Critique: Rob Bell…Velvet Elvis (movements 4-5)


Movements 4 and 5 left me feeling both sick and outraged. Did Rob say some good things? Absolutely. However, amidst some good thoughts, Rob mixes in some more man-centered refuse — yet again, he describes a god who has faith in mankind (to see my previous discussions on this issue, click here).

Rob writes (page 134),

God has incredibly high view of people. God believes that people are capable of amazing things.

I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me.

I have been told that I need to have faith in God. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that God has faith in me.

Do we read the same Bible? All throughout the Scripture, a dominant theme is that we must believe in God — in his existence, in the fact that He rewards those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Never once is the clear teaching of the Bible that God has faith in us. Furthermore, if faith is defined as some sort of confidence in the unknown or unsure, then Rob has inadvertently created a god which cannot know all things.

The issue of imperatives and commands:

If God doesn’t have faith in us, then how do we explain the fact that the Scripture is full of imperatives and commands — including the Great Commission, the calls for holiness, the command to love our neighbors, etc?

It’s simple. God is working in us.

Philippians 2:12-13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Behind every imperative is the truth that God is working in us to accomplish his will. For instance, it is his will that we become like Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29) — therefore he empowers us for it. It is his will that “not any should perish” and therefore he draws all men unto himself and empowers us by the Spirit when we proclaim the glad tidings of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But in no way do commands and imperatives indicate that God has faith in mankind.

In actuality, God has perfect knowledge of mankind’s wickedness and depravity. He inspired the following words from the prophet Jeremiah (17:9):

The heart is deceitful above all things , and desperately wicked: who can know it?

Any good things that we do are a direct result of God’s grace at work in our lives — not because I am inherently capable of good actions. I stand with Paul; in my flesh dwells no good thing. My natural tendencies are toward unrighteousness and lawlessness, not “amazing things.”

Rob has distorted God into an image of his own creation. This book continues to subtly infuse the church with a toxic venom that cannot be healed apart from a working of God’s Spirit through the teaching of sound doctrine.

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  1. #1 by toddpbc on August 6, 2007 - 12:51 pm

    If God is working in us, then why wouldn’t He have faith that we would do amazing things?

  2. #2 by clearly on August 6, 2007 - 1:39 pm

    1. God does not have faith.

    2. If He did, it would not be placed in us, but rather upon his working in us.

  3. #3 by toddpbc on August 6, 2007 - 6:16 pm

    From dictionary.com:

    Faith – confidence or trust in a person or thing

    That is the type of faith that God does have. We’ve had this conversation before, and though you refuse to agree – which is your right – I believe this is the type of faith of which Rob Bell is speaking.

    The English language, which I’m sure you’re well aware, affords a wide interpretation of single words. I would that you afforded Bell the benefit of the doubt in this matter rather than go on a “go on an anathematizing rampage.”

  4. #4 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 4:08 am

    Todd,

    Even if I granted your definition, it still renders an incredibly low view of God.

    God is self sufficient, completely.

    I stopped short of anathema…

  5. #5 by toddpbc on August 7, 2007 - 5:12 am

    While I don’t necessarily disagree that God is “self sufficient” (mostly because I’m not sure what the implications or meaning of a self-sufficient God) I have to wonder why then, He chose to use us to carry His message into the world? Why doesn’t He, personally, without the use of human voice, proclaim His truth?

    Or, are you saying that when we proclaim His message, it is really God proclaiming?

    I am, in all sincerity, trying to see what you’re saying clearly. 🙂

  6. #6 by Phil on August 7, 2007 - 5:12 am

    Dave,
    God is self-sufficient, yes. Bell would not dispute that. It is clear from Scripture that He works through humans. People have free will to reject Him, so He is in some respect “risking” rejection. If people reject Him, it doesn’t change His nature or character.

    Also, where do you see that Bell is saying that our actions can bring salvation? I don’t think original sin means that lost people are capable of doing no good, it’s just that the good they do can’t lead to salvation. Even though humans are sinful from the Fall, we are still created in God’s image. We are capable of doing both good and evil.

  7. #7 by Henry Frueh on August 7, 2007 - 5:20 am

    I am a five point Arminian (ha), but God is completely sovereign and self sufficient. Why did God create? Besides not knowing it was not for fellowship.

    It was for His glory and to shower Himself on created beings. It had nothing to do with any deficiency on His part. People like Bell and MacLaren are so intelligent and even creative, but they seem to be fueled by being provocative and mircurial about what they believe.

    I believe it is an over reaction to some of the tone of the evangelical world. Instead of changing our tone, they have changed some core beliefs, or, let it seem like they have. And I am a partial pelagian who is concerned about Bell’s teachings.

