Celebration. . .

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful!
Let Israel celebrate its maker;
let Zion’s children rejoice in their king!
Let them praise God’s name with dance;
let them sing God’s praise with the drum and lyre!

I often feel more worshipful at a wedding than I do at a church gathering.

The dancing, the laughter, the sheer joy that exists in that environment. There’s almost the sense of God’s celebratory joy overwhelming the place when everyone hits the dance floor.

I’m not a big Chris Tomlin fan, but I can’t help but think of these words from his song:

I feel alive
I come alive
I am alive on God’s great dance floor

And then for some reason, when I’m at my church gathering, I don’t celebrate. I look around me, and I see few people celebrating. It’s as though people have been lulled into near mundanity.

I almost want to stand up and shout, “The universe’s Creator and King LOVES US. He died for us, but now he LIVES AND REIGNS VICTORIOUSLY! Let’s sing! Let’s dance! We have LIFE!

And I wonder if that’s on us. Maybe, as leaders, we need to change the culture a little.

I live and work in New Jersey. We wear our cynicism like a badge of honor and proudly display it wherever we go. But as Christians, we have an incredible joy that should spill out into everything that we do—especially our corporate worship response!

In many cases I think we’ve allowed our cynicism to infiltrate our worship. It could be our cynicism, it could be our pride, or it could be our unwillingness to be vulnerable. It could even be a combination of all three. I used to think (read: come up with the excuse) that this lack of expressiveness in worship response is an attempt at contextualization, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was closing off a part of my heart when I sing words like, “Jesus Christ, you are my one desire. Lord, hear my only cry—to know you all my life,” and keep my hands in my pockets.

Yes, the area to the left of the Hudson River is known for its disenchantment, but I believe that as Christians, we shouldn’t be giving in to any of that. God himself rejoices over his people.

The LORD your God is with you. He is a hero who saves you. He happily rejoices over you, renews you with his love, and celebrates over you with shouts of joy.
~ Zephaniah 3:17 GWT

The Hebrew phrase translated “he happily rejoices over you. . . and celebrates” looks like this: יָגִ֥יל The word celebrate here literally means, “to spin around under the influence of violent emotion.” God is dancing over us!

So if that’s how God feels about us, shouldn’t we at least try to respond to him similarly?

I went to visit my brother’s church, and—say what you will about churches with 10,000+ attendees—there’s a celebratory atmosphere there that is pretty rare in churches. Here’s a video of my brother leading his congregation in one of my favorite new celebration worship songs.

Who am I? . . .

For years, he crafted an identity. His parents’ deaths gave him the identity of orphan. Hunger gave him the identity of thief by necessity. Repeated escape attempts from prison hardened him, and he earned the identity of criminal. Nearly twenty years as a prisoner transformed him into a desperate and broken man.

Then a chance encounter with grace introduced a new story, and following the guilt and shame he experienced after spitting in the face of the gift he’d been given, he began to work on a new identity.

No longer the thief, no longer the criminal, no longer the escaped convict known as Jean Valjean, he took on a new name. Monsieur Madeleine, he called himself. A new name, a new life, and a new city to call home.

But it wouldn’t be long before his previous life caught up with him. His former jailor, now an inspector with the police, sees something familiar in M. Madeleine and decides to investigate further.

When it seemed inevitable that he would be exposed for the thief and criminal he once was, a man bearing his face emerges as an escape from the ghosts of his past.

He soon faces the question of his own identity. Is he the criminal of so many years ago? Is he M. Madeleine, the benevolent mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer? Or is he someone completely different?

At some point in life we face the same questions Jean Valjean faced. Am I [insert sin here]? Or am I [insert accomplishments here]? Or is there something else that defines me?

Valjean’s conundrum in Les Misérables represents the problem that the world imposes upon each of us: what you do defines who you are. At work, you arrive at your position based on how much effort you put into your job. On your career path, you often receive your title based on the degree or certification program you completed before entering the workforce.

If you constantly make mistakes, you’re a failure. If you fight a losing battle with sexual immorality, you’re filthy and lustful. If you give in to your vices over and over again, you’re an addict.

How you live dictates who you are.

But for God, the complete opposite is true. Scripture tells us that who we are dictates how we live.

