The famous historian of theology, H. Richard Niebuhr, HRN once called theological liberalism a religion devoted to "a God without wrath

[who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross" [The Kingdom of God in America, (The Wesleyan University Press, orig. 1937; 1988), p. 193].

I can’t think of a statement that better sums up much of the problem inside the church in our time. Where once liberal theology ravaged the older churches of the so-called mainline denominations, and the fruit of this ravaging and bitter fruit is now self-evident, much of the same emphasis can now be clearly found in our more evangelical churches. Note what Niebuhr’s quote sets forward as the problem:

1. We have a God without wrath

Regardless of how we understand the doctrine of hell, and the early church was not of one mind about the nature or even the duration of hell, the wrath of God was believed and embraced as a fearful reality. While it is true that we passed through a time in American church history where preaching God’s wrath was often done very badly the end result has been that we have come to the exact opposite extreme. Most modern churches never mention the danger of God's wrath because they do not preach a God who is truly holy. Today one almost never hears about warnings of judgment to come. We have built churches for “seekers” and this idea of wrath is one truth we do not want to tell these seekers lest they stop attending before we reach them and get them to join us. It is just poor taste to talk about the wrath of God, even given the need for correction of past abuse.

2. We have added to the notion that men are without sin

The typical evangelical church still believes in sin, at least in some ill-defined sense. Some fundamentalists still preach about it, often crassly. But the simple fact is this—psychological descriptions of our basic human problem have replaced biblical ones. We do not talk about sin but of human mistakes and failures. We do not want to harm the self-image of the person at all costs, which may be the only true sin left today. The results is that we avoid the sinfulness of man like a plague.

3. We have a kingdom without judgment

I rarely hear us talk about the kingdom of God, which is the “big idea” in the Scripture. We talk about coming to Jesus, but not to a Jesus who is Lord. We talk about receiving the gift of eternal life, or getting a free pass to heaven when we die, but almost never about the kingdom of God in which Christ expects our obedience and judges us, through his severe mercy for sure, because we are his people. Judgment of Christians is almost totally absent in the church. Without sin and judgment we can now approve of all manner of moral misbehavior without thinking twice. The important concept today is not Christ's Lordship but his tolerance and ours.

4. We have a Christ without a cross

Paul says that he determined to know nothing while he was among the Corinthians but “Christ and him as crucified.” We speak about Christ for sure but we speak of him as the “answer” to our need (not our sin specifically) and we dwell on grace, but not a grace that comes through a bloody, awful cross. The “offense” of the cross has been removed altogether in many modern churches. Many new churches have removed the sign of the cross for good reason—they do not preach the message of the cross so why keep the sign?

BQWAalg58DiC8+JU= I edited a 1996 book titled: The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press). Sometimes I am asked, because of my missional-ecumenism which began to develop around 1994-95, if I still believe the basic message of that earlier book. My answer is always yes. This seems to surprise some but it is the truth. Now, I do not agree with every solitary solution found in this edited volume (I didn't agree with every one of them in 1996 since I did not write much of the book personally) but I do agree with the analysis given therein and the dire warnings the book was built upon.

The Coming Evangelical Crisis asked what evangelical Christianity would look like in twenty-five years if it followed the patterns of the present (1996). Well, we are now fourteen years removed from that question. All the evidence says that the questions I posed as editor, and addressed by the fourteen writers at that time, have been answered in a way that shows we are moving along toward the answer that we all feared at the time. There is a significant drift away from core confessional Christian faith among evangelicals. We have lost our way and evangelicalism, at least as we’ve known it, is in deep, deep trouble.

I am more sanguine about this problem now than I was back in 1996. I am also more hopeful. What has changed for me is that now I see a glimmer of change on the horizon. This glimmer is not, however, coming through the old wine found in the older (revivalistic) wineskins. It is being discovered in ancient-future contexts where Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Christians are together pursuing the one faith, a faith which really does believe in the Christ who died for real sinners on a real cross outside a real city in real history. This faith is less concerned with polemical skirmishes about how we got into this “crisis” and much more concerned with going back before we can really go forward. I will say much more about this movement during 2010, especially as my book comes out in April and I begin to talk a lot more about missional-ecumenism.

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  1. Ed Holm January 4, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I just recently have begun reading “How Jesus Became Christian” by Barrie Wilson, Ph.D. It posits a Pauline conspiracy theory which is interesting but I am not sure at this point well supported. One of the critiques Wilson makes is that Christianity has become a religion ABOUT Jesus rather than the religion OF Jesus. I think there may be a point to be had there and one of the things that I find has potential in a reclamation of early faith is some attempt at looking exactly at what that faith really was. Again, I am not sure that Wilson’s critiques are entirely valid, but the question is perhaps a good one. My experience with modern day liberal theology and Evangelicalism is the reluctance to consider anything other than its doctrine as being true. That seems to be idolatry of the worst sort. Of course just taking a path of intellectual skepticism does not seem to provide much hope either. Anyway, a time to do some thinking in the new year.

  2. Anthony January 4, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    John – I have been reading Jim Belcher’s Deep Church, which I imagine you are familiar with, as he mentions you in the book. In a chapter titled “Deep Gospel” he addresses the tension between the Emerging movement’s emphasis on Kingdom living, and the Traditional emphasis on the Atonement, of which he does a good job at negotiating the tension.
    In this chapter, Belcher relays an anecdote that Richard Mouw shared with him about a time when Mouw went to a conference and met a man who said, “I don’t even bother with sin and salvation anymore. I invite them into a movement in which Jesus has destroyed the principalities and powers of the world, and in which he is inviting them to become a full participant.” In reading this, all I could think is that the atonement is necessary in order for one to fully enter into this movement. Otherwise, the principalities and powers will continue to subject and influence those attempting to be involved in the Kingdom. Moreover, apart from a thorough understanding of one’s standing based upon Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, those involved in Kingdom living will likely become self righteous, and thereby ultimately ineffective. This was pretty much Belcher’s response as he worked out a third way.

  3. Nick Morgan January 4, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    One of the ancient practices of the Roman Catholic (and the Orthodox) Church that helps me steer clear of the danger you described is always making the sign of the cross before and after prayer. Invoking this sign, which is itself a prayer, keeps me mindful of the Truth that God is a Holy Trinity and that Jesus truly died on a bloody cross to redeem His people, which includes sinners like me. Also, the presence of the Crucifix both in the church building and at home is a constant reminder of the reality of human sin and suffering, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Awesome price He paid for our redemption; and lastly that as followers of Christ we WILL share in His suffering if we want to share in His glory. This is a good example of where recovering these ANCIENT Christian practices and symbols would have tremendous spiritual benefit for present and FUTURE Christian faith no matter which Tradition we belong to.
    God bless!

  4. keith January 5, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    Excellent post, John, and all the points are intertwined. John Kennedy (Scottish pastor) said, “The man, who is disposed to think of his sin, as a great calamity, rather than as a heinous crime, is not likely either to reverence God or to respect His law.” That, I believe, sums up the current preaching of sin in many ministers that are my age – give or take a few years.
    Anthony’s story from Mouw is TOO true.
    All through Acts the Church operated in the fear of God – that is the last thing we want.

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