Category Archives: Gospel

The Cross and Our Shame

When the Bible describes the condition of Adam and Eve before their choice to sin against their Creator, it says something remarkable about their relationship with one another.  Genesis 2:25 records that they were together in complete vulnerability (they were naked) and that they felt no shame.  They knew each other intimately and yet were not ashamed in each other’s presence.  hen, in Genesis 3, right after Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s commands, they experienced shame.  They hid from God and from one another.  They covered their nakedness and were no longer being completely transparent before the other.

What is shame?  Shame is the humiliation or distress caused by awareness of wrong-doing.  It is the dishonor that we feel when we have done something wrong.  In other words, before sin entered the world, there was no shame.  There was nothing to feel ashamed of.  But once disobedience occurred, shame resulted.  This is true even today.  After we commit a sin, we feel shame.  Some feel more shame than others based on the sensitivity of their conscience and their view of God.  But at the core, we all experience shame.

You know the feeling and the look of shame.  You have had that experience where you couldn’t look someone in the eye because you knew that you had hurt them.   You didn’t want them to know who you really were, what you had really done.  Why?  Because you felt ashamed.  You may have experienced that in your relationship with your parents or your spouse or your best friend.  You most definitely have felt it in your relationship with God.  If you are aware of His perfect holiness and your own moral failings, then you feel unworthy to be in his presence, a sense of shame over the sins in your life, the choices you made that has brought dishonor to His name.

This is not unique to you.  Listen to the writer Ezra describe his personal shame in Ezra 9:6.  “And I said: My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heavens.”  In the next verse, he describes the national shame of his people.  Verse 7 reads, “Our guilt has been terrible from the days of our fathers until the present. Because of our iniquities we have been handed over, along with our kings and priests, to the surrounding kings, and to the sword, captivity, plundering, and open shame, as it is today.”  In other words, Ezra is ashamed of his sin before God, and he is ashamed of the sin of his people before the Lord.  Sin leads to shame before God and before others.

What does the cross of Jesus have to do with our shame?  Well, Isaiah 53:3 tells us that Jesus took our shame when he hung on the cross – “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like someone people turned away from; He was despised, and we didn’t value Him.”  Even though Jesus had nothing to be ashamed of, he faced the humiliation and dishonor that we deserved.  He felt the dishonor that we should have experienced.  Why?  So that he could take our shame from us!

In Hebrews 12:2, the Bible says that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him, despising the shame.  What does that phrase mean?  It means that he even though he endured our shame on the cross, he despised the shame.  He didn’t deserve to be humiliated in that way.  He deserved honor and yet received dishonor.  He deserved praise and adoration and yet received cursing and shame.  Why?

2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us what happen transactionally when Jesus died on the cross.  “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  Here’s the truth I want you to get in your heart and mind.  He endured your shame so that we could receive His righteousness.  He took your shame, my friend, so that you could receive His honor.  So that you could approach God as your Father and not your enemy.  So that you could be freed from condemnation and shame, walking in God’s love.  Lift your eyes, child of God.  You are His beloved! Jesus took away all of your shame.


The Meaning of the Cross

Here are my notes from tonight’s Good Friday service on the meaning of the cross:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Roman Empire these days and their use of the cross.  They used the cross as a weapon of execution to demonstrate their power of their subjects, a way to dominate and instill fear in the hearts of men.  And they used it to great effect.  For a time.

One of the men that the Romans crucified was a rabbi from Nazareth, the son of a carpenter.  Jesus was his name, and though He was the Son of God in the flesh, He wielded His power differently.  Instead of murdering those who opposed His reign, Jesus laid down His life willingly on the cross.  He didn’t use the cross to intimidate others.  He surrendered to the cross for the sake of others.

At the time of His death, the Romans surely looked like they had the stronger kingdom, that their approach to the cross was more effective in building a following.  But 2000 years have a way of providing clarity.  The Great Roman Empire sits in the dust-bin of history while the followers of Jesus only continue to grow.  The way of Love has overcome the way of death.  Jesus’ way remains.

