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The Emerging Church, Part 5: Redefining the Gospel?

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  Parts one through four of this Emerging Church discussion were basically the groundwork for the next two parts, which discuss the Gospel message found in the Emerging Church. Part 1 included a review of modernism and postmodernism, plus an overview of the Emerging Church. Part 2 explored the Emerging Church’s treatment of the Bible. Parts 3 and 4 examined experience and mysticism. When the Bible is put on an even normative plain with community, story, experience, mysticism, and imagination, biblical truth is often deconstructed, sometimes with disastrous results. Keep in mind that the Emerging conversation is a broad one, and not all of the participants will agree with the redefined “gospel” that is being proclaimed by some.

Establishing a Baseline

  In order to discuss the Gospel and at the same time be able to compare apples with apples, the Gospel will first be presented in its pre-deconstructed form.

  The Gospel presented here is the historic, orthodox, readily discernible Gospel as found in Scripture. It is the reason I write. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

  When people think of the Gospel, they generally think of a verse out of the New Testament, such as John 3:16. But the Gospel story begins long before the New Testament. It begins before the angelic announcement of a Savior in the book of Luke. It begins in the beginning, in the book of Genesis.

  When God created Adam and Eve, he created them in His own image. But that image didn’t last long. The perfect communion we had with God was destroyed when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. Our God-like image was ruined by the fall - we are sinners from conception, enemies of God, cast out of the garden. We are doomed to painful childbirth, toiling for food all the days of our lives, and death. Yet God had a plan to restore our communion with Him, through the promise of a Savior, Jesus Christ. That promise is first seen in Genesis 3:15, “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” That promise is foreshadowed and revisited throughout the Old Testament. It is promised through the Covenant God makes with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is foreshadowed when Abraham offers his son Isaac as a sacrifice. It is foreshadowed in the Passover, when the Israelites are miraculously brought out of Egypt, saved by the blood of a lamb painted on the lintels of their doors. It is foreshadowed by the scapegoat, who carries the sins of the Israelites into the desert to make atonement. It is prophesied throughout the Old Testament by the prophets.

  As we arrive at the dawn of the New Testament, the time line resumes not with the birth of Jesus, but with the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist (in the book of Luke). John the Baptist came, significantly, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Man’s sin is the crux of the problem. God is a holy God - He does not tolerate sin. God’s just penalty for sin is death. The only way God could fulfill His promise of a Savior was to sacrifice “a lamb without blemish,” a sinless human being who would fulfill the Law and pay our penalty. The only way God could forgive each of us for our guilt and depravity was to offer up His only-begotten Son, who, being God, could intercede for each of us – a sacrifice of infinite value. Jesus became our scapegoat, carrying our sins to the cross, suffering the death penalty we deserve. In His bodily resurrection, He defeated sin, death, and the devil. He has gone to prepare a place for us, in heaven.

  Jesus has not left us alone. He has given us His Holy Spirit, who works through the Word to preserve believers in the true faith, and to bring others to Christ, offering them His forgiveness, life, and salvation through the power of the Gospel message. He comes to all believers through Baptism, and through Holy Communion, renewing us daily. Which brings us full circle back to Jesus’ words in John 3:16-18:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

  While God is love, he is also just. Those who reject the Gospel are condemned eternally to hell. God offers salvation to all, yet some refuse to believe.

  Those who are saved by faith in Jesus as their Savior also deserve condemnation, but God sees them as holy because of Jesus substitutionary death and resurrection. God’s grace is given to believers, without any action or worthiness on their part. The Gospel truly is good news.

The “Other” Gospel of N. T. Wright

  Gibbs and Bolger remark in their pro-Emergent book Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures:

Rooted in the work of N. T. Wright, emerging churches embrace the gospel of the kingdom as revealed in Mark 1:15-16. At the outset of the Gospel narrative, the good news was not that Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive sins but that God had returned and all were invited to participate with him in this new way of life, in this redemption of the world. It is this gospel that the emerging church seeks to recover. As one [Emerging Church] leader confided privately, “We have totally reprogrammed ourselves to recognize the good news as a means to an end–that the kingdom of God is here. We try to live into that reality and hope. We don’t dismiss the cross; it is still a central part. But the good news is not that he died but that the kingdom has come."1

