Public surveys are not usually graded tests, but in a 2018 study on Christian beliefs by two Christian ministries, Ligonier and LifeWay, American evangelicals earned what would qualify as a grade of “F” on the Trinity. A majority of my fellow evangelicals answered 3 out of 8 questions about the Trinity heretically, meaning they answered only 62.5% correctly—a failing grade.
According to the survey, we are falling for ancient heresies!
On one question, researchers asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Among evangelicals, 71% agreed and only 22% disagreed. I hope that some respondents stopped listening after “Jesus is the first and greatest” and so did not intend to agree that Jesus was “created.” Having a soundbite attention span is at least preferable to denying the Trinity.
In any event, the early church wrote the Nicene Creed specifically to contradict the notion that Jesus was created, which is known as the Arian heresy. The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus was “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Furthermore, in John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:16-18, we read that Jesus existed in the beginning and that everything was created through him. Additionally, if Jesus was created, he could not be a full and equal member of the Trinity, which calls into question the incarnation, his perfect sacrifice, and his resurrection. Our salvation depends on Jesus pre-existing as God, as both John 1 and Colossians 1 go on to assert.
Lest I come across as “better than” others, I must admit that I would not have been able to identify Arianism before I took a theology course in college. But I must ask, why didn’t I learn about this false teaching until college? This is not some obscure academic question for “those who wish to know more;” it is something critical to the faith of every mature believer because it concerns the power and identity of Jesus. As evangelicals, we must have a better understanding of church history and tradition, if only to identify the same false doctrines that continue to resurface.
On another question, 60% of evangelicals agreed (compared to 31% who disagreed) that “The Holy Spirit gives a spiritual new birth or new life before a person has faith in Jesus Christ.” The Bible clearly teaches that the Holy Spirit only dwells in those who are saved, and they are not saved except by faith. For example, Ephesians 1:13-14 explains, “You also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”
Third, evangelicals agreed, 59% to 33%, that “the Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.” This is especially confusing, because 93% of evangelicals had already agreed to a statement calling the Holy Spirit a person: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps our evangelical churches should study John 16:7-15, a passage that refers to the Holy Spirit with a personal pronoun (he, him, his) twelve times; never in the Bible is the Spirit referred to as an impersonal force.
I believe we evangelicals are justly confident in the profitability of Scripture “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But Paul warns confident Christians, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” The results of this survey seem to indicate that many of us could not identify heresy if it hit us in the face. Christians who cannot spot false teaching are called “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
We should be concerned, but not despair. On other questions in the survey, American evangelicals displayed fairly strong orthodoxy. Even the survey’s definition of evangelicals was robust. The survey defined evangelicals as those who believe “the Bible is the highest authority,” “evangelism is very important,” “sin can only be removed by Jesus’ death,” and “salvation comes only through trusting in Jesus as Savior.”
In Hebrews 4:14 and 10:23, Christians are exhorted to “hold fast our confession” amidst a hostile world. Evangelicals across the U.S. need to engage more deeply with the theological truths of Christianity, so we will recognize false doctrines when they come.