LOVE WINS – Rob Bell (2011)

A few weeks ago, I was rudely awakened in the middle of the night.  It wasn’t the doorbell.  It wasn’t a phone call.  And it wasn’t the dog scratching on the back door.  My cell phone was blinking.  And it was blinking relentlessly.  A post by Justin Taylor stared me in the face.  “Rob Bell – Universalist?”  Before his book even hit the shelves (or was wirelessly sent to thousands of Kindles), the chatter commenced.  John Piper sent a tweet that read, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  Before the book was published, Tim Challies offered the first critical review.  Many reviews followed which include the likes of Dr. Al Mohler and Kevin DeYoung.  Have these theologians and bloggers been too critical of Rob Bell?  Have they jumped the gun and pointed an unnecessary finger of admonition?  Does “love win” in the way that Bell proclaims in his latest book?

When I first started reading Love Wins, I found myself frustrated by Bell’s propensity to ask question after question.  The emergent tendency to ask thought-provoking Socratic questions which force readers to fend for themselves dominate the opening chapters.  However, this changes soon enough.  In chapter four, Bell turns dogmatic; he steps out of the shadows and promotes his particular worldview.

When I was a kid, I remember the frustration of rummaging through the cereal box, hoping to claim the prize that was lurking below the tasty sugar-coated treats.  It seemed like it took forever.  Bell’s book is much like my experience as a kid.  I found myself asking, “What’s this guy trying to say?”  “What does he believe?”  “What is he promoting?”  But tragically, the analogy falls apart.  There is no prize to be found.  What emerges is a strange mixture of biblical teaching and man-made philosophy.  Sadly, the latter dominates the former.


First, note the biblical teaching that proves to be helpful:

Confronting the Diminished Gospel

Bell tackles the typical view of the gospel that is reduced to merely “getting into heaven” or “staying out of hell.”  Amid all the criticism of Love Wins, I believe Bell is onto something here.  He writes, “So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will ‘get into heaven,’ that reduces the good news to a ticket …”  He goes on to explain that when the gospel is understood this way, the joyful participation with God through Christ is minimized and people are cut off from experiencing God in personal and significant ways.

It is certainly true that the gospel involves more than heaven or hell.  The gospel is an invitation to real life.  Jesus came so people might have abundant life (John 10:10).  He came so people could know God personally and intimately (John 17:3).  He came to set the captives free and forgive sinners (Luke 3:3).


However, Love Wins contains some very unhelpful ideas that can be construed as man-made philosophy.  After carefully reading Bell’s book, I conclude that there are at least six “leaks” in Love Wins; “leaks” that should be of serious concern to evangelical Christians.

Leak 1: The Authority of Scripture is Undermined

The first “leak” concerns the authority of God’s Word.  Bell writes, “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” (p. 110).  It is certainly true that many (including Origen) have promoted a belief in universal reconciliation.  However, these beliefs do not stand at the center of the Christian tradition.  Rather, these erroneous beliefs militate against the Christian tradition, and ultimately undermine the authority of Scripture.

A brief glance through the halls of church history reveal a strong denial of universal reconciliation.  Leaders as diverse as Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, and Spurgeon all believed in the reality and eternality of hell.  Edwards was more direct than anyone: “This is the death threatened in the law.  This is dying in the highest sense of the word.  This is to die sensibly; to die and know it; to be sensible of the gloom of death.  This is to be undone; this is worthy of the name of destruction.  This sinking of the soul under an infinite weight, which it cannot bear, is the gloom of hell.”  Edwards merely affirms what the Scripture affirms.

Spurgeon comments on unconverted people being cast into hell.  He writes, “There is no bottom; and you hear coming up from the abyss, sullen moans, and hollow groans, and screams of tortured ghosts … But, in hell, there is no hope.  They have not even the hope of dying – the hope of being annihilated.  They are forever, forever – lost.”  Like the preacher from Northampton, Spurgeon affirms what the Scripture affirms.

Bell is critical of a story we are all familiar with – a “story about God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life.”  He argues that this  “isn’t a very good story.”

Perhaps Bell is right.  Maybe this doesn’t make for a good story.  Here’s the problem –  the story is true.  The Bible promises eternal life and the forgiveness of sins for all people who turn from their sin, believe in, and follow Christ (John 3:15-16; 6:37, 47; 7:38; John 8:12; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:9-13,17).  And the Bible promises eternal judgment for the unrepentant; for those who refuse to believe in and obey Jesus (Deut. 32:40-41; 2 Thes. 1:8-9; Rom. 2:8).  The apostle John  adds, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).  We find then, that the story is not only true; the story is good.  It is good because it is God’s story.

Additionally, Bell undermines the authority of Scripture by posing questions that place doubt in the minds of readers; doubt about God’s love – should the doctrine of eternal torment square with reality and prove to be true.  The best example emerges early in the book:

“Is this acceptable to God?  Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?  Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” (p. 1).

Scripture makes absolute and unwavering assertions concerning hell, judgment, and personal accountability.  To jettison these clear and unequivocal doctrinal truths is a tragic move indeed.  To compromise the clear teaching of God’s Word is to undermine the authority of sacred Scripture.

Leak 2: Hell is Undermined

Hell is not necessarily denied in Love Wins. Rather, hell is merely redefined.  Bell writes, “… We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.  We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way … And for that, the word “hell” works quite well.  Let’s keep it” (p. 93).

