Friday, April 22, 2011

"Love Lustres at Calvary"

-From "The Valley of Vision," pp.76-7 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975).

Love Lustres at Calvary

My Father,

Enlarge my heart, warm my affections, open my lips,
supply words that proclaim 'Love lustres at Calvary.'
There grace removes my burdens and heaps them on thy Son,
made a transgressor, a curse, and sin for me;
There the sword of thy justice smote the man, thy fellow;
There thy infinite attributes were magnified,
and infinite atonement was made;
There infinite punishment was due,
and infinite punishment was endured.
Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,
cast off that I might be brought in,
trodden down as an enemy
that I might be welcomed as a friend,
surrendered to hell's worst
that I might attain heaven's best,
stripped that I might be clothed,
wounded that I might be healed,
athirst that I might drink,
tormented that I might be comforted,
made a shame that I might inherit glory,
entered darkness that I might have eternal light.
My Savior wept that all tears might be wiped from my eyes,
groaned that I might have endless song,
endured all pain that I might have unfading health,
bore a thorny crown that I might have a glory-diadem,
bowed his head that I might uplift mine,
experienced a reproach that I might receive welcome,
closed his eyes that I might gaze
on unclouded brightness,
expired that I might forever live.
O Father, who spared not thine only Son
that thou mightest spare me,
All this transfer thy love designed and accomplished;
Help me to adore thee by lips and life.
O that my every breath might be ecstatic praise,
my every step buoyant with delight, as I see my enemies crushed,
Satan baffled, defeated, destroyed,
sin buried in the ocean of reconciling blood,
hell's gates closed, heaven's portal open.
Go forth, O conquering God, and show me
the cross, mighty to subdue, comfort and save.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

It's been a few weeks since I finished Rob Bell's recent book, Love Wins, but I don't think I'm too late to catch the wave of attention this book is getting in the evangelical world - nor would I miss it, I think, if I reviewed it a month from now, six months, or even a year or more. The issues raised by this book aren't going anywhere any time soon, and I expect that in the near future we will see a wealth of literature produced by evangelicals taking every imaginable stance on what Bell has brought to everyone's attention. As I've read some of the reviews that have come out already, I've found myself in agreement with most of their criticisms, but at the same time feeling that some of the critics are leaving out what matters most - not only what Rob Bell is suggesting with respect to the afterlife, but why he is doing so. What assumptions have led him to the view he holds? In this (admittedly too brief) review, I hope to lay out what I think is the deepest problem with Bell's argumentation, centering in on the phrase, popular before he wrote this book, that has become its title: 'love wins.'

First, however, I want to talk about what I think is good in Rob Bell's book. While I disagree with many of his exegetical conclusions, I nonetheless feel that he has a few good points to make, and we evangelicals would do well to listen. The first pertains to what I believe is the thesis of his book - which, it may surprise you, is not that Christian universalism is true (at least, I don't think this is his main point). Rather, I think his clearest theses are as follows, found on pages 115 & 116:

Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.


Hard and fast, definitive declarations then, about how God will or will not organize the new world must leave plenty of room for all kinds of those possibilities. This doesn't diminish God's justice or take less seriously the very real consequences of sin and rebellion, it simply acknowledges with humility the limits of our powers of speculation.

Especially with the latter statement, I agree completely. The airtight certainty with which many Christians pronounce eternal judgment on others, contrary to clear biblical prohibitions (cf. Matt. 7:1-2), is presumptuous and hypocritical. "For what have I to do with judging outsiders?" writes Paul (despite being an apostle and witness to the resurrected Christ!). "Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside the church" (1 Cor. 5:12-13). It is one thing to be frank with an unbeliever that if he resists the reign of Christ, he will indeed face condemnation in the world to come; it is another thing entirely to tell an unbeliever that he is, unquestionably, at this very moment, destined to be so. Though I believe very firmly that God has fashioned vessels of wrath as well as vessels of mercy (cf. Rom. 9:19-24), who am I, a mere man, to know who belongs in what category, and why? So, insofar as Rob Bell's book is a simple plea for epistemic humility among evangelicals, I agree with him.

