Survey: Majority of American Christians Don’t Believe the Gospel
By Joe Carter, Editor, The Gospel Coalition
The Story: A new survey finds that a majority of people who describe themselves as Christian accept a “works-oriented” means to God’s acceptance.
The Background: A survey conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University find that American adults today increasingly adopt a “salvation-can-be-earned” perspective. A plurality of adults (48 percent) believe that if a person is generally good, or does enough good things during their life, they will “earn” a place in heaven. Only one-third of adults (35 percent) disagree.
A majority of Americans who describe themselves as Christian (52 percent) also accept a “works-oriented” means to God’s acceptance—even those associated with churches whose official doctrine says eternal salvation comes only from embracing Jesus Christ as savior. Almost half of all adults associated with Pentecostal (46 percent), mainline Protestant (44 percent), and evangelical (41 percent) churches, as well as nearly two-thirds of Catholics (70 percent), hold that view.
While about 65 percent of American adults describe themselves as Christians, only about half (54 percent) believe they will experience heaven after they die. Only one-third of adults (33 percent) believe they will go to heaven solely because of confessing their sins and embracing Jesus as their savior. Another one-in-five expecting to experience heaven are counting on earning their way in or because they embrace universalism (i.e., that God will let all people into heaven).
Among those with other views, 15 percent said they don’t know what will happen after they die; 13 percent said there is no life after death; 8 percent expect to be reincarnated; and another 8 percent believe they will go to a place of purification prior to entering heaven. A mere 2 percent believe they will go to hell.
Based on age groups, just 20 percent of people age 18 to 29 believe that when they die they will go to heaven only because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus as their savior; 30 percent of those 30 to 49 and 40 percent of adults 50 and older hold that belief. Women were more likely than men (36 percent versus, 30 percent, respectively), and those who have conservative political views were much more likely to hold that belief (52 percent) than were political moderates (28 percent) or liberals (16 percent). More than one-third of whites and blacks (35 percent each) also held this view compared to only one quarter of Hispanics did (25 percent).
What It Means: Christians who believe that salvation can be earned need to read the New Testament.
The Gospel of Matthew tells of a rich young man who asked Jesus what good works he must do to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:16). Jesus responded that if the man wanted to be judged by his works, then he must keep the entire Law—and do so perfectly. The young man thought he had done enough good works to earn a place in heaven because he was judging himself by man-made standards rather than the perfect standard of God. But that’s not how it works. As the apostle James clarifies, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (Jam. 2:10).
Because we can’t keep the Law perfectly, we have to rely on someone who did—Jesus (1 Pet. 2:22). When we believe in who Jesus and what he did our “faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). That the good news; that’s the gospel.
The gospel according to Paul is simultaneously an affirmation of who Jesus is (Rom. 1:3-4) as well as of what he has done (1 Cor. 15). In Romans 1, Paul says he was “set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord . . .” Then, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul adds:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Simon Gathercole summarizes the Pauline definition of the gospel as: God’s account of his saving activity in Jesus the Messiah, in which, by Jesus’s death and resurrection, he atones for sin and brings new creation. Our faith in Jesus, not our works, makes us right with God (Rom. 3:28).
There is, of course, more to the gospel than the good news about our salvation being purchased by Jesus and through faith in him sinful men and women are reconciled to a holy God. But if you do not believe that aspect of the gospel you do not believe the gospel. And if you don’t believe the gospel you should stop calling yourself a Christian.
This survey shows that too many Christians aren’t Christians at all. They are not relying on the finished work in Christ but trusting that their own works will be judged worthy by God. There are many reasons why this belief is prevalent among self-identified Christians, but a primary cause is that they likely haven’t heard the gospel.
This may seem like an absurd claim since Christian leaders in America appear to be constantly talking about the gospel. But this is partially due to self-selection bias: if you’re the type of person who would visit the website of The Gospel Coalition to read an article about how American Christians don’t believe the gospel, you probably assume most Christians are also familiar with the gospel. Even in gospel-centered churches, though, we can’t take for granted that the good news has been fully heard. As my friend and pastor Eric Saunders says, when you get tired of talking about a subject is usually when your audience is just starting to pay attention to your message.
This survey should be a reminder how easy it is for people to slip back in to relying on themselves, and how we need to constantly proclaim the gospel—to ourselves and our neighbors—until we fully realize that we can only be rescued from our sin through what Jesus accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington campus in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.