Rob Bell, 40, is an author and the pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reported to have 10,000 attendees each week. Over the years Bell’s writings and teachings have attracted a number of theological inquiries, too. But no previous controversy compares to the recent firestorm over his new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has sparked a new discussion about universalism, exclusivism, the love of God, the gospel, and the nature of heaven and hell.
Love Wins was released on Tuesday as the fourth most popular book on Amazon.com. But although the book is new, the controversy around the book has been developing for a while.
This is not another review of the book. In this post I’ll briefly explain the history of the debate, explain why it matters, and point you to an important panel discussion scheduled for this afrternoon.
The Debate So Far
The most recent controversy around Bell began on February 23rd when Bell and his publisher released this promotional video for Love Wins, which prompted Justin Taylor to ask whether Rob Bell was a universalist. (According to theologian J.I. Packer, a universalist “believes that every human being whom God has created or will create will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now,” a belief that is motivated by “revolt against mainstream belief in endless punishment in hell for some people.”) Taylor’s post generated over 1,500 comments in response, many of them heated.
Denny Burk, the dean of Boyce College, followed with a more detailed analysis of the message of the short video and arrived at the same disturbing conclusion. But was the criticism premature, given the book was still unpublished? Kevin DeYoung said no, and added a number of other discerning thoughts to the whole debate.
Albert Mohler jumped into the discussion to write that Bell’s promo video “can only be described as universalism." At this point the debate gained national news coverage from CNN, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Good Morning America, and others.
On March 8, CNN reported that Zondervan, the publisher of four of Bell’s previous books, had refused to publish Love Wins because, in their words, “This proposal doesn’t fit in with our mission." Love Wins was published by HarperCollins.
So what about the book itself? Is Bell really a universalist?
Reviews and direct quotes from Love Wins began surfacing online last week. On Wednesday the first quotes from an advance copy of the book verified the theological suspicions. Bell's theological commitment to universalism was apparent even from the opening pages.
Other reviews soon followed.
On Monday DeYoung published an excellent, thorough, and devastating review of the book. He writes, “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.” DeYoung’s review raised a number of other concerns and made clear that Bell’s book was actually worse than expected.
So what’s at stake? DeYoung writes, “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.” The stakes are high because the gospel is at stake, DeYoung says. Later in his review he writes:
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).
“The theology is heterodox,” DeYoung concludes. “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.”
Download DeYoung’s 21-page review as a PDF here: “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins.” (Two days later he contributed a few additional thoughts on the debate.)
Also on Monday, Burk contributed an eleven-page chapter-by-chapter book review.
On Tuesday, Russell Moore responded with a pointed and provocatively titled blog post: “The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell.”
On Wednesday morning Albert Mohler published his own review titled “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology.” He writes,
H. Richard Niebuhr famously once distilled liberal theology into this sentence: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Yes, we have read this book before. With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism. His message is a liberalism arriving late on the scene.
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, agrees.
Meanwhile on Monday night, Bell’s book tour landed in New York City, where he answered questions before a live audience. It’s no stretch to say that his answers were quite evasive. Bell insisted that he is not a universalist and that he is an evangelical. “Do I think that I am Evangelical orthodox to the bone? Yes,” he said without hesitation.
On Tuesday morning Bell was interviewed by Good Morning America's George Stephanopoulos and the book publicity tour steamed ahead, even bumping into MSNBC’s Martin Bashir who straightaway told Bell, “You’re creating a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture.” (Incidentally, Bashir voiced more criticism of Bell's book two days later.)
The tour and the debate continue on.
In addition to the written responses, two important panels have been planned.
Early in the debate, The Gospel Coalition promptly added a panel discussion at their national conference in Chicago that will begin at 7:30 a.m. CST on Thursday, April 14. The event will open with teaching from Don Carson, followed by a panel with Carson, DeYoung, Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts, and Stephen Um.
Today (March 17), from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. EST, Southern Seminary is hosting a panel discussion featuring Albert Mohler, Justin Taylor, Russell Moore, and Denny Burk. Video will be live streamed at sbts.edu, or if you’re in the area, you can attend the event in Heritage Hall. [Update: Recordings of the panel are now avaliable here: video, audio.]
So why should we care about this debate in the first place?
