Rob Bell, 40, is an author and the pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reported to have 10,000 attendees each week. Over the years Bell’s writings and teachings have attracted a number of theological inquiries, too. But no previous controversy compares to the recent firestorm over his new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has sparked a new discussion about universalism, exclusivism, the love of God, the gospel, and the nature of heaven and hell.
Love Wins was released on Tuesday as the fourth most popular book on Amazon.com. But although the book is new, the controversy around the book has been developing for a while.
This is not another review of the book. In this post I’ll briefly explain the history of the debate, explain why it matters, and point you to an important panel discussion scheduled for this afrternoon.
The Debate So Far
The most recent controversy around Bell began on February 23rd when Bell and his publisher released this promotional video for Love Wins, which prompted Justin Taylor to ask whether Rob Bell was a universalist. (According to theologian J.I. Packer, a universalist “believes that every human being whom God has created or will create will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now,” a belief that is motivated by “revolt against mainstream belief in endless punishment in hell for some people.”) Taylor’s post generated over 1,500 comments in response, many of them heated.
Denny Burk, the dean of Boyce College, followed with a more detailed analysis of the message of the short video and arrived at the same disturbing conclusion. But was the criticism premature, given the book was still unpublished? Kevin DeYoung said no, and added a number of other discerning thoughts to the whole debate.
Albert Mohler jumped into the discussion to write that Bell’s promo video “can only be described as universalism." At this point the debate gained national news coverage from CNN, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Good Morning America, and others.
On March 8, CNN reported that Zondervan, the publisher of four of Bell’s previous books, had refused to publish Love Wins because, in their words, “This proposal doesn’t fit in with our mission." Love Wins was published by HarperCollins.
So what about the book itself? Is Bell really a universalist?
Reviews and direct quotes from Love Wins began surfacing online last week. On Wednesday the first quotes from an advance copy of the book verified the theological suspicions. Bell's theological commitment to universalism was apparent even from the opening pages.
Other reviews soon followed.
On Monday DeYoung published an excellent, thorough, and devastating review of the book. He writes, “There was a lot of discussion about whether Bell is or is not a Christian universalist. After reading the book, I see no reason why the label does not fit.” DeYoung’s review raised a number of other concerns and made clear that Bell’s book was actually worse than expected.
So what’s at stake? DeYoung writes, “If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right, Bell is blaspheming.” The stakes are high because the gospel is at stake, DeYoung says. Later in his review he writes:
Bell categorically rejects any notion of penal substitution. It simply does not work in his system or with his view of God. “Let’s be very clear, then,” Bell states, “we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182). I see no place in Bell’s theology for Christ the curse-bearer (Gal. 3:13), or Christ wounded for our transgressions and crushed by God for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10), no place for the Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), no place for the Savior who was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), no place for the sorrowful suffering Servant who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sake (Mark 14:36).
“The theology is heterodox,” DeYoung concludes. “The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.”
Download DeYoung’s 21-page review as a PDF here: “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins.” (Two days later he contributed a few additional thoughts on the debate.)
Also on Monday, Burk contributed an eleven-page chapter-by-chapter book review.
On Tuesday, Russell Moore responded with a pointed and provocatively titled blog post: “The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell.”
On Wednesday morning Albert Mohler published his own review titled “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology.” He writes,
H. Richard Niebuhr famously once distilled liberal theology into this sentence: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Yes, we have read this book before. With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism. His message is a liberalism arriving late on the scene.
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, agrees.
Meanwhile on Monday night, Bell’s book tour landed in New York City, where he answered questions before a live audience. It’s no stretch to say that his answers were quite evasive. Bell insisted that he is not a universalist and that he is an evangelical. “Do I think that I am Evangelical orthodox to the bone? Yes,” he said without hesitation.
On Tuesday morning Bell was interviewed by Good Morning America's George Stephanopoulos and the book publicity tour steamed ahead, even bumping into MSNBC’s Martin Bashir who straightaway told Bell, “You’re creating a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture.” (Incidentally, Bashir voiced more criticism of Bell's book two days later.)
The tour and the debate continue on.
In addition to the written responses, two important panels have been planned.
Early in the debate, The Gospel Coalition promptly added a panel discussion at their national conference in Chicago that will begin at 7:30 a.m. CST on Thursday, April 14. The event will open with teaching from Don Carson, followed by a panel with Carson, DeYoung, Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts, and Stephen Um.
Today (March 17), from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. EST, Southern Seminary is hosting a panel discussion featuring Albert Mohler, Justin Taylor, Russell Moore, and Denny Burk. Video will be live streamed at sbts.edu, or if you’re in the area, you can attend the event in Heritage Hall. [Update: Recordings of the panel are now avaliable here: video, audio.]
