Six things I’ve learned reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter


Every night before bed, my daughter Elizabeth gets to pick two books for us to read.

As far as she’s concerned, The Story of King Jesus will always be the book I wrote for her—and it is—so it’s been making regular appearances in our bedtime routine. We’ve read it a few dozens times now since our first copy arrived.

For my part, the book is an experiment of sorts. I believe we shortchange the gospel when we reduce it to a handful of Bible verses or condense it into a formula you recite. I believe we shortchange our kids when we fragment biblical narrative into isolated stories and treat them as moral fables. I believe our kids deserve a bigger gospel. They deserve to have the Bible presented as a single, coherent story.

The Story of King Jesus is my attempt to do just that. I want to prove it’s possible to share our faith without shortchanging either the gospel or our kids.

My daughter is 4-1/2. She’s just now taking her first steps of faith. I know better than to declare victory yet. But what I’ve witnessed so far gives me a lot of encouragement.

Here are six things that I’ve learned while reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter…

1. She can (and will) use the book to delay bedtime. And I’m all right with that.

OK, I don’t know what implications it has for nurturing her faith. But Elizabeth knows how to use the book to stretch out her nightly routine.

The most sacred bedtime rule in our house—we read each book ONCE—is in tatters when she gives me those big, sad eyes and asks me to read “her favorite book” one more time. Yeah…she knows how to play me.

I find myself in less of a rush, too. I’ll confess… I’ve sped through some of her books at bedtime (Goodnightstars-goodnightair-goodnightnoiseseverywhere-THEEND), but I slow down for this one. Because this story matters. I want her to absorb every word.

Even her regular interruptions are more easily welcomed because, well…

2. She asks surprisingly good questions.

The other night, she interrupted me as we got to the exodus part of the story, where God’s people “were slaves in another country.” We’ve read these words many times, but this time Elizabeth wanted to know what slavery is.


So we talked about how some people try to own and control others, how this is part of what we mean when we say “God’s good world is broken.” We talked about how “making the world right and good again” (another phrase from the book) means making it a place where everyone is free, where everyone is treated with respect, and where we love everyone they way God loves us.

I love that she’s asking the kind of questions that will help her connect her emerging faith to the world around her—so she can see that God doesn’t just save us from something; he invites us to become part of making the world right and good again.

Kids need to see that our faith makes a difference in this world, not just the next one. The gospel is about far more than where we go when we die. As Benjamin Corey wrote, it’s not about escaping this world; the gospel about transforming it.

Watching Elizabeth process The Story of King Jesus, I’m reminded that our kids know how to ask good questions. We don’t have to shove answers down their throats. We just have to nurture their innate spiritual curiosity.

3. She is naturally drawn to Jesus.

Elizabeth lights up whenever we get to the part about Jesus. As soon as I read the words “something new happened” and “God sent someone special,” she gets fidgety with excitement. She wants to recite the next part before I can read the words, “God sent his only Son, Jesus.” She wants to take in every picture of Jesus doing “good things everywhere he went,” and she wants to tell me about each one. (Some of her interpretations are more creative than others.)



The Bible is all about Jesus. Jesus fulfills and transforms Israel’s story all at once. The purpose of the Bible is not to serve as some kind of rulebook or user manual, but to point to Jesus, the true logos, the final Word of God.

When we keep Jesus at the center of our gospel, our kids find someone with whom they can connect—perhaps more easily than we do.

4. She’s connecting some of the dots for herself.

The other night, when we got to the part about the kings of Israel—“Some kings were good. Some were bad. Mostly, the kings did whatever they wanted.”—Elizabeth added, “Yeah, just like the very first people.”


She already gets that Israel’s story is an echo of the garden story—God creates people, gives them a home, offers to live with them, but the people go their own way and lose their home. She’s starting to get that this is our story as well, that it’s not just a story about people who lived a long time ago. She’s starting to understand that what God wants for the “very first people,” and what he wants for Israel, is what he wants for us: to make the world right and good again so we can live with him once more.

5. This story can hold her attention.

My daughter doesn’t have a lot of sit in her. I don’t think she’s ever sat through an entire movie—except maybe Frozen, and that was only once. Come bedtime, her ability to focus, such as it is, usually goes out the window. (In other words, she is a normal kid.) But for all the times we’ve read The Story of King Jesus, it still holds her attention. She wants to know the story behind each image. She’s learned parts of the book by heart. She talks about it during the day.

I think we have a tendency to sell our kids short. We turn the gospel into sound bites. We give nuggets of Bible stories, rendered unrealistically cute and reimagined as moral fables, because we don’t think our kids are up for more than that. We should have more confidence in them and in the story we tell—because, well…

6. She—and other kids like her—can grasp the big story of the Bible, if we give them a chance.

I remember years ago teaching a Sunday school class using a “youth-friendly” denominational curriculum. The kids in my class were bored senseless. I couldn’t blame them. So was I.

