Category Archives: Controversy

Lessons on Forgiveness from Charleston

One of the family members said, “But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”  Was she wrong to speak this way?

The united testimony of the Charleston families offering forgiveness in the name of God was confounding and incomprehensible to some, and perplexing even to some Christians. Were families of the victims in Charleston wrong to offer Christian forgiveness to an apparently unrepentant killer? One of the family members said, “But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”  Was she misrepresenting God’ forgiveness?

I think these are essential questions for the church to grapple with.  Christians have a witness before the world that is being watched carefully.  As I argued in my previous article, I believe the Charleston family members gave a powerful and theologically appropriate testimony  before the world.  The issue of forgiveness is at the very heart of the Christian gospel.  Through Christ, God forgave and reconciled sinners to Himself.  So Christians are to be like God in being a forgiving, gracious people.  But to do so in a way fitting and pleasing to God, we should biblically consider the issue of forgiveness as we try to correctly answer questions such as: what is forgiveness, to whom it is offered and on what basis, what does human vs. divine forgiveness accomplish, etc.

Defining Christian forgiveness

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary to forgive is to: a) to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong); b)  to stop blaming (someone); c) to stop feeling anger about (something) ; d) to forgive someone for (something wrong); e) to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed).

When we forgive someone, we let go of resentment, anger, or blame; we let go of the claim for requital we have towards someone who’s wronged us.  Another aspect of forgiveness is granting relief from payment.  This touches on the legal concern– does forgiveness remove the guilt incurred when someone wrongs another?  We will explore this question further in order to highlight the difference between human and divine forgiveness.

Christian forgiveness goes beyond merely letting go of anger, resentment, or bitterness, since it even returns good for evil. We see this expressed in such verses as, “Repay no one evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17). “Beloved, never revenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (12:19). “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (12:20). “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).

So we turn now to the question of to whom is this extraordinary Christian forgiveness offered, and what does it accomplish.

To whom is Christian forgiveness offered?

There are various types of Christian forgiveness:

  • God offers forgiveness to the sinner who repents of their sins through Christ, accomplishing the salvation of sinners (Acts 2:38);
  • Christians offer forgiveness to other Christian brothers and sisters, as commanded, with a view towards reconciliation of relationship (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13);
  • Christians follow the example of a merciful Savior and offer love (including forgiveness) towards enemies , with a view towards softening the heart of the enemy by pricking his conscience (Luke 6:35; Rom 12:20);
  • The Church forgives the repentant sinner to restore them back into fellowship; or withholds fellowship until the sinner repents (Matthew 18:15-17).

Human forgiveness of personal harm vs. divine forgiveness of the guilt of sin

The forgiveness believers offer does NOT remove sinful guilt from the person we forgive. Only God can remove the permanent guilt of sin, and this is contingent upon the person repenting through Christ.

Some confusion in the debate on forgiveness perhaps arises from not taking into account the biblical distinction between the personal forgiveness Christians are commanded to express to others for sins and harms committed against them (or even sins committed against loved ones which in turn impact them) vs. the divine forgiveness God offers to the repentant person, which not only forgives but also removes the guilt of the sinner.  Christians are called to the former, but only God offers and accomplishes the latter. Believers offer mercy and forgiveness to others, even to enemies, because we have been mercifully forgiven by God for a vast multitude of sins (Matt 18: 21-35). Christian forgiveness therefore becomes a reflection of the mercy and grace of God towards all.  But the forgiveness believers offer does NOT remove sinful guilt from the person we forgive. Only God can remove the guilt of sin, and this is contingent upon the person repenting through Christ, who at the cross paid the penalty for sin for all who respond to Him (Luke 13:5; Rom 4:7-8; Rom 8:1).

Loving and forgiving enemies in the name and power of Christ
Therefore, when believers in obedience to God forgive those who trespass against them (Matt 5:12); forgive as we have been forgiven (Col 3:13); and love enemies (Matt 6:44-45), the love and forgiveness offered is not communicating that those forgiven are now excused of the guilt of their sins.  For the Bible says unless a person repents through Christ, they will have to bear the guilt of their sin themselves, by suffering the eternal wrath of God (John 3:18).

Jesus commanded believers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).” Are not enemies to be defined as those who unrepentantly do evil against us?  Yet Jesus tells us we are to love these persons. Can we love these enemies without forgiving them? It seems to me the answer is no, for Christian love undoubtedly encompasses and includes forgiveness.

So when we offer forgiveness to others (believers/unbelievers; repentant/unrepentant) for harms done against us directly or indirectly– we are forgiving the hurts and harm, but not saying or doing anything in regard to their guilt before God. God Himself will judge the sinner’s guilt and execute justice on sinners in several ways.

Again, there are some distinctions among the scenarios of forgiveness.  When it comes to salvation, God forgives only the one who repents and turns to God through Christ, while the Church may only restore the repentant back to fellowship. But when it comes to forgiving personal harms, the Christian attitude is to be magnanimous and unconditional, for we have received an incomprehensible, overflowing, never-ending mercy.

Knowing God’s sovereign justice and amazing mercy helps us forgive, even our enemies

When believers forgive, it is with this knowledge– that God will fully punish all sinners and all sin, executing perfect justice.

“Vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30).   First, He sovereignly appoints earthly authorities to protect the public peace and to execute earthly justice (Rom 13:4).   So for example if the accused Charleston killer Dylann Roof is found guilty of murder, the system should render an earthly sentence for his crime.   As we see from Romans 13:4, this is part of the execution of God’s justice by means of earthly authorities He established.   Nevertheless, this earthly punishment does not remove spiritual guilt before God.  A person may pay the earthly price in the form of a legal punishment for a crime committed, yet this won’t justify them in the court of God’s justice.  Since all sin is ultimately against God, each must pay sin’s reckoning to God– and we pay either through the mercy of Christ Jesus who takes away our sins through His reconciling death on the cross, or pay by suffering in hell the eternal consequences for our sins. Either way, God’s justice will be executed.

So when believers forgive, it is with this knowledge– that God will fully punish all sinners and all sin, executing His perfect justice.  This is one of the reasons we must forgive– because not forgiving is a form of personal vengeance. And we also forgive while understanding that we too would have justly and deservedly been condemned for our sins and received God’s eternal wrath, but through Christ were mercifully spared and reconciled to God.  Being the recipients of this gracious, unmerited love and mercy, we must in turn graciously offer unconditional forgiveness to others for the sins/harms they have committed against us, with prayerful hope that those whom we forgive may be moved to also repent and turn to God for mercy (Rom 12: 14-21; Matt 5:43-48; Matt 6:12-15; Eph 2:1-5; Eph 4:31-32; Col 2:13-14; Col 3:13).

The Christian’s standard for love and forgiveness is Christ

The world might say, “Don’t forgive your enemies unless they repent.”  Or, don’t forgive them at all, depending on the nature of the crime.  But friends, we are not of the world!

Friends, Jesus teaches that the believer has been given a much higher standard than the world for its behavior. The world system is based on the “tit for tat”, “eye for an eye”, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” principles.  The world says “love your friends, hate your enemies”.  The world never rises above that which is natural (1 Cor 2:14).  Nor does it rise above the sinful and weak flesh, as it has no power to do so (Rom 8:7-8).  So the world might say, “Don’t forgive your enemies until they repent.”  Or, don’t forgive them at all, depending on the nature of the crime.   But friends, we are not of the world!   We are called to a supernatural life in Christ!   We have the indwelling Spirit of God.   Therefore we are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (John 15:19; John 14:16-17; Matt 5:48).  What then is more like God-like and perfect, than forgiving our enemies?  Recall what Jesus did and said as He suffered upon the cross, an innocent man, being punished unjustly by His enemies. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).

