What’s the State of Theology in America?

Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research have just published the results of a survey that measured Americans’ theological knowledge. The aim was to “help to point out common gaps in theological knowledge and awareness so that Christians might be more effective in the proclamation, teaching, and defense of the essential truths of the Christian faith.”

I’m deeply grateful to these Christian organizations for funding and carrying out this research. It’s true, there are some discouraging findings; but I was surprisingly encouraged by some of the results. First, though, the bad news, in three particular areas:

The Doctrine of The Trinity

Although there was evidence of good Bible knowledge in some areas, there was also significant doctrinal confusion. For example, more than 6-in-10 Americans deny the doctrine of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. 64% say the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being. There’s also widespread uncertainty about the equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It could be argued that these are fairly fine points of doctrine and that we shouldn’t expect accuracy among the general public about such sophisticated doctrines. Even mature Christians can struggle to understand and articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Doctrine of Salvation

For me, the most alarming findings were found in answers about the doctrine of salvation:

  • Only 16% agree with the doctrine that says “People do not have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative.”
  • Instead of acknowledging depravity, the majority of Americans believe the good in people can outweigh the bad.
  • 67% agree “Everyone sins at least a little, but most people are by nature good.”
  • 4-in-10 agree “God loves me because of the good I do or have done.”
  • 71% of Americans agree that “an individual must contribute his/her own effort for personal salvation.” 
  • 64% of Americans agree “a person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.”

The church clearly has much work to do in teaching more effectively about total depravity, spiritual inability, and that “salvation is [totally and completely] of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9; John 1:13).

The Doctrine of the Church

The third area of major concern was that 52% of Americans agree “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid
replacement for regularly attending church.” That’s horrifying, and perhaps reflects the historic American traits of independency and individualism. But we also have to face the possibility that it may indicate the poverty of spiritual nourishment on offer in many churches.

The Good News

But it’s not all bad news, Sure, if we’re comparing the statistics with the America of 20 and 50 years ago, then yes there’s a serious slide in biblical knowledge, faith, and practice. I don’t want to underestimate or minimize that and the work that’s needed to change this.

But if we compare the findings to almost every other country in the world, the picture suddenly looks a lot brighter. I’d be delighted if some of these statistics were true in places like Scotland or England – it would be considered a revival! I’d be surprised if most Western European countries would even make it into double figures compared to these quite stunning American statistics:

  • 60% agree that Jesus is fully God and has a divine nature, and Jesus is fully man and has a human nature.
  • 71% agree that there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
  • 47% agree that God is the author of Scripture.
  • 61% agree that hell is a real place, not just a concept
  • 67% agree that heaven is a real place, not just a concept.
  • 42% agree strongly that there will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all people who have lived.
  • 43% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches.
  • 53% agree that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone.
  • 61% agree that God has authority over people because he created human beings.
  • 66% agree  that God continues to answer specific prayers.
  • 68% believe the biblical accounts of Christ’s resurrection

Of course, we can flip these round and highlight where the glass is half-empty, but in many cases the glass is more than half-full! So let’s not discourage and depress ourselves too much.

Yes, lots of room for concern, some strange inconsistencies, and many areas for the church to focus attention and resources on. But to me these are also massively encouraging statistics. I doubt if there are many places on earth, or even in all of history, that would have such high numbers.

Considering all that we know about human nature, about the unceasing malice of the devil, and about the fanatical anti-Christian cultural pressures over the last fifty years, these figures are remarkably strong and resilient and give much cause for thanksgiving and motivation as we continue the work of teaching, preaching, and evangelizing both the world and the church.

The Kingdom of God In The Old Testament

KOG in OT Prezi
Last Friday/Saturday I was privileged to speak at
The Bolton Conference. I gave three addresses on the Kingdom of God in The Old Testament and David Green gave three on the Kingdom of God in The New Testament.

You can view the videos of the addresses here (click on Bolton Conference 2014) and also click through the Prezi Presentation that accompanied my lectures. There are also three handouts (Lecture 1, Lecture 2, Lecture 3).

Special thanks to my research assistant, Ryan Hurd, who contributed to the initial research on this subject.

What Led You To Become An Atheist? Some Surprising Answers

What leads people away from religion and into atheism? That’s the question that fascinated Larry Taunton so much that he launched a nationwide series of interviews with hundreds of college-age atheists.

His question was simple: “What led you to become an atheist?”

The answers were surprising, creating a completely unexpected composite sketch of American college-aged atheists. Here’s a summary from his article, Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for A Stronger Christianity.

1. They had attended church: Most of them had a church background and had chosen atheism in reaction to Christianity.

2. The mission and message of their churches was vague: While there were many messages about doing good in the community, “they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.”

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions: Churches did not address questions like creation v evolution, sexuality, reliability of the Bible, purpose of life, etc. Messages were bland, shallow, irrelevant, and boring.

4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously: This is summed up in one student’s response: ”I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive: Most embraced unbelief in the high school years.

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one: Although all gave rational reasons for becoming atheists, for most there were powerful emotional reasons too – usually associated with suffering.

7. The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism: Instead of being “converted” through the popular New Atheists, most were influenced by Youtube videos and website forums.

So, what are the lessons for a stronger Christianity? Taking the above points in order:

1. The Church has to evangelize its own as well as those outside. We can’t assume that just because kids go to church, they are saved and thus will continue to attend. Our first mission field is our own family and church. This also puts huge onus on professing Christians to believe, speak, and act consistently because many who left the church were turned off by hypocrisy within it.

