Note: BY FAR, this is the best message I have ever heard from Dr. Wells. In fact, I think it is one of the best messages I have ever heard from anyone period. I had a feeling when he began that I should type more than usual, and I am glad I did. Here is about 90% of his message. Please take the time to read this very important and powerful message.
Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:11-20
My subject is the preaching of the cross in the modern world. Most important of all is why Jesus had to die, and if God’s hand was in this, why did it end the way that it did? That is a really perplexing thing to people. It is especially perplexing to postmodernists to understand. To them it seems far more plausible that what we have is a kind of freak, random, uncontrolled set of circumstances that snuffed out the life of Jesus before his full potential was realized. Then there’s the alternative which to them is implausible and incomprehensible.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit, the truth of God. They are folly to him. But what we need to consider is that this spiritual blindness is given cultural confirmation today, making this blindness more stubborn and more resistant the gospel. We might be wise to record the ways in which Paul connects these things in Ephesians 2. In the first two verses, it speaks to a trilogy of corruption: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Paul speaks of the children of disobedience who walk according the course of this world (the culture in its fallenness), and behind it is the spirit of disobedience. This evil power contains us within our fallenness partly through the confirmation our culture gives to us. We need to be redeemed, not only from our own sin, but also from walking according to the course of this world. This double redemption releases from the bondage of evil which is held through fallen human nature and fallen human culture.
Paul’s address on Mars Hill was probably much longer than what is was, but Luke gives us the main points. What he was doing was engaging the worldview of its time, deconstructing it, and asserting a Christian worldview. How to think about God, ourselves, creation, what does God want, etc. Only when he breaks down the reigning worldviews and places the Christian worldview does he hint that something seriously has gone wrong with human life. And only then do we hear about the coming judgment and about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So Paul engaged the reigning worldviews of his time, and he did it for the very reasons seen in Ephesians 2. I want to think with you why it is that postmodernists find the death of Christ so incomprehensible. I want to explore in our postmodern context the disintegration of the modern world that makes the biblical explanation so hard to grasp. Secondly, I want to think with you the way the NT presents the cross to us. Finally, I want to put these two things together.
First, the breakdown in our moral world. Today, there are at least four major signposts that hasten people out of the moral world that we have inhabited in the West for a long time. These four shifts are: from thinking about virtue to thinking about values, from thinking about character to thinking about personality, from thinking about nature to thinking about self, from thinking about guilt to thinking about shame. Once people follow these signposts, they find they are exiting a moral world. Once we have exited the moral world in our minds, the character of God and the moral world become simply incomprehensible.
The first shift from thinking about virtue to thinking about values. Virtues are the aspects of the good which are enduringly right in all places and in all times. The NT does not speak much about virtue, but it does speak about the moral perfection and excellency of God’s character. These things which are enduringly right because the character of God never changes. As a society, we have a stake in how everybody behaves; therefore, we have always put a premium on good character. We have prized it. Good character results from the internalizing of the virtues so that they become somewhat habitual. In the 19th century when people wrote a job reference, they were mostly character references, and people carried them in their pocket and read them with some satisfaction. Today, rarely do you have a “character reference.” Today in our competitive, globalized, bottom-line driven world, it is competence that matters much more than character. Character is nice, but it does not make much money. Besides, who is to say what is right and what is wrong? So one person’s internalized virtues might be entirely different from another’s, so how can we speak to one another? So we move from talking from virtues to talking about values. When we talk about virtues, there is agreement; when we talk about values, there is no agreement.
The second signpost is the shift from thinking about character to thinking about personality. When people talk in terms of virtues, they speak in terms of character; when people talk in terms of values, they speak in terms of personality. In the 20th century, there was the rise of the fascination of personality, how we present ourselves to people, staging our character for people to see. It is how you appear; hence, all the talk and literature to convey a sense of power, where you sit in a room if you want to dominate, etc. God wants to judge the heart, but we think that the outer appearance is what is important. Success or at least the appearance of success is everything; character is not. Today, people engage in selling themselves. Personality is a marketable commodity; character is not. You just have to be likable and believable, and you can make a fortune. Once the cameras on television are turned off, you can be a scoundrel. Appearance is so often about performance. In the old modern world, people talked about self-restraint and sacrifice for moral reasons. We don’t know that anymore. For us, it is self-realization and self-promotion. So it is that we have case after case people who have “puffed” their resumes and made themselves look good but also falsified what they have done. In the modern world, appearance is everything, so lying has become the coin of the economy. 77 percent of Americans believe they have been lied to by politicians. The art of lying has been taken to such a level of proficiency that we do not know what is true and what is not. All of this is a symptom of what has happened to us, and we have shifted from virtue and character to values and personality.
Thirdly, we have moved from thinking about nature to thinking about self. For centuries in the West, we have talked about the human nature. We have talked about being made in the image of God, and the point that was being made was the human nature is what distinguishes us from human animals, and also we have a common possession among human beings in that we are human because we have a human nature. What is common to us all is more basic than the surface characteristics which distinguishes us from one another (i.e. race, possessions, social standing, ethnicity). Everywhere human nature is under attack. It is insulting because it leaves the impression that I am just like everybody else, and I am not unique. Therefore, we have moved from what we have in common from one another to thinking what is distinctive and unique about me. The focus is now on the self. My own personal biography, ways of thinking, and education all come together to form feelings, perceptions, and insights which are in combination unique to me. This is my self. This is the message our schools have given to our children since the 1960s. Our private values, private meanings, private place to stand. These values must be respected, and each person must have the liberty to express them, or else we will have emotional wrecks on our hands. Indeed, there is widespread public support and government funding to address these issues. The common perception is that all of this comes down the perception that our children are lacking self-esteem, resulting to anti-social behavior, violence, and dysfunctional lives. We have thus moved out of the modern world into the therapeutic world.
