Category Archives: Salvation

Risk-averse Christianity threatens the Gospel

In this short video Alan Hirsch questions the “risk averse” nature of middle-class, American Christianity, arguing that it “attenuates” the Gospel because the Gospel calls into question our desire for safety and stability. A risk-averse Christianity turns the Gospel into a “civil religion that really just affirms my lifestyle.”

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HT Brian Lilly

Dallas Willard on the Gospel and Grace

Here are a couple of good videos from an interview that John Ortberg did with Dallas Willard, in which he discusses the Gospel, grace, and spiritual formation (HT Out of Ur). Give them a listen. Willard is always worth a few minutes.

Where does the Gospel begin?

I flopped onto the couch, one leg carelessly knocking several cushions to the floor, the other resting dangerously close to my glass on the coffee table. The scent of freshly popped popcorn permeated the room. Lights dimmed, family gone for the evening, I was ready for a movie.

Switching on the TV, I was about to head for my recorded shows, when something on the screen caught my eye—a room full of obviously terrified people, guarded by darkly threatening men with automatic weapons and bad accents. This looks interesting.

Suddenly the large window at one of the room burst inward as a black-clad body hurtled through shattered glass with guns blazing. Miraculously, the flurry of bullets missed the unarmed people huddled on the floor, striking only the guards as they turned in surprise toward this unexpected visitor.

Seconds later, it was over. Pausing only to toss a couple of suave one-liners into the now silent room, the dark hero leapt back through the window, disappearing into the gloom beyond.

Okay, so it wasn’t an Academy Award winner.

Grabbing my bowl of popcorn, I flipped to another channel. There was no point in watching more. After only two minutes, I knew the basic story: some bad guys captured some good guys, and the hero came to rescue the good guys so they can live happily ever after. I get it. Time for something else.

But, what if there’s more?

Suppose the next morning I talked with someone who had seen the whole movie. And, I discovered that the piece I’d seen was actually part of a much larger and more complicated story. From the beginning, the hero had been working to defeat some secret society bent on destroying the world. (That’s what secret societies do.) Instead of just being a simple rescue, the scene I’d watched was where hero finally defeated this evil group and rescued the entire world from its impending destruction. Sure, the hostages got rescued, and that’s still an important part of the story. But as I hear my friend explain the rest of the movie, I begin to realize how much more was involved.

It’s hard to understand the end if you don’t know the beginning.

Many of us approach the Gospel like I did this movie. We’re so eager to watch the hero (Jesus) burst onto the scene and save the hostages (the cross), that we don’t even notice how we’ve jumped in toward the end of the movie. It’s like we think the first ninety minutes were just a bunch of commercials and trailers, keeping the audience mildly entertained until the real story starts. We tune in at the rescue scene, never wondering if maybe there’s more to the story than we realize.

And, to be fair, I understand why we do this. That part of the story is pretty incredible. It’s worth watching over and over again, like my daughters do with their favorite cartoons. But, we need to be careful. Unless we understand the whole story, we’re likely to misunderstand what’s really happening in the dramatic—indeed, climactic—story of the cross.

It’s hard to understand the end if you don’t know the beginning.

So, if we want to know what the Gospel is all about, we can’t jump straight to the cross. Instead, we’ll have to start where all good stories do: the beginning.

[This is a piece that I’m thinking of using in the Gospel Book to introduce the importance of Genesis 1-2 for understanding the Gospel.]

Don’t park Jesus, drive the car

I remember going to Disneyland for the first time, fidgeting in line at the main gate, body tense with excitement. A whole new world lay just out of sight, a magical world waiting to be explored. (I had not yet fully appreciated that this magical new world included two-hour long lines, terrifying roller coasters, and a limitless sea of hot and harried tourists.) To enter this wonderland, I simply needed to hand a rectangular slip of pink paper to the bored teenager standing at the gate. A ticket. So simple.

And, once I passed through the gate, what did I do with my ticket? Well, I put it in my pocket, of course. You see, I needed the ticket to get into Disneyland, but once inside it was useless. They include all the rides and attractions in the price of admission. The ticket gets you in, after that you can put it in your pocket. I suppose I could have thrown it away, but you don’t do that with your ticket. You hold on to it “just in case.” At least, that’s what my parents told me.

That’s how many of us think of the Gospel. We hear the Gospel as the good news that we can “get in” to God’s kingdom and live with him forever. There’s a whole new world waiting for us, and the Gospel is our ticket. Without it, we’d never get past the main gate. But, with it we have exactly what we need to believe so we can rush through the gate with all of the other children, eyes wide with wonder at all the new sights and sounds.

And, we could do worse than to think of the Christian life as an amazing new world that we can explore like small children delighting in God’s wonderful creativity.

But, there’s a real problem with this analogy. Once you’re inside the park, what do you do with your ticket? You put it in your pocket. You keep it “just in case” or as a souvenir for your scrapbook, but you don’t really need it anymore. You’ve already gotten in.

So, you tuck the Gospel safely away, confident that it has served its purpose.

I also remember the day that I got my driver’s license, that little plastic card that declares you to be a free agent, a real teenager, able to go wherever whenever. But, arriving home from the DMV, I was angry. Although I’d finally reached the pinnacle of teenage freedom, my parents weren’t going to let me drive. Not by myself. I was still too young and inexperienced. Maybe in a few weeks.

