The famous historian of theology, H. Richard Niebuhr, 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?
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.