Rob Bell makes one of the most passionate pleas for trusting in God's grace that I have ever encounter. His telling of the story of the prodigal son opened my eyes to a new perspective on this parable. In Bell's understanding the father refuses to accept his sons' stories. The younger son view of his life story is that he is unworthy to be called his father's son. The story he tells himself is that his father may forgive him enough so he can get in on the benefits of being a part of his father's household. He can hope for nothing more. His father, however offers a different ending to the prodigal's story. He is welcomed back with open arms and everything the father does communicates that he indeed is very own son.
The older brother, according to Bell sees himself as a reluctant slave of the father from whom he expects only the bear minimum of love. And even this little bit of love he believes he fails to receive. He also believes that because his father treated his brother with such grace, he himself has been cheated out of what is rightfully his. "He thinks he's been wronged, shorted, shafted. And he's furious about it." (p. 167) His father offers a different perspective. Everything the father had was available to the elder son but his misguided understanding of his father prevented him from benefitting from his father's resources.
I like that understanding of this parable. Bell comments:
We are free to accept or reject the invitation to new life that God extends to us. Our choice.
There are consequences for for the old brother, just as there are for us. To reject God's grace, to turn from God's love, to resist God's telling, will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on it's own. This is an important distinction, because in talking about what God is like, we cannot avoid the realities of God's very essence, which is love. It can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality. Now, and then. We are that free (p. 176 & 177)
Here Bell proclaims the wonderful gift of free will, the ability God has endowed upon human beings to accept or reject his love. I couldn't agree with him more!
However, later Bell appears to reverse his position and takes that freedom away from humans.
On the cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23). Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it. Done. Taken care of. Before we could be good enough or right enough, before we could even believe the right things.
Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn't waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up--God has already done it.
It is absolutely true that "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). God's forgiveness isn't based on our goodness. But that doesn't mean that forgiveness is unilateral. If it is then all the talk about human freedom is nonsense. If we are not free to refuse God's forgiveness, then we are not free to accept it.
Jesus' first proclamation according to Mark was "Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). God's love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace demand a response from us. We have the choice to believe the good news or not believe. We can repent and live in God's grace, or we can continue in our sin and live outside of grace. And God in his love won't force us to choose the former.
Either way, love wins because all have experienced God's love if in no other way than the ability to reject it.