"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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    The Emergent Church and the Gospel

    The gospel is not about any merit I have on my own, but is based upon Jesus' merit alone. It is not what we have done for Jesus, but what Jesus has done for us (Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 5:21, Phil 2:8). In the covenant rainbow sign with Noah, God says He "remembers" never to flood the world this way again, so likewise in the covenant in Christ's blood, God "remembers" not to treat us as we justly deserve for our sins. The mystery of God has been made manifest in the Person and work of the Son, who frees the prisoners, gives sight to the blind, breaks loose the chains and changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. We were taken captive to do Satan's will and could not escape until Christ set us free. In other words, Christ, in His cross work, does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He lived the perfect life that we should have lived and died the death we should have died, in order to free us so that we might then proclaim His excellencies, make known his gospel and spread justice and mercy to the poor.

    But this is not what many of the the most notable characters in the Emerging church (e.g. McClaren, McManus, Bell) mean when they use the term “gospel”; for Christ, in their view, did not come so much as a Savior, who delivers us from His just wrath, but rather, came to make us "Christ followers". Jesus came as a moral example of how we might live, treat one another, and form communities. But as has been repeatedly shown throughout the testaments, this is a recipe for failure. In Romans 3:20 the Apostle teaches that the purpose of the law was not so much to show us how to live (although it was that too), but more to reveal our moral inability and hopeless bondage to sin apart from the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Some major voices in the emergent church are saying they want a relationship with Jesus and not doctrines, but we must ask which Jesus do they want to have a relationship with? If words mean anything it appears they want a relationship with a moralistic Jesus of their own imagination. They want to believe that God is pleased with us because of what we do ... that He is pleased with us if we join HIm in being active in crusades against social ills such as corporate greed, global warming, racism and poverty. That doing this is what the Gospel is all about. But as good as some of these things might be, God is not pleased with them if they do not come from faith in Jesus Christ as a Savior first, not as a mere example for us to follow. For instance, Jesus revealed His sinlessness and our moral impotence in the face of it. and thus our need for His mercy. But McLaren and many of the other emergent church leaders trumpet their belief that the gospel is more about ethics than the work of Christ on our behalf. They appeal to bettering the world around us as a task that is opposed to and more pressing than seeing our own rebellion and poverty, which prove our need for reconciliation to God through the life, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This unbiblical bifurcation of orthopraxy and orthodoxy, and foundational preference for the former, is just plain contrary to the Christian gospel.

    Ultimately, the emergent "gospel" is not about the grace of Jesus Christ who delivers people from the wrath of God and puts them into the kingdom of light, but rather about becoming a Jesus follower, about walking as Jesus walked and trying to live the life he exemplified. Apart from the fact that, according to Scripture, this is a naturally impossible goal, it misses the whole point for which Jesus came. The gospels showed Jesus setting his face like flint toward Jerusalem for a reason. He did not come primarily to be a moral example for us, but to become a Savior who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The emergent ideology, in other words, is appealing to the fallen will without the merciful act that God has done for us in Jesus. Since we woefully fall short of God's call to us to live this way, it offers no hope

    In his new book, Why We're Not Emergent, Kevin DeYoung says, "I am convinced that a major problem with the emerging church is that they refuse to have their cake and eat it too. The whole movement seems to be built on reductionistic, even modernistic, either-or categories. They pit information versus transformation, believing versus belonging, and propositions about Christ versus the person of Christ. The emerging church will be a helpful corrective against real, and sometimes perceived, abuses in evangelicalism when they discover the genius of the "and," and stop forcing us to accept half-truths."

    My fear, and I believe it is well founded, is that Emergent is just a newly cast form of the old Pelagian heresy – behavior modification, or to put it bluntly, moralism. The most tragic "either-or" category they have set up for themselves is this: faith in Christ as a Savior versus following Christ as an example. Many of its leading proponents assert that right living leads to right doctrine, thus reversing the Biblical priority of grace. But ethics are not what make Christianity to differ from other world religions. All world religions offer ethical programs that are remarkably similar to ours. But ethics/morals don't bring us into relationship with God unless you can perfectly keep them. Then, of course, you don't need a Savior. What makes Christianity to differ is that it is the only way which acknowledges that its own adherents are rebels and without hope in themselves, that is, apart from the sovereign mercy of their Head, who procured salvation for them. All other religions rely on moral improvement and good works, but Christ has shown us that "there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." (Ecc 7:20) Trusting in Jesus as a moral example alone, trusting in our good works and the social justice we do, simply makes Jesus' Person and work of no effect, for we are ascribing the power to do those things to ourselves apart from His redeeming us. Thus it would appear that both the emergent and seeker sensitive churches are cut from the same moralistic cloth. If you are a young person considering either of these, remember that seeing Christ as merely an example and seeing church as a place to hear stories about how we are to live, apart from the new birth, is a man-centered and not a Christ-centered message and should be steered clear of as you would a poisonous viper.

