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Why We're Not Emergent (by two guys who should be) (5)

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

(Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008; 256 pp.)

Part Five

In Chapter Nine, DeYoung and Kluck turn their attention to a number of emphases within emergent Christianity that they believe are deviations from biblical orthodoxy (a focus, by the way, that virtually all emergents would contend is the very reason why we need emergent Christians; there are far too many “fundamentalists” like DeYoung, Kluck, and Storms who insist on analyzing others’ theological positions to determine if they’re orthodox or not!).

They begin with the emergent focus on the Kingdom of God and point out that it isn’t what emergents affirm about the kingdom that is disturbing but what they omit or perhaps even deny. Yes, the kingdom is, at least to some extent, the announcement that God has inaugurated in Christ Jesus his plan for bringing ultimate peace, justice and compassion on the earth. It is, to some extent, a “this worldly” revolution of love and reconciliation to which we have all been summoned. “It is a call to join the network of God that breaks down the walls of racism, nationalism, and ecological harm. The kingdom of God,” notes DeYoung, in paraphrasing the emergent view, “is like a dance of love, vitality, harmony, and celebration” (184; these metaphors and descriptions, says DeYoung, are taken from McLaren’s book, The Secret Message of Jesus, 138-48).

Thus, according to emergent Christianity, the message of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus was not primarily about certain doctrines to believe but about a manner and style of life to live. Citing McLaren, “the kingdom of God . . . is a revolutionary, counter-cultural movement – proclaiming a ceaseless rebellion against the tyrannical trinity of money, sex, and power” (184). Or again, according to McLaren, the message of God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins through the cross work of Christ is, at best, only “a footnote to a gospel that is much richer, grander, and more alive, a gospel that calls you to become a disciple and to disciple others, in authentic community, for the good of the world” (The Church in Emerging Culture, 215). A footnote to the gospel? Hmmm.

The authors of this book are not protesting against this understanding of the kingdom, unless, of course, the kingdom is reduced to little more “than a plan for world peace” (184). What disturbs them is the absence of truly good news in this message. “Our cursed world needs more than a plan for refurbished morals. It needs a Savior because it is so full of sinners. I just cannot understand how the gospel as a call to become a disciple for the good of the world is richer, grander, and more alive than a gospel that announces God’s grace, forgiveness, and the free gift of salvation” (186).

DeYoung is understandably befuddled by a “gospel” that announces no news of God’s redemptive work on our behalf and ignores the call of Christ to Nicodemus that one “must be born again” (John 3:3). Do emergents really believe in original sin and the need for divine mercy and the existence of hell? “I understand the emergent concern about living rightly in this life,” says DeYoung. “That was a concern of Jesus. But why are heaven and hell as eternal destinations so routinely marginalized in emergent books? If heaven and hell are real and endure forever, as Jesus believed them to be, they ought to shape everything we do during our short time on earth” (186).

Now, I’m no prophet, but I think I know the answer to DeYoung’s question. I think I know why hell plays such a minimal role in the emergent understanding of the “kingdom of God” and the “gospel”. Although no emergent author has yet explicitly endorsed universalism (although some see it in Spencer Burke’s book, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity; I happily confess to not having read it), I suspect that it is lurking quietly beneath the surface of much of what they believe. In fact, I will make a prediction. Within three or four years, several prominent emergent church authors will “come out of the closet” and admit they embrace salvific universalism. Given what appears to be the denial of original sin by Steven Chalke (The Lost Message of Jesus, 67) and the reinterpretation of hell by Brian McLaren (The Last Word and the Word after That) and the rejection of wrath as an essential attribute of the divine nature and the almost uniform dismissal of penal substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse” and the tendency to question whether conscious faith in Christ alone is essential for salvation, what other possible pathway can they walk? If man is not by nature wicked and God does not by nature require the satisfaction of his wrath in the atoning sacrifice of Christ and hell is little more than what we create for ourselves on earth, what stands in the way of affirming that all mankind will eventually be saved?

The authors are equally concerned that the kingdom of God among emergents “often ends up sounding largely political” (189). Although there may well be proponents of the political right among emergent church leaders, “it is undeniable that left-wing politics is a common thread running throughout the emergent literature” (189). God “may not be a Republican or a Democrat, but from reading the emergent literature, it sure seems like He votes Democrat” (189).

I must say that I’m less concerned with this point than I am with the theological issues we’ve addressed. But I do agree with DeYoung and Kluck when they argue that the problem is not in working to eliminate injustice (who would ever suggest that it is), but rather “in thinking that this is the main business of the church as church. . . . [W]hen the church’s business is mainly political and its unifying creeds are political instead of doctrinal, the church and state overlap until the church becomes redundant” (190).

DeYoung then turns his attention to what has become virtually the standard rejection by emergent believers of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. I will forego expanding on this point here, since I’ve addressed it at great length in my review of a book that everyone should read (Pierced for our Transgressions; see the review at my website under Recommended, Book Reviews).

As I’ve previously noted, emergent leaders have also “practiced a studied agnosticism about hell and God’s wrath, deliberately avoiding the topic in sermons or writing, because, they say, it’s not our business who is there – if anyone is there at all” (196). I, on the other hand, think it is precisely our business and our ministry. If, as the apostle Paul says, people are of two and only two groups, “those who are being saved” and “those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15), the determining factor being their response to the gospel of God in Christ Jesus that we have been called to proclaim, how dare we justify our contempt for their eternal welfare by saying it is “not our business”?

The final concern in this chapter is the tendency among emergents to avoid the suggestion that conscious faith in Jesus Christ alone is the pathway to eternal life. Their professed admiration for non-Christian religions and their reluctance to pronounce the unrepentant and unbelieving as hell bound is of great concern. “I hope I am wrong,” writes DeYoung, “but I can find no indication in McLaren’s writings that belief in Jesus as the Christ and the unique Son of God is necessary for entrance into heaven or the kingdom” (202).

The early church, write DeYoung and Kluck, “was important because it was intolerable, and it was intolerable because it was intolerant. Not socially intolerant or coldhearted or obnoxiously abrasive, but intolerant of any salvation but the cross, any God but theirs, and any Lord but Christ” (204).

Following two short and very insightful chapters by Kluck on Rob Bell (Chapter 10) and Tony Jones (Chapter Eleven), the book concludes with a call to emergent churches everywhere to reconsider the principles and truths spoken by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3. In a word, “emergent Christians need to catch Jesus’ broader vision for the church – His vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgment and certain reward, even as it engages the culture, reaches out, loves, and serves” (248).

What we need most, say DeYoung and Kluck, is the knowledge of a God who is holy and righteous and loving and all-powerful and sovereign and merciful, who has acted in history through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to deliver spiritually dead and morally depraved sinners from eternal death that they might live in ever-increasing enjoyment of him to his everlasting glory.

Call this “linear, dogmatic, or hopelessly otherworldly, but it’s what Christians have held onto for millennia as their only comfort in life and in death. And by God’s grace such an articulation of the Christian message will emerge and reemerge, unapologetically and unhesitatingly, as front and center in all our churches” (253).

So, please go purchase and read this book. Please.