CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. By Rob Bell.

Sep 7, 2006

Zondervan, 2005.

It is an unfortunate but oft-repeated habit that trends and fads in the world tend to be slavishly picked up and replicated by the church, even if a few years down the track. Instead of setting the pace, we too often as believers simply follow the secular world in its various twists and turns.

Often this is done in the name of ‘relevance’. However, as has been noted, those who seek to keep up with the times tend to be forever out of date. Thus Christians need to take care not to imbibe too deeply from the spirit of the age.

One of the most influential trends of the past few decades has been postmodernism, and its equally problematic step-sister, deconstructionism. At the risk of over simplification, one main tenet of these two isms is the idea that absolute truth does not exist, or at least it cannot be known. All we have is interpretation. We can never get to authorial intent. Whether the text in question is a book, a poem, a piece of art, music or what have you, we can never discern what the author actually meant by the work. We only can read into it our own interpretations.

It is interesting that many voices are saying that postmodernism may already have peaked, and may be on the way out. Yet parts of the church act as if it is the wave of the future, and we must get on board. This is especially true of one major recent movement in American evangelicalism known as the Emerging Church. This movement seeks to implement the postmodern mindset in the way Christianity is understood, expressed and lived out.

American pastor Rob Bell is a leader in the movement, and his recent book, Velvet Elvis, seeks to apply the principles of postmodernism to the contemporary church. The result is a mixed bag. Much of the book is simply a call to love Jesus more, to rediscover the wonder and mystery of the faith. As such, it is just another book on Christian living, and cannot really be faulted. But it is the over-reliance on the postmodernist framework that is cause for concern.

This comes out most clearly when Bell speaks of our understanding of scripture and truth. Consider statements such as this: “…we have to be honest about our interpretations. Everybody’s interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective”

Here the PoMo/DeCon idea that there is only interpretation, never final and knowable truth, is unnecessarily embraced. Yes, it is always true that none of us have the whole picture, that all our views will be slanted to a degree. Given that we are fallen and finite, this must be so. And we did not need postmodernism to tell us that.

Yet what about the other side of the coin? What about the many passages which speak of truth, and our ability to know it, and seek after it, albeit imperfectly? What about where it says that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth? Is there no place for objective truth?

Again, no one has all the truth, and all of us need each other as we seek truth. But the overemphasis on our inability to fully understand God’s word, to fully comprehend truth, is simply unbalanced. We acknowledge our need to be humble, to be constantly on our knees, to recognise our limits, yes. But we also have a God who is true, and who seeks to convey truth to us.

Bell also speaks of the need to be content with wonder, with mystery, with uncertainty. Again, in one sense this is quite correct. None of us have God all figured out. None of us have a corner on the truth, and too often we try to rationalise and intellectualise our faith. There is a place for mystery and even mysticism. And whole chunks of the church have long embraced this, such as our Eastern Orthodox brethren.

But this must not be allowed to get out of balance. God has revealed true truth to us, and it is often propositional in format. There is a place for doctrine, for theology, for the use of the mind. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water here, but find the biblical balance.

Unfortunately, it is often just not clear what Bell is getting at in this book. At times, for example, he seems to be making the case that all truth is God’s truth. This expression, when rightly understood, is something we can affirm. If something is true, then God is the author of it. But Bell’s unwillingness to commit to any propositional forms of truth, and his idea that all interpretation is ultimately relative and subjective, leaves one in a morass of uncertainty as to ever finding any truth. Or it allows any truth claim and experience to go unchecked.

Indeed, he seems to wander here and there, taking pot-shots at orthodox Christianity, our understanding of truth, the place of reason, and the nature of Scripture. One is not quite sure where he actually stands on many of these issues. Often vague and confused statements are made, leaving the reader unclear as to just what is being claimed.

This can be found in various passages throughout the book. At one point Bell makes this startling assertion: “we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is”. This sounds like something found in the Da Vinci Code. It is simplistic at best and mischievous at worst. While the story of canonisation is a complex one, the early church recognised the authority of what became the New Testament documents over a period of time. They did not vote on this, nor arbitrarily pick and choose.

And consider this someway puzzling remark: “Whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately a good place and you are not alone. . . .These moments can’t exist on the edges, because they are a part of our faith.” Taken at face value, we could decipher this to suggest someone experiencing an hallucinogenic drug trip is taking part in biblical faith.

This kind of vague and imprecise meandering runs throughout the book. The reaction often is, Just what is he on about? If by the above remark he means something like what C.S. Lewis wrote about when he spoke of experiences of joy as signposts to God, then this is not problematic. But it is often unclear just what Bell is trying to get at, and so he opens himself up to all kinds of weird and whacky ideas, that seem to veer way off line.

But given his insistence that all forms of interpretation may be equally valid, I suppose if a drug user wants to find comfort in his remarks, he is entitled to do so.

In the end, the reader may be challenged in their faith because of this book. I hope so. But for this reader, the book was simply confusing, imprecise, lacking in direction and ultimately frustrating. Perhaps that is just me. But if I had to suggest a title to give someone to encourage them in their walk with God, I am afraid this would not be it.

[1218 words]

36 Responses to A review of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. By Rob Bell.

  • G’day Bill,

    It’s definitely not just you who found it elusive. When you think about it, the PM mindset doesn’t naturally lead to cogency! Mind you, I do like the orange type. In a similar way, Bell’s ‘Nooma’ DVDs are a mixed bag. A select few I’d probably reluctantly use for a PM teen audience, but mainly because Bell meets them where they’re at. While I think his PM Christianity is awry, it does lead him to cater to their mindset. So, if PMs therefore find only Bell accessible, it remains for us to deconstruct Bell’s PM. Mind you, I do like the trendy hair…

    Peter Grice

  • Thanks for the review!

    Steve Spray, San Bernardino, California

  • Mr. Muehlenberg,
    Thanks for your review. I am interested to read how others interpret the same literature I have read. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rob Bell says or every part of his Theology I do commend him for some of his insights and viewpoints that he relays and I can appreciate the literature value of his work as well. I am afraid that I would have to disagree with you on a few points you made, I am afraid some of the quotes were taken a bit out of context or maybe we just interpretted them differently. Your definition is an over-simplification, but you are writing a book review not working for Merriam Websters. At any rate, just wanted to say thanks for the review.