I believe this was Jesus speaking from His perfect humanity, to the very end of His earthly life showing forth the grace and mercy of God towards His enemies, exemplifying His own teaching that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  His heart towards His enemies was one of forgiveness.  Even in the midst of extreme physical and spiritual anguish, Jesus prayed for the mercy of God to fall upon His enemies, that some of them might still be saved. What an amazing, beautiful, merciful Savior we have, so awesome in grace and forgiveness.

We do not and cannot by our forgiveness remove the guilt of any sinner…. But being confident of God’s full justice, and empowered by His amazing love, we too can offer forgiveness to others in the name of Christ.

So brothers and sisters, this is why I was deeply moved by the forgiveness the Charleston families offered a cold-blooded killer.  I was reminded of the Savior.   Surely a killer does not deserve mercy!   Neither do I.   But our God is a God of mercy.   The families showed how God acts towards His enemies.   He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45)”  and “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).”  If we are to represent Him as sons and daughters of our heavenly father, let us be like Him in having merciful hearts that express forgiveness in words and actions.  Again, we do not and cannot by our forgiveness remove the guilt of any sinner.  God will execute His justice on all sinners.  But being confident of God’s full justice, and empowered by His amazing love, we too can offer forgiveness to others in the name of Christ.

The challenge of forgiving

Forgiving is not natural to sinful human beings, and even for Christians given a new power and new desires through the indwelling Spirit, forgiveness is still a challenge because of human weakness (see Rom 7).  Certainly if someone repents for their sins the believer is obligated to forgive them ((Matt 6:14–15; 18:23–35; Mark 11:25; Luke 17:3–4; Ephesians 4:31–32; Col 3:13). But the question in this debate has been whether the unrepentant person must be forgiven by the Christian.  I think so, and my argument is summarized in the following points. Christians should offer forgiveness to all, even the unrepentant:

  • For the sake of one’s own spiritual health and relationship with God and others, which will be poisoned by resentment and bitterness if we do not forgive others (Matt 5:23; Mark 11:25; 2 Cor 2:11);
  • As a testimony consistent with the love and grace of God we as sinners have received (Matt 18: 21-35; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13);
  • As a means to possibly win the offender to Christ through offering grace in His name (Rom 12:20-21)
  • To follow the example of Christ, showing ourselves God’s children by the mercy we give the undeserving (Matt 5:44-45)

I close with a quote from the reformer John Calvin:

Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

Further reading

Since God withholds forgiveness, can we?

Charleston: Forgiveness without Repentance?

When to Forgive Others


Filed under Controversy, The Cross, The Gospel, Theology

Hate Won’t Win: A Legacy of Christian Love Overcomes Evil

9 victims of charlestown shooting

For many in the American South, attending Wednesday night Bible study is not just a tradition, but a way of life.  Like-minded folks gather for prayer and Bible study mid-week, together drawing spiritual strength and sustenance from God.  Such meetings also often provide opportunities to welcome newcomers, as attendees follow biblical admonitions to welcome the stranger in their midst (e.g., Deut 10:19, Matt 25:40; Rom 12:13).  The Wednesday night gathering on June 17, 2015, at historic black church Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina, was no different. The doors of the church were open to all, and among the 13 black regulars in attendance that night was a 21-year-old white man.

Tragically, this evening of sincere fellowship, worship and prayer would come to a shocking and bloody end. The young white man, having sat with the group for an hour, suddenly drew his gun and opened fire.  In the end, nine people (three men and six women, all African-American) would die, including the church’s pastor.  As the country reels from yet another act of violence involving black victims, the police have called this horrific and violent act a “hate crime” while the city’s mayor labeled it an act of “pure hatred.”  The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of South Carolina have opened hate crime investigations into the incident.  In the media, some are calling the incident an act of racially motivated “terrorism”, since the killer confessed that by his murderous act he intended to “start a race war.”

Thankfully, the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, was apprehended in Shelby, N.C. the following Thursday morning, during a traffic stop.  Police believe he acted alone. Mr. Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and one charge of weapon possession during the commission of a violent crime.  At the hearing, Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. said he could not set bond for the murder charges, but set bond for $1 million for the charge of possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. (In cases involving people charged with a capital offense or who face life in prison, only a circuit court judge can set the bond, according to the county.) Gosnell said Roof would appear in court in October and again in February 2016.

In the face of such monstrous evil, the heart and mind struggle to understand, and we may grasp at answers to our questions.  If people simply sitting in church, praying and studying the Bible can be shot down in cold blood, is there any safe place? Why do people hate so much, murdering others simply because of the color of their skin? Perhaps we think, “If only we knew why such things happen, we could prevent such evils from happening.”

At times like this there is much public speculation about causes and solutions.  Is it the alleged easy access to guns in America that makes gun crime violence all too common (as President Obama said to the nation Thursday, suggesting stronger measures on guns are needed)?  Yet others counter the President’s argument, saying that if the right of all to bear arms for protection was heeded such incidents would be fewer.

There is discussion of mental health.  Was this the act of a mentally ill person, or perhaps the act of a man under the influence of addictive drugs?  How do we best monitor people with such issues?

There is discussion of societal influence.  Perhaps hateful agitators behind the scenes manipulated an impressionable, unhappy loner to commit this heinous act of racist violence.  Or perhaps the strongest contributing factor, the thing we most urgently need to address as a nation, is a residual legacy of racism that remains deeply embedded in our culture, unacknowledged and therefore unaddressed. For a start, remove Confederate flags from public display, some say, as these are painful reminders of a legacy of institutionalized racism.

There is also the “What could have been done better?” brigade.  Why were obvious warning signs in this man’s life and behavior seemingly ignored?  Why are such signs so often overlooked?  Maybe hate speech on social media must be more seriously and carefully scrutinized, so that appropriate action may be taken.

Most poignantly, there is often anguished spiritual wrestling.  If God really exists, why so much evil?  If God is all-powerful, why does this he not prevent evil acts like this that cause the innocent to suffer?  Why, especially, does God not stop attacks against those who seem most dedicated to his service?

With all emotions intensified by raw grief, unhealed pain, and bubbling anger, human reasoning is strained.  We seek quick answers and solutions to relieve the gnawing pain we feel.  Solution-makers speak past one another, often unable to find any truth outside their own ideological persuasion.

Is there an easy answer to all these questions?  No.  Yet I believe the answer Christian faith gives is the best place to begin understanding and healing, because it identifies the heart of the matter.

There is a universal truth Christian faith points to as the root issue underlying the evil we encounter in this world, including both evil acts and evil circumstances.  This universal truth is the dark presence of sin in the human heart and in creation.  It is sin that has left such devastating destruction, evil and misery in its wake.  The world is NOT as it is meant to be; this is not the Paradise God originally created.

We ourselves are not who we were created to be, nor what we ought to be.  We are fallen sinners, in need of a Savior. But in the face of horrible sin and evil, Christian faith gives hope and a promise: a new world and a new kingdom have arrived in Jesus Christ, who will again return to establish His permanent kingdom, a kingdom where evil and its effects will be fully eradicated.  All who trust and follow Him will be included in this kingdom.

The story I want to tell in the remainder of this article is one that exemplifies this powerful hope, that is, the power of God through Christ to overcome sin and by His love, to overcome hate.  As Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of one of the victims, Daniel Simmons, declared at Thursday’s bond hearing for the accused killer: “Hate wont win!”