“There are a number of reasons this is important,” C.J. Mahaney says. “First, removing the doctrine of God's eternal punishment undermines multiple texts of Scripture. It also undermines the holiness and justice of God. Ultimately it undermines the Savior’s redemptive work on our behalf! So this couldn't be a more serious matter. These severe theological errors are not new with Rob Bell, and they are not uncommon throughout church history. But now these theological errors have been adopted by a man of influence and published publicly and broadly. Sadly, given the scope of his platform, these errors are sure to influence many people. This is a moment for pastors to take note, and to humbly and courageously contend for the faith (Jude 3–4).”
This is not the first time Bell’s theology has raised concerns. Three years ago a previous debate led C.J. to write and post some reflections on biblical discernment, why pastors should be concerned with Bell, and how to pray for him. That post remains remarkably relevant three years later.
For Further Study
In conclusion, here are a few other resources that surfaced (or re-surfaced) in the recent debate.
The first is a book published by Zondervan in 2004: Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. It includes valuable contributions by Mohler, Greg Beale, Sinclair Ferguson, Douglas Moo, J.I. Packer, Robert Yarbrough, and others. Most helpful is how this book addresses important questions about eternal judgment with clear exegesis of Scripture.
Also, it’s worth noting a trio of messages by Sinclair Ferguson titled "Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment."
Ligon Duncan’s new article “Speaking Seriously and Sensitively about Hell” is valuable tool for preachers.
And don’t miss DeYoung’s recent blog post “To Hell with Hell” on why we need the doctrine of eternal punishment.
Video is now online of Jeff Purswell’s message “The Pastor’s Teaching
,” recorded at our 2009 Pastors Conference in April.
Teaching from 2 Timothy 2:15, Jeff said, “The governing priority for the faithful pastor is devotion to the teaching of God’s Word.” One implication of this governing priority is the important connection between the pastor’s teaching and the pastor’s leadership of a church.
What follows is the video and an outline of the message (with timestamps).
The Pastor's Teaching from Sovereign Grace Ministries on Vimeo.
“The governing priority for the faithful pastor is devotion to the teaching of God’s Word” [11:52]
Three characteristics that should mark the life of the one whose governing priority is the teaching of God’s Word:
1. Diligent labor [21:18]
2. Divine awareness [31:03]
3. Careful exposition [37:55]
“Your teaching is the primary expression of your leadership.” [44:53]
Correct meaning and clear communication [48:54]
Minimum standard requirements for rightly handling the Word:
A. Is the biblical text providing the substance for my preaching, teaching, and leadership? [51:33]
B. Am I using individual texts in a way that is consistent with their intended purpose? [53:04]
C. Am I accurately understanding and faithfully communicating the meaning of texts? [53:54]
D. Am I accurately and compellingly impressing upon people the appropriate response to texts of Scripture? [56:53]
First, let us set out to create on our pastoral teams a company of expositors. [60:42]
Second, we must preserve the preaching of the Word as the pinnacle of our Sunday meetings. [64:46]
Third, look across the landscape of your church and ask: Is every sphere and ministry receiving regular pastoral leadership in the form of teaching? [66:00]
A compilation book of the messages delivered at the 2008 Together for the Gospel
conference is now available. Titled Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology
(Crossway, 2009), the new book is authored by Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and C.J., with contributions by Thabiti Anyabwile, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul and one additional piece by Greg Gilbert.
What follows is a glimpse at the contents, a link to each original conference message audio recording, and a brief comment on each message/chapter taken from Dever’s introduction to the new book.
Chapter 1: Sound Doctrine: Essential to Faithful Pastoral Ministry (Duncan). Message audio
. Dever: “Ligon Duncan begins this volume as he began that conference. He entered the lists asserting that systematic theology is a worthwhile task. Indeed, in days when the narrative form of biblical theology is attracting great (and deserved) attention, it is too often being pitted against systematic theology. Ligon defends the usefulness and necessity of systematic theology with clarity and vigor. A pastor must remember the truths in this chapter or risk losing the gospel itself” (pp. 12–13).
Chapter 2: Bearing the Image (Anyabwile). Message audio
. Dever: “In his address at Together for the Gospel, Thabiti challenged us to recognize that the category of ‘race’ is irredeemable. It brings far more confusion than light, more contention than understanding, more prejudice than impartial judgment. As you turn to that chapter—perhaps the most explosive of the conference—open your mind and get ready to think” (p. 13).
