Have You Been Vaccinated?

Nytimes_hq-1Russ Douthat, columnist for The New York Times, wrote a column last week in which he sought to explain the social evils that result from the widespread “fading” of Evangelicalism in the Bible Belt and other heavily religious areas. For a while now, it has been a seeming paradox that heavily Evangelical areas have more severe social problems, such as “poverty, poor health, political corruption, and social disarray.”1

Douthat notes that the research shows that social evils such as divorce are actually much lower among those who actively participate in Protestant religion. But among those who are only nominally Protestant (those who report as attending church services less than twice a month), the social evils occur more frequently than they do among those who do not claim religious affiliation at all. Here’s Douthat’s explanation for this:

It isn’t hard to see why this might be. . . . [C]ertain religious expectations could endure (a bias toward early marriage, for instance) without support networks for people struggling to live up to them. Or specific moral ideas could still have purchase without being embedded in a plausible life script. (For instance, residual pro-life sentiment could increase out-of-wedlock births.) Or religious impulses could survive in dark forms rather than positive ones — leaving structures of hypocrisy intact and ratifying social hierarchies, without inculcating virtue, charity or responsibility.2

As it turns out, the data from the social sciences can be interpreted in a biblical way, as meaning that a weak faith has far worse results than no faith at all; that it is worse to be lukewarm toward Christianity than to be cold toward it.3 However, it is not surprising that there is also a secular, liberal interpretation of the data, which is that the government is better than religion at providing social goods. I am not arguing this point here, but human experience shows that the liberal interpretation is false.4

Here I just want to observe the extreme irony in an Evangelical response to Douthat’s article. Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains:

From an Evangelical perspective the most important aspect of Ross Douthat’s very important column is the fact that lukewarm religion, cultural Christianity, or nominal Christianity all should be seen not as doors that often lead to people entering into faithful, believing Christianity, but rather as a barrier, perhaps as I said before, a vaccination, that makes people think that they are Christians, and thus miss the Gospel altogether. And when they miss the Gospel, they miss the all that comes with the Gospel. In this sense, the social science data tells us what we should profoundly always know: You cannot expect non-Christians to live as Christians.”5

Dr. Mohler is exactly right in saying that lukewarm religion can serve as a vaccination against real conviction and faithfulness. The irony in his remarks lies in the fact that he (along with many others—but not all—who claim affiliation with Evangelicalism6 are providing the vaccine by teaching sola fide or salvation by faith alone.7 While it may be impossible to know each apostate’s motive(s) for living immorally, it also should not be missed that Dr. Mohler, as part of the Lutheran tradition that teaches sola fide, invites lukewarm religion every time he preaches the Lutheran doctrine of salvation.

Here’s how: Evangelicals generally affirm that all one must do in order to become a saved person is to give mental assent to the proposition that Jesus is the Son of God. Good works are merely evidence that belief has occurred, but justification is appropriated to the sinner prior to—and totally independent of—the doing of any works.8 This is an integral part of the Evangelical doctrine of salvation. Given all this, no one should be surprised (1) Evangelicalism as a promoter of sola fide is seen increasingly as less relevant to daily life; and (2) People who believe in sola fida often live as reprobates. Why should we expect believers to modify their sinful lifestyles if we are telling them that salvation is provided upon the sole contingency of assent to Christ’s divinity?

The real lesson from Douthat’s article—although perhaps neither Douthat nor his Evangelical reader is prepared to admit it—is that the only answer to society’s ills is a return to the authentic Christianity of the New Testament, and not to the Lutheran doctrine of sola fide or the Calvinist doctrine of sola gratia (salvation by grace alone). Salvation that comes through a living faith with concomitant obedience (see Acts 2 and James 2:14-26) is, instead of a vaccine that prevents true Christianity, the antidote for sinful living and corrupt culture. In other words, primitive Christianity, and not Reformation dogma, is the real answer.

  1. “The Christian Penumbra.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-christian-penumbra.html?ref=rossdouthat&_r=0 (29 March 2014). 

  2. Ibid, parenthetical items in orig. 

  3. Cf. Revelation 3:16; R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Briefing 03-31-14,” Podcast, AlbertMohler.com, http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/03/31/the-briefing-03-31-14/ (2014). 

  4. See Thomas Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2007), 69-93. 

  5. “The Briefing 03-31-14.” 

  6. See Glenn Sunshine, “Sola Fide,” The Colson Center for Christian Worldview, http://www.colsoncenter.org/the-center/columns/call-response/20645-misappropriating-the-reformation-1 (2013). 

  7. See Theodore Dieter, “Martin Luther,” The History of Western Philosophy of Religion, ed. Graham Oppy and Nick Trakakis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3:37-38; Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 239-240. In a recent lecture titled “Monotheism is Not Enough,” Dr. Mohler says: “[J]ust as the Gospel itself is rightly understood as justification by faith alone, by grace alone, on the basis of what Christ as has done alone, to the glory of God alone, that faith that saves by grace alone is the faith that demonstrates the works that grace will produce. . . . So evidently there are two kinds of sola fide. There is a sola fide that is the Gospel that saves, and there is a sola fide that is a false Gospel that does not,” Podcast, AlbertMohler.com, http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/03/11/monotheism-is-not-enough-2/ (2014). In this lesson, Mohler describes salvation as “God’s unilateral act by which He saves sinners.” 

  8. Although Jesus says that belief itself is a work (John 6:29). 

  • Daniel

    Very thought provoking. A thoroughly enjoyable read. This blog continues to provide informative and helpful thoughts in an excellently articulated manner. Please continue in the good work!

    • I could read a book about this without finding such real-world apsreachop!

- 2017