Today's culture is clueless, Wells says
Wells cited the disintegration of morals and the loss of moral categories as major reasons why most people in the West understand neither the reality of sin nor the necessity of a redeemer.
"It is especially perplexing to postmodernists to understand why Jesus had to die," Wells said. "To them it seems far more plausible that what we have [in Jesus] is a kind of freak, random, uncontrolled set of circumstances that snuffed out the life of Jesus before His full potential was realized. The alternative to them is implausible and incomprehensible.
"But we know that 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."
Wells is professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and the author of numerous books, including the 1993 work, "No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology." His most recent book is, "Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World."
He was the keynote speaker at the Founders Conference, which addressed the topic, "God's Truth Abideth Still: Confronting Postmodernism." The June 26-29 conference at Bethel Baptist Church in Owasso, Okla., marked the 25th anniversary of Founders Ministries, which formed in 1982 to advance Reformed theology.
Wells identified four "signposts" or "shifts" that have led to the breakdown of moral consciousness in modern culture and have made preaching of the cross a more difficult task.
First, Wells said people have shifted from pursuing virtues to asserting values. Virtues are aspects of good which are enduringly right in all places and in all times, Wells said, and they are enduringly right because they are grounded in the character of God which never changes.
Postmoderns now speak of morality in terms of values, which Wells defined as the things that are most important to each individual. Values differ from person to person and there is no agreement on whose values are correct, he said, adding that the language of values is a product of the 20th century.
Second, Wells said postmoderns have shifted from finding value in a person's character to prizing one's outward personality.
"God wants to judge the heart, but we think that the outer appearance is what is important," he said. "Success or at least the appearance of success is everything in this culture; 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."
Third, Wells said culture has shifted its focus from acknowledging a universal human nature to exalting the individual self. For centuries the West spoke of humans as possessing a nature that distinguished them from animals, he said, adding that Christians viewed humans as being created in the image of God.
However, the individual has triumphed in the West, Wells said, resulting in the privatization of values and an emphasis on therapy as the medicine that will cure all ills. In this view, each individual is unique; there is no such thing as fallen, sinful human nature; and humanity's most serious illness is a lack of self-esteem, he said. This individualism and its demand for therapy have pervaded evangelical churches, he said.
"This is the message our schools have given to our children since the 1960s," he said. "We have our private values, our private meanings, and our 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.
"The common perception is that all of this comes down to 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."
The final shift has been away from guilt to shame, Wells said. Guilt, he pointed out, is understood vertically, acknowledging that the laws of a divine lawgiver have been broken. By contrast, shame is horizontal in nature; it is an emotion "that I feel when somebody sees me doing something I did not want them to see or hear," he said.
The net effect is that modern people do not understand that they are sinners under the wrath of a holy God and in desperate need of a Savior, Wells said.
"Psychologists say that shame is a crippling emotion [from which] we must be liberated; therefore, we must become entirely shameless," Wells said. "But when this happens, we have taken the final step out of the moral world."
To overcome what he called "the loss of a moral world," Wells said Christians in the West must be prepared to work like missionaries to their own culture. First, they must understand that salvation is entirely a work of God and then, to make the Christian worldview comprehensible, they must be prepared to explain the full story of redemption beginning in Genesis.
"The Bible doesn't begin with John 3:16, but with Genesis 1:1," Wells said. "In Genesis 1:1 and throughout the history of redemption that follows we see God building, 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. In all this, we see the great patience of God.
Evangelicals must dispense with the popular demand for instant results and realize that just as God was patient in unfolding His redemptive plan over thousands of years, so modern Christians must patiently unpack the entire storyline of Scripture for postmoderns, Wells said. Only when this "slow, careful, remedial, preparatory work" is done, he urged, will the cross of Christ make sense.
"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 on 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."