  8. #8 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 5:22 am

    Todd,

    “Why doesn’t He, personally, without the use of human voice, proclaim His truth?”

    2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

    He works in this fashion so that He receives glory…

    “Or, are you saying that when we proclaim His message, it is really God proclaiming?”

    In one sense, I could agree with that as well.

    2 Corinthians 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

    God’s self-sufficiency means that God doesn’t need anything — trust is a creaturely expression of inability.

  9. #9 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 5:28 am

    Phil,

    “God is self-sufficient, yes. Bell would not dispute that. ”

    There’s the problem. He holds both God’s self-sufficiency and God’s trust in creation at the same time. God doesn’t need humans, nor does God have a high view of humanity. We were created in the image of God and our nature still reflects his glory to some extent. But a great flaw in emergent philosophy is to minimize the blow that the fall placed upon our being in the image of God. We still think, love, etc. But we lack any perfection that we had before the fall.

    You believe that man is capable of good before salvation. God doesn’t see it that way.

    Isaiah 64:6 But we are all as an unclean thing , and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

  10. #10 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 5:31 am

    “You believe that man is capable of good before salvation. God doesn’t see it that way.

    Isaiah 64:6 But we are all as an unclean thing , and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

    Phil, I misunderstood your point…scrap that.

  11. #11 by Phil on August 7, 2007 - 5:44 am

    Dave,
    If man is capable of doing evil before salvation, than he is capable of doing good, too. There are choices that people make that could be classified as “good” or “evil”. Unbelievers have developed life-saving medical procedures and devices, etc. They might not offer someone eternal life, but they are still good. I am having a hard time understanding your position. It almost seems like a sort of Gnosticism to say that only “spiritual” things can be good.

    God certainly does have high view of humanity. God went to great lengths to save people. He is the loving Father that ran when He saw the prodigal returning home. He loves us more than we can comprehend.

  12. #12 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 5:54 am

    So Phil, do you have a high view of someone to love them perfectly? Or is biblical love unconditional — is it directed towards those who desperately need it?

  13. #13 by toddpbc on August 7, 2007 - 6:13 am

    “trust is a creaturely expression of inability.”

    What is this phrase based upon? Or, rather, where is this “truth” found?

  14. #14 by Phil on August 7, 2007 - 6:19 am

    Dave,
    Yes, God’s love is unconditional. I guess the term “high view” is kind of the ambiguous thing is this discussion. I am taking the that term to mean valuable, or prized. It seems you are taking it to mean that men are capable of saving themselves. I don’t think that is what Bell is getting at.

    Actually, in one of Bell’s sermons from a few weeks ago, he talked about the Tower of Babel and how men doing good for the wrong motives will end badly. I’ve never once heard say that good works can lead to salvation.

  15. #15 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 12:12 pm

    Todd, do you trust me? That is an answerable question; you don’t have to respond.

    Does God trust me? I don’t think that can be answered positively.

    1. What could He possibly need to trust me for?
    2. If he knows the end from the beginning, why exactly would he need to trust?

  16. #16 by Henry Frueh on August 7, 2007 - 12:20 pm

    Man is capable of doing good on a horizontal level before salvation, but that good holds no value or favor before God. It really is a red herring because if he can or can’t has no effect on his eternal standing.

    Only one work can do that, and that wasn’t of man.

  17. #17 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 12:25 pm

    Phil,

    I’m not necessarily talking about saving themselves. I am saying that God’s view of humanity is painfully accurate. He knows our thoughts — he knows the desires of our hearts — he knows our sins. Maybe yours is a prettier picture than mine, but the depths of my heart reveal selfishness, lust and evil desires. Thankfully, God is changing me everyday. Any responsibility that God has now given me is completely based upon the fact that He is sanctifying me, not based on the good that I can accomplish in and of myself.

    God has a tremendously realistic view of people — the only view. He knows that sin has tainted mankind and that is why Christ died, to deliver us from sin and sins.

    This is what it comes down to: Rob believes that redemption/salvation/reconciliation is wholistic in nature. I agree. However, we disagree on the timing. He tends to see it all happening now. I recognize that one day, I will be reconciled to God in a more completed sense that I enjoy now — when I stand in his presence, the struggle will be over. One day, we will be like Christ in a completed sense, for we will see him as he is. We will be glorified and the presence of sin will be obliterated and we will be free to worship and serve without thought of sin. That’s what I (and many others) refer to as the “not yet” of salvation. However, until then, our members are still upon the earth (Col. 3:5) — we still struglle with sin.

