Book Review – Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins

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Christ-aloneChrist Alone, by Michael E. Wittmer, is published by Edenridge Press, and is available at Hearts and Minds Books, Amazon, and, no-doubt, countless other outlets. Byron Borger, of Hearts and Minds Books, also wrote a review of Christ Alone that is well worth reading-and it was his review that alerted me to the publication of this book. Thanks to Byron.

First off, let me just say how thrilled I am that the church as a whole, and individual Christians of several stripes, are having the discussion of Matters Eternal. Whatever one may think of Love Wins or Wittmer’s response Christ Alone, I think the fact that people who occupy both pulpits and pews are now talking passionately about salvation, and not just bedrooms, bodes well for the Faith.

I am also heartened by Wittmer’s tone in Christ Alone, which he sets from the get go. I’ve visited the “Rob Bell” Facebook page several times in the past few weeks, and it has become a place of shrill, uncharitable shouting. Wittmer begins his book on his take of the Christian Gospel in a manner befitting the Gospel. And, that’s, pardon the pun, good news.

In terms of the quality of Wittmer’s book, I am as impressed as I am stunned. It took me eight years to write a book, and he wrote this one in a month – and it is cogent, thorough, well-thought out, well-written, and well-edited. He should be proud.

Wittmer also demonstrates his abilities as a true theologian. Bell writes Love Wins in the manner of…well…poetry. It’s as much work of art as it is a treatise on salvation. And, in this sense, the conversation between Love Wins and Christ Alone is an unfair fight. It’s a duel where Bell brings a paintbrush, and Wittmer brings a Louisville Slugger – monogrammed of course with Augustine and C. S. Lewis.

Of course, I take issue with several points of Wittmer’s critique, and I take issue with some of Wittmer’s conclusions.

The Meaning of the Cross

This is one spot where I found Wittmer’s book very enlightening. In the chapter “Cross and Resurrection,” Wittmer picked up on something that I missed in Love Wins: the meaning of the sacrifice and Resurrection is downgraded. I’m not sure that Bell intended this, or that he believes that the death and Resurrection of Christ is ineffectual, but it’s there nonetheless.

In my own review of Love Wins I said that Bell isn’t the classic theological liberal that some are making him out to be. He doesn’t dispute the realities of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection at all. This isn’t another liberal screed where Jesus is reduced to being merely a good-guy (the Buddy Christ) whose Resurrection was either a plot or group hallucination. No, Bell believes they are real, and he says so with gusto. But, in Love Wins, what does he think it all means?

As Wittmer correctly states, in Love Wins, the death and Resurrection of Christ are presented as ideas that ring through creation, but don’t seem to have any salvific power in and of themselves. We’re supposed to know it’s all true because we see it every spring. But, spring doesn’t save us. (Trust me, it’s spring now, and I feel like I’m dying of allergies…)

As an Anglican Christian and priest, each Easter Eve I gather with my community around the Paschal (Easter) Candle to sing of the importance of the reconciliation that was found in the Easter Event. We sing of Jesus Christ who:

is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of the Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin, and by his blood delivered your faithful people.

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.

– The Book of Common Prayer, page 287

It was so many years ago that Bell preached this sermon, that there’s no way I can cite it – but he preached a sermon where he talked about the acceptance or rejection of Jesus. He likened Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to a young man asking a young woman on a date (I think it was to prom). He talked about this young man going totally out of his way to do it in the most vulnerable way possible. And, should that young girl reject him, his willingness to be so tender and vulnerable would sear his heart and soul. He was saying that in the cross, Jesus was going so far out of his way to show us God’s love that we just HAD to respond in love back.

But, if Bell really believes that the cross doesn’t actually mean anything new, why go to all the effort to buy the flowers, the limo, and hire the dude with an airplane to write the question in the sky?

I don’t think that Bell said everything that he believes about Jesus’ sacrifice and Resurrection. But, those omissions are telling, and Wittmer picked up on them.

Love and Justice

He is neither more loving than he is holy, nor more holy than he is loving.
-Chapter 1, Mystery

This is maybe the one section of the book that could have used a few more weeks or months to ferment and settle. “He is neither more loving than holy“? What?

Where do we find that? We do find the statement “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) in the Scriptures, but nowhere do we find it’s cousin, “God is Justice.” We find it’s second-cousin twice removed, “God is just,” but it’s equivalent would be “God is loving.”

He says that love and justice are the “opposite ends of a continuum.”

I’m not sure where he gets this, but I have to disagree.

God IS love. Period. And, God IS just. Period.

And those two properties of God do a dance, especially in the long story of the scriptures. God loves Adam and Eve, but then God must punish them for their disobedience. God loves his creation, and then sends the flood. God loves His People, but then Jerusalem must be laid waste and the people carried off into captivity in Babylon.

But, in that dance, love always follows the judgment – otherwise there wouldn’t be a next chapter. God’s perpetual movement in the Scriptures is towards his people – and even at the Last Vision in Revelation he gives us one more chance, “Come out of her (Babylon), my people!” (Rev. 18:4)

Where to Begin?

Wittmer’s declaration that God is “Judge” more than “Father” galled me like nothing else in this book. (Chapter 9: God)

We aren’t members of God’s Family?! We aren’t children of our Heavenly Father? Instead of a Heavenly Father, we have a judge? On a bench? Whose pounding gavel will send us one place or another?

Did Jesus teach his disciples to pray: Our Supreme Court Chief Justice, who art on the bench…?

First of all, Wittmer needs to go back and look at the use of metaphor in the Bible as it speaks of God. There is no one metaphor that captures the fullness of God. Yes, in some places he is the righteous Judge who comes to judge the world. And, in other places he is our “rock and redeemer.” He’s a “mighty tower,” a “fortress.” He’s our “go’el,” our “redeemer” who redeems us with the price that needs paid. He’s our Father who comes running down the road when we turn in repentance, and kills the fatted calf. He’s a “nursing mother,” a “hen” with a brood of chicks.

