With the recent controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s soon-to-be-released book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived I thought it would be helpful to republish at Caffeinated Theology a post I wrote at Caffeinated Thoughts on November 21, 2008 to provide a framework for future remarks I make.
I finished up reading Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell and Don Golden. Reading the Epilogue the following quote made me throw the book across the room (not really, it is a library book, and I would never do that to a library book).
Jesus wants to save us from making the good news about another world and not this one.
Jesus wants to save us from preaching a gospel that is only about individuals and not about the systems that enslave them.
Jesus wants to save us from shrinking the gospel down to a transaction about the removal of sin and not about every single particle of creation being reconciled to its maker.
Jesus wants to save us from religiously sanctioned despair, the kind that doesn’t believe the world can be made better, the kind that either blatantly or subtly teaches people to just be quiet and behave and wait for something big to happen “someday.”
I think Bell in trying to correct a “pie in the sky” mentality has swung to the opposite extreme. I know there is a brand of Christian who seems to be “so heavenly-minded, they are no earthly good.” They are the ones who Paul warned in his letters to the Church at Thessolonica.
What Bell doesn’t take into consideration is that the Kingdom is a “now and not yet” proposition. We will not fully realize the Kingdom on earth. The Kingdom of God is present in His people as Christ reigns in the hearts of those who receive Him as Savior and Lord. When you look at the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) you see the blessings that Jesus refers have “now and not yet” quality to them. The Bible also says that with salvation comes eternal life, (John 3:16, John 11:25; Romans 6:23, etc.). While yes Jesus does promise abundant life while on this earth, (John 10:10), to not think of the Gospel in terms of eternity is to make a mistake.
I also think that Bell muddies the water regarding the nature of the Gospel mixing the results, implications and our response in with what the Gospel actually is – God’s saving activity through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.
The Gospel addresses our fundamental problem our alienation from God due to our sin, (Isaiah 59:2). It isn’t ultimately about achieving a joy-filled life and completeness in this life. It isn’t just a solution to problems we are having. J.I. Packer writes in his classic, Knowing God:
The gospel does bring us solutions to these problems, but it does so by first solving … the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man’s relation with his Maker; and unless we make it plain that the solution of these former problems depends on the settling of this latter one, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God.
So the Gospel, this good news of great joy, (Luke 2:10) is about God being reconciled with his people. So the Gospel is very specific, it is dealing with this problem that you and I have. God is holy and just. We are not. At the end of our life we are going to stand before a just and holy God and we will be judged. We will either be judged on the basis of our own righteousness (or lack thereof) or someone else’s.
The good news is that God became flesh in the form of Jesus, (John 1:14; Philippians 2:7). Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God – a life of perfect righteousness. He did this for His people. He did what I could not do for myself, (2 Cornithians 5:21). Because He lived a life of perfect obedience He was able to offer Himself as a perfect vicarious sacrifice to satisfy the justice and righteousness of God in order to pay the penalty for our sin , (Romans 3:21-26; 6:23; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:1-2; 4:8-10). He then was raised from the dead demonstrating God’s satisfaction with Christ’s sacrifice.
The four Gospels present the person and work of Jesus Christ as the good news. The Apostle Paul makes it even more concise and he focuses on Christ’s death and resurrection as the core of his proclamation.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and the he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of who are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me, (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, ESV).
The gospel shares the content of our saving faith and our proclamation. It isn’t to be confused with our response. Our response is not the gospel. It is sufficient. We can add nothing to what Christ has accomplished for us. What we are left with is to simply believe this good news, turning from our sin and then receiving by faith what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ, (Romans 10:9).
It isn’t about social justice. It isn’t about service. It isn’t about demonstrating mercy. All of those things need to be done. We are commanded to do them, (Matthew 5:7, 13-16; Matthew 25; James 1:27; James 2, etc.). It is an expression of the Gospel, but it isn’t
Also when Bell writes, “Jesus wants to save us from shrinking the gospel down to a transaction about the removal of sin and not about every single particle of creation being reconciled to its maker.” He is basing that from Colossians 1:19-20 which says:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross, (ESV).
Bell’s interpretation of this verse contradicts the clear teaching of other scripture. On the surface it appears to indicate that eventually everything will be reconciled with Christ. This is universalism and it runs contrary to passages that affirm that apart from Christ there is no salvation, (for instance Matthew 25:46). This instead is referring to the cosmic significance of Jesus’ work – the thought presented here is similar to Romans 8:19-22. The main idea here is that all things eventually are to be decisively subdued to God’s will and made to serve His purposes.
It isn’t a promise of the creation of a Kingdom on earth. It isn’t saying that the Gospel is about utopia now and the end of suffering and injustice now as though we can bring that about through human means. It is a promise that one day God will restore, reconcile His creation to Himself. There is no commission in this verse for us. Paul says in Romans 1:16 that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for those who believe. It isn’t the power of God for our society to be restored and wrongs to be righted.
Followers of Christ need to be involved in that work, but that is not the message of the Gospel.