October 31, 2017, is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation, started with Augustinian monk Martin Luther’s 95 theses against the practices of the Catholic Church of his era. Most American evangelicals will probably not even notice the historic day, except as one more Halloween. Nonetheless, what drove Luther to protest is everywhere present in the 21st century American church.
Most of the 95 theses aren’t about the big, broad theological anchor issues we now see came to be the core of the Reformation. Most of them are about instead the church’s use of indulgences. The indulgences are, of course, rooted in the broader system of medieval church thought. Before there could be an articulation, though, of a systematic treatment of justification, there had to be a sense first that what was happening all around, though seeming normal at the time, was out of step with the New Testament. The church maintained power over the people through political entanglements with rulers and through a system that tied the church’s finances to the eternal destinies of the people. The Reformation said no.
Now, whatever one thinks of the Reformation, shouldn’t it be clear that the problems in our current context are just as bad or maybe even worse? The Reformers were right about the gospel—that God justifies the ungodly, “apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 4:1-25). And yet, look around. There is, thanks be to God, a gospel resurgence within American evangelicalism. But, along with that is what sociologists identify in American religious life as a growing sense of “spirituality” unhinged from biblical revelation or even from church attendance. And that’s just among those who call themselves “born again, Bible-believing Christians.”
One can see this problem easily by attending a Bible Belt funeral in which, far too often, an allegedly evangelical minister presides over the death of someone he doesn’t even know with the assurances that “Uncle Ronnie isn’t in pain anymore; he’s singing up there with Jesus now.” The same has been said all around the funeral parlor by those gathered. And it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s not just that what they are saying about the departed is hard to believe, but that they don’t believe it themselves. It’s just the sort of thing one says at a funeral, right along with “Doesn’t he look natural?” American religion asks, “What can wash away my sin?” Nothing but embalming fluid is the apparent answer.
This combination of cheap grace with a performance-based sort of works righteousness is, in many ways, even worse than the old indulgence system. Consciences are left bound. People know, intuitively, that there is a day of reckoning, and they tremble. Deep within awakened consciences there is the same question that plagued Luther, “How can I find a gracious God?” That’s true even for those who do not have Luther’s religious vocabulary to give expression to it.
This is not a medieval problem, but a primeval one.
Add to this, the widespread distortion of Christianity, exported from America all around the world, in the prosperity gospel. These heretical preachers promise health and wealth and wellbeing to those who will complete the transaction of praying a prayer (and, usually, giving money to the preachers), despite the fact that this is the exact opposite of what Jesus and his apostles taught, at every point. Despite this, these purveyors of what Paul would have called “a different gospel” are welcomed as fellow evangelicals by those who purport to hold to the gospel. And, as we do so, the prosperity gospel goes all around the world, damning souls and picking pockets at the same time.
This is the natural result of an American Christianity that equates “bigness” with truth, again the very opposite of what Jesus and the apostles taught. In a church reform movement started to say that Scripture alone should be our final norming authority, we see widespread biblical illiteracy, with slogans and memes replacing the authoritative content of the Bible. After all, it is much easier to find out what it is that people already believe and add Bible verses to that than it is to shape and form consciences, over decades, with the Word of God.
The greatest challenge facing American Christianity in the years to come is not secularism but cynicism. An entire generation is watching what goes on under the name of American religion, wondering if there is something real to it, or if it is just another useful tool to herd people and to make money. Is Christianity really about the crucified Christ, they ask, or is it about ethnic superiority claims or wacky televised end-times conspiracy theories? One need not spend much time on a college campus or among previously churched young adults to see why they’ve rejected whatever calls itself “Christianity” around them—and sadly, they often leave not only it aside, but any consideration of the gospel itself. This has eternal consequences.
American Christianity will reform or die, because the sort of market-driven religion we have seen in years past only works among people who think spirituality and religion have social benefits. That is changing. No matter what, the church will thrive, though maybe not in America, and the apostolic gospel will go forward. The Word of God is not chained.
God is gracious. Jesus is alive. The gospel is true. The kingdom is coming.
The reform of American Christianity is not ultimately about the survival of American Christianity. It’s about, instead, what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Galatia about why he stood down the almost-gospels of his day: “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:5). Martin Luther sought to recover the clarity of the gospel so that the gospel would clearly be delivered to the generations to come. Will we do the same?