2. Our messages must be clear and Gospel-centered. All doctrine, practice, service, and devotion must continually be tied to the center of the Gospel, Jesus Christ’s person and work.

3. We must tackle the hard questions: We can’t just preach nice, heart-warming, encouraging, and inspiring sermons. We have to face the reality of our current culture and its varied challenges to Christian faith. And if we do engage these questions, we must do so fairly, lovingly, and honestly.

4. Evangelize passionately and persuasively: Students were unimpressed by dispassionate presentations of the truth and a reluctance to press the claims of Christ upon them. Perhaps this is the most surprising finding of all. We’ve somehow been convinced that sermons have to be more like lectures or just conversational; cool, calculated, casual discussions that present the truth with as little feeling as possible. We mustn’t be pushy, emotional, or earnest in our witness. But according to the students, this bland approach is a complete turn-off.

5. High School years are more dangerous than college years: We can’t wait until college to equip young people with spiritual armor and arms.

6. Appeal to the heart as well as the head: As most people turned to atheism for emotional reasons, usually related to suffering, we must also appeal to their emotions to win them back. We can’t just offer cold logic and philosophy, nor even just biblical truth. We need to communicate love, joy, and peace in our witness, as well as offer them an experience of these healing Christian emotions through the Christ who purchased them through His suffering.

7. Use the internet to promote Christian truth: Many kids are in church and Christian youth groups a couple of hours a week, but are spending 20 or 30 hours a week online. Unless we give them some healthy regular alternative to the videos and forums that are overtly and covertly attacking the Christian faith, we shouldn’t be surprised if they gradually drift away.

On the whole, this research offers a lot of encouragement to churches that preach the whole Bible with evangelistic passion and sincere conviction, that apply the truth to the modern world and modern questions, and that use digital technology to engage, evangelize, and disciple their youth.

What other lessons would you draw from this research?

Can You Be Happy in Every Circumstance?

“God can make you happy in any circumstances. Without him nothing can.” Andrew Bonar

There are two difficult things to believe in this quote. The first is that God can make you happy in any circumstances. The second is the claim that without God, nothing can make you happy.

Let me take the “easiest” of these difficulties first, which is the second: “Without God, nothing can make you happy.”

No God, No Happiness

This does not mean that you cannot have any happiness without God. You can, but it’s too shallow and too brief to really satisfy, to really deserve the name “happiness.”

Sure, you can have a few moments of happiness at a football match – until they lose. You can have a few hours of happiness at a party – until you wake up the next day. You can have a few days of happiness with your new car – until the first scratch, or until the neighbor gets an even better one.

Because these happinesses are separated from the source of all happiness, they cannot go deep or last long. If you doubt that, read Ecclesiastes.

With God, All Happy

“God can make you happy in any circumstances.” This is even harder to believe. But let’s qualify it a little. Bonar is not saying that in the midst of the most painful providences – like a cancer diagnosis or a bereavement – we can expect Christians to be immediately full of joy.

Not at all; Christians weep and sorrow too. However, the Christian battles against that sadness by faith, and gradually and slowly begins to win the victory, to see the good hand of God, to sense the Father’s love, to experience the Savior’s sympathy, and to enjoy the Spirit’s comfort.

As faith strengthens, so does joy, so that even in hard providences there is a deep and stable and substantial joy. It doesn’t remove the sorrow, but it counter-balances it and hopefully, eventually, even outweighs it.

“I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil 4:11).

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The Most Honest Atheist In The World

The Atlantic has published a startlingly honest article by Crispin Sartwell, as you can see even from it’s title, Irrational Atheism: Not Believing in God Isn’t Always Based on Reasoned Arguments And That’s OK. In it Sartwell admits:

  • The atheistic worldview “is similar to the worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.”
  • His view of the universe as a natural, material system is based on his interpretation of his experience not on a rational argument.
  • “I have taken a leap of atheist faith.”
  • Atheism can be as much a product of family, social, and institutional context as religious faith.
  • “The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false.”
  • Just as religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on church dogma, so some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data.
  • Science rests on emotional commitment (that there is a truth), a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up.

What a refreshing blast of humble and honest air! You cannot but admire such a sincere, transparent, and honorable atheist. But the article ends on a painfully sad note, which may partly explain Sartwell’s atheism, and maybe even his humility:

Genuinely bad things have happened to me in my life: One of my brothers was murdered; another committed suicide. I’ve experienced addiction and mental illness. And I, like you, have watched horrors unfold all over the globe. I don’t—I can’t—believe this to be best of all possible worlds. I think there is genuinely unredeemed, pointless pain. Some of it is mine.

By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering…I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.

But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.

As is so often the case, the agony of suffering is a large contributor to Sartwell’s atheistic faith. There are many like him, young and old, who find personal and global pain an insurmountable obstacle to Christian faith. In my experience, quoting Romans 8:28, preaching God’s sovereignty, or offering philosophical arguments about suffering in such situations is usually ineffective.

If I had the opportunity, I’d take Crispin to the historic events around Calvary and especially to the sufferings of God’s Son. I’d try to keep him at the cross as long as possible, and I’d work at explaining what happened there and how this is the only way into the power and wisdom of God. It’s also the way God calls both religionists and atheists to saving faith. As the Apostle Paul said:

We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).