So we ditched the curriculum; instead, I started telling them the big story of the Bible (because it was clear no one had ever done this for them). The atmosphere changed immediately. Kids who had been sleeping with their eyes open sat bolt upright. They started asking questions. They wanted to know where the story was going.

As Scot McKnight wrote in The King Jesus Gospel, “We need to regain our confidence in the utter power of proclaiming the one story of Jesus.” To this, I would add we also need to regain our confidence in our ability to tell this story well—and in our kids’ ability to embrace it.


The Story of King Jesus is available at bookstores now.

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Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CBD, Thoughtful Christian and your local independent bookstore.

The gospel sketched for kids


Next month, our daughter turns two. Ever since she was born, we’ve wondered: how do we introduce her to Christ? We had her baptized a year ago — now what? How do we help her to embrace faith in God for herself? Somehow, coaxing her into praying the sinner’s prayer as soon as she can mouth the words and leaving it at that doesn’t feel like the best way.

That’s what led me to Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel several months back. (You can read my review here, if you want.) Scot argues that what we call the gospel isn’t really the gospel — or at least it’s an incomplete gospel. The true gospel is not four spiritual laws or some other formula. It is a story — specifically, Jesus’ story, which in turn was the fulfillment of Israel’s story. That is the gospel the ancient church confessed from its its earliest days (see 1 Corinthians 15). And that’s the one we should be sharing today.

Near the end of his book, Scot takes a stab at sketching this gospel in story form. It’s not something that can be distilled into a sound bite, though. As Scot writes, “The assumption that the gospel can be reduced to a note card is already off on the wrong track.”

The gospel sketched in Scot’s book is the one I want to share with my daughter someday. What I wrote below was an attempt to translate it into simplified (hopefully not simplistic), kid-friendly version. Someday, when my daughter is ready, we’ll sit down and read this together. (In the meantime, any suggestions or feedback would be welcome, especially if you’ve interacted with Scot’s book.)


The King Jesus story

It all began with God.

God made everything you can see.
(And even some things you can’t see!)

God made the world to be his home.
Then God made the very first people
so he could share his home with them.

God gave them a beautiful garden to live in.
He gave them a job to do:
take care of God’s good world;
rule it well on his behalf.
But they didn’t.

They didn’t like doing things God’s way
and not theirs.
So they took what wasn’t theirs,
and tried to rule the world their own way.
They tried to be God.

So the very first people
had to leave the garden.
They had to leave God’s presence.

Without God,
they began to die.
But God never gave up on his people.
He still loved them.
He promised to fix the world
so he could share it with them again.

But it wouldn’t be easy.
Everyone who’s ever lived,
from the very first people
all the way to you and me,
have gone the same way.

We’ve all taken what isn’t ours.
We’ve all tried to do things our way.
We’ve all tried to be little gods.
Things kept getting worse.
But God had a plan.

God chose a man named Abraham.
He gave Abraham children,
and grandchildren,
and great-grandchildren.
God turned Abraham into a great nation
and called it “Israel.”

God made Israel his chosen people.
They would help him fix the world.

God went with Israel
everywhere they went.
When they were slaves in another country,
God remembered them.
When they were treated badly,
God rescued them.

God gave Israel a home.
He gave them a job to do:
show the world what it’s like
to be God’s people.

God gave Israel priests
to teach them how to love God.
He gave them laws
to teach them how to love each other.

God told his people,
“If you follow me,
you’ll have a good life.
You’ll get to help me fix the world.”
But Israel didn’t listen.

God’s people didn’t want God
telling them how to live.
They wanted to do things their way,
just like the very first people — just like all of us.

God’s people didn’t want God
to be their king.
They wanted a king of their own,
a person just like them.

So God gave Israel a king.
Then another king.
And another.
Some were good. Some were bad.

Mostly, the kings did whatever they wanted.
They took what wasn’t theirs.
They ruled Israel for themselves, not God.
They tried to be little gods.

So God sent prophets
to tell the kings and their people
that there is only one true King;
there is only one true God.

But the kings and their people wouldn’t listen.
So they had to leave their home.
Other nations came and conquered Israel
and carried God’s people off by force.

Israel lost everything.
Then there was silence.

Years went by.
No one heard from God anymore.
Until . . .
something new happened.
God sent someone:
a person just like us, yet different.
Someone who could rule the world
the way God wanted.

God sent Jesus,
his chosen one,
to rescue Israel
and fix the world.

Jesus did good wherever he went.
He healed the sick.
He fed the hungry.
He rescued people from all sorts of problems.

Jesus did everything God wanted,
but it wasn’t what God’s people wanted.

They didn’t want Jesus to be their king.
They didn’t want the kind of kingdom he would bring.

So one day, some powerful people decided
they’d better put a stop to Jesus
before he took their power away.

So they arrested Jesus.
They stripped him naked.
They nailed him to a cross
and watched him die.

Jesus didn’t fight back.
He didn’t raise a sword;
he didn’t even raise a finger.

And so the powerful people
thought they had won.
They thought they had beaten
God’s chosen one.

But there was something they didn’t understand.
They didn’t know that Jesus died
not because he had to,
but because he chose to.

They didn’t know that they,
like all of us, deserved to die
for all the times we’ve gone our way
and ruined God’s good world.

They didn’t know a servant’s death
was the only way to live.
They didn’t know a servant’s cross
was the only crown worth having.

The one true King had come
and given his life for the world.
But they didn’t even know.
No one did.

But then God —
the one who made the world,
rescued Israel,
and sent Jesus —
raised him from the dead.

Lots of people saw him alive
before he went back to God.

But Jesus didn’t just rise from the dead.
He defeated death,
so it wouldn’t have power over us any longer.

God gave us the King we needed,
a King who loves, forgives,
and changes everyone who comes to him.

This King gave us a job to do:
love each other with all we’ve got.
Because that’s how we show others
what it’s like to be loved by God.

That’s how we show others
what kind of King we serve.
For now, the world is still broken,
still waiting to be fixed.
But someday, our King is coming back
to rescue us and share his home with us again.

Never again
will anyone take what isn’t theirs.
Never again
will anyone ruin God’s good world.

God will live with us,
and we will rule the world for him.
(For Elizabeth)

The King Jesus Gospel (or, what I’m going to tell my kid someday)

One day when I was five, I knelt down and prayed the sinner’s prayer. That was the first step of a lifelong journey, guided first by my parents, then by other Christian leaders and mentors as well. I’ve identified myself as a Christian ever since.

Not everyone can say the same. In the introduction to The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight observes that, even by the most conservative estimates, more than half of those who pray the exact same prayer won’t grow up to be active followers of Christ.

Unless you’re superstitious — unless you believe the words are some type of magic incantation — there’s only one conclusion. For most who pray the sinner’s prayer, nothing happens.

I have a 17-month-old daughter. We had her baptized last year. For my wife and me, her baptism signified her initiation into the covenant community. But to see it as some kind of automatic guarantee is to be just as superstitious about baptism as some people are about the sinner’s prayer.

I want to pass my faith on to my daughter. I want it to stick. But she’s my first kid, and, well… I’ve never done this before.

That’s what was on my mind when I picked up Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan, 2011).

I’m a theology nerd. I actually like reading theological books. I burned through my Christmas gift card money stocking up at four different bookstores last week. But when I picked up Scot’s book, there was more on the line than mere intellectual curiosity.

Scot’s premise is that the gospel isn’t sticking because what we’re proclaiming isn’t really the gospel. It’s a set of propositions that reduce the gospel to a legal transaction between God and individuals. It’s “the plan of salvation.” It’s “sin management.” Or what Scot calls “the soterian gospel” (from soteria, Greek for “salvation”).

And it isn’t working.

Evangelicals focus on getting people to make a “decision” for God. Liturgical traditions (like the one my wife and I now belong to) focus on making people “members” of the covenant community. Both, Scot argues, need to do a better job of making disciples out of these “deciders” and “members.”

And he argues that the best way to do that is to start telling our story.

Not the four spiritual laws. Not the five things you need to be sure to say when you ask Jesus into your heart.

The story we need to tell, according to Scot, is the story of Jesus completing of the story of Israel.

Scot begins by asking a painfully obvious (but important) question: what is the gospel Jesus preached? And what is the gospel the apostles preached?

Actually, he asks the second question first. And he finds his answer in 1 Corinthians 15, arguably the most explicit summation of the “gospel” to be found in the New Testament. (The apostle Paul starts by referring to this text as “the gospel I preached to you.” Doesn’t get more direct than that.)

The gospel Paul goes on to expound is nothing more (or less) than the story of Jesus: dead, buried, resurrected, appeared, ascended, and someday returning so the rest of us can join him in resurrection. And all of it “according to Scriptures” — i.e. in fulfillment of the story of Israel.

This text, Scot notes, comes from one of the earliest books in the New Testament. It predates the four gospels (or, as Scot would have us say, the ONE gospel according to four witnesses). It formed the basis of the church’s earliest creeds — including the one my church recites every Sunday.

This gospel sees Jesus not so much as the centerpiece of a legal transaction between us and God, but as a king (which, after all, is what the term “Messiah” suggests) who is coming to reverse our usurpation of his rightful kingdom, as well as the death and devastation that followed. It’s the story of a God who is coming to make peace with the world.

