Monday, September 19, 2011

The Civil Wars

One of my new favorites.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bonhoeffer – Eric Metaxas

In this biography of one of the most famous people murdered under the regime of Adolf Hitler, Metaxas gives us a look not only into the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but also into his mind.

I had wanted to read this book for some time, as I was interested in looking into the life of a man I knew some about, but certainly not a lot. This book ended up being just what I needed. It’s not a short book, as the author isn’t content with just giving you a story, but also is providing the reader with an in-depth look into what Bonhoeffer was often thinking at the time as well. The author turns often to the writings of Bonhoeffer, including his books, letters and sermons. This makes for quite an interesting look into his life and what he thought of the things going on around him.

The impact Bonhoeffer had on the life of so many around him alone makes for an interesting story. The way he did this with integrity, love and discipline, helping those around him capture these things as well, make his life and ministry full of valuable lessons for Christians today.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dangerous Church

Right from the forward, written by Rick Warren, I had a feeling I was going to like this book. Warren says “To be a dangerous church is to be about what Jesus was about.” The title of the book could have been “Church” rather than “Dangerous Church”, since the author, John Bishop, is interested in us seeking the purpose of the Church which mirrors Jesus’ purpose of the Church. The need for churches today is to ask the right questions and this of course falls on the shoulders of the leadership. Is our purpose correct? If it is, do our methods mirror our purpose, or is there a disconnect? Are we having an impact? It will take some courage to ask these questions, but if we are willing to face them honestly, we can find ourselves moving in the right direction.

The first part of Dangerous Church is called “Risk Everything.” One thing I like about this book is that it has a lot of personal stories from Bishop, as he tells of some risks which he took. That is where it begins, with the story of his personal journey with Jesus. It’s in chapter 2 that things really begin to come together, as you see the direction he is going to be going. The chapter is called “What’s wrong with the church”, and this is the question, isn’t it? Bishop argues that the church has become largely apathetic in the areas which really matter to God.

The question we need to ask is whether we care about what God cares about. Clearly God cares about the lost, but do we? “The truth that we hate to admit to ourselves is that we usually don’t care too much about things that are lost, unless they are our things.” (pg 38) So if the lost matter to God, certainly they should also matter to us, and we need to make sure we are actually doing something about them.

He goes on to point out that many churches get stuck, and points out three indicators of being stuck. We could see our growth plateau, stop hearing signs of God working in individuals, and find out that our members aren’t inviting people to church. These are indications that our church may need to get unstuck. To get unstuck, we need to not so much worry about making the right plans, but instead trust that the purposes of God for our church will see us through.

Before he goes on to the next section, Bishop makes sure to point out that failure is a real possibility. Any time you take risks, you need to make sure you’re aware of the potential to fail. We can’t avoid risky behavior, though, because of risk.

For this reason, he moves on to the next section, titled “Reach Everywhere.” The issue for Churches to understand is that if the Great Commission is failing, this is our problem. There is need for us to really stop doing things which are keeping people from Christ. This is a theme of sorts through several chapters, as Bishop points out that we too often are hypocritical and play god with people. On top of that, there are things which we do in services which frankly make people feel uncomfortable. On page 103 he says “Most of us are great at doing church for people who do church, but we’re pretty stupid when it comes to reaching people who don’t do church.” Right on! He even tells a story about when he was visiting a church. I both chuckled and cringed as I read it.

So the need for leaders, and particularly pastors, is how we can make the services not become barriers to Christ. He’s not suggesting we change the message at all, but understanding the need to speak in ways which deal with people where they are, and doing so with the understanding that a real impact in people’s lives only happens when we preach through Christ in the power and conviction of the Spirit. Also in this section is the need we have to go to the people where Jesus went, meaning we may have to get dirty with them. We are called, after all, to the “least of these.” He points out in chapter 11 that while we can’t do everything, no one can, we can, and therefore must, do something.

The third part of the book is called “Release Everyone,” and this begins with a chapter called “Jesus would hire who you wouldn’t.” The important thing here is that often we avoid people who have bad pasts, but these might be just the people we should be using. In fact, Bishop points out that Jesus went after the outcasts. He didn’t go get followers from the elite, but from the shores of the lake.

It is in releasing everyone that we will make mistakes, and the author shares some of the mistakes they made in their growth, and in chapter 13 tells three important lessons he learned. I won’t go into them here, but they are worth looking at. He talks in this chapter about something they did which was a “bit reckless”. This may be the understatement of the book. It was very reckless, but they did it in order to see what God could do.

An interesting chapter in here was the one called “Purple salt: becoming a church that gets noticed.” He talks a lot about salt and its uses, and then on page 156 says this: “Salt is effective only as it comes into contact with other objects.” We cannot use too much salt, but we must get out with other people in order to be the salt. The reason for the “purple” salt is that we need to stand out in the world. People should notice us.

