“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”Yet, Niebuhr should have gone further, because there is at least another theological oxymoron that leads to such cheap grace, one that is favoured by theological conservatives as much as theological liberals. It is this: salvation that does not demand discipleship. Even with theology that posits a God who is wrathful (if not positively hateful), humanity that is sinful (if not completely unlovable), the kingdom that is about judgement at least as much – if not more – as it is about hope, and a Christ that is perpetually preached as the one crucified rather than risen, it’s still possible to preach salvation without transformation.
– H. Richard Niebuhr criticising the social gospel, particularly Paul Tillich’s theology of it in his 1937 book, The Kingdom of God in America.
Witness this example from a young, successful pastor of inner suburban congregations:
Speaking at [NAME] CHURCH this morning on how we don't need to try and maintain our relationship with God by our faithfulness, our commitment and our effort. Rather our relationship with God rests solely on the finished work of Jesus on the cross. // So pumped by what God is doing here. They have grown by 30% in the last 12 months. // Please pray that many respond today...In fairness, I’m confident that this Christian leader experiences and even expresses a grace that is greater than the one presented here. (However, when I asked whether he'd like to clarify this I got no response.) But here we can see two ‘liberal’ tendencies in contemporary folk-evangelicalism as grave as those Niebuhr ridicules. First – as already mentioned – salvation without transformation. There is no room here for the gospel language of discipleship, nor of the Pauline language of striving, or images of the farmer, athlete and soldier because salvation is bestowed freely, it is assumed it must be received passively. Or, as we heard from Bonhoeffer's Discipleship yesterday: "Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways. 'Our action is in vain.'" Secondly, that the cross is not just the central act of salvation, but the final act. Now, there is no room for the resurrection, for Pentecost, and (to reiterate) for the collaboration of the believer in their sanctification.
Of course, these two oversights are related: when the gospel is reduced to Christ having died in our place for our sins, then salvation is also more easily reduced to merely reparation usually expressed in legal or economic terms. It’s essentially a problem-solving exercise. But when the gospel also includes the resurrection, then a greater breadth and depth of images and languages is needed – reconciliation (not just of accounts, but of persons), victory, recreation and others. And a bigger gospel has bigger implications – including demands. To follow the one crucified on our behalf is to take up our own cross, to sacrifice for others and (perhaps most forgotten for contemporary folk-evangelicalism) to be at odds with the ones who crucify. To follow the one risen as the first fruits of the new creation is belong to a new humanity (in which racial and class barriers have no place) and to practice a new ethic. If we are in the new humanity (ie: in Christ, the second Adam) we resume the task of keeping the earth, tending to its fullness and diversity, but more than that we anticipate carrying that task further towards its goal. When Christ is crucified for as well as risen for us, then salvation is not just a solution for a problem but a demanding ethical vocation.
The problem with contemporary evangelicalism is not that is old-fashioned and orthodox. Rather, that it still has too much in common with the old liberalism, even while it overlooks this. The logical end for the old liberalism and folk-evangelicalism is the same: a tamed gospel with cheap grace that poses no challenges.