The recent unpleasantness regarding Rob Bell’s rejection of orthodox thinking and teaching is sparking a concerted effort among my fellow Reformed bloggers and other online ministries to raise awareness that evangelicalism has been in decline for many years, and it is only accelerating. Bible believing Christians need to get back to the basics of what it means to believe the Bible.
To that end, I will begin a new series of excerpts from my antiquarian Self-Interpreting Bible, by the Rev. John Brown of Haddington, Scotland. One of his numerous helps in highlighting the Bible’s self-attestation to it’s inspiration as well as its self-interpretation, is an essay entitled, “An Introduction to the Right Understanding of the Oracles of God.” Chapter one of this lengthy introduction is called, “Of the Divine Authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.”
In this chapter, Rev. Brown begins by demonstrating that there are some things which natural reason is unable to accomplish on its own. Such things are impossible to it without the aid of divine revelation. This fact is often something that even the most devout believer of the Bible forgets, and in such cases, the faith and practice of the church are undermined. Such is undoubtedly the case in the present controversy that has been sparked by natural reason in the form of Rob Bell’s postmodern liberalism.
No man, who is an unbiased free-thinker, can soberly hearken to the dictates of his natural reason, and seriously ponder the absurd and contradictory principles and practices which have been or are prevalent among mankind, without perceiving that the light, or even the law of nature, is altogether insufficient to direct us to true holiness, or lasting happiness, in our present lapsed condition.
It can give us no plain, distinct, convincing, pleasant, powerful, and lasting ideas of God. It cannot direct us in the right manner of worshipping him with due love, resignation, humility, self-denial, zeal, wisdom, sincerity, and fervent desire of the eternal enjoyment of him. It cannot show us our true happiness, which is suited to our highest powers, which may always be enjoyed without shame, suspicion, fear, or dread of loss or danger, and which will in every situation support and comfort us.
It can discover no true system of morality, perfect in its rules, means, and motives. It can discover no effectual incitements to virtue, drawn from the excellency and presence of God the law-giver, from the authority of his law, or from his discovering a proper regard to it in rewarding virtue and punishing vice. It cannot manifest in a striking manner the certainty, excellence, pleasure, and allurement of virtue in our heart, which will ripen us to that proper pitch of religion and virtue in our heart, which will ripen us for the full and immediate enjoyment of God. It cannot show us one perfect example of virtue, either among learned or unlearned heathens; nor give us any promise of God’s assisting us in the study of it.
It can discover no certainty that God will pardon our sins;
no proper atonement;
no actually pardoned sinner;
no happy soul, praising God for his pardoning mercy;
no spiritual worship, appointed by God for rebellious sinners;
no purpose, promise, perfection, or name of God, that his honour, or is intended in his patient bearing with sinners on earth;
nor does it afford any divine proclamation of pardon, nor even any incitement to us to forgive our injurers;
and, in fine, it cannot effectually sanctify our heart, nor produce that bent of will and affection, that inward peace with God, that sufficiency of light and strength from God, or that solid hope of eternal happiness, which is necessary to produce true holiness and virtue.
It cannot support us under heavy and bitter afflictions, by showing us God’s fatherly care of us, his promises to us, or his making all things to work together for our good; nor can it comfort us against death by certain views of his love to us, and providing everlasting life and happiness for us.
The following was posted today on R. C. Sproul, Jr.’s Facebook page. Presumably motivated by the current controversy over Rob Bell’s upcoming book, in which he teaches “universal reconciliation,” a doctrine first put on the theological map by the ancient church father, Origen, who suffered from many theological maladies, it is crucial that more self-identified “evangelicals” got back in touch with the true heritage associated with being evangelical, lest the wolves in sheep’s clothing arise, not sparing the flock of the Lord (Matthew 7:15).
The difficult truth of the matter is that language, while actually having the ability to communicate, is not static. Words have real meanings, but those meanings are grounded both in history and in usage. Sometimes those two come apart, and a word is caught in the tension. “Evangelical” is just one of those words.
Historically speaking evangelical was a redundant term for Protestant. In both cases the term referred to those who affirmed the binding authority of the Bible alone and that one could have peace with God only by trusting in the finished work of Christ alone. Contra Rome then the term affirmed sola scriptura and sola fide.
Three hundred years after the Reformation, however, the term took a small turn, a tiny nuance was added by the beginnings of theological liberalism. Institutionally theological liberalism was found within Protestant churches. Its defining qualities, however, were a denial of the truthfulness and authority of the Bible and a denial of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Evangelical suddenly became not a synonym for Protestant, but a sub-category. It was how we distinguished actual Christians from liberal “Christians.” Thus Machen’s later great work, Christianity and Liberalism affirmed that the two were utterly distinct.
