by David Wells
Today, we are living in the midst of one of the great transformations in Christian faith. What is changing is not, of course, its truth. What is changing is where this faith is living. For much of the last thousand years, it has found a home in Europe. Today, this is no longer the case. Europe has walked away from Christian faith. The many empty churches and cathedrals that are now there are the visible signs of a faith that has been abandoned.
The gospel’s main home now is in the global South. Next Sunday, for example, in Zambia 80% will go to some kind of church whereas in continental Europe, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, only about 5% will. But while this decline has been under way in these Western countries, astonishing growth has been taking place, not only in the global South, but also in Asia. China, despite its adverse political climate, has more believers than does the U.S.A.
This expansion of Christian faith into other parts of the world is extraordinarily good news. At the same time, it does raise a profound question. What has happened to us here in the West? Why is it that biblical faith finds it so hard to live faithfully and effectively in this context? The key to faithful Christian living and effective service is being anchored in the truth God has given us. It lies in being captured by the vision of the God of that truth. That being so, why is it that the Church has so often lost its theological character?
This was the question that the Pew Charitable Trusts asked three of us to explore when they gave us a remarkably generous grant in 1989. My role was to look at the cultural dimension. I tried to explore this in my 1993 book, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? This was followed by three more volumes along similar lines: God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994), Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998), and Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2004). I then offered a summary of these four volumes in The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Postmodern World (2008).
However, as I continued to ponder these issues I came to the conclusion that some of my critics had been correct. They had argued that while I had offered a critique of Church and culture, I had not provided enough of an answer to the problems I had identified. I therefore decide that I needed to spell this out more explicitly. And so I have. This new book, which will be out in January, is entitled, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World. What I now want to do is to pick up on some of its themes against the backdrop of my earlier volumes.
Why is the evangelical Church in the West so enfeebled today? In the U.S.—where the Church is in much better shape than it is in Europe—many evangelicals are, in fact, dropping out of the organized Church. They are finding their sustenance, if they find it at all, not in a local church but online. How, one wonders, can they then follow Paul’s admonition to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19) if the “other” in the virtual “congregation” is invisible and unknown? And as for those who do continue in local churches, many find, unfortunately, that the preaching is not serious, or it is not particularly biblical, and the worship may well be light and engaging but it is not God-focused and therefore nourishing. These things all contribute to the Church’s weakening.
However, what we need to see here is what connects these many different symptoms. It is that a fatal conjunction has taken place. What is at the heart of Christian faith is what is now most diminished by the culture.
In the Eye of the Storm
What the gospel does is to bring men and women who “did not know God” (I Cor. 1:21) into a saving knowledge in which they can declare that now they “have come to know God” (Gal. 4:9). They “know him who is from the beginning” (I. Jn. 2:13). The whole purpose of redemption is that we might know God, love him, and serve him. It is, as Packer put it, that we might become God-centered in our thoughts, God-fearing in our hearts. We are to be God-honoring in all that we do. All of this, though, is strongly countered in our postmodern culture. Here we run into overwhelming head winds that take us away from God as center and into ourselves as life’s alternative center. It is true, of course, that this is exactly what sin has always done. However, our sinful disposition is now being mightily reinforced in our culture in ways that we have never seen before. And the consequences have been devastating to the nature and practice of Christian faith.
In the earlier volumes that I wrote I tried to understand exactly how and why this had happened. Whatever the answers are to these questions, there can be no doubt about where we have arrived. What our culture has produced is what Philip Rieff earlier called “psychological man.” This is the person for whom there are no reference points outside of themselves. They do not live in a moral world where there are ultimate rights and wrongs. They are accountable to no one but themselves. For them, there is no Truth, only truths. There are only negotiable opinions, never any firm convictions. Their lives are being built on the assumption that there is nothing outside themselves on which to build. In life’s turmoil, therefore, they look for therapy, not for redemption. They only want to be made happy. They see no reason to be saved.
And lest you think that I am only describing a decaying part of our unbelieving culture, consider Christian Smith’s 2005 study, Soul Searching. This was a study on church-going American teenagers, many of whom are evangelical. The dominant view of God among these teenagers is that he demands nothing. For many he is non-intrusive and even non-Trinitarian. Christianity is simply about being made happy as a benevolent, indulgent God goes about solving our problems and providing stuff for us like iPods and iPhones. Come to think of it, this is also what Joel Osteen’s worldwide audience hears every week, too, is it not? God is our therapist, our concierge, our booster, and our cheerleader. He desperately wants to give us more of everything but we just won’t stretch out our hands and take it!
Understanding this culture, and what it does to us, has become the Church’s most urgent task. It is urgent because the Church is always tempted to echo, rather than challenge, the culture in which it lives. Today, there is a lot of echoing going on in the Church and what is being echoed is especially damaging to Christian faith. It is damaging because it assumes this therapeutic framework rather than the revealed framework of God’s moral world. Indeed, the consequence is that there is often no alternative view of reality that is being heard beside that which reigns in our culture. Jesus would be amazed to see how “relevant” Christians have become to this postmodern culture! Instead of offering true and deep thoughts about God, we are often only offering little therapies and techniques for managing life’s difficulties, little diversions and distractions from its pains and conflicts.
