Monthly Archives: February 2011





Trevin Wax|4:16 pm CT

Rob Bell and the Judgmentless “Gospel”: Holy Love Wins

In 2003, I was a college student in Romania in need of some encouragement from pastors and teachers back in the U.S. An American pastor friend of mine recommended I listen to the preaching of two pastors: Rob Bell and James MacDonald. (Amazing that just eight years ago the ministries of these two men were seen as complementing each another!)

I downloaded dozens of Rob’s sermons from his early years at Mars Hill. I liked his preaching style and enjoyed his sermons from Leviticus. His most memorable message, “The Goat Has Left the Building,” ended with a powerful illustration of the truth that Christ bears our sins.

Two years later, I was less impressed with Rob’s teaching. I read Velvet Elvis as charitably as I could, but I was concerned by some of Rob’s affirmations. Rob likes to ask questions that appear to lead in one direction; he then pulls back and says something more akin to Christian teaching. (The “virgin birth” section, for example.)

The last time I listened to a Rob Bell sermon was in 2006. Rob had come under criticism because some were saying he denied that Jesus is the only way to God. Answering the criticism, Rob told his congregation: Let me set the record straight. Jesus is our only way. After that, I tuned out. “Jesus is our only way?” That was Rob’s way of having his cake and eating it too. He sidestepped the question in a way designed to deflect criticism, but leave the door open for pluralism.

Is Bell a Universalist?

In 2008, I read The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditation on Faith by Timothy Stoner. In the book, Tim recounts a conversation with some friends about Rob’s view of people without Christ:

“Okay,” I said, “I get that it is important to listen to other ‘stories.’ I get it that other points of view need to be given dignity. And I agree. But” – and here I took a breath for dramatic effect – “at the end of the day, is Rob saying that there are other stories that can lead to God? Is he just creatively repeating that old line from the 1900′s that led to the split between liberals and fundamentalists? Does he believe, down deep, that those who sincerely follow other roads, who pursue justice and compassion, even though they reject Jesus, will be saved?”

There was the moment of silence that inevitably follows explosive verbal gambits. What I didn’t expect was the fervor of the response.

In our small coterie, there was a young man who knew Rob personally. He had been a founding member of his church, had served in leadership roles, and so was on a first-name basis with him. After that split-second of quiet, he blurted out, “Of course that’s what he believes!”

The statement was not to be derogatory. It was an affirmation…

Rob’s newest book, Love Wins, promises to tackle the heaven/hell issue. The promo video is classic Bell: provocative, edgy, designed to start discussion.

Until the book comes out, I don’t think we can accurately label Rob a “universalist.” Based on Rob’s tendency to ask edgy questions and then pull back, I expect that somewhere in the book, Rob will affirm that people who don’t want to be part of God’s kingdom won’t be forced to. In the end, Rob will land somewhere between optimistic inclusivism (most everyone will be saved) and universalism (all will be saved).

Rob’s optimistic inclusivism will lead to a redefinition of Christian teaching. I suspect that in the book Rob will redefine evangelism as telling people what is already true about them (that they are forgiven, God is not angry). Conversion will be refashioned as “coming to terms with your state of forgiveness. Salvation from God is about realizing that you don’t need to be saved from God.

The Attractiveness of the Judgmentless “Gospel”

Whenever theological discussions like this erupt, it’s always a good idea to think about why certain views are popular. One of the six counterfeits I discuss in Counterfeit Gospels is “The Judgmentless Gospel” and in that chapter, I point out three reasons why it is attractive:

1. It removes an emotional barrier to Christianity.

Let’s face it. One reason we are attracted to this counterfeit is because it helps us get past a significant emotional barrier to sharing our faith. If we remove the obstacle and offense of eternal judgment, we will be in a better position to make Christianity more palatable to a society that has no room for judgment in its understanding of God.

Unfortunately, when we downplay or deny judgment, we lose one of the reasons to share our faith in the first place. Our desire to remove the obstacle actually removes the urgency.

2. It eases our conscience.

Another reason this counterfeit is attractive is that it eases our conscience when we fail to evangelize. It would take a load off my shoulders to affirm, along with Origen, that all will eventually be saved, including the devil. But the Bible doesn’t let me go down that road. Adopting the counterfeit also helps us deal emotionally with the fact that we have unsaved friends and family members who have died. We don’t want to imagine that Grandpa may be in hell. Downplaying judgment helps us cope.

