Why They Leave
An answer to the perennial question of why young evangelicals are leaving the church is attempted here: Why Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Church: Some Arguments against the Conventional Wisdom. The reasons offered are good, but they answer the wrong question. The question they answer is, why do young people leave this or that church. The reasons for that may be complex and require many paragraphs to explain, but the answer to the more important question, why are young people leaving the church, is quite simple.
They leave the church because they are not of the church.
It is very tempting to assume that because we are Christians, and we have given our children the gospel, and they have been with us in church and Sunday school, that they are Christians, too. This is a particular problem in sacramental churches, in which parents are taught to trust in their child’s baptism, and that child’s faith is “confirmed” by a rote recitation of the catechism. It’s a particular problem in Arminian churches that hold to “once saved, always saved” (not remotely the same as the biblical doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints), in which parents watch their children depart from the faith, but take solace in knowing that little Jimmy asked Jesus into his heart that night at camp. Those people might be forgiven for asking why their children are leaving the church, but not those who understand the truth of John 3:5–8:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” . . . The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Our children are not save by being sprinkled or asking Jesus into their hearts, nor do they prove they are saved by correctly reciting the catechism or gathering by the river. They are saved by the miracle of regeneration, and are proved by persevering in the faith.
The church has got to stop assuming the salvation of its youth.
When we see our children walk away from the church, the least of our worries is that they are not going to church. What ought to concern us is the fact that they don’t belong in church—they are not Christians. And the solution to that is not manufacturing strategies to make the church attractive to them. The solution is the same as it is for reaching any other unbelievers. The solution is the gospel. If we failed to give it to them before, we must give it to them now. If we gave it to them before, we must give it to them still. This is the Christian mission, and our unbelieving children are the mission field.
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Yesterday, my wife drew my attention to a comment on the Housewife Theologian blog in which I was named, with negative implication, in relation to the Gospel Coalition Food Pharisee post to which I responded here. That doesn’t bother me—in fact, it’s rather thrilling to be named at all in the comments of a post by an author who never mentioned me and has likely never heard of me.
But then there is the following statement:
[W]hen food is such a pervasive theme in Scripture (as opposed to say, oh, being a car mechanic), and when Jesus gives as one of His names the Bread of Life, investing some time to think on that is neither shallow nor useless.
My first reaction was little more than, “Well, that’s silly,” but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me, and the more it bothered me, the more I thought about it, until I saw just how horrifying a statement it is.
What bothers me, to put it mildly, is the evidence that one of the greatest gospel discourses in Scripture has been so horribly misconstrued. First, the claim that food is a pervasive theme in Scripture is less than tenuous. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any text of which food is the theme, not without entirely missing the point, anyway. That’s bad. But to think that the Bread of Life discourse should cause us to think about nutrition and ethical agribusiness is nothing less than tragic, and absolutely heart-breaking.
Pay attention, because lives depend on it:
The Bread of Life is spiritual food for spiritual life. That is all it is, and it is all of that. To miss that is a tragedy. To add to it, to mingle it with worldly concerns for a worldly agenda is spiritual malpractice, a gross violation of 2 Timothy 2:15.
But all is not lost. God is still in his heaven, Jesus is still Lord, and the Holy Spirit is still ministering through the Word, which is sharper than any two-edged sword. Surely it can cut through this confusion. I recommend a careful reading of John 6, followed by a skillful exposition of the same.