    To say that God has a view of people is to really miss the point that humanity in this age needs to hear. People need to be confronted (lovingly of course) with their transgression of God’s laws. They need to be told of the punishment of their sin. They need to then be introduced to the Savior, the only one who can forgive them. They don’t need to hear how great they are.

    If Rob was speaking to Christians who have the Holy Spirit as their enabling power and encouraging them to spread the gospel, I would have less of a problem (I would still think his wording is a low view of God). But, Velvet Elvis, by your own admission (maybe it was Todd) was not written to a churched crowd. It was written to the culture at large and many of them need to hear the gospel — not “God has an incredibly high view of you.”

  18. #18 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 12:25 pm

    Good thoughts, Henry.

  19. #19 by toddpbc on August 7, 2007 - 12:28 pm

    “but that good holds no value or favor before God.”

    I believe that Matt. 25 would contradict that thought. While we can do nothing to earn salvation, I do believe that God values our good works; that what we do down here does matter in light of what happens after we’re done down here.

    The life of a Christian is about more than the simple confessing of Jesus’ name – it is about a total life transformation. The confession may grant us entry, but the transformation and subsequent actions is what sets us apart.

  20. #20 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 12:31 pm

    Todd, what Henry is saying is that good works hold no value unless the person is regenerate. He is not talking of post-regeneration good works…

  21. #21 by toddpbc on August 7, 2007 - 12:35 pm

    Oh. My bad. Carry on.

  22. #22 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 12:40 pm

    No problems…

  23. #23 by Phil on August 7, 2007 - 12:45 pm

    Dave,
    Could it be that the definition of the word faith is the problem here? One definition in the dictionary is this: the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.

    Does that make it sit better with you?

    It seems to me, that yes, it is illogical to speak of God “needing” us in an absolute sense. He chooses to work through people. He even use unsaved people. He makes promises to people. Basically, He wants to interact with people in terms of relationship.

  24. #24 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 12:49 pm

    Phil,

    I understand your point with definitions, but no, it really doesn’t help it sit well with me. If Rob meant a different definition of faith, he should have used a different word, not one with an incredible ammount of theological implications.

    Christian leaders need to speak with theological clarity. In my opinion, this was a careless oversight at best.

  25. #25 by toddpbc on August 7, 2007 - 12:59 pm

    I think that theological clarity is overrated. Jesus often concealed His message in ways that frustrated (to say the least) the religious leaders of His day and his disciples, while encouraging and affirming the neglected members of the society.

    Only a person schooled in theology would be disturbed by Bell’s comments – not those to whom he is speaking. Stating that God has faith in us will not create a faulty view of God, and might open doors to further conversation.

  26. #26 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 1:25 pm

    Todd, how much theological schooling do you think I have? I’m disturbed because God having faith in us is never the clear teaching of the Scripture. The clear teaching of the Scripture is that we are sinners and that we must believe in Jesus to do for us what we could never do for ouselves.

  27. #27 by Henry Frueh on August 7, 2007 - 1:44 pm

    “I think that theological clarity is overrated. ”

    Bingo. Subjectivity reigns and unclear theology is now considered the clear message. The more hidden and mircurial the more comfortable the listeners.

    The gospel narratives are not teachings as such to the church. See Paul and see what he teaches, I think we may see clearity. How far does theological unclearness go? Is the gospel clear or is that over rated. I still believe God’s “faith” in us is a doctrinal mistatement but not the unpardonable sin.

    But to scorn theological clearity is a road to danger and universalism.

  28. #28 by toddpbc on August 7, 2007 - 2:11 pm

    Theology is not something that a majority of people spend time analyzing or critiquing – that is saved for a collect few. Most people adopt a basic theology – one that states God is all-powerful and Jesus saves – which is all that they need. It is not essential that someone has crystal clear or perfect theology to enter the kingdom of God. All of this focus on theological clarity is missplaced.

    What does need to be crystal clear is the communication of the gospel and the life that needs to be lived post-gospel acceptance.

    I’m not preaching universalism – I’m eschewing legalism. My desire is that people come to know Christ: His teachings, His life, His death and His resurrection.

  29. #29 by clearly on August 7, 2007 - 2:26 pm

    Todd, no offense but this is kinda typical — someone criticizes another’s doctrine and you throw out the legalist label. Read my post before this…I’m not a legalist.

  30. #30 by toddpbc on August 7, 2007 - 2:29 pm

    I’m not saying anyone is a legalist. I was merely responding to Henry’s claim that I was headed down a road of universalism. My fear is that when we overemphasize doctrine, we create unnecessary barriers to knowing Christ in the same way that when we under-emphasize it we open ourselves to universalism.