Another good feature of Love Wins is its attention to the character of the world to come. Rob Bell is absolutely right to say, "How we think about heaven...directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age" (p.44), and unfortunately for us evangelicals, heaven and the afterlife is one area in which we have been biblically and theologically impoverished. (Other writers, particularly N.T. Wright, have done an excellent job of pointing this out - cf. Wright, Surprised by Hope; also The Resurrection of the Son of God.) It is profoundly important to the gospel message that God's purposes, revealed in the Messiah, are cosmic in their scope - in other words, that this whole creation will one day be set free from its corruption and decay, and enter into an eternal age of freedom and flourishing administered by the redeemed children of God (cf. Rom. 8:18:24). The work of Christ on the cross not only reconciles individual human beings to God but also "all things, in heaven and on earth" (Col. 1:20). Though I do object strongly to Rob Bell's corollary view of hell as basically 'what heaven is like for all the spoilsports,' (which ignores biblical imagery of hell involving externality and separation, cf. Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Rev. 22:14-15), I nonetheless applaud his attempt to straighten out evangelicals about their future hope - not for a disembodied eternity in the clouds, as some seem to think, but for the new heavens and new earth in which the knowledge of the Lord saturates all that exists (Isa. 11:9).

There are probably other good points for which Bell ought to be commended, but these two are, in my mind, the most praiseworthy. Now, it would be possible at this point to go into great detail about the specific exegetical shortcomings from which the book suffers - particularly, Rob Bell's deeply problematic interpretation of the various "all" statements describing the scope of redemption (cf. Col. 1:20, which is simply saying that redemption is cosmic in scope; 1 Tim. 2:4, which is saying that people of every nation, not just Jews, are to come to a knowledge of the truth; and 1 Cor. 15:22, which is only speaking of 'all' who are 'in Christ' as opposed to those 'in Adam'). I feel, however, that many other reviewers have treated these topics in sufficient detail already, and there is little need for me to say again what has already been said elsewhere (and, in fact, what has been said throughout the history of the Christian church when universalist sentiments have arisen). No, in my mind there is something much more important and much more problematic in Rob Bell's argument, that lies behind his particular presentation of universalist ideas.

The problem can be looked at from two angles, and can be explained in terms of the book's title: (1) Rob Bell argues from a highly problematic conception of God's 'love'; and (2) his view of what it means for love to 'win' is, in my opinion, profoundly un-biblical. Here is what I mean:

(1) Love. From the beginning of the book, 'love' is a lingering concept, but unfortunately one that never gets defined with sufficient clarity. In the Introduction Bell even refers to it as "this love" (p.viii - i.e., as 'this sort of love' that we are talking about, which God possesses), with the apparent assumption that any reader, regardless of cultural background and context, will understand infallibly what 'love' really means. Rob Bell simply cannot talk about God's love without giving it at least some definition, since even a brief foray into scripture will reveal that "this love" actually confronts our modern and post-romantic assumptions about what it is. How, for example, is a biblical writer able to write words as shocking as "Give [God] who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, for his steadfast love endures forever!" (Ps. 136:10)? As we look at scripture, we find that God's love is not a vague, indefinite principle of good will toward everyone and everything in general, but rather as a fierce, passionate devotion to his people, to the creation, and to all that is good, right, true, and holy. God's love, in fact, lies at the very heart of his wrath: "this love" necessarily entails a deep hatred of all that is evil, wrong, false, and unholy. So, a statement like "God is love" (1 John 4:8), while it may very well sound like an endorsement of Christian universalism (particularly to post-modern, post-romanticism ears), should not be read as such, inasmuch as it overthrows scripture's depiction of God's love as particular and sovereign.

The fourth chapter of Rob Bell's book ("Does God Get What God Wants?") is where his 'argument from God's love' really comes to the fore. His basic proposition is this: if God loves us, he won't coerce our decisions or force us to do anything against our will. So far so good - but for Bell, this appears to mean a necessarily libertarian view of 'freedom' whereby God simply sits back, arms folded, waiting to see 'what will happen,' refusing to take any effective action until we make up our minds on our own to come to him. This, Bell claims, is love. In making this claim about our freedom, he ignores a great swathe of the Christian tradition that has viewed human freedom and God's sovereignty in a different light, with the latter establishing the former, and in no way at odds with it. In other words, while we interact with God according to our 'un-coerced free will,' we recognize at the same time that, ultimately, God is the one sovereignly directing everything that happens - even our decisions, and the reasons we have for making them. He wills that we will freely, in other words, and thus our freedom wouldn't be possible without his sovereignty.

