For a few years now Ligonier, in conjunction with Lifeway, has been conducting surveys of Americans (and others) to track the state of American Christianity. They want to know, as they write, what “Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible.” The study is in two parts, a general survey of American religious beliefs and an then evangelicals in particular. Neither is especially encouraging. When asked whether they agree “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” 27% disagreed strongly, 10% somewhat disagreed, 23% agreed somewhat and 28% agreed strongly. On one of the central issues of the Christian religion, on the claim that caused the Jewish authorities to try to assassinate Jesus from virtually the beginning of his earthly ministry, a shocking percentage of Americans are in the mushy middle. Ligonier says 52% of Americans surveyed agreed with this statement and 36% disagreed, i.e., a little more than one-third of Americans affirmed something like the historic Christian view of America. This result aligns with what scholars of American religion have been saying for a long time. Most Americans are not Christians theologically. They may identify themselves as Christians and they may say that they are Christians but they do not hold even the most basic Christian conviction.
Something like 60 million Americans are identified by scholars as “evangelicals,” an elastic, even amorphous category. What is an evangelical? It depends upon whom one asks but let us say that it means that one believes the Bible to be God’s Word and holds that a personal faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Of course, such a minimalist definition, however accurate sociologically, has almost no relation to the original sense of the word evangelical in the Reformation: one who believes the historic Christian faith, that the Scriptures alone (sola Scriptura) are the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life, affirms the Reformation doctrine that the gospel is the good news that Jesus obeyed and died for sinners, was raised for them, and saves (justifies and sanctifies) them by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). Still, even granting the most minimal definition of evangelical, 62% of evangelicals strongly disagreed with the statement: “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” and 26% strongly agreed. Ligonier concludes that 30% of American evangelicals agree with the denial of Jesus’ deity. Evangelicals do better than most Americans but in what sense is one an evangelical but denies the most basic of Christian affirmations? One went forward at an altar call and is thus “an evangelical” but denies the deity of Jesus?
Remarkably, 26% of Americans believe “God chose the people he would save before he created the world.” This number is much higher than one would have expected. 50% disagree with the statement, which is a number lower than one might have expected and the rest, of course are in the middle. Among self-identified evangelicals, 38% agreed with this statement and 44% disagreed. The evangelical grasp of some (any) version of election is not much better than that of the average American. In contrast, that God has elected a people to new life and true faith in Jesus was widely held among the fathers (it is a little surprising to see how often, e.g., Polycarp speaks of the Philippian congregation as elect) and it became a basic Christian doctrine by the time of Augustine’s repudiation of Pelagius in the early 5th century. It was unequivocally affirmed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and by all the magisterial (i.e., Lutheran and Reformed) Protestant Reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the points of conflict between orthodox Christianity and Pelagianism was the question of human nature after the fall. Pelagius denied that in Adam’s fall, sinned we all” (in the words of the Colonial American catechism). Instead, he and his followers affirmed that each of us is born as Adam and we sin or not sin. When asked whether they agree with the statement, “everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature” 34% of American evangelicals disagreed strongly, i.e., 34% sided unequivocally with Augustine and the Reformation. 19% of American evangelicals sided strongly with Pelagian position.
On the central question of the Reformation, how are sinners right with a holy and righteous God? American evangelicals are backsliding. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “God counts a person as righteousness not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ,” 91% of evangelicals agreed two years ago but in 2020 84% of evangelicals agree. I have not looked at the so-called “internals” but this would seem to be outside the margin of error by a few points. The Reformation affirmation of justification by God’s favor (grace) alone, through faith (trusting, resting, and receiving Christ and his righteousness) alone was clear, consistent, and unequivocal. Consider:
60. How are you righteous before God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart (Heidelberg Catechism, 60).
Judging by the surveys that Ligonier has done over the years and by the results of this year’s survey (completed just before the Covid-19 crisis) American Christians who still believe the historic faith live in the midst of a deistic, Pelagian people. American evangelicals are not only somewhat different from the prevailing culture. It has been clear to some, e.g., Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987), who characterized American evangelicals as “Mr Gray,” for most of a decade that the gulf between historic Christianity, and especially Reformation Christianity, and American evangelical theology, piety, and practice is rather wide.
American Christianity needs a Reformation. It has always needed a Reformation (so Paul Tillich said). The American religion of the 18th and 19th centuries was dominated by the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty. Neither tendency is satisfied with the sufficiency of God’s Word and both quests have tended to corrupt the gospel.
This year’s Ligonier survey is a great reminder of the missionary task before Reformation Christians: to reach the lost with the unadulterated law and gospel and to reach the evangelicals with the Reformation.
© R. Scott Clark 2020. All Rights Reserved.
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- “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91.
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
- With The Regular Reformed Guys On QIRC And QIRE
- Discussing QIRC And QIRE On Presbycast