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Don't Stop Believing 3 of 5: The Bottom Line
by Michael E. Wittmer

Categories Theology

DSB My new book, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough, examines the most hotly contested issues of our day: Is it possible to know anything?; Does the kingdom of God include non-Christians?; Is hell for real and forever?; Must you believe something to be saved?; Can you belong before you believe?; Is the cross divine child abuse?; and Which is worse: homosexuals or the bigots who persecute them?

But the most basic question, the one which determines to a large extent how we answer the others, is whether people are good or bad. The church has traditionally said that people are born broken, crippled by the guilt and pollution of original sin. Because we start life totally depraved, it is easy to see why we need the dramatic rescue of regeneration. And since Scripture says that the Holy Spirit uses truth to do this job, it logically follows that only those who know and rely upon the basic facts of the gospel can be saved (John 3:1-21; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:13-15).

But an increasing number of what I call "postmodern innovators" is challenging this assumption. In his recent book, A Christianity Worth Believing, Doug Pagitt devotes fifty pages to debunking the myth of total depravity and the Reformed standards, such as the Westminster Confession, which teach it. He says that original sin implies that people "suck," and if there is one thing we know from watching a newborn child, it is that people "don’t suck."1

Likewise, Spencer Burke, in A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity, declares that we must move past traditional notions of sin and depravity. He writes:

Although the link between grace and sin has driven Christianity for centuries, it just doesn’t resonate in our culture anymore. It repulses rather than attracts. People are becoming much less inclined to acknowledge themselves as ‘sinners in need of a Savior.’ It’s not that people view themselves as perfect; it’s that the language they use to describe themselves has changed. "Broken," "fragmented," and "lacking wholeness"—these are some of the new ways people describe their spiritual need. What resonates is a sense of disconnection.2

Lest you think these ideas lie outside the mainstream of popular Christian thought, the foreword of Spencer Burke’s book was written by Brian McLaren and Pagitt’s book was endorsed by McLaren, Greg Boyd, and Lauren Winner. And while in his typically elusive manner McLaren is careful not to outright deny the doctrine of original sin, he does have the leading protagonist of his story declare that a fixation on original sin has distracted the church from confronting "human injustice, oppression, and suffering on Planet Earth."3

Here is why this matters. If people are born good, or at least not bad enough to merit hell, then it is easy to see why both McLaren and Burke suggest that salvation "is an opt-out plan, not an opt-in one."4 We don’t have to believe anything to be saved, for we are not that bad off. As long as we don’t sabotage our salvation, shaking our fist at God and shouting that we want out, then we are going to be okay in the end. This has obvious implications for the church’s traditional belief in hell, missions, evangelism, and who belongs to the church.

It is also perhaps why these postmodern innovators struggle with the penal substitution theory of the atonement. J. Gresham Machen wrote that the liberals of his day could not accept that God poured out his wrath upon Jesus because they suffered from "a light view of sin." He observed: "If sin is so trifling a matter as the liberal Church supposes, then indeed the curse of God’s law can be taken very lightly, and God can easily let by-gones be by-gones." But "If a man has once come under a true conviction of sin, he will have little difficulty with the doctrine of the Cross."5

It may also be why postmodern innovators are increasingly reluctant to declare that homosexual practice is a sin. If people are born without original sin, then homosexuality is not a consequence of the Fall but how God the Creator intended them to be. So why not embrace it? Perhaps this contributed to Tony Jones’ recent conclusion that "GLBTQ [people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer] can live lives in accord with biblical Christianity (at least as much as any of us can!) and that their monogamy can and should be sanctioned and blessed by church and state."6

This light view of sin—and the soteriological inclusivism which rises from it—may also contribute to the deep epistemological humility so prevalent among postmodern innovators. The Bible contains numerous passages which warn of a coming judgment, everlasting punishment in hell, and the need to repent and believe in Jesus to escape God’s wrath. I sometimes wonder whether the postmodern innovators’ professed humility—the Bible may not be God’s revelation, or if it is, its message isn’t clear—is a strategy to avoid what the church has traditionally believed to be the clear teaching of Scripture.7

As with most of the issues raised by postmodern innovators, the solution is not to opt for one side or the other but to embrace both. We must follow Augustine, who learned from his battles with Manicheism on one extreme and Pelagianism on the other, to say that people are created but fallen, and fallen but created.

People are created in the image of God, and so they have enormous value and, through common grace, the ability to do good to others. But people are also born rebels. We may often be good to each other, but none of us is good toward God. Adam and Eve bit the fruit in a futile bid to be like God, and their children have not stopped chasing the dream.

Our sin is why we need saving. From this follows the church’s traditional views on evangelism, hell, other religions, homosexuality, the substitutionary atonement, and the need to believe some basic facts about sin and Jesus in order to be saved.

Many of the current controversies can be traced back to the doctrine of original sin. Once this traditional domino falls, the others will quickly follow. And make no mistake, it is being pushed.

[1] Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2008), 120-70.

[2] Spencer Burke, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2006), 64.

[3] Brian McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2005), 135.

[4] McLaren, The Last Word, 138; Burke, A Heretic’s Guide, 196-202.

[5] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (1923; reprinted Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1994), 129, 131.


[7] Cf. John D. Caputo, On Religion (New York:  Routledge, 2001), 22; Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MS, Paraclete Press, 2006), 7-8, 17, 26, 32-34, 42, 44, 56.

Wittmerm Michael Wittmer is professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and author of Heaven Is a Place on Earth. Read more at

Don't Stop Believing 2 of 5: A Third Way
by Michael E. Wittmer
Don't Stop Believing 2 of 5: A Third Way
by Michael E. Wittmer
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