Rob Bell simply ignores this position, treating his own conception of freedom as a self-evident given. But I would argue that this view of freedom and, ultimately, of God's love, lies at the very heart of a biblical view of human beings as created - as given all that they have (including the power to will) by a God who interacts with them contingently at their only level even while he is truly 'writing the story' according to his greater will and purpose. God's love is displayed in scripture not as a generic emotion (that's the romanticism creeping in), but as an active force that takes the initiative against evil, and for the sake of what is good. This brings me to the second problem in Rob Bell's fundamental argument, where his definition of love gets cashed in.

(2) Wins. One of the reasons reading Love Wins was so stimulating for me was that at the same time, I was reading Gustaf Aulen's classic, Christus Victor - a book that in many ways is arguably about precisely the same thing (though written with very different objectives in mind!). In Christus Victor (published in 1931), Aulen critiques the now standard 'Western'/'Anselmian' view of atonement, which in his view tends to downplay divine initiative in salvation and characterize God in a rather passive manner. The alternative, which he presents as the standard view of most of the church during its first thousand years or so, focuses on the victory of Christ through his cross and resurrection, over sin, death, and the Devil, according to God's purpose of redeeming the whole creation (humans included) and liberating it from captivity to evil. Rob Bell actually mentions this atonement theory at one point to bolster his argument, yet ironically, his own view of how love 'wins' scarcely resembles what Aulen or the church fathers he quotes were talking about. Love Wins, as a title, becomes something of a misnomer - a more accurate title for the book might be 'Good Will Eventually Gets What It Had Hoped For.' (Or, if you like, my slightly racier alternative: 'True Love Waits.') Whereas the point of God's victory through Christ in the cross and resurrection was meant to emphasize divine activity, Bell's construal seems to emphasize divine passivity to the point of absurdity. The God corresponding to Bell's idea of 'love' is not the eternal Lord of the universe whose voice breaks the cedars of Lebanon, but a working, middle-class dad waiting for his kid to get home from college: God "is there, standing in the driveway, arms open, ready to invite us in," (p.117, my emphasis) but certainly not actively involved in our coming to him by faith - only 'I,' the all sovereign individual, can do this by the impetus of my own will. J.I. Packer was more realistic about the shortcomings of such sentimental imagery: "the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which he is powerless to open" (In My Place Condemned He Stood, p. 136-7).

It is especially ironic that Bell should stand behind such a depiction of God as the one he gives, 'standing in the driveway,' while seeming to demand the exact opposite earlier in the book:

"God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2). So does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great.... Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end? (pp.97-8)

The problem is, if we go along with Rob Bell in his stress on supposedly 'un-coercive' divine passivity, Rob Bell's worst dreams might come true! After all, no matter how great God is, he could never, ever consider interfering with the will of his creatures, could he? Scripture testifies with the utmost clarity that yes, in fact, he most certainly could, can - does. God's love does not consist in 'sitting there' in passivity while those whom he loves self-detonate in sin and misery, however much it may be 'what they want.' Compare Rob Bell's conception of divine love with what we find in Ephesians 2:1-10:

And you all - when you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk following the pattern of this world's present age, the pattern of the ruler of the power of the air - the spirit that's now active among the sons of disobedience... indeed, it's in that spirit that all of us once conducted ourselves in the passions of our flesh, acting on the desires of the flesh and the mind's intentions, and we were children of wrath by nature, just like the rest of mankind. It was then that God - so rich in mercy! - because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses... by grace you've been saved! And he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that, in his kindness, he'd show us the overwhelming riches of his grace toward us in the coming ages, in Christ Jesus. After all, it's by grace that you've been saved through faith; and none of this is from yourselves - it is God's gift! It doesn't come from works, so that no one would be able to boast. We are God's own craftsmanship, you see, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared in advance, so that we'd walk in them.

That, my friends, is a love that wins. It is a love whose 'winning' precisely doesn't mean leaving us to our own devices. God's love wins precisely because it is sovereign, and works in spite of the sinful human will that is dead in transgressions, that is as unresponsive to God as a corpse is to a surgeon, until the surgeon shocks it back to life. That's God's winning love for us - he made us alive, and did so "even when we were dead." He didn't wait for initiative or impulse on our part, but supplied the initiative and impulse; he didn't 'wait for us to make up our minds,' as Rob Bell seems to think. Love wins precisely because it works beyond our control or ability to prompt it - it is active, not passive.