Yes, this gospel involves many of the same things the soterian gospel involves — repentance, forgiveness of sin, etc. But it is a much bigger gospel, bigger than me and my felt needs. As Scot writes:

If the Story of Israel finds its completion in the Story of Jesus and if that is the gospel, we must find the problem [that needs fixing] within the fabric and contours of Israel’s story and not just my needs in my story. . . .

Jesus’ word for the solution is the kingdom. . . . If kingdom is the solution, the problem was about the search for God’s kingdom on earth and the problem was the absence of God’s kingdom on earth.

Sure, I found things to nitpick in Scot’s book. Personally, I thought he was a little hard on the “Jesus vs. empire” view put forward by scholars like N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley. (Sorry, Scot, but I’m an N.T. Wright fanboy. And I’ll bet that’s the first time THAT phrase has been used.*)

But I loved this book. The King Jesus Gospel is a much-needed reminder of what the real gospel is — you know, the one that actually means “good news.” In particular, Scot’s restatement of the gospel story on pages 148-153 is worth the price of the book, all by itself.

I still have to figure out how to translate that story for my daughter when she’s old enough, but I have a much better idea what I want to tell her, thanks to Scot’s book.


*OK, so I was wrong. A Google search of the phrase “N.T. Wright fanboy” yielded no fewer than 1.8 million results.

Oh, and for more on Scot’s book, watch this video (which I’m pretty sure was filmed about a mile from my house)…

Shock-jock pastor meets the full (but not so manly) might of the British Empire

Mark Driscoll is mad. (Yes, again.)

This time, it’s about his recent interview with UK radio host and “timid Brit” Justin Brierley. A few extracts were released ahead of a profile piece in Christianity magazine. They include one where Driscoll challenges Brierley on everything from the number of manly men in his church (which is pastored by his wife) to whether Brierley believes in penal substitution. And here I thought the interviewer generally asked the questions.

Other highlights include Driscoll saying that British churches are run by “a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling truth,” and claiming the entire country doesn’t “have one young guy that anybody’s listening to who can preach the Bible.”

In other words, the problem with the British church is that it needs more strident celebrity pastors?

Then there was the bit where Driscoll — famous calling his theological opponents a bunch of “chicks and chickified dudes with limp wrists” — described the UK church scene as “guys in dresses preaching to grandmas.”

When it came out that the presenter’s wife is a pastor, Driscoll launched into a “whose church is bigger?” competition, which he concluded with this statement:

You look at your results, look at my results, and look at the variable that’s most obvious [i.e. male leadership].”

Afterward on his blog, Driscoll characterized the experience as “the most disrespectful, adversarial, and subjective” interview he’s had since releasing his latest book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace.

He said he felt set up — namely, that the interview “had nearly nothing to do with the book or its subject matter” as expected. He complained of being “selectively edited and presented in a way that is not entirely accurate.”

So Brierley posted the entire interview online.

And yeah… he asks some tough questions, much as he did when he interviewed Rob Bell about his controversial book Love Wins. That’s what journalists do.

At least 20 minutes of the interview touched on Driscoll’s book directly or indirectly. Before starting, Brierley asked if it was OK to venture into other subjects as well. And his pointed questions were balanced by his oft-repeated admiration for Driscoll’s willingness to tackle the difficult issues head on.  

Another complaint was that Brierley ignored Driscoll’s wife, who was on the phone with him and was meant to be part of the interview. This one seems like a fair complaint. Grace Driscoll was asked just one question during the entire interview. Brierley quickly apologized for this at the end. More to the point, instead of complaining about it after the fact, why didn’t Mark Driscoll — as his wife’s defender, protector, etc. — speak up for her during the interview? Why did he never say, “Hey, my wife has some great insights to share about the book; let’s make sure we cover that, too”?

While we’re (kind of) on the subject, if you believe it’s wrong for a woman to “teach or have authority” over men, why would you co-write a book about marriage with your wife? What if a man reads your book — namely, the sections written by your wife — and learns something from it? What if he actually “submits” to some of her advice? Precisely how is that not “teaching or having authority” over men?

What’s unfortunate is that Driscoll had a number of reasonable things to say during the interview, most of which were overshadowed by his reaction to it. When asked about the provocatively titled chapter “Can We _____?” in Real Marriage, Driscoll gave a perfectly sensible rationale for his advice to young couples.

But why did he feel the need to chide the presenter as “scandalous” and “immature” for asking about this chapter in the first place? You mean to tell me it’s OK to write a chapter on all the things a married couple should and shouldn’t do during their more intimate moments, give it a provocative title designed to grab people’s attention, and then get irritated when a reporter wants to ask you about it?

