Monday, January 30, 2012

Thoughts on Rob Bell's "Love Wins" - Preface and Chapter 1

Preface - "Millions of us"

Bell's main assumption in the preface is that the Gospel of Jesus must, by definition, be a message of hope in every circumstance and situation or else it is not really worthy of being associated with Jesus, who brought a message of love and joy and hope.  He argues that people are right to say things like "I would never be part of that."

Of course, sometimes they are.  Sometimes people are right to bristle at the Christianity we present, because it is not the Christianity of Jesus but often some moralistic form of legalism with mild grace undertones and a fragrance of self-righteousness.

But Scripture says that it is normal for people to reject the real Gospel.  It is normal for people to bristle at it, even when it is dead spot-on to the message of the cross of Jesus Christ.  To the Jew, the Gospel is a "stumbling block."  To the Gentile, it is "foolishness."  But to us who are being saved, it is vastly different, isn't it?  It actually speaks to us as "good news."  Where on earth did Rob Bell get the idea that the Gospel must be something that makes everybody happy?  From his little brain, that's where.  2 Cor 2:16 comes to mind, as well.  It says that Christians are an "aroma" -to others who are being saved, a good smell, and to those who are perishing, a very bad smell -the smell of death.  Hmm... even when Christians are actually living in the Gospel, aside from all their self-righteous leanings, they will still be the "smell of death" to some.  How is that "hopeful?"  Poor Paul was so confused, right?  Riiiiiiight.

Of course, why even go through the trouble of distinguishing between the "saved" and the "perishing?"  Oh yeah, because Rob Bell and Scripture don't teach the same thing.  By all means... let the discussion of these issues, the discussion of the Gospel itself, "free" us -from the bondage to our self-salvation projects, our legalism, our surface-level, moralistic, cookie-cutter Christianity.  But let is also free us from following the swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction, embracing something that is simply untrue but sounds so good because it is so opposite the cranky, stuffed-shirt fundamentalism we see around us.

Chapter 1 - What About the Flat Tire?

Bell starts the chapter asking the big questions, the common objections.  Essentially he inquires, "How could a loving God create millions of people that He knows will wind up in hell?"  Good question.  I really don't know, but since when does me not knowing the answer mean that I must default and deny the overwhelming testimony of Scripture?  I need to get over that.  There are lots of things I can't answer, shouldn't I be used to that?  The Bible says people "perish."  It's a fact.  Sorry.  I don't like it either.  But it is not unjust, and if we want to pass judgment on the Judge for that, we will always come up wrong.  That's why we're the creature and He's the Creator.  Or did we forget that?  Oh yeah, didn't Satan promise us that we could be "like god?"  I think we still like to believe we can or should be.

Bell then talks about youngsters and the problematic idea of the "age of accountability."  He writes:

"But then when they reach a certain age, they become accountable for their beliefs, and if they die, they go to be with God only if they have said or done or believed the 'right' things."

I'm not sure where to begin here.  I don't know if Bell is deliberately constructing a straw-man, a false representation of Gospel-based Christianity, or if he really believes this is what it is.  The latter wouldn't surprise me, because lots of evangelicals believe this is what Christianity is, too.  You "get saved" when you believe the right things and walk an aisle.  Faith, believing, becomes essentially a good work to secure our place in heaven -a much easier good work to perform than those blasted 10 Commandments.  Jesus gets us 99% up the ladder, and our "decision" to believe gets us up to the top.  Right?

Wrong.  That is what lots of people think Christianity is, but it isn't.  Christianity is when you see that the Son of God had to die for you because you are under a curse, a God-created being with gifts and capacities for love and greatness who is likewise incredulous toward the real God, like the whole rest of humanity, and all your delusions of grandeur and moral superiority come up to a pile of dung, and then you see that this Jesus who died and rose for you was glad to do it for you.  The message of the cross, of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, claims you.  It is the "power of God."  You don't decide it.  And if you did, it was because it already had claimed you.

