what are you hearing?

This question is for those of you who disagree with my conviction that we need to believe in Jesus and follow him/obey his commands/love our neighbor in order to be saved.  I clearly say that we need both right belief and right conduct, yet you seem to only hear the right belief part.  For example, Susan warned yesterday that  I “consider loosening [my] grip on gospel truth so that [I] don’t choke it.”

My question is why are you hearing only the belief part?  Do you think that even asking the question concerning what we must believe will inevitably eliminate a corresponding emphasis on right conduct?  Do you think that asking the question is unloving, and therefore a failure to follow Jesus?

I don’t believe that I have ever said what some of you say that I’m saying, and you would greatly help me if you explain why you are hearing that.






23 responses to “what are you hearing?”

  1. Mike,

    I thought I was understanding you correctly, but now I’m not so sure. In your first sentence you suggest that in order to be saved we must both believe in Jesus AND …, as if these are separate and distinct paradigms. In the language of the gospel accounts (especially John) and in agreement with the epistles, the “will” of God, the “work” of God and our “obedience” to God IS that of believe/faith (I know that philosophically there are many ways to define these terms. But in biblical usage they are so often synonymous that I’m putting them together here); It IS our believing God that produces the “good works” that “God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” because upon our believing we are “born again” and immediately in-dwelt by the Spirit whose (successful) work in us is to conform us into the likeness of Christ. We “love” and “follow Him” BECAUSE OF the “belief” (by the grace of God) that came first (we “love” because He first loved us).

    I’m know it’s difficult to always say things in the right way when dealing with “emergents” because they tend to discount certain realities of what it means to “believe”; but we don’t want to coddle to them so that our language becomes as confusing as theirs. For us to be “saved”, all that must take place is our being “born again” by the Spirit which takes place upon our true belief in… (and THAT’S the question that’s been thrown around: what IS IT that we must necessarily believe. And I think you’ve been doing a great job in fleshing this out.)

    I’m sure that it is ME that is now not “hearing” you correctly. But this is the danger with written correspondence; precision is crucial and can be easily overlooked.


  2. Mr. C

    I think that one of the best qualities of Mike’s book is that it so clearly balances the emphasis on “being like Christ” that emergence make with the emphasis on “right belief” that modern Christianity has made. Your argument, Jason, seems to swing the balance back toward “right belief”.

    You are right that “right belief” is what produces good works, but you fail to meantion that good works are not only a likely or incidental product of right belief, but a *necessary* product. Faith without works is dead, and a dead faith is no faith at all.

  3. Yooper

    I would have worded it that “fruit” or “works” follows saving faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8,9, John 15:4,5), not in order to be saved.

  4. Mr. C

    Yooper, can we add to the end of that (true) statement, “but ‘every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’” (Matt. 7:19)?

  5. Yooper

    Mr. C,

    Just like I could have included John 15:6 – but that is another discussion.

  6. Jason,

    From my conversations with “Mike” (don’t know if I’m a first name basis with you Dr. Wittmer), I don’t think there are two distinct paradigms (at least that’s what I understood from DSB), but the two work hand-in-hand.

    Here’s the quote that got me to take a step back from Kevin (maybe from another post in the same discussion):

    (to Dr. Wittmer) “You seem to take belief to be primarily concerned with intellectually assenting to facts that, when things go well, will issue in actions.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s what he is saying. Why does our conversation keep reverting to polarizing these two notions of belief? Why can’t they work together? Why can’t they be a dance?

    There are some things that I have intellectually assented to in Scripture, and in turn have tried to put them into practice, while there are other moments I have experienced, that, when shed in the light of Scripture, pointed to something that I had intellectually assented while being unaware.

    I’m not sure if that means that these beliefs (reflective theorizing as Kevin calls it) are timeless, but sometimes I know in my head which fuels what I do, sometimes it’s the other way around.

    I think Dr. Wittmer is always running these against the light of Scripture and Christian tradition. How does one address the significant Christian creeds in the first 4 centuries? Are they to be understood as reflective theorizing, experiential, or both?

    I see the two working together like a dance. It seems to not believe in the resurrection AND to practice it in everyday living, displays one’s denial of this belief.

    Although it seems Dr. Wittmer discusses the reflective theorizing more than practice in our classes (because of the content), his books ALWAYS suggests (and so do his classes…he’s infamously known around here as the “both/and” guy) that BOTH are needed.

    Maybe Dr. Wittmer’s emphasis that actions come from beliefs may be the culprit. Although, doesn’t ALL actions come from some worldview, even if we are unaware or incapable of articulating it with words?

