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Where is the love of God? The question I'd want to ask Rob Bell.

Over the weekend I listened to Justin Brierley's radio show on Premier Radio in which he interviewed Rob Bell with Adrian Warnock. Both are preachers and authors, and Adrian is part of the same family of churches as I am, and is a friend. The show is worth a listen. Now, I'm firmly on Adrian's side of the fence in this whole thing but... Bell is infuriating and smart and this important debate doesn't have a simple solution.

1. Questions about questions.
He has question asking down to a tee. I wonder if he's read Randy Newman's Questioning Evangelism?  I'm impressed by his apparent commitment to only answer questions after he'd asked the questioner what they thought the answer was. His most common answer was "Do you?" This is a clever way to approach direct questions. It's also really frustrating because he barely gave a single answer in an hour of interview. I'm not persuaded by his conclusions but there are things he and I would agree on, and from which I think I can learn. Adrian was gracious and patient and generous - though you could argue he was a bit 'on the attack' from the start. He reflected that Bell talks a lot about the love of God, challenging him to speak of God's holiness and wrath too. It's a good question, and important question but not the one I find myself asking. Everything is starting to sound like the aftermath of that Steve Chalke book a few years ago, and I fear people are making the same misstep as last time... It's ok to ask about wrath but when was Wrath the opposite of Love, and when did we need fear of hell to motivate... etc. I'm not sure that's the wrath question gets to the heart of the issue. I have a different question.

2. Where is the love of God in Love Wins? 
I know the whole book is about the love of God but where is the passionate love of the Father for his beloved Son (and his son's bride)? Where is the love that sends the son into the world? Where is the love that wont be contained and restrained? Where is the love that is jealous? Where is the love that burns against those who oppress his son (as we see in Exodus) or against those who would seduce his son's bride (as in the letter to Thyatira in Revelation 2)? What I find in Bell, and I fear in evangelical responses to him, is the dispassionate love of God that let's people walk away, though it desires to win them back. Mere Agape. Yet, Jesus fought for his people in Exodus, and he fought for them in Revelation, and he fought for them on the cross and in his resurrection - against sin and the devil and against death.

This whole debate is about the love of God. Do we believe in a God of lukewarm love or one whose love burns hotly for his Son and his people, and against their enemies? Does my God care enough to get wrathful or is he ambivalent and indifferent to evil?

It's about who God is. It's about Trinity. It's about whether salvation is about who gets into heaven and hell, or whether it's about Christ. It's about God's desire to save, and about whether everyone get's saved, and how and what that is...  and we need a winning and attractive and faithful answer. And I think it might be about whether Anders Nygren was right to say God's love is only Agape and not Eros.

I think James, one of our Relay interns, nails this issue better than most - and I have to say I'm thrilled to hear him having caught this vision of the gospel. Listen to James Watts on  Jesus' Letter to Thyatira at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Falmouth in April 2011 (mp3). (or similarly, Rich Carding on the Letter to Thyatira at St Neots Evangelical Church, August 2010.)


  1. I'm with you Bish. I think the problem with the way this question (usually seems to be) handled focusses on who gets into heaven and who goes to hell, and bypasses the Trinity. I don't have the answer wrapped up to this yet, but as with everything, let's start with Christ and who he is (as he reveals the Father), and go from there.

  2. spot on. Here's my stab on this:

    The Father loves the son, not arbitrarily, but just look at him! See why the Father loves him - there's no darkness, no conspiracy in him at all; and he's so secure in his Father's love that he'll go to a cross for him. He'll empty himself for him. What a son. The Son loves the Father and sees him give everything to his Son. The Spirit loves the Father and liberates him to love the Son freely; the Spirit loves the Son liberates him to love the Father entirely - for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Spirit isnt just “the love between the two” – the Spirit himself loves them, and so enables and frees the other two to be themselves in loving the other.

