By Jeff Paton
Many of us have heard Bob George on the radio program People to People. We hear the kind voice of a seasoned counselor who endeavors to introduce us to his brand of Christian theology. While many things appear to be the same as you would hear on any Christian radio station, some things are unique. Along with this successful radio venture, he has published a highly successful book entitled Classic Christianity, which purportedly brings us back to a genuine Christianity which has been somehow lost in the muddle of Christian baggage over the centuries.
In many ways, Mr. George does hit home on many issues concerning the faith. There are many ways that a believer can get off track. Some of these are psychological, which are examined in a way that a counselor would likely take interest. My concern is not the psychology, but the Biblical basis in which the author uses the Scripture and logic to arrive at what he considers "Classic Christianity."
The Problem According To George
It seems to me that the gist of the book is that those that wear the title "Christian" have missed "the real thing" on average. The biggest error that George attempts to expose is the idea that most Christians have misunderstood the Gospel and have centered on forgiveness instead of the life that the new-birth brings through constant communion with our Savior, Jesus Christ. The other error that he attempts to expose is legalism. These seem to be the crux of the book as I see it.
A gospel that does not center on life in Christ is termed a "half-gospel" by Mr. George. "As long as a half-gospel continues to be taught, we are going to continue producing Christians who are very thankful that they will not be judged for their sins, but who have no significant self-motivation to change their behavior. That's why so many leaders have to use the hammer of the law and suffocating peer pressure to keep their people in line." (p. 78).
In Chapter one, entitled, "Busy and Barren," he does an adequate job of pointing out that being busy in Church is not the means of coming to grip with the meaning and experience of a relationship with Christ. In fact, being "busy" can become a draining experience that causes us to miss Christ. In chapter two, "The Truth About Error," he points out how erroneous thinking has had devastating effects upon people he has counseled. Many compelling stories of how coming to truth delivered many. In Chapters four through five he builds and reveals his findings on what the "true" message of the gospel is; this determines what the problem with the church is. A wrong emphasis about the Gospel results in a substandard Christian experience.
Mr. George focuses in on so many problems that plague Christians, it is no wonder why his book has sold so briskly. It is an uncomfortable thought that what he sees as problems must be more rampant than I had thought. Did this book sell so well because it was an epiphany to so many in error? It seems that this is so, but I must admit that I have not seen the problems he speaks of on that large of a scale within the Wesleyan-Arminian community.
The Problems I See With George
Mr. George has chosen the words "Classic Christianity" to describe what he hopes to propagate as the true Gospel in his book. When we examine what is meant by the word, "Classic," we see it defined as: excellent; standard; authoritative; and established. George sees Classic Christianity as something that has been neglected, buried, and recovered countless times throughout the centuries. (p.14.) While I will agree that certain truths have come and gone as times have changed, we need to take a closer look at what he sees as being the historical, or "Classic" Christianity. Is this really the Gospel of the ages? Does it really have its roots in historic Christianity? And by that, does its connection to the revealed history of the past validate that is is the Gospel that is established by the Bible? The vital question of the hour is, is Bob George's "gospel" really "Classic?"
Bob George claims that he is not for or against any particular group. (p. 11-12.) Yet he spends a lot of time singling out those who believe that a Christian can fall away from the faith and finally be lost. This he describes as legalism. A healthy reverent fear of the Lord is described as "terrible bondage." (p.19) I don't know about you, but in my mind this is taking sides. Sure, Mr. George pokes holes in all of the established churches, but he does take special interest in those that believe that the believer's security is conditional. While he may be an equal opportunity critic of all who do not see things his way, I believe he is disingenuous about his claims of non-partiality. Favoring his theology puts him at odds with all those who see things another way. This is true whether he admits it or not.
