A daring choice for my real-time book club, given the controversy that surrounds it, Love Wins, by author, Rob Bell, attracted rather more people than usual to the discussion on Thursday evening. We'd teamed the book with Michael Wittmer's Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response... - half the group reading one title, and half the other. Some of us even read both!
WHO IS GOD?
Who is the God you believe in, and how does he differ from other people's perspective of God? asks Bell (p9), stating:'He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him...' (p150)
Hearing that Love Wins had been described as 'subversive' in some quarters, one member expressed surprise. Having spent much of her life on the missionfield in various parts of the world, she felt that it had immense value in that it opened up the sort of questions asked by many unbelievers.
'Some people find it difficult to believe that God is a God of love," she said, raising one of the issues in the book. "Given the violence in the Old Testament, you can understand people who say that God is a God of wrath."
The rest of the group agreed. The OT names, while signifying that God is a God of Justice, or Compassion, are merely labels, to those who don't know him, personally. And the only valid way of knowing God, is through Jesus. As believers, we understand that. Also, that he was there at the beginning of creation; and that at his birth, he was the Word become flesh. Jesus' life, of sacrificial love, is thus the personification of God, we concluded.
In telling the story of the Prodigal Son, Bell writes of the eldest - who implies that his father was a slave-driver who failed to notice his obedience: 'My son you are always with me and everything I have is yours.' (p167). He then goes on to point out that the difference in 'the story' we believe about ourselves defines whether we're in heaven or hell. This 'story' depends upon whether we're self-pitying like the elder son who believed himself good but hard-done-by, or surprised, contrite, forgiven and loved like the son who knew he'd been bad. Bell states that everyone is at the party thrown by the father for the wayward son; that everyone (because we're made in God's image) is part of his family.
Does this concur with what we know of forgiveness?
'Is forgiveness a once-for-all-time act, or an ongoing process?' asked one woman of the group. It could, we decided, be both. Jesus' death on the cross demonstrates the former; our human nature often reveals the wilfulness and emotional entanglements that make it difficult for us to be steadfast, a situation which makes an ongoing process a necessity.
'So can we forgive others in the same way that Jesus did on the cross?' another woman asked, reminding us of his words: Father forgive them; they know not what they do.
I shared my own experience, which was that when my father died in January of this year, he did so without ever having apologised to me for the considerable hurt he knew I'd suffered in the past, and for which I knew - from conversations he'd had with my husband - he felt the utmost remorse. By God's grace, I had long ago forgiven my father and, when he succumbed to dementia, was able to restore a relationship of sorts. At my father's death bed, I was able to ask God to forgive my father and, taking into account the Bible verses that speak of the things that are loosed on earth being, also, loosed in heaven, Matthew 18:18 I felt completely at peace.
Another member reminded us of the discussion we'd had when reading Henri Nouwen's book Return of the Prodigal Son, in which we realised that the act of forgiving someone who had wronged us had the effect of liberating us. In other words, though it might have no obvious effect on the wrong-doer, it had a very decided one on person who had been wronged. They were freed from being a victim.
Forgiveness, we concluded, is unilateral. It is a one sided act of will. God forgives us because he chooses to do so. I forgive you, or you me, because each of us, individually, determines to do so.
So is God's forgiveness inclusive of all? Yes! Does that make it universalism? No!
Christ's death on the cross paid the price for the sins of the world. That means forgiveness is available to everyone who has ever lived, or has yet to be born. But the 'story' that Rob Bell writes of, is what makes the difference. Because being made in God's likeness does not make us part of his family as he seems to suggest. We're told clearly, in the Bible, that we may be adopted into his family; and that adoption is only possible if we believe in - in the sense of putting our trust in - the 'story' of salvation.
Bell asks whether we can truly say that we're saved by grace if salvation depends upon our profession of faith; our baptism; our attendance at church (p9; 15; 61; 154)? In other words, works, not grace: something that we do! But as Wittmer points out in Christ Alone (p 44; 115; 119) none of these things, of themselves, are required. The only thing that's necessary, - crucuial, in fact, we deduced - is that we accept God's 'story', which amounts to accepting the gift of forgiveness that he offers and entering into a relationship with him.
Which brought us back to the significance of Jesus' death on the cross, and the fact that this is a stumbling block to many in the 20th and 21st centuries. 'We don't live...in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to their god,' writes Bell(p128), adding that, 'The point...isn't to narrow it to one...metaphor, image, explanation or mechanism.' (p129).
'No,' said one of our missionary members. 'But in other parts of the world where animal sacrifices are still made, converts are astounded to discover that a person has made the ultimate sacrifice on their behalf.'
Wittmer rightly, we felt, stated that Bell presents a concept of existentialism which diminishes the power of the cross. (p97-8) 'Resurrection after death was not a new idea,' Bell states (p 130). His argument, which we felt was spurious, was based on the concept of winter bringing leaf-fall and death to the plantworld which, with the advent of spring, returns to life. In another analogy, he writes of skin cells flaking off, only to be replaced by new ones. He does, however, point to the human 'story' being bigger than that: 'one that includes all of creation.' (p134-5)
Do feel free to leave comments. I'd love to hear from you
In Part Two, we'll take a look at Heaven, Hell & Purgatory