    One Love,

    Justin Lane

  • Great review, I have been trying to express how the book made me feel, and you nailed it. My biggest concern with the book is that he dimishishes the Deity of Christ by dragging Him down to just another Rabbi. This is especially true where he relates the story of Jesus and the disciples at Casearea Phillpi, and says that His reference to a rock, is the place Pan worship occured, as opposed to the text of scripture which clearly indicates he was referring to the fact that God had revealed His divinity to Peter. ” flesh and blood have not revealed this but my Father, and on this rock ( the fact that He was the Christ) He would build His church. Bell does what all cults have ever done he ” re-interprets” all the scriptures which speak of a Holy Spirit who can reveal to simple folk the deep things of God. Jesus was more than a Rabbi Mr Bell and we should never seek to reduce that fact, just to suit a new generation who do not hold with it.
    Pastor Paul Carley

  • I suspect readers often find what they are looking for. I have just been through my notes on this book and I found plenty that was quite orthodox (God’s big plan, Jesus’ death, discipleship, etc) and plenty that was encouraging and helpful (I thought the Jewish background material was very good). His stuff on truth and the Bible was challenging, but I didn’t think it particularly postmodern, just humble. I agree with his inference that much evangelical teaching is tending towards humanism in its confident willingness to use human wisdom to interpret, and interpret away, some Bible passages, and I thought his book a helpful correction to that tendency.
    Best wishes.
    Eric Hatfield, Sydney Aust

  • I was so glad to find this review. After I read Bell’s book a year ago I was mystified that he sounded more like a New Age seeker in some of his concepts.
    My background was New Age, studying the vedantic philosophies in India, Reiki, Science of the Mind, etc, etc., a never ending maze of stuff to explore but never actually arriving anywhere. I taught it, lived it discipled it.
    It was Bell’s early chapters about the trampoline scene that he lost me. My thought was, ‘what are we talking about’ ‘where are we going?’ Now with a Degree in Ministry, mission life in Vietnam, a church of 2nd language speakers in Brissy, I realize the need to explain as simply as Jesus did the concept of the kingdom and salvation. Eric writes that he ‘found plenty that was quite orthodox’. My concern is what do we do with the rest of the book that is ‘mystifying’. A mish mash of man’s attempt to come up with an original way of doing ‘church’ when Christ asked us to ‘be’ the church in a very natural friendly way.
    Ilona Sturla

  • I agree with what Eric has said. Much of what is said in the book is pretty orthodox. If we are to reach “post moderns” we do need to know how they think and this book does give us some insight to help us better understand. Examine what happened to Daniel: Dan 1v3&4 “And the king spake unto Ashpenaz the master of his eunuchs, that he should bring in certain of the children of Israel, even of the seed royal and of the nobles; youths in whom was no blemish, but well-favored, and skilful in all wisdom, and endued with knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability to stand in the king’s palace; and that he should teach them the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans.” Note then v17 “Now as for these four youths, God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.” Also v20 “And in every matter of wisdom and understanding, concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his realm.”
    I believe that Daniel was taught by God through His Spirit in these matters – Chaldean culture and understanding – which made him relevant in his time.
    A second issue regards the loose use of words. Quoting from your review “But the overemphasis on our inability to fully understand God’s word, to fully comprehend truth, is simply unbalanced.” Note that “God’s Word” and “The Truth” as defined by the scriptures is Jesus. He said “the Spirit will teach you all things and remind you of all that I have told you.” (John 14v26) Let’s be aware of our human and “modern” limitations and learn how to relate to our culture by being open to be taught by His Spirit. Much of today’s biblical teaching ignores Christian thought prior to the “Enlightenment” and some of the “emerging movement” writers are reintroducing us to the “mystical” disciplines practiced by the early church.
    Ian Thompson, Canada

  • I have to agree that Bell’s book didn’t state a clear intention of where it was going, but that didn’t bother me! I think Peter Grice is spot on when he notes that the Postmodern mindset does not lend itself to cogency. But just because a book doesn’t follow a linear thought process, shouldn’t disqualify it from being valuable. I really appreciated the structure of the book for it’s encouragement to find God in Scripture for myself – a new thought for someone who has spent years being told what to think about God; it was nice to look at how to think instead. I’ve recommended this book to many friends and family members of all ages, and many have found it opened a whole new door in the depth of their relationship with God, without killing, or even tainting, the truth that they already know regarding the core tenets of Christianity
    Janna Becker

  • Hey all,

    I would like everyone reading to ask yourself – do we really need to joining the voices of the world tearing down and criticising people who have devoted their life to building God’s house?

    Aren’t there enough voices condemning people who love Jesus, why do it to each other? We need to have the voices of love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness….no buts.

    I found Velvet Elvis to be an amazing book, full of insight and written with a heart fully desiring to follow Jesus, as we all should be.

    Why not re-read page 54 where is says, “The idea that everybody else approaches the Bible with baggage and agendas and lenses and I don’t is the ultimate in arrogance.” and wrestle with that thought awhile.

    Grace & peace people.

    Cara Wiggins, Sydney Australia

  • Thanks Cara

    Three replies. I did very much seek to be gracious to Bell and his book, and did say that many believers might benefit from the book.

    And yes, we are to support an uplift other believers. But – and this is a needed but, despite your protest – we are also clearly told in Scripture that when a believer begins to stray either in terms of behaviour or doctrine, then he or she must be confronted. That is our biblical duty.

    Third, that quote is a real doozy. If no one’s interpretation can be relied upon, and is simply subjective, then of course why should I rely on Bell’s interpretation, which is simply subjective? By unnecessarily buying into the deconstructionist idea that there is no objective truth, only subjective interpretation, Bell renders his own book a waste of time. Why should I bother reading his mere subjective opinion?

    But as I said, the Bible gives us true truth, and we can have a sure word from God. Of course we all see through a glass darkly, and no one has 100 per cent fool proof interpretation. But unless we believe the Bible is true, and we can know some of that truth with some certainty, then our faith is in vain and we might as well give it all up.

    Bell has just bought into PoMo too much for my liking.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • So you believe Rob Bell as “strayed in terms of behaviour or doctrine”? Is that what you are saying? Wow. Interesting that you feel you can take God’s job and judge!

    By the way, you aren’t “confronting” Rob Bell with this website, all you are doing is putting in a public forum for all to see, believers and non-believers, your criticism of a fellow Christian. To confront someone as Jesus would do, it would be done in love,(and in private). “Confronting” is not publicly condemn them and their opinions and ideas via a website. But that’s just my interpretation.

    Bell says, “God has spoken, and everything else is commentary” page 52 – to me this says the Bible is the truth, the only authority, and the rest is opinion. But that is just my interpretation.

    I think you miss the basic point that if you think you know it all and have it nailed, then that’s plain arrogance.

    Why stand over another believer and say, well they’ve got it wrong without considering first it could be your view that is tainted?

    Why not seek God about it before you write a review like yours. And then think again about what constructive good your words are doing?

    Maybe instead of reading books, you should go back and read the Bible and see what Jesus says when asked “How do I inherit eternal life?” or “What is the most important commandment of the law?”….because I don’t see the love, I just don’t see the love….

    Cara Wiggins

  • Thanks Cara

    You say only God should judge. Does that mean you believe all the following verses are wrong?:
    Prov 25:12; Prov 27:5; Prov 28:23; Matt 7:15-23; Matt 16:6; Luke 3:19; Luke 17:3; John 7:24; Acts 20:27-31; Romans 16:17-18; 1 Co. 5:3-5; Gal. 1:8-9; Gal.2:11; Phil 3:17-19; 1 Thess 5:21-22; 2 Thess 2:3; 2 Thess 3:14-15; 1 Tim 1:19-20; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 2:25-26; Titus 1:10-16; Titus 3:10; 1 Jo. 4:1,2; 2 John 10,11.
    All of these verses (plus plenty of others) command believers to judge, rebuke, test, and discern. With all due respect, you might want to pay closer attention to what the Bible actually teaches in this regard.

