It is to be expected that the element of alienation, so prominent in the vocabulary of Western society today, should produce theological shock waves. Alienation has at its core a loss of the sense of belonging, of acceptance. Alienation may, of course, be purely subjective and cultic. At the same time, the feeling of alienation is an empirical datum, one with which all who work with people must come to grips.

The real question for the Christian, and particularly the Christian theologian, is whether alienation may legitimately become a category for determining theological stance. The easy way in evangelism is, of course, to offer to persons who feel set aside in the march of human events an assurance of easy spiritual acceptance. As one has expressed this easy way, the Church should present a “Jesus with no strings attached.”

The issue reaches a crucial stage for evangelicals when one seeks to define the terms upon which men and women are accepted by God. Theologians, particularly those of the liberal persuasion, find themselves tempted here. John B. Cobb, Jr., for instance, seems to see acceptance as the ultimate category governing the rapprochement between the hearts of men and their maker.

In the volume Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads, Professor Cobb has prepared the way for his statements concerning acceptance (Chapter IX) by his earlier observation that belief in a God who is sovereign in the universe is no longer acceptable. This does, of course, condition his soteriology at many points.

In the chapter “The Grace That Justifies” he observes first that “our need for acceptance, if we are to be freed from the pressure to prove or to justify ourselves, is total.” He goes on to observe that “the basic task of the Church is to announce and realize God’s free acceptance,” and adds that the Church “does so by being itself an accepting and affirming community.”

Concerning the source of man’s acceptance, Cobb observes that “it wells up from within him from depths he did not know he had—from the depths where God is.” This is, of course, an echo of Whitehead’s view of the deity, one that is difficult to square with the Christian understanding of things.

This acceptance-theology is not totally new; prior formulations have paved the way for it. These formulations today seem to be implicit in much of theological thinking, though they seldom find explicit expression.

Perhaps the most pervasive of these is that which rests upon Karl Barth’s view of election-reprobation. This “model” is more diffuse than specific, but is certainly “there” in the theological climate of our decade. Whatever may be urged to the contrary, Barth seems to afford a clear rationale for an unconditional (and possibly universal) acceptance of all men. This rests upon his doctrine of God’s “election of Grace.”

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In his view, Jesus Christ is the Elect Man, in whom all have been chosen. (His explicit statements at this point may be found in his Church Dogmatics II, 2 and 3, and IV, 2 and 3) Crucial here is Barth’s contention that through Christ’s position as Elect Man, all are entitled to fellowship with the Father, since in Jesus Christ “God elected Himself for rejection, damnation and death.”

Is not this universalism? Can Jesus Christ be the “reprobate man” for all, thus ensuring not only an elect destiny for all men but exemption of all from God’s final negative judgment?

The other question that is not answered here is: To what extent if any is man’s acceptance conditioned by his own response? If our own obedience is virtually accomplished in Him, is there need for any response of repentance, of bearing “fruit that befits repentance,” and of deep personal trust in the merits of a Redeemer? Is Barth correct in thinking that the Reformers erred in their concern with the election and reprobation of individuals, rather than with Jesus Christ as the primary object of the divine election?

To turn to the practical implications of the “acceptance theology,” what is the duty of the Christian community in the proclamation of the Good News? It seems clear from the New Testament that the Church is called to do more than bear witness to the “promise” that all are in reality elected in Christ.

Perhaps it is time for evangelicals to be more articulate at the point of some conditionality in the matter of human salvation. It goes without saying that if salvation is for all an eternal occurrence, then any cooperation by man with God, or meeting of such conditions as repentance, is to be rejected uncompromisingly. If Jesus Christ as the Eternal Son is God’s eternal “Yes” to man, then no individual can effectively say “No.”

It may, further, be high time for evangelicals to recognize that while Barth’s opinions, and others similar to his, have served as a popular and tempting catalyst to the theological world at this point, still the thrust of this emphasis is unbiblical. It goes without saying that the idea of salvation upon the simple basis of unconditional acceptance is in accord with the spirit of the age. But is the Church to be a mere thermometer to register world-temperature? Ought not its role to be more like that of the thermostat, so that it sets the temperature of man’s thinking, particularly at a point as crucial as this?

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One dare not minimize the significance of the words of our Lord as he declared himself anointed “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” This lies perennially at the heart of the Gospel. In similar vein Paul declares: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” His appeal swings around the proposition that the death of Christ demands a response of acceptance upon the part of the sinner.

To quote our Lord again: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” These words seem to suggest clearly that our acceptance by God requires a disposition of mind to accept the claims of the One who is the life.

Similarly, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.” It seems supremely difficult, in the light of this clear word, to maintain God’s unconditional acceptance of men and women.

We are not unaware of the easy manner in which the expression “accepting Christ” is used in some circles. Bonhoeffer’s charge of “cheap grace” is not without point in our day. At the same time, a serious reading of the New Testament can scarcely lead to any other conclusion than that repentance, including a determination toward amendment of life, is crucial for our acceptance into the Household of the Redeemer.

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