Jonathan Edwards on True Christianity
By Owen Strachan, Douglas Sweeney, Christopher Reese
Moody Publishers Copyright © 2010 Owen Strachan Douglas Sweeney
All rights reserved.
The Contemporary Problem of Nominal Christianity
Wew things in the world speak to the soul with greater depth than a committed marriage relationship. When two people share love and cling to one another through decades of life, weathering trials, tragedies, and tense times, they offer the world an image of a greater reality.
But if the sweetness of true love easily moves us, the specter of halfhearted marital commitment equally raises our passions. Many of us have watched with sorrow and surprise as the covenants of many couples collapse. We have seen the story play out time and time again: the sweethearts everyone admires marry and raise adorable children in a happy home. Without warning, the marriage crumbles, often as a result of a spouse's unfaithfulness. Though everything seemed so perfect, we learn in the end that all was not well. There may have been sparks of true affection over the years, but ultimately, what looked like love was no love at all.
Relating Marriage and Faith
This situation parallels a matter of even greater significance: Christian faith. Just as marriage is not merely a slip of paper and a big ceremony, Christian faith is not merely a onetime confession of Christ and occasional church attendance. If we would reach heaven, if we would truly live by faith, we must be personally transformed by God such that we pursue Him, however imperfectly, on a constant basis. This, at base, is the nature of Christianity. Though still bearing sin, we fight for holiness and watch as God, over time, conforms us to the image of His Son. We back up our "profession"—our verbal commitment—to God by our lives, thus showing ourselves to be truly saved (see 1 John 1).
Unashamed sinners and passionate Christians form two clear scriptural groups. The Bible deals extensively with the unredeemed and the redeemed. But the Scripture also recognizes a third group. This group mirrors the half-hearted spouse discussed above: the lukewarm, interested but noncommittal, nominal Christian who professes true faith but shows little evidence of it (nominal refers to "name," that is, a faith in name only). To this group the voices of Scripture also devote much attention. The prophets call Israel to stop wandering from God; Jesus Christ tells deeply frightening stories about those who pursue Him half-heartedly (see Matthew 13:1–23, for example); Revelation informs us that at the last judgment, the Lord will spew the lukewarm from His mouth (Revelation 3:16). In these and many other instances, the Scripture warns the nominal Christian of clear and present danger. We are not merely dealing with earthly situations here. On the matter of true Christianity, we are confronting matters of eternal consequence.
Nominal Christianity in Our Day
As we will see in the quotations and statistics that follow, lukewarm faith is alive and well in our evangelical churches. By studying this problem in its contemporary form, we prepare ourselves to enter Jonathan Edwards's world in coming chapters.
Nominal Christianity is a notoriously difficult problem to trace and spot. Like a transmittable illness, one knows it's out there, but one can't pinpoint exactly where. Two things are immediately clear, though: the state of maturity of many Christians is quite low, and many churches are failing to educate their people in the basics of Christianity.
Pollsters D. Michael Lindsay and George Gallup conducted research several years ago that revealed alarming beliefs among a significant number of people who claim to be evangelical.
According to Lindsay and Gallup, of those claiming to be born again:
33% hold a pro-choice stance on abortion
26% believe in astrology
20% believe in reincarnation (Lindsay, 40)
Many of these people are likely in evangelical churches that ostensibly teach biblical doctrine, and yet they hold views on various spiritual and moral subjects that directly conflict with the biblical witness. If their beliefs conflict with true Christianity, it is likely that their lives conflict as well.
In a study of members of prominent evangelical mega-churches, Rodney Stark found the following data:
ONLY 46% attend services weekly or more often
Only 46% tithe
Only 33% read the Bible daily (Stark, 47)
When Stark and his researchers asked the megachurch members the following question, "How often in the last month did you participate in witnessing/sharing your faith with strangers?" the following percentage answered that they witnessed one or more times:
All Conservative Protestants 44%
All Liberal Protestants 19% (Stark, 25)
This could initially seem encouraging. When one considers, though, that more than half of all conservative Protestants, people who seemingly have a great concern for personal evangelism, did not share their faith even once in the month with an unbeliever, reality begins to sink in.
A recent survey by an evangelical megachurch backed up this conclusion. It revealed that a significant number of its members who self-identified as spiritually healthy—"close to Christ" and "Christ-centered" were the words used in the survey—also marked themselves as "spiritually stalled" and "dissatisfied." Christianity Today commented on the survey that "About a quarter of the 'stalled' segment and 63 percent of the 'dissatisfied' segment contemplated leaving the church." (CT) These findings come from a seemingly thriving church reaching many thousands of people each year.
