The Soul-Shaping Reality of the Gospel: An Interview with David Wells
by David Wells
Tabletalk: Besides the Bible, what has been the most influential book you have read this past year?
David Wells: Most politicians answer a slightly different question from the one they have been asked, and so may I do so, too? The book I would love to see become the year’s most influential is J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett’s Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way. It argues that our churches should be catechizing because this kind of teaching, especially of our young, preserves doctrine. Biblical doctrine is what makes the church the church. We are stumbling in passing on the doctrinal core of the faith, and that goes to the heart of the church’s weakness today.
TT: Looking at the lay of the evangelical land, what do you see as the largest threat to the church?
DW: Every study on the internal life of the churches shows that they are becoming increasingly less literate biblically. With that, our ability to judge where our culture is intruding upon our souls is diminished. A church that is merely mimicking the culture, rather than offering a biblical alternative to it, is on its way to oblivion. That, in fact, has happened in many Western countries, where no more than two to five percent go to any kind of church at all on Sunday morning. The situation in Europe today could be where we ourselves are headed in the years to come.
TT: How can the church maintain an effective witness as we move into a decidedly post-Christian era in the West?
DW: We need a little perspective here. Our situation in the U.S.A., relative to Christians elsewhere, is not unusually difficult. It is true that we are now moving away from a time when Christianity has had some cultural acceptance. After all, consider how popular it has been to be “born again.” But let us remember that outside the U.S.A., there are Christians who live under tyrannies, such as from Islam, or in extreme poverty, or surrounded by horrible political corruption, or are subject to rampant crime. Our situation is really not that bad! What it requires is that we have some conviction about biblical truth, some savvy about the culture in which we are living, and the spine to preserve our identity as believers. It is a temptation to think that by being nice and accommodating we can make the Christian gospel seem like a great little addition to everyone’s life. But the gospel is not a great little addition. It is a soul-shaking, costly, demanding reality. The church cannot hide this fact! The gospel is not about self-therapy. Despite our pressured, taut, nervejangling age, the Christian message is not there just to make us feel better about ourselves or more able to cope. It is about coming before our great God and Savior, confessing our sins, entrusting ourselves to Him, and surrendering our claim upon ourselves to Him. What is most needed, and what is most lacking in the church, is a little character in differentiating its message from self-help therapies and marketing strategies. Our deficiency is not that we lack the right technique. It is that we often don’t have a real alternative.
TT: Do you have any advice for Christians seeking a career in academia?
DW: Like many other avenues of work, academia has become professionalized. This means that entrance into it is guarded carefully — you must have the right degrees — and advancement within it is carefully regulated. This means, in practice, that academics must negotiate political minefields as they move along and almost certainly they will begin thinking of their work in terms of having a career. Having a career means plotting out strategies to get from one place to another in the ascent up the ladder to visibility, power, and perhaps wealth. All of this is simply deadly to Christian faith. It replaces the demands and horizons of the profession for those of the kingdom of God. That is invariably so, unless we are really intentional about preserving our place in God’s world as His servants, not simply careerists, and as His witnesses to Christ’s gospel. How easy it is to compromise these in order to advance our careers.
TT: How has consumerism contributed to the state we find the church in today?
DW: We have brought into the church the rhythms of buying and selling, of making a product appealing so that a potential buyer can be lured into a sale, and to help out that process, we are changing the atmosphere of worship into one of pleasant entertainment. The product we think we are selling is the gospel and, within that, the God of the universe. Put that way, it sounds pretty absurd, doesn’t it? But as the visions of success, of sanctuaries packed with potential buyers, dance before our eyes, nothing seems to be absurd, inappropriate, or out of bounds to us. Apparently, we are willing to do whatever we think it takes, no matter how inappropriate.
TT: If you were writing No Place For Truth today, is there anything you would change/add/subtract in the book?
DW: It is now almost three decades since I first started doing the research for No Place for Truth. Later, when it came out in 1993, there were gasps all around. And some said that surely I was exaggerating. What I argued then, though, has become a commonplace perception now. The thesis was that evangelicalism was losing its biblical/theological soul through its many cultural compromises. This process has only accelerated. I am, however, encouraged that there are more now who are alert to what has happened, more who really want authenticity, more who are unimpressed with either a psychologized faith or a marketed gospel, and more who yearn for real, vibrant orthodoxy. What I would change, then, would only be this addition — that as evangelicalism continues to fray and unravel, more now are looking for something much better.
TT: Although there are many, is there one lesson the Lord has taught you that you would care to share with us?
DW: I am increasingly reminded of the fragility of life, for I know so many whose death seemed untimely. I’m reminded of John Donne’s lines, “Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls,/It tolls for thee.” Lord, help me to number my days and apply my heart to becoming wise! And this fragility is even more evident spiritually. How paper-thin is even our best piety! How treacherous life can be! I think of the many, even in ministry, who have blundered and lost their way. Every day is a day for which to thank God for the great gift of life and every day that I continue to walk with Him is a day that I remember my debt to His grace. Yes, there, but for the grace of God, go I!
TT: What project(s) are you working on currently?
DW: I am hoping to make five small, firstrate films on the five themes from my book, The Courage to be Protestant. These films will have study materials to go with them for small groups and Sunday school classes. The films will pick up the themes in the book: how Christian faith is, and should be, interfacing with our culture with respect to truth, self, God, Christ, and church. The economy has not been helpful to us in terms of getting this funded, but I am hopeful that we will be able to start work this fall.
David F. Wells is the distinguished senior research professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. In addition to teaching, Dr. Wells is involved with a number of ministries. He serves on the board of the Rafiki Foundation, Inc., which works to establish orphanages and schools in ten African countries in order to raise and train orphans within a Christian framework. Rafiki’s hope is that the next generation of leaders for these countries will come from their orphanages. Dr. Wells travels to Africa annually to visit these orphanages. For a number of years, he was a member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, its theology working group, and its planning committee for the World Congress that was held in Manila in 1989. For many years, he has worked to provide theological education and basic preaching tools for Third World pastors.
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