The New, Friendlier Gospel

This entry is part 15 of 23 in the series Wolves in Wool

A Friendlier Soteriology

The natural consequence of the emergents and post-moderns rejection of certainty (regarding scripture or anything else) is a very natural outflow of that lack of certainty into their theology.  The religious relativism and deconstruction of the “certainty” regarding a theology of Hell discussed so far are only a small sampling of the complete historical re-writes which many in the emergent movement are conducting on every theological idea previously defined.  For people who do not believe theology is very important, they do an impressive job disassembling and rebuilding it in their own post-modern image.  Even more ironically, those who reject notions of absolute truth speak quite absolutely concerning their own redefined theological platform. 

Soteriology is the vein of theology concerned with the doctrine of salvation.  Or, simply put, Soteriology is the study of how one comes to salvation.  While emergents claim no interest in biblical theology (but rather the “story” of scripture) they do show a great interest in attempting to debunk the traditional soteriology of evangelicals.  It is curious that they think the Bible not to be teaching systemetized theology at all, yet emphatically claim that it teaches contrarily to legitimate and time-honored atonement principles.  It seems, once again, that their agenda is less than meets the eye; not more.  For clearly, they do believe in absolutes – as long as it is their own– and they do believe in a systematizing of theology- as long as it is emergent-friendly. 

This game has been played before.  As soon as one utters “there are no absolutes,” they have created one of their own.  Likewise, the moment you claim “we have no theology” you have in fact created a “theology” of uncertainty.   In the end, emergents are doing what they condemn everyone else for:  criticizing the beliefs of other groups in order to propagate their own.  In this section we will examine beliefs of key emergent leaders concerning the atonement of Christ (one of the afore-mentioned new dogmas which would have made John Calvin absolutely blow a gasket).

A Friendlier Cross

“Traditional” atonement error number one in emergent circles involves the role of the cross itself in the atonement process.  The core belief of many emergents is that Christianity has for too long been exceptionally exclusive.  Even as McLaren noted in the last section, Jesus is “in the way of people seeking truth and life” by merit of his “no man comes to the father but through me” attitude.  Clearly Jesus understood his work on the cross to be foundational for all who ever chose to have access to the father.  This is indeed as “exclusive” as one can possibly claim to be.  Yet, the new and more user-friendly religion of the emergents is willing to issue a “Get Out of Hell Free!” card to all of those who choose not to make the cross a focal point of their understanding of salvation.  Apparently, from this point on, crosses are optional.

Alan Jones is the author of “Reimagining Christianity” (a book with a back-cover endorsement from Brian McLaren), a work which re-designs biblical principles of atonement.  In this work, Jones states,

“The Church’s fixation on the death of Jesus as the universal saving act must end, and the place of the cross must be reimagined in Christian faith. Why? Because of the cult of suffering and the vindictive God behind it.”
Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity, p. 132

Of immediate note is the blanket denial of the most essential soteriological conclusion from the times of the apostles.  Namely, that “the death of Jesus as the universal saving act” is merely a “fixation” of the church rather than a legitimate pillar of biblical theology.  I suppose if the cross were ever “imagined” to begin with, then it could easily be “reimagined” in light of the new cultural standards.  The cross, however, wasn’t imagined by the church to begin with.  Nor is it within the church’s authority to rewrite its nature.  Such language is the foolish ramblings of a man who believes the Christian faith to be at the mercy of man rather than God himself.   The cross is the central theme of the whole of scripture.  It was prophesied hundreds of years before Christ ever came to it as the means by which men would be redeemed.

Zechariah 12:10 (NIV)
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

In the real world, there is no “fixation” concerning the cross which stems from the church, but rather one which stems from the Bible itself (and biblical history).  It was God’s choice to introduce the cross, and the doctrine of penal substitution through it. 

How are the subjects of God’s instruction supposed to “reimagine” that which was literally handed to them from God himself? Yet, according to Jones, the very nature of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross has been misunderstood throughout that history until this time.

“The other thread of just criticism addresses the suggestion implicit in the cross that Jesus’ sacrifice was to appease an angry god. Penal substitution [the Cross] was the name of this vile doctrine.”—Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity, p. 168

How fortunate we are to have people like Alan Jones and N.T. Wright to inform us how wrong we have been getting things for the past two thousand years!  And sadly, how devastating it will be at judgment for people who relegate the shed blood of Christ to that of a “vile doctrine” of penal substitution.

Jones has absolutely no legitimate biblical basis for his arguments.  Nor does it appear that he cares for one, for in an emergent setting, of course, a biblical basis for doctrine is unnecessary.  The Bible is- after all- mere “support” material to the Christian experience in this culturally accredited world view.  Shortly in this study we will be introduced to all manners of heresy which will be borrowed from mysticism, Buddhism and virtually every variant of error and injected firmly into the emergent non-systematic theological machine.

However, to those of us who do hold to the Bible as the source of God’s revelation of himself, let us put to rest any and all ideas of the atonement as a penal substitution being either a human creation, or one which is so difficult to understand.

Colossians makes no hesitations concerning the reconciliatory nature of the cross:

Colossians 1:20 (NIV)
20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Nor does John make apologies for his necessarily “substitutionary” language when he decrees,

1 John 2:1-2 (NIV)
1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

Indeed, substitutionary atonement began not with the post-apostolic church, but in the very beginning as God provided animal sacrifices as payments for man’s sins.  He articulated the practice in the ancient law,

Leviticus 17:11 (NIV)
11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.


Leviticus 17:6 (NIV)
6 The priest is to sprinkle the blood against the altar of the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and burn the fat as an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

Penal substitution is not a “suggestion implicit in the cross.”  It is the fullness of the message of the cross!  Jesus clearly claimed,

Matthew 5:17 (NIV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

How exactly does one fulfill a law which declares “it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life  without subjecting himself to penal substitutionary atonement?  It is utter foolishness that Jones relegates penal substitution to a humanly created and unnecessary doctrine.  Rather, the understanding of the cross as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice is the foremost essential doctrine of Christianity! 

Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
– David (1 Samuel 17:26 (NIV))

European author Steve Chalke also chimes in on the assault against the atonement, taking the cross-mocking antics of Jones to new heights, however.  He declares,

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed [as the doctrine of penal substitution makes it out to be]. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement “God is love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.
Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182-183.

Now, not only is the idea of penal substitution wrong, but it is found to be reprehensible and immoral that God  would allow Christ to remove man’s sin by his own suffering.  In this view, the cross isn’t about love, but about “a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son.” 

Once again we find men who are incapable of accepting good theology because they cannot fathom themselves as subservient to God; completely outside of the equation.  In their minds, man is the pristine, loving creature of hope.  How dare God to require a righteous vengeance against the sins of “beautiful mankind.”  Instead of rejoicing that God has not killed us all in our sleep- as we deserve- we change the beauty of the atonement of Christ (that he willingly gave his life in place of the deserved penalty of man) to that of brutality (that God brought “violence” upon his son because man had made a few mistakes).

Well, let us first begin with an agreement.  No, the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse.  Let us not forget that the “child” in this case acted on his own willing behalf.  The “father” did not “take out” his frustration on Jesus in the sense that Jesus was put in the middle of something he did not want.  Yes, it was God’s plan to offer Christ, but Jesus willingly also offered himself.  Thus, the father did not subject the son, kicking and screaming in protest, but the son subjected himself to the father’s plan.  As Philippians notes,

Philippians 2:8 (NIV)
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!

Secondly, the idea that God’s justice against sin be represented as “a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind” generates violent tendencies in myself.  What is so difficult to understand about God’s hatred for sin?  What is so hard to embrace about his sense of justice toward sin?  Did not God warn man from the very beginning, “the day you eat of it you will die?” 

Do these same men expect a serial child rapist to be allowed to roam freely in his sin?  For if we bound the man up in prison, will we not be accused of perpetrating an “act of violence” against him?  Indeed, according to this slobbering sentiment of good will, there is nothing that one could do to punish a criminal act of any degree.  That would be, in Chalke’s mind, to “repay evil with evil.”  Indeed, to punish one for his actions would be identical to God’s “act of violence…toward mankind.”  Is it repaying “evil with evil” when a murderous madman is locked up for life or is it justice?  If a man enters Chalke’s home and does unspeakable things to him and his family would it be an “act of violence” against him to punish him for his offense?  Or, perhaps, would it be justice to enforce a rightful penalty upon him?

Sadly, this attempt at a kinder, gentler atonement misses the point of atonement entirely.  The point of atonement is, that a good God cannot simply allow evil to go unpunished!  It is this punishment which the cross concerns itself with.  Jesus came to the earth- one in mind with the Father- for the purposes of being a substitutionary sacrifice in man’s place.  How is this seen as an act of violence instead of an act of absolutely stunning self-sacrificial love?  Did Jesus himself not say,

John 15:13 (ASV)
13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

One must wonder… if the cross is not about substitutionary atonement, what exactly was the purpose of the cross? 

Part of the confusion seems to stem from the fact that this new breed of “lite” Christian thinks nothing is wrong with sin substantial enough to make man the reasonable recipient of God’s wrath.  Sin is the state of the union.  It is apparently nothing worth dying over.  McLaren asks,

What’s so bad about sin? Now, I can just imagine some people quoting—See, McLaren doesn’t think sin is a problem. I take sin really, seriously. But here’s the problem, If I were to make this sort of analogy or parable. When I had little children, if one of my little children—Let’s say my son Brett, was beating up on his little brother, Trevor. Now, Trevor is bigger. But back then—What was the problem? Was the problem that I don’t want my younger son to get hurt and I don’t want my older son to be a bully. I want my older son to be a good person. I want my younger son to be a good person. I want them to have a great relationship. Then the problem of sin is what it does to my family and what it does to my boys, you know. That’s the problem with sin.
But what we’ve created is, the problem of sin is that I am so angry at my son Brett for beating up his younger brother, I’m going to kill him. So now the problem we’ve got to solve is how to keep me from killing my son. Does that make sense?
Brian McLaren – Lief Hansen Interview (PodCast)

Once again, God has dared to assert himself as somehow worthy to be the arbiter of judgment over almighty man. 

Mr. McLaren, what you fail to understand is not the nature of your relationship to sin- or your sons.  What you fail to understand is that you are not God!  Do not compare YOUR discipline of your children to GOD’S righteous and eternal RIGHT to JUDGE his creation!  Do you not understand that God has sovereign power, rights and control over creation?  Do you expect him to subject himself to the same standards what we are limited to?  Do you really think that you will stand before him and give your greatest plea concerning the unfairness of it all – and that he will say, “you’re right, oh, mighty Brian!  FORGIVE ME for exerting my influence into your personal lifestyle choices?”  It was wrong of me to think that I had authority over your individual rights?

Isaiah 40:21-24 (NIV)
21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. 23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. 24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

How sad that we surround ourselves today with teachers who utterly reject the clear and immutable teaching of scripture in favor of  an invented doctrine of hope for those to which no hope is offered.  Based on a supposed “model” by which the post-modern world is to be reached with the gospel of Christ, these teachers instead are utterly endorsing the life-styles and sinfulness of godless men; teaching them that their sin is somehow not important enough for a substitutionary atoning death of Christ on a cross to be necessary. 

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 (NIV)
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

Romans 16:17-18 (NIV)
17 I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.

Galatians 1:6-8 (NIV)
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!

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