Though I was a stranger to the nine who were murdered, I don’t feel like they are complete strangers.  I feel like I know them in some way,  because they are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Like believers do, they came together one night to speak of God, to encourage one another and to study the Bible, to find encouragement together in the Word of God and to pray for one another for strength to live out their faith.  I’m sure they are imperfect, because like all of us, they are sinners. Yet enough information has emerged to recognize this was an extraordinary and rather exemplary group of human beings, nine men and women dedicated to doing good with their lives and being of service of others in the community.  So I want to testify to their story, and to applaud the legacy of love they have left behind.  That legacy of love, through Jesus Christ, is indeed our only hope.

Of course, brief paragraphs on a webpage can never encapsulate nine lives, nor the impact they have made.  Here we can only briefly list their names and a bit about them (sources: this CNN article and other online articles listed below). The point, as we will see, is that in their time on earth these folks lived well and made a contribution to the betterment of their fellow human beings. They point the way for us all.

  • The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, was a state senator and the senior pastor of Emanuel.  Heclementa-pinckney was married to Jennifer Benjamin and the father of two children, Eliana and Malana.  His colleague, Rep. Mark Sanford, a former governor of South Carolina , paid great tribute to him. “He was a remarkable human being,” Sanford told CNN’s “New Day.” “He had a gravelly, deep voice — a radio announcer’s voice, if you will — and he approached life with that same level of gravitas.” He called Pinckney “a man of character… He was a God-fearing man, a family man.”
  • Tywanztywanza-sandersa Sanders, 26, graduated from Allen University in 2014 with a degree in business administration. The 26-year-old died heroically, trying to save his aunt, Susie Jackson, also one of the victims.  This was a young man seemingly intent on going places. His cover photo on Facebook featured only words in light letters set against a dark background. They said simply: “Your dreams are calling you.”


  • Cynthia Hurd, 54, worked with the Charleston County Public Library for 31 years.  A library statement said she “dedicated her life to serving and improving the lives of others. ” The Library closed all 16 of its branches Thursday in honor of Hurd and the others who died in the shooting. Her brother, Malcolm Graham, a former state senator, called Hurd a woman of faith, saying it was “typical” of her to be at the church on Sunday. She lived with her husband Steve in the east side of Charleston.
  • Sharonda Coleman-SingleSharonda Singleton and sonton was a speech therapist, a pastor at Emanuel AME Church, and a girls’ track coach. She was part of an athletic family, her husband Christopher Singleton a former football player at Tennessee State, and her son, Chris, born in 1995, a baseball player for Charleston Southern University. Coleman-Singleton also had two younger children.  Fighting off tears, Chris Singleton described his mother as “a God-fearing woman (who) loved everybody with all her heart. Love is always stronger than hate,” he told reporters.
  • Susie Jackson, 87, the oldest victim, was a cousin of Ethel Lee and a longtime member of the historic Charleston church, her grandson told CNN. Tim Jackson remembered his grandmother as a “very helpful person.” She was a choir member and on the usher board of the church.  Her son, Walter Jackson, said his mother was a “loving person” who had “no animosity toward nobody.” He reported that when he moved away from his home in the projects on the East Side, his mother gave his room to two young people who needed shelter in the neighborhood. “She took in others,” he said. “She was just that type of person.”
  • Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, was a minister at Emanuel AME, a school administratordoctor-mug at Southern Wesleyan University, a passionate Christian and the mother of four daughters.  She had a Master’s degree in management, and was an experienced grant writer and a consultant for school districts.  The Rev. George McKain recalled Middleton-Doctor as an enthusiastic singer with “a heart for missions, Christian education, loving all people (and) respective of all generations.  She could just bring out the praises of God and was a delight to know, a joy and a light in the midst of darkness.”
  • Retired pastor Reverend Daniel L. Simmons Sr., 74, was also on the staff at Emanuel and regularly attended the Wednesday night Bible study sessions.  He survived the initial shooting at the church, but later died during surgery.  According to a statement issued by his family, Rev. Simmons was “a distinguished man who served his God, country, and community well. His dedication to his profession and the AME church left a legacy for many to follow.  A loving father and grandfather, he was very proud of his family including the mother of his children, Annie Simmons, his two children Daniel Jr. and Rose Simmons, and his four grandchildren. Alana, Daniel III, Ava, and Anya Simmons.”
  • Myra Thompson, 59, was a Bible study teacher and wife to Reverend Anthony Thompson, vicar at Holy Trinity REC in Charleston. According to family friend Bishop Alphonza Gadsden, who had known Thompson for a decade, Myra “was a person who loved the Lord. Her every objective was to please Him in all that she did. She was teaching Bible study when she was killed.”
  • Ethel Lance, 70, was sexton (custodian) of Emanuel, a church she attended most oEthel Lancef her life. From 1968 to 2002, she worked as a custodian at Charleston’s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. A former colleague, Cam Patterson, was quoted as saying, “She was funny and a pleasure to be around. And she was a wonderful mother and grandmother.”

Killer and lone gunman Dylann Roof confessed to police his intention was to “start a race war”, yet he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”  Yes, this group of fine men and women he so mercilessly executed met him with kindness, and they leave behind a powerful legacy of love and kindness through their lives.  It is one strong enough, let us hope, to help bring healing to a nation divided and tense over racial issues.  We can see their legacy demonstrated, in the powerful words of love, mercy and forgiveness victim’s family members offered the killer at the bond hearing this past Thursday afternoon.  Read below their poignant, often eloquent words:

Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance

“I just wanted everyone to know.  To you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Relative of Myra Thompson

“I would just like him to know that… I’m saying the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change it, can change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay. Do that and you’ll be better off than what you are right now.”

Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful  people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero…. but as we said in bible  study… May God have mercy on you.”

Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof– everyone’s plea for your soul– is proof, that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”

Sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor

“Depayne Doctor was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul…may God bless you”

Friends, whether Mr. Roof obtained a gun legally or illegally, was or wasn’t mentally deranged, was a pawn of hate groups or unduly influenced by racist society, the fact remains there have always been those who simply commit evil acts, even in the face of massive goodness and kindness.  This indeed is the story of how Jesus Christ was treated.  A man of God, He came from heaven with the message of God. From a heart filled with love and compassion, He reached out to the stranger, touched the leper, healed the sick, all the while announcing the good news of the arrival of His kingdom, a perfect, spiritual kingdom not of this broken, sinful world, but pointing ahead to the world to come.  He was not saying earthly needs are unimportant– indeed, He demonstrated how much God cares for human needs and human suffering by miraculously healing and providing for immediate physical needs.  Yet at the same time, He conveyed that all the good deeds and miracles He did in the name and power of God were but a foretaste of a greater, everlasting spiritual good.  He wanted His followers not to focus on the temporal, but on the eternal, to trust God with all their needs– earthly and spiritual. He demonstrated by His words and deeds and fulfillment of prophecy, that He was the long-awaited Messiah. Yet, this God-man, who only did good to all, was consistently attacked by evil men, falsely accused of wickedness, unjustly condemned, and at last crucified naked, alongside criminals, having first been viciously beaten and mocked.  In His hour of greatest human need, His friends and closest followers abandoned Him, fleeing to protect their own lives (now that, is my story).  Sin infects us all.  Even those who follow Jesus Christ so often abandon, disown, and distance themselves from Him.  We do so because, though we have received the great mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ, we remain weak and sinful in ourselves.  Indeed, as the sister of victim Depayne Middleton-Doctor testifies, we are all a “work in progress.”  Friends, she is right.  the Christian is a work-in-progress.  Yet the Bible addresses us as saints, not because we are already perfect, but because God sees us as perfectly righteous through the lens of His perfect Son, Jesus Christ.