So why should we care about this debate in the first place?
“There are a number of reasons this is important,” C.J. Mahaney says. “First, removing the doctrine of God's eternal punishment undermines multiple texts of Scripture. It also undermines the holiness and justice of God. Ultimately it undermines the Savior’s redemptive work on our behalf! So this couldn't be a more serious matter. These severe theological errors are not new with Rob Bell, and they are not uncommon throughout church history. But now these theological errors have been adopted by a man of influence and published publicly and broadly. Sadly, given the scope of his platform, these errors are sure to influence many people. This is a moment for pastors to take note, and to humbly and courageously contend for the faith (Jude 3–4).”
This is not the first time Bell’s theology has raised concerns. Three years ago a previous debate led C.J. to write and post some reflections on biblical discernment, why pastors should be concerned with Bell, and how to pray for him. That post remains remarkably relevant three years later.
For Further Study
In conclusion, here are a few other resources that surfaced (or re-surfaced) in the recent debate.
The first is a book published by Zondervan in 2004: Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. It includes valuable contributions by Mohler, Greg Beale, Sinclair Ferguson, Douglas Moo, J.I. Packer, Robert Yarbrough, and others. Most helpful is how this book addresses important questions about eternal judgment with clear exegesis of Scripture.
Also, it’s worth noting a trio of messages by Sinclair Ferguson titled "Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment."
Ligon Duncan’s new article “Speaking Seriously and Sensitively about Hell” is valuable tool for preachers.
And don’t miss DeYoung’s recent blog post “To Hell with Hell” on why we need the doctrine of eternal punishment.
Crossway recently released John Piper's new book, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. C.J. says this is his second favorite Piper book (second to When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight For Joy). In his endorsement C.J. writes,
"Do you ever wish you could feel more deeply about things you know are true? Has it been a while since you were moved to tears at the thought of Christ’s death for your sins? It’s not mysterious: those who feel deeply about the gospel are those who think deeply about the gospel. In these pages John Piper will convince you that thinking is the sturdy foundation for our easily misguided affections. If you want to feel profoundly, learn to think carefully. And start by reading this book!"
– C.J. Mahaney, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Gaithersburg, Maryland
And here is a brief video introduction to Think from Dr. Piper:
A compilation book of the messages delivered at the 2008 Together for the Gospel
conference is now available. Titled Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology
(Crossway, 2009), the new book is authored by Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and C.J., with contributions by Thabiti Anyabwile, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul and one additional piece by Greg Gilbert.
What follows is a glimpse at the contents, a link to each original conference message audio recording, and a brief comment on each message/chapter taken from Dever’s introduction to the new book.
Chapter 1: Sound Doctrine: Essential to Faithful Pastoral Ministry (Duncan). Message audio
. Dever: “Ligon Duncan begins this volume as he began that conference. He entered the lists asserting that systematic theology is a worthwhile task. Indeed, in days when the narrative form of biblical theology is attracting great (and deserved) attention, it is too often being pitted against systematic theology. Ligon defends the usefulness and necessity of systematic theology with clarity and vigor. A pastor must remember the truths in this chapter or risk losing the gospel itself” (pp. 12–13).
Chapter 2: Bearing the Image (Anyabwile). Message audio
. Dever: “In his address at Together for the Gospel, Thabiti challenged us to recognize that the category of ‘race’ is irredeemable. It brings far more confusion than light, more contention than understanding, more prejudice than impartial judgment. As you turn to that chapter—perhaps the most explosive of the conference—open your mind and get ready to think” (p. 13).
Chapter 3: The Sinner Neither Willing nor Able (MacArthur). Message audio
. Dever: “John MacArthur delivered a message on human depravity that was a model of clear thinking. In it, John masterfully assembled the witness of Scripture (in the very way Ligon had encouraged us the previous day) on this vital topic. John showed that a mistake here is a mistake in the foundation of understanding the nature of our problem. He laid out challenges currently facing this doctrine and concluded by calling us to be faithful to this aspect of the message, no matter how hard we may find such faithfulness” (p. 13).
Chapter 4: Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology (or) Questioning Five Common Deceits (Dever). Message audio
. Dever: “The next message was mine. I had been mulling over for some time the confusion about the content of the gospel. The message came together as I reviewed notes I had made some months earlier about various issues that needed ‘addressing.’ I began to notice that each one evidenced a distortion of the gospel. With encouragement from my T4G brothers—and the Capitol Hill Baptist congregation—I worked and reworked the material until I felt I got close to saying what I wanted to say. I wanted to get evangelicals talking about what the gospel is exactly” (pp. 13–14).