And thus if God chooses eventually to make every individual person alive, even in the age to come, so be it, but let's not pretend that this didn't come about entirely because of his grace, his initiative, and his purpose. Though I cannot endorse the view myself, leave it to God that it would be within his power to choose to do that at some point. But at least let us not pretend that the detached, hands-off, backwards conception of 'love' promulgated in this book is in any way honoring to God! It is not 'love' of any sort that simply refuses to intervene in the lives of those loved.

Such is my criticism of Rob Bell's book. It is not simply that his exegesis is flawed at many points, or that he makes dubious claims about his place within the broad stream of historic Christian orthodoxy. It is not simply that his view of time and of hell do not seem at every point to make contact with what scripture says on the matter. The real problem with Love Wins, the underlying problem, the ultimate problem, is that it presents us with a picture, both of God and of his love, that is sentimental, passive, and really isn't victorious over anything.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

God-Centered Atonement Theology

I've been reflecting lately on the nature of the atonement. And the more I've done that, reading scripture and pondering the matter, the more I've felt very strongly that a lot of our preaching about the cross since the nineteenth century has missed the point in a crucial way. The content is certainly there (at least, among evangelicals; perhaps not so much among liberal protestants) - sin, judgment, wrath, love, mercy, hope. But it seems as though the arrangement and ordering of these things has been altered in such a way that it is the human individual that takes center stage. As J.I. Packer observed, we've come to believe that at Calvary, God simply constructed a big soteriological machine that we operate, basically in order to save ourselves. I'd like to share, humbly, some of my thoughts on this matter; I also have a feeling that some of my initial comments may seem perplexing to you who know me and probably suppose me to be a pretty orthodox guy. Just read on, and you'll see what I'm getting at eventually.

Anyway, as I was saying, I feel that our gospel has become too man-centered. This is reflected in our preaching, which runs something like this: you are sinful, but you would like to go to heaven (who wouldn't?). That can't happen though, because, you see, God feels wrath toward the sins you've committed, and he is (constitutionally) incapable of forgiving you unless somebody takes the blame. But alas, Jesus has taken the blame, and now by believing you can do what you had hoped to do all along - go to heaven.

The natural consequence of this way of putting it, of this misdirection, is that God looks rather immature. He is ultimately the one with the problem, not us. He has an anger-management issue, one that can only be solved if Jesus steps in and calms him down. 'Sinners have slapped me in the face; I'm not going to forgive anyone until I get to slap someone back.' (Here you have a moral conundrum in the fact that it seemingly doesn't matter who gets punished, so long as someone does, and the wrath in question obtains its cathartic release.) God appears quite weak here, helpless to save anyone until the condition is fulfilled. By believing in Jesus, then, we furnish God with the ability he does not have himself, with the capability he so longs to exercise but cannot. We enable him to forgive us by exercising saving faith. In short: we save ourselves.

This, of course, is dishonoring to God and self-exalting with respect to man. If the gospel reveals anything, it is that God is not constrained by us; rather, the opposite: "He chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4); "he works all things [therefore our salvation too] according to the counsel of his will" (v.11). It is not a question of whether or we will let God do as he desires with us or not.

Notice the change in our emphasis: when the emphasis shifts manward (we want something; we can only get it by means of Christ), the problem shifts Godward (God can't give us what we want, because he is angry about our sin). However, when we do the opposite of this - when we move our emphasis Godward, as I think we should (to his sovereign desire to save sinners, to defeat and destroy evil) - the problem becomes ours, not his. There is evil in this world, there is sin, and God righteously intends to destroy all of it (cf. Rom. 1:18 & 2:6-11). He does not have an anger-management problem; his temper is not the obstacle in question. The obstacle in question is sin, is evil. If he is truly good, God will destroy sin and end its hideous rule over this world; he has promised to do this, and his wrath is therefore a blessing toward that end. The wrath of God is nothing less than the love of God directed against sin, the goodness of God enacted upon evil. When this outpouring of wrath occurs, we are not to feel embarrassed for our Lord, but are to feel joyful (even as we find it awesome and frightful). This, surely, is the view of the authors of scripture. "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness" (Ps. 96:12b-13). God hates evil, hates sin - yes; and, it may shock you, sinners too (cf. Ps. 5:5) - and in his perfect love will not allow either to persist indefinitely. If he did - if God continued to allow the greedy to oppress the poor, the lustful and controlling to molest children and rape women; if God continued to allow the powerful to commit genocide and the hungry to starve, adultery and abuse to destroy marriages and depression and addiction to consume people's lives - then he would not be a loving God. His wrath is his love directed against sin.