Chapter 3: The Sinner Neither Willing nor Able (MacArthur). Message audio
. Dever: “John MacArthur delivered a message on human depravity that was a model of clear thinking. In it, John masterfully assembled the witness of Scripture (in the very way Ligon had encouraged us the previous day) on this vital topic. John showed that a mistake here is a mistake in the foundation of understanding the nature of our problem. He laid out challenges currently facing this doctrine and concluded by calling us to be faithful to this aspect of the message, no matter how hard we may find such faithfulness” (p. 13).
Chapter 4: Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology (or) Questioning Five Common Deceits (Dever). Message audio
. Dever: “The next message was mine. I had been mulling over for some time the confusion about the content of the gospel. The message came together as I reviewed notes I had made some months earlier about various issues that needed ‘addressing.’ I began to notice that each one evidenced a distortion of the gospel. With encouragement from my T4G brothers—and the Capitol Hill Baptist congregation—I worked and reworked the material until I felt I got close to saying what I wanted to say. I wanted to get evangelicals talking about what the gospel is exactly” (pp. 13–14).
Chapter 5: The Curse Motif of the Atonement (Sproul). Message audio
. Dever: “R.C. Sproul brought to the conference what many felt was the most devotionally rich meditation on the sacrifice of Christ. And he did it by meditating upon the curse motif in the Old Testament! In his own inimitable conversational style, with wide learning and profound biblical understanding, R.C. took us on a tour of Old Testament practices, verbally painting scenes before our eyes. Again and again, as we stared into the depth of those practices, we began to see the cross of Christ more and more clearly until, well, let me simply encourage you to read what I heard many call ‘the best I've ever heard R.C.’ And, I promise—it's not R.C. you'll be glorifying when you're done” (p. 14).
Chapter 6: Why They Hate It So: The Denial of Substitutionary Atonement in Recent Theology (Mohler). Message audio
. Dever: “This conference in many ways was birthed out of our concern that the atonement is being misconceived and mistaught in too many evangelical books and churches. It was Al who decided to wade into the sea of literature and explain to us what has happened. With a mastery of the literature that is both exceptional and yet typical of our well-read friend, he led us to see the lines of misunderstanding—of attack—that have been laid down against Christ's death being in the place of sinners. His conference message, now here in print, should serve as a guide to the literature and, even more fundamentally, to thinking carefully about the atoning work of Christ” (p. 14).
Chapter 7: How Does the Supremacy of Christ Create Radical Christian Sacrifice? A Meditation on the Book of Hebrews (Piper). Message audio
. Dever: “The last day of the conference, John Piper brought the cross into our own lives and ministries. He posed the question, ‘How does the supremacy of Christ create radical Christian sacrifice?’ Looking through the last few chapters of Hebrews, John called for us to live radical lives so as to have radical ministries. He called us to be God's men. He called us to be certain that in such a ministry suffering will come” (p. 15).
Chapter 8: Sustaining the Pastor's Soul (Mahaney). Message audio
. Dever: “The final message was once again given by the conference pastor C.J. Mahaney. C.J. preached a wonderful message titled ‘Sustaining the Pastor's Soul.’ He presented Paul as an example of one who suffered without complaint and served with obvious joy, regardless of the circumstances. And he called us to be ‘happy pastors,’ too. What was it he repeatedly said? ‘How striking that the one with the most responsibility was the one with the most joy.’….Even though this message appears as the book's last chapter, if you're a pastor and feeling particularly pressed, let me suggest that you begin there” (pp. 15–16).
Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology
is a follow-up to the first volume, Preaching the Cross
(Crossway, 2007), which developed out of the messages delivered at the 2006 T4G conference
I was having a wide-ranging conversation with a friend the other day when we wandered onto the topic of the gospel. I casually observed how frequently the word gospel
was freighted with elements that belong more precisely to the realm of discipleship or ethics—e.g., what we do in response
to the gospel, or how we live in light of
My friend responded with puzzlement: “Aren’t those things part of the gospel? Didn’t Jesus say in the Great Commission, ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’?”
A lively and edifying conversation ensued in which we found ourselves largely in agreement, but also in which a crucial issue surfaced: what precisely is
Perhaps it’s foolish to tackle such a question in a medium that militates against nuance and formulaic clarity. No doubt my comments will be parsed and found wanting by many who discern neglect of this or that biblical theme or emphasis—ah, well, such are the joys of blogging. It is, however, a question that lies at the very heart of our faith, and therefore at the heart of pastoral ministry.
So what does the New Testament present as the gospel?
