History Lesson

Polls aren’t just for politics. The recent Pew Religious Landscape Survey found some interesting trends about Christianity in America.  A glance back in history can help us make sense of it.

The Survey found a decline in the number of Americans that identify as Christian, and an increase in the “nones” (people with no religion). The secular media concluded that Christianity in America is dying.  But on closer examination we find that regular church attenders remained constant, and the number of evangelicals increased.  So what’s happening?  As the culture becomes increasingly secular, nominal (name-only) Christians are giving up the pretense.

A history lesson would help here. The colonial church in America was stagnant in the early 1700’s.  Church membership was in decline, likely due to scandals such as the infamous witch trials.  To stem the loss, churchmen developed a dubious plan to offer “halfway” membership for those assenting to church teachings, but not willing to embrace Jesus and “convert.”

Into this awkward mix of nominal Christianity and skeptical culture Jonathan Edwards was born. His diary reveals that as a Yale student in 1720, a Bible passage moved him to enthusiastically convert to Christianity.  There, he read about unbelief and mercy, Christ Jesus the patient Savior of sinners, and eternal life.  “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory” expressed the rapture of his soul! (1 Tim. 1:17)

Later as a pastor, he preached about the Savior and began to witness remarkable and extraordinary events leading to mass conversions. The Great Awakening continued for 10 years.  Its vast outdoor meetings of up to 20,000 souls foreshadowed deserted taverns, packed churches, and changed communities.

History and this Survey reveal the difference between “church-ianity” and Christianity; between religious affiliation and saving faith in Jesus Christ. Whether half-members, nominal Christians, or nones, people need a relationship with the Savior who is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Heb. 13:8).  The church has no option or need to compromise truth per the demands of culture.  Unpopular truth is still true.

The church today is strong among convictional Christians even as it is jettisoned by the “nones.” There is a winnowing, you might say.  A clarifying moment for all parties.  Perhaps God will bring about another Awakening.  If so, we won’t need a Pew Survey to tell us He did.


As he told his story, I could hear pain, if not see it in his eyes. The story was not unlike mine and yours, since we all would like a redo on events of the past.  But even though we cannot change the past, we can deal with it in the present and future.

His story was a case of “what-if.” As a young man, his father invited him on a business-related road trip, with a lot of driving in a short time.  He felt like his reason for not going was trivial, especially given the consequences.  There was an accident.  His father may have fallen asleep at the wheel.  We’ll never know for sure.  “What if I had gone with him?”  Even if he had, the outcome could have been worse, not better.  His mother may have been burying a son also, not just a husband.  His regret was a cancer of the soul.

Regret over missed opportunities, wrong choices, and unfortunate reactions can harangue a person with troubling voices. “That was a stupid thing to do.  I’m stupid.”  “I failed, so I’m worthless.”  “I’m unlovable and I’ll never forgive myself.”  The term “skeletons in the closet” implies they’re always there, ready to rattle their bones and haunt you.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

Christian truth is for life today, not just eternity. You see that in Jesus’ many ordinary encounters with hurting people.  If there was ever a man to have regret, it would be Jesus’ disciple Peter.  He followed Jesus for years, watching him heal, teach, and prophecy.  He had ample reason to love and trust Jesus.  Then came that dark night when fear and self-preservation overcame that love and trust.  Peter thrice denied even knowing Jesus.  Remorse.  Shame.  Regret.

Jesus understands the human condition. He knew Peter loved him and meant no harm.  So there on the beach, after a breakfast of fish and bread cooked over charcoal, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him.  Each time Peter responded “yes,” Jesus gave him an assignment showing he was forgiven, loved, and needed.  Jesus wanted no haunting skeletons in Peter’s closet.

Nor does he want any in yours. Faith in Jesus means accepting that only He can restore that image of God in you that is marred by the human experience.  His forgiveness empowers you to redeem the past by learning from its mistakes, accepting its consequences, and making it right if you can.  Jesus loves you and wants you in his grand enterprise of spreading His love to the rest of the hurting world.  You can do that much better without carrying around that un-healed regret. “If we live, we live for the Lord” (Rom. 14:8).