I needed to sulk. How could they do this to me? Didn’t they understand what a driver’s license was for? How was I supposed to explain to my friends that I had a license, but I still couldn’t drive? It was embarrassing.

Then I stepped through the front door. And my dad tossed me the keys, the car keys. In my memory, it feels like a scene from a cheesy movie. Everything slows down. The keys glint in the sunlight as they trace their gentle arc through the air. Cue the music.

I’m not sure who was more surprised: me or my mom. I found out afterward that my dad hadn’t consulted her on this sudden change of plans, and she was not at all pleased. I say I found out afterward, of course, because I was out the door before the keys had finished jingling in my hand. I wasn’t about to give anyone a chance to change their mind. I’m not even sure I knew where I was going. But that hardly mattered. I had the keys!

Racing to the car, I unlocked the door, flung it open, and jumped into the driver’s seat. It’s like I was afraid that it wouldn’t be real until I was in the car by myself…with the keys.

Then, with a contented sigh, I closed the door and placed the keys carefully in my pocket. “Isn’t this great?” I thought, “I’m finally in the car!” Reaching over I fiddled with the little black knobs on the radio. I found out that if I turned them all the way to the left, they made a little clicking sound. That was fun. Then I discovered the vanity mirror. It had its own light. Cool. But the best was the button with the red triangle. When I pushed it, these little green arrows on the dashboard started blinking. I liked that. I even said “Vrooom, vroom,” a few times and turned the steering wheel back and forth. All in all, it was a good evening.

Of course that’s not what I did. I was a teenager with a driver’s license, a car, and car keys! What good would it do to sit in the driveway with the keys in my pocket? I wanted to drive the car—roll down the windows, turn up the radio, enjoy my newfound freedom. But, to do that, I needed to use the keys. The keys make the whole thing work. You can’t leave them in your pocket.

So, I had the keys in the ignition almost before my butt hit the seat. And I was gone. Off on my first teenage driving adventure. I barely managed not to peel out in my parent’s driveway, wisely thinking that this might hinder future driving opportunities.

Unfortunately, many of us see the Gospel more like a ticket than a key. Both are good for getting into things. But beyond that, the resemblance ends. Once you’re in, you don’t need the ticket anymore. But the key to a car, that’s what makes everything work.

The Gospel is a key. It’s not simply what we believe to get into the Christian life; it’s what makes the Christian life work. As I hope you will see by the time you’ve reached the end of this book, the Gospel shapes every aspect of the Christian life—worship, ministry, work, family, theology, and more.

Why do you need to read a book about the Gospel? If you’re like me, it’s because we often think that the Gospel is only for the beginning. But, without the Gospel, all we’re left with are the knobs and buttons on the dashboard that my daughters like to twist and turn when I’m not looking. If you really want to roll down the windows, turn up the radio, and drive the car, you need to take the key out of your pocket and use it.

[This is the third part of a short series I’m doing on different ways I could begin my Gospel book. The first two were “I Don’t Want to Be a Dirty Klingon” and “A Place of Mystery, Magic, and Dirty Kleenex.” (Apparently I’ve had dirt on the brain.) This one takes things in still a different direction. Let me know if you have any thoughts/feedback.] 

A Place of Mystery, Magic, and Dirty Kleenex

A place of mystery, a dark region of unexplored secrets, a fairy realm of magical enchantment, only the bravest dare delve its depths, and only the most foolish do so without some sense of trepidation and awe. Slowly I reach out, hands trembling slightly. What lies within? What treasures might I find? What dangers?

Gently prying the sides apart, I peer into the gloom, wondering what I will find this time.

My wife’s purse is an amazing place.

You doubt? She’s a mother, public school teacher, and children’s ministry volunteer. Spend that much time around small children and I’m sure your purse would be a pretty interesting place as well. She has to be prepared for every occasion, and she picks up all kinds of odds and ends along the way. Magicians have their bottomless hats; my wife has her purse. She wins.

I love watching her try to find stuff in there. After a little rummaging, she can usually locate the important things fairly quickly: wallet, cell phone, keys, lipstick. I don’t know how she does it. If she asks me to get her keys, I usually just bring the whole purse. Otherwise, I’d be gone all afternoon. But my wife can track them down in an instant.

When she has to find something she hasn’t seen or used in a while, however, that’s when the real treasures come out: toys, candy, pens, mysterious “presents” from her kids, food, and small herbivores. Okay, maybe not the last. But you get the point. Beneath the dirty Kleenex and nail files, down in the wrinkled corners far from the light of day, that’s where the fun stuff hides.

I like to think of my wife’s purse as a magic bag filled with amazing treasures. On any given day, she’ll probably pull out just a few of those. Others may get used on a weekly or monthly basis. And, some particularly rare treasures almost never breathe fresh air.

And, for many of us, the Gospel is just like this, a bag full of treasures, some so tarnished from daily use that we’ve forgotten how amazing they truly are, others pushed so far down that we have forgotten all about them, if we even knew they were there in the first place.

Ordinary Treasures

Some treasures are relatively ordinary. Now, at first glance, the concept of an “ordinary treasure” seems like a contradiction. How could a “treasure” ever be “ordinary”? Yet, it happens all the time.

