Don’t Stop Believing (2)

DSB.jpgWittmer, Michael E.

Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. Pp. 230. Paper. $16.99.

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With thanks to Andrew Rogers at Zondervan for this review copy!

[All page numbers refer to the galleys that I was sent and may differ from the published paperback edition.]

In chapter 4 Wittmer asks the question “are people generally good or basically bad?” This seems to be a pretty straightforward question with a pretty straightforward answer, but the problem is that conservatives and postmoderns answer this question completely differently. To state things simply, there is an antithesis between the Christian and non-Christian where their foundational beliefs will result in radically distinct worldviews although there may be certain points of similarity. Conservatives tend to stress the difference to one extreme while postmoderns stress the similarity to the other. Where both groups recognize God as Creator, postmoderns see this as sufficient for salvation while conservatives see the need of God as Redeemer as well.

Wittmer looks at the writing of Spencer Burke and Tony Jones who both agree that there is too much emphasis on sin and not enough emphasis on grace in traditional Christianity. Burke says that grace is “not conditional on recognizing and renouncing sin.” [p. 60] Jones criticizes the metaphor of a chasm called ‘sin’ separating God and man where the cross of Christ is the only bridge across saying, “What kind of God can’t reach across a chasm? Chasms can’t stop God!” [p. 60] Wittmer rightly points out that in the metaphor God is reaching across the chasm, through the cross! What follows is a brief discussion on Augustine, Pelagius, original sin, and common grace.

Wittmer sees three distinct kinds of goodness in all people thanks to God’s common grace: (1) mere morality, (2) ethical goodness, (3) cultural goodness. Wittmer comes out on Augustine’s side of the original sin debate and sees the doctrine of total depravity as biblical and as that which “resonates with [his] experience.” [p. 67] Accordingly, “this strong sense of sin enlarges the size of grace.” [p. 67] And while Wittmer believes that even his “best moments are marred with impure motives” [p. 67] I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with him that our every act is sinful” and that until the next life we’ll never be able to do an “entirely good deed.” [p. 67] This seems to run contrary to 1Corinthians 3:10-15; Ephesians 2:10; Romans 2; where genuinely good works appear to be intended. But I return to agreeing with Wittmer when he concludes that:

Against postmodern innovators, our sinful condition requires regeneration, which in turn requires a knowledge of the gospel. We need to know the truth about Jesus because we need to be saved, and we need to be saved because we are sinners. [p. 69]

In chapter 5 Wittmer asks “which is worse: homosexuals or the bigots who persecute them?” He begins by surveying the biblical evidence that appears to come against homosexuality, i.e., Genesis 1-2; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; 1Corinthians 6:9; and Romans 1:26-27. He gives the traditional interpretations of these passages and then pro-homosexual responses/objections to them. Wittmer comes out favoring the traditional conservative view of these passages as the most straightforward reading.  He identifies homosexuality as “part of the brokenness of the Fall and no worse than many other sins” but goes on to suggest that “rather than act on our brokenness, declaring that we must be true to ourselves, which cannot change, why not offer our brokenness to God?” [p. 76]  He points out the common agreement among members of both sides of the debate that we must love homosexuals and show them the same compassion we would anyone else, but he rightly asserts that mustn’t abandon our morality in doing so.

In chapter 6 our attention is turned to the atonement and the question at hand is “is the cross divine child abuse?”  Wittmer looks at four views of atonement with a strong emphasis on two, i.e., Penal Substitution and Christus Victor.  The other two to get a brief mention are Moral Influence and Moral Example.  Unfortunately there was no reference to the Governmental theory of atonement which I believe has the best explanatory power of any single view.  But after noting deficiencies with Penal Substitution (e.g., too limited, too individualistic, too soft on sin) Wittmer goes on to suggest that we need a mix between Penal Substitution and Christus Victor.  He says:

Christus Victor presents the big picture–Jesus came to wrest the world from the death grip of Satan, while penal substitution supplies the turning point of this story. Penal substitution is the heart of Christus Victor, for it explains how Jesus accomplished his mission. [p. 92]

My problems with Penal Substitution are legion and I don’t see mixing the Christus Victor view with it as explaining away the difficulties.  If God exhausts his wrath on the Son then there is no real mercy shown in salvation.  If the Son pays for our sins then which sins did he pay for?  All of them?  Does that include past, present, and future sins?  If so then is not the logical conclusion either universalism or limited atonement?  I don’t believe that Wittmer accepts either (at least not from my reading of this work).  If the Father really does turn his back on the Son then is there not a rift in the Trinity?  Wittmer answers that there can be no division in the Trinity in one paragraph but in the next seems to indicate a belief that the Son was genuinely forsaken [p. 88].  How exactly does this work?

