If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Rob Bell

Paul Coulter continues his review of Rob Bell's book Love Wins by considering Bell's views on the necessity of repentance and faith.

Why Does it Matter?

We might ask at this point what the practical relevance of this whole discussion is. Why does it matter how God works out the details of the world to come? Can we not leave these questions to God and remain unconvinced of any position? It matters for a very important reason. The message that Bell proclaims has no urgency because it has no finality. It is as if he is saying, “Respond to God’s love (how could you not) but if you don’t God will just wait and wait until you do, so take your own time about it”. The result of this is that it puts us in control of the situation and makes God our servant. Instead of understanding that we are moral creatures responsible to our Creator, we become the master and God’s plan of a universe where all is put right is put on indefinite hold while we continue to enjoy our sin and self-worship. This version of the ‘gospel’ includes no call to repentance. When the ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’ (which can be understood narrowly as the assertion that Jesus is Lord or broadly as the whole grand story of God’s redemptive plan) is proclaimed in the New Testament it always includes the call to, in the words of Jesus, “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

This is also true of John the Baptist’s preaching (Matthew 3:2), the proclamation of Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38; 3:19), and of Paul’s message to both Jews (Acts 13:39) and Gentiles (Acts 17:30). Although some of these passages emphasise faith (belief) and others emphasise repentance, we should not see the difference as contradictory in any sense. In fact the linking of repentance and faith is an important aspect of a proper understanding of the biblical meaning of faith. Faith is not simply the belief that certain things are true, but the transference of confidence (trust) away from our own ability to shape and rule our lives and onto Christ. Instead of worshipping false gods and serving ourselves, we turn away from these things (repentance) to worship and serve the living God (faith). Our trust is placed in Christ’s death as the basis through which God makes us right with Himself and in his resurrection power as the basis through which we can live a life that pleases God.

What is Saving Faith?

Does Bell’s ‘gospel’ include this call to repentance and faith? He does say some things about ‘faith’, although he fails to understand it in the terms we have just outlined. He falls into a basic error when he mentions, towards the climax of a long list of supposedly contradictory biblical accounts of salvation, the demons believing and doesn’t seem to realise that this belief is not the same as saving faith since he infers from it that faith may not be essential for salvation (p.18). This is ironic given the fact that the biblical context in which the demons’ belief is mentioned is an argument by James that ‘faith’ that does not result in changed actions is not faith at all (James 2:19 in context). James never suggests that faith is not necessary for salvation! Bell seems like a drowning man who thinks a life-jacket is a kind of anchor and so refuses to ask for one to be thrown to him! Another passage that Bell uses to suggest that faith may not be necessary for salvation is John 14:6 (we have already referred to some of his discussion of this verse at an earlier point) where he claims that Jesus “doesn’t say [...] how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him” (p.154). The context, however, does provide the ‘mechanism’, since Jesus has already called the disciples to trust in Him as well as God (verse 1) and he returns to the importance of faith later in the chapter (verses 11-12). Later in the same discourse he speaks about the importance of abiding in Him, which includes obedience to his commands (John 15:1-17). The mechanism that “gets people to God” through Jesus is a relationship with him that begins and continues with faith!

Bell also infers that the dying thief to whom Jesus promised Paradise didn’t necessarily ‘believe’, since he simply asked to be remembered in the “age to come” (pp.54-5), but this not only twists the relevant passage, which actually records him speaking of kingdom as being Jesus’ kingdom rather than a general concept of a coming age (Luke 23:42), it also misunderstands the meaning of faith again. How could the thief ask this of Jesus if he didn’t believe certain things about him and how could his cry be interpreted as anything other than an expression of confidence that Jesus had the power to include him in the kingdom? Bell turns an example of repentance and faith into an argument against the necessity of either! Elsewhere, Bell writes that, “Our trusting, our change of hearts, our believing God’s version of our story doesn’t bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is” (p.188). In other words, he is prepared to allow that faith is a good thing, but he refuses to acknowledge that it is necessary. God has already written the story; our faith is merely an acknowledgement of its truth. Faith does not actually effect salvation – it is simply an acknowledgement that we are already saved! This is not how the apostle Paul described it when he said that we have been saved “through faith” (Ephesians 2:8) or how the writer of Hebrews saw it when he wrote “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Bell’s view of faith is necessary to his hope that Universalism is correct, but it arises out of distortions of the biblical evidence. Another such distortion is seen in his treatment of Jesus’ words on the cross when he prayed for his father to forgive those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). Bell writes that, “Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it” (p.188). This is not, however, what the text says, since it records the prayer of Jesus and does not tell us that the people were in fact forgiven (not to mention the addition of the word “all” which is clearly a nod in the direction of ‘Universalism’). Furthermore, in implying that this is evidence for the possibility of forgiveness without faith, Bell neglects the words “for they know not what they are doing”. The forgiveness for which Jesus prays is for the sin of crucifying an innocent man who was none other than the Son of God. Of the true identity of Jesus the Roman soldiers were ignorant. Jesus was not speaking of forgiveness for all of their sins or for all people but of forgiveness for a specific sin of ignorance on the part of this group of men. Furthermore, Luke’s record of these words is intended to tell us something about the character of Jesus rather than to be an exhaustive theology of forgiveness. Bell, however, constructs on the basis of this verse a claim that, “Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up – God has already done it” (p.189). Bell reserves a place for faith in some sense, but it is simply about accepting God’s love and does not apparently need to contain any belief in actual facts about God or Jesus:

I believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience it. Whatever words you find helpful for describing this act of trust, Jesus invites us to say yes to this love of God, again and again and again. (p.194)

The belief that saving faith does not necessarily require any beliefs about Jesus is also clear in another passage where Bell writes:

But in reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word ‘hell,’ what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point. He’s often not talking about ‘beliefs’ as we think of them – he’s talking about anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of his listeners’ hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbours, about the kind of effect they have on the world. (p.82)

This is a wonderful example of the kind of ‘half-truths’ that abound in Love Wins. Bell is correct to claim that God is concerned with the state of our hearts, but there is no dichotomy between this and what we believe to be true. Humbling ourselves and dealing with the issue of the heart must happen as a result of realising what is true about ourselves and about God. Saving faith does not have to know much about God, but it must rest on some truths, at least the facts that God “exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). By this definition faith must rest on knowledge of facts, but Bell seems intent to reduce it to simply saying yes to God’s love. No wonder this faith is so unimportant since it is so lacking in substance. Furthermore, Jesus does talk frequently about people’s relationship to Him and to the kingdom! He calls people to recognise what is true and leave behind the falsehood that they prefer to believe. He calls them out of the darkness into the light (John 3:19-21).

Is Repentance Necessary?

So much for what Bell says about faith, but what about the other half of the picture, repentance, without which it cannot be true biblical faith? On this he is completely silent! Even when discussing the parable of the Lost Son he fails to mention the concept of repentance. He understands the issue to be whether or not the sons accept the father’s version of their story or their own (p.166), whereas the issue is actually one of repentance. The ‘prodigal’ son repented of his foolishness and returned to the father, but the older son did not repent because he did not recognise that he needed to. That the stories of Luke 15 are about repentance is clear from verses 7 and 10, where Jesus speaks of the joy in heaven that results from the repentance of a sinner. This formula is found at the end of the first two parables but it missing from the end of the third story precisely because it is intended to provoke us to ask who needs to repent. By saying it twice Jesus has created the expectation in the hearers’ minds that it will come at the end of the third story and by failing to say it again the third time he actually leaves it ringing more loudly in their minds.

Bell does not appear to recognise any need for a person to turn away from the idols they have created and to recognise that they were wrong in order to accept God’s love. Forgiveness is not, after all, contingent upon a response, it is already ours. This is, of course, completely consistent with Bell’s distorted view of God’s character and of sin. Our real problem is not that we have been actively rebelling against God and choosing to worship other gods in defiance of him but that we have been ignoring God’s love for us.

Biblical repentance and faith involves giving up thinking that I deserve to be saved and accepting God’s undeserved grace that saves. It means humbling myself to be able to receive His mercy! Scripture consistently teaches that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, both through direct statements to that effect (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5) and through the numerous examples it contains. Bell, by contrast, almost seems to encourage an attitude of pride in his readers by allowing them to assume that they deserve God’s love, that he will save them whatever they have done and that he will do it in their time and on their terms. I do not mean to say that Bell actually believes this, but I maintain that it would be a fair inference for a biblically uninformed reader to make from the book.

Go to Bell’s use of Scripture

© 2011 Paul Coulter
This article is published on bethinking.org by the kind permission of the author.