Chapter 5: The Curse Motif of the Atonement (Sproul). Message audio
. Dever: “R.C. Sproul brought to the conference what many felt was the most devotionally rich meditation on the sacrifice of Christ. And he did it by meditating upon the curse motif in the Old Testament! In his own inimitable conversational style, with wide learning and profound biblical understanding, R.C. took us on a tour of Old Testament practices, verbally painting scenes before our eyes. Again and again, as we stared into the depth of those practices, we began to see the cross of Christ more and more clearly until, well, let me simply encourage you to read what I heard many call ‘the best I've ever heard R.C.’ And, I promise—it's not R.C. you'll be glorifying when you're done” (p. 14).
Chapter 6: Why They Hate It So: The Denial of Substitutionary Atonement in Recent Theology (Mohler). Message audio
. Dever: “This conference in many ways was birthed out of our concern that the atonement is being misconceived and mistaught in too many evangelical books and churches. It was Al who decided to wade into the sea of literature and explain to us what has happened. With a mastery of the literature that is both exceptional and yet typical of our well-read friend, he led us to see the lines of misunderstanding—of attack—that have been laid down against Christ's death being in the place of sinners. His conference message, now here in print, should serve as a guide to the literature and, even more fundamentally, to thinking carefully about the atoning work of Christ” (p. 14).
Chapter 7: How Does the Supremacy of Christ Create Radical Christian Sacrifice? A Meditation on the Book of Hebrews (Piper). Message audio
. Dever: “The last day of the conference, John Piper brought the cross into our own lives and ministries. He posed the question, ‘How does the supremacy of Christ create radical Christian sacrifice?’ Looking through the last few chapters of Hebrews, John called for us to live radical lives so as to have radical ministries. He called us to be God's men. He called us to be certain that in such a ministry suffering will come” (p. 15).
Chapter 8: Sustaining the Pastor's Soul (Mahaney). Message audio
. Dever: “The final message was once again given by the conference pastor C.J. Mahaney. C.J. preached a wonderful message titled ‘Sustaining the Pastor's Soul.’ He presented Paul as an example of one who suffered without complaint and served with obvious joy, regardless of the circumstances. And he called us to be ‘happy pastors,’ too. What was it he repeatedly said? ‘How striking that the one with the most responsibility was the one with the most joy.’….Even though this message appears as the book's last chapter, if you're a pastor and feeling particularly pressed, let me suggest that you begin there” (pp. 15–16).
Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology
is a follow-up to the first volume, Preaching the Cross
(Crossway, 2007), which developed out of the messages delivered at the 2006 T4G conference
Welcome back for the fourth and final part of my interview with Dr. Wayne Grudem. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.
Dr. Grudem, where in ministry are you most regularly tempted to discouragement?
Honestly, I don’t often become discouraged. I continue to see evidence of God’s work in my life and the lives of those around me, and I am simply overwhelmed with thankfulness to him.
Are there events in the church that bring me sadness? Yes. I am disappointed when I see churches and organizations gradually adopt an egalitarian position, because I think it will lead them step by step toward liberalism, and because egalitarianism is not a position that God will bless.
As far as my own writings, I am disappointed when I read books and articles that simply misrepresent me or use incorrect arguments to criticize what I have published on some topic or other. But when such things happen, I also remember other times in the past when a scholar has published something criticizing my position on something, and God used that to prompt me to write a response and refine my position, taking account of criticisms and making my position more accurate.
So then I think, “OK, Lord, I didn’t want to work on this question any more but apparently you want me to go back and spend more time on it.” The tension comes when you realize that you have a finite amount of time in life and have to make choices about what to do, and you already have deadlines you are trying to meet.
Then I try to put my trust in God and ask him to guide me to know what I need to spend time on and what I should leave to others to do. Romans 8:28 is still true, and always will be true: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
One event that still puzzles me concerns my book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (2004). I had been involved in the controversies over biblical manhood and womanhood for over 20 years at that point, and during that time I had compiled a list of 118 objections that egalitarians (evangelical feminists) had made to the biblical teachings on men’s and women’s roles in marriage and the church. I then researched and wrote detailed answers to those objections, and added a number of appendices that could not easily be found anywhere else, key documents on the controversy over men’s and women’s roles. Many evangelical leaders gave strong endorsements to the book.
I had hoped the book would provide a final answer to the manhood/womanhood controversy in the evangelical world, but instead I don’t think it had much impact or visibility, due to some mistakes that were made so that it was not sent out for review to influential journals, and I didn’t find this out until over a year later, when it was too late for reviews. I believe that God is still sovereign, and in his wise providence he will yet use this for good, but I don’t understand it at this point. I leave it in the Lord’s hands.