3. It keeps us from having to come face to face with our own evil.

Most of us in the West have been shielded from the atrocities of humanity. If we were to have experienced Cambodia’s killing fields, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, we might be more concerned about justice. Os Guinness quotes Winston Churchill as saying that the evidence that God exists was “the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, for whom a hell was needed.”

Once we admit that justice is necessary, we open the door for our own sins to be dealt with. Perhaps this gospel is attractive because there is a part of us that would like to suppress justice rather than admit justice and thus indict ourselves.

The Beauty of the Biblical Gospel

In the end, though, the judgmentless gospel is no gospel at all. It leaves us with a diminished God and no need for grace:

Take away the notion of judgment and you rob Christianity of any hope of satisfying our longing for justice, a longing built into us from our just and wise God. The judgmentless gospel fails to deal with the problem of evil and the detrimental way that we humans treat each other (and by extension, God). Once we take away judgment, we lose the gravity of our sin. Once we lose sight of our sinfulness, we short-circuit our experience of the powerful gratitude that comes from receiving grace.

What the judgmentless gospel leaves us with is a one-dimensional God – a sappy, sanitized deity that we can easily manage. He nods and winks at our behavior, much like a kind elderly man who is not seriously invested in our lives. But the evil of our world is much too serious for us to view God as a pandering papa.

The picture of God in the Bible is much more satisfying. He is angry because he is love. He looks at the world and sees the trafficking of innocent girls, the destructive use of drugs, the genocidal atrocities in Africa, the terrorist attacks that keep people in perpetual fear, and he – out of love for the creation that reflects him as creator – is rightfully and gloriously angry. Real love always wants the best for the beloved.

The God who is truly scary is not the wrathful God of the Bible, but the god of the judgmentless gospel, who closes his eyes to the evil of this world, shrugs his shoulders, and ignores it in the name of “love.” What kind of “love” is this? A god who is never angered at sin and who lets evil go by unpunished is not worthy of worship.

The problem isn’t that the judgmentless God is too loving; it’s that he’s not loving enough.

I pray that Rob will once again preach the glories of the God who truly loves, the God who upholds his own glory at all costs, the God who loves us despite our sin, the God who takes on flesh and dies for us in order that we might find eternal satisfaction in him. In the words of Tim Stoner, Holy love wins:

… The love that wins is a holy love.

The love that won on the cross and wins the world is a love that is driven, determined, and defined by holiness.

It is a love that flows out of the heart of a God who is transcendent, majestic, infinite in righteousness, who loves justice as much as he does mercy; who hates wickedness as much as he loves goodness; who blazes with a fiery, passionate love for himself above all things.

He is Creator, Sustainer, Beginning and End.

He is robed in a splendor and eternal purity that is blinding.

He rules, he reigns, he rages and roars, then bends down to whisper love songs to his creatures.

His love is vast and irresistible.

It is also terrifying, and it will spare no expense to give everything away in order to free us from the bondage of sin, purifying for himself a people who are devoted to his glory, a people who have “no ambition except to do good”.

So he crushes his precious Son in order to rescue and restore mankind along with his entire creation.

He unleashes perfect judgment on the perfectly obedient sacrifice and then pulls him up out of the grave in a smashing and utter victory.

He is a God who triumphs…

He is a burning cyclone of passionate love.

Holy love wins.





Trevin Wax|4:13 pm CT

Worth a Look 2.28.11

Younger people not starting blogs:

Blogs were once the outlet of choice for people who wanted to express themselves online. But with the rise of sites like Facebook and Twitter, they are losing their allure for many people — particularly the younger generation.

Are you smarter than an eighth-grader (from 1895)?

The Salina Journal, a daily newspaper in Salina, Kansas, has published a final exam that was given to local eighth-graders in 1895 (via this friendly website). (“It was taken from the original document on file at the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS.”) The PDF is available here. I would be very curious to know how modern eighth graders would do on the test…

John Mark Reynolds on Mike Huckabee:

Huckabee says that Islam is the “antithesis of the gospel of Christ.” This is as shocking as discovering that capitalists are opposed to communism. The gospel of Jesus says that Jesus is God in the flesh and that this bridged the gap between God and humanity. Islam thinks this is exactly wrong.