Let us not let hate win in our lives.  Let us overcome evil with good, and continue the legacy of love Christ gave us, and that this group of Christians exemplified.  Let us be a light that shines in the darkness of a world that so often rejects Christ because it knows not whom they reject.  As we shine our light, reflecting the one true Light of the world, may His goodness, mercy and compassion be brightly magnified for all to see.

Please listen to and watch the videos below.  The court testimonials, where family members of the victims made emotional statements addressing the killer, and DePayne Middleton-Doctor singing “Oh It Is Jesus”, both brought me to tears as they reminded me of the overcoming goodness of the Savior.

Sources and further reading

The powerful words of forgiveness delivered to Dylann Roof by victims’ relatives

In Charleston, Raw Emotion at Hearing for Suspect in Church Shooting

Remembering the Charleston church shooting victims

The Victims: 9 Were Slain At Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church

Victims of the Charleston church shooting

Charleston victims: 9 lives lost to family and community

Here’s What We Know About the People Who Lost Their Lives in Charleston

Dylan Roof Confesses He Almost Did Not Follow Through With Massacre ‘Because Everyone Was So Nice;’ Victims’ Families Offer Forgiveness


Filed under Controversy, The Gospel, Theology

New “Cessationism” tab Added to “ReformingChristianity- Resources for the reforming Christian”

Dear friends and followers:

A number of years ago I stumbled across the Netvibes platform, a web-based site that allows one to collect “RSS feeds” (e.g.,  podcasts and other syndicated content) and organize them in tabs to create a pleasingly visual, convenient way to access content.  Utilizing this platform, I created the “ReformingChristianity- Resources for the reforming Christian” Netvibes universe– a collection of fantastic online resources on Reformed theology that I regularly update.

Those following the recent Strange Fire Conference of John MacArthur and friends– that takes on the widespread aberrations of theology present theology of general in the charismatic movement–may be interested in a new tab I have added to this site, titled “Cessationism”, in which I have included excellent resources on cessationism (a major theme of the conference) as well as links to the audio and video from Strange Fire. Cessationism, as most readers of this blog probably know, is a reformed theological position that believes miraculous “sign” gifts such as miracles, tongues and prophecy were given by God to the apostolic community as the Christianity was being established so as to attest that the early leaders and followers of Jesus Christ were indeed authentic messengers of God, with a true message from God.  That message– the gospel of Christ, with all its implications for life, would later come to be written down in the collected teachings of the New Testament, via a process guided and overseen by the Holy Spirit. Cessationists believe that with the revelation of God now completely captured in the New Testament writings, there is no need for further revelatory gifts such as prophecy and tongues to be given at this time.  Cessationism does not deny that miracles and revelation may be sovereignly given at any point the Lord may so choose, but believe that in these days the Lord has chosen not to give such gifts as a normative pattern, and that the Church finds all it needs for life and godliness available to it in Holy Scripture.

Note:  In response to a reader’s comment, I edited the paragraph above to be more precise.  I do believe, unfortunately, that the Strange Fire conference was correct to point out that theological aberrations characterize the popular charismatic movement worldwide, whereas as reformed continuationists such as Piper, Grudem , Storms and Carson, who in their respective writings and ministries have made immensely valuable contributions to the Church, are in the minority.  MacArthur appealed to these continuationists, whom he considers friends in ministry, to consider whether their openness to the continuation of charismatic gifts has “provided cover” or has lent false legitimacy to those in the popular movement whose theology and practice is at odds with Scripture.  

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John MacArthur Defends Strange Fire Conference & Cessationism

In this first installment of an interview with blogger Tim Challies, John MacArthur articulates the case for cessationism concisely and convincingly (in my view), while also defending the Strange Fire conference. Even if one is convinced that Scripture teaches all the spiritual gifts continue, I think one would be hard pressed to make a case that the sub-par prophecy and tongues and so-called miracles we see happening today in the movement are even close to matching the New Testament descriptions of these phenomena.  See also my previous post, The Main Point of Strange Fire was Correct and Needed.

Further resources on Strange Fire & Cessationism:

The Cessation of the Sign Gifts by Thomas R. Edgar

What Cessationism is Not by Nathan Busenitz

Where Have All the Spiritual Gifts Gone? A Defense of Cessationism by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Cessationists View @

Cessationism by Willem Berends

The Cessation of the Charismata by B.B. Warfield

All Audio Messages from the Strange Fire Conference

A Case for Cessationism (Tom Pennington) (audio)

The Strange Fire Conference: A Case for Cessationism (Tom Pennington)

Strange Fire Conference #1: personal by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #2: Session 1, John MacArthur by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #3: Joni Eareckson Tada and R. C. Sproul by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #4: Steve Lawson on Calvin and the Charismatics by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #5: Conrad Mbewe by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Lessons Learned at Strange Fire by Tim Challies

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The Main Point of Strange Fire Was Correct and Needed

strange fire

Because I have been busy with coursework I haven’t had opportunity to listen to or watch all of the Strange Fire conference. I’ve read a number of commentaries on it, both pro and con. Again, the chief negative complaint seems to be the idea that a “broad brush” was used by  John MacArthur and the conference in its argument against charismaticism and that its broad generalizations were too dismissive of the movement in its entirety, thus throwing some good charismatics under the bus, and not acknowledging any positive contributions from the movement. These critiques do seem to have some truth to them, based on that which I have read and seen. As I have said I think the SF argument would have been that much stronger if the conference toned down some of its generalized statements or qualified them more consistently (though indeed some qualifications were made).

Still, the main point of the conference I believe was to point to abuses in the charismatic segment of the church that are rampant, extremely harmful and continuing to spread, and therefore must be challenged by responsible Christian leaders. Also an inference was being drawn– that these strange and hurtful practices stem from a flawed, unbiblical theology, one that needs to be corrected or replaced. Accordingly, cessationistic arguments were presented as the more biblical alternative.

The problem I have observed is that even with the proliferation of nonsense and abuses in the movement, it appears that the urgency among the more sound charismatics is on defending the good aspects of their theology, rather than crying out loudly against the abuses. And I suggest that there should be more time given to analyzing why is it that these aberrant practices flow so much within the charismatic camp. Does not the open door to subjective revelations, visions etc. result in many of the wacky leaders claiming God’s stamp of approval on their doctrines and practices?

I do sympathize with charismatics who want a deeper experience with God, more power and vitality in their ministry. Every Christian should desire this. I also applaud the charismatic’s expectation that God is ready to take action in our midst. What I object to however, is a re-packaging of gifts such as tongues and prophecy to become less than what the Bible declares them to be in terms of authority and accuracy, and the gullibility that causes people to accept claims of miracles happening without evidence.

Providential answers to prayer for healing, even in ways that might be regarded as miraculous– does not necessarily indicate that we are still seeing New Testament level miracles all around us, as is so often claimed by various charismatics. It is fitting and proper that many write on these issues in an attempt to make biblical arguments in support of their charismatic practice, but I have found their arguments wanting, especially in light of the continued proliferation of bad fruit in the movement. An earnest even well-meaning desire for more of God and His power should not be allowed to overtake good judgment informed and guided by wisdom from Scripture.