Do you exercise? If so, what do you do? If not, why not?
I exercise on average about four days a week. I run in my neighborhood two or three days a week and lift weights two days a week. Usually I run for 25 minutes, but sometimes if have a bit more time and I’m feeling good I’ll run for 40 minutes.
Arizona has such great weather that it’s possible to run outdoors in your own neighborhood year-round. And I drive to a gym about five minutes from my house and lift weights following the general outlines of a program in the book Body for Life by Bill Phillips. A good friend who is a doctor told me that as I age I will continually lose muscle mass and be prone to injuries and weight gain unless I lift weights in addition to aerobic exercises.
My motivation in exercising is (1) I feel better and (2) I want to stay healthy to be able to serve the Lord effectively as long as I can in this life.
Currently, what sport do you like to play and/or watch?
I golf from time to time and enjoy it. I used to enjoy racquetball quite a bit but there’s no easy place to play near my home and I haven’t played regularly for a number of years.
I don’t really watch sports on TV, but when my sons come to visit, I enjoy going to a spring-training baseball game with them here in the Phoenix area. And now that the Arizona Cardinals are in the NFC championship I’ll probably watch that game this weekend.
What do you do for leisure?
Margaret and I like to travel and we sometimes add an extra day or two to the beginning or end of a conference when I go out of town to speak. We love to wander through different cities! I also enjoy doing small (unskilled!) work in the yard or in fixing a few things that need repairs around the house.
I read spy novels to relax (see question above). Margaret and I enjoy watching movies together or going out to dinner either alone or with friends. And a highlight of each month is when we get together with two other faculty couples to play cards (we play a great game called “Cancellation Hearts,” using two decks of cards).
If you were not in ministry, what occupational path would you have chosen?
No question, I would have become a lawyer and gone into politics. (I’m writing a book now on Christians and politics, discussing Christian worldview issues from the Bible, and how they impact over 40 specific political issues.)
Thank you, Dr. Grudem, for satisfying my curiosity on these questions!
The new book Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World
, edited by C.J. and coauthored by Craig Cabaniss, Bob Kauflin, Dave Harvey, and Jeff Purswell, was released last month from Crossway. In his foreword, John Piper suggests one way pastors could use the book:
A word to pastors: this book is a gift to you. It will help you help others—by the modeling that’s done here and by the exegetical reflection and by the biblical and cultural insights. I can see whole churches reading this together as the pastor fleshes out the biblical foundations from the pulpit. What a powerful season that would be in the life of the church. (p. 12)
was written with pastors and church leaders in mind. If you want to use the book as Dr. Piper proposes, or in some other church or small-group setting, check out the thoughtful discussion questions in the back (see pages 180–187). These questions are designed not only for personal application, but also to help pastors or small-group leaders guide focused and fruitful discussions about the truths in the book.
In addition to purchasing the book (or if you’re not ready to purchase it yet), you can download extended excerpts from the book for free. Download the foreword by Dr. Piper and the opening chapter by C.J. (“Is This Verse in Your Bible?”) as a PDF here
. And recently we posted a series of excerpts on modesty, from chapter five (titled “God, My Heart, and Clothes”). Read this entire chapter online here
C.J.’s message from the 2002 New Attitude Conference, “Do Not Love the World” (1 John 2:15) is another tool for resisting the sin in our fallen world—and in our own hearts. (This conference message eventually grew into the first chapter of Worldliness
.) You can watch, listen to, or download the message at C.J.’s sermon archive
From the beginning, cultural influences have threatened to weaken the church. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to resist the temptation to be “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2 ESV). And then he continued to remind his readers of the importance of thinking and discernment. Biblical nonconformity requires that we become aware of the forces in our culture that threaten to press in, confine, and reshape the church.
Last week we introduced Os Guinness (see “Faith, Doubt, and Unbelief”
). The following are five excerpts pulled from Mark Dever’s recent interview
with Guinness helps us better discern the cultural influence that threaten to reshape the church—worldliness, pluralization, secularization, and privatization.
Guinness on Worldliness
The story of [theological] liberalism is the story of adapting, accommodating, and then surrendering to the spirit of the age.
When I came to Christ, evangelicals had a high view of worldliness. Often the things that were considered worldly were rather trivial, so called “no-nos.” But now in some circles we don’t even have any view of worldliness. And you can see that with the rise of the church growth movement in the extremes, the seeker sensitive movement in the extremes, the desire to be relevant, etc. Evangelicalism has its own version of the liberal tendency. And many people are taking on modern ideas, modern practices, without a thought, and it is absolute folly…
Capitalism has trounced all its enemies: socialism and communism and the rest. But it is now at its greatest danger, both as a theory and as something practical in terms of, say, daily consumerism. And we as followers of Jesus must give a theoretical critique of capitalism and a very practical critique of capitalism in terms of shopping malls, etc. And if we don’t, it is going to undermine itself and our culture.