    Posted by John on May 12, 2008 12:56 PM


    Dear John
    Thank you for the article it was most helpful to understand what the emergent church is. One of the crucial questions in today's world bearing in mind the increasing prejudices against "church" today, the question is What can we do to at least get unchurched, post modern people into church in the first place? If have structures that do not relate to life's challenges and problems, how can we build a bridge, and at least make a connection with the outside world? I hope my question is clear.

    In our church we work a great deal with "pre evangelistic" ministries that deal with all kind of relational issues (parents and teenagers, marriage encounters, we have a school for parents) and most of the people who attend, are invited are people who have no link or never even thought of coming to a church for help. What happens with these people is that many are attracted to the church, start attending church meetings and some over a time come to believe in Christ, others dont.

    What do you think about this approach? I often think that (as is the case of presbyterian churches who baptize their children) they are included within the covenant community, and it is over the years that by God's grace that they come to confirm their faith in Christ.

    In the same way i think that these days conversion is more like a process, rather than a "sudden experience". I would (in my humble opinion) tend to think that inclusion of unchurched people as it were "into the fold" at least gives a church the possiblity to work with them. I realize this is not a conventional method, but at least as i said helps build a bridge between our church and society. Are we getting to emergent in your view?

    The monergism website is great, thanks for your hard work

    Douglas Robertson


    Thanks for the helpful thoughts. In my own experience and, I believe, through church history, conversion has usually been a process. While the work of God in regeneration is something the Spirit does in the moment where we are actually adopted into God's family, the previous experiences with God's people and the hearing of the word are slowly being worked in their heart by the Holy Spirit leading up to the His actual opening of our eyes. As noted in my post, it is not the bridge to culture or society that makes one emergent, but the rejection of Jesus Christ as Savior replaced with the Jesus model of living, apart from his work. That is moralism. This either-or methodology removes the gospel from the equation. Justice for the poor and connecting with the skeptic is critical, but must flow out of a heart that loves God, an impossible supposition if we are unregenerate. We do good works because we are redeemed, not in order to be redeemed. The weakness of proclamation of the good news is still, and always will be, what God uses to bring people to Himself.

    Many in the PCA are actually doing what your church seems to be doing. Of course we must still fence the Lord's Table.

    To answer your question more clearly, I think, most importantly, if you go into most Christian bookstores perhaps 95% of the books on the shelvesshould have never been printed. The superficiality of evangelicalism and the obvious lack of depth and compassion are perhaps some of the main reason for the disinterest. If the word of God took hold of us rather than we taking hold of it, our lives themselves would be lights in the world. Authenticity flows out of a Spirit wrought understanding of grace in the gospel, not from some outward behavior modification. neither moralism or lawlessness, neither religion nor irreligion is the answer but the gospel ... Jesus Christ, apart from whom there is no hope ... Something evangelicalism must recover or its lampstand may be removed.

    The first look of your article scares me. Community, how to live, treat one another, is exactly what my church is teaching right now! As I read it through, I see the difference, my church preached about the Gospel first, Salvation and grace, why Jesus came, who is He and what He has done... what we do after are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

    Thanks for this article, it is necessary to balance. Jesus certainly has done it ALL and I am very happy to rest in Him and grow more like Him daily. For some preachers with superficial salvation message telling 'believers' to accept Christ, follow step 1,2,3 and you are saved, there might be a tendency people will not bother to 'check' if they are TRULY saved and fall into the danger of thinking they are saved. There is little wonder there are so many luke-warm christians who actually turn away non believers because their teachings do not truly penetrate the heart. It does not build relationship based on love. Transformation of these hearts is nowhere to be found. With a transformed heart, it is now possible that we can respond to His love and reach out to others and BE ONE in Him. It is the result of the Holy Spirit dwells in us who gives us the desire to love (even enemies) not by my own effort to do good (to my friends alone). But our sinful nature always quench the Spirit, want to go back to our sinful habit. We stumble but are not lost because of His faithfulness and His mercy, not because of my goodness. The process of sanctification is life-time. We are to live like Jesus, be Christ-like not because it saves us, we want to because we are transformed, we are in Him. Jesus is the focus and the goal from beginning till end.

    Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal (pg. 73-74)

    Redemption is participatory, not imitative. It is grounded on grace appropriated through faith, not merely on obedience. Spiritual life flows out of union with Christ, not merely imitation of Christ. … The individual Christian and the church as a whole are alive in Christ, and when any essential dimensions of what it means to be in Christ are obscured in the church’s understanding, there is no guarantee that the people of God will strive toward and experience fullness of life.

    Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology (pg. 40)

    Through the communion of the Holy Spirit the Christian life is participatio Christi, not imatatio Christi.

