Six Reasons the Church in America is Becoming Increasingly Impotent
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity
My purpose in writing this article is to expound on the tweet below, which expresses my own personal opinions and are not intended to set off a theological firestorm.
The impetus for what is expressed in the aforementioned tweet was simply my desire that professing Christians become more aware of what they believe about the Christian faith and why they believe it.
The above list is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive. It was never meant to be. The reasons why evangelicalism in America is so powerless, in my estimation, number exponentially more than six. In fact, it could easily be six-thousand—or six-million (or more). Nevertheless, given the character-count constraints of Twitter, I was obliged to be as concise as possible in sharing my opinions—and they are only opinions.
You—yes, you—are a theologian
It wasn’t long after posting the above tweet that some, not many, responded that they found the multi-syllabic theological terms mentioned in the tweet too “deep” to comprehend. And though I can understand why someone might think that, I would respectfully disagree with them. Admittedly, such terms can seem weighty to those unfamiliar with them. But they are not so opaque that they cannot be understood through effortful and disciplined study.
In Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, the late Dr. R.C. Sproul, Sr. (1939-2017) explains that: “The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to Him. That is why we engage in theology.”
Dr. Sproul is right.
Theology—the study of the Word of God—is not limited to seminary-trained “professional” theologians.
Whether we realize it or not, every Christian, regardless of education, occupation, or socio-economic station, is a theologian—a student of God’s Word. The only question is how good a theologian you are. As is stated on the website Got Questions?: “All Christians should be consumed with theology—the intense, personal study of God—in order to know, love, and obey the One with whom we will joyfully spend eternity.”
As followers of Christ, our study of God and of His Word is to be both “intense” and “personal”—neither of which necessitates the undertaking of formal seminary training (Acts 4:13). That is not to suggest or imply that seminaries do not play an important role in helping us to better understand, apply, and articulate what is contained in Scripture. Not at all. (I would think that that much would go without saying.)
Nevertheless, seminary isn’t for everyone. Not to mention that, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit, not any seminary professor, who illuminates the truth of God’s Word to our minds and hearts (John 16:13-14).
Do you understand what you’re reading?
In Acts 8:30, Philip, at the urging of the Holy Spirit, encountered an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading from the book of Isaiah. He asked of the eunuch the same question you and I must consider when studying the Word of God for ourselves: “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
The verb “understand” in the Greek means to come to know or to gain knowledge of. As believers, not only must we read God’s Word but we must read it toward the larger goal of understanding it. The importance of Christians having a proper understanding of Scripture is conveyed by pastor and author John MacArthur who, in Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Biblical Truth, says that:
“The intellect shapes what we believe and love in our heart. Our will desires what we love and repudiates what we hate. Our actions then accord with what we want most. The mind shapes the affections, which shape the will, which directs the actions. Theology is not fully finished until it has warmed the heart (affections) and prompted the volition (will) to act in obedience to its content.”
The study of God’s Word takes effort—lots of effort. And that effort often involves the diligent application of oneself to learning what certain “deep” and multi-syllabic theological terms mean. To earnestly commit ourselves to the disciplined study of God’s Word benefits not only ourselves in terms of our own sanctification, but also the church and society in general (Matthew 5:13-16; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1-2).
But, I digress. On to the list.
1. Hermeneutical immaturism: (Yes, I know “immaturism” isn’t actually a word.)
I mentioned earlier that the study of God’s Word takes effort, and much of that effort involves understanding how to properly interpret the biblical text. It is in that regard that I believe many Christians are immature. I don’t say that to be condescending or disrespectful in any way. Nevertheless, the reality is there are many in the church today who are hesitant to study the Scriptures for themselves (Acts 17:11) because they’ve deemed the Bible too difficult to understand.
It was the “prince of preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who said: “If you wish to know God you must know his word; if you wish to perceive his power you must see how he worketh by his word; if you wish to know his purpose before it is actually brought to pass you can only discover it by his word.”