A good place to begin is Mark’s gospel. At the outset of the book, the author immediately alerts us to the significance of what will follow: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Syntactically, this heading flows directly into the remainder of the prologue (Isaiah’s prophecy, John the Baptist, and Jesus’s baptism/temptations)—indicating that these introductory events are the “beginning of the gospel,” while the balance of Mark’s narrative presents the rest
of the gospel.
What’s the point? For Mark, the gospel is the story about Jesus—the good news of all that Jesus did in his life and ministry and death and resurrection.
We see a similar idea in the early preaching of the church. When Peter is summoned to Cornelius’s home and discovers that God is behind this miraculous chain of events, his presentation of the gospel (“proclaiming the good news of peace”—Acts 10:36b) is an outline of Jesus’s ministry, beginning with John the Baptist on through to his resurrection and commissioning of the apostles to proclaim forgiveness through his name (Acts 10:36-41; cf. 2:22-24; 3:13-15). As far back as C.H. Dodd, commentators have viewed this as a summary of apostolic preaching and noted its basic agreement with the structure of Mark’s gospel. Once again, the gospel is the news of what God was doing through Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection.
Paul uses the term gospel
more than any other NT writer. Of course, one of the most familiar renditions of “gospel” in the NT is Paul’s summary statement in 1 Corinthians 15:1ff: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you...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…” Again, the gospel consists of what Jesus did
to save us. Paul’s presentation is more narrow, focusing on the pinnacle of Christ’s work—his substitutionary death and resurrection—but that focus is also embedded into the very structures of the canonical gospels themselves, which reserve far more space for, and place the greatest emphasis on, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So what is the gospel?
Although this brief survey is far from complete, it consistently reveals that the gospel is good news concerning Jesus and what he did to accomplish salvation for sinners.
In other words, the gospel is objective
. It tells us what God has done to save his people. It consists of concrete, historical events, rooted in Old Testament promises, types, and institutions that were fulfilled in Jesus. It promises that all who trust in Christ and his work will receive forgiveness and life. Of course, this isn’t merely a catalogue of events of only historical interest; all of this has massive implications for our lives. But we must not confuse the gospel message itself with the outworking of those implications.
So, for example, although the gospel calls me to respond to what Jesus has done, strictly speaking it doesn’t include
my response—repentance is not
the gospel. Although the gospel introduces me to a life lived in glad obedience to God, strictly speaking it doesn’t include that life of obedience. Our existence as Christians involves unspeakable privileges, significant responsibilities, and untold promise. But those things themselves are not
Why is all this important? It’s important because the very nature of the gospel is at stake—and there is no higher priority for the pastor than to guard the gospel from neglect, distortion, or redefinition (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14).
If the gospel message expands to include “discipleship in the kingdom,” then the objective nature of Christ’s work is minimized. When the gospel is redefined as a call to a social or political movement, Christ’s work is replaced with ours. When the gospel includes my response, then the ground of my assurance lies in me rather than in Christ. Indeed, anytime we shift the definition of the gospel from God’s objective accomplishment to our subjective appropriation, the rock-solid foundation of our faith is misplaced—and the glory of God in the gospel is obscured.
Of course, we can be clear on the gospel message and make other mistakes. We can neglect the entailments
of the gospel (a life of self-denial and obedience to Christ). We can focus only
on spiritual salvation to the exclusion of any concern for the material or physical well-being of others. We can so focus on a heavenly home that we neglect our responsibilities of loving others in a fallen world, and that our ultimate future lies in a “new heavens and new earth” that have been fully renewed by God’s power.
None of these mistakes, however, minimizes the importance of holding fast to the gospel of our salvation. For it is through the power of the gospel that we are transformed to live new lives by the power of the Spirit. It is through the gospel that we are freed from selfishness to give our lives in service of others. Sure, the scope of Christ’s redemption is the whole cosmos (Colossians 1:20), but at the center
of his redemptive concern are rebellious image-bearers whom he is ransoming to be his children. But all of these entailments, implications, and promises are founded upon the rock-solid, unchanging accomplishment of God through the gospel of his Son. It is this message that is God’s power to save sinners, to comfort the grieving, to motivate the listless, to encourage the downhearted, to assure the guilt-stricken.
This message never changes; this message is always true; and so our hope is always secure.
And it precisely when those erstwhile rebels grasp God’s accomplishment in the gospel—the greatest display of “the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love”—that they will be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19) and marvel with wonder at the gospel’s display of God’s glorious grace.
Jeff Purswell serves as the Dean of the Sovereign Grace Pastors College and a pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD.