    Look, I don’t think it’s ever wrong to ask questions about significant Christian doctrines, but when those conversations have been decided in Christian tradition, shouldn’t we pay attention? How much of this conversation is new? Haven’t other God-fearing men and women labored over this? What did they say about it?

    That’s a lot of thinking out loud.

  7. Mr. C

    I’m just a little amused that Dr. Wittmer posted to clarify what was percieved to be a leaning away from praxis and towards doctrine, and he was immediately accused of leaning away from doctrine and towards praxis.

  8. Mr. C,

    I appreciate what you’re saying and I’ve not found anything substantial (yet) with Mike’s interaction with others in the previous posts or in his new book to disagree with; but the phrasing of his words in this post is just too obvious to ingnore. I’m not suggesting that he or you would promote a salvation that is in any way determined by or dependent upon anything that we do (unless I haven’t “heard” him properly in the past), but when we suggest, even inadvertently, that we must “do” something “in order to” be saved, then we’ve fallen away from the Protestant understanding of biblical salvation.

    Belief is what is “necessary”…works will “necessarily” follow because of the presence of the indwelling Spirit. I thought my inclusion of the “work” of the Spirit who “successfully” (though only progressively) conforms us into the image of Christ was sufficient to make that point. The FACT that “works” will inevitably follow true conversion testifies to a living faith. That James calls a faith without works “dead” simply means that faith was non-existent in the first place. When Christ enlivens a spirit (gives life to those who believe), that person has true faith–the work of God in the life of a believer is effectual.

    The only “balance” between belief and works is the balance that belief (true faith) WILL PRODUCE good works because of the presence and work of the Spirit. But BELIEF is the “necessary” ingredient for salvation.

    I’d be surprised if we are not saying the same thing; but there needs to be a clarity about these things so that no one will mistake, “What must I DO to be saved?” with anything other than, “Believe on the Lord Jesus”.


  9. Mr. C,

    I never “accussed” Mike of doing any such thing. I wrote in the spirit of clarifying his words (indeed, his post was aimed at such in the first place).


  10. Scott C.

    Sorry if the word “accused” was too harsh. I don’t know if I agree though, to say that there is no “balance.” I don’t disagree at all that belief is the only, “necessary” ingrediant for salvation, but the issue is that for the last 100 years (at least) the church has emphasized this at the expense of “works”. Now, the emergent church is reacting to this, and de-emphasizing the importance of what you believe. And Dr. Wittmer is saying, “You cannot rightly de-emphasize either, because they are inextricable from eachother.”

    As least, as I’m understanding him.

  11. Thanks Scott,

    And I agree that they are “inextricable from each other”. But my point is that one proceeds from the other. Belief (faith) must come first because that is the only basis for our salvation and because our “works” are the “work” of the Spirit within us. But, as in the case of the theif on the cross and other “death-bed” confessions, the “work” of faith is simply the “life of faith” as we continue to believe God for as long as God allows us to live here in these mortal bodies.

    According the Gospel, the Law has already been fulfilled by us because we have been joined to the One who has fulfilled the Law in His Person. Now our “works” are simply the testimony to the “work” of the God in us by His Spirit–but they in no way contribute to the transformation that has come to us in the simple act of believing (faith).

    The “balance” is not equal parts belief and works. The “balance” is belief (faith) producing the works that God has already prepared for us to walk in. I agree with the assessment that the “pendulum” has swung from one extreme to the other; but I don’t think it needs to be viewed as a dichotomy between “faith” and “works”. It seems to me that it is the nature and power of “faith” that is not necessarily being understood by both extremes. Faith works–but it is FAITH that works…and it WILL work because that is the work of the Spirit.

    But it works only on the basis of, or foundation of belief. And this is where I think the “emergents” have been confused and causing confusion in the Body. Belief is necessary and the Scripture is clear about this.

    I’m afraid that I’m starting to sound like a broken record, so I’ll just stop at this point. I know you understand what I’m saying, but I think our language and communication must be clear as to the primacy of BELIEF/FAITH.

    Thanks Scott,


  12. Mike L.,

    I appreciate your words and have been thoroughly enjoying Mike’s latest book (though his first one is on my “classics” list that everyone should read).

    You say, “Why can’t they work together? Why can’t they be a dance?”

    I don’t necessarily disagree; but someone has to “lead” in the dance and I think Scripture is clear that Belief/Faith “leads” and “works” simply (and inevitably) follow along as the result of faith.



  13. mikewittmer

    Sorry for my delay. I taught class all morning and just got back from lunch with a former colleague who dropped in from Chang Mai, so I’m only now getting to my blog.

