bottom line again

There is an interesting article in today’s newspaper which supports my last post concerning the unpopular doctrine of original sin (I’m using dial up at the moment, so I don’t have time to locate the article online).  The Josephson Institute of Los Angeles surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, and found that:

30% said they stole from a store within the past year;

20% said they stole something from a friend, 23% from a parent or relative;

64% acknowledged cheating on a test within the past year;

36% said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment;

42% said they sometimes lie to save money.

Despite this confession of wrongdoing, 93% said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77% said they are better than most people they know.  As the founder and president of the Josephson Institute exclaimed, “What is the social cost of that—not to mention the implication for the next generation of mortgage brokers?”

It seems to me that some “successful” ministries today present a gospel tailor made to this high school audience.  They replace the biblical doctrine of original sin with softer terms.  They are careful not to offend by saying that we are sinners, but they say that we are “broken,” “fragmented,” and “on the journey towards wholeness.” 

They dismiss the notion of God’s wrath.  They say that a loving God has no wrath—not upon his Son on the cross or upon the good people who inadvertently end up in hell.

When asked how their fresh understanding of the gospel coheres with the passages of Scripture which seem to say otherwise, they reply that Scripture isn’t all that clear and that there is more than one plausible interpretation of those verses.  Besides, other religions see things differently, and since all truth is God’s truth, we should open our minds to learn from their insights. 

Above all, they emphasize our need to refrain from using our distinctively Christian beliefs as a litmus test to assess another person’s salvation.  They are happy to believe in the Bible and the Nicene Creed, but they caution that we should not judge those who don’t.  Everyone who follows the way of Jesus—loving the other as he did—will ultimately find acceptance in his loving embrace, regardless of what they believe.

Given the beliefs of our culture, it isn’t surprising that some of these ministries are quite successful.  But are they still proclaiming the Christian faith?




, ,



8 responses to “bottom line again”

  1. Finding new language to frame the atonement is hardly reducing the doctrine of sin to “softer terms” in my opinion. Contextualization has been key to the proclaiming of the gospel ever since Jesus commanded his followers to do so.

  2. mikewittmer


    You are right. But note that I did not say that denying penal substitution means that one has gone soft on sin, but that those who deny original sin tend to deny penal substitution. There is an obvious connection.

    I agree with you that we need to contextualize the gospel, as long as we don’t omit something essential in the process. And I agree that we need all the theories of the atonement, not merely penal substitution. But I don’t think that leaving out penal substitution is a step in the right direction. In fact, I don’t believe that we can adequately explain the gospel without it.

  3. Tim Farley

    I apologize if this has been mentioned in one of your previous posts. I see you have been busily writing and I have not had a chance to go back and read all of your past entries. However, I do find it interesting that many want to change the doctrine of hell based upon alternative interpretations of the various passages that mention it.

    It is argued that the various descriptions of hell in Scripture are merely figurative and should be understood as symbolic rather than taken as literal. For the various symbols to be appropriate, wouldn’t hell have to be at least equal to the symbol? Hell can be more than, but not less than, the figurative language used to describe it.

  4. Professor Wittmer,
    Greetings from snowy west Michigan.
    I was interested to see your blog (linked to on koinonia). I read your first book after hearing you speak on the themes of heaven and new creation at a local church conference and quite enjoyed it. So, seeing your blog and that you are putting out another work got my attention.

    I agree with your statement, we can not explain the gospel adequately without penal substitution. However, I also think we can not adequately explain the gospel with just penal substitution either. It describes a vital part of the significance of the atonement, but not all of it or probably even most of it.

    For one thing an exclusively ‘penal substitution’ understanding of the atonement seems to go hand it hand with a misrepresentation of the gospel that has become quite prevalent in modernity, the ‘believe Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven when you die’ gospel. Not that Jesus did not die for our sins (He did), and not that we don’t go to heaven (though it is not our final destiny, and it is strikingly absent from any Biblical proclamation of the gospel I can think of, so maybe its not as central as we assume), but there is a lot more to the atonement than that, and this reductionist gospel seems quite inconsistent with the Gospel of the Bible.

    Jesus paying for our sins is a part of a Gospel that also proclaims that Jesus is Lord, that he is resurrected, that he conquered death and evil, and that God’s kingdom is breaking through into the present world. That sort of Gospel matters later (when we die) but it also matters now, and it matters when God sets things finally to rights.

    I do not think you are denying those things by any means, I just think it is important that not only do we keep penal substitution, but we also keep it in perspective.

  5. Dave

    Mike, Did you notice the article a few weeks back in the Religion section of the GR Press about the gal who is offended by the question, “Where do you go to Church?” She made a point to take notice of when she said that she can help the poor and do good things without having to go to Church. Her comment appears to be an indictment on the Church that she had visited.

  6. mikewittmer


    Good point, and well said.


    I agree with you also. I said that we need all of the atonement theories. I do especially emphasize two: Christus victor which supplies the overarching narrative, and penal substitution, which explains how precisely Christ defeats sin, death, and Satan.

  7. I think those two theories would be top for me as well.
    I did see that you feel we need all of the theories of atonement and was not intending what I said to be an indictment of what I thought you believe, but rather expressing what I have too often seen in others. Sorry if that was not clear, tone is hard to do sometimes in blogging.
    On that subject, what would be some resources you might recommend for reading on ‘Christus victor’? I’ve done some good reading on it, but I’d like to find more resources that address it without a preoccupation with ransom theory.

  8. I read this post with great interest. I find it tragically sad that this is the state of our youth.

    My kids are young adults and I am using every situation I can to enforce the truth that the only way to God is through Jesus. Since they have made choices in their lives that have caused them to stray from the Word, I worry about what they are exposing themselves to.

    I am assuming the teens in the survey are public school students for the most part. Unfortunately, the public school system is infested with this type of thinking by students, faculty, and in some cases curriculum.

    I must say I look at the future leaders of our country with trepidation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: