Book Review: Turning to God, by David Wells
She’s about eight years old, slightly taller than your desk, an explosion of curls, precocious. She appears suddenly, without her parents, between church services. She’d like to know how to become a Christian. Several days later, another visitor approaches you. This time it’s the polite fiancé of a deacon’s daughter. He tells you about his relief when the campus minister told him that Buddhism was compatible with Christianity, and that the fruit of the Spirit looks like smoking a little less pot.
It might be tempting to think that these two situations are too disparate to even connect in a paragraph, but they converge around the same question: What it is that happens when sinners turn to God?
Or we could put it like this: How can pastors help little girls and confused Baptist-Buddhists to repent of their sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ?
CONTENDING FOR SOMETHING FUNDAMENTAL
David Wells provides solid answers to these questions in his book Turning to God: Reclaiming Christian Conversion as Unique, Necessary, and Supernatural. The title frames the definition of conversion and informs us that this is a sober work. This book is contending for something basic to Christianity—because without true conversion there is no salvation.
Turning to God is fundamental to Christianity. So the fact that Wells wrote in response to the ecumenical mishmash of the late eighties doesn’t date the book or undermine its usefulness for pastors. Wells’ concerns—shallow evangelism, Western materialism, and false beliefs—are still with us today.
DEFINITIONS AND DEEP STRUCTURES
Wells is a patient and careful writer, and he begins by defining his terms from Scripture, exposing some “deep structures” of his thought, and highlighting the necessity of turning to God. Here is a survey of his labors for the gospel.
Wells summarizes conversion this way: “From God’s perspective, all humanity is separated from him because of sin…To be in sin is to be estranged from God, and that estrangement may be overcome only by belief in Christ’s reconciling work. Spiritually speaking, there are only two categories: one is either saved or lost, a believer or a nonbeliever, in Christ’s kingdom or in the kingdom of darkness” (30). Conversion, then, is turning away from sin and trusting in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The way that we can share God’s perspective, Wells explains, is through believing the Bible. God’s Word decides what conversion is. Psychology, sociology, and philosophy may provide us with descriptive insights, but the Bible defines the reality of conversion and life.
In the Bible, God tells us who he is and who we are. He is the holy God, and we are perverse rebels. We have turned against him, and God must turn us back. Wells writes, “This is summed up by Jeremiah 31:18, which can be translated: ‘Turn me back and I will be turned’” (32).
Building on his analysis of the Bible’s claims about God and human existence, Wells argues that there are “three basic [worldview] mindsets: bounded, fuzzy, and relational” (82). Bounded thinking separates cars from bicycles, even though both are modes of wheeled transportation. In fuzzy thinking, a bicycle is essentially becoming a motorcycle that develops into a car; differences exist on a continuum without demarcation. And relational thinking sees people not so much in terms of ideas or particular qualities but rather in terms of affinities of connection.
Wells allows that the Bible’s worldview includes relational aspects, but he goes on to add, “Bounded categories are said to be characteristic of Western thinking, but as it turns out, Western thinking in this way is also Christian…God himself…will ultimately preserve the distinction between truth and error” (83). And he concludes, “The cultural approach to knowledge that has the least affinity with the biblical position is the fuzzy set, characteristic of much of Eastern thought” (83).
Further, what needs to occur in order for someone to turn to God can be defined by the categories of insider and outsider. Insiders are those who share a “substantial set of beliefs” with Christians “before coming to Christ” (29). Children who grow up in the church but who have not repented and believed are the main insiders of our day.
Regarding “outsiders,” Wells writes, “‘Outsiders conversion’ refers to people who have little or no prior knowledge of Christianity and who may need to repudiate a large set of beliefs and practices before Christian conversion is possible” (29). Here he is speaking of Western secularists, and of practicing Buddhists, Hindus, Muslim, and Jews.
Unfortunately, there are threats to a biblical understanding of conversion from both insiders and outsiders.
One contemporary insider challenge comes from those who want to accept a conversion that does not involve a wholehearted turning to God. Conversion is defined not as the death of self and faith in Christ but rather as merely making a decision for God. The options are presented and the product is “bought.” And yet the product is often not the full biblical gospel, but some shiny gospel-like bauble that increases self-regard but not love for God.
The other insider threat is the decline into “fuzzy set” thinking. When this happens, Christianity devolves into psychological phenomena and emotional comfort, not reconciliation with the holy God through Christ.
Fuzzy set thinking also creates potential threats to the conversion of “outsiders” by underestimating the differences between Christianity and current forms of Judaism and Islam. Wells argues from the book of Hebrews that the similarities between the great monotheistic faiths actually create “the greatest danger of incomplete and ultimately ineffectual conversion” (124). The temptation of syncretism and compromise is heightened, not lessened, by the similarities between these religions. This is especially the case for new converts, given the cultural pressures to remain as Muslim or Jewish as possible.
Buddhism and Hinduism offer further challenges: the cultural bias toward “fuzzy set” thinking and conceptualizing “God or the Ultimate [as] beyond knowledge and definition” (129) creates an almost reflexive rejection of the Bible’s exclusive claims. Great patience and thoughtfulness is needed to present the God of the Bible in Eastern contexts, for the truth must be accepted or there is no salvation.
Turning to God was written prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, so much of the author’s discussion of Western materialism addresses Marxism. Some of this section may seem dated, yet because materialism still exists in both theoretical forms such as Marxism and practical forms that merely deny or ignore God, his discussion remains extremely pertinent.
Practical materialism won the Cold War, but it still excludes the possibility of God. The maw of modernity has spewed out “the narcissistic person who has become his or her own world, is self-enclosed, and neither dares nor desires to escape the confinements of the inner domain” (150). This new man is only sold or given things for his pleasure—“more and more colorful ‘experiences’ in food, clothes, journeys, sex, sport culture, and religion” (150).
Hence we must meet the outsider extraordinaire. For people like these to be drawn away from the glowing screen, the ear buds, the immediate and constant gratification, they must be introduced to “God as Another—the one who is Outside, whom we meet not as one of our experiences but as other than our experiences” (151). And if moderns are truly converted, they are given back their “full humanity” (152), because they return to the God who made them.
The journey of the spiritual but not religious narcissist, the faithless pew warmer, the Eastern mystic, the careful but Christless monotheist terminates “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). All of them remain turned away from God. And unless the church fearfully and carefully proclaims turning to God as unique, necessary, and supernatural, the destiny of all is to “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.”
RECOMMENDED TO ALL, ESPECIALLY PASTORS
We pastors live in a world where little girls, Baptist-Buddhists, and many more who are unknowing and confused all need the gospel. To help them turn to God requires careful thinking before they appear in our office, at the door, or meet us for coffee. In Turning to God, David Wells skillfully delineates the Bible’s teaching on conversion and teaches us how to connect the gospel to the basic mindsets of our day. I highly recommend this book to all, especially pastors.