This is certainly a creative play on words.  But the Bible is clear.  Hell is a real place where unrepentant sinners go, eternally.  (Matt. 5:21-22; 27-30; 23:33; Rev. 14:9-10).  It is a place where people willingly choose to go because they fail to regard God as trustworthy and because they spurn the greatness of God’s worth.

Daniel Fuller comments on the depth of depravity that God must respond to in a decisive manner:  “So the enormity of people’s total depravity consists both in treating God in the worst possible way and in deterring others from knowing the unsurpassed blessing of having him work for them to do them good with his whole heart and soul.  The enormity of such a crime therefore requires a punishment having a corresponding severity … We therefore conclude that it is just and right for God to consign the impenitent to an eternal hell” (The Unity of the Bible, p. 194).  Hell is a place where people bear the weight of their sin because they have failed to glorify God as they ought, and where God’s justice is fully vindicated.

Hell is a place of rejection (Matt. 7:21-23).  Indeed, one of the deepest cries of the human heart is, “Please accept me.”  One of the most painful aspects of hell, then, will be utter rejection; eternal rejection.

Scripture teaches that hell is a place of darkness and separation (Matt. 8:5-12; 13:36-43, 47-50; 22:1-13; 24:36-51).  Erwin Lutzer addresses the apparent inconsistency of hell, which is described in Scripture as a place of fire and darkness.  Lutzer comments, “Another kind of ‘fire’ might be worse than literal fire.  That is the fire of unfulfilled passion, the fire of desires that are never satisfied … Hell, then, is the raw soul joined to an indestructible body, exposed to its own sin for eternity” (The Agonies of Hell – Moody Monthly Magazine, May/June 2001, 22).

Hell is a place of pain and punishment, according to God’s Word.  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:41-42, 49-50; 24:50-51).  John MacArthur notes, “Hell will have no friendships, no fellowship, no camaraderie, no comfort.  It will not even have the debauched pleasures in which the ungodly love to revel on earth.  There will be no pleasure in hell of any kind or degree – only torment, ‘day and night forever and ever'” (Rev. 20:10).

Leak 3: Sovereign Grace is Undermined

Love Wins undermines sovereign grace by subtly undercutting the doctrine of election.   The author asks, “How does a person end up being one of the few?”  His response:



Random selection?

Being born in the right place, family, or country?

Having a youth pastor who ‘relates better to the kids?

God choosing you instead of others?

What kind of a faith is that?

Or, more important:

What kind of a God is that?” (p. 2).

Instead of embracing the clear teaching concerning election, the author maintains “all people will come to God” (p. 99).  Bell seeks to support his view by appealing to texts like Psalm 65, Ezekiel 36, Isaiah 52, Psalm 22, and Philippians 2.  Yet he fails to take into account the passages that disagree with the logic of his working presupposition.

Several lines of biblical reasoning contradict his view.  First, Jesus teaches that many will be lost: “Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14, ESV).

Second, Bell fails to recognize the passages that warn people who fail to believe.  A few examples demonstrate how misleading his argument is:

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up        wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. ” (Romans 2:5, ESV)

but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. ” (Romans 2:8, ESV)

“… in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, ” (2 Thessalonians 1:8–9, ESV)

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. ” (John 3:36, ESV)

Third, Bell undercuts sovereign grace by arguing that God will draw all people to himself: “… We see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody” (p. 150).  Bell continues, “What Jesus does is declare that he and he alone is saving everybody.  And then he leaves the door way, way open.  Creating all sorts of possibilities.  He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (p. 155).  At the very least, he is sympathetic  to Origin’s atonement theory, which was roundly defeated in the sixth century.

Not surprisingly, Bell cites John 12:32 to bolster his argument: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  Yet Jesus does not suggest that all people will be saved.  This would contradict a host of passages that teach unconditional election.  He does not mean all without exception.  Rather, he means all without distinction, all kinds of people.  Scripture promises that God will draw all kinds of people to himself.  Representatives from every tribe, language, people, and nation will be included (Rev. 5:9-10).

Bell uses the same line of reasoning in his discussion of Romans 5:18.  He writes, “Paul says that ‘one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all” (p. 134).  Again, if Paul is promoting universal reconciliation, he contradicts his teaching on unconditional election (Rom. 8:29; 9:6-23; 11:5-7; Eph. 1:3-11; 1 Thes. 1:4; 5:9; 2 Thes. 2:13-14; 2 Tim. 1:9).  And if Paul contradicts his teaching concerning election, we have an additional problem with the authority of Scripture.  May it never be!

In Jesus’ high priestly prayer, we find him praying for the elect.  He prays, “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9, ESV).  And we find that the Father has graciously given the elect to the Son (John 17:2, 6-7, 11-12).  Some, not all.

In John 10, Jesus indicates the scope of his mission, namely, those for whom he came to save:

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11, ESV).

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14, ESV).

“… I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15b, ESV).

And Jesus upholds the doctrine of election by adding, “But you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:26-27).  The scope of Christ’s mission was specific in its intention.  Christ came to purchase a “people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9).  The benefits of his death, while certainly available to all are limited in terms of efficacy.  He paid the price on the cross for everyone who would ever believe.

Fourth, and most disturbing is the erroneous notion that if some people are judged eternally, God will not “get want he wants.”  Bell queries, “So does God get what God wants?  How great is God?  Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great.  Sort of great, a little great (p. 97).  He continues, “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? … Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end? (p. 98).

Bell seeks to argue his case on this basis: “People, according to the scriptures are inextricably intertwined to God … The writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family” (p. 99).  The author maintains that on this basis, God wants all people to be saved.  In other words, if some of those whom God desires to be saved are ultimately lost, God has failed, and as a result, his goodness and greatness are in question.

