For me, the hardest part about disagreeing with the Emergent Church is that we actually agree on one fundamental principle. We just don’t agree with how far to take it, where to apply it and how it relates to other beliefs about God.
I am speaking of the concept of Grace.
Grace is easily explained on the surface of things. Grace is receiving from God what we do not deserve to receive. See how easy that is? The problem is that someone in the back row will always have a question about Grace. Let me see if I can give an inexhaustive list of these questions:
What does God give us we don’t deserve?
Why does God give them to us?
To whom does God give grace?
Is grace for everyone?
Can you earn grace?
If you can’t earn grace, how can it NOT be for everyone?
What if someone doesn’t know they can have grace, will they be given it?
Will Grace get you into heaven?
Can Grace and Hell co-exist?
Can the God of Grace and Hell co-exist?
And on and on.
The Emergent church, as a deconstructionist movement, loves to ask questions that strike at the very heart of long-held traditions. That is the nature of deconstructing anything – question the validity of their traditions. And this is why I yearn at times to be part of the Emerging Church. I see a lot of what is wrong with the existing Church. She is like the Bride that Paul pictures her as, but she is wearing dirty and ragged clothes, not at all ready for her bridegroom. As a counselor and pastor, I yearn to see her rip off those filthy and old clothes and be clothed with more Godly and appropriate wedding clothes. I have spent many years tearing off some of the fallacies of the Traditionalism, Legalism, Veiled Hatredism that covers much of the Evangelical arm of the Church.
So I sympathize with deconstructionism. But I get nervous when it is applied to Grace. Grace may be the doctrine we have understood best. I am not saying we have practiced it best, but we have understood it better than almost any other theological tradition. The Orthodox church, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran, Episcopal and Presbyterian traditions have all stumbled over Grace. They have mixed rules in with their doctrine of Grace. Of course, legalistic Evangelicals have practiced this, but their doctrine of Grace has been good and biblical.
So what is the Emerging Church proposing? Well, that is the confusing part of course, because they don’t believe in Foundationalism – hence, they don’t propose much of anything. But they do hint at some things regarding Grace. Let me lay out a few of them.
1. Grace is non-transactional. That is to say, they believe you cannot do anything to buy grace, to earn it, or in any way transfer it to yourself by anything you do in terms of merit. By definition, Grace is unmerited. We don’t do anything to deserve it. I can hear people reading this and saying “I agree with that”. Oh, but wait for the implications before you agree too soon. If there is nothing we can do to transact Grace, then Grace is just given. Since we are saved by Grace, then no one can receive salvation, they just Have It! Since no one can transact it, it is freely given to all. Bishop Farrar is one of the most famous proponents of this. Though he himself would hardly be called a part of the Emerging Church, many Emergents are great fans of Farrar’s teachings. Therefore, since all receive Grace, and we are saved by Grace, all are saved. Since all are saved, there is no need for Evangelism. There is no need to see people rescued from Hell, for there is no more Hell. Our ministries exist then to help people live more healthy lives, more productive lives, more loving lives. We can do it because all have been recipients of Grace.
2. Grace covers a multitude of Sins. In fact, since Grace extends to forgive us for all our sins (past, present and future) we have no need to ever ask forgiveness again. There is no longer any need to be forgiven or to seek it. There is still a need to forgive people, however, because otherwise our hearts would be unhealthy.
3. Grace declares all things clean. Basically, all people are declared clean by God and encouraged to live a life of cleanness to match the declaration. This is not much different than teachings on Justification throughout history. The only difference is that it is applied to all we do. God will never be angry with us again for anything we do because Grace has already covered that. We may have to suffer for our foolishness, but the suffering is temporary and does not concern God at all; only other people. Thus, Grace condones filthy language, the watching of dirty movies, violent activities, alcohol use and abuse, drug use and abuse, and a host of other rationalized behaviors. If someone objects to any of these, they are immediately labed Modernist, Legalistic and anti-Grace. Now, not every Emergent would agree that you are allowed to abuse drugs and alcohol for instance. But they would say that this is because we have a responsibility to the community we live in, and drunk, high Christians make lousy community examples. But as far as Grace goes, God doesn’t care about what we say or do as long as we don’t hurt others.
I was in a discussion with one famous Emergent blogger about the issue of using the “F” word. He sees nothing wrong with sprinkling it in his everyday language and accused me of definite legalistic tendencies (to say the least) for objecting to it. No argument was sufficient for him, since his belief is that God had redeemed everything, including “salty” language. It no longer means anything evil to him because it can’t. Grace has eliminated the evil in the “F” word, so it cannot be evil any longer. Use it however you want. I tried to tell him that it was profane…meaning to take something sacred (marital sex) and making it less than ordinary (using it as an adjective or vocative). He ignored my argument. As a verb, I had no objection to its validity. But he never used it as a verb at all. This is just an example of what you get with Emergents…a distaste for calling anything evil unless you are referring to something unhealthy.
I agree that Grace is for all. But it is not activated except through Faith. The whole verse says, “It is by Grace you have been saved THROUGH FAITH (emphasis mine).” We don’t earn it, but because we have freedom of choice, we have to actively receive it. It cannot just be given against any act of our choice.
And to say that God no longer gets angry with us is ludicrous. In the New Testament, God actually killed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. Though he was making a point and not stamping out a pattern, it seems to belie all that the Emerging Church says about Grace. I love God’s Grace. I can’t go along with the Grace of the Emerging Church. It goes too far.