Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisees?

Not because they were religious. Kevin DeYoung has done a great job of pointing out that Jesus himself was very religious.

Not because they loved to study Scripture. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). In other words, they didn’t study hard enough.

Not because their theology was wrong. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2-3).

Not even because they tried to obey the Law down to small details. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Notice he doesn’t say “God doesn’t care about you tithing out of your spice rack.”

Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees wasn’t primarily with their actions, but their heart. They studied the Scriptures, but missed the point, even when the Point was standing right in front of them. Their doctrine was good in theory, but it only went skin deep– they believed the Law’s verdict about others, but not about themselves. They were hypocrites: eager to point out others’ sin but unwilling to acknowledge their own; patting themselves on the back for little details while missing the point entirely. It wasn’t that they took theology too seriously; they didn’t take it seriously enough!

It’s common to hear things like “Jesus got along fine with tax collectors and prostitutes; it was the religious people he had trouble with.” Actually that’s half true. Jesus got along fine with sinners— religious ones and irreligious ones. He still does. He had trouble with those– religious and irreligious– who couldn’t manage to see themselves in that category. He still does.

Two points of application:

  • No fair calling everyone to your right a Pharisee. Jesus never said they were too conservative!
  • Read through Matthew 23 and see how much of it hits home. Ouch.

How to read the Psalms when you don’t feel like the psalmist

About a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments– psalms in which the author lays a complaint before God and asks for his help. If you read Psalms regularly, which is a good idea, you’ll come across lots of heavy content. More than we’re accustomed to expressing in worship, but that’s another post.

A lot of this language can seem foreign to us. I don’t usually feel like all my bones are out of joint. I don’t often flood my bed with tears, and I don’t currently feel like I have more enemies than I can count. But we shouldn’t just read or think on happy things– if we did we’d ignore a lot of the Bible.

Here are a few tips for reading and learning from the psalms when our own situation doesn’t line up with the author’s.


Learn not to put on a happy face.

The psalms are an absolute smackdown of the idea that we have to be happy to worship God, or pretend to be. Every day with Jesus isn’t sweeter than the day before; some days with Jesus are really lousy. Psalm 88 (“darkness is my only companion”) was not written to get the people pepped up, but it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and it was written for public worship.

God is big enough to handle our lament. He wants us to bring our sorrows to him; he wants us to worship him through tears when that’s all we can do. Reading the psalms will remind us of that.


Think of others.

Even if you’re not feeling so sad you forget to eat your food, chances are someone around you is. Let the language of the psalms help you understand how your grieving friends feel. Let it open your eyes and remind you that there are hurting people in your life who need your words, prayers, and tears to bear them up.


Remember Jesus went through this for you.

Jesus “fulfilled” the psalms, and the rest of Scripture, by taking on himself everything it means to be human, and to be one of God’s people. He knows what it means to feel forsaken by God, because he actually was– so that he could guarantee we never would be.

Every lament we read in the psalms is something that happened to our Savior. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Reading Psalms with that in mind should drive us to a greater appreciation of what he’s done for us.



I started reading a psalm a day in my first year of seminary, and it’s generally been part of my routine since then. At the time I was 24, and had enjoyed by God’s grace a generally happy life. It was hard to identify with the psalms of lament, or with the idea of longing for heaven: life on earth was pretty great.

Life on earth is still pretty great. But deaths of friends and family, infertility, bouts of depression, the vulnerability (and tiredness!) that comes with kids, watching friends hurt, and seeing more of life in general have meant that at 30 it’s a lot easier to see what David was talking about than it was at 24. And I’m still young, with more joy and more suffering to come.

An older friend told me once, “When I was young it was hard to want heaven. The older I get– yeah, it’s not so hard anymore.”

If you’re in a happy season, thank God for it, and stay in the Word– the happy parts and the heavy parts. The day will come when you’ll need the language of lament, and it’s good to have it in your heart ahead of time.

Apologies fake and real

Celebrity fake apologies:

  • “I apologize if anyone was offended.”
  • “I misspoke.”
  • “Mistakes were made.”

These are not apologies, just damage control. But let’s tighten the screws a little. Normal person fake apologies:

  • “I didn’t mean that.”
  • “I never meant to hurt you.”
  • “I’m sorry that bothered you.”
  • “I’m sorry, but I’ve been under a lot of pressure…”

These are damage control too. In all likelihood you did mean it, you just didn’t mean for them to hear it. You did want to hurt them, you just didn’t want to take responsibility for it. “I’m sorry that bothered you” puts the guilt on the other party, and your circumstances don’t make it OK to sin against other people.

A real apology is two things: 1) an admission of guilt and 2) a request for forgiveness. Scripture gives us lots of examples. Here’s one I read recently:

For your name’s sake, O LORD,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
(Psalm 25:11)

An admission of guilt (“my guilt is great”) and a request for forgiveness (“pardon my guilt”).

More information can be helpful as an explanation, but not as an excuse. Example: recently I blew off a friend for a phone call we’d scheduled. Twice in a week. Ouch. The second time he texted me to ask if we were still on, and I was out running errands. I tried to think how to express how badly I felt, then got distracted, and it was hours before I remembered to text him back. When I finally did, after apologizing I explained all this. I was totally at fault, and the circumstances didn’t change that. But it was good for him to know that I hadn’t been deliberately ignoring him all afternoon.

Fake apologies are easy, cheap and not ultimately helpful– they’re more to make ourselves feel better. Offering a sincere, heartfelt apology is the best way to move on from the offense. Even if you can’t do it right away because you have to think about what you really need to apologize for.

In the end, only Jesus frees us to offer a real apology. If we remember that we’ve sinned against God, it will be much easier to confess that we’ve sinned against other people as well. And if we remember that God has forgiven us, it will be much easier to ask others to do the same.

Now, who should you practice on?

Are the Young Reformed jerks? A response from the other side.

James-Michael replies to my last post on his blog. Posted here as well. With a graphic that’s funny, and apparently even funnier if you’ve seen Anchorman. (I don’t think JMS’s putting Driscoll in pink was an accident.)


In the first part of this discussion, my good friend and Reformed Pastor, Jake Hunt, stated two primary points (which he clarified in the comments section as well):

Two points I’m trying to make here are 1) This [i.e. “jerkishness” is more a characteristic of the blogosphere than it is of the Reformed world and 2) In some cases, the leaders of the non- or anti-Reformed crowd are guilty of the same kind of inflammatory language they decry from no-name commenters on the other side.

I want to begin by saying that I appreciate Jake’s response and I always enjoy our back-and-forths precisely because he is articulate and well-informed and often pushes me to think more clearly and carefully on whatever it is we are discussing. This recent response is no exception.

Firstly, Jake, I agree that not all YRR folks are jerks (YRR is the abbreviation I’m using for the Young Restless Reformed crowd in general; particularly those who most strongly resonate with the works and teachings of John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Al Mohler and others affiliated with the Gospel Coalition, etc.). In fact, I would argue that MOST of them are not. Most are God-loving brothers and sisters in Christ who I have great respect and affinity for.

However, when talking about any theological or social movement, it is unavoidable that there will be generalizations that do not hold true all the time. And it is such a generalization that is the main point in this discussion.

My thesis: As a whole, the YRR crowd has become known for being overly acerbic, critical and divisive in their approach towards those outside of Reformed theological circles.

The fact that we are having this discussion in the first place is exhibit A. Whether it’s warranted or not, what most of us who are not part of the YRR crowd feel is that the YRR crowd defines itself in relationship to other Christians primarily in terms of their differences. The recent “Bellgate” episode was merely the most high-profile example of such a reaction.

Of course the anonymity of the blogosphere only encourages keyboard heresy-hunting in its most rabid (and unchristian) forms…on all sides. I readily admit that and have always said it to be the case. The YRR crowd does not have a monopoly on mean-spirited and snarky critics of those with opposing views (I will address this second point of yours in my next post).

However, the YRR movement has characterized itself as a resurgence of a specific Christian theological tradition–namely, Reformed Complementarianism. This isn’t an outside mischaracterization, this is how some of its most well-known proponents frame the discussion, such as in this video discussion between Al Mohler, Kevin DeYoung and Ligon Duncan:


DeYoung, Duncan, Mohler: What’s New About the New Calvinism from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.


So while in the eyes of many YRR proponents it’s all about defending the Gospel, lifting up God’s sovereignty, contending for the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints, etc., to those of us who do not agree with, say the Synod of Dort or the Westminster Confession, or the various Baptist Confessions that the YRR crowd see as definitive for all good theology, it seems as if we are automatically deemed second-class Christians–at least in the area of theology and Biblical fidelity.

Of course not all Reformed thinkers reflect this, but it is the perceived view of the movement as a whole…to the point where even John Piper acknowledged its validity as a danger that the movement must face:

Hanging on with the danger I am speaking of is pride—a certain species of pride. There are many species of pride, and this is just one of them. You can call it intellectualism. There is also emotionalism, but that isn’t the danger we are talking about right now. Intellectualism is a species of pride, because we begin to prize our abilities to interpret the Bible over the God of the Bible or the Bible itself.

When I asked Rick Warren, “What is your doctrine of the Bible?” He said, “Inerrant and authoritative. But I don’t mean all my interpretations of it are inerrant and authoritative.” And that is of course right. We should talk that way.

So that would be my flag, the danger of intellectualism. And maybe the danger of certain aspects of it becoming so argumentative or defensive that it becomes unnecessarily narrow. That is funny for me to say because I think I am a really narrow guy, and a lot of other people think so too. [emphasis mine]

Given that Piper himself recognizes this tendency, even in his own approach, and recognizes the danger inherent in it, I find it puzzling that he would not go out of his way–and encourage his fellow YRRs to do the same–to counteract this in his public teaching, speaking, blogging and yes, Tweeting.

So while I READILY acknowledge that all YRR adherents are not jerks, I don’t see how you could say that this tendency toward theological narrowness and exclusion of non-reformed views does not at least characterize the movement as a whole, even if those of you on the inside do not feel that it should. Whether deserved or not, the perception among those who are not YRR insiders is that it does. So the onus is on the YRR spokespersons to shepherd their flocks (both in the pews and online) in such a way that they make it clear that this is not what they are about.

I also don’t think it can be entirely blamed on the internet/blogging community (though they have made it much more prevalent than in prior times through the fact that ANYONE can say ANYTHING online and it can be found with the click of a button thanks to Google!). I say this primarily because many of the influencers within the YRR community were drawing such boundaries through books, conferences and national teaching ministries before the internet came on the scene. John Piper, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur have been equating doctrinal orthodoxy with Reformed theology in their writings and speaking engagements for years.

I remember when I was a student up at Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts the whole Openness Theology debate had just started gaining steam. As I learned about it and listened to its proponents (Boyd, Sanders, etc.) and its critics (Wells, Ware, etc.) I always found myself having to clarify my views to my peers, many of whom were convinced that Openness Theologians were heretics and should be driven out of Evangelicalism entirely. That response almost never came from non-Reformed students or teachers (though I believe Tom Oden has spoken pretty harshly against it in the past…which is surprising to me honestly). The response from most Arminians, for instance, was often along the lines of “well, I don’t agree with their conclusions and I think they misinterpret Scripture in a number of places; but they are asking valuable questions and they do seek to be faithful to the text of Scripture, so I appreciate that about their approach.” This is the approach that I longed to hear from my Reformed professors and colleagues, many of whom I greatly respected. But if there were such sentiments on any of their behalf it was drowned out by the loud cries of denunciation and warning of “false teachers.”

This was my experience at a seminary where Reformed scholars were in the majority within the theological and Biblical studies departments, but where there was open admiration and mutual respect between them and their non-Reformed colleagues. I can only guess how vehemently it was denounced at purely Reformed schools. Theological lines in the sand seemed to be the norm among many of my YRR classmates.

[Here’s an anecdote to illustrate my experience. It was my first year at GCTS and I was in the dining hall sitting with some of the guys on my hall. A 3rd year student who was friends with my roommate came and sat down and we were all talking about various seminary-nerd things. At one point in the conversation it came out that I was not Reformed. The 3rd year student looked at me and said somewhat jokingly/mockingly “So you’re an Arminian, huh? How in the world did you come to believe such Godless heretical nonsense as that??”  I smiled and replied “I dunno…I guess from reading Scripture in context.” It was as close to a “How ya like them apples?!” Good Will Hunting moment as one can have in the world of Bible geekery, I guess. We laughed about it and they never gave me crap for not being Reformed after that; but there was always an undercurrent of “Oh…he’s one of them…” whenever I discussed theology with my Calvinist friends and classmates. And that was at an inter-denominational seminary no less.]

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the YRR movement was birthed from a discontent with the larger Evangelical community’s supposed lack of concern for doctrine on the part of many young Christians in the Reformed tradition (as DeYoung and Mohler admit in the video above). This discontentment has been expressed in ways that, to those of us outside the fold, appear smug and/or prideful (again, note Mohler’s incredibly uninformed or wildly naive “Where else can they go??” comment in the above video!).

Thus the YRR crowd in general bears a greater burden in showing the non-YRR Christian world that they are not in fact overly-critical, unnecessarily divisive and tend toward jerkishness at times.

Is that fair? Probably not.

But it’s a reality that we all inherit the reputation of those with whom we associate, regardless of that reputation’s actual merit. For instance, the reputation Methodists have among the wider Evangelical world is that we are not concerned with theology, particularly orthodox theology! I recognize this and admit it. But rather than saying it is undeserved or not true, I do what I can to write, teach, speak on and link to the best theological minds within the UM tradition and hopefully help bring about a change in that reputation through demonstrating its opposite.

This is something that I see few YRR proponents seeking to do when it comes to the reputation they have among those of us outside their ranks (however, there are a number who do…and whom I greatly admire because of it! Though I have YET to see a similar list of acknowledgement from any YRR thinkers, teachers, or bloggers. But I’d LOVE to be proved wrong on that one!). That’s why I appreciate this discussion with you, Jake. It gives us a chance to hash things out with cards on the table for all to see and no need to worry about hurting each others’ feelings or being divisive. I think that’s what all good rigorous theological discussion SHOULD do…and I’d love it if more such discussions could take place among YRR and non-YRR authors, preachers and scholars on a regular basis.

I will address your second point in a subsequent post, because I want to discuss the specifics of theological criticism and how it can and should be done without being mean-spirited, prideful or divisive (and how many on BOTH sides have failed miserably at this!), but for now I wanted to respond mainly to your first point.

I sympathize with YRR proponents who do not feel that their theological circles are deserving of the reputation of being “jerks”…I don’t feel that Methodists/Wesleyans are deserving of the reputation of being experience-based rather than Biblically-based…just as I don’t feel that Emergents are entirely deserving of the hipster-granola-cynical-relativistic reputation they have among their critics. But I see where all these stereotypes come from and almost all stereotypes exist because they reflect a significant segment of the group to which they are being applied.

Would you agree with this?

Blessings from this side of the Body,


ps: Being a huge Anchorman fan, I had fun making the image above to express the topic being discussed…namely whether or not the YRR leaders are ready at the drop of a hat to fight over their Reformed tradition (as symbolized by the Wall of the Reformation in the foreground). It’s supposed to be light-hearted and I welcome any such good natured parodies in response. Hopefully if any of the guys above see this image, they will be able to chuckle at it rather than be offended!

Are the Young/Restless/Reformed crowd jerks?

Or, to put a finer point on it, are we jerks more often than other guys are jerks?

The below started as a personal email to my friend James-Michael Smith, a college buddy whom I respect a great deal and with whom I often disagree on theological matters. JMS and I believe in a true “generous orthodoxy”: one in which we can both say “I think you’re wrong on this, and it matters,” and still be friends at the end of the day. At any rate, JMS asked if he could publish my email, then respond on his blog. I hope this can be helpful, if only as a demonstration of constructive theological discussion on the internet.

My words below are addressed to JMS, and can also be found at his blog. I’ll post his response here as well. Also, since I never get to write papers anymore I had some fun with this.


Historical Prologue

Much of the criticism of Rob Bell’s new book came from people in the Reformed camp. Most notably:

  • Justin Taylor quoted the publisher’s blurb and Bell’s video, calling the denial of hell “false doctrine.”
  • John Piper linked to Taylor’s post on Twitter, commenting “Farewell Rob Bell.”
  • Kevin DeYoung posted a long, detailed review of the book.

But the big story was more about the blogosphere’s reaction to the book than the book itself. Many criticized Taylor and others for commenting before the book was released. Once reviews came out, they were criticized for their alleged closed-mindedness. There was a common refrain: the young Calvinists are self-appointed doctrine police, quick to jump on anything they disagree with and pronounce it heresy. This post, which started as an email from me to James-Michael, is occasioned not by Bell’s book per se, but by this reaction to the Reformed crowd as a whole.

It has become conventional wisdom that “The Young/Restless/Reformed are jerks.” Like many stereotypes, this one is sometimes true. However, I suggest that many people outside the Reformed scene assume it when they read Reformed writers, although the evidence does not always support that conclusion, and in fact sometimes goes the other way.

Argument 1: Taylor et al were not being jerks toward Rob Bell.
Your chief angle on the Bell controversy has been the alleged eagerness of the YRR to pounce on anybody offering a different perspective. You’ve referred to JT’s post consistently as an example. Having read it several times, I just don’t see the meanness. I definitely see seriousness. If you wanted him to say “Bell says x, and that’s cool, whatevs,” he certainly wasn’t going to do that. But he doesn’t take potshots, he doesn’t use the word “heresy” (and neither did DeYoung, although you keep using it in your comments), and he doesn’t say “see, the Emergent guys are all pansies” or anything like that. He says 1) false doctrine is bad, 2) it’s better for guys to be honest about it, and 3) it sure looks like Rob Bell is embracing universalism. I know the “he hadn’t even read the book” angle, but he specifically says “if the publisher’s description is right,” then goes to the video of Bell talking, which Bell and his publisher definitely wanted people to watch and talk about.

On to Kevin DeYoung. His review is long, thorough, and very critical. He specifically describes the book as “heterodox.” Now, nobody uses that word by accident. It means you probably initially wanted to say “heresy,” but decided to be really careful. He uses the word “heresy” exactly once in the whole review, referring to universalism and “every other heresy.” He doesn’t make fun of Bell for being cool or edgy or Emergent; he deals with the merits of the book.

The bigger question is whether we should be worked up over this at all. Now, when Piper invited Rick Warren to speak at a conference, I don’t think that was worth getting worked up over. I think this is absolutely worth getting worked up over. The fact that others have embraced universalism, or inclusivism, does not make Bell’s view a legitimate strand of Christian orthodoxy. (That’s just the Bauer hypothesis; that the existence of non-orthodox thought means there’s no such thing as orthodoxy.) Universalism and inclusivism are bad doctrine, and they need to be called out for what they are. The fact that you’re willing to strongly critique dispensationalism (on which I agree with you), but chafe at these guys critiquing universalism, is strange to me.

Argument 2: Many non- or anti-Reformed writers can be jerks toward us.
You often link to Ben Witherington and Greg Boyd, two scholars you admire. I’ve read and used some of Witherington’s stuff, and he is indeed a good scholar. He’s also a jerk sometimes, particularly toward the Reformed. You may recall his spreading rumors about Grudem and the ESV a few years ago (for which he apologized, to his credit). He referred to Schreiner’s NT theology as a blot on God’s moral character. He spoke at RTS my first year, and I was excited that we’d brought in a respected voice from outside our tradition. Then he made biting, petty critiques of something he didn’t like, and my respect fell sharply.

Just last week, Witherington referred to Piper and Driscoll as representatives of “the hyper-Calvinist wing of the evangelical world“. Now this is a word with a definition. Hyper-Calvinism teaches that it’s improper to exhort nonbelievers to faith in Christ. It essentially says no evangelism, no missions. It’s roundly rejected by Calvinists, and specifically by John Piper. Witherington’s referring to Piper, Driscoll, and me as hyper-Calvinists either means 1) he doesn’t know what the word means or 2) he’s deliberately using it as a pejorative. Either one would be embarrassing, but the man’s a capable scholar and I just doubt that it’s #1.

The same could be said for Boyd, who, in an article you linked, equated Calvinism with determinism. Does he not know enough theology or philosophy to know the difference, even if he rejects them both? Of course he does. But he knows there’s rhetorical punch in equating the two. If John Piper wrote an article equating open theism and Arminianism, you would rightly be up in arms.

There are more examples. Roger Olson, who’s so disappointed that American evangelicals fuss over theology, wrote that he can’t tell the God of Calvinism apart from the devil. N. T. Wright can’t fathom how anybody might understand his work and just disagree, so whenever someone critiques him he just says they haven’t understood him. (D. A. Carson couldn’t understand you?) He has no problem with straw-man critiques either. I’m not the first person to point this out.

My point isn’t that these guys are bad or always wrong—they’re not—but that Reformed writers by no means have a monopoly on uncharitable language.

Reformed guys have the reputation of “attacking” those who differ from us. We certainly deserve it at times. But not only is the problem not limited to us, I’m not even sure it’s more true of us than it is any other crowd. Roger Olson says our God looks like the devil. Steve Chalke, quoted by Brian McLaren and many others, calls my view of the gospel “divine child abuse.” Rob Bell says my God isn’t good and can’t be trusted. These aren’t C- and D-level bloggers or commenters like me; these are respected guys publishing books.

So I suggest that you and others tend to jump on YRR guys for being mean, or uncharitable, or overly critical, while ignoring or downplaying the same tendency among guys that you like. Submitted for your consideration.

Sabbath thought for “professional Christians”

Pastors and others in ministry, for whom Sunday is the busiest work day, typically take another day (or half-day) off during the week. A few times I’ve heard people say “I take my Sabbath on Friday,” or something like that.

Minor quibble: I want to suggest we should take the extra day, but should not refer to it as a Sabbath. Sunday is the Sabbath*. The Fourth Commandment is not “Take a day off every week,” it’s “Honor the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

Keeping the day holy is about resting from things we normally do, but it’s not just about rest; it’s about setting the day apart, making it different. Sunday is the hardest day of my week, but I do try to prepare for it so that it can be as smooth as possible. And I do rest from the internet, housework, and whatever work isn’t necessary for the day. The phone usually stays upstairs until it’s time to get ready for worship.

The Sabbath is a weekly gift. Those of us who don’t have the day off do have to get creative with how we receive that gift, but with good preparation even a busy day can be holy. And, to some extent, restful– though I’m still taking my other day off.

*This post assumes my view that the Fourth Commandment is still valid, and that the Christian Sabbath moved from the seventh day of the week to the first. I’m not trying to defend that view here (I did write about it about it in the early days of the blog), though maybe I should soon.

What it means to pray in Jesus’ name

I like how the Westminster Larger Catechism answers this question. We used it in worship a few weeks ago (lightly edited and broken into lines for readability).

To pray in the name of Christ is,
in obedience to His command,
and in confidence in His promises,
to ask mercy for His sake;
not by simply mentioning His name,
but by drawing our encouragement to pray,
and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer,
from Christ and His mediation.

Thoughts on the Rob Bell fracas

Rob Bell is a popular pastor, speaker and author. His latest book, out in mid-March, is Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The publisher’s description strongly implies that Bell denies the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal punishment:

Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

And in a video publicizing the book, Bell—if words mean anything—rejects the idea that God will punish people forever, or that Jesus rescues us from God’s wrath.

When Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung wrote articles responding to this, saying it is very bad news indeed, the Internet blew up. (If you’re going to read one thing on this, DeYoung’s article should be it. Skip mine if necessary.)

A few of my thoughts:

Yawn. I read Velvet Elvis around 2007, about a year after it came out. And if you had asked me, “Does this author believe in hell?” I would have said “I highly doubt it.” This is not surprising if you’re familiar with Bell’s work. If you’re not willing to go to bat for the Trinity or the Virgin Birth, you’ll throw hell under the bus in a second. (I’ll try and find some more metaphors to throw in that last sentence.)

No need to wait. People have complained that we should wait until the book comes out before responding. Nonsense. He’s said things already. The video is him speaking. There’s already plenty to respond to. If his publisher doesn’t understand what the book means, or if he’s saying the opposite thing in the book from what he’s saying in the video, that will be very strange, and we can deal with it when the book comes out.

This isn’t hard. There are plenty of things in the Bible that are important, but aren’t all that clear. Hell is not one of those things. A cursory reading of the four Gospels will tell you Jesus believed in it and thought it would last forever. Revelation makes it even clearer (and for Revelation, that’s really saying something). Hell is horrific, and difficult to get our minds around. The questions it raises are hard. But it’s not hard to see that the Bible teaches it’s real.

Hang it up. If you are a pastor, and you’re not willing to tell people what the Bible says, you should walk away. We don’t get to make up our own God; we have to deal with the one who’s there. We pastors are in the business of telling people what is true. If you don’t have the stones to do that, you should quit. Feeding people cotton candy only makes the job harder for the rest of us.

Sinlessness and blamelessness

Recently I pointed out a number of places in Psalm 26 where the psalmist refers to his own integrity. Once you start looking for it, it’s surprising how often statements like that come up in the psalms. They’re jarring because we so seldom speak this way. We’re trained, at least in the circles I run in, to think of ourselves as sinners before God (which we most certainly are). So referring to our own righteousness, and especially making an argument in prayer from our own righteousness, seems absurd.

One problem with this is that we’re mistaking the claim of righteousness for a claim of sinlessness. That’s never what the psalmist means, and often there’s proof of that in the very same psalm. For example, in Psalm 41:12 David says to God, “You have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.” But in verse 4, he’s repenting: “As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal be, for I have sinned against you!”

When the psalmist refers to his integrity or righteousness, he’s not claiming absolute freedom from sin. He’s often saying that with regard to the present situation, he is the innocent party. Sometimes he’s referring to the general course of his life; that he walks according to God’s commandments—commandments that include provision for repentance and forgiveness.

This is a reminder that we need to apply to ourselves. We should confess that we’re sinners. We should confess it in general and admit it with regard to specific sins. Our whole life should be one of repentance. At the same time, what God wants from us in this life is not sinlessness—too late!—but what Scripture calls “blamelessness.” He wants us to be above the board, not open to serious accusation of deliberate, unrepentant sin. He wants us to be able to say, despite our present and lifelong struggle with sin, “This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts” (Psalm 119:56).

This is true especially for pastors, who are to be not only blameless but exemplary—again, not perfect, but able to serve as an example to others of a godly life. For more surprising statements we’d never make today, we can look to Paul, who says things like “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 4:16, 11:1), and “What you have seen in me, put into practice” (Phil 4:9). A pastor should have the credibility (and boldness) to say this to his people—and be so obviously humble and repentant that it doesn’t make him sound like a jerk.

We need to take our own sin seriously. But the fact that we’re sinners, and will remain so until heaven, does not excuse us from God’s requirement that we walk blamelessly. By his grace, we really can become more and more holy, our lives more and more pleasing to him. The fact that he gives us his Spirit, that our holiness is ultimately his doing, should make us eager to pursue righteousness, and bold to encourage others to follow us.


Jesus Wants the Rose

This made the rounds in the blogosphere a couple of years ago and has been in my “drafts” folder since then.