Wittmer, Michael E.
Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. Pp. 230. Paper. $16.99.
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…