(Note: My conviction about spiritual awakening has changed since I wrote this article, but I still think that the “evangelical church” in America needs it.)
This February, the evangelist Billy Graham died. To many, he has been one of the most iconic faces of American evangelicalism for about the past half century. What was true of him gives us a sense of some of the things that are true of a great part of the American “evangelical church”. If you examine Billy Graham’s evangelistic career in the light of Scripture, you’ll find that there were at least 3 main problems that characterized him, and still characterize a large section of the American evangelical church today:
1. Watered-down teaching, such as that which often includes altar calls and the sinner’s prayer.
2. An improper view of the Christian life, such as the acceptance of the possibility of a carnal Christian. And
3. An embrace into Christianity of those who hold to beliefs that contradict the gospel, such as Roman Catholics.
As a result, much of American evangelical Christianity falls far short of the New Testament portrayal of the life of the church, which gives the wrong impression of Christ and the gospel to the outside world, and yet another reason not to believe the gospel. Despite the spread of Calvinism and Reformed theology, as well as the weekly teaching of the Bible in American churches, and massive efforts given to spreading biblical teaching on the Internet, through literature, and through conferences, there seems to have been little progress made in improving evangelical churches on those 3 issues. Therefore, I propose that the best way to help them is what the late R.C. Sproul’s ministry, Ligonier Ministries, has recently pushed, called spiritual awakening. However, there are other positions on this issue. One is that the most important thing for fixing these problems is that the church do something. Another is that spiritual awakenings don’t happen anymore. Nevertheless, I believe that nothing but an unusual work of the Holy Spirit in much of the American evangelical church can do anything significant to bring it to good spiritual health, and thus, to bring a renewal of the glorification of Christ in this country.
The first problem in much of the “evangelical church” in America is that there is a severe lack of sound biblical teaching and theology. This can be seen in what American evangelicals think it means to be a Christian. In a survey conducted by an evangelical research group, LifeWay Research, in November of last year, more than half of those who self-identified as evangelical and born again did not strongly agree with one or more of these 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 Christ as their Savior,”
3. “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin,” and
4. “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation” (Smietana, Lifewayresearch.com).
Again, more than half of those who self-identified as evangelical and born again did not strongly agree with one or more of those statements.
This can also be seen in the most popular Christian books. In an interview on the Frank Sontag Show in February of this year, Dr. John MacArthur said that a recent list of the 10 most popular Christian books included no book that had any challenging doctrinal content (and biblical doctrine is almost always, if not always, challenging) (MacArthur, 7:11-7:22).
What about American “evangelical” interactions with unbelievers? In February of last year, the American Culture and Faith Institute conducted a survey of self-professed Christians, cited in an article by Answers in Genesis, which can be found at culturefaith.com. According to this survey, some of the things that were most likely to be shared with unbelievers by “conservative believers” were that
“people are basically good; that having some faith is more important than the substance of that faith; that God exists and is omnipotent and omniscient but that humankind has evolved from other life forms . . . there is absolute moral truth but it is located in various places; eternal security can be assured either through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ or by doing enough good deeds to earn God’s favor; a person’s life can be considered ‘successful’ based upon the personal goals accomplished; . . . Jesus understands our struggle because He sinned while on earth [if you believe that, I assure you that you haven’t been saved]; and that sin is real but Satan and the Holy Spirit are not [again, if you believe that, I assure you that you haven’t been saved]” (“National Surveys Describe the State of Christian Evangelism,” Culturefaith.com).
The second major problem that is plaguing the evangelical churches of America is an improper view of the Christian life. For example, Dr. John MacArthur said in that interview I mentioned that the popular Christianity of today is “all about entertainment,” and that it “panders” to a culture that he called “adolescent” (MacArthur, 5:55-6:07; 6:25-6:30).
This problem is also seen in the realm of evangelism. According to the American Culture and Faith Institute survey I cited, only 25% of the surveyed self-professed Christians believed that they were called to promote the gospel, and only 31% of those who were labeled as Protestants believed the same thing (“National Surveys Describe the State of Christian Evangelism,” Culturefaith.com).
The third major problem in the American evangelical church is that there’s an embrace of those who hold to beliefs that contradict the gospel into the family of God. This has happened in the case of Roman Catholics. In a transcript of a podcast published on February 21 of this year, by John Piper, an evangelical, former pastor and founder of the Desiring God ministry who has spoken at the Together for the Gospel conference, on DesiringGod.org said this:
“I think there are genuine Christians who are devout and inconsistent Roman Catholics. Devout in the sense that they’re earnest, serious, and sincere. Inconsistent in the sense that their true heart embrace of Jesus is better than their mental ideas or doctrines” (Piper, “Can a Devout Roman Catholic Be Genuinely Born Again?”).
