I Do Not Know Rob Bell

As part of my research for the ecclesiology course I have been teaching, I have been trying to listen to some sermons by those involved in the "emerging church". In particular, I have subscribed to the weekly sermon feed from Mars Hill Bible Church, where Rob Bell’s sermons can be heard (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle where Mark Driscoll is the pastor, and whose sermons are also on my subscription list).

I have been hoping to catch Rob Bell explaining clearly what he believes "the gospel" is, and what it means to become a Christian, yet despite listening for several months I am still waiting. With time running out before I do my talk on the emerging church, I fear I will not manage to get an authoritative quote. If you know of one, perhaps from one of his books, do let me know.

Anyway, the sermon of his I listened to today was entitled "I Do Not Know", and was the latest in a series of sermons on Philippians. One of the good things about Rob Bell, unlike in many evangelical and emerging churches, is that he can often be found doing an expository series working his way through a section or book of the Bible.

His sermon title comes from chapter 1:22, where Paul says

If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!

From this, he draws out some points about the real pressure that Paul was under, so much so that at one point he confessed to being at the point of giving up (2 Cor 1:8). He talks about the need to admit to our doubts and struggles.

Of course, this is a recurring emphasis in the emerging church – the need for openness about the issues and battles we are facing, rather than keeping up appearances and pretending never to struggle with doubt or sin.

And what Rob Bell goes on to say about the need to "doubt your doubts" rather than just giving in to them without challenging them is excellent. However, I did think it slightly revealing that while preaching a whole sermon entitled "I do not know", he somehow managed to avoid telling the congregation that merely three verses later, Paul says

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain…

So while we should not minimise the reality of his doubts and struggles, the fact is that Paul moved past them, and arrived at a place of real certainty. It is this type of certainty that borders on being a sin in the minds of some emerging thinkers. And yet it characterises all the New Testament writers.

In what was on the whole a good sermon, Rob Bell concluded in what I thought was a disappointing manner. If you have doubts about the existence of God or the resurrection, the answer is just to do good deeds of kindness, and in so doing you become "the resurrection" or "divine" to those people around you. At this point, he was repeatedly asking his audience, "are we tracking?". No, I wasn’t tracking.

Why not? Well simply, its back to what Rob thinks the gospel is. I honestly don’t know what he believes. Sometimes he hints that he is very clear on the message of salvation by grace alone, and then out pop these statements that sound very much as though he considers beliefs irrelevant so long as you are doing good deeds. Which may be a popular sentiment, but its not the gospel.

5 thoughts on “I Do Not Know Rob Bell

  1. I don’t hear a “works salvation” operating at all in Rob’s stuff. It seems to me that he’s simply trying to counter the idea that faith = certainty– as opposed to conviction. And that doubt then immediately places you outside the camp of the faithful.

    I understood him to simply be suggesting that people not allow their doubts to suffocate them. Don’t feel like you have to have complete certainty in order to keep moving forward in your commitment to the work of the kingdom.

    Rather than compromising salvation by grace, this advice reinforces it. It’s a reminder that, as I said, you are not saved by certainty but by the work of Christ. Just keep operating by that conviction– even if, at times and in various ways, you may doubt it.

    The other point to be made is that it is as one continues to work toward kingdom goals that God often addresses one’s doubts. Obviously this is not the only way, but it is vital. Failure to continue to devote oneself to such work because of one’s doubts is a sure way of reinforcing them.

    It sounds to me like your question is genuine, that you want to give Rob a fair hearing. Which distinguishes you from many bloggers. For that, I commend you. On the other hand, I don’t quite get why someone of notable intelligence and genuine interest like yourself can’t hear the gospel in Bell clearly enough. The guy believes that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling all things to himself.

    Maybe the problem is that you’re hearing everything Rob says in light of one particular question (i.e. What is the gospel?)– despite the fact that what he’s saying may not be an attempt to address that question. It seems to me that, by and large, most of what Rob says only makes sense if one assumes that it arises out of a belief in such things as salvation by grace.

    It is possible that he would be wise to answer your question more explicitly on a more frequent basis. That’s certainly possible. But the fact that he doesn’t explicitly say it as frequently as some might think does not mean that he doesn’t believe it or preach it.

    Your blog roll lists Scot McKnight. I would say that there’s clear compatibility between the theologies of Bell and McKnight.

  2. Hi Mark,

    My desire to hear a Rob Bell quote on what the gospel is started when I read him in a TEAR-fund magazine say that “giving water to the thirsty is the gospel” (or words to that effect). Now I am sure that if pushed he would readily admit that there is more to the gospel than just that. So I started listening to sermons to see if he would clarify his position. But the closest he has come so far is quite a few quotes about Jesus being Lord not Caesar (N T Wright influence?).

    You suggest that perhaps he should be answering the question of the nature of the gospel more frequently. I would agree. My main concern with what I am hearing from various emerging church leaders is not so much what they are saying, but what is getting left unsaid.

    As for Scot McKnight, I do like most of what I read on his blog, although I have some differences with him. I appreciate his honesty, his even-handedness and his willingness to say what he thinks without clouding it in vague statements.

