Evidence abounds all around that the current Spiritual climate of the typical Evangelical church is rightly described by sociologist Christian Smith as “more akin to Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism than anything resembling historic Christianity.” I paraphrased Smith there, but it reflects the essence of Smith’s assessment. (If you want a refresher on what Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism is click here & here.)
J.I. Packer, in his sagacious Introduction to John Owen‘s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, offers one of the best and most comprehensive explanations I have recently read about how we got this way. In short, Packer suggests, we have embraced a counterfeit gospel.
Read what Packer wrote, and think about how his critique compares with what you hear from the pulpit in your church:
There is no doubt that evangelicalism today is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement. In such matters as the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of local church life, the pastor’s dealing with souls and the exercise of discipline, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are and or equally widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead. This is a complex phenomenon, to which many factors have contributed; but, if we go to the root of the matter, we shall find that these perplexities are all ultimately due to our having lost our grip on the biblical gospel. Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. Why?
We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be ‘helpful’ to man – to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction – and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was ‘helpful’, too – more so, indeed, than is the new – but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach people to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed.
From this change of interest has sprung a change of content, for the new gospel has in effect reformulated the biblical message in the supposed interests of ‘helpfulness’. Accordingly, the themes of man’s natural inability to believe, of God’s free election being the ultimate cause of salvation, and of Christ dying specifically for his sheep are not preached. These doctrines, it would be said, are not ‘helpful’; they would drive sinners to despair, by suggesting to them that it is not in their own power to be saved through Christ. (The possibility that such despair might be salutary is not considered: it is taken for granted that it cannot be, because it is so shattering to our self-esteem.) However this may be, the result of these omissions is that part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.
NOTE: One thing amazing to me is that Packer wrote this in 1958! …Two years before Christian Smith was even born. Our plight has been long time coming. Recovering a thoroughly Biblical gospel is the only recipe for our recovery.