Two Voices On Rob Bell and Sin

Justin Buzzard heard Rob Bell on his "the gods aren't angry tour," and wrote a detailed review (here). He got a reaction. While Justin loved much of what he heard from Bell, Justin came away with a concern. "I began to see that Rob wasn't going to talk about a foundational biblical truth that runs from Genesis 3 straight through to the end of the Bible, the biblical truth which makes the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross both necessary and amazing, the biblical truth that makes the good news of the gospel so good: Sin."

Justin would ask Bell three questions. What does Bell believe the Bible teaches about sin? What exactly does Bell believe about Christ's atonement? What does he believe about salvation, heaven, and hell?

Justin's priorities tell me that he cares about the integrity of preaching, that he is committed to studying and expounding the Bible, and that he does not believe biblical doctrine is expendable. The questions he asks are reasonable - questions that all who teach about Christ are accountable to answer.

But a response to Justin's review came from Mauryn Kkira.

Mauryn's post is lengthy, but I think it's worth reading in full because of the emotional impact of the truth she communicates. She has also heard Bell, and what she took from his presentation was "the message of grace being spoken to a severely fallen world that has been bathed in condemnation from the church for as long as I can remember."

Two things in her sentence caught my attention.

First, Mauryn says the world is "severely fallen." Mauryn believes that God "should be angry" with us: "look at us, we are a mess, and don't seem to be getting better anytime soon." She felt that Bell presupposed sin in his message: Bell "would have to have a clear picture of the sin nature in order to even begin to understand the grace that God offers us." I think Mauryn is operating from a doctrine of depravity in her post; she makes no pretence that human beings are basically good. She may not articulate the sinfulness of sin with theological precision, but she gets it.

The second thing I noticed in Mauryn's quote was that the "severely fallen world" has been "bathed in condemnation from the church for as long as I can remember." A world so fallen needs to hear about grace. "I think Rob's point is that our sinfulness has never been greater than the goodness of God." Mauryn clings to God's goodness for dear life: "I have to say that the thought of a Holy and sinless God who loves me exactly the way I am in spite of my sin ... the thing he hates the most, that catches my attention and keeps it."

Mauryn's priorities tell me that she has experienced the grace of Jesus Christ, and wants other people to know his goodness. She presses the point that preachers need to bring out truth that edifies.

What I hear articulated by these two voices is a pastoral problem of the highest importance. It's one of the problems that frustrate me most. Both Justin and Mauryn believe in sin. Both yearn for the grace of God to be understood and received. But what Justin calls for, a direct confrontation of sin, is the very thing that drives Mauryn to despair. What Mauryn calls for, a proclamation of God's goodness, is the very thing that fills Justin with questions about the proclamation's integrity.

A pastor has to confront sin. He also has to comfort sinners with the promise of forgiveness. Different audiences will need different doses of confrontation and comfort. That's my problem: how do I determine dosage?

A preacher is required to make some determination of his audience's spiritual needs and aptitudes (e.g. John 16.4, 12). If his assessment is that the audience needs to hear more about sin, then he must give them more about sin. But if he believes his audience is already convicted of sin, he would be wiser to talk about grace.

For me, the Rob Bell case boils down to this. If Bell has made the assessment that today's unbelievers are convinced of the sinfulness of sin, and that they need a vision of God's goodness from the scriptures, then he has delivered his message in good conscience. I believe the Lord will bless it, and that the Lord's kindness will lead many to repentance (Romans 2.4). Some will say that Bell is mistaken, and that unbelievers need more teaching about sin. They may be right. But if they are wrong, then they would have us heap more sorrow on the grieving (2 Corinthians 7.10).

By contrast, if Bell thinks that unbelievers will never be convinced of the sinfulness of sin, and merely follows the path of least resistance, then we have another case entirely.

This side of the last trumpet, and lacking any definitive evidence, I choose to believe the former, which means I'm praising God for Bell's impact on Mauryn, sitting beside Justin and waiting to hear more.