Thursday, December 15, 2011

Love Came Down

Perhaps the most famous verse in the world is John 3:16. For years, almost every sports event had someone holding up a sign with John 3:16 on it. It’s not uncommon for children to list it as their favorite verse. And even people who never attend church find it warmly familiar. But have you ever thought of it as a Christmas verse? Christmas, after all, celebrates the reality of God’s love. And John 3:16 specifically is about that topic. Let’s break the verse down into four Christmas principles.
1. Love came down for the world.
"For God so loved the world . . ." (John 3:16a)
Think about this first statement carefully. God so loved the world. The sentence in the original biblical Greek is constructed to emphasize God’s love. In other words, this phrase is saying, “God really, deeply, extraordinarily, from the depths of His heart loved the world.”
What makes this so remarkable is not that the fact that God loves. Certainly any conception of a good God would have to include love. But what makes this passage so remarkable is the object of God’s love . . . the world. The world is a bad place. Pick up your newspaper and you’ll read of murder, greed, lust, selfishness and a whole host of other major problems. We are creatures plagued with deep issues. We are not attractive to a perfect being. Yet, He so loves us!
Years ago, when my youngest daughter was three, she was in a school play dressed as a cow. Well, plagued with the thought that I would be a terrible dad if I didn’t videotape every play my kids ever performed in, I charged up the huge video camera we had then, focused the lens directly on her, and started to record. Imagine my surprise when the first image was of her picking her nose in front of God and all creation! It wasn’t her most attractive moment. But here’s the deal. Why did I take the time to bring her to the play, unpack a camera that could kill an elephant, and video tape her concert? Because I love her. I deeply, deeply adore her, from the depths of my heart. Or, to use biblical language, I so love her.
We’re part of the world that love came down for and we are messes. Every single one of us has flaws, and I mean deep flaws. There are things about us that are ugly and make us cringe to even think about. In some sense, we all have our fingers in our noses. But you know what. God adores us! Love came down for the world!
2. Love came down through sacrifice.
". . . that he gave his one and only Son . . ." (John 3:16b)
It’s remarkable that God loves us, but can you imagine how much God must love His son? If you read about the life of Jesus in the Bible, you can’t help but fall in love with Him. His life includes touching the sick, feeding the hungry, and loving the outcast. He is the kindest person to ever walk the planet. And he showed up on Christmas morning as a precious baby in a manger. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for God the Father to give up that child at the first Christmas? That’s how much love came down to us! What sacrifice!
You may be thinking, “God doesn’t love me. How could He love me with all my problems? I don’t even love myself.” Well, I want to encourage you to look at the manger and the cross. God so loved you that He gave His one and only Son to give you the great news that you can be forgiven and have peace with God forever. God gave Jesus to the earth to give us forgiveness and peace with Him.
3. Love came down to those who believe.
". . .that whoever believes in him . . ." (John 3:16c)
Have you ever found a perfect gift for someone and you just knew, “Yes, this is it! This is the best gift I could give!” Well, that’s what the gift of Jesus is like.
But, as with any gift, there is one requirement that you and I have to fulfill in order to get it. We have to accept the gift! The gift will not be ours until we actually reach out and receive it.
John 3:16 says that God has a present for you this Christmas and it’s an eternal, intimate, wonderful relationship with Him that will touch every area of your life. It will give you better health and meaning, improve your relationships, guide you to your purpose in life, and give you a pipeline to the greatest counselor in the universe, God’s Holy Spirit. But the requirement is that you have to receive the gift. The word “believes” above has the connotation of receiving. It means to trust that Jesus was the Son of God and accept His death on the cross alone as the payment for your sins.
You may not know God. You know about Him and admire Him; but you don’t know Him in your heart. Your inner life isn’t intimate with Him. It’s like you watch Him on television, but He’s never been in your living room. Yet somewhere deep inside of you there is a hole. You know something is missing. That void is Jesus . . . an intimate, life-transforming, deep relationship with God. And God is offering you that gift today.
If you haven’t accepted that gift, why not do it this Christmas?
4. Love came down to lift us up.
". . . shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16d)
What does it mean to accept the gift of Jesus, the gift of Christmas? It means eternal life starting now and moving on into the afterlife. It means having a big dose of God in this life and living in Heaven after death. It means God lifts us up eternally.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Remember the line, “God and sinners reconciled?” That’s talking about the payment of Jesus on the cross so that we sinners can be reconciled to God. That’s why Jesus came. Christmas isn’t just about silver and gold, greeting cards, and Santa Clause. It is about eternal life. This Christmas, be lifted up because the love of God Himself actually came down for you. Merry Christmas!!!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Are We in the End Times?

I’ve been in ministry for about 20 years and have often been asked, “Are we in the end times?” The question is usually connected with some current catastrophic event. When some major calamity occurs, the query is natural. The Tsunami, Katrina, the Recession, Global Warming, Social Unrest, and the Israeli/Arab Conflict have all solicited such questions. The world often seems to be in turmoil, so it makes sense to wonder if we’re close.
This question also was on the minds of the early church. For example, in 2 Thessalonians, the church had received news that the “day of the Lord” had begun. A false prophecy had circulated claiming that the world was in the terrible end times’ period known as “the tribulation.” The Prophet Daniel prophecied that a time of judgment would come that would be seven years long. Jesus referred to it in Matthew 24:29 as the tribulation as did other prophets throughout Scripture. It was also frequently called the “day of the Lord” by the prophets. The term “day” in this phrase had more of an “age” connotation to it (like when we say “your day is coming!”). Since the Thessalonian church was in a time of great persecution, they naturally were prone to believe that they were actually in the tribulation and had missed God’s deliverance from it known as “the rapture.” In a previous letter (1 Thes. 5:9), Paul had promised them that they were not appointed to God’s wrath (speaking of the tribulation), and therefore it is logical to assume that the church would be “taken out” before the tribulation by the rapture. So, if the false prophecy claiming the tribulation was upon them was true, then they must have missed the rapture’s rescue from the tribulation. To ease their fears, Paul writes 2 Thes. 2. His answers also provide clarity for us about the end times.

Check out vv. 1-4:
“1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” (2 Thes. 2:1-4).

Notice, Paul refers to “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him.” This is the rapture. They thought they may have missed it. But Paul calms them down. In v. 2 he encourages them to not “become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy . . . saying the day of the Lord has already come.” They thought they were in the end times and that the tribulation had come. And they were freaking out over it! But Paul says that they were given a false prophecy. Just recently, a radio personality and self-proclaimed Bible scholar predicted the coming of Jesus in May of this year and then again in October. He gave false prophecies and many people believed him, even selling their homes. That kind of thing has happened over and over again for thousands of years. Even while the Apostles themselves were still alive, people were making false prophecies and frightening many. But Paul corrects the error and says in v. 3, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way.” We’re to keep our eyes open for spiritual deception and counter it with biblical truth. Then Paul reminds them of what was predicted by Daniel hundreds of years earlier, namely, that the Antichrist will be clearly identified in the last days. Specifically, he will be “revealed” and will set himself up as God in the temple in Jerusalem (v. 4). Since that had not happened at the time of the Thessalonian church, they were assured that they were not in the tribulation, and, therefore, had not missed the rapture.

This teaching applies to us today as well. While the earth is in chaos in many ways and Christians are persecuted terribly throughout the world, we have not yet arrived at the end. How do we know? Well, the Antichrist has not been revealed yet and we have not seen him exalt himself in the Temple of Jerusalem and demand that the world worship him. However, just because we’re not in the tribulation yet doesn’t mean it’s not near. Scripture is clear that it could start at any time, like a “thief in the night” (1 Thes. 5:4). Therefore, it’s important to make sure you’re on God’s side because the end will not be pretty for His enemies. Take a few moments right now and make sure you are Christ’s. If you’re not, tell Him you believe in Him, repent of your sins, ask His forgiveness, and accept the gospel. Then get ready for the rapture!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Can We Support a Mormon?

The recent controversy surrounding Mitt Romney's faith has stirred up confusion within the evangelical landscape. Below is an article by Dr. Wayne Grudem posted on I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it. For the record, Dr. Grudem is an outstanding evangelical theologian. I'll give my thoughts in a later blog.

Why Evangelicals Should Support Mitt Romney
By Wayne Grudem
10/18/2007 As an evangelical professor of Bible and theology, I have decided to support Mitt Romney for President (even though he is a Mormon) for two old-fashioned reasons: First, he is the best-qualified candidate, and second, he holds moral and political values consistent with those in the Bible.

Best-qualified: The best predictor of future performance is a person’s past track record. Romney’s record is stellar:

Intellectual ability: He was in the top 5 percent of his class at Harvard Business School and simultaneously in the top 1/3 of his class at Harvard Law School. He is incredibly intelligent.

Governor of Massachusetts: He won the governor’s race as a Republican in Massachusetts and restored financial discipline to the state. He was a successful governor of a liberal state. This also means he has a good shot at winning some New England states away from the Democrats in the general election.

Business success: He was hired by Bain & Company, one of the elite business consulting firms in the country, and was so successful that he became a partner. He then founded Bain Capital and made it a highly successful investment company. He built a personal fortune of around $200,000,000 in the process, an amazing business achievement. He knows how to run businesses, and what makes them profitable. This indicates a deep and also practical understanding of what kind of policies will be helpful or harmful to an economy, and second, an outstanding management ability proven in both state government and in business, which is a good predictor of ability to be an excellent President. By contrast, no Democratic candidate has ever run a business, a state or even a city.

Chairman of Olympic Games: He also rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. When he was brought in to run the Games he turned what was heading to a scandal-ridden financial and PR disaster into a widely-praised success. This involved massive skill in public relations, media management, diplomacy, morale building, and financial administration. This is Romney’s consistent track record: he solves large problems.

Conservative positions: Romney’s positions on social, economic, and international issues are all soundly conservative. On major issues such as protection of the unborn, a Constitutional amendment to protect marriage, strong national defense and victory against radical Islamic terrorists, securing our border, a signed pledge of no tax increases, promoting school choice, and appointment of Supreme Court justices who will interpret law, not make new law, Romney holds solidly conservative positions. His positions are the ones the majority of evangelicals have supported in the past.

Some people object that Romney has “flip-flopped” on some of these positions. I think that accusation is exaggerated. He hasn’t flip-flopped back and forth, he has simply become more consistently conservative. I think that’s a good thing in a political and media climate that is more and more liberal. (In fact, Ronald Reagan also changed from signing a liberal abortion law as governor of California to being a consistently pro-life president.) Evangelicals have worked for decades to persuade people of the pro-life position, and Romney has been persuaded, and he is strongly on our side on this issue.

What about his religion? Romney is a Mormon, and I strongly disagree with a significant number of Mormon theological beliefs, which I find to be inconsistent with the Bible and with historic Christian teachings. But many Mormon teachings on ethics and values are similar to those in the Bible, and those teachings support Romney’s conservative political values.

Can evangelicals support a candidate who is politically conservative but not an evangelical Christian? Yes, certainly. In fact, it would demonstrate the falsehood of the liberal accusation that evangelicals are just trying to make this a “Christian nation” and only want evangelical Christians in office. For evangelicals to support a Mormon candidate would be similar to supporting a conservative Jewish candidate—someone we don’t consider a Christian but who comes from a religious tradition that believes in absolute moral values very similar to those that Christians learn from the Bible. Here in Arizona a few years ago I voted for Matt Salmon, a Mormon candidate for governor. He lost, but his policies would have been much more conservative than those of Janet Napolitano, who has now vetoed dozens of pro-life, pro-family bills.

Or have we come to the point where evangelicals will only vote for people they consider Christians? I hope not, for nothing in the Bible says that people have to be born again Christians before they can be governmental authorities who are used greatly by God to advance his purposes. God used Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to raise Joseph to a position of authority over the whole country, so he could save his people from famine (Genesis 41:37-57). God used Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, to protect and raise up Daniel and his Jewish friends to positions of high authority over Babylon (Daniel 2:46-49). God used Cyrus, King of Persia, to restore the Jewish exiles to their homeland (Isaiah 45:16; Ezra 1:1-4), and used Darius, King of Persia, to protect the Jewish people as they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 6:1-12). God used Ahashuerus, King of Persia, to raise up Esther as Queen and to give Mordecai high authority and honor in his kingdom (Esther 6:10-11; 8:1-2, 7-15). In the New Testament age, God used the peace enforced by the secular Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, to enable the early Christians to travel freely and spread the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean world.

Here in the United States, God used not only Founding Fathers who were strong Christians, but also Deists such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, to build the foundation of our nation. Jefferson even became our third President in 1801, a demonstration of the wisdom of Article 6 of the Constitution, which says, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

The Bible tells us to pray not just for Christians who happen to have government offices, but “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1 Timothy 2:2). It is not just Christians in government but all governing authorities who are “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1) and whom Paul can call “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4).