    And you seem confused about the biblical teaching on confronting others. The general rule of thumb is, private sin, private confrontation, and public sin, public confrontation (not that I am saying Bell has sinned here, but the same principle applies). Bell has written a book which is public, gives talks which are public, holds conferences which are public, and has webcasts which are public. So of course any believer has a right and an obligation to assess what is being said, and if there are areas of concern, to state those concerns publically. There is nothing wrong with that in the least.

    And there is nothing unloving about fulfilling our biblically responsibilities as expressed in the above verses and elsewhere. Why do you assume it is unloving to seek to keep our brothers and sisters on the straight and narrow? Do you really think that Paul was unloving when he rebuked Peter to the face? Was Jesus unloving when he rebuked Peter? Was Paul unloving when he rebuked the Galatians, and Corinthians? I could go on for quite some time asking such questions.

    And the really funny and ironic thing here is this fact: You have just written two public comments saying how wrong it is to publically judge and condemn another believer, yet it seems you have just publically judged and condemned me. Does that not strike you as a little strange?

    Respectfully again, you seem to have bought into the worldly notion that we are never to judge, never to express disapproval, be ‘tolerant’, etc. Sorry, that is not the biblical understanding. Please go back and read the above passages for starters, and then tell me what you think believers are supposed to do.

    You say, “Bell says, “God has spoken, and everything else is commentary” page 52 – to me this says the Bible is the truth, the only authority, and the rest is opinion.” So does that mean that what Bell has written is just mere opinion? In which case, why should I pay any attention to Bell? But Bell presumably thinks what he is saying is important and believers need to hear it. Otherwise he would not be writing books and holding conferences. So which is it Cara? Is it mere opinion, in which case no one should take any notice of it, or is it something important that perhaps we can learn from?

    And most people reading my review of Bell would see that I offered a somewhat fair, even-handed, and gracious assessment of his book.

    I appreciate you wanting to do the right thing, the Christian thing. I also appreciate Bell wanting to do the right thing, and the Christian thing. All I am asking is that we make sure these concerns line up with the word of God. I just do not understand why you seem to find that so problematic. But thanks for sharing your thoughts. Blessings.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • You didn’t answer my questions.
    Do you believe that Rob Bell has strayed in terms of behaviour or doctrine?
    Where is the love in your response even to me?
    Why not confront in private?
    Bill, are your words honestly the way you believe Jesus would handle this matter?
    Love the fact you can quote a bunch of scriptures, now let’s see you live them!
    Or do you want to have another go at me?
    Cara Wiggins

  • Thanks Cara

    But I think I did address your concerns, both in my article and in my comments. It may be that the answers were not to your liking however. Perhaps this is an issue that we may have to agree to disagree on.
    Thanks again for your input. Blessings.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    I am one of the pastor-teachers in a conservative US church that is walking a biblical but untraditional path in our methods of sharing life and worshipping God. We are certainly not emergent based on your definitions of emergent – nor would we ever label ourselves that way.

    We hold to a very high view of innerant Scripture, and absolutely believe that there are many core truths within God’s Word that are repeatedly made crystal clear. God is Father, Son and Spirit. Jesus is God. God is holy. We are created beings who are born with a sin nature. We all need redemption – and Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and He is the only way to the Father. If we reject God’s love, then we experience the horror of eternal separtion from Him. God is love and His love is perfect, and He is a healer and Redeemer, but He gives us the freedom to reject Him.

    Yet, in spite of holding firmly to many orthodox truths – I found Velvet Elvis to be a wonderful book, with many deep insights – and many appropriate challenges to us, the modern Church. Not a perfect book, mind you, but a solid, valuable book. I did not find it threatening to any core beliefs….and I wasn’t at all clear why you did, after reading your review.

    I believe that you unwittingly (I hope) present a straw man as you describe Velvet Elvis, and perhaps Mr. Bell. I agree with one of the other reviewers that you take some of Mr. Bell’s comments totally out of context – and that you interpret some sentencs of the book to an extreme not implied by the whole.

    Here is something that is also truth. There is room for BOTH absolute truth and mystery in our relationship of knowing and following God. The Bible itself makes it clear that both exist for us in this present age

    Yes, Bell’s book challenges many of our modern Christian norms. I think that is extremely healthy – because many of these norms are twisted or broken, when examined through the lens of the nature and character of God, as well as the faith and practice of the early Church as described in God’s Word.

    If we are honest, we have to admit that there is desperate need for reform in the modern church – and there is even some that is broken in our practical theology of how we live once we come to Christ by faith through grace.

    How else do you explain believers in my country (the US) leading the country in rates of divorce? How do you explain 70 – 90% of our kids leaving the church once they graduate high school? How do you explain pastors in the US being the second leading profession in rate of divorce? How do you explain the absence of generosity or compassion for the poor in God’s people? How do you explain our lives and our finances and our careers looking just like everyone else around us? We are simply not peculiar people anymore when it comes to our daily lives. Something is broken.

    For example, most of the orthodox church appears to embrace a cultural form of graceful Law. Paul’s letter to the Roman and Galatian churches, as well as Hebrews, make repeatedly clear that the law is holy, but not at all for believers. Thus, when “emergents” speak of it not being about rules but about relationship – they are dead on target. None of us can live a life holy based on our effort to keep some rules, no matter how good our intentions (Gal. 3:3) or how holy the rules (Romans 7).

    New covenant grace means that we are invited to “walk by the Spirit” and to “abide in Christ” as He lives in us – relationship. The grace and mystery of “Christ in us the hope of glory” has replaced the law as a far superior option of how we live (Hebrews 8, 9, 10).

    When we live in true grace then we will certainly not live as transgressers of God’s character (as partially revealed in the law). We will not live as antinomians. Yet, neither will we live as rule keepers.

    To live our life guided by rules and morals and traditons, instead of living guided by the intimate presence and “knowing” of the Holy Spirit – always intepreted through the context of God’s Word – is to remain in bondage to the law that Paul said was only for unbeliever. Ironically, trying to live by this holy law stimulates us to more sin (Romans 7), and causes us to seek to do good by the efforts of our independent flesh (Galatians 3 – 6). God doesn’t want our own good efforts, our positive flesh (Phil 3), nor does He want our law-stimulated sin. He wants His Life expressing itself through His children. Test all of that against the New Testament, and see if it is not true.

    A thought to consider. If the only perfect couple, living in a perfect Garden, in perfect fellowship with our perfect God could not keep ONE protective/restrictive commandment – who are we to think we can manage to live by 10 commandments or by over 600 commands as another person states somewhere on your board?

    Only Christ can consistently fulfill His commands and laws in love, and Christ lives in us. When we live from Him, then the law is not longer of interest to us – His very life is our guide. If that’s too mystical for anyone – then I invite you to re-examine the New Testament.