Since we’re talking about Os Guinness, I pulled my stack of well-worn copies of his books off my shelves. And one of the most dog-eared, check-mark-littered, and highlighted copies is the book Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance
The book is a piercing critique of the church’s uncritical pursuit of relevance for the sake of relevance. His argument: “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant” (p. 12). Guinness explains it like this:
By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant. (p. 11)
This is because, as Guinness writes, faithfulness to eternal truth is the means to genuine cultural relevance. In every generation, our goal is centered on the proclamation and advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the local church. Only because of the gospel’s continued relevance is it rightfully called the “good news.”
The gospel is good news. In fact it is “the best news ever” because it addresses our human condition appropriately, pertinently, and effectively as nothing else has, does, or can—and in generation after generation, culture after culture, and life after life. Little wonder that the Christian faith is the world’s first truly universal religion and in many parts of the world the fastest growing faith, and that the Christian church is the most diverse society on planet earth, with followers on all continents, in all climates, and under all the conditions of life and development. Of course, Christians can make the gospel irrelevant by shrinking and distorting it in one way or another. But in itself the good news of Jesus is utterly relevant or it is not the good news it claims to be. (p. 13)
Escaping the Cultural Captivity
The strength of Guinness’s book is not only the insightful criticism, but the constructive vision he presents to the reader. Chapter six, “Escaping Cultural Captivity” (pp. 95–112), was especially helpful. Guinness writes,
Without God, our human knowledge is puny and perverse, limited on the one hand by finitude and distorted on the other by sin. That said, and that said humbly, three things can help us cultivate the independent spirit and thinking that are characteristic of God’s untimely people. In ascending order, they are developing an awareness of the unfashionable, cultivating an appreciation for the historical, and paying constant attention to the eternal. Each is crucial for effective resistance thinking. (p. 96)
Guinness then develops each of these points:
1. Awareness of the Unfashionable
: Because the cross runs across the grain of human thinking, the faithful choice is often not the culturally popular choice. Guinness introduces the countercultural actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. While the Führer demanded complete allegiance, Bonhoeffer was stressing the cost of discipleship and allegiance to Christ alone. In all generations, the church needs to cultivate an awareness of the unfashionable to avoid being captured by the popular or “relevant.”
2. Appreciation for the Historical
: Americans, Guinness writes, seem to know everything about what’s happened over the past 24 hours, but little about the past 600 or 60 years. “Essential for untimeliness is appreciation for the historical, for no human perspective gives us a better counterperspective on our own day” (p. 100).
Mere lip service to the importance of history will not do. We each have to build in a steady diet of the riches of the past into our reading and thinking. Only the wisdom of the past can free us from the bondage of our fixation with the present and the future. C. S. Lewis counseled, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (p. 104)
On the next page, he quotes Lewis again: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of history blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books” (p. 105).
3. Attention to the Eternal
: “Essential for untimeliness is attention to the eternal, for only the eternal is eternally relevant” (p. 105). The way to remain relevant is to stay on the path of eternal truth. Guinness asks us to consider, if we are seeking to be relevant, why? To what end are we seeking relevance? “Nothing is finally relevant except in relation to the true and the eternal….Only the repeated touch of the timeless will keep us truly timely” (pp. 106, 112).
Yet again, it’s worth quoting him directly:
How then do we lift ourselves above the level of the finite and the mundane to gain an eternal perspective on what is true and relevant? The biblical answer is blunt in its candor. By ourselves we can’t. We can’t break out of Plato’s cave of the human, with all its smoke and flickering shadows on the wall. We can’t raise ourselves above the level of the timebound and the earthbound by such feeble bootstraps as reason. But where we are limited by our own unaided efforts, we have help. We have been rescued.…God has broken into our silence. He has spoken and has come down himself. And in his written and living Word we are given truth from outside our situation, truth that throws light on our little lives and our little world. (p. 107)
I highly recommend Prophetic Untimeliness
, especially for pastors. We would do well to heed Guinness’s call to faithfulness: “It is time to challenge the idol of relevance, to work out what it means to be faithful as well as relevant, and so to become truly relevant without ever ending up as trendy, trivial, and unfaithful” (p. 15).
The role of the church in influencing and shaping contemporary American culture is a topic generating much interest, discussion, and disagreement. Gauging from the many books on the subject, there is a lot that can be said, but I especially appreciate what my friend Mark Dever has said.