There is a style within the book that reflects his approach as one coming from a counselor's perspective instead of that of a theologian. On difficult issues, he appears to deal with the them, but then rationalizes the situation without really answering the question. In chapter nine, he is asked, "if it is possible for a Christian to commit suicide and still go to heaven." He rants on about this question arising from "bondage," and then tries to use it as a springboard to rationalize his theology. He never answers the question, "can a Christian commit suicide and still go to heaven?" I guess the answer is hidden in the drivel that he gives us following the question. This seems to be a pattern. He does the same thing in several places, to include the essentials of his theology. The style seems to be this: Imply and lead someone mentally down the primrose path so that they arrive at the conclusion that you wish them to believe. This frees him from the responsibility of the decision that one makes with these facts. This may make for a good counselor's strategy, but it is a poor one for the theologian. He seems to be especially evasive about the core foundation of his own theology, while being quite specific about the "errors" of those who believe differently than he does. It is as if he wishes to be vague enough to be able to wiggle out of any theological controversy by avoiding straightforward answers. Because of this, I am forced to comment on the doctrine that I believe he is trying get us to arrive at instead of direct, and decisive doctrinal statements. This does not excuse Mr. George from the conclusions that are drawn from his statements, even though he has apparently designed to evade them.
The Problem With Mr. George's Soteriology
This leads us to what I see as the most vital issue concerning Bob George's theology; his doctrine of salvation.
As I have mentioned before, Bob George examines many problems and errors of thinking that have plagued the Christian world throughout history. In most cases he rightfully examines real problems of real people. However, in many cases he uses these examples to misrepresent other theologies in order to imply that his theology is the true, "Classic Christianity."
The largest area of misrepresentation is that the historical Baptist, Calvinist, and Arminian understanding of salvation does not include "life," but is limited to the emphasis on forgiveness of sins. This is patently not the case. I have never met a Calvinist, or a Baptist, or any Wesleyan-Arminian that did not believe that Jesus was resurrected that we might have life. George hand-picks examples of people who are ignorant of their doctrinal heritage as examples of what Baptists, Calvinists, and Arminians believe. This is a dishonest attempt to bate the issue and poison the well. Just because denominations have done a poor job of emphasizing life in the salvation plan is no reason to conclude that they do not believe it as a whole. He may be able to point out a local church that may be teaching in error or denying the aspect of "life" in salvation, but he cannot honestly do so with the larger body without appealing to the written standards of individual denominations and theologies, and proving that they neglect to do so. This he cannot do, for they do not neglect the idea that a Christian is animated by the life that is put into them when they are regenerated.
The basis for his belief that all other denominations have fallen into either neglect or error on this issue is because of his awkward view of what happened in the atonement. The Scriptures always speak of the atonement of Christ as dealing with the singular barrier to our fellowship with God; which is sin. How this is done varies within different theological circles.
The Calvinist teaches that sins were paid for on the cross. If one's sins are "paid for," then their debt to God is finished, and salvation is sure. Because of the completeness of this work, the Calvinist believes that God died for only the elect. He only paid for the sins of those He wished to save. If Jesus paid for "all" our sins, then Universalism would have to be true.
The Arminian generally does not believe that the atonement of Christ was a payment for sins. They usually see the atonement as a provision in place of punishment. Jesus died in place of all of us and on our behalf. Because of this, God accepts Christ as a substitute for punishment. By viewing the atonement as provisional instead of a commercial transaction of payment, the Arminian can say that Christ truly died for "all," and that "all" may be saved. The contrast between Calvinism and Arminianism here is that since there is not a payment, there are the required conditions of repentance and faith by the believer in order for the benefit of the atonement to be applied to them. Because it is conditional, then perseverance in the faith is required for benefits to continue. While avoiding the limiting of the atonement, the structure required for unconditional salvation does not exist in this system.
The Baptist, the group whom Mr. George is apparently affiliated with, tries to mix both systems. They want the payment theory of the atonement, but desire to avoid Universalism. They want to stay away from limiting the atonement, but inconsistently deny the logical outcome of payment. They tenaciously adhere to the outcome of payment in Eternal Security, but deny that the payment is efficacious at the cross without faith.
Bob George seems to try to create a via media, a middle way. I admire his success in resolving some of the inconsistencies within the Baptist position. He says, "The only solution is an understanding of, and a total trust in, the fact that Jesus Christ did it all on the cross; that the sin issue between God and man is truly over." (p.58) Observe that the emphasis is: the "sin issue" between God and man is already over! He also states, "God has already reconciled Himself to us. What keeps us from being reconciled to Him — and why we always keep asking if there is total forgiveness for us — is because we do not believe that He is not counting our sins against us." (From the People to People website.) Once again, all mankind is already reconciled to God!