People may object, “But a lot of people won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon.” I suppose there will be some people like that, but there are three current and historical facts that make me think that problem will diminish as the campaign goes on: First, look to Massachusetts, where Romney won the governor’s race in a very liberal state because people saw his competence and common decency and elected him, and his Mormonism didn’t matter to them. Second, consider the situation in Iowa, where there are a lot of evangelicals, and Romney remains the front-runner in the polls. Third, remember Michigan, where Mitt Romney’s father George was a popular governor from 1963 to 1969, even though he was a Mormon.

When people get to know who Romney is, his Mormonism seems not to be a big deal in a political election. The hypothetical question, “Would you vote for a Mormon?” is very different from, “Now that you have gotten to know who Mitt Romney is, would you vote for him?” The more voters get to know him, the more his Mormonism doesn’t matter much.

Ability to win: Romney grew up in Michigan, where his father was governor, and he still has strong name recognition there. This gives him a good chance at winning some Midwest industrial states, a key to the election. And he would make Massachusetts highly competitive, since he was recently governor there. In fact, by winning the governor’s race as a Republican in a solidly Democratic state, he has proven that he can win large numbers of Democratic votes in an election.

In addition, I think Romney would not just tie but win in presidential debates against Hillary Clinton: he’s smarter, more articulate, and more experienced. And the conservative values he stands for still resonate with the majority of Americans. In addition, nearly everyone who has known Romney finds him genuinely likable, which would work to his advantage over Hillary’s abrasive personality in the long months of a campaign.

There are other Republican candidates with conservative positions, but they haven’t generated anywhere near as much support as Romney, probably because more and more voters are deciding that Romney is much better qualified (my point above), and that he is simply the best candidate: articulate, persuasive, intelligent, mature, strong, successful in several fields and a genuine leader.

Therefore it seems to me that supporting Mitt Romney who has a very reasonable chance of winning makes more sense at this point than supporting someone who is not persuading many Republican voters, or speculating about supporting a third-party candidate who can’t win and who would effectively hand Hillary Clinton 2 to 4 Supreme Court appointments and thereby undo 25 years of pro-life work in trying to change the Supreme Court.

The situation as it looks today: Apart from Romney, I don’t think there is any other solidly conservative candidate who can beat Giuliani in the primaries. As for McCain and Thompson, they are not reliably conservative. Among the “second-tier” candidates, there are some good men with solid positions, but they have not generated much support. With the early primary schedule nearly upon us it isn’t reasonable to hope that one of them will suddenly “take off.” There is not enough time now to build sufficient funding and a large enough support structure before January.

So it seems to me that if evangelicals don’t support Romney in a significant way, Giuliani will be the Republican candidate. So then we will have a pro-abortion, pro-gay rights candidate who is on his third marriage and had a messy affair prior to his divorce from his second wife. Then we will lose any high moral ground and the enthusiasm of the evangelical vote (many of whom will just sit it out), and the difference between Giuliani and Clinton will be only one of degrees as he shifts leftward in the general election to appeal to the “middle.” So then if we lose, we lose, and even if we win, we lose on the crucial moral issues of abortion and protection of marriage. Romney is a much better choice. But he needs evangelical support now if he is going to win.

Wayne Grudem
Wayne Grudem is Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Arizona.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Kid Shows

The following is written for Breitbart's Big Hollywood website ( by a friend of mine and filmmaker, Tommy Wood. Tommy and I have worked on one film project and are currently discussing other film possibilities. He's a follower of Christ who has a very bright future in movies. Please pray for his success. This article has gained some attention and is an excellent example of how Christians should speak up in their sphere's of influence for the greater good of our culture. Check out Tommy's insights.

Children’s Programming Not So Innocent Anymore

Posted By Tommy Wood On September 17, 2011 @ 5:55 am In Culture, Featured Story, Politics, Television | 111 Comments

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Tommy Wood and encourage his return! — JN

Could it be that somewhere, someone is targeting our kids? Not with bullets made of lead but with surgical strikes of agenda. A scheme scripted and softly veiled (sometimes not) into the nonsensical programming they love so much. As if the ridiculous plot points and mind-numbing hyperactivity aren’t bad enough, there is something else in play that’s even more contrived than their recycled storylines. Some might think me hypersensitive, but consider this… if you see it in media, it is on purpose. It was written, rehearsed, shot, edited and delivered.

If it’s in there, it’s intentional. Never forget that.

[1]How about a date?

So what, then, am I so tweaked about? I’m a father of three children; ages six, eleven and thirteen. For years, it has troubled me that a selection of children’s shows were laced with strains of propaganda and amoral thought. Some suggest they have scientific proof that modern children’s programming dumbs one down. But, it has the potential to be much more dangerous than that. No matter what side of the political fence you are on, there is one thing upon which I think we can all agree. We don’t want our children exposed to certain subject matter before they are ready, much less have someone else’s opinion subconsciously embedded in their minds.

I’m guessing by now you would like an example. I’m cool with that. As funny as the show can be, one of the repeat offenders is Nickelodeon’s iCarly. They follow the standard “aimed at tweens” obsession with first kisses, gross-out gags, rebellion and celebrity status. The show is full of small desensitizing moments that include a half-naked chubby boy, made up “cuss” words and disrespect for adults. Not too long ago, an episode called iWant MY Website Back aired. Spencer, Carly’s crazy adult brother, dressed in elderly drag in order to hoodwink the grating Nevel. The affable Jerry Trainor, who plays Spencer, sold the gag and yes, it was funny when an older man was mistakenly taken with her… I mean him. If it stopped there, fine. Of course, it did not. Later in the episode the doorbell rings, and it’s the old man. With a desperate tone, he tells Spencer to put the wig back on, and they can try again. At a minimum, this brings into question sexual orientation. So many issues are layered in that moment that we almost have to applaud the writer’s skill at subtext (just kidding). Still, should this content be couched in a primetime kids’ show on a kids’ network?

Don’t answer yet.

I have an even more unsettling example. Remember … if it’s in there, it is on purpose.

Disney just launched a new series called Kickin’ It. (Speaking of new Disney series… Disney, please cancel A.N.T. Farm. It just sucks. I digress.) The third episode of Kickin It contains a suggestion I would never have expected to see in a kids’ show. Ever. One of the characters, Jerry, claims to have the ability to talk to dogs. Because he was raised by wolves. In the episode, Dummy Dancing, Jerry distracts a police K-9 dog, so his friends can sneak into an office and steal a flash drive. Jerry talks to the dog. The dog just sits there, as you would expect. Then, with romantic undertones, Jerry tells the dog, “My perfect day would end with a moonlit walk on the beach.” Next, a policewoman walks up and the conversation goes like this…

POLICEWOMAN – What are you doing with my dog?
JERRY – I’m just getting to know her.
POLICEWOMAN – You know he’s a boy right?
JERRY – This is really awkward.
POLICEWOMAN – It is for all of us.

I agree. Awkward.

Am I going to point to sexual orientation here? No. At least not the way you might think. This moment in the story is nothing short of a subtle implication towards bestiality. Call me crazy, but it’s in there. It’s on purpose. The suggestion is that if this dog were a female… maybe Jerry has a shot with her. Liberal or conservative… this is wrong. Not right. With some people in this world trying to remove the stigma of pedophilia, I have no doubt there are those who have no limits.

Parents should not have to be on guard concerning children’s programming. They should be able to feel comfortable about leaving their kids in front of the TV for thirty minutes. I want to commend a couple of shows that, in my opinion, give them that. Even though many times they follow the recipe of talking louder than the last person who spoke, shows like Good Luck Charlie, So Random and Spongebob Squarepants give parents that level of security. At least for now.

We all have to be aware. Turn it off it you deem it wrong for your family. Don’t just accept it. Demand better. Support the good stuff. Let the producers know what matters to you. And, if this doesn’t matter to you… it should.

Full Episode of iCarly – iWant My Website Back [2]

Full Episode of Kickin It – Dummy Dancing [3]

Friday, August 19, 2011

Priesthood of Believers

Proponents of congregationalism often cite 1 Peter 2 in support of the idea that every member of a local church is to have authority with regard to the decisions of the church. The texts quoted are:
"4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Pet. 2:4-5)
"9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1 Pet. 2:9).
The Evangelical Free denomination (EFCA) states “based on the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6; 5:9), we believe that the will of Christ for his church is best discerned through the collective understanding of the congregation. Therefore, the congregation is the highest governing authority under Christ for the local church.” (Evangelical Convictions, p. 261).
But is this what the phrase actually means in Scripture? I’m not so sure. The Holman Bible Dictionary indicates that the priesthood of the believer primarily refers to two aspects: 1. Believers have direct access to God and can respond to the Spirit’s activity in their lives without the need for a professional priest to mediate their contact with Him. 2. Believers have the right and responsibility to minister directly to one another and the world. A professional priest is not the only one who can be a direct channel of God’s Spirit to others. In the Old Testament, usually only the professionally ordained priests could directly hear God for the people and communicate to the people on God’s behalf. Now, since the death and resurrection of Christ, anyone who is a true Christian has direct access to God. What a wonderful blessing!
But, personally, I believe the EFCA statement above takes the doctrine too far when it suggests that this phrase pertains to local church government. The 1 Peter passages listed above say nothing about church government or decision making in a local body. On the contrary, Peter is very specific about the implications of this priesthood. He states that it is a position where “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” are to be made (1 Pet. 2:5) and where “the praises of him” are to be “declared” (1 Pet. 2:9). This corresponds to Holman’s explanation above. However, later in the same publication, the EFCA qualifies its interpretation by stating that the Scriptures clearly teach that pastors and elders are given the mandate and authority to lead local churches. Specifically, the denomination states that “an EFC (Evangelical Free Church) entrusts much of the decision-making to godly leaders who are trained, trusted and allowed to lead.”
Where do I land? Well, I believe that the priesthood enables any believing member of a local church the possibility to hear directly from God. I also believe that God has clearly indicated that the Sr. Pastor, other elders (often in the form of a Church Council), and the staff of a local church are entrusted with the authority and leadership of local churches and that such authority is ordained by God and not man. In light of this, I think any Sr. Pastor of a local church would be wise to have a system of prayerful congregational participation for major decisions under the guidance of ordained leaders. Specifically, I think a church should have congregational membership meetings covered in prayer with biblical rules of order where the church membership should inform decisions regarding five areas: 1. Selection of the governing board. 2. Selection of the Sr. Pastor. 3. Alterations in the Constitution/bylaws. 4. Approval of the Annual Church Budget. 5. Approval of major purchases. This, it seems to me, offers a balance between hyper-democratic church government (which so often leads to stagnation and a least common denominator, popularity-based decision process) and an extreme hierarchical church government (which leaves the clergy with little accountability).
No system of church government is perfect this side of Heaven. It also seems to me that the Bible is purposely vague on the particulars of church government at times, leaving each local body and branch of Christ’s Church to turn to His Spirit for guidance in how to function most effectively for its particular community and time in history. Ultimately, it’s all about Him and regardless of what government a church has, if the Pastor and the people are passionate about Christ and submissive to His leadership, God will bless the fellowship. May we all seek this blessed ideal!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Congregational Voting