Today I want to draw off another excerpt from my 2007 interview with Mark. Mark lives, works, and pastors a church four blocks from the U.S. Capitol and three blocks from the U.S. Supreme Court. Mark is geographically—and in his thinking—on one of the front lines where the church and contemporary culture meet.
C.J. Mahaney: Elaborate more on the priorities of 9Marks.
Mark Dever: Well, what we want to see are communities of people that reflect the character of God, and by doing so are distinct from the world around them. As I travel around I see so many evangelical churches trying to “break the code” of how to look as much like the culture as possible and yet keep the gospel, assuming this will maximize the evangelistic impulse.
I’m not sure that’s true.
I think there is a lot of peril in this. And it seems to be that even from the very earliest chapters of Acts, what strikes people are not thoughts of, “Hey, they speak Hebrew too,” but rather, “Hey, look at how they love one another in a way that is different from the way we are loving or being loved.”
So I think that God’s character, as it is reproduced in a community of people, must be one of the most powerful witnesses to the truth of the gospel, both for evangelism and the edification of those already converted. So I would like to see evangelical churches— while not becoming unsophisticated in how they interact with culture—keep cultural interaction in perspective, and realize that the life-blood of your church continuing is not your contextualization (your similarity to the culture), but how you are blessedly distinct from the culture. The church is full of people who are born again.
So our distinctives are what we want to hold out, and trust that God will make them attractive and will commend the gospel to other people.
So sometimes I feel like I am being called to tar the ark before the flood. Our world is increasingly secular. And churches that are trying to be as much like the world as possible, I fear, are very leaky arks. And churches that are trying to be like the world are often unselfconsciously nothing more than part of their culture. I fear they are just going to sink and become spiritually worthless spiritual tombs.
So I think the rise of secularism will itself cut down on nominal Christianity. It will actually encourage the clarity of what truly is the gospel and the effects that it has, because the cache, the worth, the value of nominal Christianity will just continue to decline in the culture broadly, so that you won’t want to be known as an evangelical Christian because that means you hate various groups of people or you believe these weird things. (As opposed to in the 50s it meant you were a respectable, upstanding citizen.) So as the general cultural perception turns on evangelical Christianity, I think we are just seeing all the more clearly our need to have a positive vision for the church as distinct from the culture.
CJM: And so what would you say to a pastor who is attracted to models of the church that aren’t distinct from the culture and aren’t distinctly proclaiming the gospel?
MD: Well, when you are not distinctly proclaiming the gospel, then you are not talking about a healthy church in any way whatsoever.
I want to be careful here. Not every church is going to be exactly alike. For example, there are churches that deliberately dress differently, or have a different kind of music, or different order of their services. But as long as they are preaching the gospel, preaching the Word, the things they are saying are true, they are reading Scripture, they are praising—as long as they are doing the things we are commanded to in Scripture, I am prepared to believe there are a number of different ways, and that in different settings one can be better than another.
But I would be very careful if these things are what a church begins majoring on. If the adverbs overtake the verbs, the adjectives overtake the nouns, the how you do it becomes more important than what you are doing, well then I think you have surely lost your way.
For more on this topic, consult Mark’s T4G’08 message (“Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology”), The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World by David Wells (Eerdmans, 2008) and Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Eerdmans, 2008).
The audio recording of C.J.'s message at the 2008 Dwell Conference in New York City is now online.
Dwelling in the Cross
1 Timothy 4:16; Galatians 5:17
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
New York City
43:55 run time; 9.6MB MP3
Together for the Gospel 2008 begins here in Louisville today. Over 5,000 men (mostly pastors) will be assembling in the Kentucky International Convention Center, celebrating the glorious atonement of Jesus Christ.
During the conference attention will be directed to a new book titled In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever (Crossway, 2008). Not long ago, C.J. explained how this book and T4G are closely connected (here).
The discerning content of this book is a gift to all Christians and pastors in particular. Here is one excerpt from the epilogue.
The cross of Christ is the heart of the apostles’ gospel and of their piety and praise as well; so surely it ought to be central in our own proclamation, catechesis, and devotional practice? True Christ-centeredness is, and ever must be, cross-centeredness. The cross on which the divine-human mediator hung, and from which he rose to reign on the basis and in the power of his atoning death, must become the vantage point from which we survey the whole of human history and human life, the reference point for explaining all that has gone wrong in the world everywhere and all that God has done and will do to put it right, and the center point for fixing the flow of doxology and devotion from our hearts. Healthy, virile, competent Christianity depends on clear-headedness about the cross; otherwise we are always off-key. And clear-headedness about the cross, banishing blurriness of mind, is only attained by facing up to the reality of Christ’s blood-sacrifice of himself in penal substitution for those whom the Father had given him to redeem.