    When I typed the question, perhaps a bit too hurriedly before class, I had in mind the entire process of salvation rather than just the initial moment of conversion. And since salvation includes sanctification, which includes loving our neighbor, I said that loving our neighbor is a vital part of salvation. That’s all I meant.

    I agree with Jason that belief in Jesus generates acts of love. I didn’t mean my statement to imply something different, though I see why Jason might take it that way. I meant my statement more generically. I was only trying to make the point that both belief and ethics must be present. I wasn’t trying to say how they are related. But for the record, I think that Jason is right that loving others as Jesus would arises from our saving faith in Jesus.

    Although I didn’t have the initial moment of conversion in mind when I wrote that sentence, I would say that believing in Jesus and following him (which arises from said belief) are essential for conversion to occur. If conversion involves both faith and repentance, then we must believe in Jesus and turn from our sin, which inevitably involves following him. Some converts don’t get to follow Jesus very far in this life, such as the thief on the cross, but even he followed Jesus as long as he was able.

    Thanks for helping me clarify my question. Now can someone help me ask it better, so I’m not understood as denying practice?

  14. Yooper

    People hear what they want to hear.

    It is possible for an individual to profess something that is not a possession – i.e. do lip service. It is also just as possible to do “good deeds/works” and not really have experienced a change of heart.

    Is it wrong to expect to hear clearly the answer for the hope that is within? I Peter 3:15

  15. Has anyone to whom this initial post was addressesd to actually responded here?

    I understood the question as being directed to the Daryl’s and Kevin’s who have represented some forms of “emergent” (whatever that is) on other of Dr. Wittmer’s posts on this blog.

    My fustration with some of conversation in past posts here is that as some of us are trying to arrive at or find common ground, I get the distinct impression that finding common ground is not important to a post-modern oriented mind set. I can concede points until the cows come home, but in the end the concept of “common ground” is somehow not really important or nessecary. I can only conclude that finding “common ground” is probably a conception from a modern mindset that is meaningless in post-modernity…

    It is in terms of the seeking of “common ground” that I understood the purpose of the original post in this thread…
    Is it just me, or do others share the same frustration?


  16. mikewittmer


    I resonate with you. It is interesting that the only people who can help me with this question don’t feel so inclined. Guess I’ll go talk to myself.

  17. Well, Bill N, I guess I one of the folks to whom this post was initially addressed, but I only just now noticed it. Mike, let me know next time you cite me and I’ll try to respond more promptly.

    “My question is why are you hearing only the belief part?”
    –Bc we in the Reformed tradition assent to sola fide, faith alone. The problem I have with the way you formulate the questions (eg. Is there anything one has to believe to be Christian), is that an assumption is made that faith is our doing rather than G-d’s gift of justification in our lives. Faith / belief is a gift!! Not a prerequisite. We are hearing only belief, bc you’ve set up primary and secondary actions (believing, then doing) where belief has primacy.

    “Do you think that even asking the question concerning what we must believe will inevitably eliminate a corresponding emphasis on right conduct?”
    –No, I don’t have a concern with any question by asked, so long as we attend to the assumptions made in the asking. Rather, what I hear from the emergents is a restatement that faith without works is dead. Despite your clear attempts to hold both/and, churches do not ask very much of their members and do not hold folks accountable for living their faith (except regarding homosexuality as mentioned in conversations with Kevin). We do not ask folks if they feed the poor, we don’t expect them to give the coat off their back. We are complicit in a system that makes it difficult, if not impossible to live in solidarity with the poor, like Jesus did. *Here is one more plug for Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. HE is “both/and” in a way I don’t know hardly anyone else is living.

    “Do you think that asking the question is unloving, and therefore a failure to follow Jesus?”

    –Asking the question is not unloving, yet I asked if y’all love each other and no one has answered. The unloving part was the insinuation that the source of my belief was something other than Jesus. It is not loving to assume that you are right and that others who disagree are doomed — that is hubris.

    I have written elsewhere that I believe that if we as the Body of Christ are being redeemed, it will only be recognized when we sit down and listened long enough and hard enough to one another’s stories that we fall in love with each other. When we love each other more than we love our theologies, ideologies, perspectives, denominations, catechisms, etc…then we will be blessed by the fruit of the Spirit.

    Try imagining belief as a living thing that needs to be loved, nurtured, tended to rather than a hoop to be jumped, a litmus test to be passed, or a status to be gained. Jesus emptied himself, we should attempt do no less, but expect to fail and be humble in the effort. This living faith, held gently, blesses. Your question about what is required squeezes and limits and excludes…and with regard to some emergents (I’m projecting here), they don’t care if they are excluded from your more narrow definitions of what it takes to be a Christian. They are trying to live faithfully. Why do critics denegrate that? If they don’t believe the way you do, what does that cost you? I have several “colleagues” in town who are convinced by their reading of the Bible that I’m going to hell for being a clergywoman. I must weigh their (mis)reading of Scripture against G-d’s call in my own life confirmed by the call of 3 congregations.