Has Bell forgotten the separation that occurred after the Fall?  Instead of being “inextricably intertwined to God,” the Bible declares that a massive gulf exists between the Creator and the creature.  Sin has separated people from God (Isa. 59:2).  Isaiah indicates the depth of this separation: “Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways” (Isa. 59:7, ESV).  Sinners are stubborn and rebellious by nature (Isa. 5:23).

The biblical portrait is radically different than the one that Bell paints: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities” (Isa. 64:6-7, ESV).

Actually, the biblical portrait concerning the sinfulness of sin in the heart of all people is devastating.  Scripture teaches that sinners are born, not made (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12).  The heart is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9).  The apostle Paul proclaims that the heart of man is radically corrupt.  He has no righteousness (Rom. 3:10), no desire for God (Rom. 3:11), no inclination to do good to the glory of God (Rom. 3:12).  Additionally, sinners hate God (Rom. 8:7-8).  In his work, Men Naturally God’s Enemies, Jonathan Edwards writes, “The heart is like a viper, hissing and spitting poison to God.”  Sinners are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1) and enslaved to sin (John 8:34).  They are unable to come to Christ apart from God’s empowerment and grace (John 6:44).

Bell insists, “… we’re all part of the same family.”  Yet, God’s Word teaches that every unconverted person is hopeless apart from grace: ” … Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12, ESV).

Bell’s assertion that God “desires all people to be saved” is a biblical argument (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).  Taken at face value these passages appear to contradict the doctrine of unconditional election.  But since God is true and does not have the capacity to lie or contradict himself (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18), there must be an explanation this dilemma.

The heart of God is expressed in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9.  God has a heart for the nations; he truly “desires all people to be saved.”  But all people are not saved.  The Bible never promises that all people will be reconciled.  These passages express what theologians refer to as God’s “will of command.”  This is his “will of desire.”  However, God’s “will of command” should not be confused with his “will of decree”, namely, his sovereign decision in eternity past to choose some for salvation and pass over others.

Scripture is clear on this matter.  God is sovereign in all things, including salvation.  B.B. Warfield writes, “In the infinite wisdom of the Lord of all the earth, each event falls with the exact precision into its proper place in this unfolding of His eternal plan; nothing, however small, however strange, occurs without His ordering, or without its peculiar fitness for its place in the working out of His purposes; and the end of all shall be the manifestation of His glory, and the accumulation of His praise.”  Ephesians 1:4 says, “… Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”  The testimony of the biblical writers is that God predestined some to salvation, not all (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:5, 11).  In the final analysis, God is glorified and yes, God gets what he wants!

Leak 4: Radical Depravity is Undermined and Human Freedom Exalted

Free will stands at the heart of Rob Bell’s argument in Love Wins.  Indeed, this is the crux of the matter.  His argument is vivid: At the end of the day, if some people believe and others refuse to believe, God doesn’t get want he wants.  Bell argues, “Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do.  God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself.  If at any point God overrides, co-opts, hijack the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is” (pp. 103-104).

Bell is critical of the notion that people get one chance to believe in this life.  His free will argument, then, begins to hint at post-mortem evangelism.  While Bell never clearly articulates what he believes, he speaks approvingly of those who have embraced universal reconciliation in church history:

“And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death?  And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God … as long as it takes, in other words” (p. 106).

“At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance to God” (p. 107).

Bell argues that some of the church fathers believed in universal reconciliation: “Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory.  Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.  Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t.  Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine though the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t” (p. 107).

The point of universal reconciliation is an important one for Bell.  He adds, “To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts” (p. 107).

Bell continues to drive home his agenda with this shocking statement: “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” (pp. 108-109).

The author continues to build an argument based on free will: “Love demands freedom.  It always has, and always will.  We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us.  We can have all the hell we want” (pp. 113-114).  Bell extends his free will argument into eternity future: “So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next?  Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility.  People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future (p. 114).

Bell’s assertions undermine radical depravity and exalt human freedom.  First, radical depravity is undermined by granting the creature the ultimate power of self-determination.  It is certainly true that creatures are free in one sense, namely, they do what they want to do.  Jonathan Edwards reminds us, “A man never in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his Will.  He goes on to say that “the Will is always determined by the strongest motive.”

Second, human freedom is exalted by granting the creature the power to do as they please in matters of salvation. The problem with this line of reasoning is that freedom never implies ability.  It is true that sinful creatures are free to come to God – but not apart from God’s drawing them (John 6:44).  J.I. Packer reminds us, “We have no natural ability to discern and choose God’s way because we have no natural inclination Godward; our hearts are in bondage to sin, and only the grace of regeneration can free us from that slavery” (Concise Theology, p. 86).

Bell says, “God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it as we please” (p. 177).  Actually, this statement is true in principle.  God does extend an invitation to all.  The general call is clearly taught in Scripture (Isa. 55:1; Matt. 22:14; Mark 8:34).   And we are free to do as we please.  But again, freedom does not imply ability.  Totally depraved people are free do good or evil but only able to do evil because of the radical nature of their sinful condition (John 8:34).  “With sin’s entrance man lost ability to do good, not liberty” (G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 86).   Whenever radical depravity is undermined, human freedom is unwisely exalted.

Leak 5: The Biblical Portrait of God is Undermined

Bell paints an unfair straw man argument by pitting the attributes of God against one another.  He questions the doctrine of eternal torment and in the same sentence, he puts the love of God on trial: “Is this acceptable to God?  Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?  Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” (p. 1).

Bell argues against what he perceives to be inconsistency in God: “A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony” (p. 173).

Moreover, Bell argues, “If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good” (p. 173).

Bell’s argument is simple.  If God claims to be loving but at the same time punishes unrepentant people in an eternal hell, he cannot possibly be loving, good, or trustworthy.  The author adds, “We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell” (p. 177).  While this may sound tenable, this thinking elevates the love of God and marginalizes God’s justice.

Daniel Fuller argues in the opposite direction with the full force of biblical authority: “God cannot remain indifferent to those who are going in the opposite direction … God could not be loving to those who seek him if he did not vent the power of his wrath against those who remain impenitent.  Far from being irreconcilable opposites, God’s love and wrath are simply two ways in which he makes it clear that he himself fully honors his name” (The Unity of the Bible, p. 190).  In other words, if God did not demonstrate justice on unrepentant sinners, his love would be compromised; he would cease to be God.

By pitting God’s love and justice, Bell jettisons God’s simplicity.  Michael Horton reminds us, “God’s simplicity resists our temptations to identify a single attribute, including love, as more definitive of God than others” (The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, p. 499).  Horton continues, “God cannot exercise love and mercy at the expense of his righteousness and justice.  But this works in the other direction as well: God’s wrath is not arbitrary or capricious but is the necessary response to the violation of his justice, righteousness, holiness, and goodness.”  Moreover, Horton argues, “The cross … is the only way that God can uphold his justice and his love in the salvation of covenant breakers.  By definition, mercy need not be shown, but once God has decided to exercise mercy, he can do so only in a way that does not leave his righteousness, holiness, and justice behind” (p. 511).  Love Wins elevates God’s love at the expense of his righteousness, holiness, and justice.

Therefore, the biblical portrait of God is undermined.  A.W. Tozer rightly says, “The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God” (The Knowledge of the Holy, p. 10).  Indeed, when the character of God is compromised, nobody wins.

Leak 6: The Biblical Gospel is Undermined

Finally, the thesis of the book emerges on page 118: “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours.  That’s how love works.  It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced.  It always leaves room for the other to decide.  God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.”  Again, Bell argues, “Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.  Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t.  Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t” (p. 107).

Many will be convinced by this argument.  But this line of reasoning undermines the biblical gospel.  The gospel is good news.  The gospel is the hope of nations.  The gospel promises hope, and forgiveness, and eternal life to everyone who believes.  But the gospel not only includes promises; the gospel includes threats.  The gospel warns the unrepentant.  The gospel warns sinners of an eternal hell that awaits every person who rejects Christ.

It is true that God is glorified when sinners are reconciled.  It is true that renewal glorifies God.  But God’s justice is also vindicated when the impenitent pay eternally for their sin and unbelief (Rom. 9:22-23).  Daniel Fuller wisely writes, “Though he finds no pleasure in punishing the wicked, he nevertheless does it as something he must do, so that without devaluing his glory, he can fully rejoice in being merciful to the penitent” (The Unity of the Bible, p. 196).  John  the apostle indicates that the final judgment on the impenitent will result bring glory to God: “Hallelujah!  Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just” (Rev. 19:2, ESV).  Whenever eternal torment is minimized, the biblical gospel is undermined.  And an undermined gospel is rendered a powerless, non-gospel.


Love Wins is a classic example of theological compromise.  It is a dangerous example of moving away from strong doctrinal moorings.  It demonstrates the folly of drifting from the shore of truth on a flimsy raft that will sink in due time.  Leaky rafts always sink!

Readers who are sympathetic to the message in Love Wins must ask, “Is Love Wins consistent with Scripture?”  Careful readers will acknowledge that biblical authority is undermined which leads to the denial of some key components of orthodoxy.

Yet, there is something very healthy about Love Wins.  Like the early leaders in the church; the apologists, the Puritans, and the Reformers who contended for the faith in the midst of doctrinal error,  this book will force the church to revisit the doctrine of hell and articulate the doctrinal boundaries.  We can be thankful to Rob Bell for sharpening those of us who are committed to the truth of God’s Word.

At the end of the day, we must acknowledge that God will get exactly what his will of decree demands: He will complete the good work he started in the every one of his elect (Phil. 1:6).  The elect receive God’s mercy.  The non-elect receive God’s justice (Rom. 9:14-18).  And God is glorified in the vindication of the righteous and the eternal judgment of the unrighteous (Rom 9:22-23).  “For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory forever.  Amen” (Rom. 11:36, ESV).

The Holiness of God – R.C. Sproul (1985)

The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul is a tremendous book that ought to be read by every Christian.  The author contends the subject of God’s holiness is one of the most important issues for believers to wrestle with.  How one understands the character of God affects everything in life.  Worship, service, or true obedience cannot take place without understanding the holiness of God.

The theme is developed by defining the meaning of holiness.  The author argues that holiness is more than “absolute purity” or “separateness.”  Rather, the deeper and primary meaning of holiness of holiness is “transcendent purity.”

Dr. Sproul notes the fearful and adverse reaction to what Rudolph Otto calls the “mysterious tremendum” and uses the examples of Isaiah and Martin Luther to drive his point home.  The author intends the reader to not only understand God’s holiness from a theological frame of reference but also challenges the reader to live a holy life before a holy God.  Holiness of life is more than saying “no” to cultural taboos.  Rather, holy living involves controlling the tongue, acting with integrity, and manifesting the fruit of the Spirit.