Have you ever looked closely at a blade of grass? At first glance, it’s nothing special. Just a flat and fairly straight piece of vegetation. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see the veins running up the blade, the frayed edges at the top from the last time you mowed the lawn, the delicate way it bends slightly to one side. Place that same piece of grass under a microscope and you’ll see even more: an entire grass universe will open up before you—cells, chloroplasts, molecules, atoms, neutrons, electrons, and so on. Each level giving way to another. Press deeply enough and you’ll arrive at levels of reality only dimly understood by our most brilliant scientists—quarks, antiquarks, leptons, strings. Can you get much more ordinary than a blade of grass? Yet, when we stop to take a close look, we begin to realize that what seemed so normal and non-mysterious a moment ago actually contains limitless mystery, wonder, and awe. But, how often do we do that? Grass is “normal”, and normal things are not mysterious; normal things are not treasures; normal things are, well, normal.


Some Gospel treasures are like a blade of grass. We see them so regularly that they’ve become ordinary, almost boring.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

One one level, . Jesus does love us. He loves us very much. Press a little harder, though, and you begin to see the wonder, mystery, and awe lying just beneath the surface.

Who is Jesus? That question alone could take us an entire book to answer. Messiah. Savior. God. Man. Son of God. Servant.

Who are we? Creatures. Beings made in the image of God (more on this later). Sinners. Saints. Persons. Men. Women.

And, what is love—not just the broken, human love that I’m familiar with—but real love? What does it mean to say that God himself loves? And, what does it mean to say that the almighty, holy God of the universe loves tiny, broken, rebellious creatures like us? Talk about a mystery.

“Jesus loves me.” A childlike statement of simple faith? A profound declaration of mysterious wonder? Both. Viewed under the microscope, a whole universe unfolds before us. A universe that we have just begun to explore.

If parts of the Gospel have become “normal” for you, then I encourage you to take some time to see the mystery again.

Even the ordinary can be a treasure.

A Forgotten Treasure

When I was a kid, “cleaning” my room involved cramming as much stuff as possible into my closet and praying that my dad wouldn’t notice when he came to inspect. Sometimes that even worked. Usually it didn’t. That means I often had to spend an afternoon pulling everything out of my closet and putting stuff where it belonged.

I remember one afternoon in particular. Toward the back of the closet, I found an old lunchbox. Thoughts of rotten PB&J sandwiches and prepubescent flies swarmed through my head, until I opened it. Nestled inside like a pirate’s lost treasure, I found twenty dollars I had hidden several months before, a considerable sum for a small child. This was my secret stash. (I’m not entirely clear on why all kids need to have a secret stash. But, it seems pretty universal.) And, I had forgotten all about it.

That was an exciting afternoon. I didn’t have anything in particular that I wanted to do with the money. But, that was beside the point. I had rediscovered my secret stash! Indeed, finding a forgotten treasure was so exciting that I spent the next several months trying to recreate the experience. I tried hiding that lunch box back in the closet, under my bed, in another room, and even on the ledge just outside my window. Nothing worked. Try as I might, I kept remembering where I’d stashed it this time. It’s hard to forget a treasure on purpose.

It’s easy to do on accident.

I can’t remember when I first heard the Gospel. Growing up in a Christian home, I’m sure I first it before I could even understand what I was hearing. But, I have an amazing capacity for forgetting things. So, even if we assume that my Sunday school teachers those many years ago did a great job explaining the Gospel to me, how much do you think I could forget over the course of several decades? Or even just a few years? I’ve always been able to recall those “ordinary” truths we discussed above. But, what if there’s more? What if there are treasures in the Gospel that I’ve simply forgotten about?

I bet if I dug into the Gospel a bit more, I’d find a secret stash of Gospel truths nestled inside an old lunchbox just waiting for me to rediscover them.

What about you?

An Unknown Treasure

The really great thing about my wife’s purse, though, are the things even she doesn’t know about. I still haven’t quite figured out how that happens. But then, I don’t spend most of my day surrounded by small children. So, she occasionally finds things in her purse that she knows nothing about.

I tested this the other day. With her permission, I dug down into the nether regions of my wife’s purse. Along with the ordinary items, I found a single mitten (even though it was almost summer), several plastic doodads of unknown origin and function, a small stuffed elephant, candy that I think was from several Halloweens back, and a love note that one of our daughters had slipped in there months before. She had no idea how any of it had gotten there.

What if the Gospel contains treasures we don’t even know about yet?

Just look at what Peter says when he preaches to a large crowd on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36).  He’s just explaining the Gospel, so you’d think it would be pretty straightforward. Yet, he includes all kinds of odd things that most people don’t even consider when they’re talking about the Gospel. He begins by emphasizing that Jesus’ death was done according to the “plan” of God. What plan is this? What was God trying to accomplish and how did Jesus fit into this? Then, Peter spends more than half of his time talking about the resurrection. Really? What does the resurrection have to do with the Gospel? When I explain the Gospel, I usually focus on Jesus’ death. But, Peter only devotes one verse to Jesus’ death, spending nine verses on his resurrection. Why is that so important? And, we Peter spends a lot of time talking about God’s promises from the Old Testament. It’s good to know that God keeps his promises, but is this really a part of the Gospel? And, why does Peter include the fact that Jesus was raised to the right hand of the Father and that he has poured out the Spirit on his people? How do these truths relate to the Gospel?

I’ve heard a lot of Gospel presentations over the years, and I don’t think any of them included most of the ideas that Peter thought were so important. What have I been missing? What might we all be missing?

The Gospel has treasures many of us know nothing about. They sit in the wrinkled corners, waiting for us to come looking.

UNPACK YOUR BAG

With a purse like my wife’s there’s only one reliable method for discovering everything that lies within: tip it over and see what comes out. Every now and then, you have to empty your bag in the table, giving it several good shakes to make sure that each wrinkled corner surrenders its precious cargo. Then you can pour yourself a cup of coffee, sit back, and take a close look at what you’ve discovered.

That’s what this book is for. Like my wife’s purse, we need to dump the Gospel on the table and (re)discover its amazing contents. Some things will be ordinary treasures that we know well and use regularly, but whose true depth and mystery we need to see again. Other things we’ve heard about, but have since forgotten. And, there may even be some things that we never knew about in the first place. Regardless, this book offers you a chance to pour yourself a cup of coffee (latte, tea, hot chocolate…whatever), sit back, and experience again the amazing glory of God’s good news.

Let’s unpack the Gospel together. You may be surprised by what you find.

[This is part of a short series I’m doing on different ways I could begin my Gospel book. I started yesterday with “I Don’t Want to Be a Dirty Klingon.” This one is obviously a bit longer, and goes in a very different direction. Let me know if you have any thoughts/feedback.] 

I don’t want to be a dirty Klingon

[I need to find a good way of beginning my Gospel book, which, by the way, still needs a real title. I’ve written several different pieces that could work well as a beginning, and I’d like to know what you think. It needs to set the rather quirky tone I’m going for in the book and quickly generate interest in where the book is going. And, please feel free to criticize. I have thick skin. If you’re not familiar with the book, check out the Gospel book page. Here’s one possibility.]

I’m trying to decide if I should tell you what this book is about. Everyone says that’s what you’re supposed to do in an introduction. After all, if I don’t tell you what the book is about, how will you know if you should keep reading? But, here’s the problem. If I tell you what the book is about, I’m afraid that you’ll think it’s really about something else. After a few chapters, you’ll realize what’s going on and get frustrated with me for tricking you into reading my book. Even though we’ve never met, you’ll think I’m a jerk, and tell people bad things about me. Word will spread and soon people everywhere will hate me. Devastated, I’ll retreat into an imaginary world, refusing to speak in any language other than Klingon, and bathing only during full moons.

So, as you can see, the stakes are pretty high. If I don’t tell you what the book is about, you won’t want to read it. Then I’ll get depressed because no one is reading my book, and I’ll spiral down into my own private pit of despair. But if I tell you what the book is about, you might misunderstand. Then you’ll hate me, and I’ll end up as a dirty Klingon.

Since I’d rather avoid both outcomes, let’s see if we can find a third option. I’ll tell you what the book is about. But you have to promise to believe me. You’re not allowed to think that I’m really talking about something else. I’m not. This is a pretty simple book. It only has one topic and one purpose. So, if you’d rather read a book about something else, please do. You’ll enjoy it more, and you won’t hate me as much.

This is a book about the Gospel.

There, that wasn’t so hard.

But, now that I’ve said that, let me explain what I was so concerned about. First, even though I just told you that this book is about the gospel, I’m afraid you’ll think that it’s really a book about evangelism. Flipping through the pages looking for tips and techniques on how to share the Gospel with your friends and neighbors, you’ll be quite disappointed. Evangelism is an important topic. But, this book is not about that. Instead, we’re just going to focus on understanding the Gospel itself better. That should prepare and motivate you to tell others about the Gospel, but that’s a subject for a different book.

Second, by telling you that this is a book about the Gospel, I’m also afraid you’ll think that this is a book primarily for non-believers or new Christians. I can understand why you’d think that. We want people like that to hear and understand the Gospel. The word “gospel” simply means “good news,” the good news that God wants the world to hear. And, if God has good news for the world, everyone should get to hear it. So, if you’re a non-believer or a new Christian, please feel free to continue reading. You’ll hear some pretty amazing things about God and his good news.

But, if you’ve been a Christian for a while and have heard the Gospel more times than you can count, I want you to know that this book is really for you. Once you’ve been a Christian for a while, you start to think that you’ve got that whole “gospel” thing down pretty well. You’re ready to move on to the more challenging truths of the Christian life. Indeed, if you’re like me, you even start to tune the pastor out when he gets to the gospel part of the sermon. It’s not that you don’t think preaching the Gospel is important; you’ve just heard it so many times you don’t think you have anything left to learn.

If that’s you, please keep reading.

There’s always something new.


Origen, Barth, and Bell: Theological Perspectives on Hell and Universalism

Let me begin by making two statements: 1. I have read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.  2. I am not interested in giving a long critique of the book.  Several people have already written good ones, and another review from my perspective would add nothing to the conversation.  What I want to do here is attempt to answer the question, “Is Rob Bell saying anything different than what Origen and Karl Barth claimed?”  In the last month I have heard Bell’s view of hell likened to both of these men as well as C.S. Lewis.  (I cannot, however, speak to Lewis’ view b/c – to my shame – I have only read the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity).  Ironically, if you Google image “Universalism” both Origen and Bell’s pictures show up.  Origen was excommunicated for some of his teaching, being accused of saying that even the devil might have a shot at redemption.  At the end of Barth’s life he often had to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Universalist.  Is there any correlation between these men?

Origen

The notion that Origen taught that all people would be saved, including the possibility of Satan, has been around for some time.  The reality is that Origen was much more “orthodox” than what he is given credit for.  According to the historian, Justo Gonzales, Origen proposed many doctrines, not necessarily as truths to be generally accepted, nor as things that would supersede the clear doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculation, which was not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church.  He was in line with what was considered orthodox for his day.  It is unfair to take later matters settled by the church (some several hundred years later), and then look back on his teachings and scold him for wrestling with them.  However, the question is whether or not Origen taught that all men would eventually be saved, even Satan.  The answer is that he postulated some type of universal reconciliation because of his view of free will, but never affirmed it as orthodox or in line with Scripture. In his book, First Principles (1.8.4), he says, “So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil.”  Once in hell, the choice to choose otherwise will never be exercised because the will of man will not choose otherwise.  Concerning the possible salvation of Satan, Origen did not teach the possibility that he would be saved.  In a debate with a man named Candidus, Origen was defending his notion of free will, and said that Satan could be saved if he wanted, but that he would not be saved because of his choice to live in rebellion. Origen’s point was that Satan did not want salvation because his free will choice.  He writes in a letter defending himself against the above accusation, that anyone who would claim that Satan would be saved was a “madman.”  Although he was labeled a heretic in 399 by a council in Alexandria, and then excommunicated as heretic by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, Henri Crouzel says this was more from the musings of Origen’s followers than Origen himself.  Origen postulated a reconciliation of all things, but did not affirm it as orthodox.  He also did not teach any type of post-mortem changing of the heart.  Although he wanted to defend the notion of free will, he affirmed that the reprobate’s will was fixed in sin and rebellion.

Barth

When it comes to nailing down Karl Barth on the issue…good luck!  According to Oliver Crisp and Geoffrey Bromiley (translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English) his theology cannot escape the accusation.  Karl Barth taught that Jesus Christ was both the subject and object of election.  As the subject he is the electing God.  As the object he is the elect man.  Simply, Barth sees Jesus as the representative of all men, not only some of them.  (He had a major beef with Calvinism!)  If Jesus represented all men, took the condemnation that was to fall on all men, then the logical conclusion of Barth’s theology would be that all men would be saved.  This is what Barth hoped for.  The problem is that he wasn’t sure it would happen.  When asked if he was a Universalist, he denied the label.  Furthermore, he taught that although all men were elected in Christ, their election still had to be actualized through the exercise of faith, and that the gospel had to be preached if there was any hope for man.  Thus, in the end you can take one of two approaches with Barth.  You can side with Oliver Crisp, who says that Barth was either a Universalist or incoherent in his doctrine.  Or, you can opt for George Hunsinger’s view that Barth was not a Universalist but an agnostic.  He simply left the question open ended with a strong tilt towards universal hope.

Bell

So where is Bell?  Again, good luck.  I think he wants to keep the free will of Origen, and the hope of universal reconciliation like Barth.  Unlike both of these men, however, he seems to go further and claim a definitive reconciliation of all people, including post-mortem redemption.  If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book.  He redefines the term aion to refer to an “intense experience,” not a period of time with beginning and end (by the way, it’s never good to get one definition of a word and apply it to all uses of that word) (57).  Going so far as to say that, “forever is not really a category biblical writers use” (92) Thus, hell is not forever in the sense of time.  It’s just a “period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction” (91).  Hell can be now, on earth, as we reject God’s way and God’s story of love.  Hell can be a place we go to after death.  The picture John gives us in Revelation, however, is of a city with open gates in which people can “come and go.”  Bell suggests that if someone dies and goes to hell and is finally overcome by the goodness of God in Christ and repents, it is possible that God will let them into heaven whose gates are always open.  (I wonder if that also means those in heaven can leave?)  Hell, even one of their own making, has finally pruned their resistance.  He says that Christians should long for this (111) and admit that these questions “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”(115).  If he is genuine in this statement, he affirms that he’s not sure if there is a universal reconciliation.  (If he’s wrong, though, doesn’t it end really badly for people?!)  Furthermore, Bell is not a traditional Universalist (i.e. everyone gets in regardless of what they want).  However, he seems to be advocating a type of Christian Universalism.  Jesus is necessary.  Everyone gets in, but everyone gets in only because of the sacrifice of Jesus.  In this sense Bell is exclusive.  Also, the sacrifice of Jesus was inclusive of all.  Bell says that “Jesus does declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155).   He also says that people just might not be aware that it is Jesus doing this for them (155).  Buddhist will use a different name.  Muslim’s will say Allah.  In this case, the gospel in the Bible is not the only way to heaven (i.e. Believe this or you don’t get in).  Jesus is the only way, and the Christian church (especially those that mix the warning of eternal conscious judgment in hell with grace) doesn’t get to lay claim on the only exclusive message.  The message is really love.  So although Bell is not a traditional Universalist, he does appear to be advocating a view of Universalism (i.e. an Exclusive (Jesus alone) Inclusivist (Everybody) Pluralist (Many Ways to Understand) Universalism) that puts the love of God and the cross of Christ squarely in the middle of every persons salvation.  This allows him to have some vague tie to evangelical Christianity, even though his definitions behind the terms create something new.

If I’m reading Bell correctly, there is indeed a piece of continuity between his view and those of Origen and Barth.  There is the hope of universal reconciliation.  I think that all Christians would hope for what these men hoped for, the salvation of all men.  At that point our desires would be in line with God’s.  However, in the end Bell is very different from Barth and Origen.  Bells view is different from Origen b/c he postulates, not a fixed will of rebellion in hell, but the possibility that the will may always change, even post-mortem.  Origen may have questioned, but never considered it an “orthodox view” as Bell does.  Origen also never separated salvation from the Christian gospel or thought that the beliefs of Roman pagan religions were somehow coterminous with the gospel of Jesus.  Bell is different from Barth in that Barth never separates salvation from a choice that is made in the here and now.  Barth never spoke of a hell as a time of “pruning.”  More pointedly Barth never called for a softening of the biblical text or a “better story” that excluded judgment or widened itself to encompass other religions (Neither did Paul in Acts 17).  If anything Barth called for more proclamation and the indiscriminate preaching of the unique Christian gospel (not a widening of it) along with a warning for those who rejected it.  They hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it.  In the end, neither Origen nor Barth, say what Bell is now saying.

Please Don’t Look under the Bed!

I didn’t get along with the housekeeper very well.

You’d think having a housekeeper would be great. Floors vacuumed, bathrooms cleaned, and bookshelves dusted, all while you’re out having fun. You come home, and everything’s done. Does it get any better than that? But my parents had a housekeeper for a while when I was in high school. And, it didn’t take me long to realize that it’s not quite what you’d expect.

To begin, I never could understand why it was necessary to clean the house before the housekeeper arrived. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having a housekeeper? But every time, my mom would rush around telling everyone, “The housekeeper will be here any minute. Hurry up and clean the house.” Is there anything about those two sentences that makes sense?

And that wasn’t the worst of it. The real problem arose because the housekeeper actually cleaned…everywhere. Even the nooks and crannies. You know, those dark corners of your room with the layers of dust and debris that accumulate after weeks (years) of neglect. Most people have enough common sense and decency not to notice that these corners even exist. Or, if they notice, they know better than to say anything. But not the housekeeper. The housekeeper can’t help but see the dark corners. That’s what they do. They’re supposed to peer into the dark corners, spraying, wiping, and scrubbing until all the nooks and crannies are finally clean, probably for the first time.

The housekeeper sees everything.

Tip generously.

My problem was my bed. Or, more accurately, under my bed. As far as I’m concerned, the space under your bed is good for one thing and one thing only: cleaning your room. As long as your room has no visible junk, it’s clean. So, the fastest way to clean your room is to hide the junk. Under the bed. Technically you could also use your closet, but the bed usually works better because it’s more centrally located and you can push stuff under it from multiple directions. So, when mom would sound the air raid siren announcing the imminent arrival of the housekeeper, I’d head to my room and promptly stuff everything under my bed. That was my dark corner.

Everything was fine as long as she didn’t look under the bed.

She always did. Housekeepers are nosy.

We didn’t get along.

I have the same problem with God. For some reason, no matter how many times I hear the Gospel, I still don’t get it. Not all the way. There’s a part of me that still thinks it’s just too good to be true. God can’t possibly love me. Look at all this crap under my bed! And, as I lay curled up in the dark corner of my own shame, I begin to think that this is normal. This is the way it’s going to be. Sure, God may have great plans to transform me in the future, after I die. But for now, this is it. Everyone knows that real transformation is a myth.

The saddest part is that I know none of this is true. I have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), raised with him to a new life freed from my slavery to sin (Rom. 6:1-11), indwelt by the Spirit of God to be renewed and recreated in his image (2 Cor. 3:18), forgiven, loved, redeemed. That is the truth. I know it. But at times I struggle to feel it.

It’s like I have a phantom limb. That’s what they call it when a person who has lost an arm or a leg insists that they can still feel it. Although the limb is no longer there, the feeling of the limb is so real that they’ll even complain about it itching or hurting. It’s a mirage, but a powerful one. For the Christian, shame operates the same way. In reality, there is no shame. Jesus took our guilt and shame on himself and nailed it to the cross. Before God, we are naked. The shame is gone. But it doesn’t feel like it. We’ve worn our coats of shame for so long, that we can still feel its abrasive rub on our skin and smell the musty odor of long-kept secrets wafting from its pockets. We know it’s not really there. But, it’s hard to hear the quiet whisper of our heads over the terrified screaming of our hearts.

So, convinced deep down that there’s a part of me even God can’t love and won’t transform, not in this life, I hide. Stuffing my dirty laundry under my bed, quietly guarding my dark corners. And, in the process, I deny the Spirit’s power, God’s love, and Jesus’s death on the cross. I don’t mean to; but I do it anyway.

Instead, I need to keep living into the truth, daily throwing myself into this grand story that we’re telling, consciously denying the seductive allure of the darkness, intentionally gathering around myself faithful people who help me see the truth of Gospel instead of the phantom limb of shame. No easy solutions here. Only a lifetime of transformation.

The housekeeper is here. Don’t hide the laundry.

(You can read the read of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.)

I didn’t get along with the housekeeper very well.

You’d think having a housekeeper would be great. Floors vacuumed, bathrooms cleaned, and bookshelves dusted, all while you’re out having fun. You come home, and it’s all done. Does it get any better than that? But my parents had a housekeeper for a while when I was in high school. And, it didn’t take me long to realize that it’s not quite what you’d expect.