But what exactly did Jesus accomplish in His crucifixion?  The Bible uses four words to describe the impact of Jesus’ death on the cross, and I want us to meditate on them tonight before we take communion.  Each gives us insight into the profound spiritual realities that have changed with the death of our Savior on the cross.  It is important that we meditate on these truths so that we fill up the cross with meaning in our hearts.  If we don’t, the cross will simply become background noise in our busy lives.  It fills our jewelry, our walls, and our clothes, but does it fill our hearts?

The first word is propitiation.  1 John 2:1-2 says “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father —Jesus Christ the Righteous One. 2 He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.”  Propitiation is a temple word, one that describes a sacrifice that satisfies the anger of God against sin.  In Jesus, God has fully satisfied His own wrath against sin.  By the cross, we are no longer objects of God’s wrath, but objects of His love and care.

Do you feel like God is angry with you?  If you are in Christ, He is not – because the cross satisfied God’s wrath.

The second word is redemption.  Mark 10:45 says “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.”  What is a ransom?  It is a price paid for the purchase of something or someone.  God has purchased our redemption through the cross of Jesus.  The price of our salvation was infinitely high, costing God the price of His precious Son.  And Jesus willingly paid this price to redeem us from our sins – to set us free from bondage.

Do you feel like you owe God a debt you must pay?  If you are in Christ, you do not – because Jesus paid your debt.

The third word is justification.  Romans 5:18-19 says “ So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone.  For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  Whereas propitiation comes from the religious world and ransom from the business world, the idea of justification comes from the legal world.  To be justified means to be declared righteous before a court of law.  In this way, Jesus has not just paid for our sins, but He has made a way for us to stand righteous before a perfectly holy God.  This is what Romans calls a life-giving justification.  We are not just forgiven, but made righteous by Jesus’ work on the cross.

Do you feel guilty before the Lord?  If you are in Christ, you should not – because Jesus forgave your sin.

The fourth word is reconciliation.  2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says “Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us.”  Jesus accomplished our reconciliation with God the Father on the cross.  He purchased our relationship with Himself.  We are no longer His enemies, but now His children.

Do you feel lonely and separated from God?  If you are in Christ, you are not alone – you have been adopted by God.

This is what the cross means, and why today is called Good Friday.

HT: John Stott, The Cross of Christ

Gospel Identity

One of my personal core-values (and one that I have tried to build into the culture of our church staff) is do ministry out of my identity in Christ.  What I mean by this is that we don’t seek our identity in our performance or metrics, but in what Jesus Christ has done for us in His death, resurrection, and His promised return.  I don’t always live up to this core value (making it more aspirational than actual), but I return to it again and again in my personal prayer time and in the way I lead staff and volunteers.

So much of our work “for the Lord” is actually motivated by trying to prove ourselves.  We want approval and recognition from our family, our friends, our co-workers, and our community.  But this can be a never-ending trap (a form of self-justification).  It is one thing to seek excellence in all we do in order to honor God.  It is another to over-work and stress-out because we are looking for some kind of validation of our value and worth.

The Christian gospel teaches us that our position with God is established not based on our efforts, but on the finished work of Jesus Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.  Paul beautifully captures this idea on Titus 3:5, “He saved us – not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”  This truth must get deep in our souls so that we don’t seek to self-justify based on our ministry efforts or results.

A good way to evaluate your own source of worth and value is to ask this question, “what, if taken away from me, would crush my sense of worth as an individual?”  Maybe the answer to that question is your children or your job or your hobbies.  For me, it can so often be ministry itself.  And so the irony grows – that which I do for the Lord can become the very thing I substitute for Christ as the foundation of my worth before the Lord.  If we can turn ministry into a false-god, we can turn anything into an idol.

