EDITOR’S NOTE: Listen to an audio version of this column here.
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Pop quiz: If you don’t really believe Jesus Christ is the one and only way to salvation, would you …
— pray for the lost at home and abroad?
— give hard-earned money to support missionaries around the world?
— consider becoming a missionary?
— participate in mission projects or evangelistic ministries?
— risk your personal safety to spread the Gospel in hostile places?
— encourage anyone in your church or family to take such a risk?
— bother telling your hurting neighbor that Jesus is the answer to his or her desperate questions about life?
No? I didn’t think so. I wouldn’t, either.
If the Good News (Gospel) of salvation in Christ alone is not true, what’s the point of spreading it? That would be hypocrisy, fraud, false advertising, bogus journalism. The Christian mission stands or falls on the exclusive truth of the Gospel — as does Christianity itself, which has always been a missionary faith.
This basic reality bears repeating — with increasing urgency — every time another study of American religious beliefs appears. The latest is the second installment of the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (released in June), compiled from telephone interviews with 35,000 Americans.
The survey explored many aspects of American faith, but the headline statistic was this: “70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions — not just their own — can lead to eternal life.” Among Protestant evangelicals surveyed, 57 percent agreed with that statement — including an astonishing 61 percent of Southern Baptists contacted. Solid majorities of several other conservative, evangelical denominations echoed the universalist response.
Some much-needed perspective on the validity of these responses was quickly provided by evangelical commentators (see “Wording of Pew poll question criticized” in Baptist Press June 26). They suspect many evangelical respondents confused the word “religion” with “denomination.”
That suspicion is “bolstered by the fact that among nondenominational church members (responding to the Pew survey), the percentage of those claiming many religions can lead to eternal life is much lower,” Baptist Press reported. “For example, 34 percent of nondenominational evangelicals … agreed with the ‘many religions’ option” — still a disturbingly large number, but only about half the percentage of denominational church members who picked the same option.
LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, also parted company with the Pew survey. As part of a major study to be published in book form this fall, the Southern Baptist entity asked 2,500 Protestant respondents, “How much do you agree/disagree: If a person is sincerely seeking God, he/she can obtain eternal life through religions other than Christianity.” Only 31 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed. Forty percent “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed. Among self-identified evangelical believers, fully 80 percent disagreed.
That’s reassuring, but the continuing trend in American churches toward mushy theology — or no theology at all — is clear.
Brad Waggoner, vice president of the B&H Publishing Group, wrote the forthcoming book “The Shape of Faith to Come,” which explores the results of the LifeWay study. He warns that the “shape of faith to come is in some ways discouraging. Christians are becoming more universalistic and lack biblical views on a host of other issues” — particularly Christians under age 30.
Christian researcher George Barna, among others, has been sounding the alarm for years about biblical ignorance, theological confusion and the pick-and-choose approach to doctrine among evangelicals. Of all the challenges U.S. churches face, this is the greatest, because it undermines the most basic essentials of the faith: The Lord our God is one. Jesus Christ is His only Son, our only Savior and the only way to forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. He commands His followers to love and worship Him alone, to proclaim the Gospel, to baptize and to make disciples among all peoples of the earth (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8).
Would Jesus’ first disciples have died the martyrs’ deaths most of them suffered for an optional Savior? Would the Apostle Paul have endured innumerable beatings, death threats, chains and imprisonment for a multiple-choice Gospel? Would William Carey have risked and forsaken so much in Bengal? Would Lottie Moon have given her all in China?
I’m thankful that several young Christians believed in Jesus’ unique saving power enough to share it repeatedly with a high school hoodlum lost in sin (me) — even as I made fun of them. Eventually the message sank in, and I took the Lord’s outstretched hand.
What a loving Lord He is, filled with grace and mercy toward all who seek Him. But He is Lord. There is no other.
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.