To begin, I never could understand why it was necessary to clean the house before the housekeeper arrived. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having a housekeeper? But every time, my mom would rush around telling everyone, “The housekeeper will be here any minute. Hurry up and clean the house.” Is there anything about those two sentences that makes sense?

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The real problem arose because the housekeeper actually cleaned…everywhere. Even the nooks and crannies. You know, those dark corners of your room with the layers of dust and debris that accumulate after weeks (years) of neglect. Most people have enough common sense and decency not to notice that these corners even exist. Or, if they notice, they know better than to say anything. But not the housekeeper. The housekeeper can’t help but see the dark corners. That’s what they do. They’re supposed to peer into the dark corners, spraying, wiping, and scrubbing until all the nooks and crannies are finally clean, probably for the first time.

The housekeeper sees everything.

Tip generously.

My problem was my bed. Or, more accurately, under my bed. As far as I’m concerned, the space under your bed is good for one thing and one thing only: cleaning your room. As long as your room has no visible junk, it’s clean. So, the fastest way to clean your room is to hide the junk. Under the bed. Technically you could also use your closet, but the bed usually works better because it’s more centrally located and you can push stuff under it from multiple directions. So, when mom would sound the air raid siren announcing the imminent arrival of the housekeeper, I’d head to my room and promptly stuff everything under my bed. That was my dark corner.

Everything was fine as long as she didn’t look under the bed.

She always did. Housekeepers are nosy.

We didn’t get along.

I have the same problem with God. For some reason, no matter how many times I hear the Gospel, I still don’t get it. Not all the way. There’s a part of me that still thinks it’s just too good to be true. God can’t possibly love me. Look at all this crap under my bed! And, as I lay curled up in the dark corner of my own shame, I begin to think that this is normal. This is the way it’s going to be. Sure, God may have great plans to transform me in the future, after I die. But for now, this is it. Everyone knows that real transformation is a myth.

The saddest part is that I know none of this is true. I have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), raised with him to a new life freed from my slavery to sin (Rom. 6:1-11), indwelt by the Spirit of God to be renewed and recreated in his image (2 Cor. 3:18), forgiven, loved, redeemed. That is the truth. I know it. But at times I struggle to feel it.

It’s like I have a phantom limb. That’s what they call it when a person who has lost an arm or a leg insists that they can still feel it. Although the limb is no longer there, the feeling of the limb is so real that they’ll even complain about it itching or hurting. It’s a mirage, but a powerful one. For the Christian, shame operates the same way. In reality, there is no shame. Jesus took our guilt and shame on himself and nailed it to the cross. Before God, we are naked. The shame is gone. But it doesn’t feel like it. We’ve worn our coats of shame for so long, that we can still feel its abrasive rub on our skin and smell the musty odor of long-kept secrets wafting from its pockets. We know it’s not really there. But, it’s hard to hear the quiet whisper of our heads over the terrified screaming of our hearts.

So, convinced deep down that there’s a part of me even God can’t love and won’t transform, not in this life, I hide. Stuffing my dirty laundry under my bed, quietly guarding my dark corners. And, in the process, I deny the Spirit’s power, God’s love, and Jesus’s death on the cross. I don’t mean to; but I do it anyway.

Instead, I need to keep living into the truth, daily throwing myself into this grand story that we’re telling, consciously denying the seductive allure of the darkness, intentionally gathering around myself faithful people who help me see the truth of Gospel instead of the phantom limb of shame. No easy solutions here. Only a lifetime of transformation.

Don’t pedal harder. Enjoy the ride.

One sunny Sunday afternoon, Leah and I stand on the sidewalk in front of our house. Gripped in my left hand rests a well-worn wrench. In my right, a pair of bolts, some washers, and a couple of nuts. At my feet like a pair of exhausted watchdogs, my daughter’s training wheels.

The time has come.

Well, the truth is that it’s been time for a while. Leah’s had her training wheels on for too long. But, you know how things go. She was comfortable with them, and I always had other things to do. So, we just never quite got around to it. But now, she’s getting a little self-conscious. None of her friends use training wheels. And she’s tired of being the only one who can’t ride on her own. The next phase of childhood has arrived.

So here we are. Training wheels off, helmet on, heart pounding with both excitement and fear.

She’s ready. She just needs a little push.

So, with my hand on her back and my heart in my throat, I help her get started. And that’s all it took. She was so ready, one little push was all she needed to be off and going, riding down the street, wind rushing through her hair, smile stretched across her face. I ran alongside for a bit to catch her in case she fell. But she didn’t need me. She was doing fine.

She just needed a little push.

As a parent, that was a great moment.

As a Christian, that story represents one of my most fatal flaws.

I understand perfectly well that I could never have begun Christian journey by myself. Like everyone else, I was dead in my sin, separated from God. And, dead is dead. Dead people can’t make themselves alive again. That’s just not how it works. So it was only because of God’s grace and mercy that I am able to live again, resurrected and forgiven through the power of the cross. I knew that I was stuck and I praise God for giving me a huge push so that I could ride freely into his kingdom.

I get that part. My problem is with what comes next.

After I gave her a push, Leah knew that the rest was up to her. For this to work, she needed to pedal. Otherwise, she’d just fall down. She knew, of course, that I’d be there to pick her up if she fell, with kisses, hugs, encouragement, and a little help to get going again. But, the real work was up to her. She had to keep pedaling.

