Why We (Still) Need Reform: Part 2

David Wells

This article is Part 2 of a 5-part series. Read Part 3 here, back to Part 1 here

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.

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 forthcoming book is entitled God in the Whirlwind.

David Wells