I am of the opinion that there is a difference between being a reader of God’s Word and being a student of it. To be a student of God’s Word is to not only read it but to study it, to dig into it, to regularly and diligently immerse oneself in it. As Christians, we are not only to be aware of what God’s Word says but of what His Word means by what it says. Which is where hermeneutics—the science of biblical interpretation—comes in.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, the apostle Paul exhorts us to, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” Accurately handling the word of truth is the responsibility and obligation of every believer in Christ. Unfortunately, some Christians want to take shortcuts when it comes to understanding the Word of God. But I want to let you in on a little secret: there are no shortcuts.
As Charles H. Spurgeon said in The Treasury of David: “We are warned by the Word both of our duty, our danger, and our remedy. On the sea of life there would be many more wrecks if it were not for the divine storm-signals which give to the watchful a timely warning. The Bible should be our Mentor, our Monitor, our Memento Mori, our Remembrancer, and the Keeper of our Conscience.”
Scripture declares that “He who gives attention to the word will find good”(Proverbs 16:20a). Giving attention to the Word of God takes desire, discipline, and dedication—characteristics that are found only in spiritually mature believers who desire to graduate from milk to solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 6:1; 1 Peter 2:2).
2. Theological progressivism:
Earlier in this article, I defined theology as the study of the word of God. It is critical to keep that definition in mind, particularly as it relates to the issue of theological progressivism.
Anything that is deemed “progressive” involves change. Anything, that is, except God.
Theological progressivism is fundamentally rooted in the postmodernist view that God’s Word is mutable and commutative. It is a mindset that wreaks of the odor of epistemological dualism in that it proffers the notion that a person can refer to God as God, yet treat His Word not as sixty-six books of authoritative, divinely-inspired, God-breathed scripture, but as sixty-six containers of textual Play-Doh®, filled with words that are so ductile and pliable as to make them mean, or not mean, anything we choose (depending, of course, on which way the socio-cultural winds happen to be blowing at any given moment.)
The idea of theological progressivism is most evident today within evangelical churches and ministries that embrace homosexuality and LGBTQ inclusion (such as Revoice and Living Out), “same-sex marriage,” the so-called “social gospel,” and that reject the apostolic prohibition against female pastors (1 Corinthians 6:8-10; 1 Timothy 2:12-14; Revelation 21:8).
Such “progressive” (unbiblical) perspectives are borne from a rejection of what is emphasized in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: Q2:What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? A:The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
Professing Christians who subscribe to a progressive application of Scripture would do well to remind themselves of the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:13: “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”
The word of God does not change.
It does not change because the God whose words they are does not, will not, and cannot change (Malachi 3:6a).
3. Soteriological universalism:
In biblical theology, soteriology (from sōtēr “savior, preserver” and logos “study” or “word”) refers to the study of the biblical doctrine of salvation. Conversely, universalism is the belief that every person, regardless of religious persuasion or identity, will ultimately spend eternity in heaven when they die.
Sadly, countless people who profess to be Christian are proved to not be when it comes to their understanding of what salvation is and how it is accomplished according to the Word of God. Despite the clear teaching of Scripture—that salvation is available only in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12)—they nonetheless are convinced that when a person dies—anyperson—God will weigh their good works against their bad works and if the good works outweigh the bad, then—Voila!—like magic, God will open wide His “pearly gates” and welcome them into heaven.
Those who have a works-based view of salvation would do well to remind themselves of the words of Charles H. Spurgeon who, in All of Grace, said: “The salvation of God is for those who do not deserve it and have no preparation for it.”
The Bible is clear that salvation is only through faith in Jesus Christ, not our works (Mark 16:16; John 14:6; Acts 16:30-31; Romans 10:8-9; Ephesians 2:4-9; Titus 3:5). As the great Reformer Martin Luther confessed: “I must listen to the gospel. It tells me not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me.”
To hold to a works-based view of salvation prompts at least two questions that require thoughtful consideration: 1. If our “good works” are salvific in and of themselves, then, why did Jesus have to die? and 2. Why is it necessary to believe in Jesus Christ if one’s “good works” are the determining factor in one’s worthiness (or unworthiness) of heaven?