There were plenty of other illuminating moments during the interview, both bad and good. Like when Driscoll demonstrated that he doesn’t fully understand the difference between single and double predestination. On the plus side, he offered that predestination and gender roles are second-tier issues, not litmus tests of orthodoxy. (Whew.)

But Driscoll’s dressing-down of the presenter near the end was just, well, sad. You can read a partial transcript over at Cognitive Discopants (= best blog name ever).

Driscoll asks Brierley how many young men have come to Christ at the church his wife pastors. Driscoll’s point — implied here, but stated clearly a moment later — is that he’s won more converts; therefore he’s right about women in ministry. When Brierley points out that a few young men have, in fact, come to Christ since his wife took the reins of their small church, Driscoll responds:

This is where the excuses come, not the verses. This is where the excuses come, not the verses.

Setting aside the fact that throwing around Bible verses like weapons is a poor way to win an argument, Driscoll’s logic is, in essence: “I’m popular. I’ve got lots of people coming to my church. Which proves I’m right and you’re wrong.”

It’s an odd argument to make, especially for someone who has openly (and, in my opinion, rightly) criticized the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen. If numbers are a sign of God’s personal endorsement, then Osteen is even more right than Mark is.

Next, Driscoll asks what kind of men are to be found in Brierley’s church. “Strong men?” Then he asks whether Brierley’s wife does any “sexual counseling” with men. To which the answer is, not surprisingly, no. Like any sensible church, they have male leaders available to counsel other men about their sexual problems.

Then Driscoll changes subjects entirely, asking Brierley if he believes in the “conscious, literal, eternal torment of hell.” And so the litmus test comes out.

Brierley rightly asks what this has to do with the subject at hand, women in ministry. To which Driscoll replies:

It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone, or is he like a father who also protects and defends and disciplines?

I’m not sure who Driscoll’s trying harder to insult: egalitarians (who worship an effeminate teddy bear, apparently) or every mom on the planet (all of whom are apparently incapable of protecting, defending, and disciplining their children).

Over on his blog, Driscoll pleads with British churches not to compromise on “essential doctrinal issues,” which for him includes “the reality of a literal conscious eternal torment in hell.” Translation: if you don’t believe in eternal conscious torment, you’re not a Christian.

OK, but one of Driscoll’s theological heroes, John Stott (“whom I love,” Driscoll said during the interview) didn’t believe in eternal conscious torment. He was an annihilationist. Worse, he was British!

As the interview-in-reverse draws to a close, Driscoll tries one last time to prove that Brierley isn’t a real Christian — because it’s all about who’s in and who’s out — this time by asking whether he believes in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

From the perspective of historic Christian orthodoxy, Brierley’s answer is quite sensible: substitutionary atonement is one of the ways (but not the only way) we understand what happened on the cross. I should say “try to understand,” because precisely how Christ defeated sin and death is wrapped up in mystery beyond our ability to fathom.

But for Driscoll, that’s not good enough. Penal substitution is the “central, governing” idea of the cross. To which I respond with the same question I’ve asked of Calvinism in general. If that’s so, then why isn’t penal substitution clearly stated in the universal creeds of the church, much less Paul’s summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 (which, as Scot McKnight has demonstrated, provided the framework for the earliest creeds)?

Finally, a word of advice. (Not that you’re reading, Mark. But I’ll pretend anyway.) Every time you get torn apart for saying something careless, you complain that you were selectively quoted and taken out of context.

You’re a smart guy. You’re culturally savvy. The answer is staring you in the face.

If you’re tired of people throwing all the careless things you’ve said back at you, stop saying them.

It’s time to man up, Mark.


Update: Christianity magazine (the publication behind the Mark Driscoll interview) tweeted a link to my post earlier today. So I’ve posted a follow-up on why I think it’s important to speak up about Driscoll.

Reformodoxy (or, the hazards of theological arrogance)

Recently, I had a conversation with someone from a neo-Reformed background about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus.

As background: Exodus indicates that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to rescue the Israelites from slavery on his own terms. But sometimes the text says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In some cases it just says his “heart was hard” without clearly indicating who did the hardening. Elsewhere Pharaoh’s advisors are implicated.

In Hebrew thought, the heart can represent the human will, our volitional capacity. So the question is, did God unilaterally harden Pharaoh’s heart — that is, did he coopt Pharaoh’s will? And if so, does he do the same with all of us?

Neo-Reformed believers answer yes and yes, while maintaining that humans are still responsible for their actions.

In this exchange, I suggested the “hardening” texts should be read in light of Exodus’ opening lines. Long before there’s talk of anyone hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we read this:

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them…’

At which point, Pharaoh enslaves the entire Israelite population.

Then another Pharaoh comes to power and orders all Hebrew males to be killed at birth.