One hundred years ago there was yet another shift.The evangelical wing of the Protestant church offered competing strategies for dealing with the liberal wing. One side was slightly less sophisticated, slightly less academic, and, given its accompanying pessimistic eschatology, more retreatist. They, distinguishing themselves from evangelicals, called themselves fundamentalists. On the fundamentals both fundamentalists and evangelicals agreed. Evangelicals, sadly, were slightly more accommodating of theological liberalism, slightly less ardent in denouncing it.
Over the last thirty years that spirit of accommodation has mushroomed inside the evangelical church. Indeed if evangelical has any meaning at all in current usage, it is far more about a mood, a posture, than it is about an affirmation of cardinal doctrines. Evangelicals, on the whole, do not scoff at the Bible like theological liberals. They are willing to affirm, at least in principle, biblical miracles. They are even willing, in a nuanced way that ultimately neuters that authority, to affirm the authority of the Bible, at least parts of it. That nuance typically softens the edges of the Bible by interpreting it in light of our post-modern wisdom. Suddenly the “clear” passages by which we must interpret the less clear are those passages that best reflect current common wisdom. “God is love,” which the Bible clearly teaches, suddenly means that its condemnation of homosexual behavior, or women ruling over men in the church, are suddenly open to re-interpretation.
More important, however, is the notion that “God is love” undoes the necessity of trusting in the finished work of Christ for salvation. Now, either due to a generous inclusiveness that welcomes Romanists, Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, ad nauseum, or a denial of the reality of hell, we no longer must embrace the work of Christ to be with Him forever. This, historically, is nothing like evangelicalism. It is a denial of the most basic element of the word’s historical and etymological root- the evangel.
If current trends continue, evangelical will no longer be a synonym for Protestant, because there is no error so grievous that it must be protested. It will instead become a synonym for liberal. To be acceptable, respectable, we now must give up our narrow evangel. Will we, no are we willing to confess this hard truth- we are all fundamentalists now?
Please pray for reformation and revival in American evangelicalism, and that throughout the world.
The following video by Reformed Baptist apologist, Dr. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries, applies some critical thinking skills, and with a small amount of research, shows how inaccurate and naive Rob Bell is to perpetuate the common skeptical theories about how many aspects of the gospel of Christ are based on pagan mystery religions. He makes several very helpful remarks that will fortify your defense of the reliability and historicity of the New Testament accounts of Christ. Dr. White posted this video here. You may also benefit greatly by any of his other 512 videos uploaded to his YouTube channel, DrOakley1689.
Pirate Christian Radio podcaster Chris Rosebrough treated this same Nooma video by Rob Bell back in July of 2009. His Fighting for the Faith podcast episode was called, “Deconstructing Rob Bell’s False Gospel.” Rosebrough goes into a lot more detail, but both provide fascinating presentations of the sloppy scholarship of the skeptics, and the fact that answers are out there which support the authenticity of the New Testament. Every Christian who interacts with unbelievers needs to prepare himself with these answers so that he might give a sound defense of the hope that is within him with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
How timely. The March/April 2011 issue of Modern Reformation magazine has arrived, featuring an article related to the postmodern liberal (aka, “emerging”) emphasis on being “missional.” Editor-in-Chief Dr. Michael Horton attempts to demonstrate how this emphasis tends to emphasize certain aspects of medieval monasticism in his piece called, “Missional Church or New Monasticism?“.
Medieval monasticism was divided between those who prized the contemplative life (spiritual ascent to heaven through private disciplines of the mind) and those who gave priority to the active life (spiritual ascent through good works, especially for the poor). Francis of Assisi–and the Franciscan Order named after him–emphasized the latter.
First, today we see a revival of contemplative spirituality. It is a traditional evangelical emphasis on personal piety: discipleship as inner transformation through spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (1979) introduced many evangelicals to the medieval mystics and contemplative writers. From The Divine Conspiracy (1998) to The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (2006), Dallas Willard has repeated this call to discipleship: inner transformation through the spiritual disciplines.
Next, Horton explains how contemplative and postmodern liberal writers tend to confuse Scriptural gospel indicatives with sin-exposing legal imperatives of Scripture, tending to warp the gospel into how one lives, rather than the message Christ sent ambassadors to proclaim.