If you’re a devout, earnest, serious, and sincere Roman Catholic, then I assure you that you haven’t been saved, because all devout, earnest, serious, and sincere Roman Catholics believe that you must earn God’s favor, which is impossible (the works-righteousness heresy). Also, you can’t embrace Jesus with your heart unless you first embrace Him with your head, and that means letting go of any belief opposing Him, such as the belief that you can earn God’s favor.
This has also happened in the case of the hyper-charismatic teacher, Michael Brown. In an interview done by Todd Friel on the Internet program, Too Wretched for Radio, on January 8th of this year, which can be found on wretched.org, he interviewed Phil Johnson, the executive director of the Bible teaching ministry Grace to You, and a pastor at Dr. John MacArthur’s church. This is some of what Mr. Johnson said about him:
“I can’t recommend him to anybody” (Johnson, 11:49-11:51); “I wouldn’t do anything in partnership with him” (Johnson, 17:53-17:55) and “I think he is dangerous” (Johnson, 18:08-18:09).
Here’s another example: Dr. James White, an evangelical elder of a church, and the director of the apologetics ministry Alpha and Omega Ministries, with a D.Min in Apologetics, a Th.D. in Apologetics, a Th.M. in Apologetics, an M.A. in Theology, and a B.A. in Bible, unhesitatingly affirmed Michael Brown as a brother in Christ on a podcast entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Dr. Michael Brown Our Special Guest” (“Media Bios,” Aomin.org). In the description of the podcast, he wrote this:
“Didn’t bother starting off the year quietly as over the holidays a number of internet-based ministries were throwing out the hate against me for my relationship with Dr. Michael Brown. In the process a number of articles were posted that displayed the same kind of ‘let’s not worry about thinking clearly, let’s surely not even ponder being fair, but let’s throw everything including the kitchen sink in here in hopes something will stick’ kind of yellow journalism that I have been subjected to for years. Since specific allegations against Dr. Brown’s Christology were included, I contacted him and asked him to come on the air, which he graciously agreed to do. We ended up talking about a lot of stuff, including the allegation that he is a [sic] ‘NAR super apostle,’ defends ‘grave sucking,’ and all the rest . . . When you live in the narrow, small world of the ultra-orthodox, where everyone must look like you and act like you and speak like you, you have no perspective from which to be able to see your utter lack of balance” (“Setting the Record Straight: Dr. Michael Brown Our Special Guest,” Aomin.org).
Again, I will repeat what Mr. Johnson said in his interview on Too Wretched for Radio:
“I can’t recommend him to anybody” (Johnson, 11:49-11:51). “I wouldn’t do anything in partnership with him” (Johnson, 17:53-17:55) and “I think he is dangerous” (Johnson, 18:08-18:09).
This has also happened in the case of a member of a Greek Orthodox church, Hank Hanegraaff (Zylstra, Christianitytoday.com). An evangelical radio program called Issues, Etc. was planning on holding a conference this year on Christian theology and apologetics, and invited Hank Hanegraaff — again, a member of the Greek Orthodox church — to speak on apologetics against Islam and the prosperity gospel, implying that it considers him to be a brother in Christ (“The 2018 Issues, Etc. “Making the Case” Conference Collinsville, IL,” Issuesetc.org).
So, what are these problems due to? It’s not due to a lack of access to biblical teaching, since it’s clear that there’s easy access to the Bible and to Bible teaching in books, in articles, in sermons, in lectures, and in Bible studies. Also, there’s a long list of Internet, television, and radio ministries that provide good, biblical teaching, such as Grace to You, Ligonier Ministries, Living on the Edge, Truth for Life, and Wretched. Additionally, it is quite clear that almost every American evangelical, if not every one, has easy access to a Bible. Second, it’s probably not due to a lack of church attendance, since, according to the survey I cited by Lifeway Research, 73% of those who are evangelical by their beliefs in basic Christian teachings attend church at least once a week (Smietana, Lifewayresearch.com). Third, it’s not due to a lack of Calvinism, since both John Piper and James White are Calvinists. In an article called “What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism,” John Piper said this:
“. . . I have deepened in my conviction that Calvinistic teachings on the five points are biblical and therefore true . . .” (Piper, “What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism”).
James White is an elder at Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church, which holds to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, a Calvinistic document (“The History of the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church,” Prbc.org).