    From what I’ve seen thus far Rob Bell seem to be closer to understanding the realities of biblical grace than many “orthodox” writers and teachers.

    Finally, Bill, I get very little sense of the belief system you ascribe the “emergent church” from reading Velvet Elvis. Do you think it might be true that you found what you expected to discover (instead of what was actually there) as you began to read the book – since Rob Bell’s name is on the “list” of emergent leaders? Just a thought from a fellow learner and brother in Christ.

    I appreciate your efforts and your sincerity in providing this review and others. What I share here is not meant to be offensive, but to stimulate us to more carefully examine God’s Word as we seek to define what is true – and to know the One who is Truth.

    Grace and peace to you,

    Allen Haynes, Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Thanks Allen

    I actually agree with much of what you have said. As to areas of disagreement, I have already said that many will find the book to be of value, and that I really did try hard to be fair and balanced in my assessment. Still, I and others do have some concerns about areas in the book, and I would like to think I have not ripped things out of context

    As to rules vs relationships, why can’t it be both? Why insist it must be one or the other? That is not a biblical dichotomy by any means. It in fact seems to be a quite unnecessary distinction. Biblical relationships are not rule-less. The New Testament is full of rules, and also of loving relationships. I guess it bothers me that some seek to make artificial divisions when Scripture simply does not.

    As I said elsewhere: “Similarly, the emergent crowd makes much of relationship over against rules and regulations. Do’s and don’ts and laws just don’t cut it anymore. Instead, Christianity is all about love and relationship. But as the authors rightly remind us, relationships must be guarded and preserved by rules: ‘Try telling your wife after you’ve had an affair, “Come on, I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do’s and don’ts”.’” www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/04/24/a-review-of-why-we%e2%80%99re-not-emergent-by-two-guys-who-should-be-by-kevin-deyoung-and-ted-kluck/

    But what more can I say, that I have haven’t already said here? Thanks for sharing your concerns.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Perhaps Rob Bell isn’t spot-on with his theology. But I have to say that he showed me Christianity in a whole new light – a beautiful light – and kept me from leaving. I was tired of religion – of its condemnation, bickering, and hypocrisy. But this book, as well as other incidents that took place in my life, brought me back to the real Jesus.

    So I can testify that Bell is an incredible voice of hope, especially to the young people.

    Sara Goodwin

  • Hi Bill,

    Your example about marriage vividly makes the point of the crucial difference between a life driven by rules or a life led by relationship.

    If the relatonship is the point – and if that relationship is deeply intimate and legitimately healthy – then there will be no adultery. You are relationally fufilled and satisfied, and remain faithful, rules or not, because you are joined to your love and don’t want anyone else.

    If we live by rules in marriage – then there may be no adultery – while at the same time we live out the marriage with a very limited intimacy. Faithfulness is driven by fear of reprisals, or a desire to not step into immorality, not by a deep love that keeps you close to your spouse. That may seem good – but in reality it is only slightly less tragic than adultery…it may even be a barrier to intimacy. This is why God’s invitation to us centers on an intimate, deep love relationship in Christ, not law/rules.

    What about both rules and relationship?

    You simply can’t legislate love. Jesus said, IF you love me, THEN you will obey me…the love comes first, not the obedience. Intimacy with Christ will not lead us to live in a lawless manner. Neither will living by the rules/law lead us into intimacy with Christ.

    We are guaranteed to commit adultery against God (sin), but as our relationship with Him grows stronger and deeper, the less we desire to make those choices – and the healthier we live in relationship to God.

    If we choose to let rules/law be our guide, then we may fail less in the early stages of our spiritual walk, but we choose to live from a lesser motivation and we miss the invitation to growing intimacy and spiritual health and maturity. Thus, we remain rule-following children.

    That said, when we are immature and/or unhealthy, sometimes the best we can do is to choose some rules and cling to them until something changes. For example, young children need rules (law) to protect them until they understand the world well enough to make their own choices – and until they have the Spirit of God in them to guide them. Sometimes believers are in a state of mind where all they can do is cling to a rule….

    However, my observation is that in the spiritual realm, most people never move from that “safe” place of childish dependence on the rules/law. Paul comments on this in both 1 Cor 3 and Hebrews (5 & 6?).

    I don’t understand all this or have all the answers by any means, nor do you. But I wonder if sometimes it is not better to fail for a while without the rules – and then from that failure to desperately and legitimately seek a deep relationship with God – than it is to “succeed” by following the rules and avoiding failure.

    For example, as a shepherd I have seen several marriages “fail” (including adultery) only to be completely re-born much stronger and much more intimate than ever imagined prior to the failure (after a season of hell due to the consequences of the failures). I have also seen marriages trudge along for decades, with intimacy a long-dead ideal.

    That said, I am in no way condoning or suggesting adultery as a path to an intimate marriage – nor am I saying we have to embrace sin in order to find intimacy with God.

    I am merely making the observation that it may be better to get to intimacy through the failure of adultery, than to permanetly miss intimacy by living out our marriage motivated primarily by rule-keeping. That is even more true with our perfect Husband…Christ.

    Yes, I know those are some crazy, unorthodox thoughts – but based on what we know of God’s character from His Word – which would He prefer? A rule-following child who avoids great failure but also misses true intimacy with Him, or a relationship-driven child who will go through times of great failure on the way to maturing into living from an intimate walk with the Spirit of God?

    David comes to mind…as does Jacob…. Moses… Peter…and Paul…and Mark…and the prodigal son…to name a few. Do you realize that three of the most prolific writers of God’s Word were murderers (Moses, David and Paul)? They broke some serious rules on their journey (and experienced terrible consequences), and yet they also had incredible intimacy with the Holy Spirit. Crazy, from our perspective.

    Again, I am not condoning rule-breaking or lawlessness. I am making the observation that the point of knowing Christ and following Him – is to follow Him, instead of a set of rules and moral principles. If we truly know and follow Christ in an abiding relationship, He will not lead us into anything that is less than holy.

    Maybe that’s what some of the emergent guys are trying to say, but I’m not emergent and have only read Rob Bell in that group thus far, so you would know better than me.

    OK. I’ll stop now. Thanks for the forum.

    Allen Haynes, Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Thanks Allen

    The short answer is you and the emergents are unnecessarily – and more importantly – unbiblically forcing us into a false dilemma. Why in the world would we force believers to only embrace either rules or relationships? Surely the clear message of the entire Bible is that both are essential. There is no need whatsoever to force this artificial and unscriptural dichotomy upon us.

    Why cannot a follower of Jesus both have an intimate love relationship with him, and follow rules? Why must it be one or the other? This seems totally alien to the Biblical picture, and I am surprised it is being pushed so strongly and unnecessarily by the emergents. Real love always has boundaries, conditions, constraints. It is exactly because I am intimate with my wife that I don’t commit adultery, and it is because I don’t commit adultery that I can be intimate with my wife. Both feed off each other. It is silly to seek to separate them.

    With all due respect, because you are a pastor who should know better, I find this false dilemma to be all the more frustrating to have to rebut. Indeed, you seem to be confusing some biblical basics here. As to becoming a Christian, yes it is about a relationship based on grace. But that never entails antinomianism. Paul is quite clear on this: “Should we go on sinning that grace may abound? God forbid!”