Guinness on Pluralization
Pluralism is just a social fact. There is a diversity, a great many people, a lot of differences, faiths, social backgrounds, languages, cultures, and so on. That is pluralism.…The early church, [although it] was born in a pluralistic climate,…was absolutely faithful to the exclusiveness of Christ. And they would die for it.
Pluralism is different from what the social scientists call pluralization, which affects us psychologically and spiritually.
So for instance, in a simple, traditional, culture, the idea that you had your faith that was for all of life was relatively easy. Like one man, one woman, till death do us part. But I often say, if I had my grandfather’s silk handkerchief and I lost it, I would look for it. It is precious. It is old. It is valuable. It is connected to the family. It would be stupid to look for a Kleenex. A Kleenex is made disposable, thousands of them.
Now in the same way, in a modern world, our relationships have been pluralized. And that is one of the deepest reasons undermining marriage. Every day you are meeting other people. Every woman could see another man she might do better with, and every man another woman he might do better with. And so our relationships have been pluralized, and that is very, very dangerous.
Peter Berger describes modern faith as “conversion prone”—we should always be changing, there is always something else. You could pass down the supermarket of faiths and today I am this, and tomorrow I am that.
One megachurch pastor said to me, “I look into my congregation’s eyes, and I am haunted by the fact that they are always only two weeks away from leaving me to join a bigger church, a better church.”
You can see church-membership shopping, surfing, channeling, and so on. “I don’t like your music. I like the music down there. I like the worship there. They are liturgical, or they are not liturgical,” or whatever.
You can see that a whole generation is pluralized. So pluralism is simply a fact. Pluralization is potentially very dangerous.
Guinness on Secularization
Secularism is a philosophy, the idea that there are no gods, no supernatural: atheism, naturalism, and science. That is secularism: a philosophy.
Secularization is a process, and it should be distinguished [from secularism]. It is the idea that as the world gets more modern, it gets less religious. Now the theory of secularization was actually grossly overstated for the first 200 years, and it has collapsed. It used to be thought [that] the world inevitably gets less religious as it gets more modern. So Europe was the model and the United States was the exception for the moment, but the whole world would eventually go the way of Europe. That’s now being seen to have the bias of a secular philosophy behind it. It is wrong. Empirically it is wrong. Philosophically it is biased.
So the secularization theory is under heavy assault today. But there is some effect of secularization. For instance, in our modern world, most of us, even as Christians, have a tendency to be atheists unawares in the sense [that, like] the modern world, [we put] all the premium on the five senses—what you can touch, taste, see, calculate, measure, weigh, and so on. So [in] many churches the whole understanding is this side of the feeling.
You know, I have rarely been in churches in the United States where sometimes in the sermon or worship the ceiling was punctured and you knew you were in the presence of the transcendent. I have rarely experienced that over here, because it is all this side of the ceiling.
And you look at, say, much of the church growth movement: They know everything about parking lot theory, the color that your tie has to be, and all sorts of things to grow the perfect church. The church could operationally go on for 50 years if the Holy Spirit withdrew altogether, because it is all this side of the ceiling, it’s all worldly operational procedures.
We have actually been much more secularized than we realize. That is why brothers and sisters from Africa or Asia, they know the power of Spirit…for healing or other areas, which many of us in the West simply don’t know. We have words like prayer or the supernatural, but a direct living experience of them we often don’t have.…
Now, with the rise of the Iranian revolution in ’79 and then all sorts of things right down to September the 11th, Peter Berger said famously, “The world is as furiously religious as ever.”…I personally think that when secularization seemed to be sweeping everything, atheists weren’t very strident. They didn’t need to push religion. It was on the way out. But suddenly they realized [that] the world is “furiously religious,” and they see Islamic extremism and look at Christian fundamentalism as dangerous. Now you see the new atheists—Dawkins, Harris, and so on—are strident because they are actually panicking.
Guinness on Privatization
Privatization is the way in our modern world we lose the integration of faith. So go back to a traditional world, small town, village: Where someone lived, worked, and went to church was integrated. You could probably walk around them in half an hour, certainly go around on a horse in an hour. But as the modern world explodes, where people live and often where they go to church is relatively close still (although in L.A. it might be an hour away, traveling 50 miles to go to church). But then where they work is quite different altogether.
So it is called privatization, the way religion and faith in general [get] restricted to the private sphere—the home, the church, the weeknight, the weekend. But the world of work, politics, business, science, technology is another world, with a different way of doing it.