We are daughters and sons of God (Romans 8:14-15), so we can be joyful and grateful.

We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), so we share the incredible news that our King has come.

We are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3), so we can live freely because we have nothing to fear.

Suddenly we don’t have the pressure of living for something. Instead we can live from something—joy, peace, freedom.

Suddenly finding our identity is as simple as looking at our King.

Just know that even though it’s simple, it’s far from easy. This world is screaming other identities at us so loud that it can drown out the voice of the King. But if you listen, not for another deafening scream, but for a whisper, a “still, small voice,” if you will, you’ll hear him.

“You’re mine. Your identity is in me. You are my child, and I love you.”

Love and glory. . .

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

from the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what glorifying God looks like. How do we do this? What does it mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been pulled into these musings is that it’s been a recurring theme coming from those in the neo-reformed camp.

Glory.

“Give God the glory.”
“Don’t rob God of his glory.”
“God gets all the glory.”

There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away when I considered the idea of glorifying God: God is self-serving, and interested only in his own glory. At some level, I suppose, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, if you’re the most powerful, magnificent, and other being in the universe, who else would you glorify?

But the deeper I dug into this thought, the more uncomfortable I became with it. Questions started to arise in my mind that I was afraid to address. Was God so insecure that he would demand (read: dictate, determine) the praise of his creatures? What exactly was it about him that needed to be glorified or magnified? Power? Holiness? Distinctness? Sovereignty?

Is that what set him apart from all other deities?

I began to grow weary of the pat answers that did little more than create an image of a god who was after nothing more than his own glory.

Then again, why shouldn’t he be? He is God after all.

But isn’t there something inside you that balks at the thought? Isn’t there something in all of this talk of glory that, despite all the logical consistencies of something like TULIP, makes God frightening? Or worse yet, unloving?

What if we took a step back and looked at what God is trying to communicate to us through the whole of Scripture? There seems to be a story unfolding that reveals a most unusual central character.

As he reflected on the story, St. John wrote, “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love” (emphasis added). So this is who God is.

Obsession with one’s own glory hardly looks like love, and if love is how God defines himself, shouldn’t that be how we see him?

I turn at this point to N. T. Wright, who said it far better than I could have said it myself.

“[John Piper] sees [God’s righteousness] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love—God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply ‘for the sake of his own name.’ But ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynē theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring, out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and ‘God’s righteousness’ is a way of saying, ‘Yes, and God will be true to that character.'”

This truth cannot be overstated.

God is, by definition, love. All other attributes and actions that God possesses and commits must conform to this standard. It is who he is, and that is what remains unchanged and unchangeable about him.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament wrote the following concerning 1 John 4:8: “‘God is love.’—This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

What then does this say of God’s glory?

John Piper famously said that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Not necessarily untrue, but if I understand John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:13, and Philippians 2:5-11 correctly, then this statement would be far truer if styled, “God is most glorified in us when we most explicitly model his self-giving love to those around us.”

God’s glory is found in his love.

Just trust. . .

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of “God’s will for my life,” and what makes me a bit sad is when I see people around me (and often, I confess, myself) agonizing over what God’s will is in one circumstance or another, particularly with regards to decisions that we make in life.

Should I pursue a relationship with this girl or that one? Should I take this job offer or the other one? Should I stay in this town or relocate somewhere else?

I suppose one could take comfort in believing that God has it all mapped out and planned anyway, so we can just trust that whatever decision we make will be the one God decided for us ahead of time. Frankly, that belief leads me down the path towards determinism and eventually fatalism (If I make a destructive decision, was that God’s will for me? How can God be loving, or even good, if he determined that I would make a self-destructive choice?), but if that brings you comfort, hold tightly to that.

But if you’re like me, and you don’t believe that about God, how can you feel safe making decisions? How will you know what God’s will is for you? There’s an old adage I heard often when I was in school: “If you follow God’s daily will for your life, he’ll reveal to you his long-term will.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it always true? What if I’m doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly with my God everyday, but when I face that life-altering decision, I still don’t know the answer?

Here’s where I find comfort. God asks us to trust him. He loves us, and he has our best interests at heart. The more we get to know him, the more we’ll discover what he desires for us. It may never be specific, but here’s the cool thing. No matter what we choose, God is there.