Lord, help us every day to recognize that You are the only one who can justify us, and that everything we do must be in response to your grace or it is destined to become a unstable source of identity than will enslave us to the opinions of others.  Set us free, Lord, to serve You for Your sake and not for ours.

The Best Gospel Tract Ever Written

I wish every person in the world would take at least take ten minutes and read these words that were written 750 years before Jesus was born.  They never cease to amaze me.  Read it slowly and in awe.

Isaiah 52:13-53:13

See, My Servant will act wisely; He will be raised and lifted up and greatly exalted. Just as many were appalled at You— His appearance was so disfigured that He did not look like a man, and His form did not resemble a human being — so He will sprinkle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths because of Him, For they will see what had not been told them, and they will understand what they had not heard.

Who has believed what we have heard? And who has the arm of the Lord been revealed to? He grew up before Him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He didn’t have an impressive form or majesty that we should look at Him, no appearance that we should desire Him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like someone people turned away from; He was despised, and we didn’t value Him.

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.  We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. He was taken away because of oppression and judgment; and who considered His fate? For He was cut off from the land of the living; He was struck because of my people’s rebellion.  They made His grave with the wicked and with a rich man at His death, although He had done no violence and had not spoken deceitfully.

Yet the Lord was pleased to crush Him severely. When You make Him a restitution offering, He will see His seed, He will prolong His days, and by His hand, the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished.  He will see it out of His anguish, and He will be satisfied with His knowledge. My righteous Servant will justify many, and He will carry their iniquities. Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil, because He submitted Himself to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels.

My Christmas Prayer for You

Dear Reader:

Merry Christmas from the Ferguson family to your family!  I hope that this post finds you enjoying this special time of year.  If you are anything like me, the busyness of the season can sometimes eclipse the significance of the season.  In the midst of our activity (and the pace that comes with having four kids!), my family must strive to take a few moments to remember why the Christmas holiday is so meaningful.

Of course, we enjoy the much-needed break from the routine of the fall semester (including some time off of work).  We look forward to seeing friends and family members that we don’t visit enough.  We anticipate the tasty food, the meaningful gifts from thoughtful friends, and the stories we will share with one another.  I hope that your Christmas includes these blessings and more.

But my greatest desire is that you would know the joy that comes from receiving God’s gift this year.  Christmas is the day we remember that Jesus Christ was born into this world in the most humble of circumstances, come to this earth to perfectly reveal the character of God and to give His life for each one of us.

No other gift you receive this year (or any year!) will ever compare to what God has given in sending His One and Only Son.  For you see, this life is sweeter and eternal life is possible because Jesus came.  He didn’t have to come, but He did.  And not only did He come.  He died and rose again, giving life to all who believe on His name.

There is so much to celebrate at Christmas.  But there is only One who brings light to every day of the year, and He is the reason we have Christmas at all.  Don’t forget to celebrate Him this year.

With my love and prayers-


The Gospel and The Spirit

As I have preached through Galatians 5 the last two weeks, I have been reminded of the important connection between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God.  Not only because it is the Spirit who opens our eyes to see our need for salvation and reveals the Son of God to us, but also because the Spirit is one of the greatest Gifts we receive as a result of the work of Christ.  Paul reminds the Galatians in chapter 3 that they had received the Spirit by faith in Jesus, and in chapter 5 he calls them to live and walk by the Spirit (in other words, to submit to His leadership in their lives).

One of the signs of the New Covenant (promised in Jeremiah 31) was a closer relationship with God where He would write His instruction on our hearts and not just our minds.  The gift of the Spirit in Acts 2 is a fulfillment in Luke’s writing of the promise made to the prophet Joel and a confirmation of the words of Isaiah 44.  In other words, the Old Testament is not just looking for a new way for man to be reconciled with God (from enemy to child) but also a way for God to live with man (as the Holy Spirit takes up residence with every believer).

One of the great consequences of the work of Jesus on the cross is that we are filled with the Holy Spirit of God.  In my experience, many Christians have a strange relationship with the Holy Spirit that has been disconnected from the gospel of Jesus.  Some Christians see the gospel only as a means to have sin forgiven and heaven guaranteed, but have no concept of walking by the power of the Spirit in their daily lives.  Others see the key to the Christian life as receiving ongoing extra fillings of the Spirit every time they attend a worship service.  These two extremes have missed the connection that Paul seems to be making in Galatians.  That Christian maturity comes as we walk daily in the light of the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot separate these two.

If we ignore the gospel in our daily Christian experience, then we will miss a major part of the Spirit’s role according to the Scriptures – to point us back to Jesus Christ and His teaching.  The Spirit does not work on His own accord, but is sent by the Father and the Son to remind us of all that Jesus taught and all that God has done for us in Christ.  The Spirit loves to glorify the Father and the Son, and so He works to proclaim the gospel to us every day.  In addition, if we ignore the gospel in our spiritual growth, we can tend to start taking credit for our sanctification.  But the Spirit brings us back to who we are in Christ so that we will not forget that our standing before God and our progress in holiness are gifts of God rooted in His gracious activity, not our moral superiority.

While we can ignore the gospel in our daily Christian life, we can also make the other mistake.  We can center our lives on the gospel but ignore the role of the Spirit in helping us grow.  If we do this (which seems to be very common – hence Francis Chan’s book Forgotten God), we are in danger of attempting to power our way to holiness through the strength of the flesh.  And while we can discipline ourselves to act the right way in certain contexts and at certain times, the fruit of trying to please God from the flesh is ultimately pride and self-righteousness.  This explains why so many people who hold to an orthodox view of the gospel also can turn into proud religious people over time.  They have set their hearts to living for God without daily dependence on the person and power of the Holy Spirit.

My main point in this post is to summarize what I’ve learned in leading my congregation through Galatians 5 the last few weeks.  Many people are afraid of the Holy Spirit because of the abuses they have seen on television.  But the right response to these extremes is not ignorance of the Spirit, but biblical wisdom regarding the Spirit.  The Scriptures are clear – we need the Holy Spirit to live in the freedom that Jesus died to provide.  So, don’t react to the craziness of a few by grieving the Spirit in your own life.  He is alive, and if you are in Christ, He is in you.  Listen to His voice.  Trust His guidance.  And walk in His power.

Final Thoughts on The Cross of Christ by Stott

I have posted several thoughts on John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ over the last few months as we have been reading chapter by chapter together as a staff.  We discussed the last chapter and conclusion last Tuesday at staff meeting, and so I thought it would be helpful to post some final thoughts about the value of working through this book together as a team.  While the book can be dense reading in certain places where Stott interacts with contemporary scholarly works and important views in the history of the church, it has been extremely beneficial to me personally and to our team.  I would highly recommend this book for pastors and church staffs to read together.  Our team has benefited in at least the following three ways-

1. This book helps you keep the cross at the center of your theology and ministry. While this may seem like stating the obvious, I would argue that understanding how to keep the cross of Christ at the center of your theology and ministry is harder than it looks.  The Bible says a lot of things about a lot of topics, and Stott helps us to see how the cross is the center of that revelation.  Stott also helps us to see the implications of the cross for our personal lives and our ministry to others.  The last four chapters fall under the heading Living Under the Cross which is a good summary of the whole Christian life.  As church leaders, we can be tempted to make many things the center of our theology and our practice.  In fact, the buzz today in church life is about participating in the mission of God.  But Stott is right to remind us that our understanding of the mission of God is formed in light of the cross.  The cross of Jesus Christ is the center of our faith – the Old Testament looking forward to it and the New Testament looking back to it.  And Stott’s book helps us understand what that actually means.

