Revisiting David Wells: Losing Our Gospel Virtue

Posted On January 26, 2018

Earlier this week, Reformation Bible College held its 2018 Winter Conference, A Place for Truth. This article details the main points from the conference session by Dr. David Briones.

The title of my break-out session at the 2018 RBC Winter Conference was “Losing Our Gospel Virtue.” This year, the conference revolved around the work of David Wells. I had the pleasure of interacting with the third volume of his brilliant pentalogy, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. This book looks at the moral effects of modernity and postmodernity on the American church. In short, it focuses on the inextricable connection between theology and ethics, and how rejecting objective truth resulted in a rejection of objective morality. His controlling question is: How can the church successfully restore its moral vision? Although Wells admits that the church seems to be flourishing in many parts of our country, he laments the fact that, on the whole, there seems to be

a hollowing out of evangelical conviction, a loss of the biblical word in its authoritative function, and an erosion of character to the point that today, no discernible ethical differences are evident in behavior when those claiming to have been reborn and secularists are compared. (5)

Many in the church have stopped thinking theologically or biblically and so begun to live immorally, a-morally, or simply ambivalent lifestyles. Professing believers prefer good feelings over objective truth, ecstatic experiences over the gospel of Jesus Christ. They prefer a domesticated, weak, Santa Clause-like God over the transcendent, majestic, and holy God of the Bible. They therefore view sin as “innocent mistakes” rather than a self-centered, self-absorbed affront to a holy and just God who will punish sin. They may feel shame over their sin, but they have entirely lost their sense of guilt. As a result, many in the church are completely turned around. They have bought into the lie that darkness is light, and light darkness. They are morally backwards and therefore morally bankrupt.

So, how do we rectify this situation? How does the church restore its moral vision? Well, it’s certainly not by becoming moralists. Too many in the church have fallen into that pit in their quest for morality. Instead, David Wells suggests that the gospel has to mean more to the church and be the means through which her moral vision is restored. In other words, Christians needs to stop taking their moral cues from culture and begin embracing the countercultural gospel of Jesus Christ. When people embrace a countercultural gospel, they find themselves, by the powerful work of God’s word (1 Thess. 2:13), becoming a countercultural people. It is only by clinging to the gospel, theology, God’s revelation in Christ that will keep God’s people from being swept away by the immoral tide of postmodern relativism, where how you feel about something is the objective standard of truth and morality.

To confirm the connection between the gospel and virtue, I consider a countercultural virtue in Romans 12 that is inseparably rooted in the countercultural gospel of Jesus Christ. Put simply, I argue that the call to “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10) went against the widespread quest for honor, status, and power in ancient Rome but was completely in line with the gospel. In antiquity, the goal was to outdo another person by gaining honor or exalting oneself. How? By shaming or humiliating others. Paul, however, argues the opposite. He calls on the church to outdo one another in showing honor. How? By shaming or humiliating oneself. In the competitive game of honor and shame, someone had to be shamed for another to be honored. Paul calls the church to shame themselves for the sake of another’s honor. But lest one think this is purely self-abasement, notice the key phrase “one another.” Paul anticipates that this will be done for the mutual honoring of believers in Christ.

It doesn’t take much to see how this imperative is rooted in the indicative of the gospel. Christ willingly lowered, humiliated, shamed himself in the incarnation, his sufferings, and death on a cross so that his people may be honored and exalted (Phil. 2:5-11). It is no surprise, then, that the church is exhorted to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).

So how do we regain our virtue? We need to regain our theology, know what is ours in Christ Jesus, treasure the gospel, and adorn it by putting it into practice in a non-moralistic, utterly-dependent, spirit-wrought, and God-glorifying way (and a whole host of other hyphenated words that encapsulate an orthodox view of divine grace and human obligation!).

Dr. David Briones is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.