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“But they used such a broad brush!” A few more thoughts on Strange Fire

Interesting how many charismatics, in response to the recent Strange Fire conference are doubling down on defending charismatic theology with cries like, “mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!” or “but they used such a broad brush… we’re not all like that, you know!”  Thus they direct their energies towards critiquing those who point out the obvious excesses in the movement– excesses they themselves acknowledge are happening all the time!  It seems they place greater priority on critiquing those warning others about the blatant errors, than on joining with them in denouncing these harmful practices. They downplay the harm that is taking place by arguing that such excesses are representative of only a minority. But even if that were true– and it is certainly highly debatable, given that the biggest names at the forefront of the movement seem to be leading the way in the excesses– the abuses are so harmful on a spiritual, emotional and material level that those who acknowledge excesses but are not urgently trying to stop them– at the very least joining in their denunciation– are in effect abetting them.

Yet it is argued by such folks that what must take highest priority is the promotion and protection of the pure, sound theology at the heart of charismaticism that is being overlooked in all this– both by those guilty of corrupting excesses, and by those outside the movement who remain studiously ignorant of these important life-changing truths.  Their urgency then is not towards denouncing the excesses to help protect those being exploited by false teachings, but rather, to restore  and proclaim the underlying classic charismatic doctrine, which they claim is sound and only needs to be purified that it may bear its good fruit.  Thus their strategy seems to be —  go on the offensive against those pointing out and trying to stop the abuses, because such folks are actually getting in the way of all the good that will result when people live in accord with charismatic doctrine it is purest, most correct form!  Moreover, there are often unfortunate accusations made against cessationists like MacArthur  -that they are not motivated by love, but rather by their fear of not being in control, pride in their right doctrines, lack of supernatural experiences.  This then is what produces their sinful, willful unbelief in the power of God to do miracles and healing in peoples’ lives today.

But critics of the charismatic movement and its excesses do in fact acknowledge that there is a more sound doctrine among some charismatics.  Conferences like the recent Strange Fire conference even point to those charismatics they consider friends and colleagues in ministry, whose overall theology is sound and does bear good fruit.  However they also point out the obvious– that abuses within this movement are so rampant and widespread, showing no signs of slowing down, that something must be done.  And they also point out that the more responsible, sound charismatics are not at the forefront of condemning these excessive practices, though they ought to be.  So in effect the scholarly defenses of continuationism presented by better charismatics, combined with their lack of denouncing the excesses, provides cover for such harmful practices to continue to spread.

For further reflection, see also:

The Broad Brush Phil Johnson

Two Quick Thoughts About Strange Fire Tom Chantry

The Right and Wrong Way to Engage John MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” Conference Trevin Wax

Lessons Learned at Strange Fire Tim Challies


And from the other side:

Strange Fire: can’t we just get along? Adrian Warnock

Strange Fire – A Charismatic Response to John MacArthur Adrian Warnock

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It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right (Pt 2- What is the Gospel?)

This is a follow-up to my last post.  Thanks to those who commented.   I agree with the comment by “savedbygrace” on that post– the gospel we preach defines us.  This is precisely why I think it is so important we get it right.  Of course as imperfect beings, we do not and will not have perfect theology this side of heaven.  Nevertheless we must strive to improve our understanding, and moreover, I think God expects us to preach and teach an accurate gospel in the essentials.

So, is the gospel an invitation to a “charismatic” life characterized by the super-spiritual– constantly receiving direct revelations from God on what we are to do, say and pursue; being able to “see in the Spirit”; the ability to do all the same miracles Jesus did that we may convince people to believe; prophesying that which we claim is from God (but may not be 100% accurate)?  I don’t think so.

Granted, Christianity is indeed a supernatural life and the Holy Spirit indwells us, and we are called to be filled with the Spirit today (see John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; Eph 5:8).  But this does not require that we have all of the above sorts of manifestations.  God is free to give such things if He chooses, but I don’t think in this day He is normally giving such gifts. Rather, we have been equipped by God’s Word and by His Spirit to live the Christian life we are called to live (2 Tim 3:16-17; 1 Cor 12:4-31).  Thus I think the chief mistakes in the larger charismatic movement are: 1) to pretend that miracles are happening all the time when in fact they are not; 2) to downgrade the gift of prophecy to hit-or-miss pronouncements characterized by inaccuracy; and 3) to promise healing based on a supposed provision of the atonement that guarantees it (see my article, Sickness, Healing and the Christian, Pt 2 (Biblical Analysis).)

A reformed, and I think biblical response to the charismatic portrait of the Christian life demonstrates practical differences in the two approaches:

  1. We pray to God for all our needs (Phil 3:6) and may even ask Him to do miracles, which He may or may not do as He wills. We rejoice if and when God does miracles in our midst, but of course, do not and cannot demand them. We define miracles as that which is extra-ordinary (as in the healing a of a man born blind, for example). God’s providential care for us as He answers prayer doesn’t necessarily constitute a miracle, which by definition is a special and rare occurrence.  Moreover we argue that the miracles of Jesus’ day were signs authenticating the message of Jesus and His apostles (Matt 12:28, 2 Cor 12:12) and that that season of miracles apparently has passed.
  2. We preach and teach the Word of God as accurately as possible (2 Peter 4:1-2), knowing it alone is God’s inspired revelation to us (unlike charismatic prophecy, we don’t need to guess what percentage of the prophecy comes from God and what part is human error).  We trust therefore that God’s Word is sufficient to provide the guidance and instruction we need to properly live a Christian life and to teach and make disciples (2 Peter 1:3, 2 Tim 3:16-17). We define prophecy as Scripture does– the very words of God spoken through the mouth of people (2 Peter 1:21).  So we hold all prophecy to the high standard of Scripture in terms of its accuracy– if it does not come to pass– it’s false prophecy and the person who has spoken it is falsely speaking for God (Deut 13:1-5; Deut 18:20-22).
  3. As we obey God and live for Him we ask that He would heal the sick, and we can lay hands on the sick, as the Word prescribes (James 5: 14-18).  But we leave the answer to these prayers to God– if He heals, we rejoice in that, and if He does not heal, we trust that God knows best (2 Cor 12:8-10). We don’t claim God has healed if in fact He has not healed, and we don’t charge folks with not having enough faith if their prayer for healing is answered in the negative.  We  don’t claim to know that all sickness is caused by sin or by the devil, but trust that ultimately God in His sovereignty rules over this and all areas of our lives.

Thus far we have been addressing what the gospel is not. I have claimed it is not an invitation to a supercharged, mystical life full of continuous miraculous manifestations.  So then, what is the gospel and what is the normal Christian life?

The gospel is that Jesus Christ– Son of God and God in the flesh– came to Earth, lived among us, was crucified on a cross for sins and was raised again by the authority and power of God after three days in the grave (1 Cor 3:3-5; John 1:9-18, 34; 1 John 5:11-12, John 10:18) .  The person who puts their faith in Christ is forgiven all their sins, because God poured out His full wrath and anger at sin upon Jesus as He hung on the cross, and by raising Him from the dead, God validated Jesus’ claims to be God, in fulfillment of the many ancient prophecies that predicted a Messiah would come that would do all the things Jesus did (Romans 4:23; Romans 5:9).  The life Jesus lived– a perfect, selfless life– satisfies God’s requirement of holiness– and Jesus’ record of sinless obedience is transferred to the one who has faith in Him (2 Cor 5:21). So our sins of commission and of omission are both fully taken care of and removed by the cross and the obedience of Christ, and we are thus reconciled to God, adopted as His children, and called to a new life of fellowship with Him and with brothers and sisters who have likewise been called (Romans 5:10; Col 1:22; John 1:12; 1 John 1:3).  Much more could be said, but these are the essentials.

