The State of the American Evangelical Church

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For the month of November, the Banner of Truth has graciously allowed our readers a free download of The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church by David Wells. This was a prophetic address to the National Association of Evangelicals that holds great pertinence for Christians today.

As we engage evangelicalism this month, it is worth considering: what is an evangelical? What are first order issues for evangelicals? And in what condition do we find the state of evangelicalism today? These questions and more are worth considering as we take on the large task of engaging evangelicalism.

What Are Evangelicals?

Evangelicals are heirs of the Reformation who are committed to the great truths of historic Christianity. Centered on the glory of our triune God in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ, evangelicals confess the faith as articulated by the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, and the great Protestant Confessions. Given who God is in all of his perfections and blessedness, evangelicals have been rightly God-centered and Christ-centered in their theology, lives, and practice. They rejoice in God’s triune self-sufficiency. They proclaim and exult that in our sin and inability to stand right before our Creator and Lord, this same merciful God has taken the initiative in sovereign grace to redeem us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Specifically, those who claim the name “evangelical”—a contested term that we will engage and define throughout this month—have confessed the centrality of Christ. They confess the divine Son, who—from the Father and by the Holy Spirit—supernaturally assumed our human nature. He did this in order to become our covenant head and accomplish our eternal redemption by his life, death, and resurrection. As such, evangelicals have joyfully proclaimed that Christ alone is the exclusive and all-sufficient Savior, and that apart from him there is no salvation. Indeed, as heirs of the Reformation, evangelicals have gladly confessed these gospel truths by affirming the famous solas: sola gratia (grace alone); sola fide (faith alone); solus Christus (by Christ alone); and soli Deo gloria (to God’s glory alone).

Additionally, evangelicals have affirmed a strong commitment to sola Scriptura, namely that Scripture alone is both our final authority and the “norming norm” (norma normans) of our entire theology. Why? Because Scripture is God’s self-attesting word written through the agency of human authors, and for this reason, it is authoritative, infallible, and true in all that it teaches. But what is the state of the evangelical church today, especially in regard to its rich doctrinal heritage, grounded in the Reformation but also reaching back to the dogmatic teaching of the earliest and catholic confessions of the church?

The State of the Evangelical Church

If we follow the polls, it seems that the theological health and life of the church is not encouraging. Just the opposite—it’s downright discouraging, and even alarming. Why? Because these polls reveal that basic historic Christian doctrine is evaporating in today’s evangelical church, at least in the United States and probably in much of the Western world.

The evidence for this claim is best seen in the biennial “State of Theology” poll conducted by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. The latest version was released in September of 2022. The poll asked 3011 US adults—which included 711 evangelicals—thirty-five questions about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible. Its goal was to capture the theological temperature of American society, including the evangelical church. Our concern in the poll is with those who identified as evangelicals. To discern if one was an evangelical, one had to strongly agree with the following four statements:

  1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe;
  2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus as their Savior;
  3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin;
  4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s gift of eternal salvation.
1. The Bebbington Quadrilateral, named after church historian David Bebbington, is a well-worn approach to defining evangelicals by means of four doctrinal commitments. The four points consist of activism (or evangelism), biblicism, crucicentricism, and conversionism. For the origin of the quadrilateral, see David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to 1980s (Routledge, 1993).

Those four commitments are an approximation of the Bebbington Quadrilateral.[1] One would suppose that anyone who identified as an evangelical would also affirm a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture in every area of their lives; the exclusivity of Christ and his work; a historic view of Christ as the second person of the triune Godhead; and a recognition that he assumed our human nature in order to accomplish a salvation that we could not achieve. In addition, commitment to these four beliefs would also seem to require a strong belief in the reality of sin. This would entail the incarnation of the divine Son and his work that alone is able to justify us before God, and that those who stand outside of Christ are without salvation.

However, as we look at how evangelicals responded to the various questions, this is not what we find. Instead, we discover that syncretism is on the rise and that many “evangelicals” are deeply confused about basic biblical and theological truths. Indeed, many are so confused that they are in danger of denying the truths of orthodox Christianity. Let me illustrate this alarming conclusion by focusing on three areas: (1) the Bible, (2) Christology and the doctrine of God, and (3) sin and salvation.