Finally, there is the shift from thinking about guilt to thinking about shame. This is the fourth and final signpost. I know we use these words interchangeably, but today they are being distinguished. Guilt is understood vertically, in line with the character of God, His Law, and His Word. Shame by contrast is what lines up our action horizontally to someone else. Shame is what I feel when somebody sees me doing something I did not want them to see or hear. Psychologists say that shame is a crippling emotion that we must be liberated; therefore, we must become entirely shameless. When this happens, we have taken the final step out of the moral world. We have exited from it only in our heads, but not in our reality. God is still sovereign, and he still sustains the moral fabric of human life. The law of God is written on the human hearts, and our consciences indict us. We are caught up in God’s moral universe. We cannot escape from it. Whatever we think in our heads, we remain moral beings.
We need to think more like missionaries as we explore the context in which we find ourselves. This context is where we have moved as seen in the four signposts. But now let us look at the other side of the subject: preaching the cross in the modern world.
When you look at what is said on the cross in the NT, you can put all of those verses into one or two categories. You have in one category simply the statement of the fact of Christ dying. In the other category, you have all the other categories that explain the death he died. The first category includes the following texts: Mark 10:45; John 10:15; John 15:14,15; Romans 5:8; 1 Thes.. 5; 1 Pet. 3:18. It was for the many, for the sheep, for his friends, for the ungodly, for the unrighteous, and for us that he died. Even in these passages which explain a little more than just stating the fact, it is hard to miss the notes of uniqueness in the substitution that is spoken of. In his death, he did for us what he did not do even in his life. It is true that we could say that he lived for us, that he hungered and thirsted for us, that he was weary for us, and tempted for us. And yet, the NT offers for us to not put the accent or stress at that point; rather, it is at the point of his death. It falls on the fact that in his death, he was doing what could not be done any other way – restoring fellowship with God.
The second category interpret the first and takes us further in our understanding. They say that he died for sin, to spare us from God’s wrath, to deliver us from sin. To say that someone is suffering for a crime, he or she is bearing the consequences and penalty for the crime. If the apostles meant something else, they would have told us. Jesus said, “This is my blood which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 John 2:2). There was no gospel in the early church and there is no gospel today which can be summed up in any other way than to say that God forgives us because Christ died for us. And God forgives our sins because Christ bore them in our place, and he could not bear our sins without dying for them. It was our death that he died in our place, for the love of God was paying the price that the holiness of God required. The Father and the Son was united in saving lost, condemned sinners. To speak of the cross as cosmic child abuse is an awful insult to God, and it is derogatory to what he did. Christ himself paid our debt.
One of the great losses of our time is we have lost our capacity to wonder. Perhaps many today intuitively understand that life in our society is all about appearances, saturated with artificiality, banality, and spin. Perhaps it is not unnatural that people ask themselves what lies behind the appearance. We have become very suspicious of one another, sometimes quite cynical. Not only so, but this is a time where we have become quite jaded. Our expectations are so high that we feel defeated because we cannot meet them. The evidence of this in the church is our lost sense of wonder in God’s creation and providence. Is it not an amazing thing to know that every video camera that has recorded all our deeds, words, and thoughts have been erased by the death of Jesus Christ? Should we not stand up and look at the cross and see the immensity of what God has done? To a cynical generation, that would be something for them to see.
Let me conclude by putting these two sides beside each other. Our task today is to tell people who no longer understand what sin is, no longer have the categories for understanding it, who longer think they are sinful, who no longer in their heads inhabit a moral universe is to tell them that Jesus Christ died for something they believe they are not guilty of. Let me make one simple point, and it is this: the Bible does not begin with John 3:16. It begins with Genesis 1:1. What we see between Genesis 1:1 and John 3:16 is the patience of God, bit by bit, stone by stone, an edifice of understanding that corresponds to what is there – a worldview to understand life. Only when the last stone was in place, in the fullness of time, then God sent his Son. The message of substations is not just a formula or a product. No, this is a message which is anchored in truths, the whole of which comprises which embraces the whole of life and the whole of reality. By the time we come to John 3, what we have established is God’s enduring character of holiness, a moral universe, a distinction between good and evil. This holiness of God stands outside of us, over against us. We also know something about the person of Christ, the Incarnate, second person of the Godhead, taking upon our flesh, bone of our bone, without diminishing his deity. We know something about ourselves, being made in the image of God, corrupted by sin, sightless and willfully so. When we come to John 3:16 and think about Christ and his death, paying the penalty for our corruption, this message of the cross makes connections of all other things without which the message of the cross is incomprehensible.
Our question to our postmodern neighbors is this: which of these points that you understand. Let’s talk. Which of these you cannot accept? Tell me why. This slow, remedial, anticipatory work doesn’t work for many. We want the evident successes, the sale, and we want it now. Between Genesis 1 and John 3, there is the long, patient work of God in preparation so that when Christ comes in the fulness of time, people can understand this magnificent work of God.
Can we not, as it were, take a page out of God’s book? Can we not learn a little bit of God’s patience? This slow, patient, friendship-requiring work?
If we would, what we would end up with is disciples than simply converts.
I sit here and feel like shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Dr. Wells gets it, and boy does he get it. We must have a commitment to the Great Commission which is foundational upon a robust biblical theology and framed in the Christian worldview which provides cultural engagement to see this postmodern world know Him who is above all earthly pow’rs. I have much more to say, requiring much more time and space than this short section offers.