"Satan has done a masterful job of keeping the Christian world preoccupied with the thing that God has dealt with once and for all - sin - and ignorant of the thing that God wants us to be preoccupied with - life!" (p. 61) He continues his line of argument to say, "But it is only when we understand that the ultimate goal of salvation was the restoration of life that we can truly appreciate the purpose and meaning of Jesus Christ's death for us on the cross." (p. 61-62.)
It is an interesting development that he proposes. In Mr. George's eyes, the Gospel is the restoration of life, not the forgiveness of sin and the impartation of life together. You see, the whole thesis of Mr. George is that forgiveness of sins occurred on the cross for all mankind, regardless of faith. He divides the traditional position that salvation has at least two primary aspects, i.e., the forgiveness of sins, and the impartation of life. He accuses the church throughout history of relying exclusively on the former at the neglect of the latter. This is his interpretation, and a false assumption.
He does accomplish resolving one barrier to consistency within the Baptist position; the atonement. The contradictory position that sins are paid for and an unlimited atonement that offers salvation to all, is resolved in the idea that forgiveness is the atonement, but not the Gospel. Mankind is already forgiven of all sin during the crucifixion of Jesus according to George. But according to Scripture, man is dead in trespasses and sins, but George is not interested in the Bible here, just the logic of his theology. He sees man as dead and in need of life for salvation. This does resolve keeping the continuity of the Penal Theory of the atonement, and the Scriptural injunction that the application of the atonement is for all, while rescuing the system from the contradiction of not saving all! It is a logically sound position that he takes, but is it Biblical?
George states, "The message of God's complete, 100-percent forgiveness in Christ has been a controversial, mind-boggling subject for nearly 2,000 years." Once again he appeals to antiquity, in his search for the "Classic Christianity." It is however astonishing to see the theory he suggests. He tries hard to imply that this theory of separating salvation from forgiveness of sins is connected to the history of the past 2,000 years! Implying it is the best he can do, for there is no history of any such controversy within the church! This idea of separating the forgiveness of sins and salvation is a recent invention of his own imagination.
Forgiveness of sins as past, present, and future, is a theological stepping stone for his theory. One must stop to reflect upon the Bible openly enough to realize that Mr. George is building his theological tower of error by supporting one theory by just another theory. There is not a singular passage in all the Bible that states that in the atonement of Christ, all sins were paid for past, present, and future, no, not one! I would hope that we would want to build our doctrine upon what the Bible says, not what it never says! Romans 3:25 states, "[Christ Jesus] Whom God hath set forth as a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God." Notice that forgiveness occurs only in connection with "faith in his blood,' and that through this faith only "past" sins are forgiven! Take note that the Scriptures never speak of future sins being forgiven before they are repented of! To say otherwise is to base one's idea upon theory, and not Scripture. It is nothing more than a theological invention to say that all sins are forgiven past, present, and future. It is the burden of the one claiming such a "strange doctrine" to prove that there is a Scripture that explicitly states this!
2 Peter 1:9 says, "But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins" [not new or future sins!]. 1 John 1:9 has proven to be the thorn in Mr. George's side. On his radio program I have heard him desperately attempt to get people to disbelieve the Scripture and to believe his theory. 1 John 1:9 declares, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The claim is that one cannot interpret 1 John 1:9 as confession being required for forgiveness without falling into legalism. This constant floating up of the charge of "legalism" is supposed to scare you away from the plain truth of the passage. It also ignores the context of the passage which just two verses later in 1 John 2:1 we read, "My little children, these things I write unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have a advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." Now, keep in mind that George believes that all sin is already forgiven. He states that the believer receives "life," and not "forgiveness" in salvation. The one receiving "life" is thereby sealed by the Holy Spirit, resulting in Eternal Security. If every single human being was forgiven of their sins 2000 years ago on the Cross, how could we do anything that could ever require a Lawyer with God? How can John in his First Epistle put the condition of "if" we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins..., when they were already forgiven? These Biblical passages become utter nonsense if the unbiblical theory of Mr. George is true!
