How timely. The March/April 2011 issue of Modern Reformation magazine has arrived, featuring an article related to the postmodern liberal (aka, “emerging”) emphasis on being “missional.” Editor-in-Chief Dr. Michael Horton attempts to demonstrate how this emphasis tends to emphasize certain aspects of medieval monasticism in his piece called, “Missional Church or New Monasticism?“.
Medieval monasticism was divided between those who prized the contemplative life (spiritual ascent to heaven through private disciplines of the mind) and those who gave priority to the active life (spiritual ascent through good works, especially for the poor). Francis of Assisi–and the Franciscan Order named after him–emphasized the latter.
First, today we see a revival of contemplative spirituality. It is a traditional evangelical emphasis on personal piety: discipleship as inner transformation through spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (1979) introduced many evangelicals to the medieval mystics and contemplative writers. From The Divine Conspiracy (1998) to The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (2006), Dallas Willard has repeated this call to discipleship: inner transformation through the spiritual disciplines.
Next, Horton explains how contemplative and postmodern liberal writers tend to confuse Scriptural gospel indicatives with sin-exposing legal imperatives of Scripture, tending to warp the gospel into how one lives, rather than the message Christ sent ambassadors to proclaim.
Both contemplative (“spiritual disciplines”) and active (Emergent) writers tend to blur and merge commands and promises, indicativees and imperatives. That is, there is a strong tendency to identify the gospel with what we do rather than with what God has done for us–and the world–in Jesus Christ. We are active agents more than beneficiaries and witnesses of God’s reconciling work, building his kingdom through our efforts more than receiving a kingdom that expands through preaching and Sacrament. . . . (emphasis mine)
Although the Emergent movement reflects a more communal emphasis on social transformation, it shares the medieval, Anabaptist, and Pietist emphasis on deeds over creeds. Brian McLaren explains, “Anabaptists see the Christian faith primarily as a way of life,” focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount rather than on Paul and doctrines concerning personal salvation [Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 2004), 206.] More than proclaiming Christ’s finished work of reconciling sinners to the Father, the focus is on completing Christ’s redeeming work of social transformation. Tony Jones, another leader in this movement, relates: “In an emergent church, you’re likely to hear a phrase like ‘Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world–to cooperate in the building of God’s Kingdom.'” Trying to anticipate Reformed objections he notes, “Many theological assumptions lie behind this statement,” although “the idea that human beings con ‘cooperate’ with God is particularly galling to conservative Calvinists, who generally deny the human ability to participate with God’s work” [Tony Jones, The New Christian: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 72].
According to McLaren, being “missional” means that we encourage Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews to become better Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews to become better Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews as followers of Jesus’ example. It is not what we proclaim but how we live that transforms the world. McLaren writes, “To say that Jesus is Savior is to say that in Jesus, God is intervening as Savior in all of these ways, judging (naming evil as evil), forgiving (breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect, making reconciliation possible), and teaching (showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion)” [McLaren, 96]. There is no mention of Christ bearing God’s wrath in our place–in fact, no mention of the cross having any impact on the vertical (God-human) relationship. “Then, because we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid, Jesus comes with saving teaching, profound yet amazingly compact: Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jesus says, and love your neighbor as yourself, and that is enough.” This is what it means to say that “Jesus is saving the world” [McLaren, 97]. Although Jesus called this the summary of the law (Matt. 22:37-40, citing Deut. 6:5) for McLaren it becomes the summary of the gospel.
Horton then goes on to constructively explain the proper distinction between law and gospel:
First, “living the gospel” is a category mistake. By definition, the gospel is news (euangelion, “good news”). You don’t “do” news: you do law and you hear gospel. Second, the specific content of this good news is the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection. We are beneficiaries of this action, not active participants. Scripture certainly teaches that we live in view of God’s mercies, in a manner worthy of the gospel we profess, and so forth. However, it represents our lives and good works as the fruit of the faith created by the gospel, not as part of the gospel itself. (emphasis mine)
Third, the Scriptures teach consistently that faith comes through the proclamation of the gospel, not through good works. Christ himself was not arrested and arraigned because he was trying to restore family values or feed the poor. Even his miraculous signs were not by themselves offensive, except as they were signs testifying to his claims about himself. The mounting ire of the religious leaders toward Jesus coalesced around him making himself equal with God (John 5:18) and forgiving sins in his own person, directly, over against the temple and its sacrificial system (Mark 2:7). In fact, at his trial he was chared by the Jewish Council with announcing the destruction of the temple. When the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” With that, “the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:53-64).
Jesus was never charged on the grounds of trying to bring world peace: quite the contrary (Matt. 10:34-37). Jesus’ opponents never included a revolutionary blueprint for improving world conditions among the indictments against him. In fact, his mission was an utter failure for those who saw him as a leader of political revolution. He will return in glory to judge, to deliver, and to make all things new in a global political kingdom of righteousness and blessing. However, between his advents is the space in history for repentance and faith.
Thus, Horton contrasts the Jesus of the Bible and the Christianity of the Bible with the Jesus of postmodern liberalism and it’s appropriation of medieval contemplative spiritual disciplines and politically liberal social justice activism. The simple fact is that the Christian is not the gospel, and his Christian obedience is not the gospel (but rather its result)–the gospel of Jesus Christ will be heard each Lord’s Day at a church that is committed to proclaiming it, and that is likewise committed to doctrinal (doctrines like the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his penal-substitutionary atonement, etc.) as well as practical discipleship in Christian obedience that leaves Christians to work this out in the various vocations to which the Lord may call his people, not specifically the favored social agenda of any local church, be it a liberal or conservative agenda. Here is the context in which true liberty in Christ will emerge, in a spirituality that will gradually, neither instantaneously nor holistically (in this age before Christ’s return to glorify his people) see Christians growing in love for God and neighbor in response to the preached gospel of the grace and forgiveness of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.