It is true that all Christians sometimes feel "stalled" in their faith. Sin is a part of our lives, and it will not leave us until we reach the other side. But because of the vast number of members who described themselves in this way, these numbers do not indicate health in the church.
In his book Today's Pastors, George Barna documents the disheartening results of his study of the biblical literacy or knowledge of many Christians. First, Barna found that just four out of ten Christians read their Bible on a weekly basis. Second, according to Barna:
THOSE PEOPLE WHO DO READ will commit about one hour to Bible reading during the week. Those people actually will spend more time showering, commuting to and from work, watching television, reading the newspaper, eating meals or talking on the telephone. Obviously, the Bible is not a high priority in the lives of most people. (Barna, 48)
If we're still skeptical about the specter of listless Christianity, this statistic wakes us up. The decided minority of professing Christians who do crack the pages of the Word of God spend less time in it each week than they do in the shower.
David Wells, the eminent theologian and critic of evangelicalism, cites other Barna polls that show that a majority—52%—of evangelicals "reject the idea of original sin outright" (Courage to Be Protestant, 57). This means that a majority of professing believers simply reject one of the core doctrines of a Christian view of mankind altogether. Furthermore, Wells cites statistics that show that only 32% of professing evangelicalsbelieve in absolutes in truth or morality (Above All Earthly Pow'rs, 93). These are the sort of statements we expect from outspoken unbelievers, not professing Christians.
The Problem of Pornography
The harmful effects of pornography are well-known. Yet the church, commissioned to be an outpost of holiness in a world of evil, has struggled mightily to help its members turn away from pornography. Some of the most discouraging data comes from pastors, those charged to lead congregations through holy lives. The following data comes from the Safe Families website (www.safe-families.org):
37% of pastors say pornography is a current struggle
In another survey, over half of evangelical pastors admitted viewing pornography last year
Of pastors who had visited a porn site, 53% had visited such sites "a few times" in the past year, and 18% visit sexually explicit sites between a couple of times a month and more than once a week
If the pastors of God's churches are struggling as mightily as these polls suggest, one wonders how church members, many of them far less spiritually mature than pastors, are faring in the fight against lust.
The Tragedy of Divorce
Other data indicate that the church is not only failing in its mission to be distinct and unique, but it is full of the same cultural sins that the world practices. In some cases, the church actually may be surpassing the world in its sins. In 1999, the Barna Group found that conservative evangelicals apparently divorce at a higher rate than non-Christians. The following figures comparing rates of divorce between Christians and non-Christians echo this shocking claim:
Mainline Protestants 25%
Atheists/Agnostics 21% (www.associatedcontent.com)
This statistic paints an unflattering portrait of the state of Christian marriage. Of course, it needs to be qualified; one could point out here that professing Christians are more likely to marry than unbelievers and thus are more susceptible to divorce. One could also note that many conservative Christian theologians believe that divorce is allowed in some circumstances. With these points noted, though, it is clear that many Christians have bought into the American divorce culture. Rather than standing apart from the world in this area, many Christians mirror their unbelieving neighbors. In a society rapidly releasing itself from connection to Christian moral and theological thinking, many Christians are not even fighting the cultural tide, let alone stemming it. It is sweeping them away.
Sub-Christian Faith Among Young Adults
The lives and testimony of our children, though surely not ultimately dependent on the faith of parents, reveal with painful precision just how much faith makes its way into nominally Christian homes. Interviewers and researchers who have talked with hundreds of children of conservative Christian parents have found that modern "church kids" live and talk much like their secular peers. Christian Smith, a sociologist who has extensively studied the lives of religious young people, has found that in general, American teens practice what he calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a bland, relativistic spirituality that emphasizes doing good, feeling good, and believing in a benevolent, harmless, one-size-fits-all God. Smith's book Soul Searching includes many brief and often depressing interviews with teens conducted by the sociologist and his staff. For example, Smith comments:
VIEWED IN TERMS of the absolute historical centrality of the Protestant conviction about salvation by God's grace alone, through faith alone and not by any human good works, many belief professions by Protestant teens, including numerous conservative Protestant teens, in effect discard that essential Protestant gospel. One 15-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Mississippi, for instance, explained, "If you just do the right thing and don't do anything bad, I mean nothing really bad, you know you'll go to heaven. If you don't, you're screwed [laughs], that's about it." Similarly, this 16-year-old black conservative Protestant girl from Pennsylvania told us, "Being a Christian, um, don't do many sins, read the Bible, go to church, living godly, that's about it. It's basically not committing sin, basically." (Smith, 136)
In another section, Smith discusses the absence of a connection between biblical thinking and day-to-day life:
QUITE OFTEN, TEENS said they did not think their religious faith affected their family relationships, they did not believe religion was relevant to the conduct of a dating relationship, they did not see that religion affected their life at school, and so on. This was often even true for teens who in the religious discussion explicitly said that faith was important and influential in their lives. One 16-year-old white mainline Protestant girl from Michigan, for example, who explicitly stated, "Religion is very important to me," denied in every other section of the interview that religion had anything to do with her relationships, dating, school work, or any other aspect of her ordinary life. (Smith, 140)
One could cite numerous other examples from Smith's text that make this same point. At base, it is clear that many modern teens from a wide variety of churches have little sense of the personal importance and eternal significance of Christ and His Word.