The deadliest error that I see in his teaching is that we should not ask for forgiveness from God if we sin! "Edward, what is on one of those occasions when your child did something wrong, you forgave him, and he refused to believe you, but came every day bringing up the subject again? 'Daddy, are you sure that you forgive me for that?' On and on, every day: 'Are you sure you forgive me, Daddy? Are you sure?' Tell me Edward, as a father how would that make you feel?" Edward creased his brow in pained expression. "It would break my heart," he said. "Then, Edward, don't you think it's about time you stopped breaking the heart of God?" (p. 59.) "Don't you think it's about time you stopped insulting the Spirit of God who has written dozens of promises in the Bible that teach that He has forgiven all your sins, once for all?" (p. 60) Now let's pause a little bit on this one. Can you see the faultiness in this parallel? Edward's son did not say, "Daddy, will you forgive me of all I do in the future, automatically?" And Edward did not answer his son in the affirmative, "Why yes Sonny, there are no standards for you, because your my son!" It is not just merely a matter of breaking the Fathers heart when Sonny robs his dad blind, murders his mother, accuses his father and calls the police who incarcerate his father for life, becomes a Satanist and a drug addict, and a homosexual... and "Daddy" has to forgive him! Can you not see the absurdity here? Even in a false human parallel that does not involve a spiritual aspect, we would have to admit that there must be standards and limits. To be unremorseful shows ingratitude towards God, and that you feel that your sin is your purchased right! It is a slap in the face of God who suffered and died on behalf of you for your sins! If there were any relationship there would be repentance and pleading for forgiveness. "All" your sins being forgiven is not describing the future tense, it deals with the present sins and those from the past.
The idea of sins forgiven "once for all' does not establish that past, present, and future sins are already forgiven. It speaks of the once for all provision for sins that never has to be repeated. The Bible says that if you confess your sins, He is faithful to forgive you your sins. Bob George tells you not to confess you sins in order to be forgiven of them. This my friend is heresy! It is dangerous to the greatest degree! God tells you that if you sin you need an Advocate; Bob George distorts the Gospel in the name of God Himself, saying, the Holy Spirit teaches that "all" sin is forgiven so you must not insult Him by asking for it!
My friends, do not be deceived by the slick logic of man. Flee from this dangerous error! Rely on what the Scriptures say, not what they do not say! The Scriptures say that we must ask for forgiveness through confession of sin. According to the Bible, if you follow Bob George's unbiblical logic that tells you not to confess your sins, it is then that you insulted the Spirit of grace! God is never insulted when we do what He has commanded us to do!
Bob George teaches a dangerous "gospel." If you follow his advice you could be lost for eternity if he is wrong! And if you believe the Scriptures... HE IS WRONG!
There is "Bob's" gospel, and there is God's Gospel; and they are not the same!
George attempts to persuade us with a "gospel" that has no historical precedence! He uses slick innuendo to imply that there is a historical basis, but there is none. In order to get you to buy into his "gospel," George must convince you to disregard the Christianity of all history. Either Christians prior to George's "gospel" believed falsely and had "another gospel," or George's ideas of sin and the atonement are "another gospel." I myself will side with the Christianity of all ages instead of Bob George's whim of the moment.
John Wesley stated, "Whatever is true is not new; and whatever is new is not true." My friend, the Gospel has not changed for 2,000 years, so why would you entertain a doctrine that has been unknown for 2,000 years?
"I have pointed out many times that nobody at the cross asked the Lord Jesus to forgive their sins." (p. 75.) Mr. George, it is also true that nobody at the cross asked Jesus to give them life! Nobody asked for the lucky lotto numbers or a Rolls Royce! All you give us is an argument from silence which proves nothing! The disciples did not grasp what occurred on the cross until after the resurrection. It seems that the whole thesis of Mr. George is grounded on the sinking sands of theory and not the stronghold of Scripture. It is everywhere evident in his book that his theory is established on foundation of what is not said instead of what is said.
Bob George is right about one thing: Life's Too Short to Miss the Real Thing.
ETERNITY IS TOO LONG TO GAMBLE YOUR LIFE ON BOB GEORGE'S DELUSIONS OF THE GOSPEL!
For more on the ATONEMENT
For more on ETERNAL SECURITY