    What does it take to be saved? What did Jesus say to the rich young ruler? And if anyone reading this thinks you aren’t him, think again. Jesus’ response is definitely not something we ask of church folks!

    What does it take to be saved? G-d’s grace.

    PS — where are the women? if I’m the only woman in this conversation, you should ask yourselves why.

  18. mikewittmer


    Thanks for your detailed response. I believe that faith is God’s gift, so I don’t agree that I’m denying grace. Not even a little bit. I do think that faith requires faith in something, and so now we’re back to my question about belief. I don’t understand how you can claim both faith alone and not to care what people place their faith in. Your view was not held by any Reformed person in the 16th century, so I question whether you are as Reformed as you think.

    I missed your question about whether we love each other. As far as we are able, given our different levels of acquaintance, I would say yes. I don’t know many of the people who comment, and so my visible acts of love toward them would be demonstrably less than those I live with. At least I haven’t noticed any appreciable levels of unloving.

    I think your statement “Try imagining belief as a living thing that needs to be loved, nurtured, tended to rather than a hoop to be jumped, a litmus test to be passed, or a status to be gained” is a false choice. Leaving aside the pejorative terms like hoop jumping and litmus test, I don’t see any inconsistency between both tending/caring for my beliefs and also observing that there is a minimal expectation for what Christians believe. The Christian faith does have a boundary. And if you think that it doesn’t, it won’t be long until you lose the faith entirely.

    I’ll try not to take your comment about the involvement of women personally. For argument’s sake, what if you are the only woman who has ever commented on this site? That’s not true, but even if it was, how would that be my fault?

  19. OK, Mike — breathe deep and let’s center ourselves in the presence of G-d. aaahhhhh…

    I never suggested you deny grace. I observed that it had little space in the Conversation with Kevin string. Rather than grace, I read requirements, moral imperatives, and prerequisites — not necessarily from you, but in the string.

    I never claimed “both faith alone and not to care what people place their faith in.” I’m a pastor — I care very much what people believe and how they live. I just don’t think I can know whether they will have salvation, regardless of what they believe. I do believe that G-d will save whomever G-d chooses and not consult me.

    I do believe that there are folks, who self-describe as emergent Christians or as post-Christians and say they are trying to follow the Jesus way, who don’t care about your definitions of “Christian,” or mine for that matter. I suspect that they also do not care about anyone’s soteriological minimums. Might G-d choose to save some of them? I’m not willing to say, “no.”

    You say: “Your view was not held by any Reformed person in the 16th century” — I have NO doubt that that is absolutely true! That was also 500 years ago! Reformed theology did not start and end in the 16th C. I personally find Barth’s thesis on Election an incredibly helpful, biblical-informed exploration. I’m PCUSA. We have 11 confessions of faith and 3 of those were 20th C (Barmen, C67, and The Brief Statement of Faith (http://www.shawanopres.org/statement). We are also at the beginning stages of considering adding Belhar (a beautiful 2.5 pages!!). My assumptions about the writers not/being Reformed came from the strong sense that faith was not a gift of G-d, but a choice we make = salvation results from something we do, rather than something G-d does == not Reformed. I’m also Methodist educated and some of the Arminian thought may creep up on me sometimes, particularly unlimited atonement. But you sound like some of this creeps up on you too, since “Arminius insisted, God’s election was an election of believers and therefore was conditioned on faith (Wiki).”

    As Presbyterians, we require a positive answer to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior for a person to become a member — that’s it. To become an ordained officer, one must also assent to “the essential tenets of the Reformed Tradition,” but which are essential and which are non-essential is, of course, a huge debate right now. But neither of these answers your soteriological question — what must one believe/do to be saved? what’s the minimum? This is whether you have sought to recognize a “minimum expectation” (hoop, litmus, status). My answer is simply that we can’t know whom G-d will choose. We can believe. We can hope. We can trust. And if it doesn’t go our way, we can, like Job, sue G-d. And when we do, G-d may well answer us the same way Job heard it: Where were you when I was laying the foundations of the world? How can you possibly know? (that is not a quotation, I’m paraphrasing. My suggestion about a different way to relate to the notion of belief is not a false choice: you can’t tend the faith of another gently, tenderly, lovingly while pretending to know G-d’s mind.

