Wittmer’s Response to Rob Bell–What Did Christ Really Do for Those Who Won’t be Saved?
Christ Alone, Edenridge Press, 2011 (preface by Michael Horton)
Among the Arminian “evangelical” answers to Rob Bell’s popular book Love Wins, Michael Wittmer’s Christ Alone was one of the better written and more focused reflections. Dr Wittmer has written several other books in recent years, not least Heaven is a Place on Earth. Wittmer probably would not describe himself as an Arminian, and might even think of himself as some kind of Calvinist. But his theology shows the false hope of any “gospel” which claims that Christ died for all sinners but then makes the salvation of sinners depend on something else besides Christ’s death.
Since I have already agreed that Wittmer would not think of himself as an Arminian, I want to keep that label on hold and have you hear Wittmer for yourself. On p 138, he summarizes: “We stand in God’s courtroom, guilty for Adam’s sin and for our own, awaiting God’s just sentence of condemnation. But before the sentence can be read, the Son of the Judge steps forward and announces that he wishes to be damned to hell in our place. Contrary to Bell, this Son is not rescuing us from his evil Father, for it was the Father who sent the Son to save us. Neither is this a bipolar God who loves unrepentant sinners while they are alive and then switches gears at their death…God is just, so he will punish those who die under his wrath. But he lovingly sent his Son to bear His wrath in their place.”
What should we say to this summary? Should we label Wittmer an Arminian for saying that the Son bore God’s wrath for those who will end up dying under God’s wrath? Should we ask why Michael Horton is endorsing this false Christ and this false gospel? Should we comfort ourselves at the fact that Wittmer is not a Barthian or an universalist, and that he teaches conversion, and a transition from wrath to God’s favor?
My response to Wittmer is very much the same as his to Bell. This is “not enough gospel”. (p146) If the cross does not add anything to the non-elect but more wrath, then for the non-elect the death of Christ is no gospel at all.
I wish Wittmer could hear his questions to Bell come back to himself. On p 147, Wittmer concludes: “if there is no looming threat of wrath and hell, then there is little for God to do except be generally kind to everyone.” I agree with this logic. Not even the elect are born safe, except in the decree of God. The wrath of God abides even on the elect until they are justified by means of Christ’s death. Even the elect need to hear and believe the gospel. But I want to think about that phrase “for God to do”.
What does God need to do? What has God done for those who are saved that God has not done for those who will not be saved? Since Wittmer is an “evangelical” and does not think of himself as an Arminian, he does not speak of what Christ has done for the elect and what Christ has not done for the non-elect. (Even though the Confessions to which Michael Horton subscribes speak of that difference, in his preaching that difference is given no attention.)
Evangelicals want to stick to what they can agree on. Sin and wrath are real. God really had to do something about this if anybody would “possibly” be saved. Whatever it was that Christ did was done for all sinners. This is why I am asking evangelicals like Wittmer to listen to themselves when they talk back to Rob Bell.
Listen: p146–“If the cross doesn’t add anything that we couldn’t already learn from Jesus’ life and ministry, and if Jesus’ words and deeds don’t tell us anything we couldn’t already learn from nature, then forcing Jesus to go to the cross seems to be a genuine case of divine child abus…The God of Love Wins (title of book by Rob Bell) doesn’t win because the stakes are so low that there is little for him to win.”
So what’s the difference between the God of Wittmer and the God of Rob Bell? First, since wrath is real, there is something to win and something to lose. Second, the God of Wittmer, who dies for all sinners, even those on whom God’s wrath will ultimately abide, does win some. And plus, on top of that, even the ones the God of Wittmer loses, God attempted to win, because Christ died for them.
Or as evangelical Lewis Sperry Chafer explained the message: Christ died for all their acts of sin, so they won’t die for any acts of sins, but many of them will die for their “attitude of sin”, since they thought they were too good to need what Christ did for them. Since they think they don’t need what Christ did for them, then Christ’s death won’t do anything for them.
