Last Wednesday, and for the ensuing Wednesdays in January and February, I have the privilege of leading a class on “Engaging God’s World” at Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids. I was a member of Calvary until we moved to the north side in 2003, and it’s where I preached a series of messages on the Christian worldview that became the foundation for Heaven Is a Place on Earth.
I apologize in advance if this seems too self-referential, but as our class discussed what it means to engage God’s world, it struck me that my two books illustrate the journey of conservative evangelicalism over the last ten years and the need for the church’s witness to speak to the needs of the moment.
Heaven intended to correct a lopsided Platonism that continues to afflict our sermons, books, and (especially) worship. The church must insist that God’s creation is good and that he intends to transform every last part of it. We must never reduce God’s cosmic plan of salvation to the evacuation of individual souls into heaven.
Unfortunately, this message has caught on with some people who want to reduce salvation, if you can call it that, to nothing more than social justice and creation care in the here and now. They downplay original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and personal salvation in the afterlife as distractions from pursuing the kingdom in this life. Against this neo-liberalism, the church must insist on the historic doctrines of the Christian faith—which is my point in Don’t Stop Believing.
To use Niebuhr’s categories, we must combine “Christ above culture” with “Christ the transformer of culture.” Or as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is both pearl and leaven. God is worth infinitely more than the world, so we must never reduce the gospel to such good things as caring for the environment, fighting racism, or feeding the poor. But the God who is more valuable than the world commands us to leaven this world for him. So while we cannot reduce the gospel to social and environmental issues, those who get the gospel will care about such things.
One of the class members asked if I would change anything in Heaven if I was writing it today. I said no, but I do think that Heaven only gives an important half of what evangelicals need to hear today. Without giving up one inch of what I wrote there, I need to remind evangelicals of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith (what I more or less assumed when I wrote Heaven in 2004). Given the changing world of evangelicalism, I need the content of both books to give witness to God (DSB) and his world (Heaven).
Final note: I have found that emergent folks like Heaven but not DSB, while conservatives like DSB but some—who think more like Plato than Paul on certain subjects—are critical of Heaven. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s something I have observed.