To even begin to answer these and many other associated questions would take a separate blog post—or ten—which I have neither the time nor energy to write. Instead, I will leave it to you, dear reader, to ponder those questions for yourself.
Despite the countless religions that exist in the world today, religion does not save anyone. Only faith in Jesus Christ saves. It is only by the wounds Christ received on our behalf that a person enters heaven (Isaiah 53:4-5), not by the weight of our own works, which God regards as nothing but “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
It’s really that simple.
4. Ecclesiastical ecumenicism:
Did you know there is such a thing as “progressive Christianity”? There’s even a website dedicated to it: progressivechristianity.org. It was on the aforementioned website that I encountered these words from John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey:
“Beneath our religious diversity, there is a remarkably similar humanity. I am convinced that a religious unity that we have not dared hope for might now be dawning. Perhaps in the next hundred years we will come to think of the religions of the world as being as similar to one another as we today think the denominations of Christianity to be. That would be a major breakthrough in consciousness. To me, such is not only possible, but it is also highly desirable.”
What you’ve just read is one of the best (or perhaps worst) examples of ecclesiastical ecumenicism you’ll find anywhere. Ecclesiastical ecumenicists like Spong often employ terms like “religious diversity,” “similar humanity,” and “religious unity,” as if to suggest they are the aims of the gospel and the church. But, in reality, ecclesiastical ecumenicism is essentially New Age humanism draped in a cloak of evangelistic piety.
The goal of ecclesiastical ecumenicism is not the salvation from sin that is accomplished through the propitiatory work of Jesus Christ on the cross (Matthew 1:21; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 John 2:2), but is rather a kind of Gnostic, man-centered, pseudo-salvation that is experienced by means of a “breakthrough in consciousness.”
In The History of Christian Doctrines, theologian Louis Berkhof chronicles various attempts by the State to pervert the gospel against which the Church, for centuries, has had to defend itself. “But,” Berkhof explains, “however great these dangers from without were, there were even greater dangers which threatened the Church from within. “
Ecclesiastical ecumenicism is one of those threats of which Berkhof is speaking. Religious unity and diversity is not the church’s raison d’être.
The church exists to preach to lost and dying sinners the gospel of salvation from sin and the wrath of God (Mark 1:38; John 3:36; Luke 4:43). It is a redemption that is attainable only by faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12), which renders the concept of ecclesiastical ecumenicism entirely moot and, more importantly, biblically erroneous.
As Charles Spurgeon said:
“Christ’s gospel has not come into the world to be co-equal with other faiths and share a divided kingdom with differing creeds. False gods may stand face to face to each other in one Pantheon, and be at peace, for they are all false together, but when Christ comes, Dagon must go down, not even the stump of him must stand. Truth is of necessity intolerant of falsehood, love wars with hate, and justice battles with wrong.”
5. Pneumatological ventriloquism:
In biblical theology, pneumatology (pneuma = breath, spirit and and logos “study” or “word”) refers to the study of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Conversely, ventriloquism, which is derived from the Latin for to speak from the stomach (venter = belly, loqui = speak), is defined as the art of altering or “throwing” one’s voice so that it appears to be coming from somewhere else.
Many people view ventriloquism simply as harmless entertainment, but history begs to differ. Consider this brief Wikipedia excerpt on the history of ventriloquism:
“Originally, ventriloquism was a religious practice. The name comes from the Latin for to speak from the stomach, i.e. venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The Greeks called this gastromancy (Greek: εγγαστριμυθία). The noises produced by the stomach were thought to be the voices of the unliving, who took up residence in the stomach of the ventriloquist. The ventriloquist would then interpret the sounds, as they were thought to be able to speak to the dead, as well as foretell the future. One of the earliest recorded group of prophets to use this technique was the Pythia, the priestess at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, who acted as the conduit for the Delphic Oracle. One of the most successful early gastromancers was Eurykles, a prophet at Athens; gastromancers came to be referred to as Euryklides in his honour. In the Middle Ages, it was thought to be similar to witchcraft. One of the uses was by people pretending to be mediums or those claiming to be able to cast out evil spirits, and throwing the voice added to their credibility. It was not unusual for (particularly) women doing this to be accused and burnt as witches. As Spiritualism led to stage magic and escapology, so ventriloquism became more of a performance art as, starting around the 19th century, it shed its mystical trappings.”