2. This book helps you understand how the persons of the Trinity interact at the cross. One of the most helpful parts of Stott’s book is his repeated emphasis that we need to talk clearly as Christians about how the members of the Trinity worked together at the cross. Even though I am seminary trained, my understanding of this very important theological paradigm has been lacking.  Without Stott’s clear thinking and discussion on this topic, I think I would have continued to communicate the idea that the gracious, loving Jesus (Son of God) rescues us from the holy, just, wrathful Father.  Stott is right to blow this dichotomy out of the water.  The cross is not the place where one member of the Trinity rescues us from another member of the Trinity, but rather the place where God in Christ substitutes Himself for sinful humanity.  Stott’s main argument is that the heart of the cross is self-satisfaction through self-substitution. Therefore, biblically it is better to talk about the Triune God reconciling the world to Himself through the death and resurrection of the Son than it is to pit one member of the Trinity against another.  I hope that every pastor who preaches God’s Word would gain clearer understanding on this point lest we slander the Father (missing His love) and diminish the Son (dismissing His wrath).

3. This book calls us to preach the offense of the cross. Stott is right to conclude with insights from the book of Galatians, which I am preaching through right now.  In Galatians, the apostle Paul concludes that we cannot preach self-righteousness in the Law of God and the cross of Jesus at the same time.  These two ideas are mutually exclusive – we are either justified by faith in Christ alone and sanctified by the Spirit OR we are justified and sanctified through human effort.  We cannot teach both.  Stott makes a forceful plea that we would should not give in (as pastors) to the desire to be liked by telling people how good they are and how they can get their lives together if they simply work hard enough.  This guts the heart of our faith.  Our message is the cross: God in Christ has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  And so we must preach our inability to save ourselves.  Regularly.  The cross of Jesus is our message because it is our only hope.  Men and women who claim the name of Christ – preach Him crucified.

In the end, may Galatians 6:14 be our theme: But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

The Foolishness of Moving On

In Galatians 3:1-5, Paul chastises the believers in Galatia for thinking that they could move on from the gospel of grace into the works of the law.  He calls them foolish for living as though the gospel was just the starting point to get them headed the right direction, which would now be completed by their own efforts.  He challenges them to not see the gospel as simply the door through which they start a new life, but the boat in which they travel to deeper waters.  In other words, we don’t start with the gospel, we stay in the gospel.  We don’t add to the work of the cross, we proclaim the work of the cross.  We don’t move on from the gospel, we go deeper into the gospel.

Well, how do I know if I have stayed rooted in the gospel or tried to move on from the gospel?  I see at least four ongoing tests that reveal the condition of our hearts before God:

1- Am I growing in humility or pride?  Gospel growth should create a greater humility in my life as I understand more each day how dependent I am on God’s grace.  If I begin to move on from the gospel, I will grow in pride – thinking that I deserve the credit for my Christian maturity.

2- Am I experiencing peace & joy OR fear & anxiety?  Gospel growth leads to greater peace and joy in my life as I live with confidence in my new position in Christ.  I trust God regardless of my circumstances.  Apart from the gospel, I begin to experience greater fear and anxiety – looking to myself to solve all of my problems.

3- Am I in awe of grace or do I feel entitled to God’s blessings?  Gospel growth leads me to live in awe of God’s mercy and grace – amazed anew every day that God found me and rescued me from my sin.  Growth apart from the gospel creates a sense of entitlement in my heart – that God somehow owes me for my service to Him.

4- Am I worshiping Christ or worshiping myself? Ultimately, gospel growth produces the fruit of a heart that loves God deeply and supremely.  In other words, we become God-worshipers, who center our lives around His glory and fame.  Moving on from the gospel leads us back to self-worship.

Are you staying rooted in the gospel of grace year over year?  I pray that God would guard your heart from the foolishness of moving on from the gospel into something “deeper” or “greater.”  There is nothing deeper or greater than the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.

For more, check out my sermon from today on Galatians 3:1-14.

Catholics & Protestants

What is the Catholic / Protestant divide really about?  In the almost 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, have we moved past our differences or are we still in disagreement about core issues related to the gospel of Christ?