Christianity is not about your beliefs and your deeds.  It is about a God who saves His lost creatures miraculously, humbly, incarnationalliy, and supernaturally.  Are all saved?  No.  Not all believe.  Many who hear this message reject it, and many don't even hear it.  Why is it this way?  I don't know, but I guarantee you that if we got our wish to be God and could do it our way, things would not turn out the best.  We are just delusional enough to think it would.

But Bell does raise a good point when he questions how many see the Gospel as being about getting people "somewhere else."  He writes, "If that's the gospel, the good news -if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else- then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life other than getting you what you need for the next one."  I agree that it is a mistake to view the Gospel as something designed to merely get us out of this world.  It is what many refer to as the "sinking ship" view of the Christian faith.  I couldn't agree more that this is a caricature and distortion of the Gospel, which should bring us down to earth, as Jesus came down to this earth, as we live in anticipation of the next.

I think what Bell does it pick out the most retarded distortions of the Gospel and Jesus in evangelical and pseudo-evangelical Christianity, along with pointing out the large variety of perspectives, as a way to stir up a notion of uncertainty.  He intentionally seeks to disorient people (even with misrepesentation or simply showing his ignorance) and invite us into his own drummed-up confusion and disillusionment with the "other point of view(s)" which he seems to lump all together into a gigantic incoherent cloud of meaninglessness.  What I would like to see Bell do is try to find what appears to be the purest form of Gospel-centered Christianity and address that.  But he won't, because he believes there is no objective way to identify such a form even if it does exist.  That is part of his shtick... the whole "there are so many differing views, we can't really know -we can just shake our head at how ridiculous it is... oh, but I know these things, though, which is why I'm writing this book."

Finally, he gets to the main point of the chapter.  The main question is this: if a person is "saved" because of the message they year, which they then respond to, what if the missionary or preacher or whoever gets the message wrong?  What if Jesus is misrepresented?  What if they teach a false Jesus or screw the message up somewhere?  "Is your future in someone else's hands?" he asks, firing immediately after with another question, "Is someone else's eternity resting in your hands?"

Some say, he rightly argues, that the details don't need to be so exacting and the message is so simple, but what really matters is a "personal relationship."  This phrase, he rightly argues, is not in the Bible.  I agree.  But I tell what is in the Bible... imperfect people sharing the message of Jesus, and other imperfect people being claimed by that message and believing and being united to Jesus.  He can try to poke holes and uncertainty into it all he wants, but that is what is in Scripture.  He can take his problems up with the Author -I didn't write it.

The rest of the chapter is filled with more of an onslaught of obfuscation to further confound the traditional Gospel and how people are "saved."  He pulls out random Scriptures to try to show how confusing things get, how more statements only invite more questions (with a hint of resolution coming through his point of view).  Confusion, confusion, confusion.  Throw a handful of sand in the air, kick up a dust cloud, so that he can make way for his bombshell of a solution to all the problems (or as he would allege, problems that only exist for people who don't take his view).

He is certainly entitled to his beliefs, but this guy is dangerous.  We'll see where things go from here.

Living for Yourself

Live for yourself?  What does that mean?  It sounds like selfishness.  After all, aren't we told over and over that the Christian life is about serving others and putting ourself second?

This is where a little Christian doctrine, misunderstood and misapplied, goes utterly wrong and wreaks havoc in life and relationships.  I submit to you that to serve others as Jesus did and to live for yourself, properly understood, are not goals at odds but necessary co-components.  I submit to you that Jesus would not have served others the way He did if He was not living for Himself.  I submit to you that Jesus would not have lived for God if He was not living for Himself.

Take the example in the Gospels where Jesus was talking to the twelve about how He must be killed.  He was foretelling His death, again.  Finally, his slow-minded disciples started to get the picture.  Light dawned in their dim brains.  The impulsive Peter spoke up and rebuked Jesus -"No way, Jesus!  You are crazy!"  How did Jesus reply?  Did Jesus abandon Himself here?  Did He flush Himself, His autonomy, His identity, His goals, and His true feelings about who He is and what He was there for, down the toilet?  No.  He rebuked Peter right back, "Get thee behind me, Satan!"