Conversely, in an article titled The Demonic Origins of Ventriloquism, author Andy Wright explains:
“[Back then] ventriloquists were called “engastrimyths”. . . . a mashup of “en in, gaster the stomach, and mythos word or speech. Basically, people believed engastrimyths had demons in their stomachs who belched words from their host’s mouths. Engastrimyths plied their trade for entertainment . . . . and as divination.”
Many professing Christians view the Holy Spirit as if He were a divine ventriloquist. They are convinced that every “voice” they hear or perceive—either within their own conscience or vicariously through someone else’s counsel or advice—is the voice of the Holy Spirit “speaking” to them.
Consequently, and solely on the basis of such self-perception, they make decisions and choices about their life which, in hindsight, were neither wise nor godly. But as Henry T. Blackaby said in Spiritual Leadership: “There is more to knowing God’s will than believing that every open door is an opportunity from Him.”
It should go without saying that Christians are to seek wise and godly counsel (Proverbs 11:14; 12:15; 13:10; 15:31-32; 19:20; 24:6; 27:9). But not everything that can be described as “counsel” fits that description.
Spiritual discernment is vital to Christians being able to understand when it is truly the “voice”—figuratively speaking, of course—of the Holy Spirit leading and guiding us as opposed to the spiritual mimicry of a pneumatological ventriloquist (James 1: 5; 1 John 4:1-6; Proverbs 1:10; 2 Corinthians 11:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).
Misconceptions of the Holy Spirit by John MacArthur
The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson
Listening to the Voice of God by Nathan W. Bingham
How Can I Increase My Spiritual Discernment? from GotQuestions?
Spiritual Discernment is Wholly Lost Until We Are Regenerated by John Calvin
6. Evangelical pragmatism:
In Ashamed of the Gospel, John MacArthur writes: “Today more than ever, evangelical church leaders are held captive to the notion that their main duty toward the world is to study the trends of popular culture and try desperately to get on every passing bandwagon as quickly as possible.”
MacArthur’s words provide a very accurate description of what evangelical pragmatism looks like.
Evangelical pragmatism is rooted in the misguided notion that the gospel somehow needs help in order to achieve its desired end—the salvation of those who are enemies of God (Romans 5:10). It is an approach to evangelism that emphasizes employing worldly strategies and tactics toward the goal of making the gospel more attractive and palatable to unbelievers. But as pastor Josh Buice rightly explains: “Pragmatism will always lead the people of God away from the will of God at some point. If the gospel is working—pragmatism says, “do it.” When the gospel seems to not be working, pragmatism says, “do something else that gets better results.”
In The Soul Winner, Charles H. Spurgeon said: “I believe that one reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is that the world has so much influence over the church.” What Spurgeon is describing is what pragmatism invariably begets—the church becoming indistinguishable from the world.
Pragmatism denies the inherent power of the gospel to penetrate and regenerate the stony hearts of sinners (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Romans 1:16; Hebrews 4:12-13). It distrusts that the same gospel that—without the aid of worldly gimmicks or stratagems—brought salvation to thousands of believers in the early church continues to save countless souls today in that same way (Acts 2:41, 4:4, 13:48).
In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, the apostle Paul says that the word of God “performs its work in you who believe.” In Jeremiah 1:12, God declares to His prophet: “I am watching over My word to perform it.”And in Isaiah 55:11, God says of His own word that “It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
What evangelical pragmatists fail to understand is that the gospel doesn’t need our help to do what it is divinely designed—and sovereignly ordained—to accomplish. It is with that reality in mind that we must never confuse God using us with God needing us (because He doesn’t.)
The Next Generation Needs the Gospel Rather than Another Cheap Pragmatic Trick by Josh Buice
Pragmatism by Ligonier Ministries
Pragmatism: Modernism Recycled by John MacArthur
Human Inability by C.H. Spurgeon
Ashamed of the Gospel (book) by John MacArthur