If you’re a Jesus Nerd like me, you know that there was a huge blow up this past weekend in theological circles. (Yes, there are theological circles.) HarperOne released the promotional material for Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, and speculation quickly grew that Rob had become a Universalist. It started at Justin Taylor’s blog at The Gospel Coalition, and then John Piper tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell” with a link to the blog post. There has been a veritable firestorm of bloggers and tweeters since then, with many condemning Bell and many supporting him.

My first response, which I left on two friends’ Facebook posts, was “I’m disappointed, but not surprised.” All I had to go on was the HarperOne promotional blurb and a short video of Rob speaking. I have not, of course, read the book yet. I was foolish to pass judgment so quickly, and wish that I hadn’t done so. Perhaps Rob Bell has become a Universalist, and perhaps he hasn’t. I’ll have to wait for the book. (By the way, bravo HarperOne for your marketing strategy. I’m not sure you intended to do it this way, but you’ve just generated A TON of interest.)

If you don’t know, a Universalist is someone who believes that God welcomes every person into heaven. Hell is either empty or it does not exist at all. One of the toughest questions that faces Christians is this: “How could a loving God send anyone to hell?” The Universalist’s answer is, “He doesn’t”.

This little dust up got me thinking about Universalism, heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Whether or not Rob Bell is a Universalist is beside the point. Universalism seems to be a reaction against a strict fundamentalism which places a great amount of emphasis on the afterlife, escaping hell, and getting into heaven. Gandhi is often the Universalist’s prime example of justification for their view. If Gandhi is in hell, they might say, then God truly is unjust. The Fundamentalist’s retort would be, of course, “Unless Gandhi placed his faith in Christ, he’s burning in hell.”

The trouble with Universalism and these strict forms of Fundamentalism is that they get things all backwards. Heaven is not the grand prize; Jesus is. Heaven is just the parting gift. The only reason heaven is great is because that’s where Jesus reigns. Jesus makes heaven great. Universalists are wrong because you can’t reject the grand prize and then demand the parting gift. If a potential employer clears the company account and rolls out the red carpet for you, and you turn down the job, don’t expect them to validate your parking.

Fundamentalists and Evangelicals get it wrong when we say that Jesus is the way to heaven. He’s not. He’s what makes heaven worth pursuing. Heaven is nothing without Jesus. In fact, without Jesus (and the Father and the Holy Spirit) there is no heaven, because wherever they are, that is heaven! Let’s make sure we’re getting these in the right order. Jesus > heaven.

It’s been a really cold winter here in central Ohio. My wife and I have been wanting to get the kids out into the snow, but it’s just been too bitter for them to stay out for any extended period of time, and most of the snow we’ve gotten has been accompanied by a very large amount of ice. But today the weather is nice, and we’ve got a shade more than a dusting of snow on the ground, so I took the older two out for a snowball fight after lunch.

They especially enjoyed throwing snowballs at the house…and daddy. I told them daddy was off limits once I got the camera out.

We had a lot of fun, and the snow was perfect for making snowballs. If only we had gotten a few more inches of snow, we could have made the greatest snow fort ever!

Check out this video I shot of Cyrus terrorizing his sister. (Don’t worry, Eisley got in plenty of good hits of her own.)

I’ve been reading the NIV 2011, which is the latest revision to the NIV, and I’ve really liked it so far. You can find it online at biblegateway or youversion. Printed versions will be released later this year.

Today I was reading in Luke 11 and came across a phrase I hadn’t seen in the Bible before. See if you can pick it out:

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

That phrase shameless audacity really caught my eye. Jesus is telling his disciples how to pray, and after teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, he tells them this little parable. After telling them what to pray, he tells them how to pray: with shameless audacity.

Is that how you pray to God? Are you banging on his door in the middle of the night? Are you trying to wake up God with your prayers? Notice why the guy goes to his friend’s house: Not because there is some life-threatening emergency, but because he needs some bread so that he can be a good host to his friend.

God’s not necessarily going to answer your prayers because he loves you (which he does); he’s going to answer your prayers because you’re banging on his door at midnight. Don’t be afraid to pray BIG. Don’t be cautious in your requests to God. Knock down his door if you have to. Be shamelessly audacious in how you pray.

You don’t have to preemptively edit your prayers. You don’t have to apologize for praying for God to move in big ways. Let him determine how he’s going to answer you. You ought to go ahead and ask for everything in the kitchen because you love this person who showed up at your door at midnight so much. Let God decide how much he’s going to bring out to you. Don’t be ashamed of your audacious prayers.

And, oh by the way, don’t forget to be humble and thankful when God graciously answers the door.

Last night, at life group, we talked about the fifth chapter of Dick Staub’s book The Culturally-Savvy Christian. I blogged through this book at the end of last year, as it very profoundly impacted me–especially this chapter, which is called “God’s Transforming Presence”.

In my blog entry on that chapter, I wrote:

The first thing that was ever true of you is that you were created in God’s image. Your being created in the image of God predates, and runs deeper, than your sin. This is why God is committed to your restoration, not your destruction. He wants to make you again what he made you before; and we know what that looks like because he sent his son into the world to show us not simply himself, but also ourselves.

Jesus is the only human to ever perfectly bear the image of God. In him, we see who we were always meant to be. The Bible says, in Romans, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Don’t get distracted by the words “foreknew” and “predestined” (as a good Arminian, I’m trying not to). The point is that God’s purpose for you is to be conformed to the image of Jesus. That is, God is at work in you, transforming you into the image of the one who perfectly bore the image of God.

All the crap in your life, all the stupid decisions you make and all the ridiculous things you say and do happen because you let something less true of you define you. You are not defined by your sin; you are defined by the God in whose image you are made and who is committed to restoring that image in you, transforming you to become who he originally intended you to be.

God is with you, if you place your eternal hope in Jesus Christ. God wants to transform you, and he invites you to participate in your own transformation. I believe that this happens, not in the big areas of life, but in the small ones.

  • You come home from work and turn on the TV. But maybe, instead, you stop and ask God what you should do, and he tells you to talk to your spouse, or open your Bible, or play with your kids. And you do that.
  • Somebody cuts you off on the road and you curse them out and give them the one-fingered salute. But maybe, instead, you assume the best–that they genuinely didn’t see you. Maybe you pray for them.
  • You’re working on a project that you can’t fix. There’s one thing that you just can’t figure out, so you throw it against the wall and curse until the air is blue. But maybe, instead, you take a deep breath and ask God to give you patience and wisdom.

This list could be infinitely long. But it’s in these small areas where our character is most clearly demonstrated and where we are most lastingly transformed. This is where we learn patience, selflessness, humility, and how to love well. If we can’t beat the small things, we’ll never accomplish the big things. Where do you need to experience God’s transforming presence today? He’s there, with you, waiting on you to stop fighting against him and give him enough space to work a true miracle.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I thought I should finish my critique of Jennifer Wright Knust’s article on cnn.com called The Bible’s Surprisingly Mixed Message about Sexuality. In this article, Knust presents a fairly typical, liberal argument on what the Bible says about homosexuality. So far we’ve covered the supposed dual creation account, the bizarre theory of original human androgyny, and the sexuality of David and Jonathan. Today we’ll look at the way in which Knust explains away the several clear passages of Scripture in which homosexual sex is expressly forbidden.

It’s true that same-sex intimacy is condemned in a few biblical passages. But these passages, which I can count on one hand, are addressed to specific sex acts and specific persons, not to all humanity forever, and they can be interpreted in any number of ways.

The book of Leviticus, for example, is directed at Israelite men, offering instructions regarding legitimate sexual partners so long as they are living in Israel. Biblical patriarchs and kings violate nearly every one of these commandments.

Leviticus, part of the Torah, contains a record of the covenant entered into by YHWH and his people Israel, the newly-freed slaves from Israel. This covenant takes the form of a typical Ancient Near Eastern covenant and contains certain stipulations by which the people of Israel must abide. If they fail to keep these stipulations (also called “commands”), then they will experience certain curses, which are also outlined in the covenant. Knust rightly points out that “biblical patriarchs and kings violate nearly every one of these commandments”, which of course is why Israel was finally sent into exile in Babylon in 587-6 BC.

Knust is half-right when she says Leviticus is directed at Israelite men. It is also directed at Israelite women, and anyone who would like to join the Israelite community. In fact, the covenant lays out the distinctive nature of what it means to be a member of the people of the one true God. It’s not simply “the law of the land”, as Knust seems to indicate; instead, it outlines how one gets into, and stays within, the people of God. In other words, it defines the people, not the land.

Paul’s letters urge followers of Christ to remain celibate and blame all Gentiles in general for their poor sexual standards. Jesus, meanwhile, says nothing at all about same-sex pairing, and when he discusses marriage, he discourages it.

For Paul’s full treatment on the topic of marriage, you should read 1 Corinthians 7. When you consider Paul’s background as a Pharisaical Jew and his respect for Torah and belief in the strict sexual standards found there, it’s no wonder he thought of the Gentiles, with their temple prostitution (particularly in Corinth), rampant adultery, pedophilia and homosexuality as having poor sexual standards. Similarly, the reason we don’t have a record of Jesus mentioning anything about same-sex intimacy is because his most vocal opponents were those who held a very high view of Torah and Tradition, and who strived to keep both with every fiber of their being.

Only a little more than a century ago, many of the very same passages now being invoked to argue that the scriptures label homosexuality a sin or that God cannot countenance gay marriage were used to justify not “biblical marriage” but slavery.

Yes, the apostle Paul selected same-sex pairings as one among many possible examples of human sin, but he also assumed that slavery was acceptable and then did nothing to protect slaves from sexual use by their masters, a common practice at the time. Letters attributed to him go so far as to command slaves to obey their masters and women to obey their husbands as if they were obeying Christ.

These passages served as fundamental proof texts to those who were arguing that slavery was God’s will and accusing abolitionists of failing to obey biblical mandates.

Anybody who supported African slavery was a total fool who had no understanding of either history or Scripture. Roman slavery was not at all like American slavery. Tim Keller addresses this in his excellent book The Reason for God. The slavery argument is a dead-end for the Bible’s perspective on homosexuality.

Knust relies on questionable sources and bad exegesis to build her argument that the Bible supports homosexual practice. The simpler, clearer perspective is that the Bible means what it plainly says about same-sex intimacy; that is, it is one of many sexual practices that are out of bounds for those who want to be a part of God’s people.

There is one reason, however, that Christians don’t need to condemn homosexual practice. Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 5:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

Indeed, it is not the place of the Christian to judge or condemn those outside of the church. It is when sin is brought inside the doors of the church that we must judge it. We are not to judge, nor disassociate from, “the world”. God, who judges everyone, will be the one to judge those outside. Our task is to tell them that he has lovingly offered a way out of the condemnation that comes from his judgment–that is, through faith in Jesus Christ. Christians must confront homosexuality and all sin within the church, but we need not condemn it in the world.