In my studies for my sermon last Sunday on Galatians 2:15-21, I was thrown headlong into the centuries-old debate about justification.  You see, Galatians 2:16 is one of the pivotal passages in Catholic / Protestant discussions.  Paul says three times that people are justified by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works of the law.  Seems straightforward enough at first-reading, but the statement’s economy of words betray its complexity of thought.

The key debate between Catholics and Protestants over the last 500 years has how to answer the question of Job 9:2b, “How can a man be justified before God?”  The word justified is from the legal profession, describing the declaration from the Judge that the defendant is “not guilty” and has been cleared of all charges.  To be justified is to be declared righteous by the judge. Paul is answering a question that the rest of the Bible is asking: how can sinful people who have been alienated from their Maker be made right so that they can be brought back into fellowship with Him? The Bible starts with a garden scene where man and woman are enjoying God freely, but sin enters the world through their disobedience, creation comes under the judgment of God, and the man and woman are cast out from God’s presence. The Bible ends with a new city in a new heaven and a new earth where the people of God are enjoying God freely again.  The question of the middle of the Bible (Genesis 4 to Revelation 19) is how this is possible.  How can sinful people be in the presence of a righteous God?

In other words, how can we be confident that when we stand before God our Judge that He will acquit us of our sin and welcome us into His presence forever? This is obviously a very important question. And Catholics and Protestants have read the Bible differently on how this question is answered.  Let me try to explain the difference with two simply summaries of what we believe.

1- Protestants believe that justification occurs immediately at the time when faith is placed in Jesus Christ and that sanctification flows out of our justification. What this means is that we understand statements like Galatians 2:16 to teach us that we cannot merit our justification through our moral performance, but that we are declared righteous at the time we trust in the life-giving death and resurrection of Jesus.  Now that we have confidence of our righteous standing before God (based on Christ’s righteousness, not of our own) and we have the Spirit of God indwelling us, we begin to live a different kind of life.  We actually become righteous morally (sanctified) because we have been declared righteous legally in Christ. In other words, we begin to change today as a result of having confidence in our future position before God.  In this way, our moral performance as believers is motivated by a response to grace, not an effort to merit or receive grace.

2- Catholics believe that justification begins at baptism (when original sin is washed away) and is only truly received at the end of the process of sanctification when the person is actually righteous. What this means is that the RCC teaches that a person is born in original sin, but that the stain of original sin can be washed away through baptism.  After baptism, a person is morally neutral, a blank slate, and throughout their life they progress in sanctification (being righteous) through participation in the sacraments of the church by faith.  Each time a believing Catholic takes communion, goes to confession, or participates in any of the other sacraments, they receive a deposit of grace from God through the church.  At the end of their life, if their accumulation of grace has led them to be actually righteous, then God will declare them actually righteous and they will be justified.  In this view, justification is never promised at the beginning, but only a reality at the end.  Justification in a Catholic view is a declaration of what a person actually is, NOT what they are in Christ.

In Practice: While the Catholic church teaches that salvation is by faith, not by works, the practice of the Catholic church to teach that justification only comes through the sacraments of the church actually leads practicing Catholics to think that their standing before God is based on their religious activity. And while many would like to think that this is uniquely Catholic, it is not.  Many Protestant churches that assume the gospel of grace and don’t teach it repeatedly and explicitly can also produce “good moral people” who believe that God justifies them on the basis of their church participation.  In my mind, Galatians 2:15-16 and passages like it call us to teach the important biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.  If not, the natural bent of the human heart is to think that we are good enough and can do enough good works to merit our position with God.