    And sure, we are all sinners even as believers. If we sin, we ask forgiveness. We certainly should not minimise the sin, or pretend it is no big deal, Sure grace covers this all, but we dare not ignore or snub our noses at the many clear warnings found in Scripture about the danger of falling away, of apostasy, of heresy, and so on. Emergents seem to dismiss these warnings altogether, as they push this false dichotomy.

    Israel was delivered from Egypt as an act of grace on Yahweh’s part. The law was then given afterward as an indication of what sort of people Israel should be. Relationships was first established by God, but then covenant stipulations as to how that relationship would look and manifest itself were laid out in the law.

    We too come by grace into relationship with Christ. And yes grace continues to be the way we relate to Christ as a believer. But that does not mean rules then have no bearing on that relationship. As I said, the NT is full of rules and regulations. How can we simply pretend they are not there?

    Put another way, if you did your pre-pastoral duty and studied NT Greek, you will know that there is a whole theology in the NT of the indicative/imperative. That is, we are called into relationship with God, but that is expressed in the way we live. We already have right standing with God (the indicative), but we must now put that into effect (the imperative).

    Thus the many imperatives of Scripture. We are told to do this, to do that, as an expression of the indicative. But now that you have got me all wound up, perhaps I will write a whole article on this! So stay tuned.

    But I simply think it is silly to make this false distinction when Scripture does not. There are all sorts of rules that I follow to please Christ. Sure, I do not earn my salvation by doing them, but I certainly confirm and express my salvation – and my love of Jesus – by doing them. But let me pen my piece on the indicative/imperative and we can chat more about these issues. Thanks again for writing.

    Blessings
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hey Allen, I told you I was a bit keyed up about this one! So I have finished the promised article. It can be found here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/06/27/on-emergents-and-false-dilemmas/
    If interested, feel free to have a read, and comment if you like.
    Blessings
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    I look forward to reading your article. My short response to your post is this.

    I don’t know about the emergents, but I have to embrace an either/or of rules vs. relationship because that’s what we find in the Word of God – in the new covenant… which is a key distinction in context that most of the evangelical world seems to miss (including me for years).

    We are called to embrace the relationship with Christ (as our new husband), not the rules/law (our old husband). If we embrace the relationship, then we will fulfill the commands. If we embrace the rules/commands, then we limit the relationship…and we end up breaking the rules/commands anyway…

    If we find ourselves breaking the commands, then we know we are not living from the relationship.

    That may bust our logic box…but that’s the point of the good news of the gospel. We can’t be holy (through and through – not just externally) without God in us doing it. No amount of trying to keep rules will ever cause us to be like God. It just makes us better people – from our perspective. God never wanted us to be better people – He wanted us to be dead people who have a new life (of Christ) in us and who manifest that life out of a deep relationship with Him.

    If we embrace the relationship with Christ in us – and if we walk by the Spirit – then the Law (living by rules) is no longer necessary or applicable to us….according to Paul. Right?

    As a student of the Bible, we must put the commands/rules of the New Testament in context with the whole. Right?

    Paul writes repeatedly in Romans and Galatians that we are no longer under the law in any shape, form or fashion. Jesus says to abide in Him and that we can do nothing without Him (John 15). That “nothing” includes keeping His commands.

    Jesus is the only one that can truly fulfill His commands (yes, we can be momentarily obedient…but even unbelievers can do that)…and if we abide/remain in Him then He will do that through us. That’s the relationship that replaces the rules…and the relationship that allows us to live a life that fulfills the imperatives of Jesus. That’s the point of the New Covenant….I no longer live but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20).

    That’s THE relationship and THE Life that then empowers us to do the impossible – live from a law-free relationship with Christ without living lawless (without being an antinomian). Then, and only then, Christ in us consistently fulfills His imperative commands – ALL of them – not just our external favorites that make us look and sound like Christ to those around.

    Following the rules will never get us to an intimate, abiding relationship in Christ. Paul practically screams that at the Galatians…especially in chapter 3…to the point of appearing to be rude.

    Bottom line. It is impossible for us to follow the rules/laws/commands based on God’s standard for following the rules (…if you break one, your break them all…).

    We are free to try to live by law/rules as believers, but if you have studied Romans 7 you know that Paul makes it clear that following the law/rules only stimulates more sin…even if that sin is internal, not external.

    Thus, by following the rules we can have the appearance and illusion of faithfulness, while internally we are no more faithful than the antinomian who is intentionally breaking the law in a visible manner.

    Seeking to live by the rules gives an appearance of godliness – but in reality according to Paul it fertilizes more sin…even if that sin shows up in the invisible realm of our soul – like the coveting example Paul so aptly uses in Romans 7.

    I know we won’t agree on this, but it is not a false dilemna, according to the New Testament.

    I do look forward to reading your article. Thank you for the stimulating conversation.

    Grace and peace,

    Allen Haynes, Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Thanks Allen

    I think I have already more or less answered your concerns, both here and in the piece you said you will have a look at. Feel free to comment there if you are interested.

    But the hundred of commands given to believers in the NT simply shows that the emergent dualism on this issue is biblically untenable. And just one quote from Jesus should really settle this whole discussion: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). I should think that one passage alone is more than sufficient to scuttle this unnecessary dichotomy.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi All

    I love the Puritans as they clearly had a deep understanding of and personal relationship with God through faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Their understanding of the Christian not being ‘under law’ is that the law no longer has jurisdiction over the Christian as to its penalty – “The soul that sins, it shall die.” But the law as an expession of who God is, that He is holy, is eternally relevant to all; to unbelivers as to their accountability for breaking it, and to Christians, as to their using the law lawfully, that is to live sanctified lives, well pleasing to God. Now this is where my Puritan quote comes in – here it is. “The law is loves eyes, and without it (the law) love is blind.” i.e. the law shows the Christian how to live to please the One he loves and serves.

    God bless and may His Holy Spirit keep you holy in His service

    Neil Mansfield

  • Thanks Neil

    Yes, quite right. Or as 1 John 2:3-6 says, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,
    It’s interesting to watch heated debate arising out of Christian discussion. Perhaps that indicates the nature of the difference in the base of the two encampments that are setting themselves up against each other. I believe it is the difference between being boundary set or center set. If we are held together by the externals, the observations we keep, the forms we embrace, then when someone acts outside those forms or externals we form camps that separate and keep us apart. I believe that this is very typical of our present day Western Church. The logical, empirical, linear form of education and discipleship has become one of the major factors that has led us to a right and wrong approach to our faith. I believe also that this has coloured our interactions with each other and thus led to the fractured and confusing world-image of the One Body of Christ figured by the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
    The other, center-set thinking, puts the ever gracious and ever forgiving Savior in the center and all of us, right or wrong to some degree or another, in closer or further relationship to him. This thinking doesn’t focus on the rightness or the wrongness of those who are moving toward the One and Only Son of God, but that He lovingly includes us in this family and allows us the privilege of knowing him, securely able then to learn from each other without the Pharisaical pride that judges those who question our indoctrinational approach to Orthodoxy. We do have to own that there are quite a number of orthodoxies in the Western church.
    So couldn’t the author of Velvet Elvis and many other of our present-day Christian writers, be one of those questioners? Couldn’t we suggest that believers read and learn from those that think differently from us as we are all walking toward Jesus, harnessed together by his grace. Wouldn’t that be the obedience to the primary rule to Love God, and Love each other?
    In Christian grace,
    Lawrence Rae

  • Thanks Lawrence

    I appreciate your thoughts, and am sympathetic in part to them. But with all due respect, could it be that you are doing exactly what you evidently disapprove of: setting boundaries and putting people inside or outside the center as you see it? You seem to imply that you are in the right or proper camp here, while those who differ with you may not be.