In my last entry, I suggested the possibility of a mature membership, thus negating many of the problems Dr. MacDonald correctly addressed in many, if not most, congregational structures. But my argument has a weakness, namely it does not provide a biblical example of such a membership. We will, therefore, turn to three of the most cited passages in support of congregationalism: Acts 6:2-5, Matthew 18:17, and 2 Cor. 2:6. Once again, I will use a conversational format to engage with Dr. MacDonald’s blog. Let’s start with him:
(Dr. MacDonald’s Blog). Voting Is Not Biblical
The right to vote may be an American right given by the Constitution, but it is not a kingdom right given in the Word of God. It may be a tradition of some wonderful streams of church history, e.g. Baptist, but it is not biblical. There is not a shred of biblical evidence for a congregation voting on what its direction should be, but many church members believe it is their ‘God-given right’ to stand in judgement over the Pastors and Elders that are seeking to lead them. Even Mark Dever, a personal friend, champion for congregationalism, and credible scholar admits, “But the functioning of a purely congregational system is both unwieldy and lacking biblical support. Instead the establishment of a body of elders to serve in the day-to-day leadership in spiritual matters, serving at the pleasure of the congregation, enables us to maintain both the traditional distinctive of congregational life and the clearly biblical structure of elders.”
****(Rusty). Dr. MacDonald is correct in his assertion that much of what we call congregationalism is simply a sanctified form of American democracy. But I do not agree that there is not a shred of biblical evidence for voting. There is, at least, a shred. Let’s look at the three above mentioned passages.
Acts 6:2-5: “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group.”
In this passage, the Twelve Apostles asked “all the disciples” (v. 2) to “choose seven men from among” them to be the first deacons (v.3). Granted, the passage doesn’t say there was a vote that happened, but some democratic mechanism for choosing was certainly used. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that a congregation of committed “disciples” (that is, mature believers who are serious about God) should be involved in the selection of officers for the church body. It should also be pointed out, however, that the Apostles (who at the time were in the role of Elders) held final veto authority on the selected candidates. In Acts 6:6, we see the Apostles (Elders) confirming the vote by praying and laying their hands on the candidates. So, this was not an extreme democratic procedure, but a congregational affirmation process. Recently, at First Free, we made a motion to do away with a purely popular vote process of appointing candidates for our elder level roles at the church (Council and Elders) and moved to a more exhaustive screening process complete with congregational nomination, congregational affirmation, and pastoral/elder confirmation.
Matthew 18:17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” This passage shows the culmination of the quintessential scriptural process of church discipline. The context gives a normative pattern for conflict: 1. Go to the offender privately. 2. If unresolved, take one or two godly witnesses (many argue these witnesses should be elders). 3. If still unresolved due to unrepentance, present it to the church. Clearly, the passage indicates that the church body has some role in the discipline of an unrepentant, disruptive member. But, again, no vote is specifically indicated. When combined with other passages (ie. 1 Tim. 5:17), it seems reasonable that the leaders of the church who serve and represent the congregation should handle the mechanics of this process and at some point present such situations to the congregation in a report format. Recently, at First Free, we had an unrepentant member removed from church membership due to disciplinary action on the part of the Elders. During our business meeting, we asked all non-members to exit the room and then reported the action to the church body. While no vote took place, the congregation was made aware of the situation appropriately and in accordance with the clear instruction given in the passage to “tell it to the church.” This passage, however, is admittedly weak if used as a defense for a congregation voting on all decisions of the church.
2 Cor. 2:6: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.” Again, we have a situation concerning church discipline in which the congregation is clearly included. There can be no doubt that some sins are of such a severity that it becomes necessary for an entire congregation to be made aware of them. We know from 1 Tim. 5:19-20 that gross sin by a Pastor is definitely to be stated publicly to the congregation. Other examples also seem to apply (as in perverse sexual sin, see 1 Cor. 5). Voting may be a part of the idea here as in a congregation voting to remove the one disciplined. This could arguably be an application of the idea of punishment being inflicted on him or her by the majority. However, the passage does not state any procedure of congregational voting and more naturally lends itself to appropriate “shunning” by a congregation for blatant and damaging sin to the body. For example, a Sr. Pastor caught embezzling large amounts of the church’s finances or an Elder abusing children in the church without remorse or repentance should feel the strong disapproval of the church body. This is a “punishment” that Paul teaches as appropriate in certain egregious situations. But, again, voting on all church decisions is not clearly articulated or endorsed by the passage.
Since these three passages are often prominently used to support congregationalism, MacDonald's theological disagreement with congregationalists is understandable. However, just because these passages don’t clearly promote voting per se, we can't make the argument that they forbid voting. And they certainly do endorse the idea of congregational participation, or, at the very least, congregational affirmation. I, therefore, do not agree with Dr. MacDonald that congregationalism is necessarily satanic or that it is without a shred of evidence in the Bible. But I am persuaded that many of the congregational patterns in our churches are counterproductive, inefficient, and, at times, sinful and should be seriously evaluated.

Another passage that is also cited as a primary scripture in favor of congregationalism is 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
I will elaborate on this passage in my next entry.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What if the "Congregation" is all Mature?

In response to Dr. MacDonald’s Blog entry on Congregationalism, I felt it would be best to directly interact with it in a conversational style. That is to say, I’ll post his blog in thought units and then respond immediately to them. My comments will be marked with the following ***. I will also deal with each point in separate blogs, so this subject will be on our radar for some time.

Dr. James MacDonald - Blog
"NOTE: the tone of this post is intentionally aimed at influencing those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.

***(Rusty)I think it’s important to note that Dr. MacDonald qualifies what he is talking about. Specifically, he’s addressing a church government “that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.” In another blog article, Dr. MacDonald further defines this government as one in which the congregation actually rules the church, trumping all elder and pastoral authority to the point where Robert’s Rules of Order are more important than the Bible itself. He is addressing a form of extreme democracy in the church where issues of theological importance are left in the hands of a voting system where every member has equal authority regardless of spiritual maturity. He is not addressing a church government with leaders who encourage congregational participation and even voting on certain issues (ie. the selection of elders). Note the following quote from Dr. MacDonald, “Clearly the congregation has a role in church life. Those who believe in Elder rule should recognize this participation by the congregation and the need to bring them into important church actions. However, a role of participation is a long way from final authority, voting, and Robert’s Rules of Order. Congregational participation under Eldership is not congregational government and the conversation would be advanced if proponents would stop using this passage (Matt. 18) to defend the most common configurations of congregationalism today.” It should also be pointed out that Dr. MacDonald’s post is, by his own admission, a “rant” and not an exhaustive theological treatise on the subject. Make no mistake about it, James MacDonald knows the Bible well and is highly intelligent. It is likely that most of us would be smashed to pieces in an actual debate with him and end up sucking our thumbs and crying “MaMa!” afterwards. This is not to say he’s correct. Just because someone is an excellent debater doesn’t mean he’s right. But, he’s no theological novice and his arguments should be taken seriously. Note his response to some vicious criticism that came his way after this post, “Many commented demanding I refute the biblical passages used to defend congregational government, as though I had failed to do so because I was not able. Oh please, it was a rant, not an air-tight argument (as many rightly observed). Ranting is okay on a blog, isn’t it? (Crazy how even some blogs that pride themselves on their hyperbole and sarcasm can’t see it in others.)”

MacDonald Blog again: That’s right! It’s actually the title to a book I have had percolating in my mind for a long time. After almost 30 years in ministry I have come irreversibly to this conclusion: congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. So there, I have said the strongest part of the message first; now some commentary.
1) Congregational Meetings Are Forums for Division:
When church life is going well, the leaders of a church struggle to get a quorum for decision making. When things are going wrong, every carnal member lines up at a microphone to spew their venom and destroy the work of Christ in the church. I saw it growing up, and I have seen it since in churches that are fighting to survive and do something courageous for their future. Good people being held hostage by bad people, minorities hijacking the majority because a set of ‘by-laws’ get higher regard than the Scriptures. Satan does want to rip church unity to shreds like a devouring lion (1 Peter 5:8). He is accomplishing that again and again through a system of church government which elevates the fleshly and the worldly—often even those who no longer attend—to a status of influence equal to the most spiritually and biblically-minded in any congregation.

***(Rusty)When I interviewed at First Free, Rockford, I was asked how I thought a church should be run. My answer was that I believed the best way was to follow a “Staff Led, Elder Protected, and Congregation Fulfilled” model. It has been my experience that every healthy church I’ve ever seen or served in had a similar model of church leadership and I made it clear that this would be the ideal I would influence First Free toward. Dr. MacDonald states, rather vividly, some reasons why I believe in this model. Recently I was talking to another pastor of a large church in our area about their church government. After years of hard work and uncomfortable church meetings, he had finally led his fellowship to an efficient and effective leadership model. As we were discussing it, he stated the problem with the church’s previous government succinctly with a memory of his childhood. He said, “When we were kids, we’d sit in the balcony during business meetings. We loved it because we got to watch our parents in the circus down below.” He described memories of church members assaulting one another during business meetings and the microphone being handed out indiscriminately to anyone who wanted to share “their concerns.” For the kids, it was a show full of drama, posturing, and appalling attacks the likes of which would make Congress blush. I’ve seen this in churches I’ve attended and have no doubt such displays are disastrous for the church and grievous to the heart of a loving God. There can be no doubt that any church government that encourages such a travesty in the Body of Christ is, at best, dysfunctional and, at worst, sinful. I completely agree with Dr. MacDonald on his point that our churches cannot in any way elevate fleshly and worldly voices to a place of influence that Scripture clearly assigns to the most spiritually mature. However, what if all the members of a church had a level of maturity that would be considered highly developed? What if the membership process was carried out so skillfully that only those who are truly devoted to Christ and His Word have a voice in such meetings? I think Pastor Rick Warren’s insights into the three concentric circles of every church is helpful here. There are three groups that overlap in every church: The crowd, the congregation, and the core. The crowd includes everyone who shows up for Easter. The church is their church insomuch as when they attend church, they go to this particular church (however, this may be as little as once a year or quarter). These are usually not the mature Christians of the fellowship, and often they are not saved at all. The congregation consists of those who regularly attend the church weekly, but are not involved in the programs greatly. They value worship on Sundays and may even be growing spiritually, but they are not committed to the fellowship enough to give sacrificially or serve in any meaningful capacity. These are typically more mature than the crowd, but probably do not possess leadership-level maturity. The core is the faithful, sacrificial, regular, and biblical members of the church. They are sold out for Christ and have demonstrated as much through their lives. These people are the mature and are, typically, in healthy churches, the leaders of the church. The church’s leadership posts are usually filled by such people and, biblically, they should indeed be given greater authority. Also, it should be noted, that Pastors, Staff, and Elders (or Church Council in First Free’s structure) should be heavily screened and tested to ensure that they embody this group and are, therefore, the most mature (or, at the very least, represent well the most mature) in the church (see 1 Tim. 3).
The problem I see with Dr. MacDonald’s critique at this point of the discussion is that he doesn’t seem to make allowance for the possibility that the core (which may number more than the Pastor, Staff, and Elders—that is to say, there may be more mature people in a church than offices they can fill) could conceivably be the membership, and, therefore would be led of the Lord in a congregational business-meeting setting. This is one of the issues with which I’m currently challenging our leadership. I want to know that all leaders are very serious about God and are spiritually mature. I also want to have a more excellent process by which to evaluate the maturity of those we nominate for office. And, I’m pushing for a more rigorous membership process. There have been times I’ve been puzzled with how individuals could have possibly become members of our church when serious flaws in character are so readily apparent by their actions. Due diligence is often not followed when it comes to membership, and this should be taken more seriously in all of our churches. Dr. MacDonald’s blog further strengthens my resolve to move away from popularity contests for leadership positions and hyper-democracy (ie. anyone can go to the microphone, even if clearly dysfunctional) in the future.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Is Congregationalism Wrong?

Dr. James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel recently posted the following on his blog regarding congregational government in churches. While I highly respect Pastor MacDonald, I don't agree with everything he says here. But, he does make some interesting observations. I'd be interested in your feedback. What do you think? After I hear back, I'll give some comments of my own. Here's his post:

Dr. James MacDonald - Blog

"NOTE: the tone of this post is intentionally aimed at influencing those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.

That’s right! It’s actually the title to a book I have had percolating in my mind for a long time. After almost 30 years in ministry I have come irreversibly to this conclusion: congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. So there, I have said the strongest part of the message first; now some commentary.

1) Congregational Meetings Are Forums for Division:
When church life is going well, the leaders of a church struggle to get a quorum for decision making. When things are going wrong, every carnal member lines up at a microphone to spew their venom and destroy the work of Christ in the church. I saw it growing up, and I have seen it since in churches that are fighting to survive and do something courageous for their future. Good people being held hostage by bad people, minorities hijacking the majority because a set of ‘by-laws’ get higher regard than the Scriptures. Satan does want to rip church unity to shreds like a devouring lion (1 Peter 5:8). He is accomplishing that again and again through a system of church government which elevates the fleshly and the worldly—often even those who no longer attend—to a status of influence equal to the most spiritually and biblically-minded in any congregation.

2) Voting Is Not Biblical
The right to vote may be an American right given by the Constitution, but it is not a kingdom right given in the Word of God. It may be a tradition of some wonderful streams of church history, e.g. Baptist, but it is not biblical. There is not a shred of biblical evidence for a congregation voting on what its direction should be, but many church members believe it is their ‘God-given right’ to stand in judgement over the Pastors and Elders that are seeking to lead them. Even Mark Dever, a personal friend, champion for congregationalism, and credible scholar admits, “But the functioning of a purely congregational system is both unwieldy and lacking biblical support. Instead the establishment of a body of elders to serve in the day-to-day leadership in spiritual matters, serving at the pleasure of the congregation, enables us to maintain both the traditional distinctive of congregational life and the clearly biblical structure of elders.”

3) Eldership Is Sometimes Unpopular
Elders are responsible to “shepherd the flock” (1 Peter 5:2), which is often a very dirty job. Calling out sin, dealing with those who have fallen and seeking their restoration (Galatians 6:1-4), these responsibilities put Elders in positions where doing the right often means doing the unpopular. To then force the Elders to submit to a referendum on their actions is crushing to good men and destroys the work of God in a church. Rather, coming under a group of godly men will always be the best opportunity for a church to live in submission to God’s Word and Spirit. In recent years we have seen many churches taken captive by a few vocal people who, like Alexander the coppersmith exposed by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:14, do “much harm.” The Elders spend the majority of time trying to keep these blasphemous enemies of the gospel in line and often finish their term of leadership crushed by the weight of unrelenting criticism.