Having argued against these possibilities, these 3 major problems will not be fixed simply by offering more Bible teaching, by increasing church attendance, and by pushing Calvinism onto the troubled churches.
I propose that the best solution would be a spiritual awakening. The late R.C. Sproul’s ministry, Ligonier Ministries, has been encouraging people to pray for this very thing. Their website defines it as “. . . a powerful movement of the Spirit of God to convert many people to Christ and to renew in His church a zeal for His truth, for spiritual growth, and for missions” (Bingham, Ligonier.org).
Someone might object to my proposal by saying, “It’s more important that the church do something about these problems than waiting for God to fix them.” I would point such a person to Philippians 2:12-13:
“So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 American Standard Version, Biblegateway.com).
We see here that Paul commands his audience to “work out” their salvation with fear and trembling. Yet, the reason he gives them for doing this is that “it is God who worketh in you both to will [to give them the willingness to do it] and to work [to give them the ability to do it].” In other words, the only way they can even obey the command is if God gives them the willingness and ability to do it. The same is true in dealing with these 3 problems I’ve explained, so it’s not wrong to pray for a spiritual awakening.
Another objection that someone might raise is, “Spiritual awakening may have happened in the Book of Acts, but it doesn’t anymore.” I’d point such people to The First Great Awakening (c. 1734 – c. 1741) (Severance, Christianity.com). According to an article at Christianity.com, here are 3 characteristics of that awakening:
- Mass conversions to Christianity under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield (from the Ligonier Ministries quote: “convert many people to Christ”) (Severance, Christianity.com)
- A restoration of Christian living from mere routine religious observance to a love for Christ (from that quote: “renew in His church a zeal for His truth, for spiritual growth”) (Severance, Christianity.com) and
- An increase in missionary efforts to the Native Americans (again, “renew in His church a zeal . . . for missions”) (Severance, Christianity.com)
Much of the American “evangelical church” is clearly in extremely poor spiritual condition. First, there is a severe lack of good biblical teaching in these churches, resulting in at least an incomplete understanding of biblical Christianity, and a production of books that do not challenge people to grow in their knowledge of the Bible. Second, there is also an unbiblical view of the Christian life, resulting in a church culture that centers around entertainment and is very immature, as well as neglecting evangelism. Third, there is an embrace into the family of God of those who hold to beliefs that contradict the gospel, which has resulted in the toleration of Roman Catholicism, hyper-charismaticism, and Greek Orthodoxy. The church cannot do anything about this without the power of the Holy Spirit, so it is He who must act first. Also, there have been spiritual awakenings after the time of the Book of Acts, such as the First Great Awakening. Thus, there is the need of such an awakening now, brought by the Holy Spirit to grant true repentance to the sleeping churches of America, leading to a renewal of the glorification of Christ through them. What does this have to do with you? Well, I would challenge you to read the Book of Acts and ask yourself if your life looks anything like the life of the early church. I would also challenge you to ask yourself if the life of your church, and any churches that you might involved with, look anything like that. If not, then please join me in asking the Lord for a spiritual awakening.
“. . . I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-9
This is what the Apostle John said about the gospel in John 1:1-18:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth. John beareth witness of him, and crieth, saying, This was he of whom I said, He that cometh after me is become before me: for he was before me. For of his fulness we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”
This is what Christ Himself said about the gospel:
“. . . God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” John 3:16-20
John the Baptist said this: “. . . he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on [stays directed toward] him.” – John 3:36
The Apostle Paul said this in Romans 2:4-16 and 1:18-32:
“. . . despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? but after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his works: to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life: but unto them that are factious, and obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek; but glory and honor and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek: for there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law; for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified; (for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them); in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.”
“. . . the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousnessof men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness; because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, that their bodies should be dishonored among themselves: for that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions: for their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another, men with men working unseemliness, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due. And even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up unto a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, unmerciful: who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them.”
Speaking of those that practice sin, the Apostle Paul uses this quote:
“. . . There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none that understandeth, There is none that seeketh after God; They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable; There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one: Their throat is an open sepulchre; With their tongues they have used deceit: The poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness . . .” – Romans 3:10-14
This is my appeal to you, as written by the Apostle Paul:
“. . . we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” – 2 Corinthians 5:20b-21
This is how you become reconciled to God:
“. . . if thou shalt confess [acknowledge] with thy mouth Jesus as Lord [Greek: kurios, or Supreme in Authority], and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved: for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him [depend upon Him]: for, Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord [who He is, what He has done, and what He can do] shall be saved.” Romans 10:9-13