If Jesus did not live for Himself, what would His reply have been?  Maybe He would have felt wounded or insecure.  Maybe He would have tried to debate it with Peter, arguing the pros and cons, trying endlessly to get Peter to agree with Him.  Maybe He would have left and gone to some of the other disciples and ruminated for a few hours about what Peter said and if Peter was still His friend or not.  Maybe He would have withdrawn to debate with Himself -"Maybe Peter is right.  Maybe this is a bit extreme.  I mean, people might think I'm some kind of fanatic.  Peter really cares about me, and I really don't have that many friends -I'm terrified of him rejecting me."  Can you picture a Jesus like that?  Thankfully, I can't either.

See, Jesus would rather remain true to Himself and to His life goals than subjugate those things to the favor and opinion and standards of other people.  It cost Him everything.  It cost Him friends, family, the respect of His own people, and eventually it cost Him His life.

To live for yourself means that you are true to yourself, that you do not abandon yourself and your autonomy as a creature of God for the sake of fear or others.  To live for yourself means that you are active rather than passive, that you know what you want rather than passively waiting for others to decide for you, that you step forward to take your life rather than letting it happen, that you are resolved and "with" your own core feelings, as painful as they may be, rather than retreating to the land of denial, ruminating endlessly under the delusion that with enough effort and enough hoping you can undo all the hurt and rejection and make people love you the way you longed for, and that you take responsibility for your life (and for your mistakes) and you set goals for yourself that will utilize your potential to the utmost in your mandate to take your responsibility to love and care for others seriously.

Or to put it conversely, to "not" live for yourself means to be enslaved to others, to live in bondage to your own punishing system, destroying others or allowing them to destroy you needlessly, for no real good purpose, simply because you need to live in chains, because you are afraid to emerge, or whatever the reason.  To not live for yourself means to be a slave.  Some people are slaves to abusive people.  Some people are slaves and are the abusive people.  All of them are slaves to something inside themselves.

To be free does not mean to be sinless.  To live for yourself does not mean that your sin nature is gone, for the sin nature dwells in the core of who we are.  But to live for yourself means you can hand the reigns over to God.  A man who is a slave cannot be a slave to God.  No one can serve two masters.  Jesus lived for Himself yet used that life in service to His Father, which meant using it in service to us according to His plan and His goal and His identity.

Ask yourself, as you live in constant rumination and bondage, worrying about what that other person or people will do or think or say, what they are doing right now or what they have done, can you truly give of yourself selflessly?  Can you forgive and love in that state?  Can you let go in that state?  No.

It does not mean that you no longer care about the opinions and standards of others.  It means you are no longer dominated to them.  A man who possesses his own life, who has his own goals and ideals and feelings and limits and plans, is a man who is free to make rational decisions for his life -not perfect ones, but not ones dominated by punishment, fear, and others.

Resolved: to live for myself and my goals; to be true to my core self, not submitting to the judging value-standards of anyone; to live in this world as an autonomous creature of God, knowing others and giving to others as I stand on my own two feet to accomplish what I was made for.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead

In the Gospels, there is a scene where Jesus calls a man who just lost his father.  The man asks Jesus to wait while he tends to his father's funeral and such, but Jesus replies, "Follow me.  Let the dead bury their own dead."

This is one of those statements where Jesus comes off as almost callous and insensitive.  It is like the place in Luke 14 where Jesus said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."  Those are some hard words!

Those words in Luke 14 come right after his parable of the "Great Banquet."  So many were invited, yet they had so many excuses for why they wouldn't come.  It wasn't that there was no value to those excuses.  I mean Jesus does not literally want us to hate our husbands or wives or children or brothers or sisters or parents.  Jesus does not want us to dump our responsibilities and be terrible stewards.  So, the excuses given had the appearance of legitimacy.  But at the end of the day if there was a tug of war between those things and your life as claimed by Jesus, which side would win?