Additional Resources:
My Sermon on Galatians 2:15-21
Blake Magee Post on Justification
Book: Justification By Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue
Book: Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on Justification

Book Notes: Love Wins by Rob Bell

I didn’t blog yesterday as some posts take longer than others.  This is one of those posts.  I finished reading Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins on Thursday night, but have been thinking, praying and studying yesterday and this morning in order to respond appropriately.  I didn’t originally want to read his book and write about it, but as more people that I personally shepherd have asked me about it, I felt a pastoral responsibility to interact with his ideas.  The book is not long and is an easy read.  I want to be fair to Bell so I want to approach my review by constructing his major argument as fairly as possible and then responding to his major points.  Here is how the book is laid out:

Bell’s Major Point: The historical Christian teaching of eternal judgment should be abandoned by modern Christians in favor of an openness to the possibility that God’s love eventually turns the hearts of all people to Himself at some point in eternity. In order to support his position, I read his book as giving three primary reasons why this change should be made…

1- A presentation of God’s eternal love winning over the rebellious hearts of all sinful people some time in eternity is more emotionally satisfying than the idea that God eternally punishes sinners who fail to repent. Bell is nothing if not a creative writer who knows how to turn a phrase.  He is an artist with words, not an engineer with lines of arguments.  Bell moves his audience through word-pictures, creative phrases, and emotional appeals.  All preachers do this to some level, but Bell’s major argument in Love Wins is that his picture of the afterlife is better because it feels better to us.  While not coming out and saying, “this is the way it is,” Bell likes to ask this question, “wouldn’t it be nice if…” This is an appeal to the human emotions.  His argument goes something like this: “Don’t you want it to really be like this?  Doesn’t this make God more appealing to your heart?  Doesn’t this make the story better?  Then it must be a possibility that it is true.”

My Thoughts: The problem with this rationale should be obvious.  Truth is not based on emotion, but on revelation.  Just because we feel like something should be true doesn’t necessarily make it true.  The emotions of people vary from day to day, from generation to generation, and from country to country.  Some people who have experienced unbelievable injustice in this life may feel like eternal judgment in hell is entirely justified and good.  But that doesn’t make hell true either.  We can’t base our view of the afterlife on our emotions, but rather on God’s revelation – primarily because our perspective is limited and we don’t know what the afterlife holds.  Only God knows what life will be like for us after death, so we need to be careful using human emotion as an authority on truth.  The Bible is clear in Jeremiah 17:9-10 that the human heart is deceitful above all things – we can convince ourselves that many things are true based on our emotions to find out later that we were clearly wrong.  Human emotions are not authoritative – no matter how strongly you or I feel like something should be that way.

2- The view that God’s eternal love will eventually win over the rebellious hearts of all people is in line with the teachings of the Bible. Beyond the appeal to emotions, Bell makes an appeal to Scripture.  His claim is that the teaching of the Bible makes his position possible.  He quotes lots of verses in every one of his chapters from a range of biblical authors to support his position.  His view is that the Bible’s teaching on the love of God, the fatherly heart of God, and the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus to reconcile all things will eventually bring everyone to receive God’s love at some point in the afterlife.

My Thoughts: Bell’s handling of the Scripture is one of the most concerning parts of the book in my mind.  He breaks the first rule of good Bible-study, the one that I share most often with people who are new to the Bible: let the Scripture interpret Scripture.  In other words, understanding CONTEXT is crucial to understanding the meaning of any verse in the Bible.  If you take one verse here and one verse there and put them together, you can literally make the Bible say anything you want it to say.  This is exceedingly dangerous and the primary error that I believe Bell makes.  I don’t have the time or the space to go verse by verse and demonstrate all the times and all the ways that he does this – he quotes 100s of verses in his book in this fashion.  If you want to read a more detailed review of some of his mishandling of the Bible, read Kevin DeYoung’s 20-page review of the book.  I think Darrell Bock, a DTS research professor of New Testament who reviewed the book chapter by chapter on his blog nails it when he says, “As much fun as Bell has with word plays and links, he often during the journey loses his way on the road to meaning by failing to work adequately with the context of the passages he cites. He gets lost in his cleverness.” (italics mine)