What, then, is the cross? Is it not a display of God's wrath as well as his love? Why yes, and also a satisfaction of his justice. "God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation" (i.e., an atoning sacrifice through which God's wrath is spent) "by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness" (or justice, Gk. dikaiosune) "because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins" (Rom. 3:25). We are dead-accurate to say that the wrath of God was poured out upon our sins, our individual sinful acts, at Calvary. There is, however, more to it than that, as we see simply by looking at other statements Paul makes later in Romans. "We know that our old self" (lit. "the old man") "was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free" (lit. "justified") "from sin" (Rom. 6:6-7). In these verses (and others such as Gal. 2:20), Paul's picture of the atonement is rounded out quite beautifully: the cross was not centrally a kind of divine catharsis; certainly it was not a means of enabling a weak God to forgive people with whom he really has no quarrel beyond the fact that they've done a few naughty things (but deep down are good enough really to want to know him). Rather, Christ's death is a condemnation and obliteration of the whole sin nature that brought about these transgressions in the first place. In other words, the cross does not merely forgive sins for people who are otherwise good; it destroys sin itself in those who share in Christ's death and resurrection.

In other words - to borrow Packer's language again - the cross actually saves...not potentially. (Here's where we get limited atonement, by the way.) It is not only sufficient to forgive sins as individual acts of wrongdoing, but for those who have saving faith it is also effective for the actual destroying of a whole sin-nature. So to believe in Christ is not merely to escape God's wrath by the cross but also to die to sin and walk in newness of life through the cross (cf. Rom. 6:1-11 & 20-23; 7:4-6; 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 2:19-21; Col. 1:19-22; 2:11-15; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; 4:1-2; 1 John 1:7). The result of this is, shockingly, that we are no longer identified with our sins, or indeed with that old self (cf. Rom. 7:13-25), but as Christians walking in the new life of the Spirit, we, by faith, spend the rest of our lives putting off that old self, which is still resident in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:3b-13), but is condemned, at the cross, to eternal destruction and oblivion.

Think about it! You do not merely watch from a distance as your savior bears the brunt of God's wrath so that you can save yourself by faith. No: your precious savior bears you in his loving arms with him, up onto that cross - all of your sins, yes, and also all of your weakness, your rebellion, your pride, your covetousness, your hatred for or indifference toward God and others, your coldness and dullness of heart, and everything else within you that enslaves you to sin and suffering and evil and death - and brings you through the cleansing, wrathful, redeeming love of God, and out the other side of that fiery crucible by his resurrection from the dead. By his wounds you are healed, as well as forgiven. He is not only displayed before you on that cross, but embraces you upon it, holds you upon it, carries you upon it. Christian, realize the true scope of the freedom that comes from the cross!

And here the wrath of God ceases to be a terror but becomes a friend, for it is, truly, his love for you - a love that loves you enough to hate your sin, enough to hate all within you that holds you from him, hinders you from loving and enjoying him forever; enough not to immolate you along with the sin-nature from which your identity would be otherwise indistinguishable. No - "he became sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Our God has prised the two of you apart, having condemned the one to death, and having raised the other (you!) to life everlasting!

"In this is love, not that we have loved God" - not that we have really been good enough deep down, have believed, and have allowed him to get over his anger toward us - "but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). It is an act of love: to quench his burning anger against the sin and injustice found among his people by actually destroying it; not to excuse the sin of those he forgives by 'getting over himself,' but to condemn it for what it is while the forgiven remain unharmed. "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:3-4). Consider, Christian, with what love God has loved you in Christ - the God who willed that you should no longer be enslaved, who in Christ accomplished both the forgiveness of your sins and the destruction of your sin, who by the Holy Spirit raises you into the justified righteousness of new life in him, and who even now, as you read this, brings this great work of new creation in you ever closer to completion, brings you and many sons to glory in Christ, the lover of your soul.

Let's start sharing the good news of the cross differently. Let's start remembering that it is not 'God's problem' that put Jesus Christ on a bloody tree, but our problem, and it is by God's sheer love alone that he decided to deal with that problem without destroying us in the process. To be invited to faith in Jesus, then, is to be invited to cling to him as he mounts that cross, to trust in him all your life as he not only forgives you your sins but also destroys your old self and renews your whole character through his Holy Spirit; and then ultimately to to step with him out of that tomb into newness of life that will be made complete one day when we stand in glory. Friends, that's a gospel that preaches.