The Holiness of God is a deeply God-centered book.  Sproul does not side-step aspects of God that may be uncomfortable for readers to swallow, namely, the justice of God.  He does a masterful job at explaining the relationship between God’s justice and mercy:  “God does not always act with justice.  Sometimes he acts with mercy.  Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice.  Sometimes he acts with mercy.  Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice.  We may see non-justice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”  Sproul is quick to counter the typical arguments that run contrary to the portrait of God that emerges in sacred Scripture.

Dr. Sproul also skillfully explains the wrath of God (a doctrine which seems to be fading from modern pulpits).  In fact, I remember hearing a well-known evangelist say, “God is not angry with sinners.”  This popular sentiment is running rampant in our churches and must be exposed and dealt with in a frank and forthright manner.

The author raises issues that cause readers to think theologically.  The net result is a love for God that can only grow in the awesome light of his majesty and holiness.  This is my third opportunity to read this great work, a book that will undoubtedly be in print one hundred years from now.  I enjoy it more every time I read it.

5 stars.

THE MESSAGE BEHIND THE MOVIE: How to Engage With a Film Without Disengaging Your Faith – Douglas M. Beaumont (2009)

The Message Behind the Movie by Douglas M. Beaumont discusses the importance of engaging with worldview themes in movies.  The author reveals his cards upfront (which is increasingly rare these days, especially in a movie).  He writes as an “evangelical, philosophical, theological, movie lover” and seeks to unite these interests in his approach to the book.

The book is organized in three basic acts.  Act one focuses on watching and understanding movies.  Act 2 discusses the evaluation process.   Act 3 explores what kinds of movies to watch and what kinds of movies to avoid.  Ultimately, the author seeks to “show how we can all better interact with our culture by understanding the movies that shape and reveal it.”  His aim is “to show how we can all better interact with our culture by understanding the movies that shape and reveal it.”

ACT ONE: Watching and Understanding Movies

The author begins by setting forth the historical context by which we knowingly or unknowingly evaluate entertainment.  The two positions find their origins in Plato and Aristotle.  Plato held that art is basically useless and even may be harmful.  Aristotle’s view was quite different.  He believed that art has the ability to “describe ultimate reality” and as a result should not be avoided.  The author sides with Aristotle and writes approvingly: “An Aristotelian approach to movies needn’t condone sinfulness; instead, it can recognize how central storytelling is to human experience and seek to accurately critique the messages that stories in films are communicating.”

Beaumont points out that movies either engage in direct or indirect communication.  He argues that if a blatant message is promoted in a movie, most people will consider this propaganda.  “Almost by definition, then, popular movies will rarely state their messages explicitly.”  All the more reason for disciples of Christ to carefully discern the times.

The author makes it clear that when a filmmaker produces a piece of work, this does not necessarily mean that he/she is endorsing what emerges on the screen.  “This is the difference between description and prescription.”  Therefore, readers are urged to evaluate the message of a movie with objectivity.

The author helps readers understand the story or plot-line of a movie.  Style is discussed (or style elements).  Again, caution must be exercised not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Beaumont takes time to explore the suppositions that emerge in movies – what we generally refer to as a worldview.  However, the author stresses that the worldview is “not necessarily the same thing as its message.  In fact, distinguishing the two is one of the most important, and difficult tasks of evaluating movies.”  Again, discernment is critical.

ACT TWO: Evaluating and Discussing Movies

The author encourages Christians to discern good and bad in movies.  He prompts Christ-followers to use movies as a starting point in sharing the gospel message.

Beaumont encourages Christians to explore movies from a philosophical angle.  He adds, “[Movies] can also open doors to conversations about philosophical issues that might be a hindrance to faith.”  The author presents a basic approach to epistemology and rightly notes that “truth is objective (based on reality, not our thoughts about reality), absolute (true for everyone), and knowable.”

ACT THREE: Applauding and Avoiding Movies

The author not only has his eye on culture; he also rejects the sympathetic attitude that some Christians have toward postmodernity.  By embracing the correspondence theory of truth and the law of non-contradiction, he places himself in a school of thought that is oriented to classical apologetics.  For this we can be thankful.

Beaumont writes boldly and humbly.  His mingling of authoritative teaching with a sympathetic heart to lost people is encouraging indeed.

Evangelicals have a track record of retreat.  For too long, we have fled from culture instead of interacting with and influencing culture to the glory of God. The Message Behind the Movie is a step in the right direction.

3.5 stars

STICKY TEAMS: Keeping Your Leadership Team and Staff on the Same Page – Larry Osborne (2010)

Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne is a leadership book with an emphasis on team-building.  The author maintains, “Sticky teams stick together.”  And sticking together in difficult times is an indicator of health.

Osborne divides Sticky Teams into three parts, each designed to promote long-term unity and health in local church, which a special emphasis placed on the elder council, staff, and congregation.

Osborne stresses the three pillars of unity which includes doctrinal unity, respect and friendship, and philosophical unity.

He alerts the reader to transition points when growth takes place within a church and recommends different approaches (or “changing the game”) for different contexts.

PART ONE: Landmines and Roadblocks

The author sets his sights on five roadblocks to unity: 1) meeting in the wrong place, 2) ignoring relationships, 3) not meeting often enough, 4) constant turnover, and 5) too many members.

Principles of protecting the unity of an elder council and church staff are discussed, what the author refers to as “guarding the gate.”  Osborne insists on maintaining high standards at the leadership level.  Spiritual maturity is central.  Leaders must be on the same philosophical page – they must agree on the overall direction of the church.  Finally, leaders must work as a team relationally.  There must be a relational match.