Maybe that’s what it means to believe. Maybe it’s knowing that God has given us the freedom to use our minds and hearts to make good decisions, and that in whatever decision we make, God is there. So trust him.

Pull the trigger and trust him.

Because we could easily think ourselves into paralysis, killing our effectiveness.

So when you come to that fork in the road (I know, I’m tossing in unexpected metaphors that weren’t alluded to at the beginning of this post, but I’m just thinking on the fly here), go left or go right. Don’t just stand there and wonder which one is God’s will.

Because God’s will is that you trust him whether you go left or right. He’ll be there if you turn left, and he’ll be there if you turn right.

Trust the Lord and do good;
live in the land, and farm faithfulness.
Enjoy the Lord,
and he will give what your heart asks.
Commit your way to the Lord!
Trust him! He will act
and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
your justice like high noon.

The Seven Pillars of Family Ministry. . .

I’ve been reading the book Dreaming of More for the Next Generation by Michelle Anthony, and in the book she describes what she refers to as the “seven pillars of family ministry.” I wanted to share them with you here because they serve as “Aha” moments in my ministry journey.

1. Family is Primary. The purpose of the church ministry is to walk alongside and equip families to disciple their children. If I’m taking seriously the charge that Paul gave in Ephesians 4:11-13, and I believe that the message to parents in Deuteronomy 6 is a call for them to be the primary disciplers of their children, this ministry should be equipping and training our parents with the same intentionality that we train and equip our teachers, mentors, and leaders.

2. Spiritual Formation is our Goal. Paul’s desire for the church in Galatia was that Christ be “formed in” them. What did he mean by this? His desire for this church wasn’t that they learn the facts of their faith—however important those facts may be. Rather, his goal was that they look more and more like Jesus. He wrote that “all the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s tempting to substitute spiritual formation with communicating information. We can very easily fall into the trap of making our ministry about facts, head knowledge, and measurables. I’m guilty of this all the time. “If children and families learn information, we may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But maybe we shouldn’t. Children may memorize Bible verses. They may know how many stones David used to kill Goliath. It’s good, but it’s not enough.”

It’s also tempting to make ministry about moral training. We can fall into the trap of trying to teach kids what it looks like to be a good Christian. Good behavior looks so much like faith in action. What if instead, we focused on training families on allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their lives?

Jesus doesn’t want people who are well behaved. He wants people of faith (see Luke 17). That’s much more difficult, but it’s more lasting, and it’s what will end up storming the gates of hell.

3. The Holy Spirit is the Teacher. Francis Chan wrote in his book Forgotten God that “the Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be.” There’s nothing wrong with the term “Sunday School Teacher,” but something can be taken away with that title. I wonder if instead, we gave God the role of “teacher,” and took on the roles of leaders, mentors, and storytellers? After all, in John’s account of the Gospel, he wrote that the Spirit of God is our Counselor, our Comforter, and our Teacher.

Imagine with me for a moment: what if we had students and children who worshiped God “from the inside out” (I love that song, by the way; it’s one of my favorites) “compelled by the Spirit—not through behaving in expected or mandated ways, but through seeing worship as a lifestyle instead of as a moment or event”? What if they fully realized their Spirit-given abilities to herald and exhibit the Kingdom attributes of love, grace, justice, forgiveness? What if they were able to discern God’s voice speaking to them and learn to obey that voice, relying on the Spirit’s power alone for their strength?

4. Scripture is our Authority. Our culture denies the idea that there can be concrete truths. My lead pastor often points out that truth is necessarily exclusive. If something is true, it automatically denounces anything that contradicts it as false. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a natural and obvious thing. If the truth is that I’m traveling north, then by saying I’m traveling south when I’m doing the exact opposite means that my statement is false.

Without truth, people are lost. Truth acts as a compass—morally, experientially, emotionally. As Christians, our compass is Scripture, and it needs to permeate our being otherwise we’re lost. Our task isn’t simply to teach kids about God’s Word, but rather show them how to investigate it for themselves.