Both Wittmer and Bell have pointed to the possibility of “divine child abuse”. Bell is Socinian enough to put grace in competition with justice, and to deny that there is any real forgiveness if Christ had to die for God to forgive. Wittmer is not a Socinian, and thus suggests that Bell’s Christ had no reason to die.
But what was the point of Christ dying for the non-elect? Wittmer is very clear that he thinks that Christ did die for everybody. Wittmer is very very clear that he thinks that not everybody will be saved. Even though Wittmer is not at all clear about elect and non-elect, he does not tell us the point of Christ dying for those who will not be saved.
What did Christ “really do”? If Christ died the same for those who will be saved as Christ died for those who won’t be saved, what in the end did Christ “really do” even for those who will be saved? Certainly Christ’s death was not decisive for salvation, but in what way does Wittmer think Christ really did anything for all sinners, as one step (needed along with others) to a rescue from His wrath?
If God was going to change the hearts of some sinners, and cause them to be born again, and that was going to save them, why was it necessary for God the Father to give the Son to die? If the Son dies to take away wrath for everybody, but the wrath is not taken away, what did the Son’s death “really do”?
Like most evangelicals, Wittmer has a “strings attached” gospel, a “however” gospel. Instead of telling the truth to everybody that God doesn’t love everybody, he thinks the responsibility of everybody depends on God having loved everybody and Christ having died for everybody.
I do not disagree with him about the need to preach the gospel to everybody. I do not disagree with him about the terrible condition of all sinners who do not hear and believe the gospel. I disagree with him about what the gospel is. Here’s his explanation (p138): “However, if we fallen creatures don’t accept God’s love, either because we think we are too good to go to hell or because we think God is too good to send us there, then we will learn too late, that our false assurance of safety is the very thing which has made us unsafe.”
No, Mr Wittmer, we were born unsafe, we started out lost, and the false Christ you preach has made nobody safe. The false Christ you preach is an idol, somebody you say really did “something” but that “something” depends on our attitude to make it work.
This is a yes and no complicated “bait and switch” gospel. You are not safe. But Jesus really needed to die for you all to make you all safe. And God loves you, and Jesus really died for you. But. Still you are not safe yet.
No wonder Rob Bell accuses the false god of evangelicalism with being one who changes from love to wrath when his love in unrequited. Yes, there is an objective legal transition from wrath to favor when God’s elect are justified and adopted in history, but God’s love for the elect had no beginning and God never loved the non-elect. But Wittmer promises everybody a deal, an offer: if we change our attitude and agree that God is right to have wrath toward us, and agree that we need Christ to die for us, then……what?
Either Christ already died for us or not. Wittmer is assuring us all that Christ already died for us all. And he wants to tell us that this death “really did something”. If we come knowing that we are sinners and needing to be saved, if we come with the right attitude, “then we will find that we have a merciful and holy God, an advocate who justly emptied all the wrath our sins deserved, but who in mercy poured it out upon himself.” (p138)
But what about if we don’t come with such a right attitude? What about if we come like Rob Bell comes? Well, Christ already died and His death already really did something. But we can’t say what that was. Even though God emptied all the wrath on the Son, still there seems to be some more wrath left for many for whom Christ died.
Now we could get philosophical about if this is the same wrath which was for our sins which was already emptied on Christ, or if it’s new wrath not about our acts of sins but our wrong attitude in what we do with what Christ did for us, but in any case, it’s still wrath and what did Christ’s death really do about it?
Surely Christ’s death was not to condemn anybody because, as Wittmer has explained, we all already started out condemned. Perhaps Wittmer would tell us that Christ did something extra for those who will be saved, that it had “multiple purposes”, and that it purchased the new birth for some. But in any case, we are left with the question of those who will not be saved. Wittmer is still an “evangelical” and so he is sure that Christ died and really did something for these folks. But what?
Romans 8:32–“He that spared not His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things.”