It is a matter of ownership -not what you own but what owns you?  When Jesus said, "Let the dead bury their own dead," He was essentially saying to the man, "You have to let that go and keep moving and come with Me."  This is not easy, and Jesus never said it was.  But it is necessary.  Consistent refusal to "let go" results in being owned by it.  It masters you, and you become its slave.  There comes a point where you must let things be as they are, knowing that you have no control over it, and walk, even crawl if you must, forward with Him.  Your life is His, and He leads where He will.

Yes, this is certainly painful.  And it is not as though Jesus does not know how painful this is.  Jesus, after all, left the comfort and fellowship of heaven to come down here to us, to live, to have a family and make friends, and to ultimately be abandoned by all of them for the sake of staying true to His life.  He does understand.  We have, as the writer of Hebrews says to us, a high priest who can sympathize with us -having been tempted in every point we are.  But ultimately, His words are solemn.  "Get up... Let the dead bury their own dead... Follow Me.  Keep going."

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Choosing My Religion

A friend of mine posted the "A Flowchart for Choosing Your Religion" on his Facebook.  It is pretty funny, especially the part about magical underwear meaning you should become a Mormon.  Here it is, below:

Even though this is a joke, it does illuminate a common view among people -that one "chooses" to become a Christian.  But what non-Christians (and actually, many Christians) do not understand is that you do not choose to become a Christian -you are hit by the Gospel, claimed by it.  It is more like a drive-by-shooting than checking a box on a piece of paper.  Yes, there was a moment in time where you believed in Jesus.  God doesn't do the believing for you.  But when you believed you were already impacted by the Gospel -you believed because you were impacted.  That "impact" resulted in your believing.  The scales fell off your eyes.  You saw yourself, and Jesus, for what you and He are.

It may not be some dramatic experience.  It may not be some existential epiphany where someone "found God."  But the Gospel struck you and shook you.

I remember it with me.  It struck me by knocking down my idol of self-righteousness.  In one swoop, I realized that if Jesus had to die for me (and I knew He did) in order for me to be made right with God then I am not a "good person" like I had convinced myself to believe.  Those couldn't both be true.  I knew at that moment that I was a man who had lived in rebellion against his Maker, no matter the excuses and delusions of spirituality and morality.  Comparing myself to other people and saying, "I'm not that bad," won't do.  Jesus died for me.  He had to but He was glad to.  That changes everything.  I didn't "choose" that.  It hit me like a ton of bricks.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Biblical "Uses"

Martin Luther was great.  The way God wired him made him keenly adept, through great personal struggle and suffering, at discerning the pulse of the Gospel.  One of the most personally life-altering ways his thought has shaped me is with his understanding about the function of the Law (and conversely, the Gospel).

See, to Luther it was not just a matter of what the Law said (content).  It was a matter of what the Law is for.  He was concerned with the use of the Law, it's function.  Likewise, the Gospel had a function.  To Luther, the words of the Law or the Gospel were not merely content.  They did something.  They produced something, or at least they were intended to.  There was an end that they were intended to effect.

The Law, Luther said, had its main function in convicting man of sin.  It is true that Luther also saw it having a civil component to restrain evil in human society.  But the main function of the Law was to drive a man to silence, to drive him to despair in his own good works, self-styled living, and pseudo-pious spiritual aspirations.  It was intended to make a man realize that there is no hope of heaven, of right-ness with God, whatsoever within himself, thereby pressing him to look outside of himself for an Answer, a Savior.

The Gospel is that Answer -or more precisely, the Gospel presents Jesus as that answer.  The function of the Gospel is to lift the spiritually lost and hopeless out of death and give him life and assurance and peace and hope and freedom and joy and... God.