The fourth and final part of the book is called “Remember only God.” In the end, after all, the risks we take are all about God. He is the one who will deal with us when we’re in the midst of our droughts, which are bound to happen if we go into the world and take risks. These are the people and churches which will be attacked by Satan, so it’s important to rely completely on God. It’s important to know also what God has called us to be, and how He will take us there.

One final quote I like, which is really the foundation of the whole book. “Your potential is not found in what you have to offer God but in your availability to God.” (pg. 182) I did enjoy the book, and it gave me a lot to think and pray about. As a pastor who seeks to lead a church into dangerous territory, it’s nice to read a book which contains success and failure, lessons learned and disappointments felt.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Erasing Hell, pt. 7

Chapter 7 – Don’t Be Overwhelmed

So what now? How can we carry on with visions of hell in our head? Wouldn’t it be easier to try to not think about it? Certainly it would, but that doesn’t mean we should. As a matter of fact, shouldn’t we work even harder to try to think about hell and do life differently? Chan believes we should. “We shouldn’t go on with life as usual.” (pg 145) This would be foolish. So he gives us some final thoughts.

First, this calls for a greater urgency. In Romans 9, Paul says he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart. Do we feel this sort of urgency? Paul goes so far as to say he wishes he could switch places with those who are on the path of destruction? Do we even come close to feeling like this? Do I? I would have to say that most time I don’t, and that’s a shame. The thing which is lacking, of course, is love. We don’t love people like Paul did. They were on his heart and mind all the time.

Chan also says that hell gives us a greater sense of joy when it comes to the cross. When we realize what we’ve been saved from, it makes the cross of Christ that much greater. In fact, the teachings of hell magnify “the beauty of the cross.” (pg 148) I do not suffer the wrath of God, but this is not for what I’ve done, but for what Jesus has done on my behalf. This is reason to worship!

Finally, Chan asks us the big question: “Are you sure?” It’s pointless to read, study or concern ourselves with hell at all, if we never turn the question back to ourselves. So this is where Chan spends his last few pages. If hell is real and most of the passages concerning hell were addressed to those who believed they wouldn’t be there, everyone should stop and consider the question of whether or not they are going to hell. So I’ll put it to you: Are you sure?

“We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – II Corinthians 5:20b-21.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Erasing Hell, pt. 6

Chapter 6 – “What if God…”

Here we come to what was inevitable with a book by Francis Chan. If I have one complaint with his teachings, it is his hold to the idea that everything which happens is orchestrated by God. This I simply cannot believe. There is far too much in Scripture which denies this teaching. Before I get into that, though, let me dive into what he says in the chapter. As I go through, I will give some critique.

Chan begins by looking at Romans 9, and talks about how in this chapter, Paul is telling the Jews about their standing with God, and how God has the right to choose or discard according to His desire. Let’s look at a few verses, and then we’ll take some time to look into them.

“Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” – Romans 9:18-21 (NIV)

Chan says this passage is teaching that God makes decisions based on His own will as to who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. But is that what Paul is saying? Let me say three things which need to be known.

First, it is fairly certain that Paul was writing to people who believed God did predetermine everything, and this passage is actually Paul correcting some of their other theology, using their own theology against them. Okay, that might have been a confusing sentence, so let me explain. The Jews believed they were the chosen people, and as such, they would always be the people of God. Now Paul is telling them that they are not the people of God anymore, and that this designation has moved to the Church, which includes Jews and Gentiles. They were complaining about this, so Paul is using their theology, which says that God has the right to do whatever He wants, no matter what we want, and pointing it back at them. “Don’t you say God can do whatever He wants? Then you have no right to complain!”

Secondly, and in conjunction with this, remember the historical setting of the “Potter and clay” image. This comes from Jeremiah, where God sends Jeremiah to the house of the potter, and uses it as an image of Him as the Potter, and Israel as the clay. Look at Jeremiah 18:5-6: “Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?’ declares the LORD. ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’” (NIV) At first, it certainly appears to be what Chan is saying. God is all-determining; He chooses who will and will not be destroyed. We are clay in the hands of the Potter. However, we need to read the next two verses. “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” In fact, it seems as if we do have a part in determining our future. As Chan said earlier in the book, when looking at the passages concerning hell, it’s important to look at any verse in the context it was written, as well as the context from which it was taken if it’s quoted from the Old Testament, since that would have been the context the writer and readers understood.

The third thing which is important is to remember that Paul is not talking about salvation in individual terms. We have certainly become far too individualistic in our culture today, and it hinders our understanding of the Bible many times. In this passage, Paul is dealing with the nation of Israel, of which he is a part. As a matter of fact, almost every time the Bible talks about salvation, it is talking about a people, not a person. We are a body, a kingdom, a priesthood, a family and a community. So when Paul is talking about some destined for destruction, he is not talking about how certain individuals were chosen for destruction, but how certain groups of people were destined for hell. This is the group of people who have chosen to not follow Christ. So God does not choose individuals for heaven or hell, but instead chooses that all who follow Jesus will enter with Him into Glory.