It is not offensive to point out differences.

Bob Kauflin on receiving compliments:

Usually we’re battling the fact that we love being encouraged but don’t want to be proud. We wish people wouldn’t say anything, but another part of us is crying out, “More! More!” It’s the dilemma of Romans 7:21: “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Here are some practices I’ve learned to help me receive encouragement (at least better than I used to).





Trevin Wax|3:23 am CT

Wave Upon Wave

From Calvary’s cross wave upon wave of grace reaches me,
deals with my sin,
washes me clean,
renews my heart,
strengthens my will,
draws out my affection,
kindles a flame in my soul,
rules throughout my inner man,
consecrates my every thought, word, work,
teaches me thy immeasurable love.
How great are my privileges in Christ Jesus!

- Puritan Prayer, from Valley of Vision





Trevin Wax|3:22 am CT

C.S. Lewis on Life's Interruptions

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.”

(from a 1943 letter from C.S. Lewis, included in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis)





Trevin Wax|3:43 am CT

Trevin's Seven

Seven links for your weekend reading:

1. Eight Tips for Talking to Your Kids about the Sermon

2. Parents are Taking the Fun Out of Toys

3. The Bart Ehrman Project: “Numerous Biblical scholars profoundly disagree with Ehrman’s findings. This site provides responses to Dr. Ehrman’s provocative conclusions.”

4. Disappearing Languages: Every 14 days, a language dies. (HT – Challies)

5. Tim Keller on preaching to himself daily through his prayer life.

6. Distinguishing Marks of a Quarrelsome Person

7. Histories of mid-19th century America tend to separate its two most important threads: a war over slavery engulfs the East, while mineral rushes transform the West. But while these developments are geographically distinct, they could not be more interdependent.





Trevin Wax|3:02 am CT

Gospel Definitions: Josh Moody

The gospel – the central message of Christianity – is that Jesus was born, and he died and rose again, and that his death was for our sins that we might receive forgiveness and new life in relationship to God now and forever through faith alone.

- Josh Moody, No Other Gospel





Trevin Wax|2:42 am CT

Worth a Look 2.24.11

Next month, I’ll be joining Tim Challies and other speakers at Lake Murray Baptist Church in Lexington, SC for the Psalm 119 Conference. Check out more info here.

John Starke responds to my recent post on child baptism by claiming that we should indeed baptize small children who profess faith. Here’s the crux of John’s argument:

Setting up a probationary period or age before a child can be baptized seems to imply a number of things contrary to the very gospel we are encouraging our children to believe. We have reacted against an “easy-believism” Christianity with a “prove yourself” mentality.

Keith Mathison reviews The Symphony of Scripture:

The main goal of the book is to demonstrate how the key people, events, institutions, and books of the Bible fit into the overall story. In other words, Strom provides a map of the forest with a guide to important landmarks along the trail. The book is an introduction that is as useful for those with no prior knowledge of Scripture as it is for those who have studied the Bible for many years.

The Christian Divorce Rate Myth (What You’ve Heard is Wrong):

Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as the world!” It’s one of the most quoted stats by Christian leaders today. And it’s perhaps one of the most inaccurate. Based on the best data available, the divorce rate among Christians is significantly lower than the general population.





Trevin Wax|3:17 am CT

The Gospel as a Three-Legged Stool

Yesterday, we looked at three ways that Christians define the gospel:

  1. Story for the Individual
  2. Story of Jesus
  3. Story of Creation to New Creation

My online collection of “gospel definitions” has led me back to the New Testament, where I’ve spent significant time studying the way the word “gospel” is used. I’ve also compared New Testament usage to the gospel definitions on my blog. In the end, I am convinced that the different approaches to “the gospel” are more complementary than contradictory, but that we could be helped by a conceptual framework for the gospel and its implications.

Putting it All Together

From an exegetical standpoint, the word “gospel” is used in the New Testament primarily when speaking of the announcement of Jesus Christ. So, at its core, the gospel is the specific announcement about what God has done through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to bring about our salvation. The announcement of Jesus is the gospel.