4) Congregationalism Crushes Pastors
Statistics tell us that Pastors move every 2-3 years and that a pastor typically leaves a church because of 8 people. If you wonder how just eight people can so resist and refuse and ruin the calling of a gifted and trained messenger of the gospel then you have not spent much time in congregational settings. Just one elder’s wife, or one women’s ministry director, or one chairman of the building committee can consume a pastor and erode the support he needs to serve the church well. A lot of the men writing today in favor of congregational government defend it as a tradition, and are so effective as leaders that they are able to suppress the inevitable uprising of carnality—but that is not so in the vast majority of small congregationally-stifled churches. I could retire now if I had banked a hundred dollars for every time a Pastor wept to me on the phone or in person about the crushing weight of a local ‘church boss’ who would not listen to Scripture or reason or God’s Holy Spirit. Many of the Pastors who have come into Harvest Bible Fellowship these past years have come seeking a new model of church government that frees them from the tyranny of the untrained and untrainable.

5) Priesthood Not Eldership of All Believers
A significant plank in the platform of biblical protestantism has been the priesthood of all believers. This is the idea that all of us as followers of Christ have equal standing before God and do not need a clerical intermediary in our relationship with the Lord. Sadly, though, this has led in many congregations to the Eldership of all believers—where each person, regardless of training, giftedness, fruitfulness, experience, etc., considers their thoughts about the future of a given congregation to be of equivalent value. Satan uses this expectation to create in people a demand to be heard, an insistence that their thoughts on the future of a church—no matter how quickly formed, or singularly held—receive validation equal that of a Pastor/Elder. When the vote takes place people are polarized, and factions sit back and wait for the plans they did not support with their vote to fail. (Sadly similar to the way most people view a president for whom they did not vote). It’s impossible to reconcile that process with:
Hebrews 13:17 “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give an account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”
Down with congregational government. Not the people who believe in it or appreciate its history, not the good or bad people who try to function well in a bad system—down with the system itself. Let’s send congregational government back to hell where it came from. It’s unbiblical, unhealthy and too often a tool of Satan for the discouragement of good Pastors, godly Elders, and local churches everywhere.

You are welcome to engage in this discussion. Let’s stick to biblical defenses of congregationalism (which should be a short section) and anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness. I expect also to hear from Pastors who have suffered under its tyranny." -Dr. James MacDonald

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Three Keys to Blessing: Key 3

A Final Key to Blessing (other than not listening to false prophets like the dude who keeps predicting Christ's return!) is Ministry. If you want to be blessed, be a blessing to others. Now, I'm not just talking about "the ministry" as in pastoral ministry (although it's a great profession and an honorable calling from God). But ministry, at its essence, means "to serve." When we serve others, it comes back on us. God commands us to serve one another many times in Scripture. One that stands out to me is John 13:13-17: "13. You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. 17. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them." Jesus stoops down and washes His disciples’ feet. I find it amazing that He not only washed those who were following Him, He washes those who would betray Him! Jesus washed the feet of Judas! Wow! But notice what He promises for those who follow His example: "God will bless you." If we serve, we will be blessed.
So, have you picked up a towel lately? What about with that mean neighbor or that coworker who is a jerk to you every day? How can you serve those people without encouraging their sin? Is there a way you can show them grace? Such is the pathway to blessing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is May 21 the Day?

Recently, my oldest daughter asked if the world will end on May 21. I asked her why she thought it might and she told me that her school is abuzz about a prophecy recently given by some personality (probably Harold Camping, who's made similar predictions in the past, which obviously didn't pan out). My answer to her was, "I hope so. I can't wait to get to Heaven!" And she said, "That's right!"
It amazes me how much ink is spilled and hands wrung over the timing of Christ's return. If you are His, then what are you worried about? I love Randy Alcorn's response quoted below on this topic. May it bless you!

"Some Christians are obsessed with prophecy literature. I myself was as a young Christian in the 1970’s when all of us were reading The Late Great Planet Earth and proving to each other that Christ had to return by 1980. Our youth group leaders taught us that this was an absolute certainty, confirmed by God’s Word. Obviously they were wrong. Ever since then, it’s been hard for me to get excited about popular evangelical interpretations of current events as related to the Bible. I’ve heard a string of dozens of “men who must be the Anti-Christ” during the forty years since I became a Christian as a teenager. You will pardon me if I don’t have much interest in the latest theories.
When believers put too much emphasis on issues such as the timing of the rapture or the identity of the Anti-Christ, it distracts us from our more important callings, such as loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and living lives characterized by justice, mercy and humility. The primary focus of each day should be, 'God, as I seek your face in prayer and through your Word, and as I yield my life to you, please use me for your eternal purposes and for your glory,' not, 'Here’s why I believe the rapture/second coming/judgment will happen on this day, and never mind that Jesus said that can’t be known.'
2 Peter 3:10-14 says, 'But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. …the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. … But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.'
The important thing is that we believe in the return of Christ, and that we live lives of eternal perspective and godliness in light of our imminent deaths and His imminent return."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Three Keys to Blessing: Key 2

Key #2 is Unity. The Bible teaches that unity is crucial for God's favor. Jesus prays this in His priestly prayer in John 17:33:
"May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" John 17:23. Paul reaffirms the principle in Ephesians 4:3 and elsewhere: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."
If we are to get along with God's work, we must learn to get along with each other. Unity requires humility. It asks the Spirit to search my heart and see if I'm being prideful or selfish with respect to my brother or sister in Christ. Unity also apologizes for any wrong.
Throughout the ages, when God's people made unity forged around integrity to God's Word and humility before His Spirit a non-negotiable of their daily lives, great blessing was poured out. So, how are you doing? Does the age of rugged individualism and rebellion move you more than God's heart? Maybe it's time to forgive or to say, "I'm so sorry." It's a key to blessing!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Three Keys to Blessing: Key 1

Most people want the blessing of God. I've noticed that even unbelievers, when in crisis, will usually not turn down prayer. Often, their view of blessing is found in rituals of some kind. If I wear this bracelet, if I say this chant, if a minister touches me and says a prayer, if I do the hokey pokey and turn myself around, etc, etc, then I'll be blessed. But the keys to blessing are MUCH MORE SUBSTANTIAL than dry, external, religious formulas. If you or I want to have the favor of God upon us, there are some very specific ways to position ourselves in the river from which all blessings flow. Let me share three keys to blessing that are obvious according to God's Word:
Throughout the Bible, blessing is often impeded when sin goes unchallenged and is tolerated. For example, in Joshua 7:1, a man by the name of Achan takes some pagan items into his home and compromises not only his own holiness, but that of the entire nation of Israel. Take a look: "But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD'S anger burned against Israel." Joshua 7:1. Due to this toleration of sin, God actually gets angry and Israel experiences defeat in battle soon after. If we want blessing, it is imperitive that we are serious about sin. We must periodically audit our spiritual lives through prayer and, when discovered, confess our sins before God while asking Him to give us a delight in holiness. Just recently, God spoke to me about a sin I had committed through thoughlessness and an off-colored joke. I felt the Holy Spirit point out the sin and I sensed God's displeasure in it. And the Lord didn't let me off the hook immediately. For a few days, the ugliness of my words to the ears of a holy God was acute in my conscience. The Spirit then led me to confess it to Him directly and then to my wife. Immediately, I felt His forgiveness as I have so many times in the past. And the truth of 1 John 1:8-9 was felt in my heart. An impediment to the flow of blessing was removed. Are there any sins of which you need to repent? Is there a blockage to blessing in your heart? Follow God's Word, repent, and confess. It is a key to blessing.
"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:8-9.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spurgeon's Easter Hope

Charles Spurgeon was one of the greatest preachers in history. He pastored in London during the late 1800's, where God granted him a tremendous ministry. The following is an inspiring segment of a message he gave on Easter and how it relates to the future of all who trust Christ:
"One more doctrine we learn . . . the doctrine of the resurrection. Jesus rose, and as the Lord our Saviour rose, so all his followers must rise. Die I must—this body must be a carnival for worms; it must be eaten by those tiny cannibals; peradventure it shall be scattered from one portion of the earth to another; the constituent particles of this my frame will enter into plants, from plants pass into animals, and thus be carried into far distant realms; but, at the blast of the archangel's trumpet, every separate atom of my body shall find its fellow; like the bones lying in the valley of vision, though separated from one another, the moment God shall speak, the bone will creep to its bone; then the flesh shall come upon it; the four winds of heaven shall blow, and the breath shall return. So let me die, let beasts devour me, let fire turn this body into gas and vapor, all its particles shall yet again be restored; this very self-same, actual body shall start up from its grave, glorified and made like Christ's body, yet still the same body, for God hath said it. Christ's same body rose; so shall mine. O my soul, dost thou now dread to die? Thou wilt lose thy partner body a little while, but thou wilt be married again in heaven; soul and body shall again be united before the throne of God. The grave—what is it? It is the bath in which the Christian puts the clothes of his body to have them washed and cleansed. Death—what is it? It is the waiting-room where we robe ourselves for immortality; it is the place where the body . . . bathes itself in spices that it may be fit for the embrace of its Lord. Death is the gate of life; I will not fear to die . . ." ("The Tomb of Jesus": Delivered on Sabbath Morning, April 8, 1855, by the REV. C. H. Spurgeon At Exeter Hall, Strand).

"51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.' " 1 Cor. 15:51-54

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is Rick Warren a Heretic?

