After reading Bell's book, I then read three rebuttals to his salvation theology. His ideas created enough stir for concerned Christians to quickly take up their pens against his heresy. Fair enough. Since the book gained fame among believers and unbelievers alike, his claims ought to be openly compared with the Bible. Otherwise the light of the gospel could be hidden by confusion and could lead many astray. So take a moment with me to briefly consider Bell's three counselors. Again, I do not intend to give them a thorough review, but only touch on a few points. I would recommend that you also read these books for yourself.
Larry Dixon wrote a work which he titled Farewell, Rob Bell: A Biblical Response to Love Wins. On page 14 Dixon says that Bell's statements "imply that believing the gospel has no transactional effect upon the sinner, that belief is immaterial to the reality of being in the Father's love." Dixon understands Bell to say that faith does not activate or help to deposit Jesus' payment for our sin into our account. Bell seems to believe that Jesus' payment is applied by God before we believe. Christians, then, are those people who believe in what God has already done for them. Dixon sees this as a heretical error, because he believes that faith does play a "transactional" role in applying Jesus' work to each individual person's account. Dixon and Bell clearly have different definitions of faith. You may remember from our previous discussion that Arminian and Calvinist understandings of the gospel also define faith differently. Considering this point alone, it would appear that Dixon falls into the Arminian category, while Bell falls into the Calvinist category. However, as already explained, Bell is far from an orthodox Calvinist. Also, on page 14 Dixon says, "...Bell disparages belief, arguing that the reality of forgiveness applies to all without their asking for it. How unlike human forgiveness Bell's position is." This is a very strange statement from Dixon. I wonder if he would actually say it again. The Bible explains that God's forgiveness is decidedly unlike human forgiveness. We humans typically offer conditional forgiveness. God, however, gives unconditional forgiveness and blessing. That is the evangelical definition of grace. Dixon is certain that Bell is a heretic, but what should we now think about Dixon?
Michael Wittmer wrote Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell's Love Wins. On page 12 Wittmer explains that "evangelicals hold that faith is an open hand, a passive receiving of God's precious gift to anyone who accepts it." Wittmer and Bell also appear to have different definitions of faith. Unfortunately, Wittmer did not more clearly distinguish the difference between faith that is trust in the finished work of Christ versus faith that is the condition to activate salvation. Wittmer is apparently from the Calvinist camp, but he sounds Arminian at times. His explanations suggest that we can add our own name to the Lamb's Book of Life by taking up the pen of faith, instead of using the eyeglasses of faith to see our name in the Book from before the foundation of the world. Wittmer also expressed concern over Bell's "second chance" theology, which offers hope that unbelievers will repent even after their death. On page 31 he says that "those who assert there is a chance for postmortem salvation inadvertently claim to know better than God what God should have included in his Word." However, Wittmer should know that grace theology teaches us that our spiritual condition does not even allow for a first chance. Hopefully he is not implying that salvation is a chance. There is not one element of chance in the salvation of Jesus Christ, but instead God's determined love is set on each of his chosen ones. Wittmer shares his specific objection to second-chance salvation on page 30: "[Bell] may not want people to use his book as an excuse not to follow Jesus now, but it is easy to see how many could logically draw this conclusion." I hope to discuss the idea of salvation after death, and the thought that people might use this as an excuse to not follow Christ, later in this book.
Mark Galli wrote God Wins - Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News is Better than Love Wins. Galli's book is my personal favorite. He writes on page 64 that "what the Bible plainly teaches is that we come to faith only by the gracious intervention of God." Galli is clear that we are spiritually dead apart from grace and that only God's grace awakens us to faith. He says on page 72,
[W]ithout the intervention of God, we have about as much hope as a corpse. And that's the gospel. Not that we have an innate free will, but that God in his freedom came to us to rescue us from spiritual slavery. Through the work of Jesus on the cross, and through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, our wills are liberated. Then and only then can we actually recognize Christ, his love, his forgiveness, his grace. Then and only then can we finally respond in faith.
Well said. Galli then illustrates how Christ brings us to faith with a picture of a drowning man who reaches for help. That example is less well said. His illustration could be improved by adding the miraculous component that the man was fully drowned, completely dead, and then revived to life and pulled from the water! Galli also gives brief treatment to our key Scripture, saying,
Universalists quote many other passages with the word 'all' in them, but in context, most of those really mean 'all Israel', or 'all kinds of people' or 'both Jews and Gentiles' will be saved. One example is found in Romans: 'God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so that he could have mercy on everyone' (Romans 11:32). Paul has been discussing the place of Jews and Gentiles in the scheme of salvation, so clearly the 'all' here means both Jews and Gentiles - not all within each group.
Galli's treatment of this key verse is too brief for the spotlight it deserves. Curiously, I have never read one Christian work that focused on this verse in detail. The grand conclusion of the book of Romans and the theology of grace certainly deserves at least a decent commentary on this amazing verse. Perhaps there is a work out there already, but I have not found it. So, Lord willing, I hope to exegete Romans 11:32 now.
It would appear that with my book I have the notable position of being Bell's fourth counselor. I was not as quick with my pen as the first three due to my schedule and work load, so perhaps the stir has long died down. Yet perhaps the intermediate time has been useful to you, me, and Bell for proper reflection.
Now I hope to help you by clarifying the definition of faith, the possibility of salvation "chances" during and after life, the meaning of Romans 11:32, and strategies for confronting stubborn unbelief.