Both contemplative (“spiritual disciplines”) and active (Emergent) writers tend to blur and merge commands and promises, indicativees and imperatives. That is, there is a strong tendency to identify the gospel with what we do rather than with what God has done for us–and the world–in Jesus Christ. We are active agents more than beneficiaries and witnesses of God’s reconciling work, building his kingdom through our efforts more than receiving a kingdom that expands through preaching and Sacrament. . . . (emphasis mine)
Although the Emergent movement reflects a more communal emphasis on social transformation, it shares the medieval, Anabaptist, and Pietist emphasis on deeds over creeds. Brian McLaren explains, “Anabaptists see the Christian faith primarily as a way of life,” focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount rather than on Paul and doctrines concerning personal salvation [Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 2004), 206.] More than proclaiming Christ’s finished work of reconciling sinners to the Father, the focus is on completing Christ’s redeeming work of social transformation. Tony Jones, another leader in this movement, relates: “In an emergent church, you’re likely to hear a phrase like ‘Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world–to cooperate in the building of God’s Kingdom.'” Trying to anticipate Reformed objections he notes, “Many theological assumptions lie behind this statement,” although “the idea that human beings con ‘cooperate’ with God is particularly galling to conservative Calvinists, who generally deny the human ability to participate with God’s work” [Tony Jones, The New Christian: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 72].
According to McLaren, being “missional” means that we encourage Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews to become better Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews to become better Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews as followers of Jesus’ example. It is not what we proclaim but how we live that transforms the world. McLaren writes, “To say that Jesus is Savior is to say that in Jesus, God is intervening as Savior in all of these ways, judging (naming evil as evil), forgiving (breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect, making reconciliation possible), and teaching (showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion)” [McLaren, 96]. There is no mention of Christ bearing God’s wrath in our place–in fact, no mention of the cross having any impact on the vertical (God-human) relationship. “Then, because we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid, Jesus comes with saving teaching, profound yet amazingly compact: Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jesus says, and love your neighbor as yourself, and that is enough.” This is what it means to say that “Jesus is saving the world” [McLaren, 97]. Although Jesus called this the summary of the law (Matt. 22:37-40, citing Deut. 6:5) for McLaren it becomes the summary of the gospel.
Horton then goes on to constructively explain the proper distinction between law and gospel:
First, “living the gospel” is a category mistake. By definition, the gospel is news (euangelion, “good news”). You don’t “do” news: you do law and you hear gospel. Second, the specific content of this good news is the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection. We are beneficiaries of this action, not active participants. Scripture certainly teaches that we live in view of God’s mercies, in a manner worthy of the gospel we profess, and so forth. However, it represents our lives and good works as the fruit of the faith created by the gospel, not as part of the gospel itself. (emphasis mine)
Third, the Scriptures teach consistently that faith comes through the proclamation of the gospel, not through good works. Christ himself was not arrested and arraigned because he was trying to restore family values or feed the poor. Even his miraculous signs were not by themselves offensive, except as they were signs testifying to his claims about himself. The mounting ire of the religious leaders toward Jesus coalesced around him making himself equal with God (John 5:18) and forgiving sins in his own person, directly, over against the temple and its sacrificial system (Mark 2:7). In fact, at his trial he was chared by the Jewish Council with announcing the destruction of the temple. When the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” With that, “the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:53-64).
Jesus was never charged on the grounds of trying to bring world peace: quite the contrary (Matt. 10:34-37). Jesus’ opponents never included a revolutionary blueprint for improving world conditions among the indictments against him. In fact, his mission was an utter failure for those who saw him as a leader of political revolution. He will return in glory to judge, to deliver, and to make all things new in a global political kingdom of righteousness and blessing. However, between his advents is the space in history for repentance and faith.
Thus, Horton contrasts the Jesus of the Bible and the Christianity of the Bible with the Jesus of postmodern liberalism and it’s appropriation of medieval contemplative spiritual disciplines and politically liberal social justice activism. The simple fact is that the Christian is not the gospel, and his Christian obedience is not the gospel (but rather its result)–the gospel of Jesus Christ will be heard each Lord’s Day at a church that is committed to proclaiming it, and that is likewise committed to doctrinal (doctrines like the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his penal-substitutionary atonement, etc.) as well as practical discipleship in Christian obedience that leaves Christians to work this out in the various vocations to which the Lord may call his people, not specifically the favored social agenda of any local church, be it a liberal or conservative agenda. Here is the context in which true liberty in Christ will emerge, in a spirituality that will gradually, neither instantaneously nor holistically (in this age before Christ’s return to glorify his people) see Christians growing in love for God and neighbor in response to the preached gospel of the grace and forgiveness of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Ken Silva at Apprising Ministries has begun a series of posts reviewing an advance-reader copy of Rob Bell’s Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (2011, HarperCollins), and he confirms that what Bell is teaching is a form of universal reconciliation–that yes, unbelievers go to hell, but will eventually be reconciled to God. Read Silva’s first post here.