Osborne spends time focusing on clarification of roles at the board and staff level.  “Healthy teams have great teamwork,” he writes.  “There’s little role confusion, and everyone knows what the ultimate goal is.”

PART TWO: Equipped for Ministry

Part two develops the importance of ministry alignment, mission, values, and methods.  Healthy churches employ creative training opportunities for elders and staff members alike.

Osborne recommends scheduling monthly “shepherding meetings” to deal with “important but neglected priorities” and should focus on team building, training, and prayer.

The author discusses the importance of staff alignment which helps ensure the team agrees with the core values and priorities of the church.  He argues that healthy teams are committed to a plumb line which may vary from church to church.

He also focuses on congregational alignment and includes five keys for maintaining the health of a given church:

1. A clear and simple mission statement

2. A front-loaded pastor’s class

3. The drip method of preaching (where the core values and vision of the church are included in the regular preaching diet).

4. Sermon-based small groups

5. Short congregational meetings

PART THREE: Communication

Part three includes a host of practical suggestions for vibrant communication.  Controversial topics are broached such as setting salaries, money management, and dealing with difficult staff members.


I am certainly glad I read Sticky Teams.  The author shares  many stories that are rooted and tested in personal experience.   I appreciate Osborne’s heart for leadership development and his “down-to-earth”approach to ministry.

One critique is especially worth mentioning.  The author places a great deal of attention on the importance of small groups, even to the exclusion of formal theological education.  While I wholeheartedly embrace and endorse the use of small groups in the local church as a strategy of discipleship, I resist the notion that theological education should play “second-fiddle” or be excluded from the “performance” all-together.

I have seen first-hand the value of developing a strong theological education department in the local church context.  The Christian mind must be educated, the affections must be engaged, the whole person must be equipped, and God-centered living must be encouraged.  Therefore, the development of a rigorous theological education track is essential for biblical discipleship to take place.

3 stars


Some books merit a quick scan.  Others deserve a careful read.  Few books need to be read over and over.  The Supremacy of God in Preaching by John Piper is such a book.  This is my fourth time through Piper’s powder keg.

Part One – Why God Should be Supreme in Preaching

Part one follows a logical and biblical progression, as Piper lingers over four key areas.

First, the goal of preaching – the glory of God.  The author argues, “God is the goal of preaching, God is the ground of preaching – and all the means in between  are given by the Spirit of God.”  And ultimately, the glory of God will be reflecting in the willing and humble submission of the creature.

Second, the ground of preaching – the cross of Christ.  Piper writes, “Preaching is the heralding of the good news by a messenger sent by God, the good news … that God reigns; that he reigns to reveal his glory; that his glory is revealed most fully in the glad submission of his creation; that there is, therefore, no final conflict between God’s zeal to be glorified and our longing to be satisfied, and that someday the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord, echoing and reverberating in the white-hot worship of the ransomed church gathered in from every people and tongue and tribe and nation.”  The author emphasizes the supreme necessity of preaching cross-centered messages and the cross as the “ground of humility in preaching.”  This demonstrates the glory of God and showcases the pride that plagues every person.  And the cross magnifies the greatness of God’s worth!

Third, the gift of preaching – the power of the Holy Spirit. Dr. Piper emphasizes that the goal of preaching and the ground of preaching will be fruitless apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit: “It takes the Holy Spirit  to make us docile to the Bible.”  Therefore, faithful and effective preaching is dependent on  the power of the Spirit.

Part Two – How to Make God Supreme in Preaching: Guidance From the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards

Part two introduces readers to the most influential  theologian (outside of Scripture) in Piper’s life (and mine as well).  After a brief summary of his life, the author unleashes  the Edwardsean vision of God and the effect of this vision on his preaching.

Edwards stressed the sufficiency and sovereignty of God in his preaching.  Piper adds, “The sovereignty of God for Edwards was utterly crucial to everything else he believed about God.”

Piper places a great emphasis on the views set forth in Religious Affections.  The thesis of that profound work is simple and profound: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”

Piper takes the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards very seriously and applies them to the preaching task: “Delight in the glory of God includes, for example hatred for sin, fear of displeasing God, hope in the promises of God, contentment in the fellowship of God, desire for the final revelation of the Son of God, exultation in the redemption he accomplished … Our duty toward God is that all our affections respond properly to his reality and so reflect his glory.”

Jonathan Edwards sought with all his heart to make God supreme in his preaching; to glorify him above all things.  Piper recommends ten Edwardsean principles that pastors should take into the pulpit:

1. Stir up holy affections

2. Enlighten the mind

3. Saturate with Scripture

4. Employ analogies and images

5. Use threat and warning

6. Plead for a response

7. Probe the workings of the heart

8. Yield to the Holy Spirit in prayer

9. Be broken and tender-hearted

10. Be intense

These insights accurately reflect Edwards’ approach to preaching.  They also reflect John Piper’s approach to preaching.  But sadly, these principles are seldom seen in the American pulpit.  Piper’s encouragement serves as a reminder and a motivation to young pastors who aim to please God with faithful exposition.


There a many good books available that unpack the task of preaching.  But there are only a few that are worth reading again and gain.  The Supremacy of God in Preaching does not focus so much on the nuts and bolts of preaching as it does the aim of preaching, namely, the glorification of a God who is worthy to be praised and proclaimed.  Piper’s work motivates, encourages, convicts and challenges pastors to faithfully preach a message that bears witness to the greatness of his work and the glory of his name.

