Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place. By John Ortberg. Carol Streams, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2018. 186 pp. Cloth, $17.99.
The title and subtitle attracted my attention. When someone says he will say “what Jesus really taught,” I am skeptical. I thought this book might be some sort of novel approach to evangelism. In reality, it articulates the same views found in all Lordship Salvation books. However, Ortberg’s approach is a bit different. Rather than coming right out and saying what he means, he slowly develops his ideas and even when he reveals what he thinks the Lord Jesus really taught, he does so in a way that is designed to make his views sound less harsh than they are.
The outline of the book does not make sense to me. It is divided into two parts. Part one is entitled, “Rethinking Salvation.” The three chapter titles under it are 1) Breaking News; 2) The Minimum Entrance Requirements; and 3) Follow Me. Neither the section title nor the three chapter titles tell the reader what he is saying.
Part two is entitled, “Walking with Jesus.” The four chapters under part two are 4) Awakening: Seeing God Everywhere; 5) Purgation: Leaving Baggage Behind; 6) Illumination: A New Mental Map; and 7) Union: Never Alone. Once again, the reader is left not knowing what Ortberg is saying.
All seven chapters are saying the same thing in different ways.
Chapter 1 talks about eternal life, the good news, and the kingdom. Ortberg’s point is that “eternal life is qualitative—it makes a difference in the kind of life we live—more than it is quantitative” (p. 15). That is Lordship Salvation in a nutshell. He says concerning Jesus’ gospel: “You can revise your plans for living around this cosmic opportunity to daily experience God’s favor and power” (p. 18) and “to experience God’s reign in your own life, body, and will” (p. 19). The focus is in “the kind of life we live.” It is not on Jesus and the promise of everlasting life to the believer, since Ortberg is convinced that the issue is not belief, but behavior. Concerning the kingdom, Ortberg suggests that if you will get into heaven in the future, you will experience heaven and God’s kingdom here and now in the way you live (pp. 22-25).
What about “The Minimum Entrance Requirements” (chap. 2)? Wrong question, according to the author. “Salvation isn’t about getting you into heaven; its about getting heaven into you” (p. 33; see also p. 23). “If you proclaim, ‘The revolution is at hand,’ you will tend to produce warriors. If the church proclaims, ‘The gospel is how to get to heaven by doing nothing,’ it will tend to produce people who do nothing” (p. 45). The solution is found in chap. 3.
To be born again, people must heed the Lord’s call to “Follow Me” (chap. 3). “The gospel of the minimum entrance requirements is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’” (p. 51). “Jesus never said, ‘Believe the right things about me, and I’ll let you into heaven after you die.’ His news was something far grander, more cosmic, more life-changing, more costly, more compelling, and more humbling than that” (p. 51). “If you want that life [eternal life], the logical step is to become a disciple—a student, an apprentice, a follower—of Jesus” (p. 52).
Ortberg has many ways to promote Lordship Salvation. Another is to say that Christianity is not “a bounded set,” which is concerned about “the necessary and sufficient conditions for being in,” but is instead “more like a centered set…The center is Jesus…This life is a call to love God with all that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself” (p. 54).
He cites C. S. Lewis as saying that there are people “who are slowly ceasing to be Christians” and others “who are slowly becoming Christians” (p. 57). What does Ortberg mean by citing this? He seems to suggest that the issue is not on the boundaries but on centering our lives more and more on Jesus (p. 60). When, then, would we know we have everlasting life? That is not a concern that Ortberg addresses. That is part of the dreaded minimum entrance requirements mentality. Instead, we center on Jesus.
Ortberg often mentions leading contemplative theologian Dallas Willard in this book. (In fact, Ortberg “is on the board of the Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation” [p. 185].) I wonder if the reason he presses the idea of centering on Jesus is because that is a vital aspect of contemplative spirituality?
Part 2 of the book is about “Walking with Jesus” and the reader finds a continuation of Part 1.
Ortberg recounts the story of a young man who took meth and was an alcoholic who crashed his truck, nearly died, then “he recognized the grace of God and surrendered his life” (p. 77). “He began to preach in the county jail” (p. 77). While Ortberg says that testimony is more dramatic than his, “no one who has met Jesus goes away with a dull habit” (p. 78). According to Ortberg when God awakens someone, he will obey God: “The right response to awakening is obedience. ‘Listen to him’ [a reference to the Father’s words at the Mount of Transfiguration]” (p. 95).
The idea that “nothing in their life has to change at all” is a false gospel (p. 107). “It makes us think we can want grace without wanting Jesus” (p. 108). He then makes this patently false statement, “Genuine repentance never takes as its primary aim the avoidance of punishment” (p. 108). What about Jonah 3 and the Ninevites, which the Lord Jesus spoke of in Matt 12:41?
Ortberg ends chap. 5 suggesting the more we find ourselves loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, then “love begins to outweigh fear” (p. 124). That seems to be his view of assurance of eternal life.
Chapter 6 begins with a quote that captures Ortberg’s understanding of saving faith: “To hold to a doctrine or an opinion with the intellect alone is not to believe it. A man’s real belief is what he lives by” (p. 125). Belief is not being convinced something is true. Belief is works. He rejects the idea that “life with Jesus starts by affirming certain beliefs about him” (p. 133). Instead, “He called people to make following him the center of their lives” (p. 134). “What I do—my ‘works’—reveal what it is I really believe” (p. 136). “To have saving faith is not to believe the minimum amount so God has to let you in” (p. 137). Instead, saving faith is to “do what Jesus himself would do” (p. 137).
The final chapter is entitled, “Union,” and is about abiding in Christ and producing fruit. Though Ortberg does not say it clearly in this chapter, he seems to be coming back to his mantra that we will make it into Jesus’ kingdom, and we will bring it to earth now, if we are abiding in Christ and thereby producing much fruit. “Union with Christ—to abide with him—means that he is present in our minds and can communicate thoughts to us at any moment” (p. 155). That sounds like special revelation, one of the tenets of contemplative spirituality. “To be constantly mindful of God is salvation from worry, fear, and regret” (p. 155). Ultimately, the author says, union with Christ “is the participation of the self in the life of God” (p. 157). “Out of union, love flows” (p. 173). That seems to be Ortberg’s understanding of assurance of everlasting life. Do you see love flowing through you? If so, you are probably born again, assuming love continues to flow through you until you die.
The book, Eternity Is Now in Session, is a different kind of Lordship Salvation book. Ortberg does not explain any Scripture in this book. He is coming at the issue from a more philosophical and pragmatic approach.
I do not recommend this book, except for pastors and theologians who wish to keep abreast of Lordship Salvation.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society