Michelle Anthony shares this story in her book:

“Several years ago I was leading a group of elementary students through the book of James. At the conclusion of our eight-week study together, I was compelled by this idea of wanting them to flex their faith muscles. I didn’t plan a new study right away. I wanted to take our next time together to explore what could be next. The kids arrived and sat down as usual to hear the next Bible study, but this time there was none.

“Instead I asked them, ‘Children, how can you put your faith into action? You’ve heard these things from God’s Word for the past eight weeks. You’ve learned that God wants us to not just be ‘hearers’ of His Word, but ‘doers’ also. So what are you going to do about what you’ve heard?’. . . .”

Dr. Anthony then describes the awkward silence and her desire to validate her teaching by offering suggestions that the kids could just say “yes” to. She continues her story.

I didn’t give in. At this point, my faith was hanging in the balance as much as theirs was. ‘What are you going to do now that you have heard the words of God and how He wants us to live?’ It felt like an eternity in waiting. I was uncomfortable. My leaders were uncomfortable. The kids were. . . well, bored.

“But then one courageous hand rose in the back. The young girl said, ‘We could help the homeless people.’ My heat leapt! ‘Yes, we could do that! What else could we do to put our faith into action?’ I asked. Soon more children began to chime in with ideas that ranged from eliminating global hunger to knitting sweaters for cold dogs.”

Where do you think this faith that manifested in action ideas and steps came from? It was rooted in the truth of God’s Word.

John Wesley posited that there are four ways that God reveals Himself to us. Experience: “One thing I know; I was blind, but now I see.” Reason: Wesley often stated that without Spirit-given reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Tradition: While he recognized the weaknesses inherent in tradition, he stated “Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour.” Scripture: “Wesley insisted that scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by authors who were divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition.”

Scripture is of utmost importance to us and its truth is that which guides, yea distills all other evidences of God’s revelation to us. Our goal is to train children to see all of life through the lens of Scripture, knowing that while our interpretation may inform our approach, God always speaks first and foremost to us through His Word.

5. The Big God Story. This pillar is connected to the previous pillar in that to know the Big God Story we need to know Scripture.

Anthony writes:

“Because we’ve heard the story so many times, we might be tempted to gloss over the amazement that it’s all really true. God really did promise to send the Redeemer, He really kept the promise alive throughout history, He really sent His Son to die for us, and He really redeemed us from our sin because He really loves us that much! The Big God Story is amazing—and true! and sometimes it takes a new believer—a child—to remind us how shocking it truly is.”

It’s tempting to teach the Bible in isolated “stories” with little or no context to the whole. It goes back to the second pillar. Randy Frazee calls this “the Lower Story”—the biblical information found in the smaller stories, and we often teach “the Lower Story” at the expense of “the Upper Story”—the story of redemption, restoration, and relationship. This story is the one that transforms, rather than simply informing.

While the Bible isn’t all about Jesus, all of the Bible points to Jesus, and the narrative—much like a serialized TV show—beckons us to its climax—the arrival of the Messiah. When approached episodically, the Bible loses its fervor. But when we tell the Big God Story serially (the “to-be-continued” approach), children want to know what happens next and wait with baited breath to discover the all-important climax—Messiah has come!

The Big God Story, while all about God and His desire to be in a relationship with His image-bearing creation, draws us into its narrative. We are characters in this story, and it’s important to share that truth with children. They need to know that they are born because God wants them and made them to look like Him, and that life is all about knowing Him and loving Him because He loves them.

Sadly, culture (and the Church, to many degrees) teaches children that life is “all about me.” God exists to meet my needs and save me because the story centers on me. We need to help children understand that their part in the story is to know and love the Main Character.

Which leads me to Pillar Six.

6. God is Central. Worship is about growing closer to Him, experiencing His presence, getting to know Him. When we spend time remembering and celebrating what God has done through responding, worshiping, even just living, we are reminded that He is at the center of everything. Austin Fischer wrote that we are all “little black holes” trying to use our gravity to suck life into ourselves. Instead, we should revolve around the gravity of God; therein lies our sole satisfaction. As children discover this truth, their lives can be centered and they have a more compelling story to tell—and to be a part of.