Confusion Regarding Scripture

Evangelicals are confused about biblical authority, which reveals a distinct departure from sola Scriptura. For example, although 100% of evangelicals affirm that the Bible is the highest authority for what they believe, 99% agree that the biblical accounts of the bodily resurrection of Christ are accurate, and 95% agree that the Bible is completely accurate in all that it teaches, this is not the entire story. Of those same people, 30% think that modern science has disproven the Bible, while 26% think that the Bible, like all sacred writings, contain helpful accounts of ancient myths that are not literally true, and 27% think that the Holy Spirit can tell them to do something that Scripture forbids. Although there seems to be a “strong” commitment to Scripture, we also see a growing embrace of beliefs that ultimately undermine biblical authority.

This observation is confirmed by some of the ethical questions that show how biblical authority actually functions in our lives. For example, 99% believe that God created male and female. However, without biblical warrant (and due to the influence of our present Zeitgeist), 37% believe that gender is a matter of choice, and 28% believe that the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality does not apply today, which is contrary to biblical teaching from Genesis to Revelation. On these points, we see how biblical authority functions in people’s lives beyond their mere profession of it. This truth is confirmed by 37% agreeing with the statement that religious beliefs are matters of personal opinions and not objective truths.

Confusion Regarding Theology Proper and Christology

Evangelicals are also deeply confused over the nature of God, especially regarding the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is probably not surprising given the slippage on the doctrine of Scripture, but once the doctrine of God is compromised, all Christian theology becomes poisoned downstream.

For example, 97% agree that there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Yet when these same people are asked about the deity of Christ, only 43% affirm it, which discloses a deep confusion and a grave departure from orthodoxy. This is further confirmed when 73% think that Jesus is the first and greatest being, created by God. This is not only an affirmation of the heresy of Arianism, but it also confirms that many supposed evangelicals lack or deny basic biblical and theological knowledge.

Further evidence for serious departures from the doctrine of God is that 60% think that the Holy Spirit as a “force” and not a personal being (which contradicts the previous affirmation of the Trinity). In fact, as we probe further into questions regarding the nature of God, we also discover that 48% think that God learns and adapts to different circumstances, even though 97% view God as a perfect being who cannot make a mistake. What are we to conclude from this? Minimally, theological confusion abounds in our churches, and more seriously, many of our churches are proclaiming a wrong theology and a false gospel.

Confusion Regarding Sin and Salvation

Not surprisingly, given confusion regarding Scripture and God, evangelicals are embracing false views of sin and salvation. Ideas have consequences, and more significantly, wrong theological ideas about God and Scripture will directly affect these other areas.

For example, 65% think that everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God, while 57% affirm that although everyone sins a little, most people are good by nature. Additionally, 39% disagree that the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation, which makes sense of why a whopping 56% think that God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

What this reveals is simple: if we have confused views of the triune God in his aseity, holiness, justice, and love, then one will never understand the serious nature of sin and need for an exclusive Lord and Savior, namely, the divine Son incarnate who alone can justify us before God. Lord, have mercy!

A Rude Awakening: The State of the Evangelical Church

As heirs of the Reformation, evangelicals have a rich theological heritage that is rooted in the entire history of the church. However, generally speaking, the present state of the church is in serious theological trouble, which reflects a deeper spiritual problem. This is not to say that all evangelical churches are in this situation, yet too many are.

In response, we must pray that our triune covenant God will again visit his people in revival and reformation. Our Lord Jesus has promised to build his church (Matt 16:18), and despite it sad spiritual state in North America today, we know that the Lord continues to build. Accordingly, we must pray that the Lord of the church will help his people, and especially his pastors, to counter the syncretism of our day by proclaiming the whole counsel of God and the unsearchable riches of Christ.

As the Lord has renewed his church in the past, by his sovereign grace, he can do so again. And this month our aim at Christ Over All will be to engage evangelicalism historically by looking at the last 100 years. Such an historical survey will help us see what needs recovering and what needs replacing. So with confidence in God, and not ourselves, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). We do this with hope that in all of our toil and struggles, we co-labor with a hard-working Savior who is always and ever building his people for God.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Stephen Wellum

    Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).