Yet this Jesus-centered message needs context. The “Story for the individual” group is right to insist that the back story (God’s character, our sin, etc.) is needed if the gospel announcement is to make sense. And the New Creation crowd is right to insist that we place our individual salvation within the bigger picture of God’s glory in the renewal of all things and the calling out of a people. This discussion brings us to the image that forms the heart of my book on the gospel.

The Three-Legged Stool

I propose that the gospel is like a three-legged stool. Each leg of the stool is important to understanding the message.

- The Gospel Story

First, there is the gospel story, the overarching grand narrative found in the Scriptures. The Bible tells us about God’s creation of a good world which was subjected to futility because of human sin. God gave the Law to reveal his holiness and our need for a perfect sacrifice, which is provided by the death of Jesus Christ. This same Jesus will one day return to this earth to judge the living and the dead and thus renew all things. The gospel story is the Scriptural narrative that takes us from creation to new creation, climaxing with the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center.

- The Gospel Announcement

The second leg of the stool is the gospel announcement, namely that God – in the person of Jesus Christ – lived a perfect life in our place, bore the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross, was raised from the dead to launch God’s new creation, and is now exalted as Lord of the world. The announcement centers upon Jesus and what he has done to reconcile us to God. Our response to this announcement is to repent of our sins and put our complete trust in the work he has accomplished on our behalf.

- The Gospel Community

The third leg of the stool is the gospel community. Our response to the gospel announcement (repentance and faith) is not a one-time event, but a lifelong expression of gratitude that wells up from the bottom of our hearts and overflows into love for God and his beloved community. We are shaped by the gospel into the kind of people who herald the grace of God and spread the news of Jesus Christ. God has commissioned the church to be the community that embodies the message of the gospel. Through our corporate life together, we “obey the gospel” by living according to the truth of the message that Jesus Christ is our Savior and the Lord of the world.

How They Relate

Here’s how the relationship between the gospel story, announcement, and community work:

STORY: Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. This is the grand narrative of Scripture that provides context for the announcement.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Jesus Christ. The announcement of his perfect life, substitutionary death, resurrection, and exaltation is made within the context of the Story.

COMMUNITY: The gospel announcement calls for the response (repentance and faith) that God uses to birth the church. The church is the embodiment of the gospel. Though the church is not the “good news,” it puts on display the good news. Thus, the church is a result of the gospel, but I want to reiterate that it is a necessary result.

Why It’s Helpful to Think of the Gospel This Way

Thinking within the framework of the three-legged stool has helped me rethink lots of areas, including missiology. When we witness to the gospel, we need all three legs of the stool. We need to begin with the big story of Scripture, make the announcement of Jesus within that context, and then invite people to witness the gospel community in action, as we provide an embodied apologetic of the truth of the announcement.

Thinking within this framework has also helped me spot potential pitfalls in taking one leg of the stool to the exclusion of the others. The “story for the individual” can give the impression that the church is an optional implication of the gospel, not the necessary result of the announcement. Likewise, some can emphasize the vastness of God’s redemptive work in a way that pushes out the cross and diminishes the practice of urging people to repent of sin and trust in Christ.

This framework has also made sense of my experience in times of suffering. When I’m facing a trial, the gospel story explains the fallenness of our world and reminds me of the future hope. The gospel announcement gives me the tools to deal with suffering, and also reminds me that my life has significance in relation to (not apart from) Christ as the focal point of human history. The gospel community has embodied the gospel to me during suffering by holding me up and reminding me of the promises I have in Christ.

In the next few weeks, I’ll give you a peek into my my book, where I analyze “counterfeit gospels” by showing the damage they do to the three-legged stool.

For now, I look forward to your feedback. Does the three-legged stool approach help you think about the gospel and its implications? If so, how?





Trevin Wax|2:54 am CT

Worth a Look 2.23.11

Interesting article from a pro-choicer - Pro-Choice Advocates are in a Time Warp:

We can no longer pretend the fetus is invisible. We can no longer seek to banish the state from our lives, but rather need to engage its power to improve women’s lives. We must end the fiction that an abortion at 26 weeks is no different from one at six weeks.