7. Ministry Support. If you know me at all, you know that I love ice hockey. It’s an incredible sport that moves at frightening speeds, requiring an insane amount of coordination, not just on the part of the individual player, but on the part of the whole team. All five skaters need to be in sync and on the same page at every moment. The wingers need to instinctively know where the centerman is and vice-versa. The defensemen need to “feel” each other on the ice. The forwards and defensemen need to see each other, even without seeing each other.

Ministry should be the same. Parents and leaders should support each other. After all, they’re on the same team. They have the same goal: to train children to become aggressive followers of Jesus who are heralding His love for the world. Why shouldn’t we all work together?

Admittedly, I don’t know what that looks like practically, but I’ve got some ideas.

One of the beautiful things about ice hockey is that, unlike any other sport, after someone scores a goal, all five skaters huddle up and celebrate the goal together, acknowledging that every skater on the ice played an integral part in that goal.

Born to die?. . .

C. J. Mahaney wrote the following statement a few years ago:

“During this time of year, it may be easy to forget that the bigger purpose behind Bethlehem was Calvary. But the purpose of the manger was realized in the horrors of the cross. The purpose of his birth was his death.”

While I understand his sentiment (as it’s often all too easy to forget that we celebrate the birth of a child whose fate was sealed from the moment he took his first breath—Jesus was certainly going to die a horrible, bloody death), I find it difficult now to accept that the Advent must needs be inexorably linked to the Atonement.

It’s absolutely true that all four Evangelists crafted their stories in such a way as to aim at Golgotha, but it’s equally as true that they didn’t write exclusively about the crucifixion. In other words, the Evangelists (well, Matthew and Luke, at least) wrote about Christ’s birth and his death as two unrelated events offset by several years of ministry (though I won’t be using the ministry and teaching years as support for my argumentation). Yes, Christ’s death was certainly foreshadowed at his birth, but it was not the bigger purpose behind it, as Pastor Mahaney avers.

Some might say that the manger was a stepping stone to the cross. I’m not comfortable with that statement. I’m much more comfortable saying that the manger paints a particular picture while the cross paints a distinct (yet deeply related) picture.

For support, I turn to Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi. In that letter, he writes these words:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul starts this entreatment with the phrase, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He certainly ends his description of Christ’s condescension with a statement about his death, but that’s not the point of this passage. He’s likely not saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who died.”

In this passage we find Paul’s mention of Christ’s humility in regards to his entering human form having just as much emphasis as Christ’s humility in his death. Paul continues by saying that “God also highly exalted him.” But why did God exalt Christ? Was it because he died on the cross? I’d venture to say that’s not entirely true.

Someone once said something to the effect of, “The Father’s exaltation of Christ isn’t a ‘Purple Heart,’ that is, he’s not exalting him because he died. Rather, this is more of a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ for a mindset characterized by ‘other-centric’ humility.”

Think of it this way. The mindset that’s all too common in humanity is one that looks like this: imagine a Stanford graduate who’s looking for a job, and there’s an opening as a member of the Geek Squad at Best Buy. He doesn’t apply for the position because it’s beneath him.

I think at some level we all have this mindset. There is always something that we’re too good for. But that wasn’t the case with Christ. He “emptied himself,” and he became a slave. That’s the important thing to note here.

Leading up to this description of Christ’s mindset, Paul wrote, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul wants his followers to look at Christ’s example of humility as our model.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Which mind is that exactly?

It’s the mind that says, Though I am Creator, I am willing to become created for the sake of my creation. It’s the mind that says, I am the Son of God, but for the sake of mankind I will become a son of man. It’s the mind that says, I am immortal, but for the sake of mortals I will submit to mortality—even death itself.

When all is said and done, it’s the Atonement, not the Advent, that secures our salvation. But let us not forget that the love that moved the Son of God to enter our lives and spend his first night of life in an animal feeding trough is the same love that moved the Son of God to allow those he loved to brutally murder him.

The death of Jesus is not the greater purpose behind his birth. His love is the greater purpose behind his death, and his love is the greater purpose behind his birth.

That is what I hope we can remember as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.

Anime Jesus. . .

I kinda wish that title were a reference to something cool. . . that the phrase “Anime Jesus” was a metaphor for something amazing I saw in real life.

Actually, no. It’s literally an Anime Jesus.

