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June 20, 2011

Mark Galli’s God Wins: A Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins

God WinsToday Mark Galli’s new book God Wins, published by Tyndale House, is available as an ebook at Amazon. (It'll be available as an ebook from Christianbook.com later this month, and the print book will be available July 15.)

God Wins is a response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. (See my previous blog posts about Love Wins.)

On Wednesday I’ll share my thoughts about another soon-to-be-released book, Erasing Hell, by Francis Chan, also a response to Love Wins. I’ll compare Chan’s book and Galli’s.

But first, God Wins.

Mark Galli is the senior managing editor for Christianity Today magazine. As a journalist educated at UC Santa Cruz, Fuller Seminary, and UC Davis, he is not someone whose résumé screams “intolerant fundamentalist.” Whether it’s meant as a compliment or criticism, most who know Mark would call him “open-minded.” He dialogues respectfully with those coming from various theological orientations. He doesn’t rush to judgment or hastily draw lines in the sand.

Galli is a big-tent evangelical, and that’s part of what makes this book so potent. His penetrating critique of Rob Bell’s Love Wins demonstrates that even a big tent can be only so big before terms such as Bible believing and evangelical, in the historic sense, begin to lose their meaning.

Mark GalliGalli understands not only his particular branch of Christianity, but what C. S. Lewis called mere Christianity—the irreducible core of our faith. Though Galli has strong theological underpinnings, this is not a sectarian work, it is a treatment that true Christians of nearly every background should be able to embrace and affirm together. (Should be, I said; I don’t mean that they actually will.)

Evangelical churches, both Calvinist and Arminian, hold to very different theological distinctives and have widely divergent positions on baptism, church government, and eschatology. But they have consistently shared the common belief that everyone will go to one of two eternal destinations: heaven or hell.  This is not and never has been a fringe issue.

Mark Galli is a historian and a former editor of Christian History, one of my favorite magazines of all time (all 100 issues are on my shelf). With his grasp of theological history, Mark is acutely aware of something many modern authors, and I don’t just mean Rob Bell, appear not to grasp: God hasn’t given this generation—so accustomed to opinion polls that want to know what we think—the luxury of remaking theology on the fly and redefining the gospel.

Mark graciously and skillfully shows how the Love Wins version of the Good News is actually bad news. Our culture needs us not to reinforce its soft, malleable, and fleeting worldview but to offer a God-revealed, redemptive alternative. Mark’s trinitarian emphasis roots the gospel not in personal experience but in God’s own nature, which is what ultimately led to his creation and redemptive plan. That’s why this book is much more than a critique, and something of a manifesto.

C. S. Lewis warned against chronological snobbery—the assumption that recent viewpoints are better than ancient ones. Love Wins minimizes the doctrines of penal sacrifice and substitutionary atonement, ascribing them to “primitive cultures.” In contrast, Galli embraces these doctrines and quotes unapologetically (and in context) Jesus and Paul, as well as Luther, Edwards, and Spurgeon. The gospel he affirms is timely precisely because it is timeless.

RockGod Wins is built on biblical and historical rock, not cultural sand. That’s exactly the needed foundation for a response to Love Wins, an attractive book heavy on feelings but light on biblical and historical reasoning.

Love Wins asks hundreds of questions but offers few biblical answers. What God Wins says about asking questions is worth the price of the book: “There are questions, and then there are questions.” Galli examines the justice questions of Job and Habakkuk, contrasting them with the self-absorbed questions of Pilate. He quotes God, who says to Job, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them” (Job 38:2-3).

Love Wins argues, “God gets what he wants.” Yes, Galli responds, but what he wants is not limited to people’s salvation. It also includes justice.

As I read Rob Bell’s book, I kept saying to myself what I’ve said while reading other recent “evangelical” books—that the God revealed in Scripture is not a love-only, single-attribute God. Vital as his love is, the seraphim in his presence do not cry out day and night, “Love, love, love is the Lord God Almighty.”

Love—as moderns narrowly define it, in the sense that everything should turn out well for everyone—certainly does not win in the biblical narrative. Rather, as Galli’s title aptly puts it, God Wins. And not just any God, but the true God. The Father who is both loving and righteous, the Son who is full of both grace and truth, the merciful Spirit who has the word Holy in his very name. God’s attributes aren’t a menu from which we may choose only what we wish. He is all that he is, all the time. The universe exists not for Love’s glory, but for God’s glory.

My takeaway—not directly affirmed by Galli but to me an inescapable conclusion—is that the issues underlying both Love Wins and God Wins are, in the end, far bigger than hell. If we can still claim to be Bible believers while radically reinterpreting Christ’s words about hell, stripping them of their straightforward meaning, why should it end there? What about Christ’s virgin birth? His physical resurrection? His deity? What about moral issues? Why not reject everything we can’t figure out, everything that goes against the grain of our culture’s, or any culture’s, dominant worldview? And what would someone have to reject, short of the very existence of God or his Son, in order to no longer be an evangelical Christian? What will be left of the faith once for all delivered to the saints when our generation is done revising it? (A look at liberal mainline churches suggests the answer.)

If the orthodox views on salvation and damnation are up for grabs, then surely virtually everything in the Apostles’ Creed is also. Evangelicalism may survive attacks from the outside, but it faces the impending sinkhole of inner erosion. That’s why I believe God Wins offers help not just for the issues of hell and universalism but also for many other issues the church is already facing, or inevitably will. 

God Wins contains some refreshingly solid God-centered theology. Mark Galli grasps the doctrine of election and the miracle that God’s amazing grace delivers us from the hell we deserve. God can and will bridge the gap between himself and people, not through our doctrinal revisionism but through his sovereign grace.

God Wins doesn’t discourage honest questions but calls us to go to God’s Word for honest answers, even when our Lord doesn’t respond to our questions point for point. Galli encourages us to recognize the mysteries of God and respectfully bow our knees to his divine authority.

crossroadI pray people will read and heed this book with the knowledge that our evangelical churches are at a doctrinal and leadership crossroads, and much is at stake. If, after all, our sins aren’t big enough to warrant eternal punishment, then perhaps the grace God showed us on the cross isn’t big enough to warrant eternal praise. (God forbid that we should believe this.)

After I heard Tyndale House was publishing God Wins, I emailed Mark Galli to tell him I was praying for him as he wrote, because this subject is so important, with such great implications for the church of Christ. Mark then asked me to write a foreword. After reading the book, I was glad to. I expected God Wins to be good, but was delighted to discover it is excellent—careful, concise, thought-provoking and biblical.

On Wednesday, I’ll talk about another soon-to-be released book, Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell. I’ll compare it with God Wins, and explain why I recommend people read not just one, but both of these small books on this immensely important subject.

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