    Indeed, despite your seeming dislike of the “logical, empirical, linear form of education and discipleship”, you are in fact making various points here, and expecting your readers to either agree or disagree with their validity and logical soundness.

    And you seem to want to continue what many see as a false dilemma created by those in, or sympathetic to, the emergent camp. Once again, the Bible knows of no such distinctions. It can affirm simultaneously that we are to be about loving relationships, with Jesus at the core, while also affirming the importance of sound doctrine (thus the need for debates – whether they are heated or not is another matter). The biblical position demands purity of life and purity of doctrine. One cannot read the NT without seeing this stressed constantly.

    I have been reading Psalm 119 again this morning. It seems pretty hard to separate a love relationship with God from loving his law. They go hand in glove. And the importance of sound doctrine is everywhere hammered home in the NT. This idea that there are no clear boundaries and that we should perhaps just ease up on theological orthodoxy is simply foreign to the NT.

    Was Paul involved in “the Pharisaical pride that judges those who question our indoctrinational approach to Orthodoxy” when he withstood Peter to the face? Or when he said anyone who preaches another doctrine should be accursed? Or when he said watch your life and your doctrine closely? Why do you imply that whenever one seeks to stand for biblical truth that he is being judgmental, proud and Pharisaical?

    Sure, people standing up for truth can at times be guilty of all three things. But one can be fully loving, humble and Christlike, and also hold strongly to theological truth. Indeed, Jesus himself could get quite disturbed about false doctrine and practice, saying he hated the practices and doctrines of the Nicolatians, (Rev 2:6, 15) If Jesus thinks this is important, then why shouldn’t we?

    Your last plea (about accepting those who differ) of course must cut both ways. If you think those who have some concerns about the emergents should learn to accept and love the emergents, then surely it works the other way: the emergents should learn to accept and love those who express their concerns as well. (And another false dilemma here: is it not possible to love and accept another person while still offering criticisms and assessments of their position?) Again with all due respect, you seem to be taking a stand against those expressing concern, thus continuing the very us/them divisions that you seem to so dislike.

    You also seem to imply that having debates or disagreements is somehow wrong, ungodly or uncalled for. But I do not see a problem with healthy debate. The Bible features plenty of it. So I do not mind discussing these issues, and do not think it is unspiritual to do so. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and taking time to comment. Blessings,

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill
    Thanks again for your thorough response to my comment. My point, to try and make it simply, was that good debate can only happen when you agree that you are already inseparable by grace and love. Should debate begin before that love is established, the usual result is fracture. We love because he first loved us. Our obedience to Him comes out of our love. When that is functionally maintained by the body of Christ, there is room for being ‘in each others’ face, as it were. We can stimulate one another to holy living because we are in a permanent love relationship.
    Thanks again for the room to discuss these matters,
    Lawrence Rae

  • Hi Bill,

    I’d like to respond to your statement below, since I believe the passage you quote does the opposite of scuttling the dichotomy you reference.

    “But the hundred of commands given to believers in the NT simply shows that the emergent dualism on this issue is biblically untenable. And just one quote from Jesus should really settle this whole discussion: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). I should think that one passage alone is more than sufficient to scuttle this unnecessary dichotomy.” -Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

    How we understand the crucial truth in this passage depends on the lens through which we read it.

    Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. We know that is absolutely true, but what does that mean in the context of the Word of God?

    Does it mean that if we keep His commandments, then that proves we love Him? I think not. First, no one keeps all the commandments, all the time. We can’t do it. That’s one of the primary points of the law. It’s impossible to keep it all – and if you break any of it, you break all of it – right?
    At best we are all temporary law-keepers, so does that make us temporary lovers of Christ? Hopefully not.

    Second, even some unbelievers can seem to keep the moral commands in the Word of God as well or better than those who do believe, even without relationship (love) with Christ. Notice I don’t say they keep the commands, they just seem to do as well. See the modern Mormons for example, or the ancient Pharisees. They far outclass most Christians if you are judging on who keeps the rules better, and who lives at a higher moral standard.

    In summary of the first point, no one keeps the commands (truly) and even unbelievers can seem to do a better job of trying to keep them then many believers. So keeping God’s commands doesn’t prove we love Jesus, nor does it lead us into love with Him (again, see the Pharisees).

    So what was the intent of Jesus in making this statment?

    Notice the order of the statements. It’s essentially an IF-THEN statement. If “A” is true, then “B”.

    Jesus is saying, IF the relationship comes first (if you love me), THEN we will keep the commandments.

    OK. What’s so significant about that? Let’s let scripture interpret scripture.

    Jesus also says in John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

    Apart from Him we can do nothing…including truly keeping the commands. Love is relationship. Abiding/remaining is the essence of moment-by-moment relationship in John’s writings. John was a deeply relational lover of Jesus, and seemed to “get this” better than any of the other disciples. Who snuggled up on the chest of Jesus at the last supper? John understood that it was about love first. Putting relationship with Christ above everything else leads us to holiness. Focusing on keeping the law/rules/commands leads to frustration and self-righteousness.

    So anyway, Jesus says in John 15 that we can do nothing (of eternal significance) outside the continual intimacy of a relationship with Him. In fact, Paul says in Gal. 2:20 that Paul no longer lives, but Christ lives in Him. So we are abiding in the Life that now dwells in us – His Life.

    There’s a lot more to be said about that, but I’m already going too long.

    Bottom line is this. Only Jesus Christ can keep and fulfill the commands of Jesus Christ, both in terms of exterior behavior and internal heart attitude.

    So, there is only one way we can truly “obey the commands” and that is to live from an intimate, abiding relationship with Jesus Christ who lives in us – and who longs to fulfill His commands through us.

    An abiding relationship with Christ will alway lead us to fulfill His commands, as He expresses His Life through us. When we live in an abiding harmony with the Spirit of Christ in us, then He lives through us – and He will never live in opposition to His nature. The commands/law/rules of the Bible are an expression of His holy and loving character and nature – and thus when we are abiding in the relationship His life is what we manifest.

    So, teaching people to follow Jesus’ commands or the Bible’s rules is pointless, unless you simply want to create a moral culture. You don’t need Christ for a temporarily or externally moral culture. Again, see the modern Mormons or the ancient Pharisees for examples of the fruit of such a culture…as well as much of the modern, institutional church. Morality is a horrible substitute for abiding in Christ, but righteousness is an important by-product of truly abiding in Him.

