The Unholy Trinity
For some time now we have heard dire warnings about the “faith crisis” in America. Even though our country continues to grow in population, church membership and attendance, on the whole, remains flat or in decline. Warnings are sounded about the dangers that come from so many atheists and others in our society who seek to denigrate God and anyone who would believe in Him.
While it is true that there are such people out there, their numbers are few; around 2 to 9% of the population. Others may believe in God but not in Christ or Christianity and have hard feelings against Christianity and/or Christians. Yet such people are not that much more populous; no more than 20% of the population.
Statistics reveal that about 82% or so of Americans believe not only in God but also that Jesus is His Son. Slightly fewer (78%) agree with the premise that Jesus was raised from the dead. This is not the picture that is normally presented about America; then again, we should remember that it is conflict and sensational claims that sell books and get promoted on television and in movies, and therefore we should not be surprised that the reality does not seem to be as dire as the promoted story.
Nevertheless, the statistics should give us pause. If over three-quarters of Americans believe in Jesus and even the resurrection, where are they? Many, no doubt, are active in denominations and their assemblies. But that still leaves plenty of people who believe and yet are not affiliated with any church and/or infrequently, if ever, attend any assemblies of churches. Considering the message of God in Christ as revealed in Scripture, how can this be? What leads to so many people professing the faith without abiding by its substance?
At least part of the reason can be found in what we will deem the “unholy trinity.” The unholy trinity represents the combination of three pernicious doctrines that have, at some level, led to the spiritual inertia and malaise that affects America today. These doctrines are faith only, ecumenism, and “once saved, always saved.”
The first doctrine is faith only. “Faith only” comes about during the Reformation as a distortion of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Paul did teach that since everyone has sinned (Romans 3:23), no man is able to be justified before God based on his works, merit, or attempts to keep law (Romans 1:18-3:21). Man cannot atone for his own sin. Nevertheless, Paul demonstrated that the proper response of faith in God in Christ demanded obedience to the truth (Romans 1:5, 2:5-11, 6:1-23); the Reformers distorted this into the doctrine of faith only, excluding any concept of works or obedience as necessary for salvation. According to the doctrines of faith only, God is the only Actor: He provides the means of salvation in Christ, He provides believers with faith, He compels them toward righteousness through the Spirit, and so on and so forth. It is an understandable reaction against the excesses of Roman Catholicism but is a distortion of the Gospel message, and flatly contradicted by Acts 2:36-38, Romans 1:5, 6:1-23, 1 Peter 1:22, and a host of other passages.
These days people hear preachers from Protestant and Evangelical churches in churches and on television telling them that all they need to do to be saved is to believe that Jesus is the Christ. A suggested “sinner’s prayer” is often given that “converts” can pray and thus “accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior” and “accept Jesus into their hearts.” Sure, most of these preachers will suggest, perhaps even strongly, that believers need to live like Christ did, avoiding sin and clinging to the good, but they would never make it an imperative. To make becoming Christlike an imperative would be adding “works” to Christ’s “finished work.”
People get this message from friends and neighbors, past church experiences, or through television or other media. This “cheap grace” is very enticing and seductive: all you need to do is believe! Accept the premise that Jesus is the Christ and Lord and you will be saved! That’s all you need to do! Many prove willing to do that, but nothing more. There is no real incentive toward growth and development as disciples of Christ because it is not made strictly necessary. No wonder, then, that people can profess Jesus Christ and yet never darken the door of any church building or actively grow in their belief system; they do not have to! After all, if all you need to do is believe that Jesus is the Christ, why bother with anything else in Christianity?
We then come to ecumenism. There are two strands to ecumenism: “general” ecumenism and Evangelical ecumenism. The latter seems to have come first. In the wake of the “Second Great Awakening” in nineteenth-century America, while doctrinal differences remained among groups like the Methodists, the Holiness churches, the Baptists, and the like, they began to develop an uneasy peace with each other. They would present their versions of truth without necessarily condemning one another to hell, yet most remained uneasy with Roman Catholicism and the “mainline Protestant” denominations.
Around a hundred years ago the “general” ecumenical movement began to pick up steam as different “Christian” denominations wanted to work out whatever differences they could and to work together according to their understanding of Jesus’ petitions in John 17:20-23.
The ecumenical movement has powered through the twentieth and early twenty-first century with great steam. Now most denominations agree that the doctrinal disputations among them involve matters of “liberty,” and thus they are free to “agree to disagree,” while they are in agreement on “essential” matters. It is too bad that the definitions of “liberty” and “essential matters” are not based on God’s definitions (cf. Romans 14:17, 1 Corinthians 1:10, Galatians 1:6-9). Nevertheless, since most denominations are “on board,” the voices proclaiming the need to follow the One True Faith are fewer and denigrated as divisive, contrary to the spirit of unity, and cantankerous.
This ecumenical movement has led to greater “acceptance” and “tolerance” of members of churches of Christ. The number believing we are some kind of “cult” has diminished; many books now speak of churches of Christ as part of this “greater church” despite its distinctive doctrines. Nevertheless, ecumenical forces work to negate the call for the restoration of New Testament Christianity and the appeal to be of the same mind and judgment based in the Scriptures.
Most people who believe do not know much about ecumenism or the ecumenical movement but they certainly believe that “we are all the same.” Under ecumenism, the difference between churches of Christ, Baptist churches, the Roman Catholic church, and other churches is akin to the differences between the church in Rome, the church in Corinth, and the church in Jerusalem. Each denomination has its distinctive heritage that has “value” in the “greater church,” according to this viewpoint. In such a climate, one can hear the message that, say, faith alone is not according to Scripture, and yet remain free to “agree to disagree.” Evangelistic efforts are thus directed toward unbelievers, “cultists,” or members of other religions; it is seen as bad form to proselytize members of other denominations.