Why then is it that in today's churches, even in some professedly evangelical congregations, this emphasis is rare? Why is it that in seminary classrooms, professional theological guilds, Bible teaching conferences, and regular Sunday preaching, not to mention the devotional books that we write for each other, so little comparatively is said about the heart-stirring, life-transforming reality of penal substitution? Several reasons spring to mind.
First, we forget that the necessity of retribution for sin is an integral expression of the holiness of God, and we sentimentalize his love by thinking and speaking of it without relating it to this necessity. This leaves us with a Christ who certainly embodies divine wisdom and goodwill, who certainly has blazed a trail for us through death into life, and who through the Spirit certainly stands by each of us as friend and helper (all true, so far as it goes), but who is not, strictly speaking, a redeemer and an atoning sacrifice for us at all.
Second, in this age that studies human behavior and psychology with such sustained intensity, knowledge of our sins and sinfulness as seen by God has faded, being overlaid by techniques and routines for self-improvement in terms of society's current ideals of decency and worthwhileness of life. It is all very secular, even when sponsored by churches, as it often is, and it keeps us from awareness of our own deep guilty and shameful alienation from God, which only the Savior, who in his sinlessness literally bore the penalty of our sins in our place, can deal with.
Third, in an age in which historic Christianity in the West is under heavy pressure and is marginalized in our post-Christian communities, we are preoccupied with apologetic battles, doctrinal and ethical, all along the interface of Christian faith and secularity—battles in which we are for the most part forced to play black, responding to the opening gambits of our secular critics. Constant concern to fight and win these battles diverts our attention from thorough study of the central realities of our own faith, of which the atonement is one.
Fourth, heavyweight scholars in our own ranks, as we have seen, line up from time to time with liberal theologians to offer revisionist, under-exegeted accounts of Bible teaching on the atonement, accounts which in the name of Scripture (!) play down or reject entirely the reality of penal substitution as we have been expounding it. The effect is that whereas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century evangelicals stood solid for penal substitution against unitarianism (Socinianism) and deism, and taught this truth as no less central to the gospel than the incarnation itself, today it is often seen as a disputed and disputable option that we can get on quite well without, as many already are apparently doing.
What in the way of understanding our Savior and our salvation we lose, however, if we slip away from penal substitution, is, we think, incalculable.
Taken from In My Place Condemned He Stood by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, pp. 150-151, © 2008. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
As part of a younger generation of Christians today, we can give thanks to God for gifted mentors faithfully preaching the cross, men whose ministry began before many of us were born.
Theologically, we reap the fruit of seeds sown in the life and ministries of mentors like John Stott, John Piper, and C.J. Mahaney. For decades these faithful men (and others like them) have written books, trained pastors, and planted churches to lay a theological foundation we enjoy.
At times you can hear the direct impact of these mentors on a younger generation of Christians. Listen closely and you’ll likely hear a distinctive language used by young Christians and preachers. Our mentors have captured these truths in phrases—“the cross-centered life,” “gospel-centered parenting,” “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” and “Don’t Waste Your Life”—each, when used by a young Christian, is a giveaway to the continuing influence of older, faithful teachers.
In the language of some younger Christians, the influence of these teachers is subtle and less immediately noticeable. But in others the influence is obvious and pronounced.
In the case of hip-hop artist shai linne and his new album—The Atonement—the immediate influence of men like Stott, Piper, and C.J. is obvious and pronounced. This album reveals a man eager to learn and to apply that learning to his life and his work.
One track off the new album (“Were You There?”) is built from C.J.’s message on the Garden of Gethsemane. Listen to the track (and especially how the sermon excerpt ties the song’s message together at the end).
Throughout The Atonement, shai linne weaves lyrics and sermon excerpts together to reinforce the content of the songs. Here is a video explaining why he uses sermon excerpts in his music. It’s not for background noise (forward to the 3:03 mark).
The Atonement is an excellent album, not only for its content and quality, but for modeling how one hip-hop artist is diligently transferring what he learns about the cross from his theological mentors into his work. I take from this album a challenge to listen more carefully to the mentors, to let the truths of the cross settle into my own heart, and then to strive toward transparency in faithfully passing these biblical teachings to others.
Update: The Atonement is available through iTunes as well.
Today’s pastor is given the challenging task of discerning error that comes published in hip packaging from Christian publishers, authored by professing Christians.