And in his closing I noticed an inconsistency between this chapter and chapter 4.  Wittmer says:

Christus Victor also corrects the tendency of penal substitution to go soft on sin. By itself penal substitution may encourage a sinful lifestyle, for who cares if sin is present so long as its penalty is removed? But Christus Victor reminds us that deliverance from the presence of sin–not just the penalty–is a vital part of the gospel. We can’t easily participate in Christ’s victory if we remain bound to our sin. Anyone not making progress against sin should wonder whether he or she has truly joined the kingdom of God. There is no room for cheap grace here. [p. 94]

While I applaud this paragraph for what it says, I don’t see how it jives with the statements from chapter 4 about impure motives and our every act being sinful.  The language of chapter 4 doesn’t seem like the language of victory that we see in chapter 6.  But even if I disagree with his theory of atonement I can still agree with the first half of his concluding point.  In the end he says that “conservatives have tended to reduce the work of Christ to an overly narrow gospel–say a prayer and the penalty of your sins will be forgiven.” [p. 94-95]  Well said.

To be continued…

B”H

8 thoughts on “Don’t Stop Believing (2)

  1. Nick:

    I completely understand your reticence in accepting that even my best deeds are less than perfect. This is why in chapter 4 I say that the reader doesn’t have to follow Calvin, Luther, and me there–the important point that we can all agree on is that we are sinners who need saving, which requires knowledge (because the Holy Spirit uses truth to save us).

    Regarding the tension with chapter 6, I follow Luther and Calvin in thinking that even though we cannot become entirely perfect in this life, we may still make enormous progress, and thus reflect the power of Christus victor in our lives. In sum, when God says “Well done, good and faithful servant,” I don’t think he means you were as perfect as me or that you stunk up the place, you were just awful, but rather that you kept making progress (note my illustration in the book of what “Good job!” means to my young son learning to play piano). Anyway, I put this out there in order to be honest about my Reformed view, but fully granting that others, such as Wesleyans, could disagree on that and still accept the point of the chapter.

    I confess that I was surprised to hear you say that you prefer the governmental theory of the atonement. Your commitment to impassibility made me think you were probably very conservative, but the governmental theory was popular with folks like Finney, so now I’m not sure where you fit! I left out the governmental theory because I think that is the one view that has almost nothing orthodox to offer (I’m sure you’re about to correct me!).

    I’m not sure I understand your objections to penal substitution. They don’t seem to be the traditional kind. How exactly does the Father venting his wrath on the Son prevent him from showing mercy? For the record, since you mentioned it, I see the logic behind limited atonement, but I don’t see how to square it with biblical texts that say that Christ died for all. So I say that I’m agnostic on that fifth point of Calvinism.

    Thanks again for your careful read of what I have written. That is the highest compliment you can pay a writer, and I thank you kindly.

  2. Mike: Yeah, I just had to voice my self-confessed-Arminian-with-sympathies-toward-Wesleyan-entire-sanctification opinion on that one! ;) I understand your interpretation and you analogy and I don’t have much disagreement if all we’re saying is that what we do isn’t absolutely perfect like God is perfect. But I’d differentiate that from saying that the works aren’t genuinely good and devoid of sin or tainted motives.

    And I am very conservative! Well, as conservative as I can be for denying inerrancy, embracing a fair amount of historical criticism, and advocating the governmental theory of the atonement. ;) Without going into a full blown apologetic, the strength I see in the governmental theory is that it makes the best sense of Christ’s ‘suffering’ for our sins and negates the understanding that he was ‘punished’ for them. Honestly, I think this is the theory of atonement that fits best within an Arminian framework, but I think I’m in the minority on that one.