I thought that since Holy Week is starting tomorrow, it’d be nice to post a reminder of what Jesus came to earth for.

FYI: if cartoon blood and gore make you queasy, you might not want to watch.

Rob Bell’s Love Wins. . .

Few men are as polarizing in the Church world today as Rob Bell. In his latest work, Love Wins, Bell takes on the age-old debate regarding heaven and hell (and “the fate of every person who ever lived”).

The big question that was on everyone’s mind when the trailer came out last month was this: is Rob Bell a universalist? In my earlier post regarding the fallout from the release of his book trailer I said that I’d be waiting until after I’d read the book to weigh in on whether Bell is a universalist.

But I’ve decided to avoid answering that question altogether since many of the better versed and smarter leaders in my “camp” of Christianity have released better rebuttals than I could ever hope to form.

Kevin DeYoung wrote an extensive review of Love Wins, which you can download here.

Here’s DeYoung’s summary of Bell’s book:

“Hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. Hell is both a present reality for those who resist God and a future reality for those who die unready for God’s love. Hell is what we make of heaven when we cannot accept the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But hell is not forever. God will have his way. How can his good purposes fail? Every sinner will turn to God and realize he has already been reconciled to God, in this life or in the next. There will be no eternal conscious torment. God says no to injustice in the age to come, but he does not pour out wrath (we bring the temporary suffering upon ourselves), and he certainly does not punish for eternity. In the end, love wins.

“Bell correctly notes (many times) that God is love. He also observes that Jesus is Jewish, the resurrection is important, and the phrase ‘personal relationship with God’ is not in the Bible. He usually makes his argument by referencing Scripture. He is easy to read and obviously feels very deeply for those who have been wronged or seem to be on the outside looking in.”

Instead, I’ll try to find a practical response to all this since this book is now within the top 5 bestsellers on Amazon and is probably the topic of many spiritual discussions in offices, coffeeshops, bookstores, and pubs. And because of this, no doubt the concepts of heaven and hell are on many people’s radars as well.

When faced with questions of God’s goodness—”How can a good God send people to hell for eternity?”—it’s important to know that God doesn’t operate within our concepts of good and evil. Bell’s operating premise is that God is love and cannot act outside of love. But his assumption is that our understanding of love is also God’s understanding of love.

Yes, God is a God that rescues and liberates us from sin, death, and destruction, but it’s often easy for us to dismiss the fact that God is also a God of justice and perfection.

One example of Bell’s misuse of scriptural concepts is the way he handles the parable of the lost son from Luke 15. While he correctly takes the emphasis off the character we often refer to as the “prodigal son,” he makes an incorrect correlation between this parable and the realities of heaven and hell.

But perhaps my opinion on that matter should be reserved for another day.

Throughout his book Bell makes strong statements regarding the roots of Christianity and how our concepts of heaven and hell were formed fairly recently in the history of Christianity. But is it really possible that he’s stumbled on truths that thousands of pastors, teachers, and theologians have missed for centuries?

Jake Johnson, Media & Communications Pastor at Redemption Church had this to say about Love Wins:

“Could it really be that Rob Bell has rediscovered lost truths of Christianity, this man who claims so often not to be a theologian but rather an artist? Could it be that the vast majority of church fathers, theologians, and believers have been wrong all this time? Is Rob Bell, alone, saving the church from two millennia worth of wrong thinking? Does it even matter?

Or is it possible that this one man may be wrong and misguided? And that it matters a lot?

I’d opt for the latter.

It’s clear that Rob Bell is motivated by love for people. He has many moving stories about pain and sin in his book. He definitely has a pastor’s heart. He badly wants people to have hope and love Jesus. The problem is that he has let his version of love for people become more important and a ‘better story’ than the way in which love is actually displayed by God in the Bible. It is not love to tell someone they will eventually go to heaven when the Bible is clear that they may not. That is hatred in the end, even if unintended.”

Then what can we say when our friends, coworkers, and relatives ask us these questions about heaven and hell?

Perhaps we should simply tell them the truth—that God loves them and longs to spend eternity with them, but that our sin keeps us separated from him. That until we accept Christ’s gift of eternal life with him beginning in this life (for our choices here reverberate through eternity), we will forever be separated from God.