    Anyway, thanks Mark for getting in touch and I look forward to having an explore of your website

  3. I have to agree with you, Mark (Heath). I have some concerns with what IS being said, but the fear really comes in what is intentionally NOT being said. It seems like the emergent church, in an attempt to reach people, have glossed over what the inherent offensiveness is of the gospel. If us getting closer to Christ meant us doing good deeds, Christ was brutalized unnecessarily because (to some effect), I can get closer to God by doing great things. On my own.

    The nature of the Cross is horrifying. But you can’t have Christ crucified without the price being paid for our depravity as human beings. Jesus offered the woman at the well living water – and explained it to her in a relational way – but ended the conversation gently turning her towards her sin by a simple question and statement. “Get your husband.” “I don’t have one.” “You’re right, you’ve had a few, and the guy you were living with now isn’t either.” Not a huge deal in our Grey’s Anatomy existence, but a GIGANTIC deal then. Depraved! Unholy! Damaged Goods! And he loved her in the middle of that realization without ignoring it. Where’s the case for life when there’s no question of sin?

    That’s the offensiveness missing in the emergent church. Come to grips that we’re not good on our own. Our hearts suffer without a savior. And at the end of the day, good deeds without desperatly clinging to a savior, allows the door for a lot of wickedness and emptiness because my limited self is at the center of what I’m doing.

    I emailed Mars Hill a few years back just to ask someone on the pastoral staff what they believed about some key issues in the gospel. We had a few friends that were going there that were really hurting with some serious issues, and we just wanted to know what kind of support we could motivate them towards there. They balked and shuffled and said that they weren’t in a place to tell people that they were wrong. The pastoral staff. I was confused. And I was emailed that they thought getting closer to people made them closer to God. Yikes! Wouldn’t getting right up close to the heart of God motivate you towards people? We’re Christians because we’re running towards our Dad, y’all!

  4. Hi Mark H.
    Thing is – when a person receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (Jesus, who is God) – he becomes a new creature in Christ. Jesus said that “…Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). A new creature in Christ – it transforms everything in your life knowing that our Father in heaven loves us with this immense love!! Before you met Christ, you were dead in your sins, but now all things are new – because the Holy Spirit has quickened your dead spirit to life! Glory to God!! It just excites me so much knowing this truth. Moreover, God does not change (Mal 3:6 For I am the LORD, I change not;….) This is our assurance that He will deliver on His promises, our salvation – and we can also see it from the numerous prophecies that have been fulfilled – first prophesied and then fulfilled. Its called an absolute truth.(again, John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.) These things may offend some, but the truth of the gospel does not change.

    Getting back to my comment on Rob Bell, I have read one or two things (including an interview) and he seems to be not a little off-beat. Its an ever changing and evolving gospel of sweetness and universality being preached – not the gospel of Christ.
    (read this interview http://www.patrolmag.com/arts/616/rob-bell-likes-his-art-chocolate). In this, he claims that Christianity like art changes (hence the emerging church philosophy – not the established church) and we need to embrace it – huh??? Nonsense I say. Please read the interview in its entirety, and I will pray that the Holy Spirit lights up the warning bells as you do. I am grieved by a man like Rob Bell, who is in the position to reach this world for Jesus Christ, and yet he stumbles and spurts a gospel of Rob Bell. Now, for any young believer all his waffle sounds very appealing but yet there is no power in his preaching. Remember what 2Ti 3:5 says: “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.”

    Here follows a quote from one of Rob Bells books:
    “They [the New Testament epistles] aren’t first and foremost timeless truths. … The Bible is not pieces of information about God and Jesus and whatever else we take and apply to situations as we would a cookbook or an instruction manual. And while I’m at it, let’s make a group decision to drop once and for all the Bible-as-owner’s-manual metaphor. It’s terrible. It really is. … We have to embrace the Bible as the wild, uncensored, passionate account it is of people experiencing the living God” (Velvet Elvis, pp. 62, 63).”

    A teacher, pastor, prophet, evangelist or apostle of the Lord first and foremost has to believe in God and in His Word completely to claim that he is such! Belief in some-thing is not enough! Belief in Christ is the only thing! The follow-up of which is bringing your views in line with the Word – and if you don’t happen to agree, then change your mind and start agreeing. Otherwise you do not serve God, you serve yourself – and let me tell you that won’t save anyone! If Rob Bell was who he claims he is (a child of God?) he would believe absolutely in the Epistles.

    I herewith truthfully and with sincerity hope and pray that Mr. Bell indeed changes his mind, and starts agreeing with Jesus!

  5. Interesting debate being held here.

    I agree with mark who commended you on your approach. It is good to seek to reconcile people with different perspectives as you are rather then being judgmental and arrogant about your own understanding.

    I will say though that Salvation is best understood (in my opinion) when we put Paul and James together making a fuller picture. It is more important to stir the Church into action (or deeds) as by definition Church should already have believed. I think that Bell works in this way and for the better in my opinion. He teaches scripture in a way that stirs people into acting out their faith, which is the good news in action. God loves so we love. God restores so we restore. Yes this is only possible because of Jesus (col 1) but it would be silly to say you follow the king but not actually do it.

    Just some thoughts.

    Thanks for reading.

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