I heard tires scrunching the gravel of my driveway as the car slowly crept toward where I stood in my yard. I noticed that the occupants were dressed very nicely for a Saturday morning.  Then I realized I was being Visited.

I always welcome the opportunity for a robust conversation about religion. I appreciate that these folks were as gentle and polite as they were convinced and sincere.  I was quite eager to make the case for who Jesus is.  That is, by the way, how you can tell historical Christianity from its modern variations.

From the outset of John’s gospel, Jesus is God. Not just a son of God, but God the Son.  The Word was with God in the beginning, and “the Word was God.”  All things, even life itself, came into being through the Word.  This Word became flesh, so no doubt this Word is Jesus.  So, if the Creator is God, then Jesus is.  To supply the indefinite article as in, the Word was “a” god, misunderstands the grammar of Koine Greek.  Worse, it implies polytheism, quite foreign to historic Christianity.  Not to mention that John’s context clearly describes the existence and activity of God.  The word “Trinity” does not have to occur in the Bible for it to provide systematic evidence for one God in Three Persons.  (More thoughts on Trinity here.)

Did Jesus claim to be God? In one instance, Jesus mentioned Abraham (who lived over a thousand years prior), which his hearers didn’t appreciate.  “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” they retorted.  Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am.”  How could Jesus have existed that long ago?  Why didn’t he say, “I was” or just “Abraham and I are old friends!”  To Moses at his burning bush, God revealed his name, I AM.  I wonder Jesus’ hearers looked around to see if there was another burning bush, because He just called himself by that Name.

Do the Hebrew Scriptures anticipate the Messiah would be a God-man? The prophet Isaiah describes a virgin-born child who would be called “Eternal Father” and nothing less than “Mighty God.”  Daniel describes the “Son of Man” with godly dominion over an eternal kingdom, a title Jesus applied to himself.

You can deny that Jesus is God the Son, but to do so you must explain away much evidence in the Bible. The reason it exists is so you can know God and receive eternal life by faith in Christ Jesus.

After my visitors left, I realized my mistake. I spent too much effort on the debate and not enough offering Jesus’ saving grace.  I won’t make that same mistake with you, dear reader.  I invite you to believe the Truth, and live!


It happened while I was in attendance at a football game of my alma mater, Auburn University.  It was early in the season like now, not exactly cool fall temperatures.  When the crowd roared as the team entered the field, I had an odd revelation.  Football is a metaphor for the church.

In a football game, the audience focuses on the participants on the gridiron stage, and is prepared to celebrate if the team does well. If a worship service is people watching a stage performance, and congratulating the preacher with “Nice sermon!” at the end, it deserves a penalty flag.  But when those on the stage lead the audience to be participants who focus on God, it is a worshipful celebration of a win that already happened.  On a cross long ago, Jesus defeated sin and death for us.  “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57).  When you participate in God’s grace by faith, the celebration is daily, not just on Sundays.

As I watched that game, I thought about how unexercised I had become since high school football. Another revelation.  The players and coaches on the field did all the preparation, planning, and work while the lazy audience just paid to observe.  Churches are dysfunctional when they view their pastor and other staff members as the hired guns who are supposed to do the ministry.  The New Testament description of the church is that leaders equip every Christian to be a minister, ambassador, and worker for Christ.  Applied to football, the coaches and players would be training the rest of us how to play our own scrimmage.  “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).  What is given to us in love, grace, and kindness, we reinvest in the people around us.

Followers of Christ are teammates that help each other. I was privileged once to meet Coach Dan Reeves during the time of his success with the Atlanta Falcons.  In a private moment, I asked if I could point out something that might be a blind spot.  Maybe he was amused that a pastor thought he knew about football.  I said, “I just wanted to make sure you know that when a call goes against your team, they focus the camera on your face, which makes lip-reading very easy.”  He chuckled and said he needed to keep that in mind.  “We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5).

The church already has its victory in Jesus! What’s left is for us to “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb 12.1).  Next time someone complains that you’re too fond of football, explain that you enjoy pondering its metaphorical implications!