, they were Calvinists.
UP WITH PEOPLE
The preacher told his people that they were wrong. He told them that they should find their identity in Creation, which informs them that they were made in the image of God. God's work always trumps ours, and so his bellowing "Yes!" of Creation blows away our squeaky "no" of the Fall. Just as we cannot obliterate the goodness of God's creation in the world around us, so we cannot eliminate the goodness he has placed within us.
We will always bear the image of God, which is why our sin is a tragedy. Girls Gone Wild is sadder than When Animals Attack, for, spring break evidence to the contrary, the girls in these videos - and the guys who watch - are corrupting a higher good. Nobody ever lectured a worm for wriggling off its hook: "Bad worm! Your disobedience deeply disappoints me!" It's a worm, and so its misdeeds don't count for much.
Not so with us. A broken image of God is infinitely worse than a broken anything else. And contrary to Matthias Flacius, a sixteenth-century Lutheran who argued that our sin turns us into the imago satani (image of Satan), we remain, even in our brokenness, the imago Dei (image of God). We never have been - nor will we ever be - worms.
Abraham Kuyper noted the staying power of Creation in his doctrine of common grace. Despite the antithesis between Christians and those who do not follow Jesus, we share a basic human goodness and many of the same dreams. We all want healthy children, meaningful work, a vibrant economy, and world peace. Quite often we find ourselves on the same team, pulling together to right the wrongs and boost the goods in our world. We cooperate in our efforts to stop global warming, the bird flu, and child abuse as we jump-start schools, hospitals, and just governments for those who too long have done without.
And yet, if conservatives sometimes stretch the difference between Christians and the world to unhealthy extremes, postmodern innovators tend to pick up what we have in common and pull in the opposite direction. As we learned in chapter 3, they are reluctant to divide people into in- and out-groups, where one group is excluded because of what they believe, but rather emphasize that we are all in this together.
Recently I happened upon a radio interview in which a leading postmodern innovator was asked whether Protestant Christians believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone. He answered yes, for we believe that salvation is a gift. There is no quota of works that we must meet, but we simply accept our acceptance by our Creator.
This is a provocatively incomplete answer. True as far as it goes (God is our Creator), it is sufficiently incomplete to mislead (don't we also need God the Redeemer?). This may be the first time a Christian has affirmed salvation by grace through faith without mentioning Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, and our need to repent and believe this good news. Shorn of their context in Jesus Christ, the notions of grace and faith are reduced to empty caricatures. Salvation is no longer turning from sin and trusting Christ's sacrifice on our behalf, but is now merely believing that God has accepted us all along.
Spencer Burke elaborates on this new view of grace, writing that it is "not conditional on recognizing or renouncing sin," but "it comes to us whether or not we ask for it. We don't have to do something to receive it, nor do we even have to respond to it in some way. It simply comes." In this way "grace is offered to all people, everywhere, regardless of religious affiliation."
Burke believes that we must move beyond traditional notions of sin. He explains:
Although the link between grace and sin has driven Christianity for centuries, it just doesn't resonate in our culture anymore. It repulses rather than attracts. People are becoming much less inclined to acknowledge themselves as "sinners in need of a Savior." It's not that people view themselves as perfect; it's that the language they use to describe themselves has changed. "Broken," "fragmented," and "lacking wholeness" - these are some of the new ways people describe their spiritual need. What resonates is a sense of disconnection.
Tony Jones agrees that gospel presentations have focused too much on sin. He writes:
A generation or two ago, defenses of Christianity that focused on human sinfulness were potent; a common metaphor showed God on one side of a diagram and a stick figure (you) on the other; the chasm between was labeled "Sin," and the only bridge across was in the shape of Jesus' cross. But emergents ask, "What kind of God can't reach across a chasm? Chasms can't stop God!"
I am not sure what Jones is objecting to here, for the metaphor's point is that while the chasm prevents us from coming to God, it does not stop God from reaching across. Perhaps he means that God should be able to reach us in some other way besides the cross? Or perhaps that our sin does not separate us from God? Jones acknowledges that "many emergent Christians will concur that we live in a sinful world, a world of wars and famines and pogroms. But they will be inclined to attribute this sin not to the distance between human beings and God but to the broken relationships that clutter our lives and our world."
I agree that we suffer from broken relationships and many varieties of social evil, but are these the main source of sin? Didn't Jesus say that sin comes from the heart - from the inside out rather than from the outside in? If sin is external, then the cross need only be, in Jones's words, "an act of divine solidarity with the suffering and broken world." But if the root cause of sin lies within every human heart, then the cross must be powerful enough to cleanse us from the inside (see chap. 6).