5 stars

LEADERS WHO LAST – Dave Kraft (2010)

C.H. Spurgeon writes, “Beware of no man more than yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.”  Spurgeon poignantly alerts us to the danger of indwelling sin.  The writer of Hebrews warns against that sin; the “sin that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1a).  Tragically, many Christian leaders fail to heed the warning of Spurgeon and the book of Hebrews.  Theological compromise leads to liberalism.  Moral compromise leads to immorality.  Few Christian leaders, as a result, finish strong.

Leaders Who Last by Dave Kraft serves Christian leaders well by turning their attention to the standards set forth in the Word of God.   Kraft writes, “The greatest and most pressing need in the body of Christ today is an army of leaders who have a vision of a desired future and are called and anointed by God.  These leaders possess a fire burning in their hearts that can’t be extinguished.  They are motivated and led by God to intentionally, passionately, and effectively influence others.”

Kraft argues that leaders (and pastors in particular) have four key responsibilities, namely, shepherding, developing, equipping, and empowering.    Three sections provide a helpful framework for developing the author’s argument.


Kraft presents five areas that should characterize the life of every leader.  The center hub represents the power of Christ.  Four additional spokes make up the “leadership wheel” and include purpose, passion, priorities, and pacing.

“Leadership” writes Kraft, “begins and ends with a clear understanding of the gospel and being rooted in the grace of Jesus Christ as a free gift.”  I might build on the author’s presupposition by adding that no amount of talent, speaking ability, giftedness, or charisma can replace a working knowledge of the biblical gospel.  So many churches appear successful on the outside.  Some Christian leaders and pastors (especially some young pastors) appear to have it all together on the outside.  But when the gospel is compromised and the core truths of the Christian faith are neglected, tragic results are waiting around the corner!  When a pastor begins to compromise the doctrine of hell, the exclusive claim of Christ, or the authority of God’s Word he willingly embraces a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6-8).   The leadership foundation must be established for any kind of tenure in ministry.  And Kraft does an excellent job developing the “leadership wheel.”


In part two, the author narrows his focus.  He discusses the leader’s calling, gifts, character, and growth.  Finishing well should be a high priority for every Christian leader.  Kraft presents five helpful suggestions for achieving this important goal:

1. Maintain a vibrant relationship with Christ.

2. A posture of learning.

3. Identifiable goals and self-control.

4. Supportive personal relationships and family.

5. Clear vision, strong biblical convictions, perspective, and surrendering to the lordship of Christ.


Part three summarizes the leader’s vision, influence, and legacy.  The section on vision is especially helpful.  Kraft writes, “A leader is a person who is dissatisfied with the way things are.  He has a God-given burden, a vision, and a call to see something different.  He wants to see something change, to build a new future.  He then begins to communicate what he thinks and where he wants to go.”

Kraft is calling for visionary leaders to step up to the plate; leaders who have a “destination in mind and possess the ability to take others along on the journey.”  He makes a strong case for visionary leadership.  These leaders must:

1. Develop the vision.

2. Communicate the vision.

3. Implement the vision.

Leaders Who Last is a book that every pastor should read, absorb, and put into practice.  Dave Kraft writes with the heart of a pastor and clearly communicates essential leadership skills that should be included in the makeup of every Christian leader.  Every leader who intends on finishing strong needs to read Kraft’s book.  The principles are biblical and practical.  No theory here.  Highly recommended!

RADICAL – David Platt (2010)

Radical by David Platt is not for the faint at heart.  The author calls readers to a life of God-centered discipleship; a life that pursues Christ, worships Christ, and obeys the mandate of Christ.

Platt aggressively confronts the primary tenets of the so-called American dream and challenges readers to re-evaluate priorities in light of Christ’s call to discipleship: “Jesus has commanded each of us to make disciples and this is the means by which we will impact the world.”

Platt admits that making disciples is not easy: “We must live for them, love them, serve them, and lead them … In the process you will multiply the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

Additionally, the author argues that disciple making involves intentionality: It is a “command for us to be gospel-living, gospel-speaking people at every moment and in every context where we find ourselves … Disciple making is not about a program or an event but about a relationship.  As we share the gospel, we impart life, and this is the essence of making disciples – sharing the life of Christ.”

The author calls Christ-followers to commit to a one year radical experiment:

1. Pray for the entire world.

2. Read the Bible from cover to cover.

3. Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose.

4. Spend  your time in another context.

5. Commit your life to a multiplying community.

Radical is a cross between John Piper’s Desiring God, John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Walter Chantry’s Today’s Gospel, and The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer.  It is a serious book for serious followers of Christ.  Indeed, “Your life is free to be radical when you see death as reward.”

Platt continues a theme that Piper has stressed for years, namely – God is the Gospel: “This, we remember, is the great reward of the gospel: God himself.  When we risk our lives to run after Christ, we discover the safety that is found only in his sovereignty, the security that is found only in his love, and the satisfaction that is found only in his presence.  This is the eternally great reward, and we would be foolish to settle for anything less.”

One of my best friends from Belarus has summed up the essence of Platt’s work: “In the final analysis, the only the thing that matters is a relationship with God and relationship with people.”  Belarussian Christians are truly living radical Christian lives!

Radical is God-centered, Christ-saturated, biblical, thought-provoking, passionate, Great Commission-minded.