So, as one person says, people have different hats and they have different souls. A non-Christian said the churches in California he studied were privately engaging, publicly irrelevant. That’s another way of saying privatization…
Now up until the ’60s, most evangelicals, a great majority, [were] privatized. Then came the ’60s and evangelicals slept through it. ’73 was the wake-up year—Watergate, Roe v. Wade, OPEC, the oil crisis. Evangelicals started to realize the culture was slipping away.
The tendency then was to make the opposite mistake, to politicize faith, to swing from a privatized faith that lacked integration, the lordship of Christ in every area of life...They swung to a politicized faith, thinking politics was the be-all and end-all, and that lacked independence. No longer was faith primary. Christians became core chaplain to whatever party they supported, more recently the Republicans.
Guinness on Sociology
I was studying at Oxford, and Peter Berger became my mentor. And I realized that most apologetics, most Christian thinking, used the history of ideas, going from thinkers and their thoughts to the impact on the street, church, or whatever. Whereas the “sociology of knowledge,” as it is called, looks to the street, the social setting of people’s lives, and describes how that shapes even their thinking.
And you can see [that] the modern church is affected by crazy ideas. But it is much more affected by the way we live in our modern lifestyles and so on. So I tried to write The Gravedigger File to take ideas that were relatively well known in sociology, but show their relevance to Christians who didn’t understand sociology.
So terms like privatization which are bandied around by a lot of people now—the way, in our modern world, faith easily becomes privately engaging, publicly irrelevant. I tried to explain those and show Christians how they are shaped by faith.
Now when I wrote that, there was almost no one in evangelical circles looking at sociology. Today I am embarrassed and, more than that, disturbed, to say many people pick up sociology but uncritically. They take the latest insights they read from whoever it is and take it as gospel. Sociology is a very useful tool, but a very dangerous master…
Look at the seeker sensitive movement. It looks at the world to try and catch up with it, be relevant to it. Whereas actually, if you look at the world critically, there are things that are good and there are things that are very, very dangerous and to avoid at all costs. Sociology should make us much more discriminating.
[Mark Dever mentions David Wells’s series of books—No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), Losing Our Virtue (1998), and The Courage to Be Protestant (2008)—and asks if these books have been successful in uniting theology and sociology.]
Absolutely. I tease my good friend David because early on he was what I would call a “straight theologian.” I told him, “David, you can’t make sense of theology without looking at the modern world.” Now some people say today there is too much sociology. And before his last book…I said, “Come on, we need a bit more theology, not just sociology.” But he is a good example of someone who is doing this well.
Listen to the entire interview, “Life and Ministry with Os Guinness."
The book of Proverbs is a unique gift to those in their teenage years. Whether you're a parent or a teen, do you value the wealth of wisdom contained there? In these two messages, C.J. highlights the danger of foolishly “dissing” Lady Wisdom, and the importance of listening to her words.
Two audio recordings from Worthy08, the recent Covenant Life Church parent-youth retreat:
Part 1: The Danger of Dissing Lady Wisdom
August 19, 2008
Worthy08 parent-youth retreat; North East, Maryland
52:56 run time; 97.0MB MP3
Part 2: The Danger of Dissing Lady Wisdom
August 19, 2008
Worthy08 parent-youth retreat; North East, Maryland
46:19 run time; 84.9MB MP3
I’m not in the business of introducing every good book released from Christian publishers (there are others who do this well). But today I want to draw your attention to three noteworthy books all recently released and written by three of our African-American brothers and friends—Thabiti Anyabwile, Eric Redmond, and Anthony Carter.
(I think it’s fitting to here inform readers that at the 2008 T4G conference, Thabiti publicly announced that ethnically I’m a “brother.” This was without a doubt one of the highlights of the conference for me and on the short list of greatest honors I’ve ever received.)
I want to commend these three books to your attention because each is focused on strengthening the local church. But none of them requires a lengthy introduction, because I think the chapter titles speak clearly and compellingly to the content, scope, and value of each volume.
What Is a Healthy Church Member?
There is a desperate need for more books written by doctrinally discerning pastors addressing a passion for, and the priority of, the local church in the life and practice of every Christian. I highly recommend Thabiti Anyabwile’s book, What Is A Healthy Church Member? (Crossway, 2008), to all pastors and Christians alike. Chapter titles include:
Where Are All the Brothers?