Silva writes, “[Bell] makes no apology for his declaration that while Hell is a real place, and people will go there, it’s not forever. Ultimately, God’s love will prevail for every person and they will be restored” (emphasis mine).
The Wikipedia entry on “Universal Reconciliation,” to which I linked above, explains, “The concept of “reconciliation” is related to the concept of Christian salvation — i.e., salvation from spiritual and eventually physical death — such that the more [sic] (presumably, “mere”) term, “universal salvation,” is functionally equivalent. Univeralists [sic] espouse various theological beliefs concerning the process or state of salvation, but all adhere to the view that salvation history concludes with the reconciliation of the entire human race to God.”
See? We alarmist conservatives who are up in arms about Rob Bellion told you so.
Rob Bellion is as the sin of Witchcraft!
In past years, one of my children was exposed to the teaching of Rob Bell by means of at least one of his Nooma videos played in my former church’s youth group, and presumably in some ways through his influence on the teacher of that class. Knowing his interest in Bell’s teaching, and being singularly interested in keeping up with who’s teaching what, I urged him a number of times that Bell’s teaching is not good for an orthodox church. The rest of the time I would tease him in a good-natured, but persistent way, that “Rob Bellion” is as the sin of witchcraft! This is my own personal play on the KJV’s translation of Samuel’s words to Saul when he refused to obey the Lord’s commands regarding the spoils of his fight with Amalek, whom he was to wipe out entirely as God’s appointed means of judgment against them for the way they attacked the children of Israel at Rephidim while they were still lead by Moses and the pillar of cloud and fire (1 Samuel 15:23; cf. Ex. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19). Notice from the parallel line of 1 Samuel 15:23, that Saul’s “rebellion” is tantamount to a rejection of the word of the LORD regarding his plans to judge and destroy his enemies (see the whole passage, 1 Samuel 15:1-35). Such is the heresy of the universalist Rob Bell.
Justin Taylor at “Between Two Worlds,” a Gospel Coalition blog, shows Bell’s promotional material related to his latest book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, surely not to help sell his book, but to raise our awareness of how Bell’s trajectory towards theological liberalism is becoming more and more apparent in his growing trend of teaching the heresy of universalism. This is the doctrine that, in eternity, regardless of one’s reception or rejection of Christ during his lifetime, everyone will be forgiven and reconciled to God, and none will justly spend eternity hell. It’s funny how so many people who break the law wind up complaining about the fact that they had to suffer the consequences of their crime. This is analogous to the fact that unbelievers find the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell so unattractive. Hell, condemnation and the righteous judgment of an infinite, eternal and holy God is bad public relations for Christianity, if you listen to Rob Bell. But compare the concept of universalism with what the Lord Jesus said in John 3:16-21:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him 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. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Here, Christ clearly states that the condition for escaping condemnation is faith in him. Reader, be clear: if you do not trust the Christ of the Scriptures, not the Christ of any cult’s misinterpretation or “reimagining” of him, not the Christ of the Gnostic gospels, but the Jesus Christ of historic, apostolic, catholic, orthodox, evangelical Protestant Christianity, then you are already under the condemnation of God. If you persist in this unbelief, you will not be saved in the end. Your end will be the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:11-15). Confess that you are indeed a sinner, repent by turning from your sins and cling to Christ (Acts 26:18) who suffered for sinners in every nation, sinners like you (1 John 1:8-10). Reject your false gods and goddesses (you know who you are!), and run to Christ, who lives to justify the wicked who repent and believe.
With Rob Bell, on the issue of universalism, finding the error in his teaching is no longer a matter of reading between the lines. Watch the video below and you will see Bell himself explain how we need to deny the Biblical doctrine of eternal, conscious torment in Hell because it makes people reject Christianity. Apparently, what the world thinks about Christianity is more important to Bell than what God reveals in his Word. Read Taylor’s post, “Rob Bell: Universalist?”
If you find that your church has been, or is being exposed to the teachings of Rob Bell, I would suggest that you present the facts regarding Bell to your pastor and patiently, but persistently, help them see that he is not just an emerging evangelical postmodern hipster, but a theological liberal of the first order whose materials ought to be avoided by every church and Christian that loves the Word of God. This is a process I had the regretful duty of engaging in myself back then.
This article by former co-founder of Brian McLaren’s Emergent Village, Mark Driscoll (who later separated from them when they began showing signs of postmodern liberalism) navigate what he calls “The Emerging Church Highway.” It would also behoove you to read D. A. Carson’s book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and It’s Implications (2005, Zondervan).