So many errors, so little time.
In executing this responsibility, pastors must discern whether the influence of the individual and the gravity of their error necessitate research and evaluation by a pastor. Today I want to explain one particular concern and give you an inside look at how I approach this difficult task.
Now, because this short post limits what I can say, I recommend listening to one the finest messages on this topic—Mark Dever’s message from New Attitude 2007 (“Discern Your Doctrine”).
Gilbert on Bell
Today I want to draw your attention to Greg Gilbert’s critique of Rob Bell’s NOOMA videos. Greg serves as director of theological research for the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In prioritizing what materials concern us as pastors, I believe Rob Bell’s writings, videos, and influence cannot (and should not) be ignored. I think we should carefully consider Greg Gilbert’s reviews, which demonstrate a commendable combination of humility of heart and theologically informed discernment about matters of primary importance.
Within this pastoral task of discernment, I’m reminded of four biblical priorities.
1. Protect Your People
A pastor’s role includes protecting the flock from error. This is no easy task today, especially when so many of the popular books and videos published by professing Christians who appear to have serious theological deficiencies. Yet pastors cannot simply ignore the prevalence and influence of these materials; they have the responsibility to protect those entrusted to their care.
This discernment is especially important when the issues are of primary importance and not secondary, when—as carefully noted by Greg Gilbert—matters of the gospel are in question.
It’s worth noting that acting to protect the flock from published teachings that depart from Scripture is handled differently than steps taken privately to confront a brother in sin (i.e. Matthew 18:15-20). Let me state clearly that I don’t assign sinful motivation to Rob Bell. Actually, I assume he is sincere. But sincerity doesn’t exempt any of us from the appropriate evaluation of what we teach.
2. Prepare Your Heart
When required to critique the writings and teachings of another, I must pay careful attention to my heart. Scripture calls us to correct those in error with gentleness, avoiding quarrelsome attitudes, showing kindness to everyone, and enduring all evil (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Whenever it’s necessary to critique erroneous content, I find it helpful to remind myself of the mercy of God. Any insight I have learned has been learned from others, and ultimately, this discernment has been graciously revealed by God. In no way does my critique indicate intellectual or moral superiority on my part. We must critique erroneous content, but our critique must be humble and not self-righteous.
If we accurately perceive God’s mercy, this will become an occasion of thanking God for his mercy in our lives rather than an opportunity for self-righteous communication.
Whenever we take up this task of critiquing and addressing error, we must guard our hearts and pursue the task with humility and gentleness.
3. Preach Sound Doctrine
The most effective way to protect your church from error is by a steady diet of gospel-centered, sound doctrine. For this reason I don’t recommend that pastors repeatedly and consistently make public references to erroneous books or media.
Only on a few particular occasions do I think it’s wise for a pastor to make specific reference to an individual in the context of a sermon. However, a pastor must be aware of what is popular and influential, because he will be asked these questions by church members in private conversations. So I draw a distinction between what a pastor addresses in a sermon and what he should be prepared to address in private conversation when approached by a member of his church.
You need to be prepared for these conversations, and that’s why I believe Greg Gilbert’s reviews will help prepare you for when you are asked about Rob Bell.
4. Pray for Rob Bell
We must pray for those who are in need of correction and who teach erroneous doctrine. Even those classified as our “opponents” should be addressed kindly, out of concern for their souls, praying that God will lead them to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). How much more care should be taken with a professing brother in Christ?
Specifically, I pray for Rob Bell in the following ways:
- Pray that God reveals to him the content of the gospel.
- Pray that God reveals to him the primacy of the gospel.
- Pray that he perceives his accountability to God and responsibility for those he leads.
- Pray that he would be humbly attentive and responsive to the critique of godly scholars.
- Pray that he would devote himself to the study of sound doctrine by finding his way to the right books and scholars who can train him.
Prayer is an effective way to examine our motives in correcting others. When I pray for someone I find it more difficult to be self-righteous in my attitude toward him. Correction without concern for the corrected leads to self-righteousness. Correction with sincere concern for the welfare of the corrected is a display of genuine humility and love.
In all instances of critique, we must carefully research the details in private to avoid misrepresenting the position of the one we critique. I think you will agree that Greg Gilbert’s reviews of Rob Bell’s NOOMA videos have been carefully researched. But the reviews also display character we can learn from—a careful humility of heart and a theologically informed discernment about matters of primary importance (those related to the gospel).