Don’t misunderstand me; this chapter does have some good to it. A lot of the reason many seem to avoid the discussion or even belief of hell has nothing to do with what the Bible says, but about the fact that we are embarrassed to suggest God might send people there. Whatever your belief concerning whether God predetermines people to heaven and hell of not, there is danger is thinking we can understand everything God does and says. His ways and thoughts are certainly higher than ours. There are things I would look at that God allowed, commanded and did in the Bible which I question. I can point to stories and say “I’m not sure I would have done that.”

However, Chan is quick to point out that this is also true of the incarnation. If I were God, would I choose to send my Son into the world to die for people who had rejected me? Probably not. So I need to take all the things in the Bible I don’t understand, and be willing to put them into the hands of God. This doesn’t mean I don’t pursue answers, much like many in the Bible. I am allowed, and indeed encouraged, to wrestle with God and Scripture when it comes to places of confusion. However, I must be willing, even in my confusion, to confess the love of God and rejoice in Him. I will end (finally!) with a quote by Chan.

“As I have said all along, I don’t feel like believing in hell. And yet I do. Maybe someday I will stand in complete agreement with Him, but for now I attribute the discrepancy to an underdeveloped sense of justice on my part. God is perfect. And I joyfully submit to a God whose ways are much, much higher than mine.” (pg 141)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Erasing Hell, pt. 5

Chapter 5 – What Does This Have to do With Me?

The question we need to ask about hell, then, is what does any of this have to do with me? Surely, hell is all about non-Christians, not Christians. Why do we really need to understand this? Obviously, there is the whole idea of evangelism. We need to be going out and warning those who are in danger. This we know, but what about personally? This is a huge difficulty for most people.

To help us answer that question, Chan takes us to one of the most frightening passages in the Bible. It is in Matthew 7 that Jesus tells us “many” will think they are on their way to Heaven, will stand before Jesus on the Day of Judgment, and be in for a huge surprise. They will tell Jesus all about what they did in His name, but will not be allowed into His eternal Presence. Why? Jesus will tell them the answer: “I never knew you.”

So the question on every person’s heart should be this: “Am I one of the ‘many’ who will stand before Jesus, and still be sent away. You see, it’s to those who claim to be following God to which almost every passage concerning hell is directed. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk about it to non-believers, but that we need to make sure we have ourselves together first. So Chan takes another look at some of these passages in the New Testament on hell, and tells us to spend some time examining ourselves.

One passage where Jesus is talking about judgment and hell is in the context of Jesus helping a Roman soldier. Here Jesus is marveling at the faith of this one man, while the Jews were the ones looking down their noses at the Romans, yet still lacked faith themselves. This, Chan tells us, is a sign of racism, which clearly the Jews suffered from in that day. The racism had nothing to do with skin color; the Jews simply believed they were better than others, because God had chosen them. This racism was going to cause them to be destroyed. Jesus says “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their place at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The Kingdom of God has to do with faith, not race.

Chan talks about the need to reach out to those in need. The longest teaching of Jesus concerning Judgment Day has to do with this. It is those who gave water to the thirsty, visited those in prison, and so forth. We are called to reach out to the poor, and not caring for people in need is a sign that my faith is false and my religion is dead.

He then points his finger at people like me; those who are called to teach and preach. In James, Jude and II Peter, the warning is given to those who are false teachers. The tongue is a powerful tool for the Kingdom of God, but it is also powerful for the kingdom of Satan. There are warnings given throughout the Bible of the calling and responsibility God has given teachers and preachers, and therefore the judgment which will fall on them if they are negligent in what they say.

Finally, there are the lukewarm. Drawing from the letters to the churches in Revelation, Chan points out the danger of being lukewarm. The problem is that most people aren’t concerned with this, and are in fact enjoying their lukewarm Christianity. He points out that this is a huge problem in America today. “We have become dangerously comfortable—believers ooze with wealth and let their addictions to comfort and security numb the radical urgency of the gospel.” (pg. 124)

The danger is we will become so comfortable with our Christianity, that we won’t look to these passages and more which warn those who claim to be followers of Christ, yet are living as people of the world. We are the ones to whom most passages of hell are directed.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Erasing Hell, pt. 4

Chapter 4 – What Jesus’ Followers Said About Hell

So if Jesus clearly taught about hell, did his followers see it that way as well? Surely it was those closest to Jesus who understood his teachings best, so the question we must ask is whether or not they understood Him the way we understand Him. If it’s different than how we’ve taken it, maybe we need to reexamine what we’ve taken from Jesus. So what did they say?