Add to this the fact that all Pharaohs, including the one who squared off against Moses, claimed to be gods incarnate.

All of this, I believe, tells us what Pharaoh’s character was like, long before God did anything to harden his heart.

But that’s not really the point of this post. What interests me is the response I got, arguing that there’s only one reason anyone would believe as I do:

 It keeps God from offending your sense of fairness because you could never worship a God that decrees such things.

So I asked if it’s fair to assume the worst possible motivation of someone, just because they don’t embrace a Calvinist reading of the Bible. This was his answer:

 If you genuinely desired to understand the text, you wouldn’t have a problem with Calvinism.

If you don’t come to the same conclusions as I do, then it’s because you’re not really interested in understanding the Bible. You’re just trying to twist its meaning to fit your preconceived notions — or dismiss it altogether. That’s how the argument goes, anyway.

Granted, this is one person. But I’ve heard this argument before. A lot. Heck, I used to make this argument.

This, I believe, is an example of a kind of theological arrogance that’s not uncommon among the neo-Reformed. Not that theological arrogance is their exclusive domain. We all struggle with this. But this is the lens through which many neo-Reformed believers view non-Calvinists — and sometimes even other Calvinists who just aren’t as “doctrinally pure” as they are.

Neo-Reformed theology seems to be redefining orthodoxy to insist upon the tenets of high Calvinism. This despite the fact that the tenets of Calvinism are nowhere to be found in any universal creed (Apostle’s, Athanasian, Nicene). Nor are they to be found in what Scripture identifies as the “gospel.”

If the tenets of Calvinism are essential to orthodox faith, why are they wholly absent from the Church’s most universal, enduring statements of orthodoxy? Why are they missing from what Scot McKnight calls The King Jesus Gospel?

Why do the writers of these great creeds — much less Paul himself, when he sums up the “gospel [he] preached” — fail to mention neo-Reformed dogmas like predestination, limited atonement, and meticulous sovereignty?

I don’t have to embrace the core tenets of Calvinism to appreciate its rich heritage and its rightful place within the Christian tradition. But there are some who would make it the only option — and that, I believe, is just wrong.

The day the tulip died, part 1

Over on the Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight is running a series about his personal experience with Calvinism. I can relate to his story, and I’m willing to bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that I’m not the only one.

Calvinism is enjoying a resurgence, especially among younger (and predominantly white) evangelicals. But these are not your grandmother’s Calvinists. They’re part of a theological movement sometimes described as “neo-Reformed.”

They read books by John Piper and listen to sermons by Mark Driscoll. They belong to groups like The Gospel Coalition and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

  • The neo-Reformed often equate the gospel with the “doctrines of grace” (another name for the five points of Calvinism, a.k.a. TULIP).
  • They hold a relatively narrow view of evangelicalism, regarding non-Calvinists with a mixture of suspicion and pity (and sometimes outright disdain).
  • They relish any doctrine widely considered difficult to swallow. Limited atonement, double predestination . . . this is the red meat that, in their view, separates the men from the boys. (And yes, theirs is by and large a man’s world.)

I used to be one of the neo-Reformed. Until 2003 or so, I was a committed Calvinist. Each of the three statements above described me perfectly.

I studied at a Calvinist-leaning seminary. I wrote a 130-page thesis arguing that long before the foundations of the world, God in his absolute, meticulous sovereignty had determined every detail of human history. I attended a neo-Reformed church where predestination was the theme of almost every sermon, no matter what the text.

Eventually, I got out — because I grew to realize that Calvinism was killing my faith in a loving God.

Recently a good friend suggested I write about “why I am not a Calvinist (but used to be).” I’ve been putting it off for a while, but reading Scot’s story has encouraged me to tell my own. So… here we go.

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

4 (more) final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

I my previous post, I shared 4 final thoughts on Love Wins. Well, I wasn’t quite done. Here are four more parting observations…

1. Let’s be willing to ask the hard questions.

Rob raised a lot of them in Love Wins. But for me the biggest are still:

  • What about those who never had a chance to accept or reject the gospel?
  • What about those who seemingly reject Christ but in reality are rejecting a misrepresentation of him, as opposed to the real thing? Who will God hold accountable? Those who reject the distortion or those who created it?

What might a God who is “rich in mercy” have in store for those who never had a chance to embrace the real thing? If God has “overlooked such ignorance” before, what’s to keep him from doing so again?

Furthermore, if you believe (as I do) that infants who die go to be with God — in spite of the Bible’s silence on this question — why is it so unthinkable that God might save those who never heard or those who were presented a toxic caricature of the real thing?

These are not easy questions. And my goal here isn’t to answer them. But as Scot McKnight recently suggested, to play the agnostic — to answer “I don’t know” or “It’s in the Lord’s hands” without seriously considering the issues at stake — is a copout.