  N. T. Wright is an Anglican, the Bishop of Durham. Bishop Wright has in the past taken up evangelical causes, and is interesting to listen to, almost mesmerizing with his English accent. He leans towards the postmodern point of view. He is also one of a long list of scholars who over the last three quarters of a century have been gradually redefining the Gospel through a category of thought now called “The New Perspective on Paul.” 2

  Historically, according to New Perspective on Paul advocates, the Apostle Paul has been misrepresented by assigning to him too much of a Hellenistic “juridical” outlook, as opposed to a Jewish worldview. This bias has led to the wrong conclusions about Paul’s entire thrust in the New Testament, especially in Romans and Galatians. According to this perspective, the Jews did not seek “salvation” by “works of the law,” they were predominantly “grace” oriented. The term “works of the Law,” rather than meaning “works-righteousness” (salvation based on what you do, or works, rather than salvation based on grace, or what Jesus did), means only Jewish ceremonial laws (not the moral law). Their works of the law were the ethnic “badges” of the covenant, such as circumcision, Sabbath observation, and food laws, which marked the Jews as covenant members, not as works to attain covenant membership. Paul’s thrust is to convince the Jews that the Gentiles are now also welcomed covenant members through faith in Christ, without any ethnic badges.

  Since the Jews were not trying to save themselves based on works, according to the New Perspective on Paul, other New Testament concepts have now morphed into foreign meanings as well. For instance, the meaning of the term “the righteousness of God,” which by Reformation standards means a sinner being clothed in Christ’s righteousness by grace through faith, is incorrect. The real meaning of “the righteousness of God” is God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. Thus N. T. Wright can say “What Paul means by not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family’.”
3 “Christ has fulfilled the covenant purposes, bringing them to their God-ordained climax, which was always to deal with sin and so to set in motion the renewal of the whole cosmos.”4

  Sin, by N. T. Wright’s way of thinking, is not the “original sin” that each of us is conceived with, which is an affront to God and merits the death penalty. Rather than being forgiven and reborn, Wright would have it that we are liberated from the effect of sin, enabling us to become the truly human beings we were meant to be. Sin, for the Gentiles, meant worshiping idols and declaring Caesar as Lord, a general rejection of Jesus as Lord. Sin for the Jews, meant pursuing their own political ends, whether it meant political subversiveness and plotting against the Romans, or political appeasement. It meant a refusal of Israel to be the light of the world. Jesus came not to die on the cross carrying our sin, to atone for our sin, but to undo the corruption of the material world that was brought on by Adam and Eve’s indiscretion.5 “...The reason God established the covenant with Abraham, according to scripture in general and Paul in particular, was to undo the sin of Adam and its effects and thereby to complete the project of the good creation itself.”6 “Justification is ultimately about justice, about God putting the world to rights, with this chosen and called people as the advance guard of that new creation, charged with being and bringing signs of hope, of restorative justice, to the world.”7

  We are thus all invited to participate in God’s restoration project of the cosmos.8 This line of reasoning causes Gibbs and Bolger to proclaim and quote:

the good news was not that Jesus was to die on the cross to forgive sins but that God had returned and all were invited to participate with him in this new way of life, in this redemption of the world.9


But the good news is not that he died but that the kingdom has come.10

  N. T. Wright ultimately claims:

‘The gospel’ is not ‘you can be saved, and here’s how’; the gospel, for Paul, is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.11

His proclamation has huge repercussions for the Gospel - it has been redefined. It is now a re-creation project, started by acknowledging “Jesus is Lord.” Gone is original sin, repentance, judgment, and the need for a Savior who is crucified for your sin and my sin, so that we might stand in holiness before the throne of God.12, 13 God’s grace now consists of our election into the covenant, and our forgiveness is by default “assured” by covenant membership, thereby eliminating the doctrine of the atonement.14 “Faith is the badge of covenant membership, not something someone ‘performs’ as a kind of initiation test.”15 To further compound this theological mess, as Rev. Richard Phillips points out, Bishop Wright states:

“Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance.” ...We are justified by faith in the present, but justification “occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, which is according to works”.16 [Rev. Phillips’ emphasis]

Bishop Wright further reinforces his heretical claim:

“...God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works.”17

This proposition is nothing more than synergism dressed up in a “grace” Halloween costume. It doesn’t take a lot of Scriptural head-scratching to disprove his theological theorem. One verse will do:

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Romans 11:6

Or Galatians 3:3:

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

If N. T. Wright has it his way, we have no assurance. How many works are enough? We will immediately abandon Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross in search of the right combination of works to secure our own salvation. Bishop Wright has destroyed the material principle of the Church, the central doctrine of all Christianity, justification by grace through faith.18 Martin Luther called this doctrine “...the head and cornerstone of the Church, which alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and protects the Church; without it the Church of God cannot subsist one hour.”19

  By rejecting justification by faith and the atonement, N. T. Wright is rejecting God’s entire plan of salvation and instead turning it into another works-based man-made religion, with salvation resting on your own shoulders. The New Perspective on Paul has Satan’s fingerprints all over it. What better way to deceive people than to switch the real Gospel with a similar-sounding false one using the same terms but with different meanings.

  I doubt that Gibbs and Bolger’s blanket statement that the Emerging Church is “Rooted in the work of N. T. Wright” is entirely accurate, although it’s definitely representative of the “squeaking wheel” of the Emerging Church. There are people participating in the “conversation” that haven’t given up on justification by grace through faith. That being said, however, the shadow of N. T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul is a long one. The same themes and phraseology that are endemic in N. T. Wright’s speaking and writing come up with amazing regularity in the Emerging Church; themes such as: the kingdom of God, justice, new possibilities, culturally interpreted stories, the renewal of creation, new heavens and new earth, the implementing of God’s future, God and the world in a deep and loving relationship, and a world in which justice and peace overflow.

  Bishop Wright touts his redefined gospel as having solved the “preaching the gospel” / “social gospel” dichotomy, but he has presented us with nothing more than another social gospel.
20 Here is his final “sermon text”:

...there is a different way of being human, a way characterized by self-giving love, by justice, by honesty, and by the breaking down of the traditional barriers that reinforce the divisions which keep human beings separate from, and as often as not at odds with, one another.21

It is a familiar text, one that is devoid of the forgiveness found through the atonement – it is a “different Gospel.” It is a text that patterns itself after the Social Gospel, the topic of our next discussion, The Emerging Church, Part 6: A Social Gospel?

Written by Scott Diekmann

Continue to Part 6

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1.     Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 54.

2.     Phil Johnson, in his seminar presentation entitled “What’s Wrong with Wright: Examining the New Perspective on Paul,” presents a good overview of the New Perspective on Paul:
Phil Johnson, “What’s Wrong with Wright: Examining the New Perspective on Paul,” Shepherds’ Conference, Grace Community Church, Los Angeles, Mar 4 2005, at, 26 Mar 2007 <>.

3.     N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 122.

4.     Wright, Saint Paul, 131.

5.    Here are two quotes which embody N. T. Wright’s errant views on the signifi- cance of the cross:
“Easter is about the renewal of creation, renewal of the cosmos, into which we are introduced, like the disciples frightened and not knowing what is going on. If we reduce it to a message of me and my new spirituality, we’ve only got ourselves to blame if people say it probably didn’t happen, it was just an idea in the minds of the disciples.”*
“We look back to the decisive event of Jesus and his cross and resurrection, we look on to God’s promise, which is not, not, not as I said yesterday that we will all go to heaven when we die in some disembodied platonic faraway place, but that God will make new heavens and new earth in which true justice will dwell. That’s the biblical promise.”**
*N. T. Wright, “God’s Future for the World has Arrived in the Person of Jesus,” Future of the People of God Conference, Open Source Theology, Hothorpe Hall, Leicestershire, U.K., 14 Jul 2004, at, 26 Mar 2007 <>.
**N. T. Wright, “Reimagining Our Mission as God’s Agents of New Creation in the World,” Future of the People of God Conference, Open Source Theology, Hothorpe Hall, Leicestershire, U.K., 15 July 2004, at, 26 Mar 2007 < >.

6.     N. T. Wright,   “New Perspectives on Paul,”   10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Confer- ence, Rutherford House, Edinburgh, Aug 2003, 13, at, 26 Feb 2007 <> .

7.     Wright, New Perspectives, 17.

8.     I am not arguing that we shouldn’t seek justice, or be good stewards of God’s creation. The Emerging Church, however, places an undue emphasis on these “restoration” themes at the expense of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Justice is a function of the Law, not the Gospel. They also place undue emphasis on the theme of a literal “new earth” at the expense of the thematic biblical emphasis of a spiritual “new earth” in which sinners are reborn, the focus of the Gospel.

