Bethel Church, Forgiving Jesus, and An Upside Down Atonement

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I’ll never forget where I was the first time I heard of Bethel Church. I was at my own church. A few weeks before I had begun what would ultimately be a few months of preaching to our youth group while the church searched for a new youth pastor. One Wednesday night, I’m sitting in there and my buddy turns on this music video: “Walk In the Promise”, by Bethel Church. I remember thinking to myself, Who is that?!? I was stunned. I immediately fell for the music, and over the next few years regularly listened to music and musicians out of Bethel Church—Jeremy Riddle, Jesus Culture, Jenn Johnson, etc. I loved it. As I looked a little deeper, it became apparent to me that I had some real differences with the church itself. Good music is good music though, right? I pushed my concerns away. Then a friend sent me the video at the bottom of this page (and then troubling video after troubling video after that), and everything changed. I decided that, for better or worse, Bethel Church and I disagreed too much and too strongly for me to continue wholeheartedly endorsing their stuff. I was done. I’m still done.

For the most part, I’ve stayed away from Bethel, though many churches I have been a part of have sung and benefited from their songs. This week, however, I couldn’t stay silent any longer. I noticed this video popping up on my Facebook timeline over and over again, sometimes with angry comments and sometimes with wholehearted support. Too many people I love have liked it, shared it, or asked about it. In the video, children’s pastor Seth Dahl talks about coming to the point of forgiveness after a pastor deeply hurt him, but instead of forgiving the pastor, Dahl says that he had to forgive Jesus.

Watch it for yourself ( transcribed below):

“One time I was laying on the floor… and in a vision, an encounter with God, Jesus picks me up and holds me so close that I can’t see anything. And Jesus starts to weep. And he says, “Please forgive me. Please forgive me.” And I said, “What are you talking about, ‘please forgive you’?” He said, “When that pastor hurt you, it’s as if I hurt you because he is a member of my body. Please forgive me.” And when we hold onto pain from other believers or other leaders or old pastors or old Christians, look—the enemy is called the accuser of the brethren—any thought that accuses a brother had its origin with the devil. Any pain I hold onto from a believer, and unforgiveness that I hold onto from another believer, Jesus actually takes it. Think about the cross, what Jesus did: he did not sin but he paid for ours. He did not sin, but he let us kill him for our sin. He took the blame for us. He took our blame and let us punish him for our stuff. So why would he not look at you and say, “That pain you’re holding onto, that hurt you’re holding onto, that unforgiveness you’re holding onto, look—holding it against them is like you are holding it against me, because they are a member of my body.” And I wept when I realized that I had been in pain from God—from what I thought was God. I don’t know if that made sense. It wasn’t that God inflicted the pain. It’s that God took the blame for inflicting the pain, and holding it against my brother was like holding it against God. And I wept, and I wept, and I wept as I forgave Jesus for something he didn’t do but someone else did. And I didn’t realize until that moment that holding it against them, I was actually distancing myself from God. To distance myself from them, I was distancing myself from God.”

It’s easy to get riled up by a video like this. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, what Dahl is after is this: Jesus calls us to forgive those who sin against us, as we have been forgiven in Christ. Every pain, every grief that we hold in that becomes the root of bitterness for us is sin. When we refuse to forgive, we do not act like Christ—we deny the gospel by our actions.

At that level, Dahl is right. It cannot be ignored, though, how troubling what Dahl actually said is. Dahl reverses the logic of substitution of the cross, making Christ not just the bearer of sin but the sinner himself. Notices what “Jesus” says to him:

“Please forgive me. Please forgive me…”

Dahl goes on, “And I wept when I realized that I had been in pain from God—from what I thought was God. I don’t know if that made sense. It wasn’t that God inflicted the pain. It’s that God took the blame for inflicting the pain, and holding it against my brother was like holding it against God. And I wept, and I wept, and I wept as I forgave Jesus for something he didn’t do but someone else did.”

