Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision by David F. Wells

An excerpt taken from The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 9, #2.

David F. Wells. Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eedmans, 1998. 228 pp. $25.00 (cloth). Reviewed by Richard L. Mayhue, Senior Vice-President and Dean.

Few doubt that the evangelical church is in a state of spiritual crisis. Book titles like “Rediscovering the Church,” “Rethinking the Church,” “Re-engineering the Church,” and “The Second Coming of the Church” fill Christian bookstores and propose the solution of a user-friendly, seeker-sensitive, culturally-relevant approach. Over the last six years, however, David Wells has a radically different analysis and proposes a dramatically different solution. This volume is the third in a trilogy, which also includes, No Place for Truth; or, Whatever happened to Evangelical Theology? And God and the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. In this third volume, he raises some significant questions like:

1. Can churches really hide their identity without losing their religious character?

2. Can the church view people as consumers without inevitably forgetting that they are sinners?

3. Can the church promote the Gospel as a product and not forget that it does not belong to itself but to Christ?

4. Can the church market itself and not forget that it does not belong to itself but to Christ?

5. Can the church pursue success in the market place and not lose its biblical faithfulness? (202).

Wells writes about the changing moral and spiritual topography of the late twentieth-century American landscape and its relationship to the evangelical church. He deals with the disintegrating moral culture in American society and what this means for the church by reasoning that, functionally, the world is not morally disengaged, adrift, or alienated, but rather that society is morally vacant. He then attempts to discern the nature of contemporary culture, not for its own sake, but rather for its influence on the church. This raises two basic questions: (1) as the culture goes, how should the church go? and (2) so goes the culture, how counters the church? As with his past volumes, Wells does an exceptional job in analyzing society and culture without losing sight of their relationship to biblical truth. His evaluation is clear and incisive. He contends that today’s pagan society is much like that of Luther’s day, which eventually was reformed dramatically as God poured out His power through a handful of men to reestablish the supremacy and sufficiency of the Word of God. However, Wells does not find this in the church today, but rather a church that is capitulating to the doubts, lawlessness, and immorality of the world around her. In short, as the world is unraveling, so is the church.

Wells interacts with the psychotherapy movement in chap. 3, “On Saving Ourselves” (81-116). He also deals with the contrast of “remorse versus repentance” as it relates to the self-help movements of the late 90’s in chap. 4, “the bonfire of the Self” (117-45).

He really brings both this volume and the trilogy to a fitting end in chap. 6, “Faith of the Ages” (179-209), with these conclusions. “First, it [i.e., the church] will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful, and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.” “Second, the Church itself is going to have to become more authentic morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life” (179-80).

He challenges the church with these questions:

1. Does the church have the courage to become relevant by becoming biblical?

2. Is it willing to break with the cultural habits of the time and propose something quite absurd, like recovering both the word and the meaning of sin?

3. Is it sagacious enough to be able to show how the postmodern world is trapped within itself? (199).

As Wells draws to a conclusion, he notes that “men and women of faith have always been confronted by the insurmountable task of proclaiming what seems absurd in a world of unbelief?” (208). “It is the reform of the Church of which we stand in need, not the reform of the Gospel. We need the faith of the ages, not the reconstructions of a therapeutically driven or commercially inspired faith” (209). Thus, his bottom line conclusion is the “the most urgent need in the church today, even that part of it which is evangelical, is the recovery of the Gospel as the Bible reveals it to us” (204).

Whatever conclusions and solutions Wells failed to deliver in his previous two excellent volumes, he clearly does so in Losing Our Virtue . For those who take God’s mandates in Scripture seriously, this volume is must reading.