Enough of Emotional Theology: On the “Yuck Factor” and the Happiness Gospel

We need to understand ourselves fundamentally as a people of truth, not a people of emotion. The truth will always engage and shape our emotions at the deepest level.

Not many days ago, theologian Denny Burk gave the Scudder Lectures on Public Theology here at Midwestern Seminary. Burk engaged two major challenges to biblical Christianity: “gay Christianity” and “transgender Christianity,” showing in his two lectures that the Word cannot enfranchise either identity, much as some well-meaning individuals argue for the same. In the course of the panel discussion with Dr. Burk, MBTS President Jason Allen perceptively pointed out that evangelicals commonly approach fallen culture with little more in mind than the “yuck factor.” In other words, we see something fallen, dislike it on the spot, and walk away disgusted.

This is an important point for Baptist cultural engagement in 2019. Too often, our churches have offered their youth a “yuck factor” theology—and little else. Our response to obvious sin, in other words, has too often been an emotional one. We recoil at iniquity, and train our children to do the same. Our formation of our youth has not always been richly doctrinal, theological, and exegetical. In some places, it has reduced merely to mental gestures, and to a physical drawing-back from sin.

There is a direct connection between such emotional theology and the rise of tolerance among younger evangelicals of homosexuality and transgender. Every so often, a poll of the younger crowd comes to light, showing that surprising numbers of younger evangelicals approve of distinctly unbiblical behaviors and identities. Baptists tend to wring our hands at these numbers. What is happening, we cry to the skies, to our children? The truth of the matter is this: in some instances, we are the ones who have trained our children in these habits. All too often, our youth do not approach the sins of the age from a markedly biblical and theological viewpoint; they approach them in precisely the terms of their training. They practice emotional theology, just as we raised them to do.

Where the old generation shows distaste for the culture, the younger generation shows approval of the culture. They preach what I call the “happiness gospel.” If the true biblical gospel says “Christ died for sinners like you and me, so repent of your sin and trust Him,” the happiness gospel says “God made you and wants you to be happy, so do whatever your heart desires.” The happiness gospel is chill. It’s low-key, live and let live. It doesn’t call for any major change. It says, pursue happiness. The happiness gospel is truly driven by one engine and one engine only: emotion.

You’d never think that the cranky grandfather and the good-vibes millennial operate by the same perspective, but they ironically do. One finds the culture gross and unappealing; the other finds the culture cool and inviting. But both function according to their emotions, even as their emotions pull the different generations in opposite directions. In neither system, we note, does the emotional theologian rightly love the lost; in the negative form, we may despise those who practice sin, while in the positive form, we may cheer those who practice sin. Neither system meets the biblical imperative of loving the lost by graciously speaking the truth that is in Christ to them, and living so as to demonstrate the transforming nature of this gospel to them (Eph. 4:15; Matt. 5:16).

Here is the solution to both sides of this sorry situation: we need to understand ourselves fundamentally as a people of truth, not a people of emotion. The truth will always engage and shape our emotions (or affections) at the deepest level. God wants us to feel rightly (Romans 12:15). But we will only feel rightly when we know rightly. We will only love righteousness and hate wickedness in the mold of Jesus, our Savior and covenant Lord, when we know righteousness and comprehend wickedness (see Hebrews 1:9). We cannot reverse this order; we cannot downgrade our faith from a fundamentally doctrinal and theological faith to an emotional religion. Christianity is a system of truth, albeit truth that lives and pulses and breathes (John 8:32, 14:6).

But how can we recalibrate our people? How can Baptists and evangelicals reject the happiness gospel and move beyond the shallowness of the “yuck factor”? We have one and only one prospect and hope: we must preach and teach the whole counsel of God. Our people need a transformed mind (Romans 12:2). When the mind is renewed, we may test and discover what God’s will is, and then correctly perceive what is τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεσον καὶ τέλειον, “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Without a transformed mind, we will think the wrong things are good and acceptable and perfect; said differently, without a transformed mind, we will love what is bad, and hate what is good.

This text as with many others is thus a summons to pastors and elders to train the sheep in sound doctrine and sound words (1 Tim. 6:3). We need not do nothing fancy, but must seek the theological upbuilding of the whole church through the ministry of the Word. Perhaps we do well to meditate on Colossians 2:2–3, where Paul says that our hearts will be encouraged as we “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” In Christ, Paul goes on to say, we find “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (3). The people of God, the church, need full assurance of understanding, the knowledge of God’s mystery, and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. These delights are found in the Word of God and the Word of God alone, and so pastors must unearth them for the people. (Here is one book that can help convey this Word-saturated worldview.)

Woe to us if we train our youth in emotional theology. The cultural wind is picking up, friends; it is becoming a gale-force wind. When faced with real sin, lived rebellion against God, will you show only a quick emotional reflex—a facial grimace—to your children? If so, know this: you prepare them to do emotional theology, and as the cultural pressure increases, this means that you prepare them to be swept away by the world. They may seem to dislike what is evil now, but when surrounded by non-Christian peers, if they have not been trained deeply in the truth like a spiritual Navy SEAL, they may well flip their emotional response and approve what they once recoiled against. Tragically, they will think they are loving their peers by encouraging their flesh-driven pursuits.

Woe to us if this is the “formation” we offer our precious children in our churches and homes. Let us be done with this. We tried emotional theology for a generation or two. It has blitzed the church and carved it up like a hurricane through a tent meeting. Let us reject the “happiness gospel.” Let us choose what is far better; let us know the truth, love the truth, and from the overflow of this love, speak the truth to sinners just like us.