The term “heretic” can be defined simply as “a person claiming to be a Christian who teaches doctrines contrary to biblical orthodoxy.” This begs the question, what is “biblical orthodoxy?” Well, throughout the history of the church, three creeds have been used as foundations for Christian orthodoxy: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. All three creeds were written after a rigorous study of Scripture (which is the only inerrant source of true orthodoxy). They attempt to summarize what it means to be a true Christian. Today, most evangelical churches have a form of such creeds called a “statement of faith” or “doctrinal statement” that provides guidance for legitimate biblical doctrine. For example, the church that I pastor (First Free, Rockford IL) adopts the one stated for the Evangelical Free Church of America (, which is excellent in that it lists the essentials and allows for differences when it comes to doctrines that can be diverse under the umbrella of biblical orthodoxy (such as which holidays to celebrate or Arminianism vs. Calvinism). When a pastor willfully promotes a teaching that is contrary to orthodoxy, especially as it relates to the biblical doctrines of the Trinity and Salvation, that person is a heretic. Some notable heretics in history were Hymenaeus and Philetus whose teaching is described as “gangrene” that destroyed truth faith. They altered the doctrine of the resurrection in ways that subverted the Gospel itself. We see the Apostle Paul go after them with great force in 2 Tim. 2:17-18. Another heretic was Arius (A.D. 256-336). He denied that Jesus was fully God and tinkered with the doctrine of the Trinity. Jehovah’s Witness theology is very similar to this today (which is, indeed, heretical).
But I digress. Suffice it to say that throughout history, there have always been heretics who deny the Trinity, that salvation comes through Christ alone, that He rose bodily and that His followers will as well, that the Bible is the only inerrant Word of God, the reality of an eternal Heaven and Hell, etc. The question before us is, “Does Pastor Rick Warren fit such a description?” I emphatically and categorically would say “ABSOLUTELY NOT!” Take one look at the statement of faith of Dr. Warren’s church (Saddleback Church) and you will find biblical orthodoxy on all key doctrines without equivocation. Since Rick Warren founded the church and is its Sr. Pastor, there can be no question that he both agrees with and affirms his own statement of faith.
Yet rumors persist that Rick Warren is a heretic! Entire websites are dedicated to proving this idea. Some have tried to demonstrate this to me directly by attacking Dr. Warren’s character with vicious accusation. I’ve looked at the so-called evidence and here is, basically, what I’ve found: 1. Slander. 2. Guilt-by-Association. 3. Misunderstanding. Without writing a book, let’s take each of these in turn.
1. Slander. Many have taken an isolated article, talk, or quote by Rick Warren and slandered him as promoting New Age spirituality (which is a theology that basically teaches we’re all God and have to learn to worship ourselves—that’s heretical). For example, years ago, Rick wrote an article for Ladies Home Journal and asserted that, in order to have self-esteem, one must love herself. Critics took that to mean that he was teaching a form of self-worship (i.e. heresy). Yet they didn’t stop to consider that Jesus Himself recognizes a biblical “loving of ourselves” in Matthew 12:31 that stems from the greater love of God. Could it be that Rick Warren was whetting the appetites of lost readers for the greater love of God that he clearly articulates countless times in his sermons and writings elsewhere? Just because he didn’t give a treatise on the nature of biblical love or a lesson on theological anthropology doesn’t mean he is a heretic! This kind of slander happens over and over again with Rick Warren. In seminary, we called this “the argument from silence.” Basically, it says “Look, that teacher was silent on the full teaching of this topic; therefore he must not believe the full teaching.” That’s a slanderous accusation. Maybe he just didn’t feel that the venue was appropriate for a full lesson on theology. If I say “God loves you,” am I a heretic if someone takes that to mean the Universe has affection for me? Of course not! To say that I was promoting such an idea would be an argument from silence. I didn’t fully clarify who God is and what biblical love is, therefore I must be a heretic. In seminary, any time we gave an argument from silence, we definitely didn’t get a silent grade. I can imagine what Dr.s D.A. Carson or John Walvoord (both professors of mine) would have done to an essay of mine founded on such arguments. It would have been shredded! Such tactics were unacceptable and strongly discouraged. Side note: I’ve noticed that many (if not the vast majority) of Warren’s heresy accusers who engage in this type of slander have not been exposed to the rigors of serious seminary training.
2. Guilt-by-Association. There can be no question that Rick Warren is an evangelist. His longing is to see people come to know Christ as Lord and Savior. So, he builds friendships with all types of people. On occasion, he has declared his friendships with Muslims, heretics, immoral celebrities, politicians, etc. He even signed a document (mistakenly in my opinion) that encouraged Muslim and Christian cooperation in peace and justice efforts. He’s also had questionable people speak at this church in an effort to show them good will (case in point, the presidential debates of the last election). These types of associations have led many to call for Warren’s head. For example, some have noted that the above-mentioned document he signed referred to God as “Allah” when speaking on behalf of Muslims, and therefore Rick Warren must be equating Allah with the God of the Bible. The problem is that the word “Allah” in the Arabic language is the generic word for God. In other words, when the Bible is translated into Arabic, the word for God in the Arabic Bible is, indeed, “Allah.” Some time ago, I spoke to a pastor who had done considerable work evangelizing Muslims in the Middle East. He indicated that many Muslim clergy are turning to Christ but are not openly stating this due to the fear of death to themselves and their families. Yet when they preach to others of Christ, Jesus is referred to by the word for God in their own language, “Allah.” Since I’ve studied Rick Warren for many years, and since he so blatantly has stated that he believes Jesus Christ to be the only true God repeatedly, I know that Rick is seeing the term “Allah” generally in the document as a translation of our word for God. He is not, in any way, saying the Muslim-Koran “Allah” is Jesus! Nor is he promoting some sort of merger of the two religions. He is undoubtedly using this document as a launching pad for sharing the true Gospel when he speaks to Muslims and in support of Muslims who are turning to Christ. Personally, I think he made a mistake in signing it because it can easily look like he’s endorsing Islam, especially to his critics. But a mistake does not make a heretic (and, since I haven’t had the opportunity to actually talk to Dr. Warren about his reasons, I may be mistaken myself on this issue). Having a lost person speak at his church is also problematic, for it can come across as an endorsement of that person’s beliefs. But I don’t see it as heresy when the host actually shares the gospel in front of his church while the guest speaker is watching! I’ve seen Bill Hybels do this for years at his Leadership Summits. He’ll have an expert on leadership who is lost speak and then, right in front of the assembly, share the gospel with the guest. Very powerful! Rick Warren has a similar ministry philosophy. We may question the wisdom of the technique, but just because an evangelist has befriended lost people (or asked them to speak) doesn’t mean he has embraced their philosophies. Jesus was called a “friend of sinners” and often associated with the lost (Luke 7:34). Praise God for that or I would have no hope of Heaven (and neither would you)!
3. Misunderstanding. Many people misunderstand Rick Warren’s techniques. Warren’s philosophy has often been to start with the felt-needs of people and slowly introduce them to a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. So, his sermons are often designed to ignite the spiritual appetites of lost listeners. Therefore, he may have a message series on parenting, success, health, or some other value that most lost people long to experience. He then uses that series to show the practical wisdom of the Bible, touches a longing to know more, and recruits the lost into deeper discipleship vehicles (like small groups or classes where doctrine is, indeed, taught). Many misunderstand this technique as a watering-down of orthodoxy. And some would disagree that it is an effective technique. But the heart behind it is certainly not heretical. Several weeks ago, my wife and I spoke to a children’s class. Undoubtedly, there were kids in the class that didn’t understand the Gospel and were not saved. We started our talk with a drama about a mean coach and a kind coach (I played both coaches). The kids loved it and it exposed them to the heart of God in a way they could understand (God is like the kind coach). Rick Warren started his ministry in one of the most lost areas of our country. His community was biblically illiterate and, often, openly antagonistic to Scripture. He did what we call all our missionaries to do. He gave the Bible in bite-sized pieces and in ways the culture understood. When you’re feeding infants, you don’t give them steak (Heb. 5:12-14). There are legitimate differing opinions on this in terms of ministry effectiveness, but these are not issues of heresy vs. orthodoxy.
Others have written and commented on the integrity of Pastor Rick. Recently I came across a blog post by Michael Patton (ThM-Dallas Seminary) that is helpful regarding this topic as are Dr. John Piper’s (outstanding theologian) comments on YouTube. These can be accessed via: and
I’ll close with a quote from Patton: “Folks, if we are hanging out on theology corner looking for a fight, we can find one. We will also always have an audience who is willing to watch and cheer as we beat someone up. But what we will find is that we become blood thirsty after a few rounds. The cheers of the crowd will become our heroine. However, in the end, we might discover that we are punching the face of our brother . . . We need to be theologically discerning. We need (to) ‘appraise’ things. But when we realize that this is all we are doing, I think we need to appraise ourselves.”
I wrote this entry because I’m weary of these attacks on a man who has done so much for the Kingdom. Rick Warren has introduced countless people to Jesus Christ and discipled many as well. He is a man of deep integrity who loves God’s Word. I know this from his explicit words, his doctrinal statement, the abundant fruit of his life, and from several of my own personal, godly, and well-versed friends who know him and vouch for him. For some reason, we as the Body of Christ often attack a pastor or Bible teacher when they become famous. This has happened frequently throughout history. D.L. Moody was criticized for his evangelism techniques and accused of shallow theology as was (and is) Dr. Billy Graham and virtually every other great man and woman of the Christian faith who became notable. I will not take part in this activity. For what it’s worth, I think Rick Warren is a man of God and unless I see him actively and knowingly promote heresy, I will continue to thank the Lord for him.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Natalie's Joy

My daughter, Natalie, is a poet. She's only 14, but has shown a giftedness in this area that blesses me. I thought I'd share one of her poems that I found written on the back of a discarded paper. She was just doodling and came up with this. I call it "Natalie's Joy".

Natalie's Joy

If life were a beach,
I'd be playing in the sand getting a tan.
If life were fast food,
I'd be the happy meal.
If life were a fairy tale,
I'd sprout my wings and fly.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Shack

Several years ago, a woman who attended my church gave me a copy of a book called "The Shack." She told me it was great and helped her understand God and recommended it highly to me as a sort of with-it explanation of how the Trinity works. Since I had a stack of books ahead of this one on my "to read" list, I didn't get around to it. But from the moment she gave it to me, something didn't feel right. I don't doubt her sincerity. From what I recall, she was an involved person in our church, although I do not remember her name. At any rate, since that time, this small book has become a best-seller among Christians. While I still haven't read it, I have learned enough about it to know that the Spirit was pushing a caution light in my soul for a reason. From what I hear, the book masks itself as a profound understanding of the Trinity but commits some serious error doctrinally (as in goddess worship and modalism). Pastor Mark Driscoll has read the book and gives commentary at I encourage you to listen. Here's a lesson on all of this. When a book or teacher comes out with a popular new way of seeing central doctrines of the Christian faith, our first instinct should be suspicious. Then we are to test the teachings according to the Word of God. "Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world." 1 John 4:1. If they pass the test of biblical accuracy, by all means, promote them. But if you're not sure, take your time and test. It's best to test.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Elephant Experience

The Elephant Experience
Yesterday, I attended "The Elephant Room" live in Aurora IL and, somehow, ended up on the front row a few feet from Pastors James MacDonald, Perry Noble, Matt Chandler, David Platt, Steven Furtick, Mark Driscoll, and Greg Laurie. I even fist bumped Platt (which demonstrates that I was the most uncool guy in the building for fist bumping is sadly becoming a relic of the past--I am singlehandedly fighting for its return). The event was shot in a state of the art facility with a studio audience while being simulcast throughout the country. The idea was to put a group of influential pastors in a room together and talk about "the elephants in the room." These elephants ranged from methods of worship to poverty theology to the satellite church strategy. I found the experience exhilarating and ingenious. Whoever thought up this idea wins the cigar (and may smoke it in this crowd). Let me share what I liked and what I didn't like.
Liked: Honest, deep, engaging, and sometimes heated conversations about primary issues affecting our churches today. It was fascinating to watch different generations, theologies, techniques, and personalities engage one another on controversial subjects. My favorite segment had to do with whether it's spiritually mature to give away all your resources for ministry endeavors even when doing so may negatively affect your family. MacDonald made a strong case for enjoying the benefits of God's blessings while also being generous in the Spirit of Christ. He also pointed out the terrible wastefulness of missions programs in many churches and effectively questioned the traditional methods of missions allocation. Platt was inspiring due to his clear heart for "the least of these" and his challenge to the affluent to dethrone the god of materialism. I also enjoyed the banter between the participants. Driscoll's comment to Furtick that his reading list was similar to a "meat-loving vegetarian" was classic. But there were some lines crossed at times, which brings me to my dislikes.
Didn't Like: There were a number of times when some of the guys semi-cursed and made off-colored jokes. Listen, I'm no prude. I grew up in Redneck Louisiana. Swamp People is not just a television show for me. It's home! Cussing is my native language! But God has been urging me to be more holy for many years now and has convicted me on course jesting and the use of questionable words. It wasn't helpful to me to see pastors I respect push the envelope here. Case in point: all participants agreed that joking about homosexuality was not helpful. Yet MacDonald, the host of the event and clearly a mentor to the younger guys, jokingly states that Driscoll has a "man-crush" on Chandler. Funny, but didn't feel right. Although, I must admit, I laughed--couldn't help it.
Surprises: It's worth mentioning a final category of surprises. I was surprised at how witty Driscoll is. Some of his one-liners seemed to come from alien intelligence. It was like watching Spock with a personality. When he referred to God speaking through a donkey as “the Shrek verse,” I thought I saw pointed ears. I was also pleasantly surprised at Platt's humility. His heart for the hurting, quiet persona (MacDonald even had to ask him to speak up), and his kind demeanor were refreshing. I walked away convinced he is the real deal.
I'd like to see them do another one in the years to come with a new line-up. It would have been interesting to see greater stylistic and generational diversity. For example, a Chuck Swindoll with a conservative, Evangelical Anglican would have been interesting as well as racial diversity. But overall, it was an awesome experience.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Hell of Bell

The following is a strong response by Pastor Kevin Deyoung to Rob Bell's new book "Love Wins." It's long, but a worthy read. And, oh, by the way, Bell is terribly and dangerously wrong on this one. He's embraced heresy. Pray for him because he will give an account before the Lord (James 3:1). Again, that's why I read the old guys. PR

God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins” by Pastor Kevin Deyoung. Originally posted at at
Note: This post is long.

Love Wins, by megachurch pastor Rob Bell, is, as the subtitle suggests, “a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Here’s the gist: Hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. Hell is both a present reality for those who resist God and a future reality for those who die unready for God’s love. Hell is what we make of heaven when we cannot accept the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But hell is not forever. God will have his way. How can his good purposes fail? Every sinner will turn to God and realize he has already been reconciled to God, in this life or in the next. There will be no eternal conscious torment. God says no to injustice in the age to come, but he does not pour out wrath (we bring the temporary suffering upon ourselves), and he certainly does not punish for eternity. In the end, love wins.

Bell correctly notes (many times) that God is love. He also observes that Jesus is Jewish, the resurrection is important, and the phrase “personal relationship with God” is not in the Bible. He usually makes his argument by referencing Scripture. He is easy to read and obviously feels very deeply for those who have been wronged or seem to be on the outside looking in.

Unfortunately, beyond this, there are dozens of problems with Love Wins. The theology is heterodox. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.

A Few Preliminaries

Before going any further with a critique, a number of preliminary comments are in order. A few opening remarks may help put this critical review in context and encourage productive responses.

One, although Bell asks a lot of questions (350 by one count), we should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising. Bell did not write an entire book because he was looking for some good resources on heaven and hell. This isn’t the thirteen-year-old in your youth group asking her teacher, “How can a good God send people to hell?” Any pastor worth his covenant salt will welcome sincere questions like this. (“Good question, Jenny, let’s see what the Bible says about that.”) But Bell is a popular teacher of a huge church with a huge following. This book is not an invitation to talk. It’s him telling us what he thinks (nothing wrong with that). As Bell himself writes, “But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (19).