Only after we communicate this truth can we honestly say that love wins.

Counterculture. . .

“Go into the culture and speak the language of the culture so that you can be a counterculture for the culture.”

I love this word. It speaks volumes of what followers of Jesus are supposed to be in this world. At my church we use this word practically every week. It’s in our DNA. But the word is often left undefined. What is a counterculture? What does it look like to plow one? Why do I have to be one? Am I plowing it already?

We sometimes talk about what that might look like in praxis; in fact, when talking about our lifestyles we often refer to that as counterculture. Sometimes we might say something like, “living out the gospel.”

Before I dive into what that looks like practically, I want to create an image of what that might look like philosophically.

If you’ve ever studied music, you’ve probably heard of counterpoint. Essentially, counterpoint is the relationship between two independent melodies that together create euphonic harmony. In a contrapuntal line, the once independent melodies become interdependent. One melody is completely distinct from the other melody, but when brought together they don’t clash. In fact, they create a beautiful harmonic line.

Counterculture works in a similar way. Culture may be moving in a certain direction, and a counterculture moves in a completely different direction, but this counterculture doesn’t attack the culture. It’s not an anticulture. To pull from my opening quote: we need to be “a counterculture for the culture.” In other words, we work for the good of the culture around us.

For many years modern evangelicals and fundamentalists have been caught up in a “culture war,” firmly believing that the culture was the enemy, and Christianity is responsible for making it right.

But if you look at the world around you, you’ll find endless possibilities for the gospel to infiltrate and come alongside this culture, creating a distinctly beautiful counterculture.

So what does this look like in praxis? Well, it’s different for every church. But look around you. You’ll soon discover the heartbeat of the culture you’ve been placed in.

What about for the individual? Perhaps that’s a little easier to answer. God requires certain things of his followers, but there’s one command he gives that encompasses all other commands.

Love.

“Love me. Love your fellow disciples. Love those around you who aren’t disciples. Love those who hate you for being a disciple.”

And what does that even look like? Perhaps it’s partnering with a local soup kitchen and helping to care for those facing poverty. Perhaps it’s taking that homeless person walking up and down your block everyday out to lunch. Perhaps it’s sitting next to that despondent guy at the bar in your local tavern and listening to his story.

Perhaps it’s choosing to not ogle the women at your office, to care more about your coworker’s wellbeing than your own, to deflect praise for a “knocked-out-of-the-park” project from yourself to your teammates, to value your community above your individuality.

And when someone asks, “Why do you live the way you live?” you can say,

“Because the God I serve stepped out of his comfort zone and said, ‘I love you’.”

The theology in romance. . .

I’ve become convinced that our interactions with God are best pictured in romance. While no analogy captures every aspect of our relationship with God (think parent-child picture), I can’t help but notice the romance in God’s attempt to reach us.

Let me tell you a story. Like many stories, this one has a beginning. It began with a man whose love betrayed him. She turned her back on him and decided to prostitute herself. She settled for a broken, disgusting substitute for love instead of the true love of her lover.

The man couldn’t bear the thought of his love selling herself, so he devised a plan to win her back. He disguised himself and entered the brothel.

While disguised he began trying to win his love’s affection again. But she didn’t recognize him. She mistook him for someone crazy, and in a terrible turn of events, she murdered him.

Her own lover. Murdered.

And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what we do time and time again. Yet he still calls out to us.

“Do you remember me? I love you. Come back to me.”

And everyday we make choices that nail him to the cross again. We can’t recognize our Lover.

But every so often someone notices. Someone looks at this life and says, “This is not right.” He looks around himself and begins to notice a shadow forming. He looks up and sees a cross.

Dark. Cruel. Menacing.

And through the darkness he hears a voice whispering to him. You were supposed to die there. You were sentenced to that death. But someone decided to rescue you. Someone decided you were worth it. And he went there instead.

He went there instead.

What kind of love is this? A love that would make that kind of trade?

If my love spurned me, betrayed me, and walked away from me, selling herself to a disgusting imitation of love. . . could I take her place in the face of her execution?

Of my own accord, no. But because I know I’ve received that kind of love, I would be unable to do otherwise. I’d be compelled to love like my Lover has loved me.

But it’s only because of that love.