Don’t take my word on it, and don’t take Bell’s word on it.  Read the Bible for yourself.  But don’t read Bible verses out of context. Read the whole book.  Every time you hear someone quote ONE verse to make a point, find that verse in the Bible and read the chapter and book around that verse to see if that is what that verse really means.  This is the only faithful way to study the Bible.  If you want to read some of Bell’s passages in context, read the following chapters in the Bible – Deuteronomy 32, Isaiah 66, Daniel 12, Matthew 5, 10, 18, 23, 25, Luke 12, John 5, 2 Thessalonians 1, Revelation 14, 20-22.  After reading those chapters in whole, see if you come to the same conclusions that Bell does.

3- The view that God’s eternal love will eventually win over the rebellious hearts of all people has not been held by all Christians throughout history but is in the center of the stream of historical, orthodox Christianity. The third authority that Bell appeals to other than our emotions and the Scriptures is the Christian tradition.  He claims that he is not teaching anything new, but is only introducing a new generation of Christians to a very old idea that has been held by influential Christian leaders throughout history.  He points to a variety of leaders who taught his position or were at least open to the idea of it: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa.  He even uses a quote from Luther to show that he was open to the idea.  Beyond that, he says that because Jerome, Basil, and Augustine were interacting with the idea in their writings, there must have been people in their day who held this view as well.

My Thoughts: I have read a fair amount of Christian history and even a number of the original sources of the people Bell mentions in his list above.  In fact, right now I am reading through Luther’s commentary on Galatians as one of my sources for my current sermon-series.  Bell definitely overplays his hand when it comes to historical continuity.  Have there always been people who have held his position?  Clearly, the answer is yes.  Has it ever been the majority position or the center of the historical, orthodox church?  Clearly, the answer is no.  Ben Witherington, an excellent NT scholar who has also reviewed Bell’s book chapter by chapter on his blog, makes the following statement: “Secondly, in the Preface there is the disclaimer— ‘nothing in this book has not been claimed before within the parameters of the broad stream of historic orthodox Christianity’  (p. x).   As it turns out, and as we shall see, this is actually not quite accurate, if one is referring to creedal or confessional or conciliar orthodoxy.”  The point is this: pulling random names from church history who have taught your position is not convincing because you can find people in church history who taught many wrong things and use them to defend all kinds of false teaching.  We have to be careful to not misquote or misuse historical theology to defend our positions.  Should we have honest dialogue and debate about the eternal state?  Absolutely.  Should we believe that Bell’s position has been accepted throughout the history of the church?  Not even close.

Final Thoughts: Does this discussion matter? Why is it important to talk about the biblical teachings on heaven and hell, the eternal judgment of God, and salvation alone by faith in Jesus Christ?  NOT solely because doctrinal purity and clarity matters in our systematic theology.  But because people’s eternity matters to God and should matter to us.  If the true story of the Bible is one in which a good and holy God creates people in His image to enjoy Him forever, and yet people came under the just wrath of that holy God for breaking His commands, then the true question of the Bible is not just how can creation be put back together in a general sense, but how sinful people can be justified (declared righteous) before a righteous God? I think Bell gets the wrong answer because he is asking the wrong question.  The question of the Bible is not primarily about how humans who have messed up their lives can be healed and restored and fixed and blessed and get their stuff together.  The primary question of the Bible is how can those who have been cast out from the presence of God because of their sin (Genesis 3) be reconciled to an infinitely glorious, holy God whom they have offended (Revelation 21-22)?  Hell then, is not just what we create when we make bad decisions, but what we justly experience when we rebel against a Holy God.  The Bible teaches this problem is only resolved when we trust in Jesus Christ to save us, rescue us, and redeem us (see Galatians 2:15-16).  This discussion matters because we don’t want to give people false hope in an opportunity that Bible doesn’t clearly teach, and because we want to call people to trust in the One Hope the Bible does clearly teach – Jesus Christ.