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Dr. R.C. Sproul founded Ligonier Ministries to help people know who God is—to teach the holiness, sovereignty, and glory of God. The results of our latest State of Theology survey show that this outreach is perhaps needed more than ever.
Ligonier Ministries carries out the biennial State of Theology survey with LifeWay Research to explore what Americans believe about God, the Bible, and the person of Jesus Christ. This survey of U.S. adults includes hundreds of evangelicals, allowing a detailed exploration of their beliefs on a range of theological topics. All the results are posted online at thestateoftheology.com.
You would rightly be alarmed if a fellow church member told you he believes that God changes His plans in response to events on earth, that humans are essentially good, or that Jesus was a great teacher but not God. Yet many evangelicals gave such responses to the State of Theology survey. The results are concerning on a number of levels, though this is perhaps not unexpected at a time when many evangelical churches focus on satisfying the felt needs of people in the congregation rather than teaching the unchanging truth of God’s Word.
three new questions
Three new questions were featured in the latest survey. Each one revealed alarming answers.
God learns and adapts to different circumstances. The living God, as revealed to us in Scripture, knows all things and is unchanging (Ps. 147:5; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 11:33–34; James 1:17). Therefore, He does not learn new information or adapt to different events in heaven or on earth. Yet 51 percent of American adults agreed with the statement “God learns and adapts to different circumstances,” and 48 percent of evangelicals agreed.
Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God. All mankind fell in Adam, and so all his descendants are born sinners (Rom. 5:12). However sweet a baby may look, he or she is born with a sin nature (Ps. 51:5). In Christian theology, this is the doctrine of original sin. But it is widely rejected in the United States today, with 71 percent of adults agreeing that “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God,” and 65 percent of evangelicals in agreement.
Every Christian has an obligation to join a local church. It is assumed in the New Testament that followers of Jesus Christ will gather together in local congregations. Christians join together in local churches to worship God, to receive the means of grace, and for fellowship with one another. Yet people today in the West too often regard this as a lifestyle choice, with only 36 percent of American adults agreeing that “Every Christian has an obligation to join a local church.” In contrast, 68 percent of evangelicals agreed with the statement. The fact that this percentage was not higher may have been influenced by a variety of factors, including restrictions on church attendance during the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread online viewing of church services.
u.s. population trends
The State of Theology survey has been conducted since 2014, and now some important trends are emerging.
The clearest and most consistent trend since 2014 has been an erosion in Americans’ confidence that the Bible is literally true. Ever since Satan tempted Eve in the garden of Eden, he has sought to undermine faith in God’s Word. Theological liberalism follows this strategy and continually casts doubt on the Bible: Does God mean what He says? The Bible answers emphatically yes, bearing clear testimony to its truthfulness and accuracy (Pss. 12:6; 119:160; 2 Tim. 3:16).
The percentage of U.S. adults agreeing with the statement “The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true” rose from 41 percent in 2014 to 53 percent in 2022. Over the same period, the percentage of evangelicals agreeing with this statement rose from 17 percent to 26 percent.
It is no surprise that a rising tide of secularization happens as trust in the Bible declines. There are some clear indications of this in the survey. For example, an increasing number of U.S. adults agree with the statement “God is unconcerned with my day-to-day decisions” (32 percent in 2022). We are also witnessing a growing rejection of God’s created order. The idea that gender identity is something that people choose is now supported by 42 percent of the American population. A higher percentage than previously (46 percent) agree that “The Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today.”
Responses to the statement “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church” increased from 52 percent agreement in 2014 to 66 percent in 2022. In the context of pandemic restrictions, it is easy to see why acceptance of online options would increase. Biblical Christians, however, cannot endorse the general drift away from in-person church attendance for worship. The book of Hebrews explicitly warns us not to give up meeting together (Heb. 10:25). Let’s not forget that around the world today, some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are risking their lives by gathering together for worship.
The negative trends in the beliefs of evangelicals, which are brought to light by the State of Theology survey, are even more concerning.
Evangelicals were defined by LifeWay Research as people who strongly agreed with the following four statements:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Yet there is a startling disconnect in how these evangelicals answer other foundational questions, such as, Who is Jesus Christ? An alarming number of evangelicals seem to reject His deity, with 43 percent of the survey sample agreeing that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” (up from 30 percent in 2020). This opinion is incompatible with the Bible (John 1:1; Heb. 1:1–4) and with the historic creeds of the Christian faith.
Salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), so worshiping through anyone else is surely unacceptable to God. But more evangelicals than ever (56 percent) agreed with the statement “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”
Evangelicals are also adopting fashionable cultural opinions about ethics, in particular about gender and sexuality (especially younger evangelicals in the sample). The 2022 survey found the highest level of evangelical support so far for the statement “Gender identity is a matter of choice” (37 percent) and “The Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today” (28 percent).
At the same time, evangelicals’ opposition to abortion and sexual activity outside traditional marriage has remained consistent at around 90 percent.
There has been a lot of comment about the 2022 State of Theology since its launch, and that is to be welcomed. Some, however, have been too quick to link the disappointing results of evangelicals to a political framework. It is important to note that the lamentable responses of evangelicals in the survey are not confined to white Americans who identify as evangelicals. The definition of evangelical used in the State of Theology survey is based on stated beliefs (see above); it includes Americans of any ethnicity, and it does not use self-identification.
The main problem highlighted by the survey is a growing nominalism or formalism within evangelicalism, which includes people who attend church (at least sometimes) but who are not really committed to its teachings. We may tend to think that evangelical churches are filled with Bible-believing Christians, and there have been times in history when that was true, but it is not now. It is increasingly obvious from the survey that many people in evangelical churches have only a superficial awareness of what Christians actually believe. Less frequent church attendance and lack of commitment to a local church compound the problem.
There is an urgent need in evangelical churches for faithful, deliberate teaching week by week that declares the whole counsel of God, and there’s a need for congregations that hunger to know eternal realities rather than desiring superficial entertainment. Among the things that churches can do to meet this need is to offer more opportunities to learn about Christian doctrine, such as at midweek events and by reestablishing evening worship services on the Lord’s Day.
The State of Theology survey serves many purposes. It illuminates the spiritual confusion and unbelief around us. It encourages faithful teaching of the Word of God and Christian apologetics. It can also serve us as Christians practically. Do you know what your next-door neighbor, or even a friend at church, believes about various biblical doctrines? The dedicated website includes an online group survey feature that allows you to start a private survey of your own friends and contacts for discipleship or evangelism.
Above all, let’s be stirred up to pray for God to bring an awakening to His church and to strengthen pastors as they persevere in proclaiming the truths of Scripture. Then multitudes will know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3).