In 2020 Probe Ministries (HT: Aquila Report) conducted a survey of self-identified “Born Again Christians” (hereafter BACs) found that more than 60% of self-identified BACs are are willing to say that there is more than one way to heaven. This would shock and disappoint the thousands of Christians who were martyred in the second and third centuries AD by the Roman Empire. They were asked to affirm that Caesar is a god, to pour out an offering, and to renounce Christ. When they refused they were tortured to death by being thrown to animals or by being burnt and the stake. The Romans did not ask the Christians to believe in the pagan pantheon or that Caesar is a god. They merely had to conform to the prevailing Roman state-religion (because state-religions are such a good thing). Those Nigerian, Korean, and Chinese Christians who are being martyred in our time would also be most disappointed. After all, the Islamists only require Christians to affirm outwardly the Shahada and they can still say that Jesus is a prophet. The Communists in North Korea and China who have martyred untold numbers of Christians only ask conformity to the party (the expression “political correctness” comes from the Communists). People are still allowed to be Christians in their heart. You see how this works, do you not?
It is also a surprising outcome in light of the clarity of Scripture on this question. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This seems rather unequivocal. The Apostle Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; ESV). As to outward conformity to the Romans, the Islam, or to the Communist Party, our Lord Jesus said, “Every one therefore who shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:32; ASV).
Remarkably, in the oldest age group (the Boomers) the percentage that agreed was even higher. The same BACs, however, when asked the same question in a slightly different way, responded differently. They affirmed the statement “I believe that the only way to a true relationship with God is through Jesus Christ” at a much higher rate. 80% of the oldest group surveyed affirmed this statement. This is the same group who most strongly affirmed the previous, that there are multiple ways to heaven. The percentages for the youngest group surveyed (Gen Z) were proportionally lower, which is a little surprising. Based on other surveys (e.g., the Pew Religion Survey) we might have expected figures to be different. One way to explain this seeming incoherence is that, according to the older group, there are multiple ways to heaven but the best or preferable way to God is through Jesus Christ. In effect, the actively obedient suffering and death or Christ are a sort of second blessing.
Losing Their Religion
If the results of this survey are valid then American evangelicals are becoming theological liberals. This development is not entirely surprising since this has been the trajectory of affective Christianity for a long time. By affective I mean those traditions (e.g., Mysticism, Pietism, and Revivalism) that make an inward turn to the subject, to the self. In Affective Christianity one’s experience is supreme. The objective truths of the faith are not so much denied as marginalized and, eventually, forgotten. American evangelical Christianity has been a kind of affective Christianity for two centuries.
We see a similar trajectory from Francis Turretin (1623–87) to his son, Jean Alphonse Turretini (1671–1737), who was not, contra some portrayals, a theological liberal. He was a broad evangelical. He was a latitudinarian. He paved the way for Socinianism. How did he get there? He priortized the affective over the objective. He rejected the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675), which his more famous father, Francis co-wrote with J. H. Heidegger (1633–98). Jean Alphonse wanted to broaden the Genevan church to make it more inclusive.
The nineteenth-century German liberals, who rejected Protestant Orthodoxy and the ecumenical creeds, were the children of eighteenth-century Pietists, who placed religious affections, religious activity, and social activism above orthodoxy. Non-confessional Pietists became non-confessional theological liberals. If Christianity is affective then the history of redemption, catholicity, and Protestant orthodoxy are less important.
History tells us then that the survey results are unexpected. Anecdotal evidence and experience also suggests that there is probably truth to this survey. Go to America’s heartland. I do it regularly. Go attend an average “evangelical” worship service. What does one find? What I find is what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton (2005) described as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The services are in two parts: first, for about 30 minutes, the congregation sings praise choruses designed to produce euphoria; second, the “pastor” gives a TED talk on how to be good and happy. All too often it is what Mike Horton described in 2008 as Christless Christianity.
Most American evangelical churches are theologically rudderless. They are the product of Revivalism and Pietism. They are not consciously confessional. As we have seen with the rise of the self-named doctrine of the “Eternal Subordination of the Son” (or Eternal Functional Subordination or Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission), some evangelicals are not even firmly wedded to the ecumenical faith. Particularly relevant here would be the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451), and the Athanasian Creed (perhaps in the late 5th century). See the resources below.
How A Twofold Kingdom Helps Us Navigate Christ and Culture
The great crisis before the church just now is Christ and Culture. Perhaps that is always been the question? Whatever the case it is before us now in a new way. When we lived in Christendom, when Christianity had a privileged place in the culture, when politicans openly spoke about America being a “Christian nation,” when the stores were closed on Sunday, when a minister could clear his throat in a restaurant and people would go silent so he could pray over a meal, when at least a cultural Christianity was woven in the fabcric of society, we faced the crisis of the confusion of Christianity for the culture.1 It was easy for “nice people” to think of themselves as Christians. It is the problem of the state-church that goes all the way back to Theodosius I, who made Christianity the religion of the Empire in AD 380. Almost immediately the pastors found themselves dealing with an influx of people who were loyal citizens but not Christians.
Since at least the early nineteenth century, America has not had a state-church de iure but de facto it did until the end of the “blue laws” in the 1980s. In many places America today hardly resembles the America of forty years ago. We are in the midst of the third sexual revolution since the early twentieth century and this one is going to leave a mark. Marriage has been re-defined in a way unknown to the history of the world. It is a radical experiment the outcome of which is unwritten but it is not too much to suggest that we contemplate Sodom and Gomorrah as a road map.