Two, we should notice the obvious: this is a book. It is a book with lots of Scripture references. It is a book that draws from history and personal experience. It makes a case for something. It purports one story of Christianity to be better than another. Bell means to persuade. He wants to convince us of something. He is a teacher teaching. This book is not a poem. It is not a piece of art. This is a theological book by a pastor trying to impart a different way of looking at heaven and hell. Whether Bell is creative or a provocateur is beside the point. If Bell is inconsistent, unclear, or inaccurate, claiming the “artist” mantle is no help.

Three, I’m sure that many people looking to defend Bell will be drawn to a couple escape hatches he launches along the way. As you’ll see, the book is a sustained attack on the idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins. This is the traditional Christianity he finds “misguided and toxic” (viii). But in one or two places Bell seems more agnostic.

Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires. (115)

These are strange sentences because they fall in the chapter where Bell argues that God wants everyone to be saved and God gets what God wants. He tells us that “never-ending punishment” does not give God glory, and “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts” (108). So it’s unclear where the sudden agnosticism comes from. Is Bell wrestling with himself? Did a friend or editor ask him to throw in a few caveats? Is he simply inconsistent?

Similarly, at the end Bell argues, rather out of the blue, that we need to trust God in the present, that our choices here and now “matter more than we can begin to imagine” because we can miss out on rewards and celebrations (197). This almost looks like an old-fashioned call to turn to Christ before it’s too late. When you look more carefully, however, you see that Bell is not saying what evangelicals might think. He wants us to make the most of life because “while we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again” (197). In other words, there are consequences for our actions, in this life and in the next, and we can’t get this moment back; but there will always be more chances. If you don’t live life to the fullest and choose love now, you may initially miss out on some good things in the life to come, but in the end love wins (197–198).

For anyone tempted to take these few lines and make Bell sound orthodox, I encourage you to read the whole book more carefully. Likewise, before you rush to accept that Bell believes in hell and believes Christ is the only way, pay attention to his conception of hell and in what way he thinks Jesus is the only way. Bad theology usually sneaks in under the guise of familiar language. There’s a reason he’s written 200 pages on why you must be deluded to think people end up in eternal conscious punishment under the just wrath of God. Words mean something, even when some of them seem forced or out of place. Take the book as a whole to get Bell’s whole message.

Four, it is possible that I (like other critics) am mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel. But voicing strong disagreement does not automatically make me any of these. Judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments. The same Jesus who said “do not judge” in Matthew 7:1 calls his opponents dogs and pigs in Matthew 7:6. Paul pronounces an anathema on those who preach a false gospel (Gal. 1:8). Disagreement among professing Christians is not a plague on the church. In fact, it is sometimes necessary. The whole Bible is full of evaluation and encourages the faithful to be discerning and make their own evaluations. What’s tricky is that some fights are stupid, and some judgments are unfair and judgmental. But this must be proven, not assumed. Bell feels strongly about this matter of heaven and hell. So do a lot of other people. Strong language and forceful arguments are appropriate.

Five, I am not against conversation. What I am against is false teaching. I did not go to the trouble of writing a review because I worry that God can’t handle our questions. The question is never whether God can handle our honest reappraisals of traditional Christianity, but whether he likes them.

On the subject of conversation, it’s worth pointing out that this book actually mitigates against further conversation. For starters, there’s the McLarenesque complaint about the close-minded traditionalists who don’t allow for questions, change, and maturity (ix). This is a kind of pre-emptive “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach to conversation (cf. 183). In essence, “Let’s talk, but I know already that the benighted and violent will hate my theology.” That hardly invites further dialogue. More practically, Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when he is less than careful in backing them up.

Six, this is not an evangelistic work, not in the traditional sense anyway. The primary intended audience appears to be not so much secularists with objections to Christianity (á la Keller’s Reason for God), but disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with. Bell writes for the “growing number” who have become aware that the Christian story has been “hijacked” (vii). Love Wins is for those who have heard a version of the gospel that now makes their stomachs churn and their pulses rise, and makes them cry out, “I would never be a part of that” (viii). This is a book for people like Bell, people who grew up in an evangelical environment and don’t want to leave it completely, but want to change it, grow up out of it, and transcend it. The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.

Over and over, Bell refers to the “staggering number” of people just like him, people who can’t believe the message they used to believe, people who want nothing to do with traditional Christianity, people who don’t want to leave the faith but can’t live in the faith they once embraced. I have no doubt there are many people like this inside and outside our churches. Some will leave the faith altogether. Others—and they are in the worse position—will opt for liberalism, which has always seen itself as a halfway house between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief.

But before we let Bell and others write the present story, we must remember that there are also a “staggering number” of young people who want the straight up, unvarnished truth. They want doctrinal edges and traditional orthodoxy. They want no-holds-barred preaching. They don’t want to leave traditional Christianity. They are ready to go deeper into it.

Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.

Where to Begin?

With those as preliminaries, you know this won’t be a brief review. The hard part is knowing where to begin. Love Wins is such a departure from historic Christianity, that there’s no easy way to tackle it. You can’t point to two or three main problems or three or four exegetical missteps. This is a markedly different telling of the gospel from start to finish. To fully engage the material would require not only deconstruction, but a full reconstruction of orthodoxy theology. A book review, however, is not the place to build a systematic theology. So where to begin?

I want to approach Love Wins by looking at seven areas: Bell’s view of traditional evangelical theology, history, exegesis, eschatology, Christology, gospel, and God.

1. Not Your Grandmother’s Christianity

Perhaps the best place to start is to show that Bell routinely disparages the faith of traditional evangelicalism.

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (viii)

At least Bell is honest. In the next chapter, not even his grandmother gets off unscathed. Bell reminisces about the scary picture in her house of a floating cross-bridge to heaven. He likens it to a joint project from Thomas Kinkade and Dante or like Dungeons and Dragons, Billy Graham, and a barbecue pit rolled into one (22–23). He and his sister were freaked out. This story of leaving earth to go to heaven by means of faith in Christ is not the story he wants to promote anymore.

Later, Bell allows that traditionalists can believe their story of heaven and hell, but “it isn’t a very good story” (110). Traditional Christians have inferior news to share because in their story so many people end up in hell. “That’s why the Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties” (179). Not only are they bad at parties, traditionalists are bad at art: “An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation. Or a number of other things. It’s a cheap view of the world because it’s a cheap view of God. It’s a shriveled imagination” (180). So much for finding beauty or delight in Western civilization. I’ll leave it to the art critics and the partygoers to determine if it’s true that, second to blondes, universalists have more fun.

What’s interesting is that Bell struggles to leave his evangelical upbringing behind. He knows the temptation to be embarrassed that “we were so ‘simple’ or ‘naïve,’ or ‘brainwashed’ or whatever terms arise when we haven’t come to terms with our own story” (194). And yet, he believes it’s important to embrace past understanding of the faith, even if people like him were shaped by a certain environment and reared in certain experiences that can be easily deconstructed (e.g., praying the sinner’s prayer) (193–95). Again, we sense Bell is trying to reconcile an earlier faith with his present trajectory. The result is an awkward attempt to claim his past while still wanting to evolve out of it. This presumes, of course, that the Christian faith is not a deposit to guard or a tradition that must not change (2 Tim. 1:14; 2 Thess. 2:15). Much of Bell’s polemic fails if there is a core of apostolic teaching that we are called, not just to embrace as part of our journey, but to protect from deviation and defend against false teaching (Acts 20:29–31).

2. Historical Problems

Bell maintains he is not saying anything new. And that’s right. The problem is he makes it sound like his everyone-ends-up-restored-and-reconciled-to-God theology is smack dab in the center of the Christian tradition.

And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a “renewal of all things,” Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will “restore everything,” and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ “God was pleased to. . . .reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (107, ellipsis in original)

It’s important to Bell that he falls within the “deep, wide, diverse stream” of “historic, orthodox Christian faith” (ix-x). Therefore, he argues that “at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church has been the insistence that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins” (109).

This bold claim flies in the face of Richard Bauckham’s historical survey:

Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated. . . . Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of the universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. (“Universalism: A Historical Survey,” Themelios 4.2 [September 1978]: 47–54)

Universalism (though in a different form than Bell’s and for different reasons) has been present in the church since Origen, but it was never in the center of the tradition. Origen’s theology was partly anticipated by his fellow Platonist Clement of Alexandria and later shows up in the Cappadocian Gregory of Nyssa. But according to William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, Gregory’s theology of hell is hard to pin down. He makes much of God being “all in all” and evil being eradicated, but he also warns of the final judgment and the flames ready to engulf the wicked (NPNF ser. 2, 5:16). Whatever Origen’s influence on the Cappadocian fathers (and it was considerable), Origen’s views were later refuted by Augustine and, as Bauckham notes, condemned in 543 in a council at Constantinople.

Bell also mentions Jerome, Basil, and Augustine because they claimed many people in their day believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God (107). But listing all the heavyweights who took time to refute the position you are now espousing is not a point in your favor. Most egregiously, Bell calls on Martin Luther in support of post-mortem salvation (106). But as Carl Trueman has pointed out, anyone familiar with Luther’s creedal statements and overall writing, not to mention the actual quotation in question, will quickly see that Luther is not on Bell’s side.

Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.

3. Exegetical Problems

Some people may be impressed by the array of biblical texts Bell employs. But there is less here than meets the eye. Time after time, key points in Bell’s argument rest on huge exegetical mistakes.

A partial list—an even ten—in no particular order:

One, Bell cites Psalm 65, Ezekiel 36, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Philippians 2, and Psalm 22 to show that all peoples will eventually be reconciled to God. He does not mention that some of these are promises to God’s people, some are general promises about the nations coming to God, and others are about the universal acknowledgement (not to be equated with saving faith) on the last day that Jesus Christ is Lord. Not one of his texts supports his conclusion.

Two, similarly, Bell lists a number of passages that point to final restoration–Jeremiah 5, Lamentations 3, Hosea 14, Zephaniah 3, Isaiah 57, Hosea 6, Joel 3, Amos 9, Nahum 2, Zephaniah 2, Zephaniah 3, Zechariah 9, Zechariah 10, and Micah 7 (86–87). Anyone familiar with the prophets knows that they often finish with a promise of future blessing. But anyone familiar with the prophets should also know that these promises are for God’s covenant people, predicated on faith and repentance, and fulfilled ultimately in Christ.

Three, Bell seems to recognize the covenantal nature of the promised restoration, so he goes out of his way to point out that the restoration is not just for God’s people. To prove this point he cites a passage from Isaiah 19 where it is predicted that an altar to the Lord will be in the midst of the land of Egypt. Bell concludes that no failure is final and that consequences can always be corrected (88–89). But Isaiah 19 is not remotely about postmortem opportunities to repent. The text is about God’s plan to humble Egypt to the point where they cry out to Israel’s God for deliverance: “The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them” (Isa. 19:22, ESV). God makes no promise that every soul in Egypt will be saved. Rather he promises, like the prophets do time and time again, that if they call on the Lord he will have mercy on them. There is no thought that they will do this calling in the afterlife.

Four, Bell makes no attempt to understand John 14:6 in context. After acknowledging that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and the only way to the Father, Bell quickly adds, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through Jesus. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through Jesus will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him” (154). Even a cursory glance at John 14 shows that the through in verse 16 refers to faith. The chapter begins by saying, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” Verse seven talks about knowing the Father. Verses nine and ten explain that we see and know the Father by believing that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him. Verses 11 and 12 touch on belief yet again. Coming to the Father through Christ means through faith in Christ. This is in keeping with the overall purpose of John’s gospel (John 20:31).

Five, Bell thinks the rich man’s question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” has nothing to do with the afterlife. He isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies (30). He’s simply wondering how to get in on the good things God is doing in the age to come (31, 40). Again, Bell ignores all contextual clues to the contrary. Given the resurrection discussion alive in Jesus’ day (see Mark 12:18–27), the rich man is likely asking, “How can I be sure I’ll be saved in the final resurrection?” He is thinking of life after death. That’s why he says “inherit” and why the previous section in Mark discusses Bell’s dreaded “entrance” theology (Mark 10:13–16). What’s more, verse 30 makes clear that some of the blessings in following Jesus come in the next life, what Jesus calls “in the age to come, eternal life.” If eternal life is equivalent to saying the age to come (31), then Jesus is the master of redundancy. But the two terms are not identical. Eternal life here means life that lasts forever.

Six, Bell reads too much into Paul’s discipline passages. Paul handed over Hymenaeus and Alexander to teach them not to blaspheme. He disciplined the man in Corinth so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. Therefore, Bell reasons, failure is never final (89–90). But stating the purpose and hope of discipline (as Paul does) is one thing, assuming the repentance happened is another, and thinking any of this opens the door to postmortem second chances is a thing the text never hints at.