Chan begins with Paul, and points out something interesting. Paul never uses the word “hell”. This is important to point out, because Rob Bell claims that he uses every verse in the Bible in which “hell” is used. This might be true, but though Paul doesn’t use the word “hell”, there is no mistaking that he uses the concepts and terms of hell which Jesus and the other teachers used quite frequently. It is Paul who says that those who do not obey Christ “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (II Thessalonians 1:9)

Of course, there are many who say that we shouldn’t preach the “hell-fire and brimstone” sermon. There have been people who went too far, and never paid any attention to the grace and love of God in their teaching, preaching or witnessing. That is certainly wrong. But we need to watch out that we don’t swing the opposite direction, and begin to ignore hell completely. Chan says “God is compassionate and just, loving and holy, wrathful and forgiving. We can’t sideline His more difficult attributes to make room for the palatable ones.” (pg. 101) There needs to be some balance.

Paul demonstrates this for us in Acts 17. Here we have Paul preaching a clear message of God, but doesn’t say anything of forgiveness, atonement or cross. There is, however, talk of the Day of Judgment. Paul tells the listeners that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.” This certainly isn’t an argument that we should only preach judgment, but that it is certainly wrong to ignore it.

He then goes to a couple other authors in the New Testament, Peter and Jude. In II Peter 2 and Jude we have some very vivid imagery. Demons and false teachers, along with the unrighteous, will be punished in hell. There will be “destruction,” “punishment,” “judgment,” “condemnation” and more.

Then, of course, you have the book of Revelation. No where is the image more vivid, though Chan doesn’t talk about the possibility of John using apocalyptic language. Regardless, though, of how realistic the images are, there are certain things you cannot avoid when you read Revelation. There will be a Judgment day, and the “cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for the murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8)

Do the writers back up the understanding we took from Jesus’ teachings? They certainly do, yet the idea of hell is so unpleasant, most don’t even think about it. I, with Chan, agree that I don’t often life as if hell is an actual place. “What causes my heart to ache right now as I’m writing this is that my life shows little evidence that I actually believe this. Every time my thoughts wander to the future of unbelievers, I quickly brush them aside so they don’t ruin my day. But there is a reality here that I can’t ignore.” (pg. 107)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Erasing Hell pt.3

Chapter 3 – What Jesus Actually Said About Hell

Chan begins and ends this chapter with a warning to not forget the seriousness of what we’re talking about. It seems that the study of hell put some fear in him even as he was writing it, and it’s important that it do the same for us. He asks us to stop, look around us, and notice the people who are milling about. Then remember that some of them could very well be on their way to hell. “This is not just about doctrine; it’s about destinies.” (pg. 72)

Then he dives into what Jesus had to say about hell. He spends a lot of his time in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), saying that this is the longest passage concerning judgment and hell in Jesus’ teachings. He then uses the same basic outline which he did in the chapter before, trying to show whether or not Jesus corrected the teachings of the people who were talking about hell at the same time. Surely, if they were teaching bad theology, Jesus would have corrected them. He certainly did when it came to legalism, because this gave a false image of God. If hell also gave a false image of God, Jesus certainly would have corrected it.

First, does Jesus talk about hell being a place of punishment or correction? Bell argues that those who go to hell, if there is such a place, largely go for the sake of correction or cleansing, and after that is done, they can then enter into heaven. However, in the parable of the sheep and goats, hell is clearly a place where people go after judgment because they didn’t follow Jesus. Nor is this seen as earthly judgment. While there is certainly “hell on earth” this is not what Jesus was talking about. He was referring instead to a hell which happens after judgment.

Then there is the question of punishment. The contemporaries of Jesus certainly depicted hell as a place of darkness and fire. Did Jesus correct this teaching? He certainly didn’t, using terms like “darkness”, “weeping”, and “everlasting fire.” Jesus taught very clearly that hell was a place of punishment.

Then there is the question of whether Jesus taught that those who died would be punished in hell forever, or whether Jesus taught that those in hell would eventually be annihilated. Are people in hell eventually destroyed? This is the question he poses, and Chan gives his opinion, which is the idea of an everlasting punishment. However, he leaves plenty of room for the other, stating that this isn’t one of the places where Jesus was abundantly clear. I found this interesting, and Chan simply moves on after telling us to spend some time looking at it ourselves.

He ends the chapter, though, just as he started. Let’s first be sure we leave this in God’s hands. “God has never asked us to figure our His justice or to see if His way of doing things is morally right. He has only asked us to embrace His Word and bow the knee.” An important reminder, which I’m afraid Bell forgot!

But it was the last statement which is perhaps the most important to remember: “Don’t get so lost in deciphering that you forget to tremble.”

Erasing Hell, pt 2

Chapter 2 – Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?

The goal for Chan in the second chapter of this book is to find out the context of teaching in which Jesus taught. In other words, what were the people teaching about hell in the time Jesus lived? This is important, because we find Jesus in the gospels constantly correcting bad theology. When the Pharisees were teaching things contrary to the teachings of the Old Testament, Jesus was pretty hard on them. So what they were teaching about hell, if it was too far off base, would need to be corrected. Also, they were using some of the same language which Jesus used, so it helps us to understand even more.

A problem which even Bell points out in “Love Wins” is that we need to understand Jesus according to His culture, not ours. Chan is certainly not arguing with him. However, he comes away with some very different thoughts. He points out four things about hell which were being taught in the time of Jesus.