Boys Wrestling Girls – a Clash of Worlds and Worldviews:

The general direction of the culture is clear: We are moving out of Joel Northrup’s world into Rick Reilly’s world. Along the way, something immeasurably more important than a wrestling match is about to be forfeited.

Love Your Wife More than Seminary:

At the end of the day, I gave heart service to my time at seminary, but only lip service to Ephesians 5, and it cost me my marriage.





Trevin Wax|3:41 am CT

3 Ways of Defining the Gospel

In February 2008, I began a blog series called “Gospel Definitions”, in which I posted (without comment) any and every definition of “the gospel” that I came across in books or online. Eventually, that series became the largest group of gospel definitions on the web. (See a full list or pdf here.)

As I have posted various definitions of “the gospel” on my blog, I have noticed that people hear the question “what is the gospel?” in different ways.

Telling the Story for an Individual

Some hear this question and immediately think about how to present the gospel to an unbeliever. Their presentation systematizes the biblical teaching of our sin and Christ’s provision. They usually begin with God as a holy and righteous judge. Then we hear about man’s desperate plight apart from God and how our sinfulness deserves his wrath. But the good news is that Christ has come to live an obedient life and die in our place. We are then called to repent of our sins and trust in Christ. (Greg Gilbert takes this approach in his helpful book, What Is the Gospel?.)

Telling the Story of Jesus

Others hear “What is the gospel?” and think of how the New Testament authors would define the word, which leads to definitions that zero in on the announcement of Jesus. They focus on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The gospel, according to this second group, is telling people who Jesus is and what he has done. (Martin Luther, Graeme Goldsworthy, and John Piper take this approach.)

Telling the Story of New Creation

Still others hear the word “gospel” and think of the whole good news of Christianity, how God has acted in Christ to bring redemption to a fallen world. They focus on the grand sweep of the Bible’s storyline and how Jesus comes to reverse the curse and make all things new. (Tullian Tchividjian, Tim Keller, and Jim Belcher take this approach.)

Robust Gospel Discussion

Though there is significant overlap among these groups, advocates of each position sometimes discuss and debate the others.

The Individual-Story crowd says, If you only focus on the announcement of Jesus, you leave out the reason we need good news. In other words, zeroing in on the “Christ” part of God-Man-Christ-Response doesn’t tell you enough.

The Jesus-Story crowd says, You’re adding too much to the gospel, confusing the truth about our sin or our necessary response of repentance with the good news itself, which is only about Jesus. In other words, don’t add doctrines to “the gospel” that the New Testament doesn’t describe as “gospel.”

The New Creation crowd says, If you only focus on individual salvation, you leave out the cosmic sweep of what God is doing. You also leave out the necessity of the church. In other words, the picture of God’s redemptive activity is bigger than just God-Man-Christ-Response or even the Jesus-announcement. You need the bird’s eye view of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration.

For the most part, I am encouraged by these discussions. How marvelous to see Christians – young and old – seeking clarity on the message that is at the heart of our faith! It is important to think clearly about the gospel, and the motivation behind these debates is to get the message right and – hopefully – to then take that message everywhere from our neighborhoods to the nations.

What’s Your Take?

I believe there is a helpful and biblical way to synthesize this robust discussion on the gospel. Everything mentioned by these three groups is good and is in some way connected to the good news. But we need hooks to hang all these good things on. We need to see how they fit together, and we need to make sure that the heart of the gospel stays where it is supposed to be. Providing a framework for thinking through this issue is the purpose of my book on the gospel. But before I give you a sneak peek at that framework, I want to hear from you.

  • How do you define the gospel?
  • When someone asks you “what is the gospel?” do you tend to think about how the Bible uses defines the word or how best to share the gospel with an unbeliever?
  • Though the New Testament generally defines “gospel” in terms of the Jesus-Announcement, are there hints in the Bible that the word “gospel” can be used more expansively?
  • What role does theological reflection play in how we define the gospel?
  • How can we make sure that the cross and resurrection stay at the center of our gospel definition and are not pushed to the periphery by important implications of the gospel?
  • What might be the dangers of pushing any of these three ways of defining the gospel to an extreme?
  • When you hear the buzzword “gospel-centered,” which of these three ways of defining the gospel do you think of?