Wells calls for biblical vision of God’s ‘holy-love’ in Gheens Lectures
A holistic vision of God forms the center of Christian life, freeing believers to be “God-centered in our thoughts, God-fearing in our hearts, and God-honoring in our work,” said David F. Wells in the Gheens Lectures at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Sept. 24-25.
Wells, distinguished research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of numerous books on evangelicalism and culture, lectured on the “holy-love” of God, which is the central idea in his most recent work, God in the Whirlwind.
In the first lecture, Wells presented his vision of a fully Godward identity, centered on the union of his holiness and his love. While God’s love cannot be fully comprehended without his wrath and judgment, Wells said, his holiness similarly is not completed without his love. Therefore, the holy-love of God brings together both fundamental aspects of his character.
Western culture, however, is dominated by a “centerless vision” and prisoner to a postmodern ideology without objective truth, which has resulted in staggeringly high rates of depression in spite of prosperity, he noted.
“Never have we had so much; never have we had so little,” Wells said.
The second lecture, delivered the following morning, focused on the holy-love of God expressed in the revelation of the crucified Jesus Christ. In the person of Christ, Wells said, “God’s love provides what God’s holiness requires.”
Wells sketched out a Protestant understanding of substitution, propitiation, and imputed righteousness, demonstrating how each theological category functions throughout the New Testament.
“Jesus never said he was dying as a martyr for a cause, but as a propitiation for people,” he said, demonstrating that Jesus’ death was always meant to be substitutionary.
Wells also pointed out the weaknesses of liberal revisions of orthodox Christian theology. Liberalism, he argued, in omitting God’s holiness also misses the profundity of his love.
“We see the depth of God’s love when Jesus enters into our judgment,” Wells said.
Wells concluded his second lecture by identifying the best way to commend the gospel to a culture with both spiritual and physical needs. While it is increasingly common for evangelicals to argue that evangelism must be combined with social action to be effective, Wells posited that social action is not the best way to minister to people in the Western world.
Human needs in the West, he said, are experienced psychologically, and there are thousands of other ways besides social action in which Christians can express God’s holy-love.
His third lecture explored the relationship between God’s holy-love and the workplace. Instead of seeing work as a necessary evil in a fallen world, Wells showed that work was in place before the Fall but became difficult and burdensome because of sin.
Wells highlighted three aspects of work that relate to the Christian life: instrumental, work requires effort; relational, work involves social interaction; and ontological, meaning that motivates our work.
Regarding the relational aspect, Wells pointed out that the modern workplace often exists in anonymity — people barely know their co-workers. This often leads them to do and say things they never would in their family contexts. The solution for anonymity, according to Wells, is the holy-love of God: before him, no one is alone.
“We are always before God,” Wells said, “Before whom all things are laid bare.”
Wells also demonstrated how Christianity informs the ontological aspect of work, saturating it with deeper meaning.
“The holy-love of God gives our work a future hope, making it more likely to work with joy and satisfaction,” Wells said.
Invoking Luther’s robust theology of vocation, Wells argued that Christians are not meant to retreat from daily life into monasticism, but are called to work out their faith in their workplace contexts. Ultimately, he argued, a love of neighbor that is rooted in the holy-love of God offers true meaning to our work lives.
“Whatever your calling, give yourself to people,” Wells said. “If you do this, you’ll find that work is not an interference with your spiritual life.”
Audio and video from the Gheens Lectures are available at sbts.edu/resources.