These questions have to be wrestled with. And simplistic, patronizing answers will not do.

Loads of people were asking these questions long before Rob Bell wrote Love Wins. He may have given a fresh voice to their inquiries, but they’ve been asking for a long time. We might as well create a safe space for questions like these to be explored.

6. For those who disagree with Rob: stop putting words in his mouth.

To say that Rob soft-pedals sin, denies the bodily resurrection, or rejects some other tenant of orthodoxy (all of which has been postulated in response to Love Wins) is not only reading between the lines; it’s reading the worst possible meaning into his book.

Granted, if you’re one for doctrinal checklists, you may never be satisfied with what Rob has to say. But consider the evidence from Love Wins:

  • Rob acknowledges every human being is affected by sin (p. 42).
  • Rob acknowledges that heaven and hell are real (p. 42, 55, 71, 79).
  • Rob acknowledges the incarnation — the fully divine, fully human Christ (p. 146-149).
  • Rob acknowledges the resurrection (p. 133).

It is possible to disagree with Rob without being inquisitorial. (Scot McKnight provides a good example of the right way to disagree with someone.) Unfortunately, far too many have taken it upon themselves to denounce Rob as a heretic. What kind of hubris does it take for some random blogger/pastor/armchair theologian to decide for the rest of us who’s a heretic and who isn’t?

7. Also for those who disagree with Rob: practice what you preach.

Rob could’ve been more careful citing Scripture and other sources to make his case. No argument there. But you might want to stop misquoting Love Wins before you take him to task for such alleged carelessness.

Exhibit A: Martin Bashir. After his confrontational interview with Rob, Bashir went on the Paul Edwards Program to explain what got him so worked up. Bashir was irritated at how Rob (allegedly) misquoted key sources — namely, Martin Luther. Actually, Rob didn’t misrepresent Luther, but I digress.

Bashir explained he cannot tolerate anything less than the highest standards of journalistic accuracy when quoting a source.

Then he proceeded to misquote Rob:

He says in his book, God’s love melts everything in the end. And that at the end of the day, you can be antagonistic to Christianity, but after you die, God’s love will melt your opposition and you will walk into heaven.

Except Rob never said this. He says many believe that God’s love will melt even the hardest heart in the end (p. 108) but that we can’t know for certain whether this will, in fact, be the case (p. 115).

Let’s all deal with the planks in our own eyes before worrying about the speck in someone else’s, shall we?

8. We can (and should) do a better job telling the good news.

Near the end of Love Wins, Rob Bell makes perhaps the most important statement of his book: “The good news begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved” (p. 172).

Is that really the story we tell? The one where “God so loved the world”? Really?

When the fledgling Jesus movement was getting off the ground, what drew people in by the thousands? Was it the threat of judgment? Was it Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Or was it the promise of victory over death? Was it the radical, equalizing love the believers had for one another?

Read the book of Acts and count how many times the apostles use the threat of hell in their proclamation to outsiders.

Read the gospels (particularly Matthew, which scores highest on the “hellfire and brimstone” meter) and ask: who was Jesus speaking to when he warned of judgment?

You may find the answer a bit unsettling if, like me, you’re a religious insider.

Love Wins is not a perfect book. Nor is it the heretical train wreck some have made it out to be.

There were things I resonated with and things I disagreed with. But in Love Wins, Rob does what he does best: he forces difficult questions to the surface.

And that’s a good thing. Because people were asking them long before Rob wrote Love Wins. So let’s dispense with simplistic answers and self-righteous denunciations and actually wrestle with the questions in this book.

4 final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

I’ve blogged my way through most of Love Wins. I never got around to the last two chapters… but really, there’s nothing I could’ve said that a thousand others haven’t already.

So here are my parting thoughts in response to Love Wins. (True to form, I can’t manage to get this to a reasonable word count, so I’m dividing it into two posts.)

1. Let’s admit we’ve painted a one-dimensional picture of salvation.

The Bible stubbornly resists simple answers to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rob zeroes in on this in his first chapter. It may make us uncomfortable, but it is what it is.

(In fact, after reading the New Testament, you’d be forgiven for thinking the PR consultant whose job it was to make sure everyone stuck to the approved “salvation” talking points severely neglected his duties. It’s almost as if the New Testament writers didn’t even HAVE a PR guy…)

Take just a few examples. In Romans, Paul characterizes salvation as a simple matter of saying “Jesus is Lord.” In the same vein, he insists in Ephesians that salvation is a matter of faith, not works.

But in the gospels, Jesus warns that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter his kingdom. At one point he quotes Psalm 62, telling his disciples that the Son of Man “will reward everyone according to what they have done.

