Monday, November 26, 2007

Rob Bell and the Anger of God

Today, I read the second review I have seen on Rob Bell's current speaking tour entitled "the gods aren't angry." This reviewer notes Mark Driscoll's recent labeling of Bell as a heretic when he (Driscoll) spoke at Southeastern Seminary at their Convergent Conference. This review is decidely more sympathetic than the previous one was, but I can't remember where I saw the other one.

What grabbed my attention was this comment the reviewer makes in closing:
The sense I got from Bell is that the whole problem to be solved is a mental one: people are not aware of the already-true fact that God is not angry with them. I’m wrangling with the notion that what Jesus changed is not God’s opinion of me, but my opinion of God. For some reason, this makes me think of Jesus as a Post-It note from God telling us what has been true rather than making it true. I’m ready to dismiss this as too insignificant, except that Bell convinced me that the alternatives leave us with a small god who needs sacrifice to be appeased.
There are several issues worthy of comment.

1. The idea that "the alternatives leave us with small god who needs sacrifice to be appeased" is a curious remark, particularly given the biblical teaching on propitiation. This concern is straight out of the playbook of those who deny penal substitution. They see God as a cosmic child abuser who beats up and kills his own Son to satisfy his bloodlust. They believe that forgiveness by definition is incompatible with penal substitution, arguing that if Christ paid the penalty then sin wasn't really forgiven; it was paid for.

Such is hardly a biblical picture. The truth is that God's holiness must be satisfied. He is not able to say "Forget about, no big deal." If he were to do that, his only holiness would be compromised. But because of his love for us, he took the step of satisfying his own holiness while not charging our sins against us. Romans 3:24-26 is clear that God is both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus through the death of Christ. The death of Christ was necessary for God to justly forgive sin, and it was necessary for God to justify (declare righteous) those who believe. This isn't a "small god." This is an unimaginably great God whose holiness and love met at the cross.

2. The idea that God is not angry with sinners is simply a denial of the plain teaching of Scripture. Psalm 7:11-12 talk about a God who is daily angry with those who do not repent. Psalm 5:12 talks of a God who hates the sinner (not just the sin). So the idea that God really isn't angry undermines both the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin. If God isn't angry, then there is no reason for us to fear him. Yet he continually uses warnings of terror and wrath to come as a motivation for following him, and submitting to his lordship.

While it is not politically correct to talk about an angry God, it is impossible to preach the whole counsel of God without talking about an angry God. Michael Finley, in his commentary on Joel, says this:
“It is interesting to reflect on Joel’s power as a preacher to motivate people to repent on the basis of the judgment to come … In light of Joel and the rest of Scripture, one might wonder whether contemporary pastors who tend to avoid ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching in favor of a steady diet of mercy and forgiveness provide an incomplete presentation of God’s word.”
Let's face it: God does use fear and terror to motivate us to follow him. That's not a bad thing.

3. Finally, the idea that what we really have is a mental problem in grasping the fact that God really isn't angry with us undermines the biblical teaching on the nature of sin and its affects in our lives. It undermines the biblical definition of saving faith, which is not just mental acceptance of God's lack of anger, but is mental, volitional, and emotional acceptance of who Christ is and what he did for us at the cross.

Salvation is not just a mental issue of accepting that God isn't angry. He is. But he has been propitiated through the death of Christ. Our biggest problem is not that we need to change our opinion about God's lack of anger. It is that we need to recognize that our sin has separated us from God and only unconditional trust in the sacrifice of Christ alone can remedy that.

This brings me to conclude with what I think one of the real dangers of someone like Bell is: He makes sense to people. You might wonder why that is a danger. I think it's a danger because he uses religious ideas and even biblical imagery to construct a theology that ultimately undermines the Scripture itself. I have heard Bell preach. He is a decent communicator, particularly in an age where "stream of consciousness" communication is "in." I have heard that is Nooma videos are very interesting, though I have never seen them. But making sense to people while distorting the biblical teaching is hardly admirable, at least in my book.

It is bad that in some churches, the messages don't make a lot of sense. They are great theological treatises, but they never touch the lives of the hearers. People who sit under that kind of teaching find people like Bell very captivating. At long last, they have found someone who uses the Bible and makes sense to them. But they don't see that Bell doesn't use the Bible as God intended it to be used. Bell tends to use the Bible as a prop to support some "cool ideas," rather than as a hammer to break rocks, a fire to burn chaff, authoritative word to be submitted to.

What Bell has done is gotten away from the simplicity of Christ crucified. And when we get away from that, we begin to compromise on doctrines such as the value and necessity of the death of Christ, such as the nature and accomplishment of the death of Christ, and the awfulness of sin in light of the holiness of God.

So to conclude (the second time), as a preacher I am constantly trying to make sense to people. Having grown up in Christianity, it is far too easy and comfortable for me to fall back into church words and Christian-ese language, to the patterns of traditionalism, and the ways of a by-gone era.

If we are to reach a new generation, suckled on post-modernism, we must examine the way in which we communicate. We dare not change the message, not even by compromising it through form, but to use Christianese (in language and in practice) to a people who do not speak it is ecclesiastic suicide.

So let's try to become better communicators of the word God has given us, rather than trying to use God's word to help us communicate our own message. And let us learn from the danger of Rob Bell.

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