- A Healthy Church Member Is an Expositional Listener
- A Healthy Church Member Is a Biblical Theologian
- A Healthy Church Member Is Gospel Saturated
- A Healthy Church Member Is Genuinely Converted
- A Healthy Church Member Is a Biblical Evangelist
- A Healthy Church Member Is a Committed Member
- A Healthy Church Member Seeks Discipline
- A Healthy Church Member Is a Growing Disciple
- A Healthy Church Member Is a Humble Follower
- A Healthy Church Member Is a Prayer Warrior
Eric Redmond’s book Where Are All the Brothers? Straight Answers to Men’s Questions About the Church
(Crossway, 2008) is organized around answering these main questions:
Experiencing the Truth
- Isn’t the Church Full of Hypocrites?
- Wasn’t the Bible Written by Men?
- Isn’t the Church Geared toward Women?
- Isn’t the Preacher Just a Man?
- Doesn’t Islam Offer More for Black Men?
- Aren’t Some Churches Just after Your Money?
- Is Organized Religion Necessary?
- Jesus Never Claimed to Be God, Did He?
- What to Look for to Find a Good Church
Anthony Carter edited the book Experiencing the Truth: Bringing the Reformation to the African-American Church
(Crossway, 2008). Chapter titles include:
- Experiencing the Truth: An Introduction (Carter)
- Biblical Theology: Experiencing the Truth about God (Michael Leach)
- Biblical Preaching: Experiencing the Word of God (Carter)
- Biblical Worship: Experiencing the Presence of God (Carter)
- Biblical Spirituality: Experiencing the Spirit of God (Kenneth Jones)
- Grace So Amazing: Experiencing the Doctrines of Grace (Carter)
My thanks to each of these men for serving Sovereign Grace churches with their writing, leadership, godly example, and friendship.
For the building and decoration of the tabernacle, the Old Testament tells us God supernaturally blessed a man named Bezalel “with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft” (Ex. 35:31-33 ESV).
Artistic talent originates in God and for this reason the church has esteemed artistic expression throughout the centuries. French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote, “all the arts emanate from God, and therefore ought to be accounted divine inventions.” 
But this appreciation for art and its divine source does not contradict the church’s need to evaluate the value and limitations of art.
A century ago, Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) wrote the following concern.
Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death. …Granted, the two are connected. From the very beginning religion and art went hand in hand. 
Appreciating the arts and evaluating of the value of the arts is a balance the church must preserve in every generation. And this brings me to one of the many personal highlights from this most recent New Attitude conference in Louisville.
One Sunday session was reserved for an open question-and-answer session with Dr. Al Mohler where he fielded questions covering a wide variety of issues on the topic of Scripture. Particularly helpful to me were his answers to the final question on art. How do we as twenty-first century Christians evaluate and critique the value of the arts? What relationship do the gospel and the arts share? What role and service do the arts play in the church?
I recommend listening to the entire session (listen/download here) but what follows is a transcript of Dr. Mohler's comments on art and his challenge to a young generation of Christians to “learn to make art the servant of the gospel.”
Question: My question is this: For the Christian, what role should the Word of God play in our artistic and creative endeavors? And for the Christian, what role should our artistic and creative endeavors have within the culture at large?
Dr. Albert Mohler: Alright, let’s step back for a moment and talk about the arts. Where does art come from?
God has made us as the only being in his image. We are the only being who fabricates with design and intention and with aesthetic sense. Beavers build dams. Ants build anthills. But they don’t hire architects and so far as we know there is no aesthetic appreciation for them whatsoever. You’ve never met a dog that is a painter. There is something about being made in the image of God that produces what we call “cultural product.” …
The arts are very important and it seems that in this generation the arts are newly important. Now, when that happens it is promise and opportunity. For instance, if you look back at the history of Western civilization the Renaissance, in particular the High Renaissance, was an opportunity in which cultural production became a huge issue.
When I was a high school student there was a huge BBC presentation of humanity at its highest, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. He went back particularly to the classical age and to the High Renaissance and said, “This is when human beings were at their very best because of this cultural production. Look at this: you have Bernini, and Rembrandt, and Rafael.” And you could just go through all of these and the cultural production in the art became the defining issue. The art reflected the Christian culture from which it had come, but the art became very quickly an issue of idolatry as well. And it was not true that where you found the highest art you always found the purest theology. To the contrary it was often very much otherwise.
So what we should learn from that is that ideally Christians should be involved in the arts. Absolutely! But we’ve got to learn to make art the servant of the gospel. And that is a tough challenge in every generation. If the artists of the Renaissance had been concerned that their art would be in the service of the gospel, it would be a very different art than it is. It would have all the same ability. You’d still look at, for instance, Rembrandt—you’d look at the lace collars and he would still have that ability to make you feel like you could touch it. But it would be telling a different story then in many cases what gets told.