And this is just one example of the tension we encounter. To be clear, tension is not the same as dissonance. But salvation is more than a one-note melody. There are many notes to this score, and they all must be heard.

(For more on the NT’s multifaceted picture of salvation, see Scot McKnight’s latest post on Love Wins.)

2. Let’s admit we’ve confused salvation for evacuation.

Love Wins reminds us that at the end of the story, heaven comes crashing to earth. We don’t get whisked away to some distant realm.

(And if you’re wondering about the passage that says we’ll “meet the Lord in the air and so…be with the Lord forever,” understand that Paul is describing Christ’s return in the very specific language of an emperor visiting one of his colonies. Upon his arrival, heralded by a trumpet blast, the emperor’s subjects would march out to meet him. Then they would escort him back to the city. That’s the picture Paul paints in 1 Thessalonians, not one of evacuation. For more, see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.)

Others (including Wright) have made the point more comprehensively than Rob Bell does in Love Wins. But it still bears repeating:

If God’s kingdom is coming to earth — and, in fact, has already started coming — then we can either participate in this reality here and now… or not. There is another choice. The invasion will not be uncontested.

Love Wins helps us to see the many ways in which heaven and hell (and Rob affirms both as real places) collide with our world every day.

3. Let’s admit that much of what passes for a biblical notion of hell is anything but.

Close your eyes and picture hell. Chances are, the image in your mind owes more to Dante’s Inferno (or one of cartoonish depictions from The Simpsons) than Scripture.

The Bible says little about hell. It’s mentioned 23 times… only it isn’t. Not really.

Most of our modern Bibles conflate several different terms under the rubric of “hell,” obscuring the fact that each term had a distinct meaning:

  • Gehenna (12x) | a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, a valley south of Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to the god Molech during OT times, which Jesus uses as a metaphor for judgment (thanks to Scot McKnight’s recent post for the clarification)
  • Hades (10x) | the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew term sheol, referring simply (and ambiguously) to “the realm of the dead”
  • Tartarus (1x) | borrowed from Greek mythology, used only once in Scripture to describe a place where angels are judged

These terms are pictures of judgment, not necessarily the thing itself.

4. Let’s also admit there’s much more to the biblical picture of judgment than hell.

For me, this is the biggest weakness of Love Wins. It’s not enough to read every passage that mentions hell (or uses a term that’s been translated as such). Hell is such a miniscule part of what the Bible says about judgment.

Consider the prophets. Consider the judgment parables in Matthew 25, where those on the wrong end of things are characterized as being in a perpetual (or at least indefinite) state of exile. Consider Paul’s words for those persecuting the church in Thessalonica.

Judgment is part of the redemptive story. Without it, the good news isn’t really good news for those on the receiving end of exploitation in this life.

Yes, judgment is often restorative. But sometimes the Bible talks in terms of destruction. So how do you reconcile restoration with destruction? It’s a fair question.

Rob seems confident that judgment after death is restorative (p. 86), but what is the basis of this confidence? It’s also a fair question…especially when most of the passages he cites seem to focus on judgment in this life.

And even if judgment after death is restorative, how can you be sure the hardest of hearts will take the bait? Another fair question.

Speaking of fairness, many Christian thinkers — yes, including Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis — have left open the possibility of a second chance after death. And it’s worth remembering that Rob is arguing only for the possibility of universal salvation, not the certainty of it. In the end, I’m not sure he made his case, because I’m not sure he dealt adequately with the full biblical picture of judgment. But still…

More tomorrow.

Comparing Rob Bell & C.S. Lewis on hell

Humanity is already “saved” in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation.

— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Scot McKnight has a guest post from Jeff Cook (author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes) comparing the theology of C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell. Jeff’s main argument is this:

There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis.

Jeff highlights numerous similarities between the two writers on salvation and hell… and one or two areas where they differ. For example, Jeff notes that Lewis was more pessimistic than Rob about whether those in hell are willing to swallow their pride and repent. Hell, Lewis suggested, is “locked from the inside.”

But given the similarities between them, one question keeps coming back to me:

If you’re so eager to not only disagree with Rob but denounce him as a heretic, are you prepared to do the same with C.S. Lewis? Are you going to suggest a book burning and so rid the world of Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Chronicles of Narnia (especially The Last Battle)?

Now, there is another area where C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell part company. Rob seems to believe that love doesn’t win if, in the end, some individuals are forever consigned to exile. (I say “exile” because I believe the fires of hell are a metaphor for life outside God’s presence. And, in fact, “exile” is one of the dominant motifs in the Bible.)

C.S. Lewis agreed that anything less than a universal salvation represented, in one sense, a defeat — God getting less than what God wants. But Lewis wasn’t particularly bothered by this. Just the opposite:

It is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.

— C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pages 113-114