Holiness without love yields sternness. Love without holiness yields sentimentality. The Maker of heaven and earth is neither stern nor sentimental, for he is simultaneously holy and love.
The Scriptures are clear: God is light (1 John 1:5), and God is love (1 John 4:8). He's the consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), and he's the consumed Lamb (Rom. 8:32). What if grasping his “holy-love” were the key to grasping the story of the Bible and the meaning of your life?
Over the past two decades David Wells has earned his reputation as a keen theologian and cultural analyst through his books No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), Losing Our Virtue (1999), Above All Earthly Pow'rs (2005), and The Courage to Be Protestant (2008). Wells's latest work, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Crossway, 2014), caps this major multi-volume project by responding to major critiques in a constructive new project.
I corresponded with Wells, distinguished senior research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, about changes he's seen, predictions he has, why he thinks it's a great time for Christian faith, and more.
What are you aiming to do in God in the Whirlwind that you haven't already accomplished in previous books?
Apparently nothing, according to Christianity Today, who got their foot in the door a month before the book was due to appear! God in the Whirlwind, they claim, is just a rehash of older thoughts. Had they been correct, it would've been so much easier to write than it was!
What I've done in God in the Whirlwind is respond to what some critics have said over the years. They've complained that while I've exposed plenty of problems in society and in the church, I haven't lifted a finger to show the way out. So that's what I've tried to do in this book.
In the past, I've argued that at the heart of the encounter between Christ and culture—and at the heart of the church's weakness today—is a deficient knowledge and shallow experience of God. He's lost his “weight” for us. He rests too inconsequentially upon us. So this is the theme I've now taken up. What I've done is develop a biblical theology of the holy-love of God, showing how it travels through the Old Testament to its culmination in the incarnation and at the cross. At the cross, God's love provided what his holiness required. I then demonstrate how God's holy-love defines what our sanctification means, as it does our worship and service. This really is quite different from the preoccupations of my earlier books in this series.
Why is integrating God's love and holiness into our view of his character so vital? What happens if we don't?
We often think of God's love and holiness in ways more cultural than biblical. That's why it's so hard to think of them together. God's love, as we conceive of it today, is about him filling us with inner comfort, always being there for us when and how we want him, and providing us with stuff. Joel Osteen's touch here is pitch perfect, culturally speaking. How, then, can we possibly reconcile the love of God to the thought that he is holy—which many understand to mean he's cold, distant, and judgmental? The truth, of course, is that his holiness—his utter moral purity—includes his love, and his love is a part of his holiness. If we don't see this, we'll end up choosing between them, however unwittingly. If Christianity is only about God's love, then it needs no atonement. On the other hand, if it's only about God's holiness, about endless rules, then it ends up being graceless.
“This is a great time for Christian faith!” you declare near the end of the book. What do you mean?
It's really simple. As the postmodern mood has deepened over the last three decades, the chasm between Christ and culture has deepened. Whatever remnants of Christian thinking have largely disappeared. Like the European nations, we are also post-Christian. But I look on the positive side of this development. The gospel now shines forth as a striking alternative, and for this clarity we should be grateful.
It's been about 20 years since No Place for Truth in which you spoke prophetically about the church's response to changing cultural trends. What are the most significant ways the cultural landscape has shifted since the mid-1990s?
First, the postmodern mood has deepened. Second, spirituality is now all-pervasive. Third, secularism lives a more difficult life. Of course, these all need unpacking. But it's the first of these changes that really explains the other two. The postmodern mood contracts all of reality into the self. This means reality is merely what someone perceives to be. This is then processed through a therapeutic filter. It's all about how we feel—how we're feeling this moment. Facebook was made for such a time as this! Older distinctions between true and false, good and bad are effectively erased. When Christian faith is then taken on board and submerged into this mindset, huge and damaging distortions happen to its truth.
You observe that “faith lives along the line between Christ and culture.” How has your own faith, far from being weakened by the world, actually gained its “sinews and strength” by engaging with it?
When I was younger, I never quite understood why there were so many warnings in the Bible. Now that I'm older, I know! The world is a dangerous place for Christian faith. And I'm not just thinking of the growing and serious persecutions of our time. I'm thinking of the power of the modern world to corrupt faith. In fact, while faith is growing in Africa, South America, and Asia, it's receding—even disappearing—in the West. There is a reason for that. Living faithfully before God amid the world's noise, clamor, deceits, and rootlessness is not easy. But that challenge, as nothing else, pushes us to look for what is real, dismiss cheap solutions, develop internal toughness, and think afresh about what it means to follow Christ. I've found it's when we are out in the deep ocean, when the waves are high and threatening, that we learn our deepest lessons about God, his providence, and his grace.
As you envision the evangelical church in the days and years ahead, what gives you the most cause for concern and what the most cause for hope?
I'm most concerned about the local church. The experiments in “doing church” in recent years have been an unmitigated disaster. Many people today are drifting away from the church. They're calculating that the time and effort put into going isn't sufficiently rewarded by what's taken away. The days when people felt obligated to go, come what may, are fast receding.
What gives me most hope is that I think the evangelical world which came out of the post-war renewal of the 1950s and 1960s has run its course. We are now seeing a much more serious kind of evangelical belief just beginning to emerge and replace it—one that's more theological and more impatient with the culturally compromised forms evangelicalism has produced. In these young shoots, I find great encouragement.