9.     Gibbs and Bolger, 54.

10.   Gibbs and Bolger, 54.

11.   Wright, New Perspectives, 5.

12.   N. T. Wright essentially replaces “judgment” with “fixing the world.” The threat of judgment day has been removed. Language alluding to a final judgment, in which believers receive eternal life in heaven and unbelievers receive eternal damnation in hell, is removed, in favor of a “kinder, gentler” (and false) approach. Instead of a final judgment for sin, N. T. Wright frequently speaks of “God putting the world to rights.” Referring to Acts 17:31, a verse which clearly refers to the final judgment, he substitutes judgment with renewal of the cosmos, or putting the world to right: “He [God] has fixed a day on which he will ‘put the world to right’. You know we only hear the word ‘judge the world,’ here ‘put it to rights by a man whom he has appointed.’ ”
N. T. Wright, “Understanding and Implementing Jesus’ Gospel in the Present,” Future of the People of God Conference, Open Source Theology, Hothorpe Hall, Leicestershire, U.K., 14 July 2004, at, 26 Mar 2007 <>.

13.   On page 41 of What Saint Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright says: “In the present case, I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not denying that the usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.” It is difficult to reconcile his statement with his position, since he denies the atonement and justification by faith. He occasionally makes statements like this one, but they always take a similar form, not in the form of a proclamation, but always in the form of an afterthought or a disclaimer to blunt the criticism of would-be objectors.

14.   N. T. Wright specifically denies that Paul speaks of the atonement: “Paul does not say that he sees us clothed with the earned merits of Christ. That would of course be the wrong meaning of ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’. He sees us within the vindication of Christ, that is, as having died with Christ and risen again with him” (New Perspectives, 14). While Bishop Wright states that God’s vindication of someone is “their sins having been forgiven through the death of Jesus” (New Perspectives, 12), Jesus in no way atones for their sin. Instead, in Jesus death and resurrection “the one God of all the world has been true to his word, has dealt decisively with the evil that has invaded his creation, and is now restoring justice, peace and truth” (Saint Paul, 109).

15.   Wright, Saint Paul, 125.

16.   Richard Phillips, ”Covenant Confusion,” Greenville Seminary Spring Theology Conference/Philadelphia Conference on Reformation Theology, 2004, quoting from Wright’s The Letter to the Roman’s in the New Interpreters Bible,” at Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 26 Feb 2007 <,,PTID307086%7CCHID 559376%7CCIID1787572,00.html>.

17.   Wright, New Perspectives, 8.

18.   Justification by grace through faith is not just a Pauline doctrine as N. T. Wright might lead you to believe. It was also taught by Jesus (see Matthew 20:28 and 26:28), and by the Old Testament prophets: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 10:43).

19.   Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950) 515.

20.   On page 153-4 of What Saint Paul Really Said, Bishop Wright states: “Paul’s gospel must, I believe, be reinstated at the very centre of the church’s preaching. The gospel is not, as I have stressed, a set of techniques for making people Christians. Nor is it a set of systematic theological reflections, however important. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord - Lord of the world, Lord of the cosmos, Lord of the earth, of the ozone layer, of whales and waterfalls, of trees and tortoises. As soon as we get this right we destroy at a stroke the disastrous dichotomy that has existed in people’s minds between ‘preaching the gospel’ on the one hand and what used to be called loosely ‘social action’ or ‘social justice’ on the other. Preaching the gospel means announcing Jesus as Lord of the world....” In his “New Perspectives on Paul” lecture, Bishop Wright states: “ follows at once that justification is the original ecumenical doctrine. ...Once we relocate justification, moving it from the discussion of how people become Christians to the discussion of how we know that someone is a Christian, we have a powerful incentive to work together across denominational barriers” (New Perspectives, 15). N. T. Wright presents “preaching the gospel” and the social Gospel as a false dichotomy, but his redefinition of the Gospel merely adds another chapter to the social Gospel canon.
He also presents a straw man argument. The historic church has not created a dichotomy. To quote Lutheran pastor Harold L. Senkbeil: “Liturgy always empowers mission, and mission always leads back to liturgy. There’s no separating the liturgical life of the church from the mission of the church; they are organically one piece.”
Harold L. Senkbeil, Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness (St. Louis: Concordia, 1994) 135.

21.   Wright, Saint Paul, 154.

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