4.5 stars

MEANING AT THE MOVIES: Becoming a Discerning Viewer – Grant Horner (2010)

Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner is not designed as a set of glorified cliff-notes for Christian movie buffs.  Rather, it is as the author notes, “An extended meditation on why we have movies at all, why they are so powerful, and why Christians need to think deeply and theologically about film art – indeed, about all human cultural production.”  These words alone were enough to draw me in.

Horner endeavors to explain the curse as a two-fold problem, namely, the search for meaning and death.  He holds, “Culture is what we produce in our futile attempts to understand the world.  It is what we believe and what we do to deal with the twin problems of meaninglessness and death.”  This is where movies emerge, which are in the eyes of the author, “the modern-day equivalent of philosophy,” or “the absolute center of modern culture.”

Practical Considerations

The author builds a strong case for developing Christian discernment (a discipline that seems to grow weaker by the day among Evangelicals).  He argues that when we walk away from movies we should be “stronger for having been exposed to error, and exposing it as error.”

Horner proposes a simplified definition of worldview I rather like: “Who believes what about what and why?”  The five elements that emerge in this definition may be directly applied to movies and promote Christian discernment.  He builds on his initial definition by adding the following: “A worldview is any collection of ideas and their attendant attitudes that attempt to explain and systematize, at some level, how the universe works.”

Horner rightly maintains that ideas never occur in a vacuum.  “Ideas are related to other ideas … Most ideas that claim to be new are merely rehashed versions of old ideas” (think, New Age movement and recall the original lie in the garden, for instance).  Accordingly, he sets out to briefly explain the dominant worldviews that are entrenched in culture including theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, and pantheistic monism.

Discernment is crucial.  The author notes, “If you watch a film with the powerhouse combination of a mind saturated with Scripture and a working understanding of the major worldview systems, you will in many cases be able, even with a single viewing, to analyze a film with a high degree of discernment.”

The author continues to sharpen the discerning skills of the reader in a chapter entitled, “How to Interrogate a Movie.”  Thoughtful questions are encouraged, including:

1. What view of anthropology is presented?

2. What metaphysical view is presented, i.e. ultimate reality?

3. What is the view of destiny, i.e. random or determined?

4. Is the universe progressing or decaying?

5. What ethical framework is presented, i.e. moral absolutism, relativism, or pragmatism?

6. Is the film in the modern or postmodern stream?

Horner adds, “The next time you watch a movie and don’t think biblically, you’ll be disobeying God.”  This sharp and necessary admonition catapults the reader immediately into section two.


The second half of the book is devoted to exploring various aspects of film including comedy, “the invention of fear for pleasure,” romance, and dark themes that emerge in contemporary movies.

Horner’s discussion on fear is worth the price of the book.  He writes with great insight here: “Because we are wired to gain pleasure from the fear of God, yet as a race we do not fear him, we find ourselves in the rather perverse position of experiencing certain pleasures coming to us in the form of highly manufactured and densely controlled fears packaged as entertainment.  I believe this is why ‘fear for pleasure’ has become such a profitable  sector of the film industry.”  He argues that people in general want control over the things they fear.  They want to “limit that fear within prescribed boundaries, which [they] can never do in the case of the ‘fear of the Lord.'”

Meaning at the Movies is a good resource to turn for thoughtful Christians who are concerned with the content that is being propagated on the silver screen.  Horner’s analysis is biblical and balanced.  And he demonstrates a good working knowledge of movies and the worldviews that lurks behind the storyline.

AGAPE LEADERSHIP – Robert Peterson and Alexander Straunch (1991)

Robert Peterson and Alexander Strauch summarize the life and leadership of Pastor R.C. Chapman in Agape Leadership.

More than anything, Agape Leadership puts flesh and bones on the elder qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Peterson and Strauch cover the pertinent biographical information that one might expect.  But the critical elements concern the leadership lessons that emerge from the life of R.C. Chapman.

Chapman (1803-1902) is portrayed as a godly man.  He was committed to the Word of God, prayer, evangelism, and the local church. His friend C.H. Spurgeon called him “the saintliest man I ever knew.”

R.C. Chapman’s life reminds me of a church I visited in Belarus.  I noticed a sign in Russian above the pulpit.  I asked the pastor to translate.  He responded with great humility, “Ah, the sign says, ‘We preach Christ crucified.'”  Chapman’s passion was to do just this.  His aim in life was to preach Christ crucified.  May his tribe increase!

PUJOOLS: MORE THAN THE GAME – Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth (2011)

Pujols: More Than a Game by Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth is a thoughtful and informative account of baseball all-star, Albert Pujols.

The book chronicles the journey that Pujols took from the Dominican Republic to the big leagues.  The authors’ provide a detailed look at Pujols pilgrimage which is an inspiring rags to riches story.

Pujols contains the typical biographical data that appeal to baseball fans.  But this is more than a statistical smorgasbord.  It is a rich account of Pujol’s personal faith in Jesus Christ and the difference the gospel makes.

And the gospel has truly impacted Pujol’s life.  The glory of God is clearly revealed in his life through the Pujols Family Foundation (PFF), through his marriage, and by his attitude and actions on the field.

Lamb and Ellsworth carefully assure readers that Pujols’ statistics are legitimate.  In other words, the record books need not place a “check mark” next to 408 career home runs or 1230 career rbi’s.  This baseball player is clean and the authors do a terrific job in arguing Pujol’s base.

Pujols serves as an inspiration to young people who are looking for heroes to emulate.  The book demonstrates the value of hard work, integrity, and persistence.  But most importantly, Pujols shows the importance of doing all things for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

I received this book free from the publisher through the <> book review bloggers program.