say what you need to say

Last Wednesday, and for the ensuing Wednesdays in January and February, I have the privilege of leading a class on “Engaging God’s World” at Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids. I was a member of Calvary until we moved to the north side in 2003, and it’s where I preached a series of messages on the Christian worldview that became the foundation for Heaven Is a Place on Earth.

I apologize in advance if this seems too self-referential, but as our class discussed what it means to engage God’s world, it struck me that my two books illustrate the journey of conservative evangelicalism over the last ten years and the need for the church’s witness to speak to the needs of the moment.

Heaven intended to correct a lopsided Platonism that continues to afflict our sermons, books, and (especially) worship. The church must insist that God’s creation is good and that he intends to transform every last part of it. We must never reduce God’s cosmic plan of salvation to the evacuation of individual souls into heaven.

Unfortunately, this message has caught on with some people who want to reduce salvation, if you can call it that, to nothing more than social justice and creation care in the here and now. They downplay original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and personal salvation in the afterlife as distractions from pursuing the kingdom in this life. Against this neo-liberalism, the church must insist on the historic doctrines of the Christian faith—which is my point in Don’t Stop Believing.

To use Niebuhr’s categories, we must combine “Christ above culture” with “Christ the transformer of culture.” Or as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is both pearl and leaven. God is worth infinitely more than the world, so we must never reduce the gospel to such good things as caring for the environment, fighting racism, or feeding the poor. But the God who is more valuable than the world commands us to leaven this world for him. So while we cannot reduce the gospel to social and environmental issues, those who get the gospel will care about such things.

One of the class members asked if I would change anything in Heaven if I was writing it today. I said no, but I do think that Heaven only gives an important half of what evangelicals need to hear today. Without giving up one inch of what I wrote there, I need to remind evangelicals of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith (what I more or less assumed when I wrote Heaven in 2004). Given the changing world of evangelicalism, I need the content of both books to give witness to God (DSB) and his world (Heaven).

Final note: I have found that emergent folks like Heaven but not DSB, while conservatives like DSB but some—who think more like Plato than Paul on certain subjects—are critical of Heaven. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s something I have observed.

13 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Mike,

    If I did not know better I might be led to think that you actually voted for the cosmic scope of redemption before you voted against it.

  2. Mike,

    My apologies. Now I need to go back through one more stage of my recovery program.

  3. Dr. Wittmer, from your point of view now, would you even say that your books feel like volumes 1 and 2 of a series? And if so, what’s volume 3 going to be?

    If anyone here hasn’t read either of these books, I would recommend them. They are very well written and filled with good arguments. Even when I disagree with some the arguments, they force me to reevaluate my own beliefs.

  4. As I have discussed what it means to be a Christian with fellow Christians and/or non-believers, I have come to realize that if one misunderstands basic doctrine, that person will have a difficult time understanding the true gospel message. I almost think that you wrote your books in the wrong order. DSB should have come first to give readers the foundational doctrines necessary to fully understand HEAVEN.

  5. I find it disturbing and amazing that some Calvinist pastors (like John Macarthur) are now asking change agents to enter their church ministries. Check out the evidence here: http://www.thewatchmanwakes.com

  6. How would you define “God’s World”? A reference to Ted Kennedy and John MacArthur a while back caused me concern. 🙂

  7. Tim:

    That’s a good point, it’s just that the issues addressed in “DSB” weren’t as pressing at the time in my experience as the ones addressed in “Heaven.” If I had written DSB in 2004, many people would have wondered why there was even a need for it.

    Yooper:

    God’s world is his creation, which would include both heaven and earth (the latter is what classical dispies omit).

  8. Yeah, I understand the reason they were written in the order they were. I do find it interesting how interrelated the two books are when, at first glance, they seem to have nothing to do with each other.

  9. Regarding your final question in this post, perhaps it was also theological movement on your behalf. It seems that your first book moved toward a theological position similar to James with your efforts in the present being or real importance to our Creator. In the second, it seems you move toward more theological positioning – the very thing people labeled emergent push against as we’ve grown up in the carnage of denominational splinterings. Just a thought… peace.

  10. Randy:

    I think this is a matter of perception. I can assure you, as can everyone who knows me, that everything I said in DSB is what I believed when I wrote Heaven. I just didn’t know that it needed to be said then–which leads me to think that the movement is on the part of those in our circles who have gone emergent. I haven’t changed any of my core theological beliefs, but as they will tell you, they have.

  11. Interesting and helpful response Mike…
    ~ two brief thoughts:

    1 – Perhaps it was the way you were perceived in the second book was different.

    2 – Not sure what I think of this, but: If we don’t change any of our core theological beliefs, then won’t the church simply look like it has for the past several decades? We need to change what we hold to be important if we want our followers to look different than many of the church people of the past two decades…

    I want my kids to believe they are co-creators with God, sharing in the kingdom. I want them to believe in the Lord’s Prayer and believe that they are part of a priesthood of all believers.

    So, some of my core beliefs have needed to change to help my kids see these things as important…

  12. Randy:

    I couldn’t write any more kindly, so I won’t assume any of the responsibility for the perception. You are right that some core beliefs–if they are wrong–need to change. But, as Billy Joel taught us, we must not change what doesn’t need changing.

  13. I wonder this: We claim things to be in our core beliefs, and yet we don’t practice them as such. So, in reality they are not part of our core beliefs.

    Paying lip servie to something while not really practicing it does not make it a core belief.

    Several Core beliefs that I don’t believe evangelical Christians in America hold to as truth:

    ~ The priesthood of all believers. If we believed this, then we would take more responsibility for the kingdom, place less emphasis on what we devour at ‘church’ on Sunday morning, and we would stop believing that being a pastor is God’s highest calling.

    ~ Bowing down to no other God’s than Yahweh. If this was our reality, we would remove the American flag from the front of churches. While we can be a good citizen while loving God, pledging our allegiance to the flag seems to run counter to the first command to love God.

    ~ We claim to trust in God to take care of us, and yet we invest in retirement accounts and other stocks and bonds for our futures… all while Christian brothers and sisters around the world are starving. It seems we don’t really take Jesus commands to feed the poor all that seriously. Neither do we believe that our church family will take care of us as we grow older.

    While we can argue that we are generous, most of our giving hasn’t changed our lifestyles all that much. The idea of living poorly so others can benefit from our large incomes is still a distant idea for most of us Christians in America.

    —> After returning from two weeks at an orphanage in Kenya, it seems our theology is more messed up than we want to acknowledge. While so many things are in our head as theological truths, they are really only in our lives when we live into them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: