Tag Archives: church

Rob Bell – a review from someone who has read the book

The question that has been setting the twittersphere alight over the last few weeks is this: Is Rob Bell a Universalist? It was all started off by a rather uncharitable review of his latest book, Love Wins, by someone who had not read the book. This led to a spate of similar reviews, also by those who had not read it, and a lot of name calling.

Now a review has been written by Tim Challies, and he has actually read the book. Excellent. What does he have to say? Well, the first thing to say is that Tim’s review is not written in a spirit of triumphalism and one-upmanship that characterized so many of the other reviews. However, from what Challies has written it seems that Bell might actually be promoting a universalist position. Christianity Today’s Mark Galli who has also read a pre-publication copy of the book agrees, saying Bell advocates a universalist position and fits into the liberal protestant mould which has evangelism at its heart.

Here’s a relevant quote from Bell’s book that Challies quotes:

As soon as the door is opened to Muslims. Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.

Not true.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.

And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.

People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.

Sometimes people use his name;
other times they don’t.

Some people have so much baggage with regard to the name “Jesus” that when they encounter the mystery present in all of creation—grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness—the last thing they are inclined to name it is “Jesus.”

What we see Jesus doing again and again—in the midst of constant reminders about the seriousness of following him living like him, and trusting him—is widening the scope and expanse of his saving work.

Assuming that Challies representation of Bell’s book is correct, this raises some questions.

1. As Bell is advocating a universalist position, is he therefore saying that there is no need for the cross of Christ? Although one of Tim’s commenters seems to think so, it does not. Bell still claims that Jesus’ sacrifice is required in order for everyone to be saved. There is still only one way to God – through Jesus –  Bell just believes that all people will eventually get to it. When people start saying that it doesn’t matter how people come to God, that is pluralism, not universalism, and only then does the death of Christ becomes irrelevant.

However, I still maintain that Universalism is wrong, but not heretical. It raises questions about why, if everyone is going to be saved, should we bother with evangelism? Why did Jesus give the great commission if he knew everyone was going to believe anyway? It can only be about a better life now, knowing God in the present, as it cannot be about life after death.

Nevertheless, the weight of scripture is against such a position. Only this morning I was reading through 3 chapters of Luke and came to 4 or 5 references to hell being real and people going there. Now, we can have a debate about what that hell is like or why a loving God would allow some to go there, but those are different questions.

2. Can God still speak through someone when we disagree on a couple of points? The answer has to be ‘Yes’. I like Rob Bell and have been greatly helped by some of his teaching. Because I disagree with him on this does it mean that I cannot hear what God is saying through him on anything else? No! When we look carefully there will not be a single other Christian teacher that we agree with on everything. Calvin – great reformer, but I disagree with him on double predestination. Roy Clements wrote some decent books before he ran off with another man.  The books are still good even after his public fall. Steve Chalke still says some good things even though I think he is wrong by denying penal substitution. If we want to agree with our pastor or Christian teacher on everything, we will find ourselves in a church of one. Whomever were are listening to, we need to think and engage with their words and the scriptures and not just accept their words assuming they must be right. We listen with our brains turned on.

3. How do we react when we are right and someone else is wrong? One of the most distasteful parts of this whole debate has been the triumphalism. Many seem to be rejoicing because their view of Rob has been proven right. Others are talking about the ‘tragedy’ of all the people that Rob is going to lead astray, sometimes appearing arrogant and self-righteous in their prayers for others who follow Rob. We must remember that God is Sovereign and in control and that we are not. We may not even be right on everything ourselves. We must humbly examine ourselves, be willing to be wrong on some issues,  and constantly pray that God will keep us close to him, true in our motives and clear in our understanding.

4. Is it essentially different from vast portions of the church throughout history? So, one Christian leader, albeit one with a huge church and a worldwide public ministry, has said something that the reformed orthodox position would disagree with. Shock Horror – has that ever happened before? Of course it has, all throughout history. And the church is still here, and people are still Christians. As i said earlier, we must humble come before God and try to teach his truth ourselves, and we must be willing to have a debate in a spirit of humility, but it isn’t the end of the church. God is in control.


Books: Novels, Mission, and Communion

You hay have noticed that the reviews of novels have stopped. That is basically because I’m reading War and Peace which is quite long, so it’s taking me a while! I read Grisham’s ‘The Broker’ before that which i enjoyed and have written a review of on this site.

Before that I read a book called ‘God’s Smuggler’ by Brother Andrew, which is the story of the Christian missionary who used to smuggle Bibles through the Iron Curtain back in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is extremely challenging in the way we think about our faith. For example, he used to leave the Bibles in plain view of the guards when he passed through a border, convinced that God could avert their eyes if necessary! Very challenging.

I’m currently reading a book called “Mass Culture” edited by Pete Ward. It looks at eucharist, how we do it, and its implications on youth work and the general church. As the common meal passed down to us by Jesus, it has to be central to Christian worship, but Ward claims that the way in which we have been doing it in the church has become almost sacrosanct, and by failing to adapt, it often fails to speak to our congregations and culture. He suggests that we allow ourselves to play around with it a little more within the context of worship to regain the lost significance. I’ll write more on this when I’ve got further through the book.

What is the point of Sunday services?

Josh Harris has written a little book on commitment to the church called “Stop Dating the Church”. One of the chapters is about the Sunday meeting – how each member of the congregation can get the most from it. Here’s the gist of the chapter.

“Sunday is meant to be packed with promise, full of surprises, pulsing with life”

Sunday is the Lord’s Day

  • Jesus stepped out of the tomb on a Sunday and has “owned it uniquely” since then. For the first time ever, death and sin were beaten.
  • Through all our worship, Jesus is with us. Therefore it should never be routine.

Before the Service – Warm up

  • be well rested
  • read the Bible on Saturday night so that the ‘word can dwell richly’
  • Avoid unnecessary distractions on Sunday morning (such as the news, housework, internet, video games)

During the Service

  • Remember that we are part of to a family, not an audience to the church leaders
  • Focus on the truth of what is being sung, and the character of God, not our own feelings
  • Worship includes listening to the sermon. Listening expresses the authority of the word of God. The burden is on the congregation to listen (although that is not an excuse for poor preaching).
  • Take notes to help you remember (use whatever form of notes are most useful)

After the Service

  • “Come on the lookout for God, leave on the lookout for people” J Piper. Look out for new people or those you don’t recognise and welcome them.
  • Use the remainder of the day to rest and ‘stock up spiritually’ for the week. Ask yourself the question “How could my family and I invest joyfully in all of Sunday in a way that truly celebrates God’s love and presence in our lives – and helps us carry this celebration over into the rest of our week.”
  • Review the your sermon notes so you can take the things that God was challenging you with into the rest of the week.

Overall, remember:

“These are my blood-bought brothers and sisters in Christ. We are his church, His people. We are here this morning to proclaim His work in our lives. We are here to give witness to the world of His great love and power and glory.”


Those are Josh Harris’ thoughts, which certainly make a good place to start discussion, although I might quibble with some of his suggestions in the chapter.

My very-initial thoughts on what is the purpose of a Sunday church service, in no particular order:

  • to worship God
  • a chance to stop and listen to him
  • to hear the Bible read and preached
  • to break bread together as we remember Jesus
  • to receive ‘food for thought’ from others (congregation and preacher).
  • it is the ‘church gathered’ – the family of God, and therefore is an expression of his love
  • to encourage one another in the faith
  • it is an opportunity to reflect and address our lives, week by week, and make a change through confession, and through the word of God applied to our lives.

Total Church (vi) – Mission

Chapter 6 of Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’ book, Total church talks about the church’s need to engage in world mission. Mission, they say, is an activity of God – it is right at the very centre of his actions, from his decision to choose a people for himself who would be a light to all nations, to the Great Commission given by Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel.

“The term mission, [Karl Barth] pointed out, was originally used of the sending of the Son by the Father and the sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son. To this was added the sending of the Church by the Trinity. The Triune God is a missionary God. The church, then has a mission because God has a mission. The role of the church is to participate in the mission of God. The value of this perspective is the way it roots mission in the doctrine of God rather than relegating is to allied theology”

Mission should be part of a church’s DNA. In Romans 15:19, Paul says that “from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ”. In what sense is that true? Paul preached extensively, and set up new churches, but by no means had the whole area been won for Christ! What Timmis and Chester suggest is that Paul has fully proclaimed Jesus to them. This is at the centre of mission. The rest of the work of growth, encouragement, preaching and planting was the responsibility of the local churches he left behind. Jesus was at the centre of their formation and consequently mission is part of their DNA. By no means should it be left to large mission organisations, as this simply distances the local church from the action of mission – which is part of their fundamental being. He cites the example of China – in 1945 all the mision agencies were expelled from the country, essentially leaving the task of mission to the local house-churches with no outside influence. Christianity boomed through their efforts, and because it is God’s mission.

Locally, the church engages in mission by being the community of grace and embodying the gospel of grace in the local society. On a more global scale, Chester and Timmis give examples of many local churches partnering with others around the world, or sending mission partners to various places to plant churches. All done in straight-forward ways by very ordinary people.

Total church (v) – church planting

Continuing the series going through the book, Total Church, by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

Chapter 5 of Total church talks about church planting. Chester and Timmis claim that at the centre of the apostolic vision of mission was church planting – this is what Paul and his companions were doing all throughout the New Testament. The church is the agent of mission and as such, church planting is the primary form of mission.

Of course, by church, Chester and Timmis are not talking about the church as an institution of as the universal church. They are talking about the church as a loving and close knit family – as the early church congregations were. The early churches met in households, running a church was compared to running a family. Once this family of the church had outgrown the size of the household that they could meet in, they split into two smaller congregations. (Timmis and Chester giver references for this from Acts).

Local church congregations therefore are to look out and care for each other, to have the gospel at the centre, and are deeply integrated in their local community. Mission and evangelism, then, are part of the DNA of the church as they care for each other and for the community.

Why doesn’t this happen in most churches today? Total church claims there are a number of factors. One is that the church slips into ‘maintenance mode’. As a church gets bigger it starts providing programs and courses and so on, all of these create jobs that need to be filled in the church. The focus of the church then becomes keeping these programs going, rather than reaching out in new ways to the local community.

I guess the main focus of the chapter is simple: that the mission of God involves engaging with the surrounding community and planting communities (church groups) where God’s grace can be lived out and witnessed in the community. Quite simple really.

Total Church (iv) – social involvement

The 4th chapter of Total church concentrates on social involvement. How much should a church be socially involved. Often in the past, doing good works has been seen as an either/or with evangelism.

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis point out that Jesus not only went to the poor and marginalised, he considered them equally worthy to have community with him as anyone else. By sitting and eating with, say, Zacchaeus the tax collected Jesus invited him into him community. The poor don’t just need their lived improved, they need the gospel. Cleaning up someone’s house, for example, is a great example of how communities can love the poor, but this act needs to point to something. Without the gospel of grace it would equally point to a gospel of works or social betterment. This is not the gospel that Jesus taught. All need to hear his words and respond to him in repentance and receive grace. The poor are poor for all sorts of reasons, and very few of them have to do with lack of resources. By introduction to and welcome into an authentic Christian community, they will have the support they need.

However, Christian community has not always been welcoming to the poor. Timmis and Chester are also critical of how churches in the UK (particularly evangelical churches) have traditionally neglected problem areas. The successful ones are full of middle class, upwardly mobile, wealthy people – people just like each other. For some reason, the working classes have not been welcomed or have not felt able to go there. The Christian community was lacking. This, they claim, is not only doing the poor a dis-service, but the rich too, as it communicates a message that Jesus wasn’t teaching – one where status and wealth do matter (even if this is unspoken). The gospel of grace is a gospel for all, rich and poor, and I can’t help thinking we are lacking something of authentic Christian community if we neglect either group.