The teenage years are known for their difficulty and turmoil, and that must be stated. In addition, Christian parents cannot produce faith in their children, and even the best parents may see their children drift away from the faith. But these necessary qualifications do not silence the point made above. On a broad level, Christians and churches are struggling to pass on biblical Christianity. Many of us are not living robustly Christian lives; a good portion of our children are not, either.
A Brief Sweep of Factors Behind the Current Situation
It is not the purpose of this chapter to exhaustively trace the factors that led to our current situation. We are more concerned with the state of things on the ground, and cannot take the space necessary to sketch out a full-fledged answer to this important question, so the following survey will be brief. Readers desiring to look into this further would do well to look at a number of volumes cited in this chapter, including David Wells's texts No Place for Truth, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, and The Courage to Be Protestant.
To concisely identify a few key factors, we need to travel back in time a couple of centuries to eighteenth-century Europe, the "Age of Lights" or "Enlightenment." In this era, a number of key thinkers reacted against state churches and their dogma, labeling religious faith "superstition" and emphasizing the primacy of the human intellect. They questioned the authority and truthfulness of the Bible and sought to strip it of elements they deemed false and superstitious. It took some time for this manner of thinking to trickle down into society, but eventually, many European countries once characterized by religious faith became increasingly secularized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This unbelieving line of thought spread to churches and seminaries and caused many in traditional church traditions to fall away from orthodox faith.
In time, religious leaders began to doubt even their hard-line liberal commitments. In the second half of the twentieth century, they accommodated to the secular "postmodern" spirit, avoiding "dogma" of any kind, and embracing mystery. Instead of emphasizing absolute truth, they spoke of truth for communities. That is, certain communities believed one way, and that was truth for them; others might believe something entirely different, and that was also true (for them). Some Christians from both conservative and liberal backgrounds adopted this spirit, creating a new kind of church, one light on doctrine and heavy on personal experience and mystery.
At the same time, the intellectual weakness of the church and the accommodation of its formative seminaries to liberal modes of thought drove many conservative Christian leaders to look to the booming American business sector for clues to vitality and growth. In the process, some American Christians lost connection to a Bible-centered model of preaching and, accordingly, a biblical worldview. Others who remained consciously biblical concentrated themselves so narrowly on political and social concerns that they seemed to make the church another Political Action Committee. Many "mainline" churches adopted liberal doctrines and deemphasized or even discarded fundamental doctrines of Christianity, though in the present day, a biblical witness of varying size persists in some denominations. Still more professing Christians have lost confidence and interest in local churches and have invested in parachurch organizations, trusting national leaders and ministries to lead them from afar without meaningful contact with a body of believers.
Pragmatism and Postmodernism in the Church
With the rise of the financial market and the cultural abandonment of various tenets of a Christian worldview, many of our evangelical churches have shifted from a richly biblical and theological perspective to one driven by pragmatic concerns. Congregations often do not make this shift to spite doctrine; instead, they do it because they think it will bring health and growth. Though they may mean well, a concern for numbers over a concern for personal faith makes it easy for nominalism to creep into the church. When churches concentrate so much on bringing people in, they can lose sight of building people up. That kind of atmosphere can make it easy for people to adopt a half-hearted faith, a Christianity that may be no Christianity at all.
Cultural critic Os Guinness has written persuasively about the pragmatic mindset in the church. He notes that
THE CONCERN "WILL IT WORK?" has long overshadowed "Is it true?" Theology has given way to technique. Know-whom has faded before know-how. Serving God has subtly been deformed into servicing the self. At its worst, the result is a shift from faith to the "faith in faith," which—along with faith in religion—is a perniciously distinctive American heresy. But even at its best, pragmatism results in an evangelicalism rich in ingenuity and organization but poor in spirituality and superficial, if not banal, in doctrine. We have become the worldliest Christians in America. (Guinness, 59) (Continues...)
Excerpted from Jonathan Edwards on True Christianity by Owen Strachan, Douglas Sweeney, Christopher Reese. Copyright © 2010 Owen Strachan Douglas Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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