How do we proceed? How can evangelicals recover biblical, ecumenical, and Protestant orthodoxy on the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation? The first step is to distinguish Christ and culture. Just as true Christianity was always distinct from cultural Christianity during Christendom, so too evangelical Christians need to distinguish between the reigning cultural pluralism and theological pluralism. Yes, the church is composed of all sorts of people (as it should be) and the culture is composed of all sorts of beliefs. There is a tremendous pressure in the culture to affirm a pluralist approach to salvation.
A few years ago President Trump nominated Russell Vought to a post in his administration. Opponents of the nominee found an article written by Vought in which he criticized a Wheaton College professor for advocating a pluralist approach to salvation. During his confirmation hearing the ACLU bizarrely attacked Vought for denying religious liberty. The ACLU conflated Vought’s religious views with his policy views (perhaps because that is what the ACLU now does). Sen. Sanders of Vermont grilled Vought over his public, Christian conviction that faith in Jesus is the only way of salvation. Either Sanders was being cynical or he is incredibly ill-informed about a basic tenet of orthodox Christianity.
None of Vought’s critics in the hearing were able to distinguish between Vought’s personal, sacred, religious convictions and his ability to fulfill the responsibilities of the secular, public position for which he was nominated. Were we to distinguish between the the two spheres in the Kingdom of God, the sacred and the secular, both Christians and pagans might be able to co-exist more peacefully. Neither the ACLU nor Sen. Sanders had any right to challenge Mr Vought’s religious convictions. They attempted to impose a religious test upon his appointment, which is strictly unconstitutional.
Obviously Pagans, Jews, and Muslims are not going to believe in the Kingdom of God as Christians understand it but they ought to be able to appreciate the distinction between the sacred and the secular. It would behoove Christians to recover this distinction and to articulate it clearly. As a public official, it is not Vought’s vocation to impose his religion on anyone. It would be good for Sen Sanders et al to learn that lesson themselves. It may be that there are jobs that Christians may not perform in the government (e.g., funding abortion clinics) but most government jobs pose no unique challenge to Christian orthodoxy.
Evangelicals need to learn to distinguish the two spheres of God’s Kingdom, the general and the saving, the secular and the sacred. The state-religion is not orthodox Christianity. It is not even cultural Christianity. If there is a de facto state religion it probably is anti-Christian pluralism. If so, then Christians need to recognize that what most of their neighbors believe is not what Christians believe. It means that Christians need to be prepared to think of themselves not as a part of a “moral majority” but as a minority. We need to stand up for our civil liberties and to engage the culture graciously, clearly, and firmly but we need also to know that we are likely to be marginalized.
In short, just because the liberal mainline churches have long ago given up the orthodox Christian faith, and just because one’s neighbors and friends are polytheists (which is what religious pluralism really is), that does not mean that we must also become polytheists. No, we stand on the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). We stand on the words of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That is gospel truth. There is no other name given under heaven whereby we must be saved. There is no other Savior. There is no other salvation. There is no other saving truth or saving faith outside of Christ. Only he died for sinners and only he was raised for their justification.
This does not mean that we cannot be good citizens. Justin Martyr protested that Christians are the best citizens. He did not ask Rome to adopt Christianity as the state religion. He only asked the Empire to stop killing Christians. He asked Rome to recognize a distinction between the sacred and the secular and he asked that Christians to be allowed to participate in the secular and to be exempted from the sacred. That should be our plea too. It is a biblical idea, it is an ancient Christian idea, and it is the American idea.
1. The marginalization of Christianity was illustrated recently when the University of Nebraska played an exhibition basketball game against the University of Colorado last Sunday at 11:00 AM. This is the traditional time for church services in Lincoln. There was a time, not very long ago, when it would have been unthinkable for the University to compete with church directly that way. The local ministerium would have taken to the pages of the the local newspaper to complain. There would have been phone calls made behind the scene. It just would not have happened. When they got wind of it, ministers would have taken to their pulpits to denounce it. To be best of my knowledge there was not a peep from anyone about the scheduling of the game.
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- Liam Goligher Explains The Controversy Over The So-Called Eternal Subordination Of The Son (ESS)
- Liam Goligher Explains ESS (part 2)
- D. Glenn Butner, Jr., “Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will,” JETS 58.1 (2015): 131–49.
- How Did Some Evangelicals Come To Teach The “Eternal Subordination Of The Son”? Biblicism
- A Response To Grudem’s Appeal To Hodge On Eternal Subordination
- The Eternally Begotten Son Is Consubstantial With the Father
- We Are Not Merely Discussing Economic Subordination
- Just In Time For The Latest ESS Dustup: With Presbycast On The Athanasian Creed
- Ufilas Or ESS?
- How Should A Lay Christian Learn Theology?
- Resources On Machen, Christianity, And Liberalism
- The Theologically Liberal Empire Strikes Back
- The Banality Of Theological Liberalism
- The Truth About Theological Liberalism
- Whence Liberalism and What to Do About It
- Resources Pages On Common Grace And The Sacred/Secular Distinction
- Resources On The Twofold Kingdom
- Resources On Christ And Culture
- Office Hours: Calvin Meets Voltaire
- What Happened to Reformed Theology in the 18th Century? (1)
- What Happened To Reformed Theology in the 18th Century? (2)