First, he says they taught that hell is a place of punishment after judgment. After a person dies, they go to a “holding place” of sorts, which may or may not include some type of punishment. After the judgment, they are now thrown into hell. He is careful to point out that this punishment isn’t seen as “corrective” but “retributive.” It is most certainly judgment. He quotes an early writer who says that those who end up in hell after judgment “cannot now make a good repentance that they may live.”

Secondly, it is noted that hell is described in images of fire, darkness and lament. It is not a pleasant place at all, but a place of torment.

Interestingly, he points out that thirdly there were some people who were annihilationists. In other words, there were early Jews who believed that those who ended up in hell were only there for a time, and after their punishment was completed, they would be destroyed forever, never to live again.

The fourth thing he points out is that this was not a universal belief. Many believed in a never-ending punishment. Those who went to hell would remain there for all of eternity, and would not be destroyed.

If these things were all being taught while Jesus walked on earth, how does that change the way we understand His teachings? It should certainly make us wonder why, if Universalism is correct, Jesus never set the teachers around Him right.

The final few pages of this chapter deal with the issue of Gehenna. There is a lot of controversy concerning Gehenna. Bell contends that it was a garbage dump, and Jesus was talking about the fact that after we die, it is more like a dump than the ideas we commonly think of (fire, weeping…etc). Does this hold water?

Actually, no, it doesn’t. Chan points out that just because Jesus uses something like a garbage dump to illustrate hell, it doesn’t make the other things we are taught about hell any less true. The point of an illustration isn’t to be a complete explanation, but a picture of a larger truth. (I wonder if Bell believes we live in a mustard seed?)

The other thing which was fascinating is that Chan calls Bell on using the idea of a garbage dump at all, since there is no writing until around the year 1200 AD that calls Gehenna a garbage dump. Even then, it was used as an allegory of hell and destruction.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Erasing Hell, pt 1

I would like to do a chapter by chapter review and commentary on Francis Chan’s book “Erasing Hell.” I recently read and reviewed “Love Wins” by Rob Bell, and thought this would be a good follow up to that. I went into this book quite a bit more hopeful, and so far, Chan is living up to that hope.
Right from the introduction, Chan gives some clear warnings. It’s not about what I want, but what the Bible says, and when it comes to the subject of hell, we need to be cautious. “When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong. This is not one of those doctrines where you can toss in your two cents, shrug your shoulders, and move on. Too much is at stake. Too many people are at stake. And the Bible has much to say.” (pg. 14-15) Hell is real, and Chan says we need to take it seriously enough to study it, learn about it, and weep over it. So let’s dive in.

Chapter 1 – Does Everyone Go To Heaven?

One of my biggest critiques when it came to Bell’s book was his constant habit of quoting verses without dealing with their context. Chan seems to have a problem with this too, as he starts right out dealing with Bell and other Universalists, talking about the passages they use to defend their position. He demonstrates how their proof passages are not really that at all, if looked at in their immediate context.
Chan uses Philippians 2 as an example, showing the context of the phrase “every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” He points out the verses in chapters 1 and 3 which speak clearly of those whose “end is destruction.” If all you have are three verses from Philippians, there might be some argument to be made for universalism. However, we have a lot more of Philippians than that, and we are called to rightly divide the word of God, not divide the word of God so we can be right. An important distinction, to say that least.
Not only this, but Chan points out that Paul is quoting a passage in Isaiah, which also speaks of the destruction of the wicked. Huh, context and cross referencing? Now that’s some innovative thinking!
My biggest worry, though, in reading Chan’s book is that I know he’s a pretty staunch Calvinist, meaning he believes that God’s sovereignty doesn’t just mean all-powerful, as I believe, but all-determining, which I don’t believe. So I was a little concerned when, on page 30, Chan says that God gets everything he wants. Thankfully, Chan finds balance by pointing out the difference between the “moral” will of God and the “decreed” will of God. Chan says that God has a “moral” will, which is that none will go to hell, but that this will doesn’t always happen because God gives the chance for us to choose. However, there is also the “decreed” will of God, which means there are some things which God decrees, which wouldn’t be morally pleasing to Him. Quite frankly, Chan seems ambiguous on this point, at the very least. Perhaps he’ll clear himself up as we go along in the book.
So for clarification, let me state my belief on the will of God, and how His sovereignty plays into my thoughts on our eternal destiny. I don’t believe God gets everything He wants, because I believe God created us to love, and love is a choice. Therefore, God had to allow us to not love Him in order for our love to be genuine. If this is the case, there will be some who break God’s heart by rejecting Him, and they will end up in hell. This is often called the “permissive” will of God. God doesn’t want me to sin, but still gives me the ability to do this, because He loves me and wants me to love Him in return.
Chan ends this chapter with the crux of the matter. “…there is no single passage in the Bible that describes, hints at, hopes for, or suggests that someone who dies without following Jesus in this life will have an opportunity to do so after death.” (pg. 35) Now that’s a bold statement, but one that Universalists have to deal with.
In Love Wins, Bell claimed he used all the passages which dealt with hell. After listing a few of them, Bell says “Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word ‘hell’ in the Bible they got from those verses you just read.” I said in my review that he fell short of actually using every passage. There were Old Testament passages he left out, but one of the most important New Testament passages on hell actually answers the question of a second chance, after death, and whether hell is a reality for those who aren’t ready for Him. One passage he ignored was Matthew 25:1-13.
Bell goes so far as to suggest that God could never say “Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been there earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late.” The passage I mentioned above actually says something similar. Chan points this out same phrase by Bell out, and gives another passage to deal with it; Luke 13:25-28. Both of these passages clearly point out that we can indeed be shut out, and once that happens, the doors will not be opened.
Well, this book has been good so far. More to come, I’m sure.

