Spring break is a category that continues to inhabit my life even now into my 30’s, no longer because I am a student but rather because I am a teacher. This week I am looking forward to some much-needed relaxation and enjoyment of time with family.
And some spring break reading.
At the top of my list is about the last two-thirds of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I am going to finish the book and then post some thoughts about it here, Lord willing (and probably over the coming weekend).
I have decided to do this, not because I have an unhealthy obsession with Rob Bell. I assure you that my days are filled up with many other things than this ongoing controversy, and I am looking forward to posting some final reflections, dialoguing about them, and then moving on to other subjects, if the Lord permits.
At this point, however, I believe I have an obligation to read this book in its entirety. Based on what Bell has said publicly in relation to this book, I have joined others in accusing him of promoting a false gospel. That is a very serious charge, and while I stand by that assessment currently, I believe Bell deserves a full hearing from me. If it turns out that, after reading this book, I find that Bell is within the bounds of orthodoxy, then I will have an obligation to retract what I have said. Note here that I am not saying that Bell has to convince me he is right (which is highly doubtful that he will, given our different theological frameworks). All he has to do is convince me that he has not rejected the essential truths of the gospel. If he does, I will retract my accusation.
I fully recognize in my own heart the tendency to find some kind of perverse pleasure in lambasting those with whom I disagree, and therefore to be too eager to condemn. I have tried not to do that in this case, and I will let you know how I assess myself when I finish the book.
But there is one other thing to note here. I am not saying that I, or Justin Taylor, or John Piper, or (fill in the blank) never should have said that Bell is preaching a false gospel. That there are false gospels in the world today is a certainty, and that many of them come from those in church leadership is likewise a certainty. The New Testament commands us to contend for the faith by exposing false gospels for what they are (Jude 3). I am not at all doubting our obligation to identify false gospels as such when they arise. If Rob Bell is really teaching what I think he is (to this point in all that I have heard and read), then my assessment is that he is teaching a false gospel by rejecting the heart of the true gospel: the death of Christ as a propitiation that turns away the wrath of God from us. If this is, in fact, not what he is saying, then the issue is not that calling out false gospels is wrong, but rather that misrepresenting someone as teaching a false gospel when he is not doing so is wrong. So even if, by some chance, I have been wrong about Rob Bell, that does not mean I agree with some who have said that the very act of calling out false teaching is incompatible with our Christian profession.
So I am going to do my best to finish the book this week and understand Rob Bell more fully and on his own terms. I am well aware that I have already reached certain conclusions about him, but that awareness should enable me to identify my biases and revise my opinion if such is warranted. I will do my absolute best to free myself from the desire to save face and follow Bell wherever he leads: whether that be through unusual but orthodox paths or into the realm of heresy. And I am hopeful that, whatever the result, I will learn something and grow, as I almost always do when I have the opportunity to hear a different perspective. God moves in a mysterious way.
Here are a few lines from John Newton’s letter “On Controversy,” written to a man who was preparing to take up his pen against a theological opponent. I thought they would be a fitting way to end this post:
This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern [i.e., concern for yourself] in your present undertaking. It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. If ever such defenses were seasonable and expedient they appear to be so in our own day, when errors abound on all sides and every truth of the gospel is either directly denied or grossly misrepresented. And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made? Your aim, I doubt not, is good; but you have need to watch and pray for you will find Satan at your right hand to resist you; he will try to debase your views; and though you set out in defense of the cause of God, if you are not continually looking to the Lord to keep you, it may become your own cause, and awaken in you those tempers which are inconsistent with true peace of mind, and will surely obstruct communion with God.
Heavenly Father, protect me from the ego-driven, contentious spirit that is all too familiar to me. Let me seek only the truth, and speak it to all in love.