Seven, sometimes Bell just ignores the verses that don’t support his thesis. While arguing that we should be extremely careful about making negative judgments on people’s eternal destinies, Bell cites Jesus’ words in John 3:17 that he “did not come to judge the world but to save it” (160). This Jesus, Bell says, is a “vast, expansive, generous mystery” leading us to conclude hopefully that “Heaven is, after all, full of surprises.” Bell’s lean into universalism here would be significantly muted had he gone on to Jesus’ words in verse 18: “Whoever believes in him [i.e., the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Likewise, according to John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Eight, Bell’s overview of Revelation skims along the surface of the book in a way that misses all the hard parts he doesn’t want to see. Bell explains that Revelation is a book written for God’s people during a time when they were being persecuted. As such, there are lots of pictures of wrongs being righted and people being held accountable (112). But, he says, “the letter does not end with blood and violence” (112). It ends with the world permeated with God’s love (114).

This is not a bad summary, but the three points he draws from this narrative are problematic. First, he explains the judgments by reminding us that people often reject the love and joy in front of them and “choose to live in their own hells all the time” (114). But even a cursory read through Revelation shows that violent judgments issue from God’s throne. They are poured out from bowls and thrown down on the earth. Christ comes on a war horse with a sharp sword in his mouth. There’s no sense that the wicked are suffering only from their poor decisions in life. They wail for fear because the one whom they pierced is coming with the clouds for recompense (Rev. 1:7).

Second, Bell suggests that maybe the gates in heaven are “never shut” because new citizens will continue to enter the city as everyone is eventually reconciled to God (115). This interpretation is clearly at odds with the rest of Revelation 21-22 which emphasizes several times that there are some accursed ones left outside the city (21:8, 27; 22:3, 14–15, 18–19). The theme of judgment carries through right to the end of the book. What’s more, those facing this judgment will be thrown into the lake of fire where torment never ends, which is the second death (20:10; 21:8). There is never a hint of postmortem second chances and every indication of an irreversible judgment decreed of every soul at the end of the age. The gates are open as a sign of the city’s complete safety and security, not as an indication that more will be saved after death.

Third, according to Bell, the announcement “I am making all things new” suggests new possibilities. This, in turn, means we should leave the door open that the final eternal state of every person has not been fixed (116). Again, this is a supposition without any warrant in the text, where the newness of heaven speaks of a new holiness, a new world, a new pain-free existence, and a new closeness with God. Heaven is not new because people in hell get new chances to repent.

Nine, what Bell does with Sodom and Gomorrah should make even his most ardent supporters wince. Really, you have to wonder if Bell has any interest in being constrained by serious study of the biblical text. In one place, Bell argues from Ezekiel 16 that because the fortunes of Sodom will be restored (Ezek. 16:53), this suggests that the forever destiny of others might end in restoration (84). But it should be obvious that the restoration of Sodom in Ezekiel is about the city, not about the individual inhabitants of the town who were already judged in Genesis 19. The people condemned by sulfur and fire 1,500 years earlier were not getting a second lease on postmortem life. The current city would be restored. And besides, the whole point of Sodom’s restoration is to shame wicked Samaria (Ezek. 16:54) so that they might bear the penalty of their lewdness and abominations (Ezek. 16:58). This hardly fits with Bell’s view of God and judgment.

If that weren’t bad enough, the other discussion on Sodom is even worse. Because Jesus says it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for Capernaum (Matt. 11:23–24), Bell concludes that there is hope for all the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs (85). Bell takes a passage about judgment—judgment that will be so bad for Capernaum it’s even worse than God’s judgment on Sodom—and turns it into tacit support for ultimate universalism. Jesus’ warning says nothing about new hope for Sodom. It says everything about the hopelessness of unbelieving Capernaum.

Ten, not surprisingly, Bell frequently harkens back to the Pauline promise in Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 that God is reconciling or uniting all things together in Christ (149). These are favorite passages of universalists, but they cannot carry the freight universalists want them to. Take Ephesians 1, for example. Paul says that God’s plan in the fullness of time is to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:10). The Greek word for “unite” is a long one: anakephalaiōsasthai. It means to sum up, to bring together to a main point, to gather together. It is like an author finishing the last chapter of his book or a conductor bringing the symphony from cacophony to harmony. It’s a glorious promise, already begun in some ways by the word of Christ. But we know from the rest of Ephesians that Paul does not expect all peoples to be reconciled to God. He speaks of sons of disobedience and children of wrath in chapter two. In chapter five, he makes clear that the sexually immoral and covetous have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ. In Ephesians 5:6 he warns that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. The uniting of all things does not entail the salvation of all people. It means that everything in the universe, heaven and earth, the spiritual world and the physical world, will finally submit to the lordship of Christ, some in joyful worship of their beloved Savior and others in just punishment for their wretched treason. In the end, God wins.

One last general point about Bell’s exegesis: Bell has a reputation for being brilliant and creative, and he probably is in certain spheres. But his use of Scripture exhibits neither characteristic. In fact, it is naïve, literalistic biblicism. He flattens everything, either to make traditional theology sound ridiculously inconsistent or to make a massive point from one out-of-context verse. He makes no attempt to understand metaphors, genre, or imagery (either in Scripture or in his grandmother’s painting). He does not to try to harmonize anything that might rot his fresh take on the Bible. He loves Jewish background and context, but he shows very little familiarity with the actual storyline and the shape of the Old Testament. His style may be engaging to some, but look up the passages for yourself and then pick up a reputable study Bible or a basic commentary series. You’ll seriously question Bell’s use of Scripture.

4. Eschatological Problems

Bell’s eschatology is muddled. On the one hand, he goes to great length to argue that eternal life is not really forever life, just abundant life or life belonging to the next age (57, 92–93). He maintains that the images of hell refer to the pain we create for ourselves on earth and to the impending disaster on Jerusalem in AD 70 (81). Bell sounds like an overwrought preterist at times, having no place for end-times judgment or an unending existence after death. But on the other hand, he seems to leave all these arguments behind later when he talks about an eternal postmortem existence. He does believe in heaven after you die, and he believes in hell.

But in a strange bit of logic arising out of the parable of the prodigal son, Bell maintains that heaven and hell exist side by side. It’s not always clear what Bell thinks, but it seems he believes everyone goes to the same realm when they die; but for some people it is heaven, and for others it is hell (170). If you don’t accept God’s story about the world and resist his love, heaven will be hell for you, a hell you create for yourself. We are supposed to see this in Luke 15 where both brothers are invited to the same feast but one can’t enjoy it. Heaven and hell at the same party (176). To call this is a little stretch is like calling pro wrestling a little fake. Jesus told all three “lost” parables to explain why he was eating with “sinners” (Luke 15:2–3), not to posit a thoroughly un-Jewish notion that the afterlife is whatever you make of it. If the parable of the prodigal son teaches Bell’s theology of heaven-and-hell-at-the-same-time, then the Bible can teach anything Bell wants it to.

In a similar vein, Bell seems unaware that theologians of various traditions have talked about the two sides of God’s will (or two lenses through which God views the world). To be sure, there is mystery here, but it’s common to distinguish between God’s will of decree, whereby everything that he wills comes to pass (Eph. 1:11), and his will of desire which can be rejected (Matt. 7:21). And yet one of Bell’s main planks in support of universal reconciliation is that if God wants all people to be saved, then all people must eventually be saved. “How great is God?” Bell asks. “Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great” (97–99). The strong insinuation is that a God who does not save everyone is not totally great.

All this is built on the statement that God wants everyone to be saved. There’s no exegetical work on the meaning of “all people” and no discussion on the dual-nature of God’s will. In Bell’s mind, if all people do not end up reconciled to God its tantamount to God saying, “Well, I tried, I gave it my best shot, and sometimes you just have to be okay with failure” (103). Bell has taken one statement from 1 Timothy 2:4 (God desires all people to be saved), avoids any contextual work on the passage (e.g., all probably means “all kinds of people”), and refuses to bring any other relevant passages to bear on this one (e.g., Rom. 9:22, “What if God desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”) The result is a simplistic formula: “God wants all people to be saved. God gets what he wants. Therefore, all people will eventually be saved.” This is a case of poor theologizing beholden to mistaken logic. If it is “the will of God” that Christians “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3), does that mean God’s greatness is diminished by our impurity?

In the blog buzz leading up the release of Love Wins, there was a lot of discussion about whether Bell is or is not a Christian universalist. After reading the book, I see no reason why the label does not fit. Now it’s true, Bell believes in hell. But he does not believe that God pours out his wrath on anyone forever (I’m not sure he thinks God actively pours out wrath on anyone at all). Hell is the sad suffering of this life (71). Hell is God giving us what we want (72). Postmortem hell is what we create for ourselves when we refuse to believe God’s story, when we resist his love (170-71, 172, 177). There is hell now and hell later. “There are all kinds of hell because there are all kinds of ways to reject the good and the true and the beautiful and the human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (79).

So why do I say Bell is a universalist if he believes in hell? Because he does not believe hell lasts forever. It is a temporary “period of pruning” and “an intense experience of correction” (91). Bell’s hell is like purgatory except his “period of pruning” is for anyone, not just for Christians who die in a state of grace as Catholicism teaches. For Bell, this life is about getting ourselves fitted for the good life to come. Some of us die ready to experience God’s love. Others need more time to sort things out. Luckily, in Bell’s scheme, there is always more time. “No one can resist God’s pursuit forever because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts” (108). Bell does not believe every road leads to God. He is not a moral relativist. You can get your life and theology wrong. Heaven is a kind of starting over, a time to relearn what it means to be human. For some this process may take a while, and during the process their heaven may feel more like hell. But even those who get everything wrong in this life, will eventually get it right over time in the next life. In Bell’s theology, ultimately, everyone will be saved. If he’s right, most of church history has been wrong. If he’s wrong, a staggering number of people are hearing “peace, peace” where there is no peace.

What’s wrong with this theology is, of course, what’s wrong with the whole book. Bell assumes all sorts of things that can’t be shown from Scripture. For example, Bell figures God won’t say “sorry, too late” to those in hell who are humble and broken for their sins. But where does the Bible teach the damned are truly humble or penitent? For that matter, where does the Bible talk about growing and maturing in the afterlife or getting a second chance after death? Why does the Bible make such a big deal about repenting “today” (Heb. 3:13), about being found blameless on the day of Christ (2 Pet. 3:14), about not neglecting such a great salvation (Heb. 2:3) if we have all sorts of time to figure things out in the next life? Why warn about not inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9–10), about what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31), or about the vengeance of our coming King (2 Thess. 1:5–12) if hell is just what we make of heaven? Bell does nothing to answer these questions, or even ask them in the first place.

5. Christological Problems

Most readers of Love Wins will want to talk about Bell’s universalism. But just as troubling is his Christology. Bell has a Joseph Campbell “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” view of Christ. Jesus is hidden in various cultures and in every aspect of creation. Some people find him and some don’t. Some call him Jesus; some have too much baggage with Christianity, so they call him by a different name (159).

Bell finds support for this Christological hide-and-seek in 1 Corinthians 10. This is where Paul calls to mind the Exodus narrative and asserts that the rock (the one that gushed water) was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). From this Bell concludes, “There are rocks everywhere” (139). If Paul saw Christ in the rock, then who knows where else we might find him (144)? Jesus cannot be confined to any one religion, Bell argues. He transcends our labels and cages, especially the one called Christianity (150). Christ is present in all cultures and can be found everywhere. Sometimes missionaries travel around the world only to find that the Christ they preach was already present by a different name (152).

This does not mean Christ is whatever you want him to be. Some Jesuses should be rejected, Bell says, like the ones that are “anti-science” and “anti-gay” and use bullhorns on the street (8). But wherever we find “grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness” we’ve found the creative life source that we call Jesus (156, 159).

Elsewhere, after describing a false Jesus “who waves the flag and promotes whatever values they have decided their nation needs to return to,” Bell offers the promising alternative: “the very life source of the universe who has walked among us and continues to sustain everything with his love and power and grace and energy” (156).

These [Eucharist] rituals are true for us, because they’re true for everybody. They unite us, because they unite everybody. These are signs and glimpses and tastes of what is true for all people in all places at all times—we simply name the mystery present in all the world, the gospel already announced to every creature under heaven. (157)

This is classic liberalism pure and simple, a souped-up version of Schleiermacher’s feeling of absolute dependence. This is all immanence and no transcendence. This is not the objective gospel-message of Christ’s work in history that we must announce. This is an existential message announcing a rival version of the good news, the announcement that you already know Christ and can feel him in your heart if you pay attention.