Approaching Scripture with a "Yes"

I recently asked the people at my church a series of questions, listed below. I didn't ask them these things assuming God would ask them to do them, but wanting to know if people would be willing to obey God no matter what. Too often we approach Bible reading wanting to know what God wants, and then deciding whether we will obey, rather than asking God to speak to us, planning on saying yes no matter what He says. Not an easy attitude. But I think these are valuable questions to ask, and maybe consider once in a while. Some of them are easy, but don't focus on those. What about the harder ones? What about the ones which aren't comfortable, easy or convenient? What are we going to do about those?

What if?
If Jesus asked you to stop watching tv for a year, would you?
If Jesus asked you to witness to one new person every week, would you?
If Jesus asked you to stop going out to eat, would you?
If Jesus asked you to be a missionary to Africa, Brazil, New York or Black Lick, would you?
If Jesus asked you to fast one day a week, and give that money to the poor, would you?
If Jesus asked you to get a different job so you could spend more time serving Him, would you?
If Jesus asked you to not go out to movies any more, would you?
If Jesus asked you to get rid of one vehicle so you could give more to those in need, would you?
If Jesus asked you to give up Steelers football, would you?
If Jesus asked you to move to a smaller house so you could give more to those in need, would you?
If Jesus asked you to give 20 hours a week to helping people who didn’t like you or show gratitude, would you?
If Jesus asked you to give 20% of your income to Him, would you?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On the Verge

I was excited to get a copy of “On the Verge” (Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson), as I’ve been struggling with a couple of things lately in my role as pastor. First, the need to be missional and transform communities by the love of Jesus is obviously Biblical, as well as the call God puts on every believer and group of believers. But the “how” of that isn’t always so obvious. A lot of books want to tell you how a particular group did this, but most of them haven’t dealt with anything close to the situation I pastor in. So the first thing I was looking for was some practical things I could do to help me get an idea of what was needed. Secondly, I wanted to know how to infuse into my leadership and congregation exactly what I feel as if God has put inside of me. These two things have been burning in me, and it has been my intention, through preaching, teaching and leading to get these things instilled in my people. On the Verge manages to help answer these questions in very thoughtful and practical ways, without sounding like a how-to manual, which is unfortunately what a lot of church leadership books read like.

There are some very key themes used throughout the book. Imagination, risk, innovation and missional people are just a few. The introduction starts right there, pointing out the thing most pastors need to know; how to instill into every individual the call of God on them to be a player in the Kingdom of God.

Chapter one begins to lay out the problem with the numbers 60/40. According to Hirsch and Ferguson, approximately 40% of people in America today are touched in some way by the church, and most congregations are fighting over those people, while the other 60% are barely touched by the gospel. Worse than that, the church seems to not have an answer to this problem. Institutions have become the focal point of many groups, or arguments about worship and preaching style, and so “win” the battle for the 40% who are already being reached, rather than focusing on reaching those who aren’t connected with any of these things, or more importantly, Jesus.

The book is written in four parts; Imagine, Shift, Innovate and Move. Chapters two through six, written primarily by Alan Hirsch, begin to tell us how we can address these problems. It must begin, he says, with imagination. Too often we have spent our time looking at what we are, rather than what we want to become. Then we imagine our way forward. This is where it gets difficult, because if you’re like me, you want a manual, but it is only Spirit-guided imagination, seeking to get into the minds and hearts of those on the “outside” and re-discovering ways of touching them which will be effective. There will not be one solution to this problem; each community will present unique situations, and believers must answer them with unique solutions.

One thing I really liked is the push to have churches recognize themselves as mission organizations. If we will do this, we will then understand it is our responsibility to cross cultural barriers, not ask those outside the church to do the hard work for us. On page 73, Hirsch says this; “If we persist with the current status quo, we are in effect asking the nonbeliever to do all the cross-cultural work in coming to church! Remember, we are the sent ones—not them.”

So helping the people move forward needs to begin, not with the solution, but by pointing to the problem. There is something which is wrong in our nation today, and if we have the answer, yet aren’t seeing significant change for the good of our communities, this is an issue which we need to find an answer to. And it is our responsibility, not theirs!