    What makes God angry is when people call his Son a thief or a liar. Strikes me that's the satanic false faith/deception of the heart at the root of sin/unbelief, and it's genuinely irrational. Strikes me also that the meaning of the gospel (not the gospel itself - cf Goldsworthy) is nothing less than "God loves you and you can trust him". And the beauty is that we can still look like “sinners” and yet be rightly related to God because we yet not call God a liar or a thief, and believe his marriage vow – because we have the obedience of faith...and yet we can look “righteous” but hate his Son. So who is the liar? the one who says he has no sin...denies jesus knows the Father, denies the Father sent the Son, denies the spirit's testimony – basically hates grace (like Cain). If salvation is the obedience of faith, then God's wrath is coming on the "sons of disobedience" (Eph 2), who we no longer are (Eph 5 - dearly loved children).

    In fact, this makes me wonder if we've got Romans 1 the wrong way round. I wonder if the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against those who suppress the truth (every time in Paul, the word of the /"truth" means of the gospel) by their wickedness - namely, the truth of the gospel, witnessed to by the cross (the insanity of which is witnessed to by creation). Compare Romans 1 "claiming to be wise they became fools" with 1 Corinthians 1. Those who "know God's righteous decree" are the unbelieving jews, those predestined for hope now rejecting their hope, those objects of wrath (Rom 9) upon whom God has made objects of his mercy (Eph 2), but because of their hard and impenitent hearts they are storing up wrath for themselves.

    When in the light of all the Father's done, when his kindness is meant to lead us to repentance we still shout at him and refuse to go in, or when we implicitly say the Son has some darkness in him, or he's covering something up, or he could have loved more, then we're denying the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and God will eventually shut us out as pitiful creatures that we are, miserable as sin, like the Dwarves in Narnia; utterly self involved and incapable of love. There literally is nothing more that God could do to demonstrate his love. Having loved us to the end, he shuts us out.

  3. On a slightly different note, it made me realise that answering a question with a question can be really annoying if you don't do it well, or if what people really want is a straight answer.

  4. Dave,

    Cheers for the heads up on the interview and for the sermon links...

    I still think a major major issue that we Evangelicals will need to deal with following Love Wins is the whole question of how many will be saved/make it to the New Heaven's, New Earth... I think Rob Bell is responding to something that many evangelicals have for a long time assumed i.e. that most people will end up in hell and only a few will be saved...

    It actually comes up in the interview (at about the 12-14 minute mark) and Adrian's answer seems to go towards what I think is the right/true/biblically faithful position and I wished he'd spent a bit more time on that as there still remains those difficult universalist type passages e.g. Psalm 22, 72 which Rob Bell points to in his book.

    Kip' Chelashaw

  5. Kip - agreed though I think the how many will be saved question is more a question of who is the God we're talking about... get that right and the optimism would seem to follow. Evidently many reject Christ, but those home videos John shot for us in Revelation don't look too sparsely populated either...

  6. @Gareth - yeah, there's got to be a time for questions and questioning questions, and also a time for straight answers. I'd guess Jesus did both.

    @Christ - yes, yes, yes! The Father loves the son, not arbitrarily, but just look at him! See why the Father loves him - there's no darkness, no conspiracy in him at all; and he's so secure in his Father's love that he'll go to a cross for him. He'll empty himself for him. What a son. Someone get Olly Knight writing a song about that!!

  7. Briefly (for me), because there is so much that could be said, Dave, that was a brilliant post.

    The paragraph ending "It's about who God is..." in particular, and the observation that it is about what we mean by salvation.

    I agree with both you and Gareth on the questions. I was alienated by the questions, when usually questions build bridges. I also thought that they served to hide, rather than aid greater openness. Shows that there how you ask the questions, as well as when you chose to answer instead, are important things to also work out.

    Really intrigued and grateful for your suggestion about Nygren... I think you're right that that may be at the heart of both Bell's and some conservatives, anaemic view of God's love. Love that burns... reminds me of two "God is..." statements in the NT. "God is a consuming fire" and "God is love".

    In the spirit of asking questions, I'd love you to outline how you would WARN of God's wrath, rather than just how you would describe it. I think your starting point is spot on, but how do you apply it? How does that compare with how OT prophets used to warn? Also, I’d be fascinated what you think of the approach of Luther in his Good Friday sermon that I recently posted?

