“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves,
it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
– Ephesians 2:8–9
According to Joe Carter, an editor for The Gospel Coalition, “62 percent of the United States identified as Protestant in 1972 and only 51 percent did so in 2010.” It is a well-known fact that membership in mainline Protestant denominations has been in decline for several decades. Here are some examples dating from 1965 to 2013: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a 67% decline; the Reformed Church in America, a 62% decline; the United Church of Christ (Congregationalist), a 52% decline; the Episcopal Church, a 49% decline; the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), a 47% decline; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a 27% decline, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a 20% decline. Many people who left these mainline churches did not give up their faith. Instead, they migrated to denominations that more closely followed the Bible. Therefore, other Protestant denominations have enjoyed significant increases in membership during this time period. Regardless, the overall picture is not good. These declines are especially troublesome when we factor in a growth of 125 million people in the U.S. (a 63% increase). Protestantism did increase by 28 million members between 1972 and 2013, most of this growth was due to Protestants having children. Today, fewer non-Christians are becoming Protestants and there were fewer Protestants in 2013 as a percent of U.S. population than there were in 1972.
Measuring church growth or decline is a difficult and complicated task and it is even more difficult to identify specific causes. Historically, Christians have been a fractious group of people. Since the first century A.D., Christians have constantly divided and separated from each other to create new groups because of differing theological, social, or administrative views. Undoubtedly, Christians will continue to separate over differences in understanding the will, ways, and plans of God and how sinners are saved.
Protestants Do Not Understand Grace
I believe mainline Protestantism has fallen because the doctrine of God’s grace has been distorted and abused for decades. God’s love for sinners is truly amazing and overwhelming. God’s grace is a powerful doctrine when it is properly understood and applied, but its power becomes spiritually destructive when grace is misunderstood and wrongly applied. Spiritual decline and atrophy can be the only result when church members believe that “God’s grace is sufficient,” that human conduct and behavior have nothing to do with salvation, and that salvation costs nothing, requires nothing, and demands nothing, spiritual decline and atrophy will surely follow.
Just sixty-five years after returning to Heaven, Jesus appeared to the prophet John while he was in exile on Patmos. Jesus had some choice words for seven churches in Asia Minor and “grace” was not one of them. Jesus specifically identified many sinful behaviors that had infiltrated His church and then gave the churches stern warnings, followed by seven promises. In each case the assurance of salvation came with the same prerequisite: “To him that overcomes. . . .” When the doctrine of grace is used to diminish the necessity and importance of overcoming sin, the doctrine of grace has been distorted and abused. Do not be deceived. A large crowd attending a megachurch does not necessarily mean a large number of people are overcoming sin. Man’s sinful nature is not inclined to overcome sin. Dealing with our sinful natures is a daily struggle that will not end until the sealing occurs. There was a time when mainline Protestant churches thrived with inspirational preachers and large crowds. In those early days, ministers believed and taught the importance of overcoming sin. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the doctrine of grace was lifted out of its context, distorted, and abused, resulting in the demise of mainline Protestantism.
The Doctrine of Grace
Every Christian should understand three codependent doctrines which are “Grace, Law, and Faith,” and they operate similarly to a three-legged stool. No single doctrine can operate by itself. For a three-legged stool to perform correctly, each leg has to be sturdy and securely planted. If one leg fails, the entire stool will fail and whatever it supports will fall. Similarly, if these three doctrines are separated from each other or if one is improperly advanced to the detriment of the other two, the result will be a spiritually toxic experience. These three doctrines flow together in a profound way and understanding that flow is important for overcoming sin.
God is love and His laws are righteous, comprehensive, and eternal. God’s entire kingdom is governed by the rule of His laws. He places His law within the hearts and minds of His children when they are created. God never changes. Grace became necessary when Adam and Eve violated His law. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were not defiant. Instead, they sinned due to the Lucifer’s predatory efforts. God extended grace to Adam and Eve (and their offspring) by staying their execution. Remember, anyone eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was to be executed on the very day he sinned. (Genesis 2:17)
When Adam and Eve sinned, they were no longer in harmony with God’s laws. Sin transformed them from being selfless to being selfish. Since Adam and Eve’s first sin, the cancer of sin continues to grow within their offspring. All human beings have sinned and because the wages of sin is death, God extended grace to Adam and Eve and their offspring. This grace has several dimensions. For example, God has allowed human beings to live for a period of time. God has given us time to mature spiritually so that we might begin to comprehend His love and choose to walk in His ways. God has provided atonement for our sins and through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, God has made a way to overcome any sin. Finally, God has given us the assurance that He will save everyone who fights “the good fight of faith.”