In the “Shift” section, the discussion moves to the mDNA, or the missional DNA which is in each church living out mission in community. The authors are quick to point out that this DNA is in all Christians and groups of believers, because they are part of the nature of following after Christ. Even if they aren’t tapped, they are there. These six are the lordship of Christ, disciple making, missional-incarnational impulse, apostolic environment, organic systems and communitas. If we are going to “imagine” our way forward, and shift the movement of ourselves and communities, they will be done through these core essentials.

From this DNA, we create an ethos, which includes our values, those we call heroes, the symbols we use and our belief system. All the programs in the church are centered on what our ethos is, which is built from our mDNA. This will look different in different churches, depending on a community’s needs, the heart of those who are leading, and the individuals who are becoming missionaries in their own environments. From our ethos come the practices we participate in as a church.

In the “Innovate” section, Dave Ferguson takes over the main writing, and begins by talking about the need for true innovation, not simply copying someone else’s good idea. I appreciated the three things he mentioned were necessary for us to be good leaders. First, we need to lead from the front, and honestly ask ourselves this question: “If people only imitated me, would they be doing God’s mission?” This is a crucial question which challenged me greatly. Secondly, we lead with curiosity, not certainty. The need to take risks is not to be underrated. Finally, we lead with a yes, encouraging people in their own personal missions. Included in this section is a chapter with some “how-to’s” concerning innovation, including the need to do new things, not just do things better and allowing everyone to participate in the mission.

Dave also writes the “Move” section, which he begins by helping the reader evaluate where their particular church is. If we know where we are, we’ll know more what needs to change. This questioning moves into the final chapter of the book as well, as we are asked the important questions so we can figure out how to begin or continue a movement within our churches.

The book concludes with some examples of what that author’s call “Verge” churches; churches which are living out the Apostolic Genius, communities of missionaries, taking the gospel into their own personal communities.

All in all, this was an excellent books, with Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson each taking different chapters, with the other one having a few pages of response at the end of each chapter. It was nice to read two different voices on the same subject, and I felt myself challenged in different ways by both of them. I’m very thankful for this book, and believe it will help me a great deal in the future as I continue to seek the heart of God in the world I live in.

One final word: while this book is very practical, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s not also deeply spiritual. The emphasis on the lordship of Christ, the guidance of the Spirit and the heart of the Father are all over the place. You can’t miss it. But that shouldn’t ever take away from the practical lessons of leadership, and I appreciate the difficult edge they walked in order to bring us this book. I look forward to reading more from the Exponential series.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Love Wins - Rob Bell