This low view of sin may explain why some postmodern innovators are reconsidering the perspective of the fifth-century heretic Pelagius. Doug Pagitt suggests that Pelagius should not have been excommunicated by the church, for his belief in the inherent goodness of human nature supplies a welcome counterbalance to Augustine's emphasis on our depravity. Pagitt argues that Augustine's belief that "people were born separate from God" fit the Greek understanding of God popular in the Roman Empire. This allowed him to defeat Pelagius's alien, Druid notion that "people were born with the Light of God aflame within them, if even dimly lit." But since neither view is better than the other, Pagitt says that we should seek to learn from both, remembering that "different cultures will have different expressions" of the Christian faith.
Now we can see why our view of ourselves matters. We learned in chapters 2 and 3 that we need to know and believe the gospel because truth is what the Holy Spirit uses to birth sinners into the family of God. But if we are already good enough, we do not need to be born again. And if we do not need to be born again, then neither do we need to believe the truth that gives new birth.
Thus, the popular view that God would not send someone to hell simply because he or she believed the wrong things rests on a prior assumption that people are already good (or at least not bad enough to deserve damnation). But what if - as Augustine believed - we are born sinners, polluted and guilty for Adam's sin? And what if the Holy Spirit uses truth to solve our problem of original sin? Then it matters a lot what we believe.
The history of theology is a story of pendulum swings. The church pursues one line of thought until it reaches an extreme, and then, like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, swiftly swings to the other side. Sometimes we can see the correction coming and yet are powerless to stop it. This is one of those times.
Some modern, conservative Christians reflected on human depravity until they concluded that we were worms and the non- Christian world was worse. Now postmodern innovators, many of whom grew up in conservative churches and saw firsthand the consequences of a worm-affirming, world-hating theology, have swung to the other side where they emphasize the natural goodness of both ourselves and the world. This new extreme is exciting - it holds out hope for the world and the possibility of progress - but it is still an extreme. Is there a better, more biblically balanced way to keep the goodness of Creation while doing justice to the devastation of the Fall? Like Abraham Kuyper, can we believe in both the antithesis and common grace? (see fig. 4.1).
IT'S ALL GOOD
Are people good or bad? This is a complex question that requires a nuanced answer. Like "Have you stopped beating your wife?" or "Do you support our troops by supporting the war?" this question confounds a simple yes or no.
Yesterday my six-year-old pounded out his first recognizable tune on the piano, and I made quite a fuss about it. "Landon, that is 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'! You are playing the piano! Good job!" And it was - especially good for a beginner and far better than anything I can play. But compared to my wife or a concert pianist, it was not very good at all. Goodness is a relative term. It depends on what we are talking about.
Thanks to God's gift of common grace, there are at least three distinct kinds of goodness that all people - saint and sinner alike - may and even should possess (see fig. 4.2). The most basic is what Lewis Smedes calls "mere morality." Not everyone can be a Mother Teresa, but everyone is expected at least not to hurt others. People who take what does not belong to them, whether that is another's life, property, or sexual integrity, land in jail. No one has ever won an award for being merely moral, but many have ruined lives for not meeting this fundamental requirement (e.g., Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and the cheating leaders of Enron).
But we do give awards for those who go beyond not hurting others and lend a helping hand. We applaud the generosity of Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, who together have pledged more than $67 billion to cure and educate the poorest of the poor. We honor the sacrifice of the firefighters who on 9/11 raced up the stairs while everyone else was fleeing down. And we thank God for the garden-variety courtesies of shared umbrellas, held doors, and simple thank-yous that abound in our world.
When I visited Japan, I was surprised to find a barrel of umbrellas by the front door of a subway station. When I asked my host why they were there, she told me that the Japanese take one when it is raining and then put it back when they are done. I marveled at this picture of civic virtue. Though the Japanese have other sins (their sex tours into Thailand are legendary), yet through common grace this predominantly non-Christian nation is able to do something my Dutch city of churches is unable to pull off (we pinch pennies from the change cup by the cash register).
Besides this ethical goodness, common grace also empowers everyone to produce cultural goods. John Calvin said that we should thank God for the cultural contributions of non-Christians, for their efforts are inspired by the general grace of the Holy Spirit.
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.... But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God's gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.
The first cultural connoisseurs came from the cursed line of Cain: Jabal, "the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock"; Jubal, "the father of all who play the harp and flute"; and Tubal-Cain, "who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron." And these Cain-raisers have been blessing us with their innovations ever since. Non-Christians gave us algebra, computers, and the automobile. They gave us longer, healthier, and happier lives: discovering cures that extend our years and then filling our days with food, shows, and hobbies they helped create. Imagine your favorite sports team without its non-Christian players, and you will realize how dependent we are on the contributions of every corner of the human race. Most of our pleasures are made, at least in part, by those who do not follow Christ.
Excerpted from DON'T STOP BELIEVING by MICHAEL E. WITTMER Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Wittmer. Excerpted by permission.
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