I’ve recently discovered Rob Bell’s 59-part blog exposition of how he views the Bible. The whole series is probably worth comment but to do so would take more time than I am presently able. But I am compelled to comment on at least his most recent offering (as of this writing). In the post titled “What is the Bible? Part 59: Sin” Bell gives his interpretation of doctrine of sin.
In it Bell utilizes Cornelius Plantinga’s definition: “Sin is culpable disturbance of shalom.” After breaking down his understanding of each of the three principal terms in that definition he continues:
“Sin is anything we do to disrupt the peace and harmony God desires for the world. Here’s the problem with how many understand the word: When sin is understood primarily in terms of breaking or violating or disobeying there’s no larger context to place it in. There’s whatever you did or didn’t do, and then there’s God’s anger or wrath or displeasure with you. But when you place it in the larger context of the good, the peace, the shalom that we all want for the world, then it starts to make way more sense. Of course I’m guilty of disturbing shalom, is there any sane person who wouldn’t own up to that?”
Sin, for Bell, is not a personal violation or rebellion against a personal God but an interruption of an inanimate idea or concept. To be sure, a “culpable disturbance of shalom” may be one of many consequences of sin. But, with all due respect to Dr. Plantinga, that certainly must not be the definition of sin. Bell’s utilization of Plantinga’s definition minimizes the personal aspect of sin as a personal assault to God’s character. As D. A. Carson has keenly pointed out, Plantinga’s definition of sin is weak precisely on this point:
“Of course, God is comprehended within Plantinga’s definition: sin includes the rupture of the relationship between God and human beings. Yet this does not appear to make God quite as central as the Bible makes him. In [Leviticus 19], for example, where God enjoins many laws that constrain and enrich human relationships, the fundamental and frequently repeated motive is “I am the LORD,” not “Do not breach shalom.” When David repents of his wretched sins of adultery, murder, and betrayal, even though he has damaged others, destroyed lives, betrayed his family, and corrupted the military, he dares say, truthfully, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4). The majority of the approximately six hundred OT passages that speak of the wrath of God connect it not to the destruction of shalom, but to idolatry—the de-godding of God. Human sin in Gen 3 certainly destroys human relationships and brings a curse on the creation, but treating this comprehensive odium as the vandalism of shalom makes it sound both too slight and too detached from God. After all, the fundamental act was disobeying God, and a central ingredient in the temptation of Eve was the incitement to become as God, knowing good and evil” [emphasis added].
But this is not the greatest problem with Bell’s post. Bell goes on to make several statements about sin that are worth our attention.
Firstly, Bell states, “In the New Testament, there’s only one kind of sin: The kind that God has forgiven in Christ.”
But such an assertion is demonstrably false. Jesus clearly demonstrated that forgiveness of sins depended on how one responded to him: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24 ESV). Elsewhere Jesus declares that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt 12:31–32). Setting aside the discussion about what is meant by blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, it is clear that Jesus sees more than one kind of sin and that the distinction is that one is forgivable and one is not.
Secondly, Bell says, “In the New Testament, we are not identified first and foremost as sinners, but as saints.”
Since Bell is talking about one’s identity, the question needs to be asked, Who is Bell talking to in his post: Believers in Christ or everyone? No one is a saint in the New Testament apart from their faith in Christ. The term for saints is used in the address of letters to churches, groups of believers. James informs his readers “that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). Such an exhortation makes no sense apart from the fact that the New Testament does divide all people into two groups: those who have placed their faith in Christ and are saved (saints) and those who have not (sinners, ungodly, etc.).
Thirdly, Bell says, “In the New Testament, people are taught first who they are in Christ, because the more you know about who you are, the more you’ll know what to do.”
To be sure, Christians are to “consider [themselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11). But in context this is only true for those who have been united with Christ by faith as is signified in baptism (cf. Rom 6:1–10). The glorious truth that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23) comes to those who trust in Christ: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…” (Rom 3:21–25).
What is most troubling in Bell’s discussion of sin is the lack of the necessity of repentance and faith. Bell does get around to mentioning the cross of Christ in the last paragraph. But a close reading of his whole post shows that forgiveness of sins for Bell is universally and unilaterally granted. This of course is hardly surprising given the trajectory of Bell’s theology. Mankind’s problem, according to Bell, is that we simply don’t realize what is already true about us: that we are already forgiven and accepted and saved even without repentance and trusting in Christ. This is a lie and, like the false prophets of old, erroneously assures those who do not turn to Christ that they already have peace when there is no peace (cf. Jer 6:13–14; 8:10–11). Jesus himself stressed the need for repentance: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Jesus commissioned the apostles to proclaim repentance for forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46–48), which Luke records that the early church did in fact do (cf. Acts 2:38; 3:19–20; 5:31–32). Even Paul’s commission to the nations included repentance for forgiveness (Acts 26:16–18). And this is the message for us today. Bell’s “gospel” neglects this key component.
Jesus didn’t die merely for culpable disturbers of shalom, he was crucified for sinners; personal and volitional enemies of God (Rom 5:10). All who repent and believe in Christ are saved from their sin. But, as Jesus himself said, “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).