As if you needed another review of Rob Bell’s book, and as if you wanted one from me, I thought I would at least share my thoughts.
First, let me say that from the beginning, I have defended Bell. This wasn’t because I agreed with him. Actually, I would say that I didn’t really defend Bell at all, but defended his right to write this book. I have never read anything by Bell, and so I couldn’t really defend what he believed. Anyway, this seemed to get me on the bad side of some. Oh well. Its fun over here, you should try it!
The first reason I defended Bell was because most of the people who talked about the book never actually read the book. They saw some things, assumed some things, and spoke from that. This is why the only thing I posted on my page with reference to this book was an interview with Bell. I think he should be allowed to speak for himself. I never stated whether I agreed with him or not, and the reason for that is because I just didn’t know. I hadn’t read it. Now I have, so I’ll speak to the book in a bit.
The second reason, and bigger, I defended this book is because, whether I agree with him or not, Bell is not debating creedal positions of the Church. I believe that those things contained in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds are fundamentals to the faith. In other words, to deny them is to deny Christianity itself. There is no mention of Heaven or Hell in the creeds, so differences of interpretation are allowed within Christendom. There are some who believe in the annihilation theory, universalism, the idea that “hell is locked from the inside”, and what we know as the traditional views evangelicals today. You can believe any of these things, and as far as I’m concerned, still be a Christian. I personally am okay with the discussion. In fact, I encourage it, because I believe it is healthy for us.
I know that for me there are many things I believe fundamentally, but are not fundamentals. I have debated them over the years, and some things have changed in my own theology. I have different views on the sacraments and end times than I did ten years ago. I imagine I will have even more things in my theology fine tuned as I continue to grow in grace and knowledge.
In addition to this, those things which I didn’t change, I found myself growing even stronger in those beliefs. I am a Wesleyan Arminian, meaning I am a 1 point Calvinist…I’ll let you figure out which one that is! I have debated these issues, and reached crisis points of my own within them, but have always come back to them believing them to stand solidly on Scripture and historical integrity.
Because I feel pretty strongly about this, I tend to try to spread my reading into books which I feel uncomfortable with, or am pretty sure I’ll disagree with. Some of the time I was right, some of the time I was mostly right, and other times I wasn’t very right at all! I’m sure that sentence makes sense.
There were a lot of people who were terrified when “The Davinci Code” came out. What was going to happen? Were people going to abandon Christianity because they had no faith in Scripture? But I heard someone, I think it was Lee Strobel, point out that there was no reason to fear. What do we have to be afraid of? When people started taking the claims made by a work of fiction and comparing them to actual history, it turned out they didn’t have much to worry about. Scripture stood strongly against the barrage of lies.
But on to Love Wins. It’s actually difficult on some levels for me to say how I feel. The more I read the book, the more I found myself not sure what I thought. Let me explain. I would read one page, and I would agree with everything there. Then I would read another page, same chapter, and disagree with everything there. It’s not as if there was one chapter I liked, and then the next I didn’t.
It finally dawned on me what was going on. Bell argues against a god I’ve never served, and for a god I have no interest in serving. So in a lot of ways, I agreed with him. He argues against a God who carelessly tosses people into hell for all eternity. He tells us that we need to be careful to state that Heaven and Hell are not only future things, but present realities. At this point in the book, I was totally with him. And, to be honest, I don’t know many Christians who would disagree. I remember hearing Colson, years ago, speaking on just this topic. He said that many people today think you have to go through hell on earth to get to Heaven, and heaven on earth would land you in Hell. Obviously, I don’t believe that, and neither did Colson, and neither does Bell.
This I’m okay with. I think there are many Christians today who live in complete bondage and fear (not the good kind) of God. That’s wrong. Jesus came to give us life, and life more abundantly. The problem is that instead of trying to find some type of center, Bell goes to the opposite extreme, and attempts, throughout the book, to show God as a God who doesn’t judge us for the way we choose to live. Now, I think there is an important center to the way God judge’s people. I’m not always sure what that center is.
So there were certainly things I liked about the book. He says in here that our “eschatology shapes our ethics.” I don’t know that I would make the statement that strong, but I certainly think that our view on the end times is important to our every day life. It does change the way we live today. So for him, the discussion of Heaven and Hell is important, because our view on these things will determine the way we live and evangelize today.
In light of this, I also appreciated how global his scope of evangelism was. That’s important. We need to see the world as our mission. Again, though, nothing new. “The world is my parish.” Ummm, that isn’t Bell, that’s Wesley.
Anyway, I think a lot of the good of this book is drawn from Bell’s unwillingness to judge someone’s eternal status. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not my place to judge a heart. I can judge someone’s actions while they are on earth, detecting whether they are truly bearing fruit, but that is only for corrective and discipleship purposes, not for eternal judgment purposes. One thing which was funny is that he tells us not to judge a person’s eternal destiny when, by all appearances, they are evil. Yet he is more than happy to do this when it comes to someone who is good. Where’s the balance? I believe there will be people in Heaven that will surprise me, and people who won’t be there that will surprise me just as much.
The problem is, there was a lot more which was bad in this book. There are several “rules” for Biblical interpretation, and Bell seems to ignore almost all of them. When he quotes verses, there is no fear of ignoring context. He doesn’t understand that some writings are intended to be taken figuratively, rather than literally, though a big part of his debate is wrapped around trying to do get everyone else to do that in regards to the passages concerning Heaven and Hell.
Also, he says he uses all of the passages on hell from the Bible, but he seems to have missed some, which apparently didn’t fit in with his concepts. Maybe Bell forgot his Strong’s Concordance?
There are also concepts of salvation that he either doesn’t get, or doesn’t care about, or just ignores for the sake of his arguments. The process of grace, then faith, then repentance, and then works seems to elude him completely. He argues some things that just don’t make sense when you read the Bible as a whole. One major problem I had is that Bell seems to ignore the idea of repentance. Non-repentance reveals an unchanged heart. That poses a problem when it comes to judgment. Speaking of judgment, Bell also ignores completely the Day of Judgment. Say what you will, this is not a minor issue in Scripture.
I do think that this book will bother those from the Calvinist view point more than those from the Arminian. The reason for that is because Bell talks about the fact that if people go to hell, God doesn’t get what he wants, and this is a failure on God’s part. So obviously God must get what he wants, which is the eternal option of Heaven. So also people must get what they want, so they have to have the eternal option of Heaven.
I don’t have a problem with God not getting what He wants. That is certainly Scriptural. There are things which happen which God doesn’t desire, and people who will go to Hell that God desires to be in Heaven. I also don’t have a problem with people having the option of going to Heaven. I believe everyone will get the opportunity to choose God; I just think that will happen here.
Whether or not I would encourage you to read this book is difficult. For me, it’s not a problem to pick up a book which is filled with bad Biblical interpretation. I know how to discern, and understand what isn’t being said, along with what is. If you fit in that category, this book may be helpful to you. It will, at the least, encourage you to study your own thoughts on eternity, and hopefully change the way you live today.
I guess I would say this; don’t make this the only, or even the first, book you read on Heaven and Hell. Study Scripture, look at some theologians and listen to sermons from trust sources. If you do read this, please remember that Bell writes from a pastoral perspective. He is not a theologian. That changes the way he writes, and the way we should read.