    Also when you say "when did we need fear of hell to motivate", what do you mean? Have you heard Piper's sermon from ages ago called "the Echo and Insufficiency of Hell"? That has stuck with me for years. In the sense that he says I would agree it is insufficient. But, in the sense that I have recently read (or read of) Luther, Edwards and Sibbes (all passionate lovers of God) stress it, I think they are right that we do need it for motivation. Also, as Jamie Smith has recently posted, what does the historic church have to say to this debate?

    Chris, that was brilliant too. So rich, with Bible seeping out all over the shop. I read that and my primary thought was ‘glory to Christ’… because he is the one who is held up there. Not an impersonal attribute of ‘love’, or ‘justice’, and not us either. All the while, sin and the devil are brought into the light and seen for what they are. Powerful, full-blooded stuff.

  8. Just looked up Piper's sermon from 1992...

    Read his conclusion and thought it was brilliant, so thought I would share:

    "If we want to bring about tears of gospel repentance, we have to say things that make God and his holiness—not the comforts of heaven or the escape of hell—but God himself and all that he is for us in Christ—look alluringly attractive. The Holy Spirit takes this alluring portrait of God and Christ and causes people to fall in love with God. That's called regeneration, or new birth, or effectual calling. And when a person falls in love with all that God is for them in Christ, then the tears for sin will come. And they will be tears of remorse that God had been missed and spurned; and they will be tears of joy that finally there is something infinitely satisfying to live for and not just something to fear and to flee.

    The most striking way to put this is that the pain of genuine repentance flows from the pleasure of seeing God for who he is. As paradoxical as it may sound, genuine grief over sin flows from genuine joy in the glory of God.

    Hell is powerless to produce this. The tears that hell can produce are the tears of remorse and fear that the sin we love will destroy us. The practical purpose of hell is to shock us out of our love affair with the world and send us running to the fountain of life. But only the taste of that fountain will give a passion for God and break our hearts that we have loved anything else."

  9. I think that's what I'm getting at, and I think I'd warn about wrath from somewhere like Thyatira or Exodus 4-12... see the Father fight for his son, see the Son fight for his bride, don't be against him. Anything that says the threat of hell is what it takes for people to live differently seems strange to me - it's passion for Christ that will do that - in the welcome of his love, and the jealousy of his love.

    I'll read the Luther and reflect on it.

  10. "...the love of God is, in fact, the communion of the Father with the Son, and therefore with the elected man Jesus and therefore with his people, and not in any sense a general divine love for man."

  11. Thanks Dave.

    As usual, brief, to the point and leaving me wanting more (in a good way)!

    You say: "Anything that says the threat of hell is what it takes for people to live differently seems strange to me"

    I would say that the threat of hell does not help us to live, but helps us to die ;-)

    As Piper says in the end: "The practical purpose of hell is to shock us out of our love affair with the world and send us running to the fountain of life. But only the taste of that fountain will give a passion for God and break our hearts that we have loved anything else."

    So the threat of hell makes us realise the transience of all that this world has to offer, coupled with the experience of hell (or at least dissatisfaction) now which makes us realise that the world's offers are pretty poor even in the present. We then die to the world and ourselves which we realise can offer us nothing and run to Christ for live-giving water.

    In this movement God does put us to death, but we agree with his judgment accept it and take it on in the present in baptism/lord's supper/self-giving love etc, and are raised to new life as we receive the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead.

    Hi Chris,

    Keller, Lewis and Luther. Good names. I've downloaded the sermon. Will listen to it over the next few days.

  12. As Kip Hop said:
    I think Rob Bell is responding to something that many evangelicals have for a long time assumed i.e. that most people will end up in hell and only a few will be saved...

    Yes it seems that quite a few do believe this - although Warnock distances himself from this view. Perhaps Rob Bell's approach (alongside Warfield famous essay) is needed to show that many Christian's with good reason do not believe that only a feww will be saved.


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