Of the 47 statements included in The State of Theology study for 2016, undertaken in partnership with LifeWay Research, the responses to one statement stood out. Most of the responses tended to even out over the spectrum. Each statement tended to garner slight majorities. The results show slight majorities either getting a belief right or, in most cases, getting a belief wrong. But not statement 17, “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.” This one sparked a reaction.
Glancing at the graph of the data shows this response not to be a simple majority, but rather a whopping majority. 61% strongly disagree. Another 12% disagree somewhat and 7% are not sure. That leaves only 21% agreeing with this statement. We need to interpret this data. Eight out of ten Americans have an incorrect view of sin. As an implication, we could say that eight out of ten Americans do not know the biblical God. More on that later.
The responses on this particular statement get even more startling when you dive into the demographic data. Self-identifying Roman Catholics stand at 79% in disagreement. 83% of self-identified Mainline Protestants disagree. Self-identifying Evangelicals do better but even among them, 54% disagree. That is to say, a majority of evangelicals do not have a biblical view of sin. This is all the more disconcerting when we consider the necessity of a proper understanding of sin. In order to have a proper understanding of the gospel we must have a proper understanding of sin. How can we speak of redemption if we don’t know what we are being redeemed from? How can we be saved if we don’t even know we are lost? Why, after all, did God send His Son to the cross on our behalf?
You can think of the views of sin and of Christ’s person and work as an inverse relationship. Thinking less of sin, not grasping its full weight, means we necessarily think less of Christ and less of His work on the cross. When we see the full depth and heinousness of our sin, we exalt Christ and we lift high the cross. This statement, “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation,” is of extreme significance.
As we explore the demographics even further we learn more about the (un)beliefs of Americans. When we simply consider those who have post-college education, those disagreeing with this statement regarding sin spikes to 88%. Another 2% are unsure. So only one in ten Americans with a post-college education have a biblical view of sin. Perhaps the true epidemic of the twenty-first century is that we think far too little of sin.
We can also consider the factor of church attendance regarding responses to this particular statement on sin. Those who attend church several times a week, did the best of all groups. It is a perfect 50/50 split among them. Even those who attend church once a week did not fare well. They were at 85% agreement. That is distressing. This group tended to do well on most questions, but not on this one. Could it be that even though they are attending church, they are not hearing sermons on sin and not being taught the biblical view of sin?
What about those who rarely attend church? They scored 99% in disagreement, with 88% of those strongly disagreeing. Those who never attend church hit a perfect 100% of strong disagreement. That is to say, a perfectly wrong, adamant answer.
What are we to make of all these results on this particular statement that even the smallest sin is worthy of eternal damnation? The issue here far exceeds that of merely an unbiblical view of sin—though that is dire enough in and of itself. The response to this statement also reveals our view of God and our view of ourselves. It was in 1985 that R.C. Sproul published his book The Holiness of God. It struck a chord. The book begins with an exposition of Isaiah 6 and the vision of God, thrice holy. It was unlike most other books that were bestselling among evangelicals at the time. It stood out for its theme. And it still does. For many who read that book it challenged their far too little view of God. It reminded them that we can’t have a God after our own making. God has revealed Himself to us in His Word. He has declared Who He is. He is Holy. Holy, holy, holy.
In light of that the only possible response to the statement, “Even the slightest sin deserves eternal damnation,” is strongly agree. Even the slightest sin is an affront, an insult, to the holy God. When eight out of ten Americans fail to grasp this we realize that we still must proclaim and defend the holiness of God in all of its fullness. And when a majority of Evangelicals, even if it’s a slight majority, fail to grasp this we realize the need to proclaim and defend the holiness of God within the church. When we see the responses to this statement, versus what the response should be, we realize that we still have our work cut out for us. That we still need to teach who God is, which in turn will reveal to us who we are and what sin is. Sin is ghastly. God is holy. Christ is absolutely necessary. These are the basics.
Without these basic beliefs, we will have a truncated and neutered gospel. In fact, without a proper view of sin, a proper view of the holiness of God, and a proper view of the necessity of Christ we won’t have the gospel at all.
This article is part of the State of Theology collection.