28 June 2007

David Wells: "Preaching the Truth of Heaven and Hell in a Modern Age"

deadblogged by Phil Johnson

'm skipping the description of preliminaries, announcements, songs, and whatnot, because I got waylayed in the hallway between sessions by people who wanted to talk, and I missed most of the prefatory activities for this session.

But we are blessed once more to hear Dr. David Wells in the conclusion to a brilliant series exploring what we really need to do as pastors, preachers, and evangelists to penetrate the fog of postmodern and agnostic attitudes and reach this present generation with the truth of God's Word.

Dr. Wells's style is measured and low-key—very easy to listen to—but he packs a powerful punch with his content alone. Try liveblogging one of his messages and you'll appreciate the richness of his content. Every word carries weight, and it's impossible to do justice to his message with a summary.

So let me take this opportunity to encourage you to order the messages from this conference on CD or mp3.

Dr. Wells noted that the difficulty of competing with Paris Hilton on Larry King last night pales by comparison with giving a message on heaven and hell.

Two reasons this is difficult:

1. It is almost impossible for us to imagine what heaven and hell will be like. We can't fathom goodness as good as heaven or badness as bad as the badness of hell. These things are impossible for us to conceive. This life is ambiguous. We never experience goodness without being in the context or the vicinity of badness, and vice versa. We don't actually see evil in its total nakedness unrestrained in this world. Evil is restrained by human conscience, divine providence, and government. We experience good and evil side by side, and sometimes in mixture. So we can't really conceive of unmitigated evil, such as will exist in hell, or pure goodness, like that of heaven. (Dr. Wells gave a fascinating illustration about Whitey Bulger and the pure badness of mob crime. Get the mp3.)

The biblical descriptions of heaven and hell are so full of imagery

2. We live in a realm where human autonomy reigns (and has "an unusually potent expression right now" in this postmodern moment). People say, "This talk about judgment is talk about another world crashing into mine, and I resent it." People in a postmodern culture deeply resent talk about heaven and hell, the narrow way, the exclusivity of Christ, and all the corollary realities.

In Christ, the judgment we deserve has been brought forward in time and fully exhausted in the person of our Substitute. Thus heaven and hell are not just peripheral truths for Christianity; this is what Christian truth ultimately points to.

The key to understanding both heaven and hell is the supremacy in Christ. He is supreme in our redemption, and He is supreme in the conquest of all those enemies that have blighted creation and human life.

Our thinking about heaven and hell therefore needs to be considered in our theology a long way before we get to eternity. It begins in the doctrine of Christ.

Hebrews 2:8-9: "In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But [what] we [do] see [is] Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone."

The Old Testament reference cited in that verse is from Psalm 8, which speaks of the insignificance of humanity next to the majesty of God, yet notes that God elevated this creature made in His image and ordained that everything in creation would be subject to humanity.

Sin derailed the order of things and spoiled creation, so that we "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for [our redemption]" (Romans 8:23). All of life has been "jarred loose; and it's disordered." Everything good goes bad; every gain is matched by a loss; medical advances are matched and mirrored by things like abortion; technology makes things easier but threatens us with destruction. "Through the modern miracle of jet travel, we are inching ever closer to being omnipresent. But has this brought us any peace in our lives? No it has not." We live in a world of brilliance without wisdom; knowledge without humility.

Redeemed we are, and yet sinners we remain, and we belong to a human race in which corruption has taken root, creating pain and disarray. At present, we do not see everything in subjection to Him. We groan for liberation.

We're so consumed with our lives and what is going on around us that we lose sight of Christ's centrality. We are strange creatures with a foot in two worlds: one that is passing and dying and one that is coming and vibrant. By recreation and longing we are part of the world to come. Don't we long for more of it!?

If we long for liberation, and our spirits are groaning for it (Romans 8), what we are longing for is heaven—a goodness that is so good that we can't even conceive of it.

In Hebrews 2:17, the writer goes on to describe Christ as our "merciful and faithful high priest." He elaborates on that theme in Hebrews 10:11-13: "Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool."

Here is the contrast: These priests stand. They weren't allowed to sit because their work is never finished. Christ sits down, because His work was completed decisively, once for all, never to be repeated—neither in the Mass nor even in Heaven.

