Rob Bell was once the poster-boy of the evangelical world, a pastor who wrote books with hip titles like Velvet Elvis and Sex God. Some touted him as ‘Billy Graham’ for a new generation. Then his theology began to implode. A decade ago, his book Love Wins ‘deconstructed’ biblical teaching on heaven and hell. He traded justification by grace through faith for universalism.
Many wondered how he could go off the rails so quickly; I’ve always felt it was an outgrowth of his theology. Behind the hip language, his doctrine was rooted in Reformed Calvinist teaching: God determined who would be saved in eternity past. Talk of God’s love just didn’t sit well with a God who predestines millions to hell before they’re born. Something had to go.
Bell abandoned sin and hell, and decided we’d all go to heaven. Love wins! Everyone wins! It’s not a message you’ll find in the Bible, but it is a message for a ‘me first’ generation. Bell became “pastor” to Oprah Winfrey; his “The Rob Bell Show” aired on her Oprah Winfrey Network, and he toured the country with her. He’s a sad result of grace-less Christianity.
Since the first century there have been casualties in the spiritual battlefield. Leaders in the church have fallen away from the faith. Paul writes of Hymenaeus and Philetus, “who have gone astray from the truth” (2 Tim. 2.17-18), and Demas, who “having loved this present world, has deserted me” (2 Tim. 4.10), and Alexander, who “did me much harm” (2 Tim. 4.14). We don’t know the specific causes of these defections, only that they broke Paul’s heart.
Today, we are witnessing a rash of defections from the faith by popular Christian personalities. Last month, Kevin Max, a member of the band DC Talk, announced he was an “exvangelical.” He said he’d been ‘deconstructing’ his faith for decades, and now follows “the universal Christ” (whatever that means). He described himself as “anti-war, pro-peace, anti-hate…pro-LGBTQIA, pro-BLM, pro-open mindedness…pro-utopia, pro-equality, pro-vax, etc.”
Before Max left the faith, there was Josh Harris, who in 2019 announced, “I am not a Christian.” Hillsong singer/songwriter Marty Sampson posted, “I’m genuinely losing my faith…and it doesn’t bother me.” Jon Steingard, lead singer of Canadian Christian rock band Hawk Nelson, announced on social media, “I no longer believe in God.”
Paul Maxwell, former Moody professor and writer for John Piper’s Desiring God ministry, just announced he has left the faith: “It’s important to say that I’m just not a Christian anymore, and it feels really good. I’m really happy…I’m so full of joy for the first time. I love my life.”
As I reflect on those who have abandoned their faith, I am sobered. Satan wants to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10.10); Christians should heed Paul’s warning in 1 Cor. 10.12: Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. None of us is immune to the devil’s wiles.
But immediately after warning of Satan’s destructive goals in John 10.10, Jesus said that He had come that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.” What causes people who have believed in Christ and known of His love and grace to cash it in for the dead-end of this world?
One answer – and one I see too often – is that many Christians are wallowing in what I call “grace-less Christianity.” It takes different forms. For some, Christianity is a collection of do’s and don’ts, and that gets old. For others, their theology tells them that if they’re good they’ll go to heaven, and if they’re bad they’ll go to hell. The burden of trying to measure up just wears them down. What’s missing is grace.
Grace does not water down sin; it paints it with a broad brush. In fact, it condemns all of us: There is none righteous, not even one (Rom. 3.10). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3.23). But grace does not leave us in that hopeless condition. Jesus’ death on the cross paid the price for our salvation. When He cried out “It is finished!” He meant it. He offers complete forgiveness. Paul wrote the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free!” (Gal. 5.1) Grace gives freedom – freedom to live a ‘thank you’ life for our Savior who loved us and gave Himself for us.
When a Christian abandons Jesus Christ, and says “it feels really good…I’m really happy…I’m so full of joy for the first time,” I know something: He was caught in grace-less Christianity, and as a result the life he was living wasn’t the “abundant life” Jesus promised.
Fellow-Christians, this is a warning – and an exhortation. Don’t ever let anyone steal God’s all-sufficient grace from you. Thank God daily for His love – nothing can separate you from it (Rom. 8.38-39)! Rest in His free gift of eternal life. And live the abundant life Jesus promised.