So what does this Christian life look like?  Well, outwardly it is a very normal life, in many respects.  The Christian doesn’t necessarily look any different than before, but inwardly, a miracle of new life has been wrought in his/her heart, one which plants a desire to love God and to be obedient to Him (Ezekiel 36:26; 2 Cor 5:17).  We are drawn to the Bible (1 Peter 2:2), which by the Spirit we recognize as the true Word of God to His children (1 Cor 2:12-13).  This new life implanted within has a supernatural quality, in that we have new desires that prod us and help us to transcend our old selfish tendencies.  But the Christian need not manifest anything outwardly spectacular.  I think that biblically the Bible doesn’t teach that Christians need special experiences like being “slain in the Spirit”, speaking in tongues, the so-called “baptism in the Spirit” that is subsequent to salvation, in order to be fruitful.  Yes, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) but this seems to be an ongoing process that involves many non-flashy activities– reading and meditating on God’s Word, obeying God’s Word, etc.  Ultimately, people will know we are Christians, not because of our exciting supernatural manifestations, but rather, by the fruit we bear in love towards God and others (see John 13:33-35; 1 Cor 13).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24, ESV)

For further thought:

Providence by J. I. Packer

God’s Providence over all (PDF) by B.B. Warfield

The Sufficiency of Scripture Part 1 and Part 2 by Gary Gilley

The Gifts of Miracles & Healings Today?  by Fred Zaspel

Divine Providence, or What About Miracles? by S. Lewis Johnson

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It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right

The recent conference by John MacArthur, “Strange Fire” has generated a lot of controversy.  It stirs up an ongoing and often heated debate among evangelical Christians on “cessationism vs continuationism”: did miraculous gifts such as tongues, miracles and prophecy “cease” some time after the establishment of the early church and with the canonization of Scripture?  Or are those gifts continuing in operation, and to be sought after and put into practice today?  Unfortunately lack of clarity about terms such as cessationism, continuationism and charismaticism creates confusion as people debate these issues.  Online debates I have been part of often suffer from the lack of clarity.  Since there are varied positions within cessationism and charismaticism, to call oneself a “cessationist” or “continuationist” or a “charismatic” isn’t enough and usually requires further clarification.  Exactly what kind of “cessationist” or “charismatic” are you?   Lisa Robinson has a post right now that addresses this topic, “What is a Cessationist?…or Why I think We Need Another Term“, and I think her post is a helpful conversation opener on this.

Yet I think that what underlies the need for clarity of these terms is something even more fundamental and urgent to our mission as Christians: what is the gospel?  In other words, it seems the believer needs to figure out if charismatics are right or cessationists correct, because these very different positions have such a great impact on our mission of making disciples, and also lead to very practical differences in following Christ.  I encountered a Facebook post about continuationist Mark Driscoll showing up at the John MacArthur conference.  I noticed that several people sympathetic to the continuationist position in their comments on the post were bashing cessationism and Reformed theology with statements I felt were very derogatory as well as inaccurate characterizations of it.  Now perhaps many in the charismatic community who know of the Strange Fire conference feel the same way– that the conference unfairly caricatures the charismatic position.  One of the commenters on the post made this statement:

I am just learning about all of this and still reading. but it sounds to me like two “camps” with different ideas of how the holy spirit should look. they spend all their energy and time on defending “their” way instead of using that time and energy on preaching the gospel to a dying world. seems like they are missing the whole point.

I think the commenter makes a salient point, one that I can sympathize with.  It’s true that believers can be too focused on internal squabbles and get distracted from their main task, which as we know is to preach the gospel and make disciples.  But while we must not pick a fight on every little matter, there are matters too important to our mission to not get right.  In my mind there is no more important issue than getting the gospel right.  What exactly did Christ accomplish for us on the cross?  What should the Christian life look like? Is the believer still a sinner, or a saint who sins?  Must we have all these answers precisely correct before we go out and make disciples? I am not going to attempt in the brief post to answer all of these questions (but perhaps I’ll address them in future posts).

Yet I do believe it is part of the task of preaching the gospel message to be able to give accurate and Scriptural answers to these basic, critically important questions.  How can we preach a saving message if the gospel we preach is not real or true or accurate?  The Church is even charged with correcting false teachers/teaching.  How can we do so if we don’t know what the true gospel is?  We’re in the midst of a raging spiritual battle in which the forces of darkness are quite happy if the message we preach is a distortion that leads people away from the true and living God, all the while deceiving them into thinking that Christ is being truly preached.  We have been warned by Christ Himself that false Christs will come (Matt 24:24), and that in the last day many who thought they were working in the name of Jesus will find that Jesus rejects not only their works but them as well (Matt 7:21-23).  This is a very sobering warning.  Time is short, and there are eternal stakes involved if we allow ourselves to be deceived.

In my opinion the popular charismatic message has got things very wrong. It declares that all the miraculous gifts that were part of the early church continue today in the same exact manner as in the early church and are even crucial to the life and mission of the church.  Every believer should be a miracle worker, a prophet, a tongues speaker and a healer, or at least be ardently seeking these available gifts.  The Strange Fire conference looks at the phenomena happening in much of the charismatic world under the lens of Scripture, and finds it unbiblical.  The miracles they claim are happening cannot be verified, the prophecies proclaimed are usually wrong, the tongues are not practiced in accordance with Scriptural guidelines and don’t appear to be real languages, but only gibberish.  Accordingly Phil Johnson charges, it commits “the sin of attributing to the Holy Spirit words He has not spoken and things He has not done.”  Now John MacArthur and Phil Johnson are well aware that there are charismatics who are well-studied, who teach an orthodox view of Scripture, who are not at all guilty of the excesses often found in the movement.  In fact there are even well-known “Reformed Continuationists” like John Piper, Wayne Grudem and others that they esteem very highly for their ministries of the Word.  Nevertheless, these reformed continuationist leaders who are aware of the “strange” phenomena seem very reluctant and reticent about criticizing these aberrant practices.  Over at the Cripplegate blog, Mike Ricardi has posted Phil Johnson’s outstanding message, Strange Fire – Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? and I think Phil really hits the nail on the head when he writes:

But there’s this carefully cultivated, non-committal spirit of indecision that permeates most of the Reformed charismatic and “open-but-cautious” segments of the evangelical community. It is a deliberate agnosticism with regard to discerning spirits.

So the extremists and the charlatans can make any claim or pull any stunt they like with near impunity. The handful of Charismatics who have the most influence in conservative evangelical circles have basically settled into a comfortable indifference. (Remember the line I quoted from Michael Brown earlier? “Why [should] Pentecostal and charismatic pastors renounce extremes in their movement?”) Supposedly “cautious” continuationists watch the procession of charismatic horseplay. They are curious, intrigued, generally nonplussed, but they refuse to make any judgment until after the wheels come totally off the latest bandwagon.

It someone looks into the turbid swamp of charismatic sludge, and thinks that attitude of non-judgmental passivity is the baby, forget it. That kind of smug, deliberate indecision has more in common with double-mindedness than with faith. There are times when staking out a middle position is simply the wrong thing to do. And it is never more wrong than when thousands of people are going around claiming to speak for God but prophesying falsely.

It is time to get the gospel right.  We have been blessed and equipped to complete our mission with the authority and power of the Word of God, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).”  Why then do we need to seek after sensational experiences, prophecies, miracles, tongues, especially if, when we stop kidding ourselves and admit the truth, we can see that the things we are seeking after are not authentic?  How does inaccurate, hit-or-miss prophecy help anyone?  How does if further the cause of Christ to claim that healing and miracles are happening when in fact they are not happening?