We should not wonder, therefore, why it is difficult to gain an audience about the importance of following God according to the New Testament. If all churches are the same, after all, why does anyone need to truly investigate New Testament Christianity?
The final dogma in this unholy trinity is “once saved, always saved.” This doctrine derives directly from faith only, as its adherents often promote: if you did nothing to obtain salvation, you can do nothing to lose it.
In reality, “once saved, always saved” is an offshoot of the Calvinist system. In Calvinism, the idea of the perseverance of the saints follows logically from its earlier principles: man’s sin and inability to seek God on his own (total depravity), God thus specifically chooses whom He will save (unconditional election), the chosen ones will come to faith (irresistible grace), and they are the select few (limited atonement). Thus, the particular chosen ones will be saved no matter what (perseverance of the saints). Calvinism has a ready answer for any who fall into sin and depart from the faith: they were never really part of the elect.
Many evangelical preachers in the nineteenth century objected to the heart of the Calvinist system (unconditional election, irresistible grace, limited atonement), but firmly preached its bookends (total depravity, perseverance of the saints). Thus we have the modern Evangelical synthesis: man is sinful by himself. He must hear God’s message, and accept Jesus into his heart through the “sinner’s prayer.” Once he has been saved there is nothing he can do to lose his salvation. Some will go so far as to say that people who become agnostic or atheist, explicitly rejecting and insulting Jesus, will still be saved if they believed in Him when they were younger!
“Once saved, always saved” is a theologically half-baked argument based on faulty premises. This is evident if an adherent is questioned about what will happen to a Christian mentioned above or who is caught in some other gross sin without repentance. All kinds of answers are given, and all the answers cheapen the idea of “salvation” terribly. “Once saved, always saved” is powerfully refuted by Romans 2:5-11, Hebrews 3:12-14, 6:4-6, 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22, among other passages. We must add that “if saved, barely saved” is no better a doctrine than its contrast; believers can have assurance in their standing before God, but only when they are seeking to walk as Christ walked and to do His commandments (1 John 1:5-5:21).
If “faith only” is a seductive and enticing doctrine, how much more the idea of “once saved, always saved!” It is a powerful narcotic: no matter what you do or what happens to you, you will be saved. This doctrine is greatly cherished by its adherents, and the truth of the matter is a bitter pill to swallow in comparison.
Many people hear about “once saved, always saved” through preachers on television or in churches, from friends, or in the media. It sounds quite alluring and satisfies the carnal, worldly mind. All you need to do is believe that Jesus is Lord and Christ, and no matter what happens, you will be saved! How great is that!
“Once saved, always saved” is a powerful disincentive for true faith and discipleship. Why follow the moral guidelines of Christianity if you are saved no matter what? Why bother getting up on Sunday mornings, or why bother sitting in a stuffy auditorium when you can be elsewhere, if you are saved regardless? Why bother investing any effort into faith or Christianity when you are saved whether you do or whether you do not?
As bad as each element of the unholy trinity is, when we put all three together, we truly have a Satanically designed monster. We find that people believe that they all they need to do is believe to be saved, and then they are saved no matter what. Furthermore, since all Christians are the same, your difference in opinion will barely impact their belief system. What can we say? If we emphasize what God in Christ teaches about baptism and obedience (cf. Acts 2:38, Romans 6:1-23), we will hear the dogmas of faith only and how we cannot work for our salvation. If we proclaim the distinctive truths of the New Testament church and the need to teach the first century Gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), we will hear that we are all the same, an influence from ecumenism. If we warn about the condemnation coming to those who prove disobedient to God (Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9), we are told that once a person is saved, they are saved no matter what.
In such a climate the true Gospel of Jesus Christ is left unheeded because it represents an entirely different picture of faith and reality than is presented by the unholy trinity, and one fraught with far more uncertainty and challenge. The idea of mandated obedience is strange for the one accepting faith only. The importance of distinctive doctrines seems foreign to the one raised in ecumenism. Concern about the condemnation of Christians is strange to one believing in once saved, always saved. It is a lot easier to believe that we are saved by faith only, that all Christians are the same, and that we will be saved no matter what. These doctrines are much more comforting and much less controversial.
And that is exactly what Satan, the god of this world, intends (2 Corinthians 4:4). He has blinded the eyes of millions in America and around the world. This is the environment in which we must continue to preach the Gospel from of old. Faith alone never has saved and never will save (James 2:14-26); yet faith alone sounds great and makes fewer demands than obedience. Much of the New Testament, especially Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and Revelation 2-3, are nonsensical if all churches are the same and doctrine does not really matter; yet ecumenism will remain popular as long as “tolerance” is the name of the game. Far too many who accepted “once saved, always saved” will learn too late that doing the will of the Father was also necessary (Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9); yet it remains a powerful narcotic and a most wonderful lie.
The truth is comparatively more bitter, more challenging, and more controversial. No one has ever been saved by a lie, and that will prove true on the day of Judgment. We must accept and proclaim the truth because it is true, and because God will lead those who live according to the truth in love to eternity in the Kingdom of Christ (2 Peter 1:11, 2 John 1:5-6)!
Perhaps it is clearer now why so many millions believe and yet do not practice Christianity. The unholy trinity provides all kinds of disincentives to believe and accept God’s truths. Nevertheless, let us stand firm in God’s truth despite its challenges and proclaim them to all in the world!
Ethan R. Longhenry