  31. #31 by Henry Frueh on August 7, 2007 - 2:59 pm

    Doctrine is nothing more and nothing less than truth. Your “God is all powerful and Jesus saves” can be espoused by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witness alike. Where does one draw the line to theological clearity since the Jesus saves is doctrine also?

    I agree that “Did Jesus drink wine” is a unproductive discussion. But there are many necessary doctrines that lead us and keep us in faith.

  32. #32 by does it matter on August 13, 2007 - 1:30 am

    I wonder how different the world would look if we all stopped contributing endless hours to online debates and loved our neighbors.

  33. #33 by clearly on August 13, 2007 - 4:34 am

    I mean seriously, if we debate a core doctrine of God, then we can’t possibly being loving our neighbors as well…

  34. #34 by Joel B. on August 13, 2007 - 6:52 pm

    I think one loves his neighbors best by holding fast to the true doctrines of the faith. Who truly loves their neighbor? The one who says “Great job chum, God has faith in You!” and completely forgets to mention the part about God knowing that same individual to be wicked and seperated from God, remember ALL our works are nothing but filthy rags, to suggest anything else is to confuse the Gospel.

    True “loving one’s neighbor” is speaking truth, that we all stand condemned but that God loved us so much, while we were still sinners that he sent his son to die. God did not have “faith” in us. He loved us first and sent his son, KNOWING, that many would choose to reject his son, but God’s love was so great that even knowing that only some would repent he still sent his son.

    And really, can we actually “overemphasize” doctrine, it’s almost (ALMOST) like saying we can preach the Gospel to much. Paul does not call Timothy to retain the standard of sound words just to waste Timothy’s time, it because the foundation of the Word is vitally important. “If the foundations be destroyed what can the righteous do.” Psalm 11:3

  35. #35 by clearly on August 14, 2007 - 4:40 am

    Good thoughts Joel!

  36. #36 by Henry Frueh on August 14, 2007 - 4:00 pm

    Does it Matter – Sure, even posting comments which scold dialogue can be viewed as worthless. Then reading Christian books, listening to Christian music, and listening to countless hours of preaching can be viewed as worthless, as you suggest.

    But iron sharpens iron, and when believers share in a humble and respectful way it just may increase our capacity to love our God as well as our neighbors.

  37. #37 by jimbo on August 18, 2007 - 5:14 pm

    Guys, after reading your responses back and forth to each other, I have to agree with Todd. Isn’t the core of what Jesus teaches what is REALLY important? To have faith, and therefore be saved, and to therefore do good works. I question those who “know all the right things”, but show absolutely nothing in their actions. I often believe I fall into that category. Bell’s teachings have reinvigorated my own beliefs to be more “action” oriented with my faith.

    What about Non-Christ followers who do good works? I feel they are well on their way to possibly having their eyes open to Christ. If not, then Oh well. Our job is to love them, therefore hopefully opening their eyes to Christ. If we become legalistic, we will always scare them away. I see it happen all the time.
    I truly believe that Bell is a HUGE breath of fresh air. He appeals to all ages, and to Non-believers and Believers alike. I don’t think he confuses anyone except those who focus all their time on doctrine, and less of their time on good works.

  38. #38 by jhorneck3723 on August 19, 2007 - 10:29 pm

    Jimbo,
    It is entirely possible to “know all the right things” and not show it in actions, however, knowing all the right things does not mean that one therefore does not do the right actions. I question those people as well. What’s your point? I would guess that as someone who “knows all the right things” (do not take that as arrogance but as an acceptance of your label) nothing frustrates me more than seeing people who know what I know and live like they don’t. Those people reflect poorly on Christ and on me.
    Why must knowing God and knowing God’s Word preclude me from doing right things? If you set up straw men like that, of course you will look right and we who “know all the right things” will look like idiots.

  39. #39 by laterain on September 7, 2007 - 6:34 pm

    jimbo, your comment, ” If not, then Oh well.” is disturbing to me. First, we are called to do what Jesus did, which was not merely serving lunch, healing illness, and the like, but His main purpose while on earth–“The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost”–and all the good works in the world, and “showing” God’s love, are of no use to anybody if we don’t speak the truth to them.
    And I think that there’s an equal amount of legalism involved in throwing that book of James argument around . . . I agree that faith without works is dead, but I also think that putting our faith in works is dangerous, whether we are aware of it or not.

    just my two cents’ worth . . .

    Rain

  1. Angels, Trust, and God « seeing clearly

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