There is no one metaphor that trumps the rest. God is so huge that one metaphor can’t capture all of Him. It’s why our Lord can be both “shepherd” and “paschal lamb.” At the same time.

And, as Bell is fond of saying (especially at his conference “Poets, Prophets, and Preachers”), it’s important to “begin in the beginning.”

If your understanding of God starts out with God regarding us as sinners, you’re starting the story with the third chapter of Genesis. The fall. But, if you start there, you’re missing something.

…Like the first and second chapters of the Bible. Remember them?

It’s there that we’re created in God’s image. God forms us out of the dust of the ground, and invites us to share in the grandeur of creation (being fruitful and all that). He walks with us in the cool of the Garden. When we go missing, he comes to find us. He, apparently, meant for us to eat of the Tree of Life, whereby we’d live forever in close communion with him.

When God looks down on us, he sees his beloved creatures. He sees creatures embodied with the divine image.

It would be like me looking at one of my daughters and seeing some wayward child who prefers candy to vegetables, who leaves her shoes strewn around the house, and who fails to pick up her toys. Infidel! Untidy seven year old bother!

No. I look at her and love her. Even when I trip over her shoes. She’s mine, and there’s nothing that could ever make me stop loving her. I’m not her judge. I’m her daddy. I correct her from time to time. Sometimes she gets a time-out or has to go to her room. But, when it’s all over she gets a hug and I tell her I love her.

God is our Abba. Daddy. Father.

I suppose if you regard humanity as a bunch of rusty, sinful nails, the only God you’re going to regard is a pounding hammer.

Yes, we’re sinners. Yes, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But, God loves us anyway.

Jesus as Mechanism

In the chapter on Hell, Wittmer does something that is shocking to me: he quotes from the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke, and from the separation of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew. I’m shocked because evangelicals who are talking about salvation usually stay far, far away from these texts.

Wittmer recalls them to demonstrate that Hell is real, and forever. That when you’re cast into Hell, that’s it.

But…there’s one little detail that Wittmer just leaves conveniently out of the discussion…why are the Rich Man and the goats in Hell?

The reason he leaves this alone, and the reason why these stories are always left on the cutting room floor in reformed evangelical treatments of salvation is that…well they’re unReformed!

Whenever Wittmer wants to talk about how one gets saved in his book he sticks to the standard script: a few verses of Paul, and a few verses from the Gospel of John. It’s all about belief in Jesus. As Wittmer says, salvation is “simple.” Uncomplicated. Easy.

Unless you swing back to the Rich Man and the goats. The Rich Man is in Hell because…he didn’t share what he had with Lazarus, the poor man who laid at his gate day-in and day-out starving in his poverty. The goats were sent to eternal punishment because…they failed to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned, etc., etc.

Oooops.

They didn’t go to Hell because they didn’t have faith, or repent of their sins, or repeat the Sinner’s Prayer. And, if you dare to look in other places of the teachings of Jesus you find other teachings on salvation. Jesus tells the Rich-Young-Ruler to follow the commandments to inherit eternal life, he tells a lawyer to love God and neighbor, he tells others to come as a child, to do the works of God, to eat his flesh and drink his blood, be born again, believe in him, and be wary of riches.

When teaching on salvation, Jesus is anything but simplistic. He doesn’t have one, single teaching on salvation – he has many.

And, so this is where Wittmer makes, in my opinion, the great error of reformed theology: treating Jesus only as Mechanism-to-get-us-to-Heaven rather than also a Teacher who has somethings to say.

There’s an old bumper sticker that reads: Jesus is the Answer. I think it should be reworded: Jesus has the Answers.

In the gospels, between the stories of his birth and his death on a cross…he actually says stuff. Important stuff. And, if we’re going to call ourselves his disciples, his followers, shouldn’t we listen to what he has to say?

If our teachings start to sound more like Calvin, Luther, and C. S. Lewis than Jesus…don’t we need to rethink things?

Wittmer says in a few places that Bell’s Love Wins says things that the Bible doesn’t say, and that that’s not Bell’s prerogative to do so. I think Wittmer should take his own advise seriously. If Jesus doesn’t teach a simplistic stick-tab-a-into-slot-b view of salvation, then we shouldn’t either.

Conclusion
I’m glad that Rob Bell wrote Love Wins. And, I’m glad that Michael Wittmer wrote Christ Alone. I’m glad for their tones, their points of convergence, and their points of disagreement. We have a beautiful, mysterious, powerful faith in God who did wondrous things for the salvation of His People. We have a God who is love, and a God who is just. And, we have a God who is so broad and deep that one perspective, book, preacher, sermon, or blog post can’t capture all of Him.

Not. Even. Close.

And, because God is so wonderful and holy, so full of love and justice…our faith in Him can’t be all about us. Christianity isn’t about us. It’s not about us getting to Heaven. It’s not about us avoiding Hell. On the night before his death on a cross, an event which opened salvation up for the whole world, he told us to love one another.

His last command. His new command. Love others. Wash their feet. Serve them as Jesus served. Break bread, and share it. For the life of the world.

Our faith is about pushing love outward, to our brothers and sisters who are also made in the Image of God, and to the God who bent down in a Garden and molded a hunk of clay into that image.

Eternal life is just a bonus. But, this faith is about Him.

Kindle675x900Rick Morley is the author of Going to Hell, Getting Saved, and What Jesus Actually Says. Like Christ Alone, it’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, at nearly all eBook retailers, and especially at St. Bede’s Books in Baltimore, Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown PA, and The Bookworm in Bernardsville NJ.