Elvis & John

I am four years past due. When Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell first burst on the scene in 2005 I was preoccupied with other things. Since then I’ve heard passing statements of the book, either of praise or disappointment. However, in preparation for a summer series on pop culture I read it in anticipation that it would have some relevance concerning some of the more recent developments within the ranks of American Christianity.

My summary of the book in a single word is “WOW!” I’m not sure that I have ever read a work that is such an extreme combination of polarizing ideas propagated by one person. From one sentence to the next you don’t know what you are going to get. Some of Rob’s statements are absolutely right, but just as much as one statement is right the next swings entirely in the other direction and is full of error. Now for those in the blogosphere who think I have a responsibility to first try to email Rob with these issues before blogging about them, to you I say “garbage.” The guy wrote a book with the intentions of publication. During the writing and editing process he had multiple people and opportunities to review and revise. As a reader, you – as well as I – have a responsibility to critically read what we are presented. This is a fact Rob acknowledges himself in his book. Now, if I had taken a private letter and made it public that is a different matter, but please do not confuse public fare as a private dispute.

My intention never was to blog on Velvet Elvis and if it weren’t for chapter six, entitled “Movement Six: New” I would have succeeded. Velvet Elvis does have its strengths. As noted before, some of the things Rob writes are absolutely correct. Chapter five is a good chapter and it is worth reading as it edifies. Rob’s vulnerable critique of the church and tradition is poignant – and is useful in it causes us to pause. We always need to be evaluating the motivations that drive us in whatever it is we are doing as God’s people. Without works like Velvet Elvis we (Christians) would be the lazy, apathetic, dumb people we are so often presented to be. So thanks needs to be given to Rob for forcing us to be honest and diligent in our own thinking, study, and ministry as we continue this leg of our journey. Rob’s writing style is terse and poetic. This is in large part the book’s strength and weakness. I can’t help but think that if he wasn’t trying to be witty and “relevant” than there wouldn’t be the confusion, ambiguity and misrepresentation of God’s Word that occurs at times in the book. The need to be relevant saturates the book.

This of course leads me to my biggest concern in the book in chapter six. It is worth touching on because it dances dangerously on the edge of two errors. The first is universalism – and I don’t think Rob is preaching universalism, but how someone won’t get to universalism based on his statement is remarkable. Secondly, and I think this the more likely result, is that Rob gives a back-door endorsement to works-related salvation. The New Perspective of Paul is a theological viewpoint gaining in popularity that accomplishes the same thing. Much of what Rob writes in chapter six matches the empathy endorsed by proponents of The New Perspective. If all people are forgiven, both in Heaven and Hell, then what separates them? Rob’s answer: “Jesus measures their eternal standings in terms of not what they said or believed but how they lived, specifically in regard to the hell around them.”[1] Simply – it’s not based on belief but on works. Maybe Rob means something other than he wrote, after all it is terse – and with some of the other areas he gets right – I wouldn’t be surprised. But I can’t address what I hoped he meant; I can only address what he wrote. My hope is that he means something other than what is implied in his writings. Please note before we get into it that I’ve read the whole book and no where does he write something that counters what I would contend is the obvious reading of the text. What has me in a tizzy?

Rob writes:

“Heaven is full of forgiven people.

Hell is full of forgiven people.

Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.”[2]

The issue that Rob is raising here is the issue of Atonement. “What did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish?” It is as simple – and complicated as that. If your answer is that Jesus died for every human in the same way then your definition of atonement is very different than those who believe that Christ only died for those who actually believe. Rob’s statement would suggest that he falls in the first group – I fall in the second. I will attempt to give some reasons why I think his statement is dangerous and a couple of implications to it.

First, Jesus did die for all humans in some way. Without Jesus’ atoning work every second of every day for every person is an atrocity to the nostrils of God. Romans 3:25 points to this aspect when Paul writes that Christ Jesus “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” God’s justice needs to be satisfied even in the midst of his patience. This is why we are told in 1 Timothy 4:10 that Christ is “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” These verses together tell us that God does have a distinction in what Jesus’ death accomplishes for those who are regenerate and those who are unregenerate. A key here is the word “propitiation.” Despite Rob’s writing, another way God describes the difference is those who are forgiven and those who are not forgiven. Hell simply is not full of forgiven people. You have to obliterate the meaning of “propitiate” in order to get there, but more on that later.

This brings us back to atonement. The atonement, as initially stated, would mean that the death of Christ did not actually save anybody. It means that that the idea of salvation is no longer theoretical, but possible. Even more scary is the idea that Jesus’ payment is limited in that it does not actually accomplish that which we purport. It does not remove God’s wrath from anyone – it simply creates an environment so that we can find forgiveness and mercy. Rob goes a little further than this general stance by saying that all are forgiven. A problematic implication is that then you, as a human, have to do the accomplishing of your new birth. A proposition that is exceedingly difficult since you are dead in your sins (Romans 3, Ephesians 2).

Thankfully, this is not a correct view. There simply is not one forgiven person in Hell. Christ did purchase, through his death, the regenerative grace required for us to be saved. If Rob holds to this reality then he must admit that you cannot be forgiven and in Hell. If that were the case then there would be sin that was mightier than Jesus’ atoning work. There would be sin that was so high Jesus’ suffering, shedding of blood and death could not satisfy its cost. This implication is staggering since Jesus’ value is infinite as he is God and is holy and full of glory. There is nothing or no one who is more valuable than God. This includes sin. No sin is worth more than God. This means that no sin is mightier then the worth generated by the sacrifice of God the Son. The very fact that his one payment is overwhelmingly satisfactory for everyone’s sin represents his worth and magnitude of our atrocities.

The biblical view affirms that God had the actual redemption of his children, those Rob distinguishes as “the forgiven people in Heaven,” in view. Outside of obvious text like Romans 9, Ephesians 1 and John 6 we find this stream of thought throughout the Bible. It is no accident that God uses words chosen, elected, adopted when referring to his children. We are the recipients and he the enactor. One of the best places to see this is Jesus explanation in John 3 to explain to Nicodemus why he is not born again. In this text concerning salvation Jesus points out some very important things leading up to the most quoted verse in the Bible. He starts by pointing out that the Spirit does his work how he wants and though we may be recipients of it we cannot explain it or wrestle it into being. This is Jesus introduction as to how some are born again and some are not. Then he goes into a brief narrative with the children of Israel to prove his point. Simply, only a small group of people within the nation of Israel were recipients to the healing from looking on the staff with the serpent on it. There was a whole nation, but only some bitten and then only some of those healed. It is a small group that is the beneficiaries. So the way that God shows his love to us is by saving (which includes forgiving) those who believe. The rest of John supports this interpretation. In John 10:15 Jesus tells us “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And then explains in verse 26 “but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” And in John 17 Jesus is speaking with the purpose of his death in view. He says in verse 6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” Verse 9, “ I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” And verse 19, “ And for their sake [my emphasis] I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” All these texts make clear that there are two groups when it comes to the recipients – those who are sanctified and those who are not, those who are part of Jesus’ flock and those who are not, those who believe and those who don’t, those who are forgiven and those who are not. The idea of forgiveness in the Bible is not flippant – it means something. If you are forgiven then you have experienced these things, not forgiven despite these things.

These leads to where I’m guessing Rob may be confused and that is there is more than just one aspect to God’s love. There are is a type of general love that God grants to his entire creation and invites us, as believers, to engage in as well. This is the call that includes us to feed the poor, defend the helpless, and tend to the sick. God shows this love by letting creation stay in existence, and by acts such as rain, the rising of the sun, sunshine, food and shelter. God loves his entire creation this way and we have an honor and mandate to do the same.

However, God’s salvific love is not something he invites us to do. Indeed we cannot do it. God simply tells us to care and pray and proclaim his gospel message. The proclamation of his gospel message is part of this general love we are called to fulfill. However, the distinction is that we do not actually save anyone. God does the saving. He is the judge. He separates the wheat from the tares.

This brings us to 1 John 2:2 “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” This verse does not mean that Jesus death pays for the sins of every person in the world in a salvific sense. The reason is behind what propitiation means. Propitiation is the appeasement of wrath. In this text, God is looking for appeasement for our sins and Jesus becomes that appeasement so that we can be forgiven. If then propitiation here happens to every human who ever has, is or will live then all people must be saved and we have lapsed into universalism. Appeasement means that punishment will not occur. God does not double dip. He does not have Jesus pay for your sins and then have you pay too. You cannot be forgiven and in Hell. IT JUST IS NOT POSSIBLE.

We’ve already seen that John doesn’t buy into the lie that everyone is saved. So, does John give us a hint with what he means here? Actually there is another place that John writes something similar that when brought parallel to this verse help clarify both texts. That is John 11:51-52 “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” Knowing that John and God both don’t teach universalism and having an understanding of propitiation helps us ensure that we interpret this text correctly instead of building doctrine off a lazy reading of one text. Within the context of God’s Word then “whole world” fits in the context of Revelation 5:9 “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’”

[1] Page 148.
[2] Page 146.

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