Salvation Out, Self-Help In

We no longer believe in sin, so we no longer believe in a saviour:

In the old days, most people knew they were sinful beings in need of salvation and rescue. Today they see themselves as gods who need affirmation and self-realisation. We have moved from a view of the good life through self-denial and rejection of self to one of self-actualisation and self-affirmation.

This is a massive shift in the way we see ourselves, how we understand our troubles, and how we view the way out – the way of salvation. Instead of lost sinners needing saving, we are good people simply needing some therapy and affirmation.

Awareness of this major shift in thinking about who we are, what our condition is, and what is the way forward, have long been with us. Criticism of theological liberalism from a century and more ago can be mentioned, including the critique of J. Gresham Machen that I just again discussed in a new piece:

Secular voices also noted this and wrote extensively about it. Most notable was the 1966 volume The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Philip Rieff (Harper & Row). In it the American sociologist said this: “Christian man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased. The difference was established long ago, when ‘I believe!,’ the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to ‘one feels,’ the caveat of the therapeutic.”

Another crucial discussion of this appeared in the 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press) by another American sociologist, Christian Smith. In it he made use of the term “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

Deism is the view that God made the world but has no real direct involvement in it. So in his study of US teens, by MTD he meant that most of them feel that God wants us to be good and nice, and the main goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. When we get in a jam we call upon God, but otherwise he has no real role in our lives. Sadly, it is not just non-Christian youth that think this way, but Christian youth as well.

A number of important Christian thinkers and cultural observers have made much use of the insights provided by Rieff and Smith. For example, in his 2008 book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Baker), Michael Horton referred to this in various places. It is Christianity Lite, not biblical Christianity:

It was secular psychologist Karl Menninger who pointed out (in a book titled Whatever Became of Sin?) that the growing suppression of the reality of guilt in churches was actually contributing to neuroses rather than avoiding them….


If we feel guilty, maybe it is because we really are guilty. To change the subject or downplay the seriousness of this condition actually keeps people from the liberating news that the gospel brings. If our real problem is bad feelings, then the solution is good feelings. The cure can only be as radical as the disease. Like any recreational drug, Christianity Lite can make people feel better for the moment, but it does not reconcile sinners to God. Ironically, secular psychologists like Menninger are writing books about sin, while many Christian leaders are converting sin – a condition from which we cannot liberate ourselves – into dysfunction and salvation into recovery. pp. 35-36

David Wells

But one evangelical intellectual and theologian who wrote copiously about such matters is David Wells. He has taught theology for many years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. (If I can add a personal note here, some students thought him to be a hard grader, so sought to avoid his classes. I quite enjoyed his classes, and only got As in them.)

A number of his many books have dealt with this shift in thinking about the human person and what he needs. Let me only feature four of them, with a quote or two from each:

No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993)

We are therefore accomplishing in our culture what only such dystopian writers as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell ever imagined. We are replacing the categories of good and evil with the pale absolutes that arise from the media world — entertainment and boredom. It is not by struggle, still less by grace, that we have eliminated the corruption from human nature of which the Reformers were so aware. We have done it simply by a fresh definition. Evil is boredom, and that is remedied with far greater ease than sin. It is remedied not by Christ but by a cable hookup.


Rieff’s “psychological man” has no interest in ultimate concerns, in searching out meaning that is outside of the self and that cannot be experienced; the doctrinal imagination has long since atrophied. It is in the self that meaning is uncovered. Meaning is the self, the uncovering of the self, the stroking of the self, the attendance to its needs. Outside of this small inland retreat, there is only the inhospitable terrain of modernity, in which the search for meaning is so complex, so exhausting, so nerve-shattering, that only fools attempt it. p. 170

God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994)

Stripped of external connectedness and haunted within by anxiety, modern individuals drift in society like bits of cork on the ocean, moved about in ways beyond their understanding by deep and irresistible currents. Filled with dread, dis-ease, and foreboding and unable to secure a foothold in any external reality, they take refuge in the one certain thing remaining — the self. This turn to the self as the source of mystery, of meaning, and of hope is the key to understanding the shape that much religion in America is taking today. As Philip Rieff has pointed out, however, all this brave talk about the self and about its potential is actually evidence of a “disordering” of the self, and it follows from this, that any religion based on the self must itself be disordered. p. 97

Image of Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision
Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision by Wells, David F. (Author) Amazon logo

Losing Our Virtue (Eerdmans, 1998)

In a recent article I looked at some key insights from American historian and a social critic Christopher Lasch ( ). Wells also draws upon his work:

According to Christopher Lasch, in the 1960s therapists and psychiatrists began to see a different kind of patient. Many of their patients prior to this time had been neurotics with obsessive and compulsive behavior, but they were increasingly replaced by a new kind of patient, the forerunners of whom Freud had seen and had refused to treat because he believed they were impervious to analysis. In the 1960s, these patients often had fragmentary selves, weak or vacant consciences, and they engaged in covering up their inward deficiencies, their sense of anxiety, by exaggerating their accomplishments. They were filled with a vague sense of dis-ease. Dissatisfaction, like a fog, seeped into all the nooks and crannies of their life. They often had a pervasive feeling of emptiness. Their self-esteem oscillated between a sense of self-importance that was either greatly enlarged or greatly diminished. They were chronically bored, restless, uprooted, always seeking instantaneous gratification without emotional involvement. . . . If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest. This is going to lead, as I shall suggest, to an entirely new understanding of salvation. pp. 107-108

God in the Whirlwind (Crossway/IVP, 2014)

Discussing the “saccharin-like” preaching of Joel Osteen, Wells says this of the kind of God he presents:

God is our greatest booster who, sadly, is frustrated that he cannot shower on us more health, wealth, happiness, and self-fulfillment. The reason is simply that we have not stretched out our hands to take these things. God really, really wants us to have them. If we do not have them, well, the fault is ours.


Actually Osteen’s message is not much different from the way that a majority of American teenagers think about God today. In his Soul Searching, Christian Smith has given us the fruit of a large study he conducted on our teenagers. It was released in 2005.


What is really striking in this study is Smith’s findings of the view of God that is dominant among a majority of these teenagers. He calls it “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The dominant view, even among evangelical teenagers, is that God made everything and established a moral order, but he does not intervene. Actually, for most he is not even Trinitarian, and the incarnation and resurrection of Christ play little part in church teenage thinking—even in evangelical teenage thinking. They 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, iPods, iPads, and iPhones.


This is a widespread view of God within modern culture, not only among adolescents but among many adults as well. It is the view of God most common in Western contexts. These are the contexts of brilliantly spectacular technology, the abundance churned out by capitalism, the enormous range of opportunities that we have, the unending choices in everything from toothpaste to travel, and the fact that we are now knowledgeable of the entire world into which we are wired. All of these factors interconnect in our experience and do strange things to the way we think. Most importantly, they have obviously done strange things to how we think about God.


Indeed, Ross Douthat, in his Bad Religion, speaks of this as a pervasive “heresy” that has now swept America. He is quite correct, though most people would not think of heresy in this way. However, what so many Americans think about God is a distortion of what is true. And as a distortion it is a substitute for the real thing. And that is why it is heretical. So, why are people thinking like this? Let me take a stab at answering what is, no doubt, a highly complex question. pp. 20-21

See my review of this book here:

Much more could be shared by Wells and others. But if you wonder why the world is in such a mess today, it is because the church is in such a mess. Moralistic therapeutic deism and the like has swamped much of the Western church, certainly most of its young people. God, please rescue us from this.

[1773 words]

7 Replies to “Salvation Out, Self-Help In”

  1. Thanks Bill for this article showing the outlook of many Westerners/ Greek thinking adults today. The necessity of Christ’s death on the cross seems to be foolishness. Affirming one’s goodness instead of realising we are all sinners in need of salvation.
    Do you have any insights as to how today’s generation especially, can come under a conviction of sin?

  2. Thanks Graham. Well, the conviction of sin – for both young and old – really comes only one way: by the work of the Holy Spirit. Our job as Christians is to share biblical truth with the lost and pray for them, and then let the Holy Spirit do his work.

  3. Thanks Bill and agree absolutely with your comments that this is the main aim. I think a better prior question I should’ve put was, what are the current needs or nerve points in Aussies which we can address to awaken a desire for the Gospel? As you know in the book of Acts Paul addressed the situations he found in non-Jews as ways to introduce the Gospel.

  4. Thanks again Graham. Looking for bridges to build, and finding common ground with non-believers is always part of how we share the gospel. But again, it can only go so far. Often we look for means and methods, whether seeker-sensitive services, or youth ministry, and so on. Today for example we have a crisis in truth, and related problems. So truth and absolutes need to be championed, etc. Thus learning a bit about the culture we are in, and its needs or felt-needs has a place for sure. But at the end of the day it still falls back on the work of the Spirit. As some have said, the good evangelist and apologist needs to know something about the culture and something about the Scriptures to be effective. As Alister McGrath put it, “Responsible apologetics is based upon a knowledge both of the gospel and its audience.”

  5. Very important. And very similar concern expressed in another recent article (learned about both via the Aquila Report e-news of top ten reads: Also a very similar concern I noted, quoting David Wells and the Cambridge Declaration, about ministry being replaced with therapy (see…/): David F. Wells: “… Christ … has become simply a mold into which modern therapeutic content is poured.” The Cambridge Declaration: “As evangelical faith has become secularized, its interests have been blurred with those of the culture. The result is a loss of absolute values, permissive individualism, and a substitution of wholeness for holiness, recovery for repentance, intuition for truth, feeling for belief, chance for providence, and immediate gratification for enduring hope. [emphasis, GVL] … The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable. It is this loss that allows us to transform … being good into feeling good about ourselves. [emphasis, GVL] Both citations from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals book, Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals for a Modern Reformation.

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