According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than ninety percent of self-identified Pentecostals in most countries hold to the beliefs known as the “prosperity gospel.” How is this possible for such a blatantly heretical philosophy to so thoroughly infest the movement? The answer explains more than just the embrace of prosperity teaching. It is
a critical and systemic defect within charismatic theology—a flaw that accounts for just about every theological aberration or abnormality that makes its home within the Charismatic Movement. It is this: Pentecostals and charismatics elevate religious experience over biblical truth. Though many of them pay lip service to the authority of God’s Word, in practice they deny it. If Scripture alone were truly their final authority, charismatic Christians would never tolerate patently unbiblical practices— like mumbling in nonsensical prayer languages, uttering fallible prophecies, worshipping in disorderly ways, or being knocked senseless by the supposed power of the Holy Spirit. They ought to reinterpret their experiences to match the Bible; instead, they reinterpret Scripture in novel and unorthodox ways in order to justify their experiences. As a result , any aberrant teaching or practice can be legitimized, especially when a new “revelation from God” conveniently authenticates it as having His approval. Though written nearly a half century ago, the words of René Pache still ring true: The excessive preeminence given to the Holy Spirit in their devotions and their preoccupation with gifts, ecstasies, and “prophecies” has tended to neglect of the Scriptures. Why be tied to a Book out of the past when one can communicate every day with the living God? But this is exactly the danger point. Apart from the constant control of the written revelation, we soon find ourselves engulfed in subjectivity; and the believer, even if he has the best intentions, can sink rapidly into deviations, illuminism or exaltation. Let each remind himself of the prohibition of taking anything away from Scripture or adding anything to it (Deut. 4: 2; Rev. 22:18–19). Almost every heresy and sect has originated in a supposed revelation or a new experience on the part of its founder, something outside the strictly biblical framework. By abandoning the final authority of the text, the Charismatic Movement has made itself susceptible to the worst kinds of doctrinal deception and spiritual exploitation. —John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson, 2014) 16–17.
Salvation is monergistic. There is nothing anyone can do to save or contribute to the saving of themselves. On this, biblical theologians all agree.* The natural man is dead in sin, and cannot raise himself. He cannot exercise any kind of faith, because he has none. He cannot acquire saving faith, because he cannot understand the word through which that faith is given (Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 2:14). He must, in theological terms, be regenerated, or, in biblical terms, be born again (John 3:3), and that is only accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:7–8). Salvation is monergistic, because it must be monergistic.
At the same time, there are the gospel commands. We are commanded to believe. We are commanded to repent. We are commanded to follow Jesus, and in doing so, to take up crosses (Matthew 16:14; cf. Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). Unless we do these things, we will not be saved. We also know that perseverance is required (James 1:12).
Volumes have been written in the desire to reconcile the demands of God and the responsibility of man with the clear witness of Scripture to the total inability of man and the sovereign, saving grace of God. In spite of that difficulty, monergism is maintained. We maintain that regeneration is a miracle, that justification is by grace alone, through faith—the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)—alone, and that our perseverance is assured (John 6:40–44) by God.
Meanwhile, one portion of our salvation is plucked from the center and declared synergistic. I speak, of course, of sanctification. That opinion is held by no less than R. C. Sproul, who said, “Regeneration is monergistic, God’s work alone. Sanctification, the process by which we are made holy, is synergistic, God’s work with us.” During the recent 2014 Shepherds' Conference, my most esteemed teacher, John MacArthur, and a panel of distinguished guests all agreed. It should be noted that they were responding to the antinomian views of Tullian Tchividjian and others, who seem to be espousing a Keswick-like “let go and let God” philosophy, but nevertheless, the statement was unambiguous: “sanctification is synergistic.”
And the substance of everything they said was correct. I couldn't disagree with a single word, but it was as though they were saying “2+3=7.” Yes, I agree with their definition of 2, and yes, of 3 also, but the conclusion was wrong. Yes, we are commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and if we do not, our sanctification simply will not happen, but how is that different from the fact that if we do not believe and repent, we will not be justified? In spite of those clear commands, we recognize the texts that just as clearly declare regeneration monergistic. Why can't we acknowledge the command in Philippians 2:12, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” while recognizing that as we do, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (verse 13)?
We don't have to deny monergistic sanctification to avoid antinomianism or quietism any more than we have to deny monergistic regeneration to avoid the errors of hyper-Calvinism.
It seems to me a “can't see the forest for the trees” problem. Those who call sanctification synergistic need to step back and see who is really doing the work. Several years ago, while still very much an Arminian, I was discussing Calvinism versus Arminianism with a quasi-Arminian Pastor. He explained that the difference was that Arminians were looking at salvation from man's point of view, while Calvinists looked from God’s point of view. He seemed to think that, as people dealing with people, we should be taking the former view, which has a certain pragmatic appeal, but is flat wrong. It seems to me that those monergists—or, perhaps I should say, semi-monergists, who believe in synergistic sanctification are making the same error.
Or maybe I should trade soli Deo Gloria for maxime gloria Deo (most of the glory to God).