Does what I am saying deny the power of God?  No, because I am not saying that God will not answer prayer for healing, even in miraculous fashion, nor am I saying that God may not visit us with extraordinary things whenever He wants.  But my charge is not to seek after the extraordinary but to humbly live for Christ.  I seek His power not that I may have ecstatic experiences or by miracle doing prove to an unbelieving world that the God I worship is real, but that I may live faithfully and honor Him in the way I speak and act and live.  The gospel itself is the power of God, and it accomplishes the miracle of raising the dead to life, and we have the privilege of being part of that.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16)


Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, The Gospel, Theology

Theological Debates on Facebook- Are They Profitable?

I’d like to ask a question—can profitable discussion on a theological issue actually happen on Facebook?

I had an experience recently where someone took offense because they felt I was commenting too much on their theologically oriented wall post.  But the determination of “too much” was based on his purely subjective notion of how much commenting on his post was appropriate.  Now I’ll admit — after he posted a critique of a theological “meme” (i.e., statement) I was quite dogged in asking him to provide the reasoning behind his several assertions about it.   He declined to do so, which of course, is his prerogative.  On the other hand, it was also my prerogative to continue to comment and engage with others in the discussion, which is what I did.  But this seemed to disturb him.

I chose to comment on this particular post because it touched on God’s sovereignty, a theological issue I think extremely important and practical for believers. In declining to respond to my request for explanation of his argument, one reason he gave is that Facebook is not a conducive forum (for intelligent debate).

Well,  in one sense he may be right.  The Facebook feed comes at you with many random streams of data.  Perhaps for many of us the experience of being in FB is like watching TV while flipping through channels– one is just looking for passive, mindless entertainment.  Yet we can choose to focus our attention, can’t we, even while in Facebook?

Now it’s true Facebook discussions can be utterly worthless and a waste of time when the participants simply talk past one another.  We see this all the time.  But, especially among Christians talking theology, I don’t see why civil, gracious, intelligent, even fruitful discussion may not occur, if we actually take time to hear one another out and respectfully present our arguments.   Of course, because Christians are sinful human beings, discussion may devolve from noble passion to fleshly, ignoble heat.  Yet as long as folks refrain from personal attacks, imputation of bad motives, and maintain focus on the issues at hand,  giving each other some grace, I think discussions can stay on track.  We may even learn from them.

I have been involved in debates both good and bad.  In bad ones (and for me these seem to occur more often on Facebook) folks seem impatient with the process of discussion/argument itself– thus they neglect thoughtful responses and are very reactive (I’ve been guilty of this myself, as I’m sure many of us have).   Also it seems some want to state their opinion just as a soundbite (perhaps related to the ephemeral nature of Facebook?), but are not  prepared (nor seemingly interested) to defend their view/opinion against possible objections.

I’ve also participated in more interesting and productive online theological “debates” (over at the Theologica forum, for example).  I believe the difference between good and bad theological discussions relates in part to whether participants are confident enough in their own position to open the floor to debate and allow various sides to present their respective cases.  Sure, maybe 9 times out of 10, such debates end with folks remaining firmly convinced of the truth of their own original position, but at least those participating and/or “listening in” can examine the reasoning and arguments of all the positions and form their own conclusions.  In this way, I think such dialogue may be beneficial. Also, when one has to defend one’s position, it challenges you to think more deeply on it, if only to be able to articulate the reasons for one’s stand and to answer objections.  This can surely sharpen one’s thinking.  Debate isn’t necessarily bad (as some tend to think); if handled well, it can be educational, even edifying.  Though not necessarily easy, I think fruitful theological debate is do-able.  It’s a shame we don’t often achieve it.

Going back to my recent experience, again I own up to the fact that I was very insistent on continuing the discussion even after the originator of the post said he did not want to engage further with me.  I was so eager to make a persuasive case that Gods’ sovereignty is a crucial, foundational and practical truth in the believer’s life, one that can help us even as we try to make sense of all the bad and evil things that happen in a fallen world.   So I pressed on in the discussion, with the thought I would interact with others who were also commenting.  Was continuing like this a breach of commenting etiquette?  I don’t know.  But I would also ask, if one is not interested in the give and take required for a theological dialogue to be productive and/or educational, then why initiate a discussion in a public forum?


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Eternal Hope Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Conclusion

Mishandling Scriptural texts, Bell’s view on hell in “Love Wins” is distorted, revealing weak views of God’s holiness and man’s depravity, which in turn impact his understanding of the work of the Cross.  As we have already mentioned, Bell denies clear biblical evidence that God is wrathful towards sin, because for him such wrath is incompatible with an understanding of God’s character as essentially “love”.  Yet in Scripture we find God’s various attributes co-exist peacefully, and that there is no implied contradiction between a God of love and a God who hates sin.  In fact, the wrath of God is an attribute just as perfect and integral to God’s character as His love, and one whose contemplation serves importance purposes in sanctification. As theologian Arthur Pink writes,

A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness. Because God is holy, He hates all sin; and because He hates all sin, His anger burns against the sinner (Psa 7:11)… The wrath of God is a perfection of the Divine character upon which we need to frequently meditate. First, that our hearts may be duly impressed by God’s detestation of sin. We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and His frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely are we to realize its heinousness. Second, to beget a true fear in our souls for God: “Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28,29). We cannot serve Him “acceptably” unless there is due “reverence” for His awful Majesty and “godly fear” of His righteous anger, and these are best promoted by frequently calling to mind that “our God is a consuming fire.” Third, to draw out our souls in fervent praise for having delivered us from “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).[1]

God’s holiness compels Him to hate and actively oppose all sin, but this passionate hatred of sin is also fueled by His love, for it clearly sees the destructive force of sin in the lives of people and of creation.  Bell’s portrait of the Christian life in “Love Wins” often speaks of how human sins hurt people and holds mankind back from realizing its “God-given goodness and humanity,” but he hardly mentions sin in relation to its deep offense against a holy God.  It is a very man-centered perspective that misses the major emphasis Scripture puts on sin as man’s major problem.  Bell’s view of the cross is similarly man-centered, subjective and psychologically oriented.  In one place he writes,

We read in Hebrews 9 that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In the ancient world, people regularly sacrificed animals—bulls, goats, sheep, birds. You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time. Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an altar to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you’d done and you were very grateful for the rain and crops and children and any other gifts you could think of that the gods had given you…  That’s how it worked. Offer something, show that you’re serious, make amends, find favor, and then hope that was enough to get what you needed. So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea… The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary—no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you or ready to strike you down. There was no more need for any of that sacrifice, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered. That’s how the writer of Hebrews explains what happened when Jesus died on the cross.[2]

Here is the reason why Bell can dismiss the Old Testament sacrificial system as something barbaric– he thinks it is something the Jews picked up from surrounding pagan cultures!  Bell betrays lack of understanding of the depth of man’s sin behind this God-instituted practice, as well as stunning lack of comprehension that the sacrificial system was not a pagan, human invention, but something God Himself instituted.  The Jewish sacrificial system was not on a par with “appeasing gods” as Bell seems to think, but a system God established because of the deadly serious nature of sin, which must be atoned for by blood (Lev 17:11).   When Jesus by His one-time sacrifice brought to an end the sacrificial system under the old covenant (Hebrews 9), Bell doesn’t seem to recognize that His act was not the dismantling of a pagan practice, but bringing the system to the fulfillment of its purpose.  Jesus’ sacrifice is the better and perfect sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean the old pattern He was replacing was unnecessary and wrongheaded.  His interpretation also indicates a seemingly low view of Scripture’s inspiration, for it is clear from both Leviticus and Hebrews that the pattern of animal sacrifices was God’s idea.  And this from a man reputed to have begun his pastoral ministry preaching through Leviticus?  Kevin DeYoung’s book review offers good thoughts on Bell’s conception of sin:

It would be unfair to say Bell doesn’t believe in sin. He clearly does. But his vice lists are telling: war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace (36–37). In another place, he says that in heaven God will say “no” to oil spills, sexual assault on women, political leaders silencing by oppression, and people being stepped on by greedy institutions and corporations (37-38). These are real problems and throughout the book Bell mentions many real, heinous sins. But … What’s missing is not only a full-orbed view of sins, but a deeper understanding of sin itself. In Bell’s telling of the story, there is no sense of the vertical dimension of our evil.  Yes, Bell admits several times that we can resist or reject God’s love. But there’s never any discussion of the way we’ve offended God, no suggestion that ultimately all our failings are a failure to worship God as we should. God is not simply disappointed with our choices or angry for the way we judge others. He is angry at the way we judge him. He cannot stand to look upon our uncleanness. His nostrils flare at iniquity. He hates our ingratitude, our impurity, our God complexes, our self-centeredness, our disobedience, our despising of his holy law. Only when we see God’s eye-covering holiness will we grasp the magnitude of our traitorous rebellion, and only then will we marvel at the incomprehensible love that purchased our deliverance on the cross.[3]

From the start Bell’s book suggests that Scripture is hopelessly unclear on the nature of salvation, in that it supposedly describes numerous different mechanisms by which one might be saved.  But this again seems merely clever strategy on Bell’s part.  If he can persuade the reader to believe that the process of salvation, the nature of the afterlife or details of how one gets into heaven and avoids hell are all murky and impossible to determine, then he can present his speculative theories under less scrutiny. But of course Scripture is not unclear about how one can be saved, for the one who has ears to hear.  Bell ignores such passages as Romans 10: 8-17, which presents clear instruction on how one is saved.

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.[4]

Bell asks about this passage, “what if the missionary gets a flat tire?” implying that for God to place the fate of people’s souls in the hands of human preachers puts eternal destinies on shaky footing.  But the answer is that God uses human means to accomplish His ends, but isn’t absolutely dependent on them.  Again, it seems Bell raises such questions as part of a strategy of shaking the reader’s confidence that there are definite answers.  In this way, Bell can propose that there isn’t just one way to salvation, but many, which perhaps to his way of thinking gives one better odds of being saved.

What do we lose if we replace the traditional message of the gospel that includes the teaching of an eternal, conscious, punishment in hell with a friendlier, more inclusive message like Rob Bell’s?  Would it not be easier, as Bell suggests, to enthusiastically share the good news knowing that such a terrible and scary doctrine was not part of the package?  Perhaps we might feel less unpleasant preaching a gospel message stripped of hellfire, but we would also hopefully feel convicted, for we would be preaching a lie.  In Rob Bell’s bloodless story, God has saved us from what, exactly?  Bad choices?  But choices don’t really matter that much in his system– won’t we have endless opportunities to re-think them and say “yes” to God?

If Bell is right, why is Christ so urgently pleading with us to heed His warnings, that we might escape the dreadful hell He paints with images terrible and true?  No, my friends, eternal hell belongs to the gospel, for the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news set against the backdrop of very bad news—that our sins have separated us from a holy God and condemned us to wrath and hell.  God in His wisdom has given us this solemn message, and it is not for us to refashion or compromise.

The teaching of hell highlights the black and white nature of the gospel message— Christ is not one option among many; He is rather “the way, and the truth and the life”, and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6) for “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” Hell underscores the urgency of the decision to be made—we all stand on the edge of a dangerous abyss, not knowing if we will be given another day to make this momentous choice. The prospect of hell wakes us up out of our stupor, challenging us to act now.  “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).”  Finally, hell reminds us what God in His great and glorious mercy rescues us from, though we were once His enemies.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you have enjoyed this series.  Below, under “further reading” I’ve listed resources for further study on these topics.


[1] Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God, first edition printing 1930 (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993), 36.

[2] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc, 2011), 123.

[3] Kevin DeYoung, “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012,

[4] Romans 10: 8-17 (English Standard Version).


Bauckham, Richard. “Universalism: A Historical Survey.” Themelios. 4.2 (1978, September 1).

Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Kindle edition. New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc., 2011.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940), 793.

DeYoung, Kevin “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012,

Keller, Timothy, R. Albert Mohler Jr., J. I. Packer, and Robert Yarbrough. Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? Edited by W. Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Pink, Arthur W. The Attributes of God. First edition printing 1930. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993.

Walvoord, John F., William V. Crockett, Zachary J. Hayes, and Charles H. Pinnock. Four Views on Hell. Edited by Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Wittmer, Michael E. Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”. Kindle edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011.

Zondervan Academic, “Four Views on Hell: An Interview with William Crockett,” Koinonia (blog), accessed March 1, 2011,

Further reading

Books on Hell and Responses to Love Wins:

Four Views on Hell by William Crockett (Author), Stanley N. Gundry (Series Editor), John F. Walvoord (Contributor), Zachary J. Hayes (Contributor), Clark H. Pinnock (Contributor)

Is Hell Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven Contributors: Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Jr. J.I. Packer, Robert W. Yarborough. Editors: Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson

Hell, Rob Bell, and What Happens When People Die by Bobby Conway

Book reviews of Love Wins:

Bell’s Hell- Review of Love Wins by Michael Horton (PDF)
God is Still Holy & What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True by Kevin DeYoung (PDF)
If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Love Wins by Rob Bell by Paul B Coulter
Love Wins – Universalism’s New Champion by Gary Gilley
A Review and Commentary on Rob Bell’s Book by Jay Zinn

General Articles on Hell

The Rationale of Hell By John H. Gerstner
The following 9 articles included in a PDF:
The Greatest Loss by J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)
What Is Hell? by Edward Donnelly
Eternal Torment for the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
The Resurrection of Damnation by Samuel Davies (1723-1761)
The Torments of Loss by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
The Torments of Soul by Edward Payson (1783-1827)
The Torments of Sense by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
Exhortation to Escape Hell by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Christ Has the Keys of Hell and of Death by Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
The Christian Doctrine of Hell:
Hell, by R.C. Sproul. A brief introduction to the doctrine from Sproul’s book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith.
Eternal Punishment, by Arthur Pink. A non-technical explanation of the traditional doctrine and its biblical basis, with responses to arguments commonly raised against it by Universalists and Annihilationists.

Misc. articles on hell

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards
The Eternity of Hell’s Torments, by Jonathan Edwards

Scholarly Articles
Future Punishment, by Charles Hodge
Hell, by Stewart D.F. Salmond
A Kinder, Gentler Theology of Hell? by Larry D. Pettegrew
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part One, by Alan W. Gomes
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part Two, by Alan W. Gomes

Series on Inclusivism
The “Very Pernicious and Detestable” Doctrine of Inclusivism Robert L. Reymond
Lisa Miller Interviews Rob Bell
Monergism articles on Inclusivism

The Arrogance of Inclusivism
Inclusivism: Is God Really Fair?
What is Inclusivism and Why Does It Matter?
What About Those Who Haven’t Heard?

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