EMAIL THIS PAGE       PRINT       RSS      

Trying To Avoid That Rob Bell Thing.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the evangelical theological constructs that surround me.  I’ve had some really great conversations lately with a number of deep-thinking people, so I end up floating around these things.  Without going into many details, I have begun to recognize more and more the differences between what I believe and experience, and the conceptual models that attempt to explain what it is I believe and experience.

For example, what do I really believe about me, in contrast to what do I see as the conceptual models that attempt to explain me?

The “Four Spiritual Laws” tries to explain me this way: God loves me, but because of my sin, I had separated myself from that love.  I am fundamentally a sinner, separating me from Him with an unfathomable gulf which cannot be bridged by my own efforts.

Now I do believe this to be true.  Except that fundamentally, I don’t think that’s how God sees me.

God sees me as imago dei, a person lovingly created in His Image.  I am an expression of God’s existence and likeness, and His love for and benevolence toward mankind.  My creativity, passion, intellect, sentience, and free will point to the reality of God’s existence in the universe, which in itself also points to Him.  That is who I am fundamentally.  The sin part is the part I added on later.

This is a subtle but immensely important difference.  Jesus did not come to fix, but to restore.  He is putting it back to where it was intended to be.

Here’s another example.  The book of Mark says,  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”  (Mark 16:16)  But the word “believe” sometimes means something different in the evangelical construct.

“Believe” should mean living a life in increasing measure under the reign and rule of a loving God.  But sometimes, in the modernity-driven, evangelical construct, “believe” means assenting to a set of belief statements.  American evangelicalism, in particular, has inadvertently defined Christianity as the conviction to a set of doctrinal beliefs rather than as a lifestyle of surrender to Jesus.  And as such, faith (and even who gets to go to heaven or hell) can then be measured according to the rightness of one’s system, instead of than how and for whom you live your life.

Yes, I’m trying very hard not to refer to the firestorm concerning “Rob Bell,” one way or the other.  And no, I don’t have any desire to give you whatever incomplete and uninformed opinions I might have on the subject either.  But I do think that it is a shame if our doctrine gets in the way of following Jesus.

One thing I will share.  I think that we fool ourselves when we think we can fully explain all that God has done and will do for us.  So as I see these differences between what I believe and experience, and the conceptual models that attempt to explain what it is I believe and experience, I find myself more and more comfortable with the idea of mystery.

Yes, we can know—beyond simple “belief”—many things revealed.  And we should be intelligent and thoughtful about such things.  But for the many, many more things we know not, I am simply more willing to embrace the mystery of it all.

I think that’s the smartest thing anyone can do.


Evangelicals often affirm that salvation is by faith/belief. Do you also interpret this as "salvation is by 'living a life in increasing measure under the reign and rule of a loving God." If so, how would you distinguish that from a view that says salvation is by "works"?

Great essay, thanks! I haven't plunged into the Bell controversy myself . . .

Hi C. Ehrlich:

Thanks for your question. No, I don't believe in salvation by works. It is by faith through Jesus. But it is a faith that is lived out, not simply belief in a set of tenets or doctrine. I think James 2 says it much more eloquently than I.

But my question arises because you seem to want to say that faith simply means "living a life in increasing measure under the reign and rule of a loving God." So if faith is equivalent to living increasingly according to the rule, and salvation is by faith, then salvation is by living increasingly according to the rule. And that looks a lot like salvation by works.

Do you want to say that faith does not simply mean "living a life in increasing measure under the reign and rule of a loving God"? If so, then what else is it?

Hello once again C. Ehrlich:

Thanks for your reply. Perhaps your question arises because you seem to want me to say that faith simply means "living a life in increasing measure under the reign and rule of a loving God." (Really, how can you live any kind of dynamic relationship with Christ without that?) But no, that is not what I imply.

What I am implying is that there are people—many who are in our American churches—who profess to "believe" in Christ, but whose lives do not reflect that belief. As a pastor, I am very focused on helping my people learn to live as a disciple of Christ, not just as a quote/unquote "believer" of Christ.

If the question behind your question is whether or not people are "going to heaven" because they "prayed a prayer" or "made a decision," I honestly have gotten to the point to where I don't always know the answers to those things practically. People have a great capacity for deception and self-deception. But what I do know is that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And those who produce the fruits of the Spirit have the Spirit, and they are "going to heaven."

