Keeping the Faith
I recently came across a statement by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book, The Kingdom of God in America, originally published in 1937. He described theological liberalism as a religion proclaiming, "a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." As one who is an observer of the trends within American Christianity, my concern is that Niebuhr's description of theological liberalism in the 1930's, describes what has become the message within certain aspects of the evangelical world. In our quest to present a message that is palitable to the world we have removed those issues which are an "offense."
Allow me to enumerate these issues that Niebuhr addresses: 1) The wrath of God, 2) Sin, 3) Judgment, 4) The Cross. Each of these are a stumbling block to the unbelieving world. Yet, without these elements there is no gospel. The good news ceases to be "good news" and is only a moralistic, philosophical system. These truths, along with the Resurrection, are foundational to the gospel.
1. The Wrath of God
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 wrongly, the end result has been that we have come to the exact opposite extreme. Most modern evangelical 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 considered in poor taste to talk about the wrath of God and eternal damnation.
In the 1970's Karl Menninger wrote "Whatever Became of Sin?" Man's problem according to the Scriptures is not his inability to adapt to the adverse circumstances of life. Nor is he merely the victim of his lack of self awareness. The Bible tells us that man's problem is sin. He is by nature a sinful, lawless rebel, who desires to make his own determinations of right and wrong and ignore God's standard.
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.
In many churches you rarely hear 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. The 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?
We live in a time where the so-called "evangelical" church is drifting away from the essentials of the faith. It is not my intent to sound like an alarmist, but nevertheless, my concern is a real one. What I have sought to point out here is simply that which Neibuhr described as theological liberalism in the 1930's has taken "root" in certain aspects of the evangelical world.