    Concerning my objection to penal substitution, it goes something like this: If we simply define mercy as not giving someone what they do deserve and God’s holiness demands that someone be ‘punished’ for sin and Jesus was ‘punished’ for sin then how is that mercy? If Jesus’ ‘punishment’ is in place of ours then Jesus got exactly what he ‘deserved.’ Where is the mercy? Now someone might say that the mercy is in God ‘punishing’ Jesus and not us, but here’s my problem with that: once Jesus takes the sin it’s no longer ours, therefore we’re not liable to any ‘punishment’ that the sin ‘deserves.’ In such a scenario God isn’t showing us mercy because we don’t have the sin any more. He certainly doesn’t show Jesus any mercy by ‘punishing’ him for the sin, since that is what the sin merits. See, in my estimation the governmental theory allows for mercy because Jesus ‘suffers’ but is not ‘punished.’ In other words, he doesn’t get what he deserves by being ‘punished’ for the sin he took on himself, but he willingly ‘suffers’ for our sin getting what we deserve. I hope that makes sense.

    And don’t mention it. I’m honored that Andrew Rogers asked me to review the book and I really appreciate the mediating position that you’ve taken. We actually closer on the issue than it might appear.

  3. Nick:

    I think that you may be overthinking this a bit. Are you saying that the Father does not need to show mercy to us because once our guilt is laid on Jesus then we no longer need mercy? Isn’t this like a debtor, who, upon hearing that you had forgiven the $1,000 he owed you, said that because you had forgiven him, he doesn’t think the needs your forgiveness. Isn’t this ungrateful and a bit strange?

  4. Mike: I’m saying that this is not mercy at all. To take your example, if I owe you $1,000 and you say, “don’t worry about it,” then that’s mercy. If someone else comes along and says, “here’s the $1,000 Nick owes you,” then you’ve not shown me mercy in forgiving the debt since the debt has been paid. In such an instance is it even proper to say that the debt was ‘forgiven’?

  5. Nick:

    Your analogy breaks down in that it wasn’t “someone else” who came along and paid the debt, but it was paid by God himself, the one to whom the debt was owed. So “to take your example, if I owe you $1,000 and you say, “don’t worry about it,” then that’s mercy.” Isn’t this precisely what God did for us (with a disclaimer that “don’t worry about it” is too light, but I agree with your underlying sentiment there)?

    Surprisingly, your preferred analogy only works at all on a social view of the Trinity (and not even then). Given your rightly strong view on the oneness of the Trinity, how can you say that the debt was paid by someone else other than God himself?

  6. Mike: I don’t say that any ‘debt’ was ‘paid’ — that’s the beauty of the governmental theory! It preserves substitution without imposing punishment or payment. According to the GT Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t pay a sin debt but rather purchases a people (i.e. those who repent and believe the Gospel). The debt (sin) is not Jesus’ because he was not guilty of committing sin any more than the animal sacrifices in the OT were guilty of committing the sins they were sacrificed to atone for (you can’t transfer punishment). Because Jesus was not guilty he was not punished but rather willingly suffered in our place (this distinction between ‘punishment’ and ‘suffering’ is key for the GT).

    So GT escapes the ‘too light’ factor without falling victim to the charge of ‘divine child abuse.’ The punishing of the guilty isn’t what’s necessary for the forgiveness of sins anyway, but rather the shedding of blood is. So it’s not too light for God to forgive on the basis of Jesus’ suffering rather than on the basis of his punishment.

    And I’d like to clear one thing up, I only went with that analogy because you used it first. I personally would avoid talk of payment and debt. It’s also a strange coincidence that the analogy works with a social view of the Trinity because that’s exactly what I’d say about PS. For the Father to actually punish and forsake the Son is to create a rift in the Trinity that is only possible in a social model where the shared essence is generic. I can’t account for PS and the Trinity in any consistent way.

    And to repeat my objection in the review, the only conclusions we can draw from PS is universalism or limited atonement. Neither make sense of the Scriptures, which you agree with. I also can’t see how to make sense of the calls to faith and repentance if some debt was ‘paid.’ If payment is made then how is anything needed past the payment?

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