Michael Wittmer’s first book is one of my favorites of all time. In Heaven is a Place on Earth, Wittmer maps out a biblical worldview by combining a proper understanding of the imago Dei with the biblical story of Creation-Fall-Redemption.
His follow-up book is called Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is not Enough. In it, he tries to strike a balance between conservative evangelicalism and the emerging church. His premise is that the evangelicalism of the 20th Century pressed too far one way, and that “postmodern innovators” (his term for the leaders in the emerging church movement) are overreacting by swinging the pendulum too far the other way. He states that his book is a “friendly warning” to the postmodern innovators of the emerging church. He states,
“I am thankful for their emphasis on authentic Christian living. Their vision for what the church can become is both exhilarating and challenging. My only concern, and the point I will press in this book, is that their quest to correct abuses of previous generations must not lead them to err on the opposite extreme. Perhaps our parents overemphasized right belief more than good behavior, but that must not become an excuse to teach good behavior at the expense of right belief. If we continue down this road, it may not be long until our liberal method leads to liberal conclusions. Authentic Christianity demands our head, heart, and hands. Our labor for Christ flows from our love for him, which can arise only when we know and think rightly about him. Genuine Christians never stop serving, because they never stop loving, and they never stop loving, because they never stop believing.” (pp. 19-20)
Wittmer’s book is a welcome addition to the conversation. Whereas D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church was poorly researched and reactionary without truly understanding the movement, Wittmer is actually conversant with the emerging church. He understands it, and thus he can authentically deal with one of the major issues for evangelicals who want to embrace the emerging church: The tension between belief and practice.
Evangelicals have placed a high emphasis on "believing in Jesus," and this “belief” has often (in a modernist world) been articulated as believing certain propositions about Jesus. According to many evangelical churches, if you can state that you believe that Jesus died for your sins and trust that he satisfied God’s wrath against those sins on the cross, you are “saved.” This is topped off with saying a “sinner’s prayer,” and an assurance that from now on, no matter what you do, you’re in… you are guaranteed your place in heaven.
The “postmodern innovators” of the emerging church have reacted to this by saying that Jesus is more interested in our actions than in what we can state to be truth. In Brian McLaren’s book The Last Word and the Word After That, the character Markus states that conservative Christians wrongly believe that “on judgment day, all God will care about is opening up our skulls and checking our brains…to see if we had the right notion of salvation by grace through faith in there somewhere.”
Wittmer states that McLaren’s answer to this incorrect understanding of faith is insufficient. Wittmer writes, “McLaren counters this extreme view by claiming that God judges people on the quality of their works rather than on what they believe.” (p. 35) Wittmer’s point: the postmodern innovators so underemphasize right belief and so overemphasize right ethics that they swing the pendulum too far the other way.
But does McLaren actually advocate “works righteousness?” No, he does not. In fact, McLaren very much advocates faith in the person of Jesus Christ. He has said, "I believe people are saved not by objective truth, but by Jesus. Their faith isn’t in their knowledge, but in God." (source) This is an excellent quote, and gets at the center of the issue.
The question that Mike Wittmer is going to have to deal with is this: Does faith in our knowledge about Jesus save us?
I believe it does not. I believe that faith in the person of Jesus is what delivers us.
But, here is where it gets very tricky: What basic facts do we need to “know” in order to place our faith in Jesus? This is what Wittmer gets into in his second chapter. Watch for my interaction with Mike Wittmer on this in an upcoming post.