One other thing. People often dispense with the pleasantries of conversation in these blog threads. This has a tendency to depersonalize and make discourse and disagreement difficult. I try hard to push back at that, because I know that you are a person, and I want to treat you that way. I hope you do the same for me. Think of it as one way to "live under the reign and rule of God." Blessings today!

Good evening Mr. Luz; I hope you have had a pleasant weekend.

I'm actually not wanting you to say one thing or the other; my "question behind" these questions is simply what, more precisely, you are saying, and whether or not what you are saying is plausible and significant.

From your last comment, I take it that you do not think that faith simply means "living a life in increasing measure under the reign and rule of a loving God." My follow up question was this: what else does it mean?

(One of the things I am wondering here is whether or to what extent you can really avoid the conclusion that "faith (and even who gets to go to heaven or hell) can be measured according to the rightness of one’s system." Even though "assenting to a set of belief statements" or "doctrinal beliefs" may not be the entirety of all that saving faith implies, it may still be a necessary condition. But if it is a necessary condition....)

Hey C. Ehrlich:

Okay, I think I know where you're coming from. Is believing in the correct set of belief statements a necessary condition of salvation? I think the answer is very much yes and sometimes no, depending on the degree. That might be an inflammatory statement, so I'll explain my thinking.

On one hand, if one is not following Jesus, or following the wrong Jesus, then it follows that one's salvation is doubtful. (I won't go into detail on that one, because I think we're on the same page there.) On the other hand, the first-century Christians did not have our model of the Trinity, nor our theories of the atonement, nor many of the other theological constructs we've developed over the last 2000 years. They didn't even have a fully formed Bible for that matter. But we know that many of them were saved. They KNEW Jesus, and they loved and lived and died for Him.

So while it is vitally important to understand and have right Theology of God, it does not replace right Relationship with God. In all the debates going on right now, I encourage everyone to have humility in the former, and lean into the latter, but pay attention to both.

A group from my church was meeting with Dallas Willard, and we asked him, what does sharing your faith look like to him? I was expecting some long treatise on the nature of evangelism or something, but he simply replied, "I ask them, 'Are you a friend of Jesus?'" I thought that was pretty cool. Blessings!

Mr. Luz,

I find your responses refreshingly serious and thoughtful.

Let's agree that mere assent to a particular creed, however correct, is not a failsafe indication that a person is "saved". Assuming, however, that saving faith is not simply a matter of what one does, then it does require a certain belief content--or, as you say, it requires one to "understand and have right Theology of God." Now let's also agree that none of us may know for certain the precise content of this essential theology. Finally, we also assume that, in many cases, none of us know for certain whether or not a given individual's personal beliefs happen to align with this essential theology, whatever it is.

The remaining concern is that all of this is consistent with the idea that, at least in a great many cases, the evaluation of the person's theological system may be the best way to assess that person's faith and his/her current status with respect to salvation. So long as it is still essential to one's salvation "to understand and have right Theology of God," it is still difficult to deny the legitimacy of so much of what is intuitively troublesome about "that Rob Bell thing"--or about the emphasis that so many evangelicals place upon doctrinal purity.

I'm listening to the audiobook of The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I think his words are very helpful here. To paraphrase, he uses the sentence, "Only he who believes obeys, and only he who obeys believes," to show that, while it is proper to separate faith and obedience to distinguish between the salvific work that is God's alone, that is where the separation should end. Essentially, it is this obsessive fear of letting in the boogey-man of "works" as a means of salvation that has actually ended up resulting in what Bonhoeffer calls "cheap grace." That is, the Church (of Luther, in context, but as a whole the admonition applies) so emphasized the "cheap" forgiveness of sin that it ended up justifying the sin and not the sinner. By faithfully walking in obedience to Christ, sin is not justified but confessed and forgiven, and the sinner is justified (by faith in Christ that is demonstrated by obedience).

Thank you, Scott, for this post. I found it very helpful.

Hey Scott. Thanks for the Bonhoeffer perspective, which is very helpful!

Thank you, Scott, for this post. I found it very helpful.

»  Become a Fan or Friend of this Blogger
A rock musician turned rocket engineer turned Christian artist, MANUEL LUZ is a creative arts pastor, working musician, and author. His new book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist, is released by Moody Publishers.