* I know, many theologians disagree, but I don't consider them, however distinguished, to be very biblical. They may be fine Christians, but no one who fails to understand this most fundamental and reasonably perspicuous truth deserves any kind of theologically-related degree.
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. —Matthew 5:3
Need of Grace O Lord, Thou knowest my great unfitness for service, my present deadness, my inability to do anything for thy glory, my distressing coldness of heart. I am weak, ignorant, unprofitable, and loathe and abhor myself. I am at a loss to know what thou wouldest have me do, for I feel amazingly deserted by thee, and sense thy presence so little; Thou makest me possess the sins of my youth, and the dreadful sin of my nature, so that I feel all sin, I cannot think or act but every motion is sin. Return again with showers of converting grace to a poor gospel-abusing sinner. Help my soul to breathe after holiness, after a constant devotedness to thee, after growth in grace more abundantly every day. O Lord, I am lost in the pursuit of this blessedness, And am ready to sink because I fall short of my desire; Help me to hold out a little longer, until the happy hour of deliverance comes, for I cannot lift my soul to thee if thou of thy goodness bring me not nigh. Help me to be diffident, watchful, tender, lest I offend my blessed Friend in thought and behaviour; I confide in thee and lean upon thee, and need thee at all times to assist and lead me. O that all my distresses and apprehensions might prove but Christ’s school to make me fit for greater service by teaching me the great lesson of humility. The Valley of Vision, Arthur Bennett, editor (Banner of Truth Trust, 2002).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Stand Up and Bless the Lord Arise, bless the Lord your God forever and ever! Nehemiah 9:5 Stand up and bless the Lord, Ye people of His choice; Stand up and bless the Lord your God With heart and soul and voice. Though high above all praise, Above all blessing high, Who would not fear His holy name, And laud and magnify? O for the living flame, From His own altar brought, To touch our lips, our minds inspire, And wing to heav’n our thought! God is our strength and song, And His salvation ours; Then be His love in Christ proclaim’d With all our ransomed pow’rs. Stand up and bless the Lord, The Lord your God adore; Stand up and bless His glorious name Henceforth forevermore. —The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration (Word Music).
The Lutheran denomination in which I was raised was formed in 1962 by a splinter group from the merger of its parent denomination with one of the largest liberal denominations (those interested can an illustrated history here). It was a church formed by evangelical Christians who were willing to fight for truth, and never mind the cost. Over the years, we watched as the mainline Lutheran denominations grew more and more liberal. There were more mergers.
The rest of Christendom was watching, too. When I and my friends identified ourselves as Lutherans, we often had considerable explaining to do. Non-Lutheran Christians, quite reasonably, assumed we were apostate. Most had no idea there were any Bible-believing Lutheran churches left. So we explained, wearily, but willingly. The Lutheran church was a mess, and not just a few fringe elements. We, the evangelical believers, were the fringe. The vast majority of nominal Lutherans had never heard the gospel. The vast majority of nominally Lutheran pastors were not preaching the gospel.
So we spoke out against the apostates who had bastardized the title of Lutheran. Evangelical Lutheran pastors wrote books with titles like The Church’s Desperate Need for Revival and Who Has Stolen My Church? We loudly called out and separated from heresy and apostasy.
I am no longer Lutheran, but the battle for evangelical Lutheranism goes on, and there are heroes, men who lead the fight, knowing they are the scant minority, but soldiering on. That’s how it should be, isn’t it?
In contrast, there is the charismatic movement. In this movement, there is a scant minority of evangelical, doctrinally grounded believers who virtually refuse to acknowledge the vast scale of heresy and apostasy of the movement, pretending it to be a fringe problem, hardly worth addressing. And so they remain silent.
They remain silent, until an outsider says what they won’t. Then, they become angry. They are outraged and offended, and demand the right to be left alone to manage their own house. As if!
But it isn’t their own house, not really, not if they claim to be members of the body of Christ. I don’t remember any Lutheran outrage at Baptists who pointed out the apostasy of Lutheranism at large. I remember grieving because it was true. Every Christian on the planet has a right and, I dare say, a responsibility, to call out heretics and apostates in the church, wherever they are. Mature Christians will bless, not curse, those who do.