Rob Bell’s Sermon of Love

Many years ago, I was blessed to study under the tutelage of Dr. William Lane for part of my undergraduate New Testament studies. Bill Lane was well regarding in evangelical circles, and at the time was known for his commentary on Mark. While I was his student, he was engaged in writing what would become perhaps one of the definitive two volume commentaries on the book of Hebrews, a task that led him to read every work ever written on Hebrews, requiring that he learn a language or two along the way to carry out his task.

Lane’s take on Hebrews was much different from the scholarship of the day. Most mainstream scholars had concluded, based on analysis of the text, that Hebrews was written by somebody other than Paul, even though the tradition suggested Pauline authorship. Lane, however, made a compelling argument for Pauline authorship, based on his own analysis of the text. The error that most scholars made, he believed, was to view Hebrews as an epistle like Paul’s other epistles. Based on the form of those letters, the language of Hebrews seemed very different, thus leader most to believe that Paul could not have written the book. Lane suggested that the problem was that Hebrews was never to be understood and read like an epistle; rather that Hebrews was a sermon, requiring a different way of speaking. This was not a letter of instruction, but a word of exhortation to a people facing persecution, and thus Paul used a different form — a sermon — to cheer on the weary recipients of Hebrews.

Having now read a couple of chapters of “Love Wins,” by Rob Bell I think that part of the problem that many of the evangelical digerati are having with this work is the failure to recognize this work as a sermon, not some sort of theological treatise. Bell’s work is a word of exhortation to a world that has far too often seen God as a harsh taskmaster searching for opportunities to smite those who get out of line. Yes, he draws on scripture and tradition to make his arguments for a loving God whose ultimate desire is reconciliation with all of creation, but his concern is not with exegetical precision, but rather telling the story about a God whose presence is infused throughout the cosmos; the God who proclaimed all of creation as very good; the God who is more concerned with redemption than damnation.

Of course, given the rise of the “teaching pastor” role as opposed to the traditional preacher, I’m not sure that many of these leaders understand the difference between teaching and preaching, the impartation of knowledge with proclamation. Bell understands that his role is not to move the head but rather to move the heart. He recognizes that transformation may sometimes be found in right belief, but more often comes when one’s heart is captured by the amazing love and grace of God. The days of scaring people into a religious system are far gone, for the questions he raises at the beginning of the book are far more prevalent than not. This isn’t about making “the gospel” (which, of course raises the question of which gospel we are talking about) more comfortable for modern people, but rather helping modern people recognize that much of what has been presented in Jesus’ name (things like Hell Houses and the like) are more a reflection of culture and other influences than Christ’s concern with damnation. Bell has written a sermon, and those who would challenge him treat it as if it’s an epistle or a theology book. Bell’s gift is the movement of the heart, and if there is a little head learning as well, then so be it.

Bill Lane, my former mentor (and Michael Card’s as well) once told a group of students that it is a sin to make the bible boring. Rob Bell at first glance seems to have some sense of what Lane was saying, and I think has taken on the challenge to bring passion and joy back to worshiping Christ.

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2 thoughts on “Rob Bell’s Sermon of Love

  1. Thanks for this exhortation, Jay, and thanks also for reminding me of the great gift that Bill Lane was to the study of the New Testament. Reading any ancient text, like listening to older music, does require a bit of struggle. Both genres have a historical context that often gets layered with years of tradition that may, or may not, do the initial offering any favors. I appreciate your candor and your encouragement.

  2. I really agree with you on Bell. Too often we are so defensive over our own theological beliefs and when a writer records something we don’t agree with we simply write them off as heretics. My theology professor said that he doesn’t agree with Bell theologically but he does agree with him methodologically. I think that in essence, he was saying precisely what you are saying. Bell is most definitely not a heretic. I read all his works and when he was in town on his “Fit to Smash Ice” tour I made sure I was in attendance. Bell may be more liberal than most conservative evangelicals feel comfortable with, but he believes in the authority of Scripture and preaches that sin is destructive and fatal. Though he doesn’t outright say that sin is damnable in just as many words, it does come across in many of his sermons. He says that sin is wrong and we know it. Sin is destructive and separates us from God. But, sin never separates us from God’s love. I believe that this is the sense in which he preaches and writes. I don’t believe that Love Wins was any attempt to persuade people to accept universalism. I think it was meant as a conversation starter that leads people to a God of loving grace and compassion for us right where we are in life. That permeates his sermons. Much like the book The Shack really seemed to get people focused on God again. We may not agree with the theology, but it wasn’t written to be biblically accurate. It was an allegory and they are never meant to be taken as theology. They serve their purpose in starting people to move towards God. Maybe we don’t agree with this approach and that’s okay. But I would never want to be guilty of waving someone off as a heretic simply because their beliefs don’t match my own.

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