Providence is a good word. It regathers us in when we get disorientated in our observations of the horizontal.
The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us this key doctrine in question 27: in that God upholds all things, as with his hand…and all things come to us, not by chance, but from his fatherly hand.
It seems like everywhere I turn, even when trying to avoid the subject, I bump into something concerning Rob Bell and his new book. He is on CNN, USA Today, The Guardian, Good Morning America, and others.
My first reaction to this is, “It’s getting old.” However, as I think about this a bit, I wonder at the bigger picture. I wonder at the picture informed by God’s providence.
We know from Scripture that God uses all kinds of figures to influence his end. We have seen him use prophets, kings, and even an ass. So perhaps I need to sit and think about what is being accomplished.
I’ve made a quick list here . I’m sure there is more.
It Makes You (re)Own what You Believe
Shortly after becoming a Christian I started a new job. I had to complete some training prior to starting. In my class was an aggressive Jehovah’s Witness. This lady saw that I was reading books on Roman Catholic theology (she supposed I was Catholic but I was actually taking religion classes at a local university). She was all over it. Everyday she would badger me about the deity of Christ. She brought me tracts, magazines, and papers. She just kept on telling me that Jesus was not God but a god. It was crazy.
But what did this do? The first week or so I was on the ropes. I was knocked off balance. I got mad. But in time, I got my composure and started combing the Bible for answers. This actually became the time that I read through the Bible thoroughly. I began showing her what the Scripture said.
After a period of time I realized that though this woman was a messenger of Satan, serving false doctrine, she was also serving God and me by making me own something that I did not really own. I could say with Joseph, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50.20).
This has always been the way things work in the history of the church. We see this in Galatia with the Judiazers, Colossae with those who undermine Christ’s supremacy, in the early church with Arius, Palegius, right on through to the Reformation, the enlightenment, and to our day with the battles with liberalism. God uses these things for his good to strengthen his church.
I’m guessing many Christians are thinking through hell in a much more comprehensive way. If they are being led to the Bible for answers then this is good.
It Indicts the Lack of Discernment
Rob Bell didn’t fall out of the tree of orthodoxy overnight. He has been sticking his finger in the eye of historic Christianity for years. The problem is too many evangelicals didn’t realize it.
The bottom-line is that Rob Bell would not be nearly as popular as he is if there weren’t so many evangelical barnacles attached to him. I think of churches in my own city where evangelical pastors recommend his books and videos. The fact that evangelicals, especially pastors, did not see this coming is an indictment on the level of discernment of our movement. You could say, without exaggeration, that Rob Bell’s popularity and credibility comes through the impressionable, doctrinally shallow American evangelicals that are drawn after cool rather than true. It reminds me of the teenage girl who is searching for approval and identity. She goes after the cool guy. Then she finds out that the cool guy is not who she thought he was. She is crushed.
It Draws Out Voices
It is interesting to me to sit and listen to the voices that come out in defense of or disagreement with Bell.
For example, Rick Warren, tweeted, after the initial Love Wins firestorm erupted:
I believe in hell because Jesus says it’s real & he knows more about it than anyone.
John Piper likewise tweeted,
Farewell Rob Bell.
Then we have the president of Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw, in USA Today yesterday:
…president of the world’s largest Protestant seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary based in Pasadena, Calif., calls Love Wins “a great book, well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity and passionate about Jesus.
The real hellacious fight, says Mouw, a friend of Bell, a Fuller graduate, is between “generous orthodoxy and stingy orthodoxy. There are stingy people who just want to consign many others to hell and only a few to heaven and take delight in the idea. But Rob Bell allows for a lot of mystery in how Jesus reaches people.”
Thanks for that Richard.
As frustrating as that statement is, it is actually clear. It is clear that Mouw and Bell have abandoned the ship of orthodoxy and done a cannon-ball into the ocean of historic Liberalism. I just wish they would abandon the term ‘orthodoxy’. The way he is using it here it’s tied to Christianity. To be right about Christian doctrine then you need to be biblical. To deviate from the Bible, whether out of ostensibly ‘generous’ motives or not, is to deviate from Christianity. It reminds of J. Greschem Machen’s classic book Christianity and Liberalism where he noted that you are free to create your own religion, just don’t call it Christianity, that one is taken.
Speaking of Machen, he is always helpful to quote. He hits the right notes here, with respect to the current debate about hell and God’s character:
How can anyone be unhappy when the ruler of the universe is declared to be the loving Father of all men who will never permanently inflict pain upon His children ? Where is the sting of remorse if all sin will necessarily be forgiven? Yet men are strangely ungrateful. After the modern preacher has done his part with all diligence–after everything unpleasant has carefully been eliminated from the conception of God, after His unlimited love has been celebrated with the eloquence that it deserves–the congregation somehow persistently refuses to burst into the old ecstasies of joy. The truth is, the God of modern preaching, though He may perhaps be very good, is rather uninteresting. Nothing is so insipid as indiscriminate good humor. Is that really love that costs so little? If God will necessarily forgive, no matter what we do, why trouble ourselves about Him at all? Such a God may deliver us from the fear of hell. But His heaven, if He has any, is full of sin.
…How do you know that God is all love and kindness? Surely not through nature, for it is full of horrors. Human suffering may be unpleasant, but it is real, and God must have something to do with it. Just as surely not through the Bible. For it was from the Bible that the old theologians derived that conception of God which you would reject as gloomy. “The Lord thy God,” the Bible says, “is a consuming fire.” Or is Jesus alone your authority? You are no better off. For it was Jesus who spoke of the outer darkness and the everlasting fire, of the sin that shall not be forgiven either in this age or in that which is to come. Or do you appeal, for your comforting idea of God, to a twentieth-century revelation granted immediately to you? It is to be feared that you will convince no one but yourself. –J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
While the current drama may be a surprise to some, it is not to God. It is a divinely dispatched magnet to draw out both the orthodoxy and the false doctrine from the swelling, undefined crowd called evangelicalism. In this, while we wince, we learn.