The understanding of the "uses" of Law and Gospel has profoundly practical and pastoral implications.  For example, if a man comes to you despairing of all hope, like the Philippian jailer, saying "What must I do to be saved?" you would not give this man Law.  The Law, the voice which speaks condemnation and curse, which shows the man that his delusion of a spiritual ladder to heaven is a deadly fantasy, that exposes his helplessness before Almighty YHWH, has already done its work.  However, if a man, like the rich young ruler, comes saying, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" one can discern a difference -not in the words (which are almost identical)- but in the "place" the man is at.  To this man, Jesus' provoking answer was essentially Law.  It cut the man down, and it needed to.  It did not assure or promise, it exposed. 

For a man to really see Jesus as a Savior (and not a teacher or divine assistant to give us a better life), he must really see that he needs to be saved.

In Luther's own words (from his Declaration in his commentary on Paul's epistle to the Galatians):

A wise and faithful disposer of the Word of God must so moderate the law that it may be kept within its bounds. He that teaches that men are justified before God by the observation of the law, passes the bounds of the law, and confounds these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive. Contrariwise, he that sets forth the law and works to the old man, and the promise and forgiveness of sins and God’s mercy to the new man, divides the Word well. For the flesh or the old man must be coupled with the law and works; the spirit or the new man must be joined with the promise of God and His mercy.

When I see a man oppressed with the law, terrified with sin, and thirsting for comfort, it is time that I remove out of his sight the law and active righteousness, and set before him, by the gospel, the Christian or passive righteousness, which offers the promise made in Christ, who came for the afflicted and sinners.

But I do not believe this concept of "function" is limited only to Law and Gospel.  Take the following two examples:

1. The passages which console and promise versus the passages that warn and admonish.  If I think of the New Testament, for example, there are passages that encourage and promise hope and give assurance and security.  There are passages that tell us, "the one who comes to Me I will never cast out," and "no one is able to pluck [my sheep] out of my hand," and "nothing is able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus."  But there are also passages in those same gospels and epistles which warn us solemnly to not walk away from Jesus.  There are passages, such as in Hebrews, which can terrify.  How can both be reconciled?  Should I be assured or not?  Should I be constantly worried?  How assured can I be, or does God hope to keep us in suspense?

I believe this is a matter of function, again.  There is a use, a purpose to these statements.  Perhaps the assuring passages are intended to comfort and lift up the sore, discouraged, struggling, frightened, and afflicted while the warning passages are intended to bump the straying sheep back to Jesus while leaving the goats without excuse.  It is something of that nature.

2. The passages which speak of God's complete sovereignty in salvation, God's election, versus the passages which speak of man's choice and responsibility and open opportunity to trust in Jesus, to be saved.  Some passages are so strong in their statements about God's sovereign choice and authorship over salvation that it seems like one should either try to find out if they are elect or not or just give up and realize it is out of your hands.  Other passages are so strong in their statements about the openness and universality of the Gospel that one can scarcely reconcile how God sovereignly chooses.

But again, I think it is a matter of function.  In John 6, I believe Jesus' statements, though both of these allegedly opposing ideas were intertwined, were meant to be a sort of rebuke or denunciation of his listeners.  To tell them to their face that they are unable to come to Him was to unflinchingly shatter their spiritual pride and point out their blindness in one swoop.  Yet there are other times, such as in Romans 8, where the doctrine of election is intended to comfort the suffering and encourage them to hang in there through the dark night.

I didn't spend a lot of time trying to spell out the various uses and where they correspond.  I simply want to point out that function is important -just as important as content.  Lots of times I see people torturing themselves over particular passages, condemning and terrifying themselves that they are not "good enough" Christians to be saved, and I believe the key is not merely to show them the context of the said passage in light of the immediate context and the broader context of the Gospel; I believe the key is also in showing them that there is a use for the passage, and it has already done it's work in them.  Misusing the content of Scripture will lead to misguided and disastrous effects.