And when you ask about the Scripture, well the Scripture is the food for our living on this earth. It is the light for our path as the Psalmist says. It is the authority by which we live. It is the sole sufficient guide for understanding all that we are and all that we hope for and all we trust in, in Christ. That had better be the substance of our art. That doesn’t mean that we only draw representations of Bible stories. It does mean that we test everything we do, not just by the cannons of art—which are truly culturally constructed and constantly negotiated and changed, an evidence of both human greatness in terms of ability and human depravity in terms of the morality and the rebellion against God that so quickly comes in and the idolatry that is our reflex.
And we use Scripture to ask, “How do we judge the good, the beautiful and the true—always to be necessary and necessarily linked? That which is good is beautiful—that which is true is good—that which is good is true. They’re all the same thing.
Modern art is in many ways a rebellion against the unity of the good, the beautiful, and the true. And one testimony you can give to the Word of God is saying that for the Christian the good, the beautiful, and the true are always one thing because in Scripture they are always one thing. And that is where you find our authority and our meaning.
For more on this topic, please read Philip Graham Ryken’s excellent book, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts (P&R, 2006).
 From Calvin’s commentary, Harmony of the Law, vol. 3.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2003) 1:267.
Together for the Gospel 2008 begins here in Louisville today. Over 5,000 men (mostly pastors) will be assembling in the Kentucky International Convention Center, celebrating the glorious atonement of Jesus Christ.
During the conference attention will be directed to a new book titled In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever (Crossway, 2008). Not long ago, C.J. explained how this book and T4G are closely connected (here).
The discerning content of this book is a gift to all Christians and pastors in particular. Here is one excerpt from the epilogue.
The cross of Christ is the heart of the apostles’ gospel and of their piety and praise as well; so surely it ought to be central in our own proclamation, catechesis, and devotional practice? True Christ-centeredness is, and ever must be, cross-centeredness. The cross on which the divine-human mediator hung, and from which he rose to reign on the basis and in the power of his atoning death, must become the vantage point from which we survey the whole of human history and human life, the reference point for explaining all that has gone wrong in the world everywhere and all that God has done and will do to put it right, and the center point for fixing the flow of doxology and devotion from our hearts. Healthy, virile, competent Christianity depends on clear-headedness about the cross; otherwise we are always off-key. And clear-headedness about the cross, banishing blurriness of mind, is only attained by facing up to the reality of Christ’s blood-sacrifice of himself in penal substitution for those whom the Father had given him to redeem.
Why then is it that in today's churches, even in some professedly evangelical congregations, this emphasis is rare? Why is it that in seminary classrooms, professional theological guilds, Bible teaching conferences, and regular Sunday preaching, not to mention the devotional books that we write for each other, so little comparatively is said about the heart-stirring, life-transforming reality of penal substitution? Several reasons spring to mind.
First, we forget that the necessity of retribution for sin is an integral expression of the holiness of God, and we sentimentalize his love by thinking and speaking of it without relating it to this necessity. This leaves us with a Christ who certainly embodies divine wisdom and goodwill, who certainly has blazed a trail for us through death into life, and who through the Spirit certainly stands by each of us as friend and helper (all true, so far as it goes), but who is not, strictly speaking, a redeemer and an atoning sacrifice for us at all.
Second, in this age that studies human behavior and psychology with such sustained intensity, knowledge of our sins and sinfulness as seen by God has faded, being overlaid by techniques and routines for self-improvement in terms of society's current ideals of decency and worthwhileness of life. It is all very secular, even when sponsored by churches, as it often is, and it keeps us from awareness of our own deep guilty and shameful alienation from God, which only the Savior, who in his sinlessness literally bore the penalty of our sins in our place, can deal with.
Third, in an age in which historic Christianity in the West is under heavy pressure and is marginalized in our post-Christian communities, we are preoccupied with apologetic battles, doctrinal and ethical, all along the interface of Christian faith and secularity—battles in which we are for the most part forced to play black, responding to the opening gambits of our secular critics. Constant concern to fight and win these battles diverts our attention from thorough study of the central realities of our own faith, of which the atonement is one.
Fourth, heavyweight scholars in our own ranks, as we have seen, line up from time to time with liberal theologians to offer revisionist, under-exegeted accounts of Bible teaching on the atonement, accounts which in the name of Scripture (!) play down or reject entirely the reality of penal substitution as we have been expounding it. The effect is that whereas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century evangelicals stood solid for penal substitution against unitarianism (Socinianism) and deism, and taught this truth as no less central to the gospel than the incarnation itself, today it is often seen as a disputed and disputable option that we can get on quite well without, as many already are apparently doing.
What in the way of understanding our Savior and our salvation we lose, however, if we slip away from penal substitution, is, we think, incalculable.
Taken from In My Place Condemned He Stood by J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, pp. 150-151, © 2008. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.