    To teach people to pursue rule-keeping or command-keeping outside an intimate, abiding relationship with Christ is deadly, a ministry of death and condemnation to the people who are set free from the law, and are now in Christ. To put the rulues on the same level as the relationship is to completely miss the essence of the new covenant in Christ.

    Let’s let the Word of god make that point. Here’s what Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 3:7-11. Notice what he calls the ministry of death and condemnation.

    “But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory”-2Cor 3:7-11

    I invite you to ponder the meaning of that passage when it comes to the perspective of rule-keeping.

    A loving, abiding relationship with Christ comes first and foremost. True holiness (living the commands) flows out of that intimacy with God. There is no other source of holiness or righteousness. Our best version of righteousness is filthy rags according to Isaiah. Right?

    I hope that’s helpful. I’m going to read your other blog on this issue today. I’ve been away for most of the summer.

    Thanks for a forum on which we can test and wrestle with what is true in love.

    Your brother,

    Allen Haynes, Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Thanks Allen

    But a few problems here. First, try to keep in mind my rule about keeping comments short please! I know this can be hard to do when discussing important issues. And we seem to be covering a lot of old ground here. Also, you seem to simply ignore all the many passages provided which you happen to disagree with. As a pastor, you should know that we must allow all of God’s Word to inform our theology, not just pick and choose those bits which happen to fit our case, and ignore those that do not.

    But perhaps most importantly, if I read your latest comment correctly, it seems you have been radically misunderstanding me all along. You imply that I am speaking about unbelievers here. If so, I must point out that nowhere in my many comments here, or in the original article, did I have unbelievers in mind. I have always been referring only to believers. Perhaps with this misunderstanding sorted out, we might have cleared things up a bit, and may find more common ground between us. But otherwise we might have to agree to disagree on some of these things.

    And my point still stands: those who love God will love his ways and his commands. That is so clear in Scripture that it surprises me and saddens me to see a pastor simply throw these hundreds of texts out the window. Let me just cite five, all which are plain as day:

    Psalm 119:1-2 Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
    Psalm 119: 97 Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
    John 14:21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
    John 15: 10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
    1 John 5:2-3 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.

    Of course this all comes out of a love relationship – no one is denying this. But the two go together. It is simply unbiblical to separate here what God has joined together.

    Now, the altogether different question of how God’s laws apply to unbelievers is a much different discussion. I have written on this elsewhere on this site. I really do believe we have a biblical obligation to be salt and light in this world. Of course no unbeliever will be saved by seeking to keep the law. But that is not what I am arguing for.

    Everyone seeks to impose his or her values and beliefs on the rest of society. Christians have as much right as anyone else to make their case in the public arena. And God’s standards apply to all people. As just one example, the Old Testament prophets could use the exact same message and language when speaking against pagan nations as they did when speaking to God’s covenant people. But see my various articles where I seek to make that case:
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2007/11/27/salt-and-light-business/
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/1997/10/10/the-case-for-christian-social-involvement/
    www.billmuehlenberg.com/2006/07/11/why-bother/

    In sum, thanks again for your thoughts. I must close with the words of D.A. Carson, who, after discussing the same issues (in his book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church – Zondervan, 2005), makes this strong, but needed, comment:

    “So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of an airplane, or the right? Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? The front wheels of a car, or the rear? Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge? Faith or obedience? Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sister in Christ.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill,

    Dear brother, it’s clear that in some regards we’re standing on both sides of a proverbial canyon, and we’re struggling to speak across the gap, although I’m enjoying the dialogue. You’re a good sport and a fair moderator. I’m fairly sure I won’t convince you of anything, but here are some final observations on these matters.

    I’m not saying that we are to live disobedient or lawless, nor am I ignoring the whole of the Word. I’m saying that the Word of God makes it clear that it’s impossible for us to be truly obedient on our own effort or by following rules (again, I refer back to Adam and Eve as the very first and best example of that futility – we can all look in the mirror for other good examples).

    John 15:5 sets the context for ALL discussions of obedience or any works in those who are in union with Christ. We can do nothing real without it coming from the relationship. Obedience and works are a by-product of relationship, not an equal partner – not a second “wing” of the plane, regardless of what D.A. Carson may write.

    We can only truly follow/obey Christ (and do anything eternal) out of the relationship with Him- not out of trying to be obedient to a list of rules or values.

    There’s a VAST difference in abiding in and following Christ in you, and seeking to follow His commands. Therein lies our gap. Information and behavior are not a substitute for the relationship, nor are they equals. They do have a role in our life, but not the primary role most Christians have been taught.

    True obedience to Christ will flow out of the moment-by-moment relationship with Him, through the Spirit. Relationship always comes FIRST in the new covenant with Christ. Abiding in the relationship NEVER leads us into true disobdience, although we certainly go there on our own sometimes (all of us). At other times the Spirit may lead us in ways that may seem disobedient to a legallist. “Seem” being the key word there.

    Here is the ironic gap in understanding I see rampant in our evangelical Church of “self-effort” (Gal 3:3) and in my own teaching for many years (so I’m sympathetic to the struggle, because I’m still entangled in it also). According to the Word of God, within the New Covenant (key context) focusing on the law and the rules in an attempt to live obedient is in reality totally counter-productive to our goal, while also fostering a deceptive, comparative self-righeousness.

    Pay close attention to Romans 7. Trying to live by the law actually stimulates or fertilizes sin in us (7:5), according to Paul. Right? Notice the example he uses in v7. Coveting. Such a wise example. Coveting is not an obvious, visible moral failure, but a rampant source of internal disobedience even in most moral people. We don’t avoid coveting by our effort – or even by our will- but only by the Spirit in us.

    Notice that Paul says we are released from the Law in v 6, to serve in the newness of the Spirit and not the oldness of the letter. What portion of the Law is he referring to? The portion that contains “Thou shalt not covet”….Right? That’s not merely ceremonial law. He’s referring to the core of the Mosaic Law based on the example in Rom 7. What to do with that if rules are equallly important to relationship???? We get the same message repeatedly in Galatians and Hebrews also. We now live by the Spirit (relational presence), not the Law..but we do not live lawless. Huh?

    When we live by and walk in the Spirit, He fulfils the Law through us. But only He can do that. Our flesh efforts at obedience are like filthy rags.

    John 15:5 (“abide in me…”) IS a key part of the whole, and helps to define the whole, in one of the most important passages of Scripture in all of the Word – since this was part of the last discourse of Jesus with His disciples. Sort of a death-bed conversation (John 14-17). When you know you have one last evening with your family or friends you focus on what is most important. Pay close attention to what Christ taught there, because it is helping to define what is about to come for His followers.

    The point of the New Covenant that is about to come is that He will live in them, and they can do nothing (including being truly obedient) outside an intimate, abiding, “mystical” (oh, that dreaded word) relationship with the Spirit of Christ in them. But in that relationship all things are possible, including obedience.

