Last month Ligonier Ministries, in partnership with LifeWay Research, released the findings of a survey conducted on the state of theology in the United States. The survey polled 3,000 American adults between the end of February and the beginning of March 2014. The objectives of the survey were “To quantify among a national sample of Americans indicators of the theological understanding of
Americans today providing comparisons between: Christian church goers and the unchurched; and, Those who consider themselves Evangelical and those who do not.” As with any survey or statistic, there must be some discernment used in reading and applying the survey results, but the survey claims that the sample provides 95% certainty that the margin of error does not exceed plus/minus 1.8%. Accordingly, the results are worth considering, especially for anyone whose ministry is focused on the spiritual development of parishioners or students. You can easily find the full results of the survey by visiting Ligonier.org or by googling State of Theology, but I want to zero in on a few of the results here.
First, 71% of survey responders agree–strongly or somewhat–that individuals must contribute their own efforts for personal salvation. This is a startling number–particularly in light of the fact the Bible makes it abundantly clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and that works have nothing to do with salvation. Any belief to the contrary is dangerous for one of two reasons; either humans are capable, in an of themselves, of contributing to their own salvation, or the death of Christ on the cross was somehow insufficient in and of itself to provide salvation. To suggest that Christ’s atoning death on the cross must be supplemented by man’s efforts is to seriously undermine the entire salvation message. John 3:16 is nullified by the position that human efforts are required to obtain salvation. And lest you temper your concern about this figure by suggesting that the 71% is surely made up of unbelievers, note that 38% of self-identified Evangelicals strongly agree with this notion. That is the same percentage of Evangelicals who attend church once a month or more who strongly disagree with the statement, meaning that even Evangelicals are evenly split over whether or not man has a role in salvation. It is not surprising, given the tenets of the Catholic faith, that 49% of Catholics strongly agree that human effort is required, but 38% of Evangelicals to do so is cause for concern.
Oddly enough, 87% of self-identified Evangelicals who attend church at least once a month strongly agree that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone. Only 33% of other Christians strongly agree, and just 13% of non-Christians. That range is not surprising. It is baffling however, that 87% of Evangelicals can strongly agree that salvation is through Christ alone while 38% of them also agree that human effort is a required element of salvation. That means some 25% of Evangelical responders are either schizophrenic or deeply confused.
The beliefs about salvation segue right into a question in the survey about the authority of Scripture. A startling 41% of survey respondents agree–either somewhat or strongly–that the Bible is not literally true. I am pleased that 80% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with this statement, but it concerns me that one in five do not strongly disagree! Forty-five percent of survey respondents believe that the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose–and only 66% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with that. Only forty-eight percent of survey respondents agree that the Bible alone is the written Word of God. While 79% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree, just 62% of all Evangelicals strongly agree and only 22% of Mainline Protestants strongly agree. This means that there is considerable belief that the Bible is not God’s only revealed, written Word. Among all survey responders, only 43% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches. And while 78% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree with that statement, that still leaves almost a quarter who do not strongly agree. Even more troubling is that only 23% of “Other Christians” strongly agree.
So what can we learn from these statistics? First, the term “Christian” can obviously be applied very loosely, and just because someone identifies him- or herself as a Christian does not mean that they believe the things I would expect a Christian to believe. Second, we live in a world that is divided on issues of biblical authority and godly living at best, opposed to it at worst. (For example, 43% of the survey responders indicated disagreement that sex outside of marriage is a sin while only 48% indicated agreement. The balance was “not sure”). Accordingly, we need to be more diligent and more vigilant than ever in our churches, in our Christian schools and in our families that we are equipping our students with the Truth of God’s Word and preparing them for the realities of the world in which we live.