On an emergent leaning blog there was a post which questioned if people could be saved even if they’ve never heard the gospel. The following is a conversation I had with someone who claims to be an emergent Christian. I have included it in its entirety so you may see exactly what is at stake. The very foundations of the faith are being treated as questions with multiple choice answers, and I was the only one of scores of commentors to confront this person’s obvious departure from Biblical truth. And therein lies the major problem, the emergent format.
Some of the emergents are somewhat orthodox personally, but all of them have signed off to a formatted dialogue in which there are literally no boundaries. If you think homosexuality is a sin you still welcome others who don’t. If you believe the Bible is inerrant you still welcome those who don’t. If you believe a person must hear the gospel to be saved you still welcome those who don’t. And if you believe not all will be saved you still welcome those who believe everyone who ever lived will be saved.
So here is our conversation (I will call the person Bill, that is not his name):
ME - But whatever the absolute truth is in Christ on this issue, the command to go throughout the world is the same. So it leads to this question: Why do men argue and philosophize about it? The answer is that whether overtly or subliminally, if men can be saved without hearing, or if God only chose some, it affects the missionary fervor.
It is easier for us to share theologies than to go and share Christ. Lord help us all.
BILL - I was musing on this and other questions yesterday in the shower. -Do the rest of you get the problems of the world solved there? How could Jesus dying for all diminish his sacrifice? It does nothing but point to the lavish generosity of his love, the same love that created countless Galaxies so that we could contemplate, with wonder and adoration, the awesome night sky!
And it is the adoration that is pivotal. What if our iconic restoration is the result of that worship? What if God wasn’t determining who “the elect recipients of the benefits of atonement” would be? What if God through Jesus on the cross, with the Holy Spirit present there too, was simply (!) removing everything that could possibly get in the way of people worshiping him- bowing to him as the origin, condition and goal of being- sweeping it all off the table in the embrace of graced forgiveness? What if what humans need to do is “opt in” wherever they are and with whatever knowledge they have- and why can’t we be faithful to tell and live the story (this is not as easy as it might sound) and let God decide about who belongs to him?
To me, the responsibility for proclamation of the good news is even more weighty because of these questions. We had better be sure of what we’re proclaiming as the good news. Jesus said “Make disciples- immersing them in the fullness of the reality of life in the Triune God.” (Willard) What does the fullness of the reality of life in the Triune God look like for humans?
These are way more pressing questions for me than the Calv/Arm debate or which -ism constitutes what it means to “be saved”. I do think that one of the important things emerging people are doing with this question is “deconstructing” it, if you will.
ME - “What if what humans need to do is “opt in” wherever they are and with whatever knowledge they have”
The desconstruction you mentioned began a long time ago. Is a moral person who has never heard the gospel and who worships one God he calls Allah, and attempts to treat others kindly, and provides for his family, and prays every day, is he saved? And if he is, then on the day he meets a missionary for the first time and hears the clear gospel about who Jesus is and what He has done, and if that religious man rejects that truth, does he suddenly become lost? If so, the missionary becomes an emissary of death rather than life.
Is this not clear, “How shall they believe in whom they have not heard”?
The things about the emergent movement that resonate with many of us is the rejection of hedonism, some methodology metamorphosis, and a revival of humanitarian efforts. But the central and choking issue that stops us in our tracks is the dialogue about expanding the parameters of salvation. That is a “do not enter” flashing sign for many believers.
BILL - Henry,What does “saved”/”salvation? mean?What is “a clear presentation of the gospel?”What is “the gospel?”What does “lost” mean?What does it mean “to believe”?Why is it up to us to judge about a “righteous Muslim”?
Have you ever read Lesslie Newbigin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”? He served for many years as a missionary in India. I value his insights.
ME - if after two thousand years and the entire New Testament at our disposal we still do not know the answer to the questions you raised, then let us go around the world and honestly tell people “we do not know how to be saved”. At least we would have honesty as a platform.
Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Finney, Wesley, Moody, Carey, the Moravians, fools all of them if they claimed to know the answers that you claim no one is able to discern. And what you place on the table of dialogue is exactly what we reject about the emergent movement (to be fair many men who would call themselves emergent would disagree with your premise).
BILL - Henry, I make no claim that we are unable to discern. I believe God wants us to know and be able to discern. I do claim that the categories have become restrictive, and that we assume a lot. I think the good news had better be so for all people in all times and places, and each generation must grapple with it anew. I think we had better become, in a sense, more biblical. Here’s just one example: What does Jesus say the good news is, in most places where he says some form of the word euangelion, or it is described what he is talking about, particularly in the Synoptics? (By this I am not meaning to make Jesus and Paul, or the Synoptics and John, adversaries; this is just the biggest and most obvious example that comes to mind.)
ME - If you are saying that we need to more closely and broadly emulate the Lord Jesus I say amen. But He has provided the only payment for sin (archaic, I know) and the Holy Spirit is well able to translate truth over cultural barriers, He has proven so over the centuries.
I do not think that every generation has to re-grapple with certain issues, and Paul warns us from leaving the simplicity that is in Christ. Go ahead and grapple with innovative ways to communicate and connect with people, but when you “grapple” with the historic understanding of the sin-bearing atonement you ultimately don’t grapple, you change.
But at least you are honest, Bill, some emregents have a foot in every camp with each foot front and center depending on the audience.
BILL - Well, Henry, I’m trying to be honest. It’s why I started asking these questions, for essentially the same reasons T articulates, when I got into my 40s. I believed the “historic understanding of the sin-bearing atonement” for most of my life up until then. And in honesty I couldn’t answer a lot of the questions that came up for me with that understanding. I’ve listed some of them above. That understanding more and more often left me with, “But what about…” and I honestly could not ignore those issues any more. Because I believe that God wants us to understand what he left for us in the bible, I was very frustrated with those “hanging questions”.
I have found something that approximates an integrated theology with very few “hanging questions” by going back beyond the Reformers and looking at “big picture” questions with some help from Willard, Newbigin, Webber, Eastern Orthodox thought and NT Wright. I still have questions, but not too many any more. The most important thing to come of my questioning journey is that my heart is bowed before Jesus in worship in a much deeper way now. I am inexpressibly overjoyed to be a Christian.
I believe God does not despise my questions, or anyone else’s for that matter. I believe that following Jesus is simple, but it’s not easy. I believe it means, among other things, being safe enough in God’s love to ask questions. If you are safe in God’s love and don’t feel the need to ask so many questions, then be blessed and at peace there. I don’t need to argue. I trust God’s mercy for us, both and all. Thanks for the kind tone of the discussion.
So what must be our duty before our Lord in the midst of what can only be described as the blasphemous beginning of the final falling away? We must fall in love again personally with God’s Word to a deeper degree than you could imagine. Not primarily for a rebuttal to these doctrines of demons but to ingest so much of the engrafted Word into our spirits that we are changed into the image of its Personhood by its Author. Let us remove the emperor’s clothes, it is significantly easier to confront such blatant heresies than it is to spend upper room time with our Lord, seeking His face and repenting before Him of our own sins and pride. And let us proceed even further into the restricted area about which we wish no one knew. I have sometimes felt a smugness and a fleshly power when dispatching God’s truth against obvious error, and humility easily disappears when in absolute reality I am no more than a Biblical water boy for the King of the Word. May we all stay on our face no matter what mighty truths God shares with us by His sovereign grace.
Additionally let us ask God to Spiritually infuse us with a prayerful intercession for these deceived people, many of them brothers and sisters. The amount of time we spend before the throne beseeching the Father on their behalf is shameful, and I would guess that the amount tears that are shed would indict all of us. We need a revival of prayer because without prayer how can we know what to say and how to say it.
And we must educate our children both with our words and our attitudes. This falling away is world wide and it will continue to grow in immensity and depth, and without being vigilant as well as dedicated to grow in our own lives we will become stale and cold at the very least, and many will succumb to the exciting and revolutionary new teachings that like strong drink will relieve us of the truth.