The latter half of the twentieth century was a tumultuous one. It was period that cast an ominous shadow of doubt over the institutions that humans have traditionally anchored themselves in. Thanks to the Watergate scandal, the protested Vietnam War, the Monica Lewinski debacle, and Iraq and Afghanistan wars there has been a growing suspicion toward government. Thanks to the evangelical embezzlements of the 1980s and the more recent child molestations in the Catholic Church, individuals have become disillusioned about organized religion. The family has not fared well as divorce rates have soared and the very definition of family is up for grabs. Throw into the mix the economic crisis, corporate corruption, violence at schools and it becomes apparent that a broad range of institutions seem to be crumbling.
All these problems have raised suspicion in the minds of many individuals toward the trustworthiness of institutions. According to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, when individuals no longer trust the major institutions that engulf them, they tend to turn inward. The self has a way of shouldering the existential load that this state of affairs produces. In order to do so with confidence, the self must be emboldened with confidence, perhaps even become divine. This has led to the popular self movement which has infused the individual with an almost divine status. It appears that the divine is drifting.
According to evangelical theologian David Wells, the self movement has spawned its own “gospel” that is antithetical to the Christian Gospel. This gospel that is prevalent in contemporary culture begins “from below,” Wells believes. In other words, the way of salvation for many today is something that starts with the individual who must embark on a journey of self-fulfillment and realization so that they might “find themselves” and be saved.
This salvation model could not be further from the Christian Gospel. The Christian Gospel, by contrast, begins “from above” with a gracious God-man, namely Jesus Christ, entering a dying and helpless world in order to resuscitate it through his work on the cross. The individual is completely impotent in gaining salvation apart from Jesus.
With this competing gospel that contemporary society has birthed, Christians are tempted to subtly tailor the Christian Gospel in an effort to make it cohere with society’s false gospel that centers on the self. For example, Christians may stress self-fulfillment as the purpose of Jesus’ work, neglecting the more fundamental aspect of satisfying God’s wrath toward sin. In this way, as Wells has pointed out, Christians might stress the effects of the Gospel (e.g. a fulfilled life, or as Jesus puts it, “abundant life”) without ever explaining the actual Gospel itself (e.g. that Christ has died to save sinners).
Or, Christians may tend to think of the Gospel in terms of the therapeutic benefits that it bestows upon its recipients, failing to remember that Gospel-bearers are also cross-bearers that will undergo suffering. With all the optimism toward the self that contemporary society produces, Christians may have a hard time believing that suffering could be the very means God is using to strip the Christian of their sin. Under such circumstances, the good news of Jesus morphs into something that lacks the explanatory range to absorb a reality of life like suffering. Individuals are left without the tools and resources in order to make sense of a fundamental aspect of their life.
Not only that, but if sin is slighted because of its offensiveness to contemporary sensibilities then the love of God is not understood. After all, God’s love is great precisely because He loves woeful sinners. A change in the doctrine of sin could leave Christians ill-equipped to contemplate the “breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love (Eph 3.17-19).