    HT Aaron Orendorff:

    In light of this same issue DA Carson says

    A particularly virulent form of this approach is hidden behind what Tony Campolo now approvingly calls “red letter Christians.” These red letter Christians, he says, hold the same theological commitments as do other evangelicals, but they take the words of Jesus especially seriously (they devote themselves to the “red letters” of some foolishly printed Bibles) and end up being more concerned than are other Christians for the poor, the hungry, and those at war. Oh, rubbish: this is merely one more futile exercise in trying to find a “canon within the canon” to bless my preferred brand of theology. That’s the first of two serious mistakes commonly practiced by these red letter Christians. The other is worse: their actual grasp of what the red letter words of Jesus are actually saying in context far too frequently leaves a great deal to be desired; more particularly, to read the words of Jesus and emphasize them apart from the narrative framework of each of the canonical gospels, in which the plot-line takes the reader to Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection, not only has the result of down-playing Jesus’ death and resurrection, but regularly fails to see how the red-letter words of Jesus point to and unpack the significance of his impending crosswork. In other words, it is not only Paul who says that Jesus’ cross and resurrection constitute matters “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3), and not only Paul who was resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:1–5), but the shape of the narrative in each canonical gospel says the same thing. In each case the narrative rushes toward the cross and resurrection; the cross and resurrection are the climax. So to interpret the narrative, including the red-letter words of Jesus, apart from the climax to which they are rushing, is necessarily a distortion of the canonical gospels themselves.

    Some of the gospel passion accounts make this particularly clear. In Matthew, for example, Jesus is repeatedly mocked as “the king of the Jews” (27:27–31, 37, 42). But Matthew knows that his readers have been told from the beginning of his book (even the bits without red letters) that Jesus is the king: the first chapter establishes the point, and tells us that, as the promised Davidic king, he is given the name “YHWH saves” (“Jesus”) because he comes to save his people from their sins. Small wonder for its first three centuries the church meditated often on the irony of Jesus “reigning” from a cross, that barbaric Roman instrument of torture and shame. And it is Matthew who reminds us that, this side of the cross, this side of the resurrection, all authority belongs to Jesus (28:18–20). These constitute parts of the narrative framework without which Jesus’ red-letter words, not least his portrayals of the kingdom, cannot be rightly understood.

    HT Justin Taylor

    John I’m confused about your comments in paragraph. 1 and 2.
    “He lived the perfect life that we should have lived and died the death we should have died, in order to free us so that we might then proclaim His excellencies, make known his gospel and spread justice and mercy to the poor.
    But this is not what many of the most notable characters in the Emerging church (e.g. McClaren, McManus, Bell) mean when they use the term “gospel”; for Christ, in their view, did not come so much as a Savior, who delivers us from His just wrath, but rather, came to make us "Christ followers". “
    John if I can use the analogy of baby Jesus, Jesus on the cross and Jesus our risen Lord seated in heaven. If I understand your point above, it is that I can not have all three states of Christ work. For me Galatians 4:1 and the 25 or so scriptures before and after this verse is where I observe current theology and most Christian religion expressions miss it. For me John the question is “what do I do with this life I now live?” After I have reckoned myself dead, after I have received the finished work Jesus did on the cross, after I rise from the waters of baptism, what and how do I live in this revelation. This is the question that that I see all scriptural interpretation and Christian expressions form to answer.
    Prior to Christ I was a son of Adam, now according to Hebrews I have been given power to become a son of God. So as I stand looking out at the world I have two choices. The prodigal son story—depicts the relationship between a father and his two sons—our two choices. Do I take and use my inheritance now or play it safe. In both cases we see these sons miss the mark. One squanders his inheritance the other shrinks back in fear complains about his brother. Also in both cases we see the father’s heart toward both sons who get it wrong. I believe their failure reveals that there is a way of faithful success. For me the way of sonship is clearly demonstrated by Christ. My interpretation my not always be true but Christ and His Father are true. Blessing in Christ to you John. LarryB

    LarryB, I've never seen the interpretation of the elder son in the prodigal son parable the way you do. You said he "shrinks back in fear", and I'm wondering how you understand that. I agree that both sons got it wrong, but I've only seen the elder son getting it wrong in his attitude toward his brother's situation and their father's reaction to it. I'd appreciate your comments.

    The emergent church presents with a bluring of the boundaries. This is equally true of our secular educational system, probably where emergents got their theology in the first place. Emergent churches are just like psychologists, they have a messianic or priestly vision for people, setting up a kingdom on earth and erradicating poverty and suffering. Christ said this would never happen in this life. The illimination of suffering is the coming kingdom. All totalitarian countries have the same earthly kingdom idea. Marx, Lenon, Stalin all were messainic. However, instead of wiping out suffering, they created the worst kind.

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