    The Christian faith does have a boundary…hmmm. Maybe, but the boundaries I hear discussed here seem to have little to do with the way Jesus fulfilled his mitzvot. Again, Judaism is not and was not credal, why have we attempted to make Christianity such? By comparison, Christians in churches attend much less to ethical living than the Jews I meet in synagogue. My faith is a gift from G-d which I celebrate. If G-d chooses to take it away, I will continue to be thankful for what I have had. I do not fear. I belong to G-d who loves me.

    You started this string asking “What are you hearing?” and why are you hearing only belief? The short answer is the name of your blog and your book. You have staked your professional standing on minimum expectations regarding belief — not minimum expectations for right action.

    OK — One more deep breath — I never suggested that the derth of women responding here was your fault. I suggested a question. It is not your fault, but it is meaningful. It is always faithful to listen for what is missing. Which voices of G-d’s children are not here? Who perspective is not included? Why is that the case? Have you sought out perspectives from the 2/3rds world? Do you invite women to tell you their experience of discipleship? Are we still all white?

    “In life and in death we belong to G-d…”


  20. Paul Chaplin

    “My fustration with some of conversation in past posts here is that as some of us are trying to arrive at or find common ground, I get the distinct impression that finding common ground is not important to a post-modern oriented mind set. I can concede points until the cows come home, but in the end the concept of “common ground” is somehow not really important or nessecary. I can only conclude that finding “common ground” is probably a conception from a modern mindset that is meaningless in post-modernity…”

    My reading of conversations in this and the other conversation is the opposite (although I’m hopelessly biased, as well all are), that a post-modern approach is far more willing to accept common ground. A “post-modern thinker” (in as much as anyone can be free from what are still the dominant effects of modernity) I would say is far more likely to accept common ground. She is willing to accept the experience of someone who has very different beliefs and validate that individual, whereas a modernist is far more likely to reject deviant experiences of others and desire to claim one single truth, without any “common ground” between the two.

  21. Yooper

    Paul Chaplin,

    What is your “common ground”, or source for your beliefs? It sure seems like the opinion of man, which is very dangerous.

  22. None of us have any thoughts that are without interpretation. All beliefs are personally, individually held, whether they are held by many or by few. Tyranny of the majority can apply to religious majorities, too. …And being in the minority doesn’t make one right either.

    Yooper, you have repeated your question about source of beliefs. I haven’t answered lately, bc I named them way back before you asked. On Feb 10th (Conversations with Kevin) I wrote:
    “the stories of faith lived (biblical, historical and in my own life) and the experiences of G-d breaking in have been the source of my inspiration, conviction, confession, and on-going redemption and transformation.”

    Did you not read it? Do you not hear?

    I have mentioned that I’m Methodist educated. I find John Wesley’s quadrilateral useful for theological reflection:
    * Scripture – the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
    * Tradition – the two millennia history of the Christian Church
    * Reason – rational thinking and sensible interpretation
    * Experience – a Christian’s personal and communal journey in Christ
    …and before anyone jumps up on their high horse…here is what Wiki clarifies about priority:
    “The United Methodist Church, asserts that “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture [however] is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’”

    I hear the emergents saying their faith has not been vivified in traditional churches and they are seeking deeper commitments (sacrificial service), deeper spirituality (new monasticism), deeper worship (more honest, real, connected & less saccharin), deeper theology (humility in face of multiple truths, openness to learn from others’ experience of the Holy).

    None of you have answered quite a few of my questions about why emergents’ searching bothers you so. Or why I hear so little grace here. Or why the demographic represented here is so narrow.

    “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, you are mine…you are precious is my sight, and honored, and I love you.” — Is 43: 1b & 4a

  23. I know I’m jumping into this conversation pretty late. Also considering that I haven’t read all of the comments being made, I’m sure I will probably just be restating what’s already been stated or addressed.

    I’ve only been reading this blog for a few months now but everything I have read thus far points to both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. There is an interesting emphasis being placed on orthopraxy today especially in the emergent church. I’ve read several articles/posts by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones that make this point repeatedly. I think they are right to point out that orthopraxy is important. What is our belief if it is not lived out properly? It’s just head knowledge. However, we must not emphasize orthopraxy at the expense of orthodoxy. Of course, the usual argument or discussion is who decides what is orthodox. It’s a great question. Interpretation is unavoidable. We allow Scripture to interpret itself. History can help us in our interpretations as well. Anyhow, my point is not discuss hermeneutics and right interpretation. I think laboring toward orthodoxy is important because it walks hand in hand with orthopraxy. Our actions are based out of our beliefs. I think this is a point that Dr. Wittmer has made several times.

    Again…nothing new…just thought I would drop in.

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