The Emergent Church and the Gospel


Written by: J.W. Hendryx

A simple reading of the Bible will reveal that the gospel is not about what we have done for Jesus, but what Jesus has done for us (Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 5:21, Phil 2:8). The mystery of God has been made manifest in the Person and work of the Son, who frees prisoners, gives sight to the blind, breaks loose our chains and changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. At one time we were taken captive to do Satan’s will and could not escape until Christ set us free. In other words, Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He lived the perfect life that we should have lived and died the death we should have died, in order to free us so that we might then proclaim His excellencies, make known his gospel and spread justice and mercy to the poor.

But this is not what many of the the most notable characters in the Emerging church (e.g. McClaren, McManus, Bell) mean when they use the term “gospel”; for Christ, in their view, did not primarily come to us as a Savior, who delivers us from His just wrath, but rather, He came to make us “Christ followers”. In other words, Jesus came as a moral example of how we might live, treat one another, and form communities. But as has been repeatedly shown throughout the testaments, this is a recipe for failure. In Romans 3:20 the Apostle teaches that the purpose of the law was not so much to show us how to live (although it was that too), but more importantly, to reveal our moral inability and hopeless bondage to sin in the face of God’s holy majesty apart from the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Some major voices in the emergent church are saying they want a relationship with Jesus and not doctrines, but we must ask which Jesus do they want to have a relationship with? If words mean anything it appears they want a relationship with a moralistic Jesus of their own imagination. They want to believe that God is pleased with us because of what we do … that He is pleased with us if we join Him in being active in crusades against social ills such as corporate greed, global warming, racism and poverty. That doing this is what the Gospel is all about. But as good as some of these things might be, God is not pleased with them if they do not come from faith in Jesus Christ as a Savior first, not as a mere example for us to follow. The background of the true gospel is that Jesus revealed His sinlessness and our moral impotence and bankruptcy in the face of his holiness. Thus our need for His mercy. But McLaren and many of the other emergent church leaders trumpet their belief that the gospel is more about ethics than the work of Christ on our behalf. They appeal to bettering the world around us as a task that is opposed to and more pressing than seeing our own rebellion and poverty, which prove our need for reconciliation to God through the life, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This unbiblical bifurcation of orthopraxy and orthodoxy, and foundational preference for the former, is just plain contrary to the Christian gospel.

Ultimately, the emergent “gospel” is not about the grace of Jesus Christ who delivers people from the wrath of God and puts them into the kingdom of light, but rather about becoming a ‘Jesus follower’, about walking as Jesus walked and trying to live the life he exemplified. Apart from the fact that, according to Scripture, this is an impossible goal when drawing from our native resources, but it misses the whole point for which Jesus came. The gospels showed Jesus setting his face like flint toward Jerusalem for a reason. He did not come primarily to be a moral example for us, but to become a Savior who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The emergent ideology, in other words, is appealing to the fallen will without the merciful act that God has done for us in Jesus. Since we woefully fall short of God’s call to us to live this way, it offers no hope.

In his book, Why We’re Not Emergent, Kevin DeYoung says, “I am convinced that a major problem with the emerging church is that they refuse to have their cake and eat it too. The whole movement seems to be built on reductionistic, even modernistic, either-or categories. They pit information versus transformation, believing versus belonging, and propositions about Christ versus the person of Christ. The emerging church will be a helpful corrective against real, and sometimes perceived, abuses in evangelicalism when they discover the genius of the “and,” and stop forcing us to accept half-truths.”

My fear, and I believe it is well founded, is that Emergent (and emerging) is just a newly cast form of the old Semi-Pelagian heresy of behavior modification, or to put it bluntly, moralism. The most tragic “either-or” category they have set up for themselves is this: faith in Christ as a Savior versus following Christ as an example. Many of its leading proponents assert that right living leads to right doctrine, thus reversing the Biblical priority of grace. But ethics are not what make Christianity to differ from other world religions. All world religions offer ethical programs that are remarkably similar to ours. But ethics/morals don’t bring us into relationship with God unless you can perfectly keep them (James 2:10, Gal 3:10-12). In that case, you might need a helper, but you certainly don’t need a Savior. What makes Christianity to differ is that it is the only way which acknowledges that its own adherents are rebels and without hope in themselves, that is, apart from the sovereign mercy of their Head, who procured salvation for them. All other religions rely on moral improvement and good works, but Christ has shown us that “there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” (Ecc 7:20) Trusting in Jesus as a moral example alone, trusting in our good works and the social justice we do, simply makes Jesus’ Person and work of no effect, for we are ascribing the power to do those things to ourselves apart from His redeeming us. Thus it would appear that both the emergent and seeker sensitive churches are cut from the same moralistic cloth. If you are a young person considering either of these, remember that seeing Christ as merely an example and seeing church as a place to hear stories about how we are to live, apart from the new birth, is a man-centered and not a Christ-centered message and should be steered clear of as you would a poisonous viper.