That’s how I often see the Christian life. God gave me that big push I needed to get started, but after that it’s pretty much up to me. I know he’s nearby to help if I fall. But, if I’m going to get anywhere on this bike, it will be because I kept pedaling.

Thanks for the push, God. I’ll take it from here.

So, I start pedaling as hard as I can. Read my Bible, pray, go to church, tithe, volunteer, whatever. That’s how it works. That’s how you make “progress” as a Christian. Just keep pedaling.

I’m a fool.

That’s how Paul describes people who think like this (Gal. 3:1-6). It doesn’t make any sense! This has been a story about grace from the very beginning, from Genesis to Revelation, from the creation of time on into the endless spiral of eternity—God’s unfathomably amazing grace. So, what would make us think that the story somehow changes after we respond to the Gospel and enter the kingdom? Do we think that we’re going to find less grace the closer we get to God? Do we imagine that he would draw us near and then leave us on our own? That’s foolish. It’s like I’m someone who had been a zombie until I was miraculously cured and restored to true human life. But, instead of living like a human, I continue to stumble around at night with my arms stretched out before me, groaning loudly and slobbering on myself at every turn. Why would I do that? It doesn’t make any sense.

But we do it all the time.

We’re fools.

We constantly want to change the story, turning from God and his grace so that we can again trust in ourselves and our own works.

The truth is that we enter the kingdom by grace through faith, and we live in the kingdom by grace through faith. I don’t make myself more like God through hard work and self-discipline. God makes me more like him through the power of the Spirit, transforming me, and re-creating me in the image of his Son, so that I can again be his image bearer in creation as he manifests his glory through me.

None of this means, that any of the things that I mentioned above (Bible reading, prayer, church, etc.) are bad things. Each of them is a gift from God for his people, things to be cherished and enjoyed. And, as such, we should pursue them diligently and faithfully, just like we would any gift that a loved one has generously offered us. But, they are gifts to be received and enjoyed, not things that we should grasp greedily for ourselves, seeking to walk on our own, earning our way toward Christian maturity.

Don’t pedal harder. Enjoy the ride.

(You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.)

Do you trust me?

Some words are inherently frightening. Among the more obvious ones, I’d include words like death, failure, torture, and jalapeño ice cream. Surely anyone who hears words like these immediately feels a small sliver of fear sliding its way mercilessly through their chest. And, only the bravest could possibly maintain their composure in the face of such terrifying terms as trapped, disease, helplessness, despair, and reality television show.

But, is there anything more frightening than hearing someone ask, “Do you trust me?”

I don’t know about you, but when I hear a question like that, my fight-or-flight instinct immediately kicks into overdrive. On the fight side of the equation, I start thinking, “What do you want? Surely you want something or you wouldn’t be asking. Well, you’re not going to get it that easily. You’ll have vanquish me and pry whatever it is from my cold dead fingers.” Okay, that may have been a bit strong. But, I like to use the word vanquish whenever I get the chance. And, you get the point. If someone asks about trust, I start to wonder what they’re after and what I’m going to have to do to protect it.

And then there’s the flight response. Ask, “Do you trust me?” and I’m looking for the nearest exit. “You’re not going to trap me so quickly. I have superpowers that enable me to slip through the smallest cracks. Trust you? Sure I trust you. Look! A squirrel!” And I’m gone.

There’s just something scary about being asked to trust someone.

I remember trying to teach the game “trust fall” to my daughter Leah. It’s a simple game. All she has to do is stand in front of me, with her back turned and her arms stretched out to each side. Then, without looking or moving her feet, she needs to fall backward, trusting that I’ll catch her before she hits the ground.

It sounds simple. But Leah actually found it quite difficult. She’d stand there for the longest time, trying to build up the courage to start the fall. And then, just as she was almost at the point where I’d reach out and catch her, she’d get scared and take a step back.

It was rather frustrating. Each time I would reaffirm that I was going to catch her and that I’d never let her hit the ground. Then I’d ask if she believed me. And, of course, she always said that she did, that she knew I’d never let her fall. And, every time she caught herself before she reached my arms.

She believed, but she didn’t yet trust.

We’ve already seen that the faith that saves must be a faith in something. But, biblical faith involves even more than that. Simply believing the truth about God and his amazing story will not lead to salvation. Satan and his demons believe these truths about God. But, it won’t do them anything good. Why not? Because they don’t really have faith. Knowledge and faith are not the same thing.

Do you trust me? As scary as that question might be, it lies at the heart of faith. Having true faith means answering that question with a sometimes confident, though often hesitant, “Yes.” An eyes-closed, arms-outstretched, knees-quaking, yes.

Do you trust me?

That’s the question faith asks. As you’ve worked your way through this story, you’ve heard a lot about God. You’ve read about his grace and his glory, his constant faithfulness, and the amazing promises that he’s made. And, you’ve read about how he sent Jesus to fulfill those promises and lead his people into his Kingdom. So, you now have quite a bit of knowledge about God.

But, do you trust him? Do you believe that he really has your best interests in mind? Are you sure that he will live up to his promises? Do you think that you can place your life in his hands and know that he will take care of you? Are you ready to stretch your arms wide, close your eyes and fall back—placing yourself in his hands, ceding control over your life and well-being, trusting that he will catch you before you hit the ground? That’s faith.

It’s not easy. It’s actually quite scary. But that’s what faith is.

Do you trust me?

(You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.)