By Joseph Tenney & JR Kerr
Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has been the cause for great discussion over these past few weeks in the life of the US church. There have been tweets and sermons alike some condemning and others commending this most raucous work of the famed preacher from Grand Rapids. As a community we have decided to respond to this book and surrounding debate in two simple ways.
First, this past weekend Jackson preached on the biblical doctrine of both heaven and hell. It should be listened to and digested, but in summary, as a church we believe that heaven and hell are both very real and that there is an impending and deep consequence for the way we live life on this earth. Second, we have been working on this response to the actual claims of the book. Our hope is simply that we would remain deeply committed to a biblical view of life & death and that we would engage in the cultural tensions this inevitably creates with our neighbors and friends who are far from God.
The basic premise of our response to Bell’s book is simple. Jesus wins not love. Bell offers a multitude of ideas around how God will deal with our future state in eternity, but ultimately our greatest concern is his diminishment of the person of Jesus Christ in the past, present, and future of our redemption through the Gospel. Three areas that Bell addresses are worth unpacking if we are to understand how and why this elevation of love over Jesus is, in our opinion, misguided and perhaps even dastardly.
The first of these is Bell’s treatment of history. Culturally, we have lost sight of who we are as a church because we have stopped rigorously pursuing a historical sense of who we have been as the people of God. Bell does this with the church fathers and their view of heaven and hell. Luther in particular plays a prominent role in the case that he presents.
Bell states, “And so space is created in this ‘who would doubt God’s ability to do that?’…and so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody.” (pg. 106) Bell gives no reference or context for Luther’s statement. Studying Luther’s Larger Catechism presents a different picture though. The problem is, Luther never said anything close to what Bell would like him to say. You can find this letter in the Weimar Ausgabe, in volume 10.ii, 322-26. This is what the letter actually says,
“If God were to save anyone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words and would give himself the lie; yes, he would deny himself. And that is impossible for, as St. Paul declares, God cannot deny himself. It is as impossible for God to save without faith as it is impossible for divine truth to lie. That is clear, obvious, and easily understood, no matter how reluctant the old wineskin is to hold this wine–yes, is unable to hold and contain it. It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this. For all that we read is that he has already raised people from the dead and thus granted them faith. But whether he gives faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith. Otherwise every sermon, the gospel, and faith would be vain, false, and deceptive, since the entire gospel makes faith necessary. (Works, 43, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968, 53-54)
Clearly, upon reading more than this single line from Luther’s letter we find that Luther is responding to the age old question of whether someone can be saved without faith in Jesus Christ. Luther responds with an emphatic NO, it’s impossible for God to save without faith. This diminishment of the power of saving faith in Jesus is a direct confrontation of Jesus as Lord and savior.
The next issue worth addressing is this idea that Jesus came to save all people and that ultimately his work will redeem all people whether they have responded to his call in this life or not. In an effort to speak about final restoration for ‘all people’, Bell notes the following passages (86-87):
- Lamentations 3: People are not cast off by the Lord forever,
- Hosea 14: I will heal their waywardness and love them freely for my anger has turned away from them.
- Joel 3: In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem
Bell cites many more passages, too many to show here; but notice, these restoration passages are not referring to “all people”, rather the covenant people of God. The thought is not, “Hang on every person who has ever lived, he will restore us”; but rather, “If you are a child of God and have been saved by grace through faith, hang on, he WILL keep his own.” Bell disagrees and says, “this isn’t just something for God’s people, the chosen, the elect.” And to support this claim he then draws our attention to Isaiah 19:
“In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt,
and a monument to the LORD at its border.”
Bell wants to use Isaiah 19 to show that this kind of restoration isn’t for God’s people alone, but for those who are “opposed to God…the ones far away (like the Egyptians) will be brought near.” (p. 87)
The problem is Isaiah 19 has nothing to do with a final restoration being realized postmortem. Isaiah 19 is about an oracle from God concerning Egypt – one in which God brings Egypt to it’s knees where they beg God to save them. There’s nothing in this text to suggest that God will rescue every soul in Egypt. God makes the promise, as he often does in the Prophets, that if they will turn to him then God will show mercy. This kind of restoration would diminish Jesus because it would require nothing from us in terms of obedience in this life, and therefore would mean that we can live as we desire and yet still be guaranteed a place in eternity with God. If this is the case, then what was the point to the life and suffering of Jesus Christ? Was it all simply good drama? NO. It was not, it was essential to the future of the human race and therefore there is consequence how we respond to it in this life.
The final arena is perhaps the most important and the reason why we respond to the claim, “Love Wins with the idea that Jesus Wins”. Penal Substitution is the idea that Jesus Christ was punished, wounded, suffered in our place. He served as the substitute and ransom for sinners and satisfied God’s justice so that God is now able to justly forgive sins through the death of his Son. Bell flat out denies that God’s wrath is enkindled against mankind. This leads him to believe eternal suffering can in no way bring God glory, and in fact, is incompatible with a God who is love.
Bell writes, “Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: 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.”
Is God our rescuer? Yes, God is our rescuer, saving us from sin and death and bringing us to himself; and yes God rescues us from his holy wrath that is poured out on his creatures in perfect justice. It’s as though all of the sudden, God cannot be more than one thing at the same time. He cannot be both merciful and just, show compassion on some and harden others. God is entirely more complex than Bell would have us believe. Bell’s rejection of Penal Substitution is a rejection of the full nature of God. God is not only love, but as the angels proclaim and repeat, he is HOLY, HOLY, HOLY. God is not only a God to be loved and thought fondly of as a gracious Father, he is to be feared, “ The Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” (Is. 8 )
Jesus wins. He wins because while he could have simply chosen to restore everything and all people one day, he did not because he chose to redeem those who have believed in him. The second reason Jesus wins is because all throughout history he has been drawing a very particular people towards himself by his grace and election. The third reason Jesus wins is because he pays the great price of rescue. He rescues from the wrath and the due that is ours because of our sin. There is no greater love than this, than one who lays down his life for his friends. Jesus has made us friends through the laying down of his life on our behalf. This is great love, but it is also sacrifice. Ultimately, it is Jesus who wins the day and redeems our story, if you do not know Jesus then you cannot know redemption.