God requires each sinner to trust Him. Only through faith in God’s care and wisdom can we stay on the path of righteousness. The doctrine of faith teaches us that faith means obeying God without regard for the consequences. (Hebrews 11) God has promised that He will take care of the circumstances if we place our trust in Him first and obey Him. (Romans 8:28) Therefore, when tempted to do wrong, we can overcome temptation by asking God for the desire to do right and for the strength and courage to stay on track. When God hears our cry for help, He immediately sends the power to achieve victory and transformation! (Romans 6:14, 1 John 1:9–2:1)
For many people, the book of Romans is often difficult to understand. Paul seems to contradict himself with every other verse and for centuries, Bible expositors have exploited these “apparent contradictions” to appease man’s sinful nature. (2 Peter 3:16) However, if we understand that Paul was attempting to address misconceptions of believers in Rome, the contradictions will disappear. Paul is addressing two toxic conditions affecting early Christians in Rome. The first condition was legalism (Jewish converts to Christianity were captives of this religious experience). The second condition was a distortion of grace (Gentile converts to Christianity were captives of this religious experience). These opposing problems explain why Paul appears to contradict himself. He was attempting to get Jewish converts out of the ditch of legalism while trying to get Gentile converts out of the other ditch of distorted grace. So where is the middle of the road?
Paul’s summary can be found in Romans 7 and 8. Believing that obeying God’s law alone produces salvation is wrong, but believing God’s grace is sufficient and has nothing to do with the necessity of changing human behavior is just as wrong. If we continue to behave in ways that we know are wrong, we do not love God or have faith in Him. (1 John 2:4-6) Jesus said no one can serve two masters. Informed Christians know that sinners cannot overcome sin on their own. (Jeremiah 13:23) Revelation 20 says a huge number of people will be thrown into the lake of fire at the end of the age. The cause for their annihilation is because a God of love does not offer grace to defiant people, but to repentant sinners. Grace is offered to each sinner in three ways:
- Time: God delayed the annihilation of Adam, Eve, and their offspring. He gives us time to discover and know Him that we might choose to walk in His ways.
- Sacrifice: God provided a perfect sacrifice at Calvary so that our guilt might be transferred to Heaven’s altar.
- Deposit: To make overcoming sin possible, God has given a measure of faith to every person. He has also given us the deposit of the Holy Spirit and the promise of a new heart and a new mind. Transformation is possible through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
The Doctrine of Grace Illustrated
A college teacher assigned a term paper. He told the students the project would represent 75% of their grade. He said the due date was six weeks away, “Monday, October 10, no exceptions.” (Teacher declared his law.) John and two classmates were injured in a auto accident (through no fault of their own) five days before the term paper was due. They were released from the hospital three days later. So, there was not enough time for the recovering students to meet the deadline. They contacted the teacher (they asked for grace). Given their circumstances, the teacher said he would accept their submission by Wednesday noon (grace was given). The injured students struggled to meet the deadline (they believed the teacher would do as promised), burnt some midnight oil, and all three passed the course.
In this illustration, grace (an extension of time) was given to three students because the teacher cared enough to help the students. He wanted them to complete the course even though they had been notified six weeks earlier of the due date. The injured students accepted the teacher’s grace and after putting forth extra effort, they met the deadline and the requirement for the course. They were grateful for the grace they had received and their efforts (works) reflected their appreciation.
God’s grace requires a human response. We are saved through faith because God has given us grace in the form of time, sacrifice, and deposit. Many Protestants will ask, “How can grace be called grace if overcoming sin is required (works)?” God’s grace exists because God’s laws have penalties. We show God that we appreciate His amazing grace by putting faith in Him and obeying His commands. How fair would it be to the other students if the teacher had told the injured students, “You do not have to submit the term paper, I will give each of you an A.”? Would such a dispensation of grace be appropriate given the accreditation of the institution or would it be academic deception (giving passing grades to students when there is no evidence the students met academic requirements)? If a peer review by his colleagues was conducted, would the teacher’s extension of grace be viewed as unauthorized use of authority to defeat course requirements or would the jury conclude the teacher was justified by his actions?
The Bible does not teach that we are saved by a dispensation of grace, but instead, the Bible teaches that salvation has been made possible because God has extended grace to all sinners. His grace comes in the form of time, sacrifice, and deposit. When properly understood, the doctrine of grace is a story of overwhelming love because God has taken every initiative necessary to save sinners. On the other hand, when the doctrine of grace is distorted and abused it causes harm to individuals and ultimately denominations. Here’s a simple test: If overcoming sin is diminished so that grace can be exalted, God is not honored and the importance of the doctrines of Law and Faith are denigrated. Salvation does not come through grace, grace makes God’s offer of salvation possible. Salvation always has come through faith in God. The life of Christ is a flawless example: “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Given the attention which is given to a distorted doctrine of grace today, I think it is fitting that we thoughtfully consider Jesus’ words, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the Earth?” (Luke 18:8, emphasis mine)