I have been listening to Rob Bell talk about his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God with Justin Brierley and Andrew Wilson on Premier Radio’s Unbelievable podcast. I download one of these discussions from time to time if I have a long car journey to make. I find them a bit rambling, and most of them have an apologetic focus, which is not really my thing. But Justin has had some good contributors, and it is refreshing—if not downright remarkable—to hear such high level debate on Christian radio. I recommend them. I wrote recently about the stimulating debate between Tom Wright and James White over the meaning of justification. Coincidentally, I am attending a conference tomorrow at which Wright will be speaking about Paul and the cross of Christ. But to the matter in hand….
In response to a question about how he would articulate a gospel of “personal salvation” Bell puts it this way:
Jesus invites you to trust him. He invites you to trust him with your past, your present, your future, your sins, your deepest secrets, your longings, your addictions, your city, your family, your questions about your parenting…. And when you do this, extraordinary things happen.
He then explains what happens when a person trusts Jesus. It changes everything. Ultimately, it changes the world.
For other people I believe this Jesus can be trusted and that on the cross and the resurrection he has done something that changes everything, and it changes it for you, and for the universe, for the future…. There’s a whole new world bursting forth right here in the midst of this one, and it’s about us being reconciled to the God who made us, it’s about cities and towns, and it’s about a reconciliation, a renewal, it’s about a restoration, it’s about this world, God making it right and everything being how we all long for it to be but right now it’s groaning, and it’s in trouble, and Jesus is the answer, Jesus is the hope, and Jesus is the rescue….
The story that Rob Bell tells puts the cross and resurrection at the beginning of a process of cosmic, or at least earthly, transformation. The argument begins with individual people trusting Jesus, being saved, being reconciled to God, but from here we jump more or less directly to a process of social transformation. Many people think of the kingdom of God in these terms—God at work, more or less independently of believers, to rescue his creation, to establish justice, to make everything right.
There are two basic problems with this narrative, as I see it. First, there is no concrete evidence that this is actually happening—or that it is likely to happen. We may occasionally see localized instances of situations being changed by the presence of people who trust Jesus, but it seems frankly fantastical to claim that God is at work in our societies making them progressively better. Secondly, I don’t think it’s a plausible continuation of the biblical narrative.
What we don’t talk about when we talk about God
God’s response to the sin of Adam and Eve was not to set about saving humanity from sin. I disagree with Wright on this point. God’s response to the violence and hubris of the first societies was not to embark on a global mission to rescue the world from itself. God’s response was to bring into being a people who would be set apart from the rest of the fallen world as a new creation—a people for his own possession in the midst of the nations, who would embody and mediate the rightness of YHWH to the world.
That people eventually needed to be saved from its own bondage to sin if it was ever going to fulfil its purpose, and in the process the conditions for membership were dramatically changed. But the basic arrangement stayed in place. The instrument or agent or means by which the creator God engages with our world is not the saved individual, it is not the Spirit, it is not scripture, it is not the kingdom. It is not even Jesus. It is the historic family of Abraham. By virtue of the presence of this dedicated people the nations would be blessed—that is, something of the original blessing of creation would be mediated to them.
So any account of “salvation”, no matter how “lite” or seeker-friendly, that excludes the historic existence of the people of God, whether as Israel or as the church, is deeply flawed. The point is not that you have to be in the church in order to be saved—extra ecclesiam nulla salus. That is just another way of managing the individualist paradigm. It is that the people of God has had to be saved in order to fulfil its ancient calling.
I haven’t listened to the whole podcast (they go on to talk about homosexuality) and I haven’t read the book, so perhaps I’m doing Bell an injustice. He might also say in his defence that the book is written for ordinary secular people who have a hard enough time believing that there is a God, let alone that we need Jesus in order to gain access to him. We can get on to the church later, if we really have to.
But I would argue that even from a basic evangelistic or apologetic point of view this gets things back to front. Modernity is all about the engagement of the individual in universal sets of values. Postmodernity has created some space for the emergence of “tribal” identities, but only on a very ephemeral basis. Under these conditions it is very difficult for us to reckon with the historic existence of the particular community of the church as an extension of the biblical narrative of Israel—a problem only exacerbated by the dreadful reputation that the church as historic institution has at the moment.
Unfortunately, the church is the story
But scripture compels us to put the concrete existence of the church firmly in the foreground. The church is the story. It’s regrettable in many ways, but anything else is a failure of responsibility and a capitulation to modernity. Rob Bell’s narrative is compelling—perhaps more compelling for an American audience than for a European audience given the lingering mindset of a Christian culture, as Brierley points out in the podcast. But if the church is going to find a future for itself in line with the narrative of scripture, it has to find a way to put itself confidently and honestly as church, as historical community, at the heart of God’s strategy.
The good news in the New Testament is not that anyone can be saved by believing in Jesus. It is not that God is busy transforming the world and you can join in if you want to. It is that the God of Israel was doing something through the life and death of Jesus to change the condition and status of his people among the nations and in the process to bring glory to himself.
When Paul and Silas tell the Philippian jailor that in order to be saved he and his household must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are not saying that Jesus is his personal Lord and Saviour. They are saying that God has raised his Son from the dead and made him judge and ruler of the nations. They are making a public, political statement about Israel’s anointed king, not a private, personal statement about the jailor’s deepest secrets, his addictions, or his parenting skills. In the podcast both Bell and Wilson collude in this misrepresentation of the gospel.
Andrew Wilson states in the podcast that the gospel presents itself as the solution to the problem of sin and death. Well, yes and no. The gospel presents itself as the solution to the problem of sin and death for the family of Abraham at a moment of eschatological crisis. We cannot talk about salvation apart from the corporate story. In fact, I think in principle that we have to talk about the corporate story first.