To suggest the Lord’s Supper unites all people makes a mockery of the sacrament and the Christ uniquely present in the bread and the cup. The Table is a feast for those who trust in Christ, for those who can discern his body, a family meal for those who together will proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. It brings us together under the sign of the cross. The sheep “not of this pen” are not adherents of other religions who belong to Christ without knowing it (152), but Gentiles who can now fellowship with Jews through the blood (Eph. 2:11–22).

And let’s not forget all of this rests on an illegitimate reading of 1 Corinthians 10. First, the fact that Paul found a type of Christ in the Old Testament does not give us warrant to find whatever types we like in the world. Second, Paul did not mention the rock willy-nilly because it seemed beautiful to him. The gushing rock was a picture of God’s provision and salvation for his people in the Old Testament just like Christ is for the church in the New Testament. Third, the rest of 1 Corinthians 10 militantly opposes everything Bell wants to get out of the chapter. The reason Paul brought up the rock in the first place was as an example, “that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6). Paul wants the Corinthians to avoid being “destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10) and to “take heed lest [they] fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). There’s no thought that the Corinthians should find Christ in ten thousand places. The whole chapter is a warning against idolatry, to flee from it (1 Cor. 10:14), not to embrace it in the name of mystery.

6. Gospel Problems

This review is too long already, but I really must say something about the two most grievous errors in the book: Bell’s view of the cross and his view of God.

According to Bell, salvation is realizing you’re already saved. We are all forgiven. We are all loved, equally and fully by God who has made peace with everyone. That work is done. Now we are invited to believe that story and live in it (172–73).

Bell is not saying what you think he might be saying. He’s not suggesting faith is the instrumental cause used by the Spirit to join us to Christ so we can share in all his benefits. That would be evangelical theology. Bell is saying God has already forgiven us whether we ask for it or not, whether we repent and believe or not, whether we are born again or not. “Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up—God has already done it” (189). This means the Father’s love just is. It cannot be earned and it cannot be taken away. God’s love is simply yours (188). Heaven and hell (however Bell conceives them) are both full of forgiven people.

So what does Bell believe about the atonement? He starts with the familiar refrain that there are many images for what the death of Jesus accomplished and none of them should be prized more than another (though he claims Christus Victor was the dominant understanding for the first thousand years of church history). The point is not to argue about the images. “The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is” (129).

You may wonder where the sacrificial system is in all this. After all, as a friend reminded me, years ago Bell was best known for being the pastor who started his church by preaching from Leviticus. I’m not sure what Bell taught back then, but now it appears his understanding of sacrifice is almost entirely negative. Sacrifice in the ancient world (and he fails to distinguish between Israel and other nations) meant “Offer something, show that you’re serious, make amends, find favor, and then hope that was enough to get what you needed” (124). Sacrifice is a kind of plea bargain, not a substitution.

Consequently, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was a generic doing-away of all sacrifices. It means “no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you and or ready to strike you down” (125). Notice, Bell does not say that Jesus’ death appeased the anger of God/gods, only that his sacrifice shows us we don’t have to wonder any more if the gods are angry. Sacrifice, whether in the Old Testament or on the cross, is not about loving divine self-substitution, but the divine manifestation of love already present in the world, a love whose only obstacle is our ignorance of it and unwillingness to receive it. For all the talk of social justice, there is apparently no need for God to receive his justice.

Bell categorically rejects any notion of penal substitution. It simply does not work in his system or with his view of God. “Let’s be very clear, then,” Bell states, “we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182). I see no place in Bell’s theology for Christ the curse-bearer (Gal. 3:13), or Christ wounded for our transgressions and crushed by God for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10), no place for the Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), no place for the Savior who was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), no place for the sorrowful suffering Servant who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sake (Mark 14:36).

In Bell’s theology, God is love, a love that never burns hot with anger and a love that cannot distinguish or discriminate. “Jesus’ story,” Bell says, “is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love and it is for everybody, everywhere” (1). Therefore, he reasons, “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anybody else’s” (152). This is tragic. It’s as if Bell wants every earthly father to love every child in the world in the exact same way. If you rob a father of his unique, specific, not-for-everyone love, you rob the children of their greatest treasure. It reminds me of the T-shirt, “Jesus Loves You. Then Again He Loves Everybody.” There’s no good news in announcing that God loves everyone in the same way just because he wants to. The good news is that in love God sent his Son to live for our lives and die for our deaths, suffering the God-forsakenness we deserved so that we might call God our God and we who trust in Christ might be his children. The sad irony is that while Bell would very much like us to know the love of God, he has taken away the very thing in which God’s love is chiefly known: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

7. A Different God

At the very heart of this controversy, and one of the reasons the blogosphere exploded over this book, is that we really do have two different Gods. The stakes are that high. If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right, Bell is blaspheming. I do not use the word lightly, just like Bell probably chose “toxic” quite deliberately. Both sides cannot be right. As much as some voices in evangelicalism will suggest that we should all get along and learn from each other and listen for the Spirit speaking in our midst, the fact is we have two irreconcilable views of God.

Here’s how Bell understands the traditional view of God:

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way according to the person telling them the gospel, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would insure that they would have no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted. Let alone be good.

Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?

That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can. . . . That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable. (173–75)

Of course, this is a horrible caricature that makes God seem capricious and vindictive. No one I know thinks God is loving one minute and cruel the next. But God is always holy. And holy love is not the same as unconditional affirmation. Holy love is more terrifying than even Bell thinks and more unbelievably merciful and free than Bell imagines.

Bell’s god is a small god, so bound by notions of radical free will that I wonder how Bell can be so confident God’s love will melt the hardest heart. If God’s grace is always, essentially, fundamentally, resistible (72, 103–4, 118–19), how do we know some sinners won’t suffer in their own hell for a million years?

Bell’s god may be all love, but it is a love rooted in our modern Western sensibilities more than careful biblical reflection. It is a love that threatens to swallow up God’s glory and holiness. But, you may reply, the Bible says God is love (1 John 4:16). True, but if you want to weigh divine attributes by sentence construction, you have to mention God is spirit (John 4:24), God is light (1 John 1:5), and God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). The verb “is” does not establish a priority of attributes. If anything, one might mention that the only thrice-repeated attribute is “holy, holy, holy.” And yet this is the one thing Bell’s god is not. Having preached through Leviticus he should remember that holiness is the overarching theme. The sacrifices are a pleasing aroma in God’s nostrils because they satisfy his justice, making way for a holy God to dwell in the midst of an unholy people. That Christ’s sacrifice is the same pleasing aroma to God (Eph. 5:2) undercuts Bell’s insistence that God did not need to rescue us from God.

It would be unfair to say Bell doesn’t believe in sin. He clearly does. But his vice lists are telling: war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace (36–37). In another place, he says that in heaven God will say “no” to oil spills, sexual assault on women, political leaders silencing by oppression, and people being stepped on by greedy institutions and corporations (37-38). These are real problems and throughout the book Bell mentions many real, heinous sins. But all of these sins are obvious to almost everyone in our culture, especially progressives. What’s missing is not only a full-orbed view of sins, but a deeper understanding of sin itself. In Bell’s telling of the story, there is no sense of the vertical dimension of our evil. Yes, Bell admits several times that we can resist or reject God’s love. But there’s never any discussion of the way we’ve offended God, no suggestion that ultimately all our failings are a failure to worship God as we should. God is not simply disappointed with our choices or angry for the way we judge others. He is angry at the way we judge him. He cannot stand to look upon our uncleanness. His nostrils flare at iniquity. He hates our ingratitude, our impurity, our God-complexes, our self-centeredness, our disobedience, our despising of his holy law. Only when we see God’s eye-covering holiness will we grasp the magnitude of our traitorous rebellion, and only then will we marvel at the incomprehensible love that purchased our deliverance on the cross.

Bell begins the book by noting how fed up he is with the traditional story about Jesus. He insists on telling a different story. And he does. His story, as I’ve noted before, is “first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love and it is for everybody, everywhere” (vii). On the right lips, this might possibly be a fine statement. But from Bell it signals a deviation from the Bible’s plotline. Look at God’s people in the garden, then kicked out of the garden; God’s people in the promised land, then booted out of the promised land; God’s people in the New Jerusalem, then the wicked and unbelieving locked outside the New Jerusalem. Trace this story from tabernacle to temple through the incarnation and Pentecost and the coming down of the new heaven and new earth and you will see that the Bible’s story is about how a holy God can possibly dwell among an unholy people. The good news of this story is not that God loves everybody everywhere and you just need to find Christ in the rocks all around you. The good news is that God over and over makes a way for his unholy people to dwell in his holy presence, and that all these ways were pointing to the one Way, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

At bottom, Bell’s vision of heaven and hell doesn’t work because his vision of God is false. I cannot imagine the angels singing “holy, holy, holy” or Isaiah crying out “woe is me” at the feet of Bell’s god. I see no place for divine wrath or divine justice in Bell’s theology. All our punishment, in this life and the next, is manmade. We get what we want and it makes our lives miserable, now and for a while in heaven. There is some truth to this. The pain of hell is our fault. But it’s also God’s doing. Hell is not what we make for ourselves or gladly choose. It’s what a holy God justly gives to those who exchange the truth of God for a lie. The bowls of wrath in Revelation are poured out by God; they are not swum in by sinners. The ten plagues were sent by God, they were not the product of some Egyptian spell gone wrong. God’s wrath burns against the impenitent and unbelieving; they do not walk into the fire by themselves.

Bell’s god is wholly passive toward sin. He hates some of it and says no to it in the next life, but he does not actively judge it. There’s no way to make sense of Nadab and Abihu or Perrez-Uzzah or Gehazi or Achan’s or Korah’s rebellion or the flood or the exodus or the Babylonian captivity or the preaching of John the Baptist or the visions of Revelation or the admonitions of Paul or the warnings of Hebrews or Calvary’s cross apart from a God who hates sin, judges sin, and pour out his wrath—sometimes now, always later—on the accursed things and peoples of this world. God is God and there is no hope for non-gods who want to be gods, except through the God-man who became a curse for us.

That’s bad news for some, and unfathomably good news for all those born again by the sovereign Spirit of God unto faith in Christ and life eternal.

A Concluding Pastoral Postscript

The tendency in theological controversy is to boil everything down to a conflict of personalities. This is the way the world understands disagreement. This is how the world sells controversy. It’s always politician versus politician or pastor versus pastor. But sometimes the disagreement is less about the men (or women) involved and more about the truth.

This is one of those instances.

I have not spent hours and hours on this review because I am out to get another pastor. I may be a sinner, but with four young children and a very full church schedule, I have no time for personal vendettas. No, this is not about a single author or a single church. This is about the truth, about how the rightness or wrongness of our theology can do tremendous help or tremendous harm to the people of God. This is about real people in East Lansing where I serve and real people an hour down the road in Grand Rapids where I grew up. This is about real people who have learned from Bell in the past and will be intrigued by his latest book, wondering if they should be confused, angered, or surprised to hear that hell is not what they’ve been told.

No doubt, Rob Bell writes as a pastor who wants to care for people struggling with the doctrine of hell. I too write as a pastor. And as a pastor I know that Love Wins means God’s people lose. In the world of Love Wins, my congregation should not sing “In Christ Alone” because they cannot not believe, “There on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” They would not belt out “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood.” No place for “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” with its confession, “the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that Justice gave.” The jubilation of “No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine!” is muted in Love Wins. The bad news of our wrath-deserving wretchedness is so absent that the good news of God’s wrath-bearing Substitute cannot sing in our hearts. When God is shrunk down to fit our cultural constraints, the cross is diminished. And whenever the cross is diminished we pain the hearts of God’s people and rob them of their joy.

Just as damaging is the impact of Love Wins on the nonbeliever or the wayward former churchgoer. Instead of summoning sinners to the cross that they might flee the wrath to come and know the satisfaction of so great a salvation, Love Wins assures people that everyone’s eternity ends up as heaven eventually. The second chances are good not just for this life, but for the next. And what if they aren’t? What if Jesus says on the day of judgment, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23)? What if at the end of the age the wicked and unbelieving cry out, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16)? What if outside the walls of the New Jerusalem “are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15)? What if there really is only one name “under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)? And what if the wrath of God really remains on those who do not believe in the Son (John 3:18, 36)?

If Love Wins is wrong—if the theology departs from the apostolic good deposit, if the biblical reasoning falls short in a hundred places, if the god of Love Wins and the gospel of Love Wins are profoundly mistaken—if all this is true, then what damage has been done to the souls of men and women?

Bad theology hurts real people. So of all the questions raised in the book, the most important question every reader must answer is this: is it true? Whatever you think of all the personalities involved on whatever side of the debate, that’s the one question that cannot be ignored. Is Love Wins true to the word of God? That’s the issue. Open a Bible, pray to God, listen to the faithful Christians of the past 2000 years, and answer the question for yourself.

Delight or deception, suffering or salvation—yes, even heaven or hell—may hang in the balance.