American theologian David Wells has written plenty of important books over the years, and I have reviewed a number of them. Five of them in particular have been trenchant Christian critiques of contemporary culture, and just how powerful the hold of secular culture is on the Western church.
In this book we still get more cultural assessment, but primarily we find what may have been lacking in the previous volumes: the way out of the cultural captivity of the churches. And that is to get back to God. He must always be the starting place, and to know aright his character is a major part of the solution we need.
And he argues that the primary way of understanding God’s character is to describe it in terms of “holy-love”. This is sorely needed today because our constant temptation is to “shatter the hyphen”. That is, we “want God’s love without his holiness”.
This is because we “live in our own private, therapeutic worlds that have no absolute moral norms. God’s holiness, therefore, becomes a jarring and unwanted intrusion.” The secular world of Oprah Winfrey and the Christian world of Joel Osteen are the perfect illustrations of this, says Wells.
They are both fabulously popular, and both singing from the same song sheet. Osteen’s message, for example, is basically “moralistic therapeutic deism”. That is, most believers (and not just teenage Christians) see “God as not demanding much from them because he is chiefly engaged in solving their problems and making them feel good. Religion is about experiencing happiness, contentedness, having God solve one’s problems and provide stuff like homes, the Internet, iPads and iPhones.”
Thus we follow a cultural gospel, not a biblical one: “Let me begin with a baseline truth of Scripture. It is that God stands before us. He summons us to come out of ourselves and to know him. . . . And yet our culture is pushing us into exactly the opposite pattern. Our culture says that we must go into ourselves to know God.”
So a culture-bound, and therefore, faulty view of God is so much the cause of the church’s weak and anaemic condition today. We no longer reflect God as he truly is, but a god we have made in our own selfish image. God is the divine butler ever ready to meet our needs, but never to make any hard demands on us.
We have forgotten all about the words of Christ where he calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, and have instead substituted the gospel according to Oprah in its place. We must renounce our craven images of God and get back to him and his self-revelation as recorded in Scripture.
Wells spends meaty chapters describing this God, especially in terms of his holy-love. Take his love. We may think we know all about this, but actually we do not. We project our feelings and intuitions about love onto God. But his love is radically different from ours.
His love always takes the initiative, and comes down to us from above. It is a love that bestows value on a lost sinner which does not deserve anything but his just judgment. His love and judgment do not stand opposed to one another, but are aspects of the same thing.
The work of Christ of course demonstrates for all time how his love and his holiness cohere. God is “simultaneously loving and holy in such a way that we never encounter his love without his holiness or his holiness without his love. Indeed, his love is an expression of his holiness.”
Theological liberals (and most contemporary evangelicals) want to only emphasise his love, while legalists only want to emphasise his holiness. “Love and holiness belong together. Love is characteristic of every aspect of God’s being as well as every action that issues from it. This is equally true of his holiness.”
Because God is holy we are alienated from him. But because he is love he draws us to himself, not by winking at our sin, but by pouring the full penalty for our sin on his own son. He takes the initiative and he makes a way where we cannot. Thus the old theological statements about God’s transcendence and immanence need to be rediscovered in our age.
We have largely lost the former, and latched onto only the latter. We think God is our buddy and pal, and mostly that he exists to keep us happy and to meet our needs. But that is not the God of the Bible. God can never accommodate sin and evil, and must work to triumph over it.
As Wells rightly says, “God’s holiness, then, is not only the opposite of evil; it is the measure by which we know evil to be evil. It illumines everything, and everything is revealed by him for what it is: right or wrong, true or false, good or bad, righteous or evil. It is this holiness, Hannah said, by which ‘actions are weighed’.”
As such, we must also reclaim another biblical doctrine mostly lost today: the wrath of God. Unlike mere human anger, this wrath is the “pure reaction of God to all that is impure”. Moreover, it is “as much God’s proper work as is his love”.
God is “a consuming love but he is also a consuming fire”. We have all but lost this concept of God today. And that is the reason for so much of our troubles. We have simply allowed the surrounding culture to squeeze us into its mould, including our understanding of who God is.
We have substituted the God of the Bible for one of our own making – one who is amenable to us, easy-going with us, and not all that different from us. And we love it this way. We love a God who is our therapist and concierge. But we loathe a God who is utterly pure and to whom we are morally accountable.
Wells teases all this out in other chapters focusing on the Christian walk, worship, service and mission. It is not to be merely theoretical in other words, but eminently practical. Who God is, and our knowledge of him, is to transform us from self-absorbed creatures to God-absorbed and other-focused children of God.
Above all the cross of Christ puts God back in his rightful place – and puts us back in our rightful place as well. It takes us as we are – “self-focused, self-preoccupied, self-promoting, self-seeking, and self-serving” – and turns us into what we should be – like Him.
The self-centred gospels preached throughout the Western world today do nothing to make this change. Indeed, they only cement us into our sinful and worldly lifestyle. That is not the gospel we need to hear today. We desperately need to hear one which re-emphasises God and who he is – the God of holy-love.
This is all just basic Christianity. But we are so far removed from basic Christianity that we need a book like this to awaken us from our slumber and get us to see afresh who we are without Christ, and what we can become because of Christ.
It gets us to focus on God, in other words, instead of self. And for that reason alone this book is invaluable in our day and age.
(Available in Australia at Koorong Books)