It’s grown fashionable to raise a lot of dust to obscure Christianity’s very exclusive claims. Rob Bell is just the latest and hippest in a long line of folks whose chief theological talent seems to be blowing smoke and arranging mirrors. But while conservatives love to bash Rob Bell, we have been much, much slower to learn a key lesson that Bell’s existence and popularity ought to teach us — a lesson about how our presentation of the ‘good’ news often sounds to today’s unbelieving world.
“If you were to stand before God right now, and He said to you, ‘Why should I let you into my perfect heaven?’ what would you tell Him?”
Suppose you ask this question to your new neighbor, Fred. Like a lot of people, Fred begins to talk about how he’s a decent guy who’s done a lot of good in this world. “Of course I’m not perfect,” Fred says, “but I’m a good person.”
Suppose you take Fred to one of our standard response verses, Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” There’s the problem, you say. Bringing God your good works can’t be the answer, because salvation is not of works.
So far, so good.
Then you lay out the alternative: There’s a message God wants Fred to believe. It’s not about salvation by works at all; Jesus did all the work. Fred just needs to believe that…[fill in Saving Proposition here]. Within Free Grace circles, there are various conceptions of the Saving Proposition: “Jesus gives resurrection and eternal life to those who believe Him for it,” or “Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried, rose the third day and was seen by witnesses” or “Jesus promises everlasting life” or “Jesus promises you forgiveness of sins if you believe in Him”—in the last few years I’ve heard all these and more besides. Whichever one you use, if you talk for more than a minute, you’ll talk about God’s promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and you’ll tell Fred that all this is possible because Jesus bore our sins on the cross and rose from the dead. I have no interest in trying to argue which proposition is the most biblical. Instead I want to address a more basic problem that can creep in, no matter which Saving Proposition you are using in your witnessing.
The ‘Gospel ‘According to Fred
Let’s begin by taking off the Sunday School thinking cap for a little while. Instead, let’s think like Fred—an average American pagan—and let’s go back through that presentation. The trouble starts with the diagnostic question: “If you were to stand before God right now, and He said to you, ‘Why should I let you into my perfect heaven?’ what would you tell Him?” What kind of god does Fred see in that question?
The god of that question is interested in keeping people out of heaven. He’s worked hard to make it a perfect place, and he doesn’t want anyone messing it up. But Fred’s a decent guy; he always cleans up his own trash at the park, and picks up other people’s litter besides. So when Fred responds by talking about how good a person he is, he is in effect saying “Hey, God, don’t worry about it. I leave the city park better than I found it; I’ll be good to heaven too. I’m doing the best I can.”
Now, of course, you respond by telling Fred that he can’t possibly be good enough. He would have to be perfect. So from Fred’s point of view, the picture just keeps getting worse. First, your god is reluctant to let people into heaven (and what kind of god is that, anyhow? Isn’t he supposed to be loving?) Now, you’re telling Fred that your god is so darned picky that practically anything disqualifies a person. Steal one candy bar, one time, when you’re eight years old, and that’s it—your life is over. You can’t do anything to make up for it, ever. Hell awaits, Freddie, you stinkin’ thief.
As many of you know, more than one person walks away at this point in the conversation. That’s not a god they want anything to do with. Can you blame them?
But suppose Fred hangs in there. What’s the next thing you tell him? This god is not only angry at Fred for his candy bar theft, but he’s mad enough to kill him over it. And then, to make matters worse, instead of killing Fred, this picky, stingy god goes and kills his own son instead, and because he dumped all his pent-up anger on his own kid, now Fred can enter heaven. All Fred has to do is agree to this scheme, and he’s in.
Is that demented, or what? Would you want to benefit from the slaughter of someone else’s child? Would you want to be complicit in that murder, all because you stole a candy bar? Fred is horrified, and why shouldn’t he be?
Where We Led Fred Astray
Hopefully by now you are protesting that this picture is all wrong. It’s not like that at all!
Indeed it’s not. But where did the story go wrong? Fred’s picture has everything, doesn’t it? Man’s sin, God’s righteousness, substitutionary atonement, the promise of life in Christ…what’s Fred missing?
Seriously, stop for a minute and try to answer that question. What is Fred missing?
I have my own set of answers to this question, but I’ll save them for another entry. Give it some time and some thought. Don’t take the easy dodges: don’t blame Fred for misinterpreting you; don’t blame the devil for blinding Fred. Both those things might be true, but we’re talking about you right now. How can you help Fred avoid this problem?