For Dahl then, who needs the forgiveness? Jesus does. Jesus becomes the offender. A video like this one is tough. Our gut reaction is to scream, “No!” or to be disgusted, but when we get down to it, it’s more problematic. “Jesus is the offender.” Isn’t that right? After all, doesn’t 2 Corinthians 5:21 say that , “…he who knew no sin became sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Didn’t Jesus become the “cursed” man (Gal. 3:13) for us? Of course he did. But that’s not what Dahl says.

To be fair, Dahl does say, “He did not sin.” That much is to his credit. But the way Dahl frames forgiveness here is deadly at worst and pastorally harmful at best. What kind of teaching is this? Who is God that he should need to be forgiven? 1 John 1:5 tells us, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” And yet Dahl says that Jesus himself told him that it was actually Him, Jesus, who did the misdeed. Because the one who sinned is in Christ, it is as if Christ himself sinned. Christ has become a sinner in need of forgiveness from his own creation.

Let’s get to the point: Dahl has totally subverted the truth of the gospel. He has flipped it on its head. Christ is our substitute, because he is without sin. It’s because Christ is not in need of forgiveness that he is a perfectly righteous substitute for us (2 Cor. 5:21) and advocate before God (1 John 2:1). Jesus is not empathetic with us because he becomes a sinner. Jesus is empathetic with us because he took on human flesh with all of its weakness and insufficiency and it was there, in the likeness of sinful flesh(Rom. 8:3) that he upheld the law completely. We “have a high priest who is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

I can not help but be reminded of Jesus touching the woman with an issue of blood in Luke 8:40-48. As Jesus traveled along his way, a crowd pressed in and a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touched him. She was unclean. Under law, Jesus should have become unclean. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the woman is healed immediately (8:47). Likewise, when sinners in the church hurt people, it is not Jesus who is tainted. When sinners are in Christ, regardless of their sinfulness, it is they who are changed. Yes, Christ takes their sin away from them. But Christ has paid that penalty. He is a resurrected and glorified Lord, spotless and free from all sin. It is us who are changed by relationship with him; it is us who are cleansed.

At its best, Dahl’s message here misses the heart of the gospel message (and that’s not what you want to be best at), a message where the righteousness of God is revealed (Romans 1:17) and we see God as he is, as one who never needs forgiveness. At its worst, Dahl’s message is victim blaming. After all, Dahl does not merely encourage listeners to the imperative of the gospel (“forgive as the Lord has forgiven you”). Rather, he says that when we hold onto not just unforgiveness, but pain itself, we hold that very pain against God. It switches all of the responsibility off of the guilty party and on to the victim. He says, “Any thought that accuses a brother had its origin with the devil.” So now, if a victim does not immediately move from offense to forgiveness, what they are participating in is something demonic. This is just heaping on guilt, and shame, burdens too large to bear.

Everyone has a bad moment. I know as well as anyone that in the preaching moment, it is easy to mis-step. This, however, was no misspoken word. It’s clear that Dahl knew exactly what he was saying. He says that Jesus himself told him this in a vision. And it’s because of that, that claim to divine revelation, that I can’t help but look at what he’s teaching and look at how he says he got this message, and conclude that Dahl is teaching a lie. Worse still, he makes Jesus a liar, because he claims Jesus says something that so clearly contradicts the Scriptures. He’s saying thus says the Lord and the Lord has said no such thing. We should run from this. I probably wouldn’t say anything if this weren’t such a popular video, and such a regular occurrence out of Bethel Church. (For an even more egregious misrepresentation of the gospel, see the video below.)

I don’t take any joy in this. It isn’t fun to write a post like this—in fact, I never have before. A.W. Tozer is right, though: What comes to mind when we think about God is the most important about us. If we accept this sort of teaching, if we follow these sort of teachers, then we will come to worship a God who not only needs to forgive us, but who needs us to forgive him. A God like that is not only unworthy of the songs Bethel sings— He is unworthy of worship at all. A God who needs our forgiveness is a God who can not save. It is the God who is wholly righteous, the God of all grace, the God who has set Christ his Son as perfect head over the imperfect church, who is worthy of worship. Let’s listen to teachers that teach us about that God.

___________________________

Is this what we want? More important, is this really what God has shown us in his word that He wants? Surely not.

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