    If you miss that defining point in the Word, then nothing else makes sense except trying harder to be good….which is a tragic and unnecessary reprise of living by Law.

    Also, if you are going to quote Old Testament passages about the Law to demonstrate our present relationship in Christ, it’s clear that the New Covenant perspective in the Word has not yet dawned. The relationship that pre-Calvary followers had with the Law of God is MUCH different than the relationship we have with the Law through the risen Christ. We are set free from the Law, once it tutors/leads/directs us to Christ. Study Galatians, Romans and Hebrews (and 1 Timothy 1:8-11) for more on that. Please.

    Hey, I think I cut my post length by at least 40% over the last two. If I come back I’ll make the next one even shorter.

    Grace and peace.

    Allen Haynes, Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Thanks again Allen

    Welcome back and thanks for trying to keep things shorter (as hard as that is), and yes we see some things differently here.

    But again, I despair of the false dichotomies you present, as in your remark,” There’s a VAST difference in abiding in and following Christ in you, and seeking to follow His commands.” But why? Why cannot we have both, instead of either/or? Why do you offer yet another unbiblical polarity? Of course we must be in Christ, but we are in Christ so that we can keep his commands, as I already provided so many passages for.

    With all due respect, most of the passages you provide (mostly from Paul) simply have to do with Paul refuting Jewish notions about the law. He is clearly telling them that simply trying to keep the law saves no one. No one can keep all the law, and so yes, the law condemns. But that is Paul’s argument with Jewish believers. Of course the law cannot save. I never said it could, nor do most Christians argue that. And of course we must be in Christ, of course it is about a love relationship, of course we are to abide in Christ.

    And it is worrying, Allen, that you now seem to be dismissive of the entire Old Testament! Indeed, your second last paragraph has me a bit concerned! Do you see such a radical discontinuity between the OT and the NT that there is nothing of value there? Do you really believe that David, or Abraham, or Moses, was incapable of having a loving personal relationship with Yahweh? Sure, we can have even more with the indwelling HS today, but you seem to assume that the OT saints had nothing but legalism and rule keeping. It seems your theological stance not only leads you to an unbiblical antinomianism, but to a hyper-dispensationalism as well.

    Yahweh gave the law to Israel after he already entered into a saving relationship with them. The exodus was God’s initiative, with the law coming afterwards simply as an ethical expression of what that loving covenant relationship was to be all about. Again, the law cannot save. But the law is good, as Paul says. It reflects who God is, and informs us about his holiness, righteousness, and so on. Coming to Christ does not mean that the holy and righteous standards of God just disappear.

    But I too must keep things short, so thanks again for sharing. As I say, we may have to agree to disagree.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hello–I appreciate the review, especially since I was trying to decide whether or not to purchase this book. I did, however, want to point out one thing. As an instructor of literature, I think it is relevant to note that the idea of no absolute truth did not start with the Postmoderns. The idea actually began emerging with the Romantics–writers and philosophers–in the later 1700s. In fact, most of our country’s early documents are built on these ideas of respecting the individual and placing a premium on individual rights. I say this to express that these ideas have been around a long time. We are infused with them, knowingly or not, and the extreme to which the current generation takes these ideas is a natural swing of the pendulum. These ideas are dangerous because they place us in a world with no boundaries, no limits, and no standards. What a scary place! So my question to someone who claims there is no absolue truth is this: Is that true (or is that only true for you)? Thanks for the forum!
    Barbara Lee

  • i am just a 17 year old student in Florida and this book has had an huge impact on my walk with Christ and helped better my understanding of God.
    kellen clemons

  • Dear all,

    I have read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, and found it interesting, then again I was coming out of a life of sin and a life not in relationship with God. It attracted me showing me that God loves, that God desires to be near to us, now being a Christian for four years, I would not recommend it though.

    Why?
    Because it seems to swing to one side that, “there is no absolute truth, or that everyone has their own truth” which is outrageous. If you truly, Truly desire to know God, to understand God, go to the source, go to God’s Word the Bible… why take some author, or politician, or pastor, or even your parents word on it, seek out what the Bible really says about God, what it says His nature and character. In fact go to God, pray and ask Him to show you what you find of this nature and character in the Bible and I assure you, that you will be astonished at what you find! And how IMMENSELY closer you will get to God, and the calling He has on your life.

    Bless ya heaps
    Sara Freeman

  • Hi All,
    I was sent a link to a YouTube video where Rob Bells book Velvet Elvis was attacked. I haven’t read the book, but just looking at the extracts and what was suppposedly wrong with them, I could see straight away that often the answer didn’t match the question. So I went looking and found this review and I’ve wadded through the comments. I’m going to buy the book. I’ve seen many of Rob’s Nooma DVD’s and there is only one or two that I wouldn’t use.

    I’ve been a follower of Christ Jesus since I was 4. I’m nearly 50. I found some of Rob’s material very useful together with some other material to totally transform my faith walk. I found rather than leading me away from scripture, it took me back in and so much of it started to make sense. In the majority of cases it was stuff I already knew, but was seeing through the eyes of law. I could see the plan and pattern of salvation laid down from beginning to end and that I have a heavenly Father who desperately loves me and is determined to save me. I also finally understood to the point that it is now more than ever being worked out in my day to day life that relationship with Jesus on His terms is everything.

    I know we need to be on guard against false teachers, but on the stuff I’ve seen of Rob’s, I struggle to see how he doesn’t confirm and affirm the scriptures. Greg K’s article Never Read a Bible Verse www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5466 I think is very applicable not only to scripture.

    Thanks for your thoughts everyone.
    Eric Belcher

  • Dear Brother Bill,

    Thank you for fighting the “good fight” and being an ambassador for the Word of God. As I read through these arguments and rebuttals I found it very draining to read over and over again individuals state dogmatically that all dogma is wrong (except for their dogma.) And I found it equally draining to read how people are absolutely certain that there are no absolutes. And it was slightly annoying to read the inferences that condemned you and others that are like-minded about God’s Word as being close-minded because we don’t agree with their narrow-minded definitions and theological views.
    I think you summed things up best by reminded us of Jesus’ statement, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” I think scripture goes on to say, ” and these commands are not burdensome.” No one is every going to obey God perfectly and likewise none of us will ever have a perfect relationship with God, and if we have one ounce of humility we openly admit that we don’t come close to loving God perfectly either. Yet every now and then by God’s grace we get a glimpse of what Jesus is really like and we fall head over heals in love with him and our greatest desires are His desires! Not because we are trying to follow a checklist of do’s and don’ts, but rather we are entering true worship. These are the kinds of worshippers the Father desires, those that worship in “truth” and “spirit.” Yeh, it’s both; they go hand-in-hand. And I think we are in good company from David to Jesus, with believing the concept that loving the Father and obeying the Father seemed pretty important to all of the Biblical examples that adored God and were adored by Him. As a father I will admit that my children’s willful obedience will never validate my fatherhood of them, but it sure does make me feel loved and respected as well as it puts a smile on my face.

    Thanks again Bill,
    Bob Uhrich

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