Psalm 110:1 is cited 21 times in the NT: "The LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" That teaches the sovereignty of Christ. It portrays Christ in the same light in which Isaiah 40 portrays Jehovah: utterly and totally sovereign. But with this very important difference: The sovereignty of Christ arises out of His enemies' defeat. Symbolically, this describes how the Conqueror puts His foot on the neck of the defeated foe.

(Dr. Wells quoted a series of texts declaring the supremacy of Christ: "[God has seated Christ] at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come" (Ephesians 1:21, etc.).

So why is this world still beset with so much evil? Why do the wicked prosper? Why is there no balancing of the scales of justice?

Is it that God is not sovereign? Of course not.

Is it that God is not good? Of course not.

One reason: The final chapter has not been written yet.

The doctrine of hell has caused such heartburn to liberals. How could a good God do something like this?

The Christian perspective is entirely different: What is He waiting for? "How long, O LORD, how long?" (Psalm 6:3, etc.).

When God acts in judgment, he is going to put truth forever on the throne, and he is going to put evil on the scaffold. His universe will run the way He planned.

We should not be taken by surprise at this NT doctrine of judgment, because if we look at the cross, we already see a token of it. What we see at the cross is how God is going to act against sin and evil. For those who are in Christ, that judgment has come forward in time. For unbelievers, they will bear that judgment themselves.

Like a decisive move in a chess game, "at the cross, the game was locked up." Penal substitution broke the back of sin.

Two points in closing:

1. Christian faith is only about this kind of Christ, who is supreme in our redemption as He is supreme over His enemies. About two decades ago, some decided that the preaching of this kind of Christ is a little bit off-putting to postmoderns, so they began to proclaim a toned-down view, without mentioning heaven, hell, judgment, or the supremacy and lordship of Christ. They created a diminished imitation of Christianity, and the results have been disastrous.

We have only one Christ to preach, and He is supreme over all and Lord of all.

2. We are living between the "already" and the "not yet." We need to keep that perspective. Even though the trials of this present life may seem as if they threaten to consume is, they are not the final word. "Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Roman 8:18).

One of our duties as pastors is to remind our people that the evil in this world will be overthrown. This is not all there is. So we must proclaim the answer to the problem of evil. We must preach heaven, hell, and God's judgment exactly as Scripture presents it. How can we withhold these truths from people?


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SJ Camp said...

Dear Phil:

Great to see you blogging from the conference and here at TP more frequently again. You have been missed.

Your two articles are excellent.

I have appreciated greatly the work that you and Timmy Brister are blessing all of us with who couldn't come due to other duties.

Wells was brilliant from what I read of sermon at Brister's blog "Preaching the Cross in the Modern World." And then this post of yours on his message "Preaching the Truth of HEaven and Hell in a Modern Age" looks equally as powerful.

On the Guts Church, did you get a chance to meet or dialogue with the pastors, Bill and Sandy Sheer? I have read a little bit about their church and them, but have never been there in person. Will be waiting for your comments on their local ministry next week. From what I understand, it is the typical hybrid of Tulsa's latest brand of hyper-charismaticism, ecumenism, and pragmatism.

I appreciate you greatly and the work you do for the kingdom.

Sola Fide,
2 Cor. 4:5-7

Carla Rolfe said...

"Dr. Wells's style is measured and low-key—very easy to listen to—but he packs a powerful punch with his content alone."

I couldn't agree more! This is one cd I need to get. Thanks for your deadblogging, I appreciate it.

Kristine said...

Well *sigh* after reading all of these summaries, I just know I'm gonna have to dig around in the piggy-bank, and purchase the audio's, so that these messages are available for my family and I to listen to...

Especially for those dark and discouraging moments, when it seems that such a large chunk of the visible church has simply become to "sophisticated" and postmodern for, what they consider, irrelevant, antiquated,biblical Christianity.

Thanks Phil, and to the rest of TP for the dedication put forth in preparing and posting these summaries. I know I've been blessed!

John Haller said...

Don't know if anyone brought this up in the other threads on Wells' preaching, but his book Above All Earthly Powers is just chock full of good stuff. There is so much in there that it's taking me months to get through it. My nephew is a student at Gordon Conwell and got me an autographed copy.