Can the Church commit itself to becoming more serious, more—may I say it?—devout, a little more courageous, a little less crowd-pleasing, a little less self-preoccupied, and a little less comfortable? Can the Church become the Church as it is supposed to be? I think it can. More than that, it must. It must become what it has been called to be in Christ.
Finding God Again
In my God in the Whirlwind, I have developed what is the answer to our ailment. The indulgent God has done nothing good for the Church. It is time to return to the biblical God. But this is meaningless unless we start where Scripture starts. That is, we must start with the God who is objective to us.
He stands outside of us, outside of our circumstances, outside of our subjectivity, and summons us to come outside of ourselves, to know him. We do not enter into ourselves to find him as if, all along, he had been hiding there among our intuitions. Rather, he breaks in on us. He enters our world, our private world, and when he enters it he does so on his terms and not on our own. This in no way denies our need for the Spirit’s illumination of Scripture and our own regeneration. It is simply affirming that our crippling self-preoccupation, our deeply privatized view of reality, must be set aside if we are to come before our triune God as he has revealed himself to be. This is what Christian faith is really about.
Being God-centered in our thoughts and God-fearing in our hearts means that we want God’s character to define who we are, how we think about life, and how we live in our world. And we can know what his character is like! It is true that God is greater than our greatest thoughts about him but he has also given us truths about himself that are within our comprehension.
With respect to his character, I suggest a shorthand way of speaking of this: God’s holy-love. Holiness is his moral perfection. And just as the light breaks into the various colors of the rainbow, so his holiness also breaks out in different ways. Sometimes it shines as justice, sometimes as goodness, and sometimes as wrath. And if his holiness is his moral perfection, then it must include his love for that perfection would be incomplete without that love. And his love, in turn, also breaks out into its own colors of mercy, patience, long-suffering, kindness, and generosity.
However, this love and this holiness are always bonded together in the single character of God. This is who he is. That is why I have spoken of his holy-love and placed a hyphen between the two words. When God acts, he acts in his holiness and his love together and never the one without the other.
And so it is when we come to think of the work of Christ. It was God’s love that took action on our sin but the way that happened in the death of Christ required a reckoning with God’s holiness. God’s love provided what God’s holiness required.
In sanctification, it is God’s holiness that requires that we become separated from what is fallen in life and separated to God and his purposes. And yet this holiness works hand-in-glove with God’s love for love is the fulfilling of the law. However, these two sides to the character of God have not always been held together in Christian living. Some have focused more on the holiness part but, without love, this degenerates into a graceless legalism. Others have focused more on the love part. Love without holiness leads to antinomianism and, even worse, to old time liberalism.
In worship, we celebrate what, as believers, we all have in common in Christ. But that immediately tells us that God is ever before us in his holiness in its bond to his love for that is what we find in the gospel and in Christ’s death. It is God’s holy-love that describes his character and it defines how he acts. It is because God’s holy-love should shape our attitude as we worship. Worship is not simply a get-together, a concert, or a distraction from life’s difficulties. It is from first to last about God. It is about who he is and what he has done. Is it not a strange thing, therefore, that we can be in a worship service without ever being obliged to think about God’s goodness, greatness, and grace? This happens all the time.
And so to our service. Why have people gone out into the dark places of life to serve Christ? Why have they gone to remote places to take the gospel? Why do they openly serve Christ in the professions, in our prisons, and on our streets. Why do people do these things? It is, of course, because Christ himself gave us the model of service and what defines it is God’s holy-love. Christian believers have gone into the dark places of life, where things fester and life is cheap, because what is happening in those places is wrong—God’s holiness. They go there to show mercy, to bring help, to lift up those who are crushed. But the reason they go is that they have compassion. They go because they are compelled by the love of God. It is God’s holy-love that defines all genuine Christian service.
God’s love and his holiness, then, explain to us Christ’s death in our place on the cross. They define and shape what it means to become sanctified. They define what we should be doing in worship. And they define the reason for our service. But our culture wants to rip them apart and often they have been separated in our understanding in the Church.
No truth today seems more self-evident in our culture than the fact that God is love. But this is not understood in its biblical setting where John immediately defines the nature of this love by saying that Christ was sent “to be the propitiation for our sins” (I Jn. 4:10). Our world today is relentlessly therapeutic whereas God’s is relentlessly moral. In our culture, people think that God is love because he is supposed to be there for them. If he is love, then it is his role to make them feel better about themselves. And if he is love, then he will give them stuff. Maybe a big lottery win.
By contrast, the Bible says God is love because he provided in the Son what his holiness demanded, a propitiation. But this is a jarring and unwelcome intrusion as far as our culture is concerned. It wants God’s love without his holiness. It wants acceptance without atonement, blessing without repentance, God’s therapeutic benefits without the gospel. This, though, is something no one can ever have. And that needs to be heard in the Church, not in muffled ways, but with clarity and forthrightness.
One of our deepest satisfactions in life, in fact, is to live in the light of the truth that God is both holy and loving. This takes us into the heart of reality. When we are there, we start to think about life in ways that are consistent with who God is. And knowing God’s holy-love is what puts steel into our spines and fire into our hearts. Today, the Church is in need of reform because, too often, it has lost this vision of God.
David F. Wells (PhD, Manchester University) is distinguished senior research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and is author of the prominent series of books including No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing our Virtue, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, and The Courage to be Protestant. Dr. Wells's newest book is entitled God in the Whirlwind.