One of the, if not strange, then unique things about ministry as the preaching pastor of a church is the perspective I get on the congregation. I’m not speaking metaphorically, I’m not talking about having a special insight, I mean actual perspective. I don’t sit looking at the back of the heads of my church family, I stand in the pulpit and look in their faces.
And I’ve seen some interesting things. I’ve seen a visitor’s face change the precise instant they were offended by the gospel. I’ve seen tears of conviction roll down the face of someone I think of as very godly and advanced in their sanctification. I’ve seen tears of joy flow in response to the gospel and once when I was an interim pastor at a small country church, just because someone was hearing teaching in their church for the first time in a long time (who knew a new seminary graduate fumbling through the date and authorship of James could move anyone to tears). Once preaching in a Southern Baptist storefront church on L.A.’s Skid Row I even saw somebody strip down and use the drinking fountain at the back of the room to take a bath of sorts (fortunately no one else noticed and I just kept preaching).
A couple of weeks ago I had a new experience. As I was preaching, I said something that to me was old news and I heard an audible gasp. And it didn’t come from one person, it came from about 3/4 of the people in the congregation.
I was preaching John 8:21-30 (you can listen here). The central point of that passage is the deity of Christ. It is emphatic. In fact, Jesus says that there can be no salvation apart from believing that He is fully divine. Really, He said it.
I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins. – John 8:24
Although “I am he” is eigo eimi the Greek for “I am” the background isn’t Exodus 3:13-14, Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.” Rather it is the use of ego eimi in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) in Isaiah chapters 40-55.
But this in no way diminishes the clarity of the divinity claim here. Consider the following examples:
Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he. – Isaiah 41:4
You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. – Isaiah 43:10
Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. – Isaiah 48:12
All of that to say that Jesus very clearly and unambiguously said that unless you believe He is God, there is no hope of salvation for you. Saving faith believes more than Jesus is God, but it must start by believing believe that Jesus is God. A non-divine, created being Jesus, is not the Jesus of the Bible and there is no salvation in such a figure.
Which bring me back to the gasp. I made the point that there is no salvation in the Jesus of Mormonism, or the Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then I sited Ligonier Ministries’ 2018 The State of Theology survey. According to that survey 5% of evangelicals agree somewhat while 73% agree strongly with the statement “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” That is what drew the gasp.
Although this survey was old news to me, it was shocking to many in the church, so shocking that an audible gasp escaped from many lips. It is especially shocking when it comes in the context of an exposition of a passage where Jesus is telling those who are plotting to murder Him they are hell bound. To be clear the implication of the survey is that well over 70% of people who consider themselves evangelical Christians are as hell bound as those who plotted to kill Jesus.
But I don’t think that is what caused people to gasp. I think that what was so shocking was the idea that nearly 80% of self identified evangelicals hadn’t been taught such an elementary theological truth.
Frankly, I find that kind of shocking too, but I shouldn’t. For familial reasons I attended a very large evangelical church in San Diego county (not a famous one, but a huge one; 10,000+ in attendance on a Sunday when I was there) about 30 times over 4 years while I was in seminary. Never once did I hear the divinity of Christ mentioned, never once did I hear the atonement mentioned, never once did I hear the holiness of God mentioned, and shockingly never once did I hear anything at all approaching the gospel mentioned. I never really heard anything wrong, but I heard no teaching; none. I heard some tips for date night with your spouse, some budgeting tips, some advice about higher education, but no teaching. Nothing any deeper than I encountered flipping through magazines in waiting rooms.
I think what elicited the gasp was the realization that so many are not taught the very basics of the faith. In conservative bible believing and bible teaching churches, there is a general awareness that there is a lot of bad teaching out there. I fear that there is ignorance of how many people sit in “churches” where there is neither good or bad teaching. I don’t think the greatest threat to souls is bad teaching, it is ignorance; and I fear that this threat to people’s eternal souls flies under the radar in conservative churches. It genuinely shocked the people in my church that nearly 80% of respondents to this survey didn’t know something they hear dozens of time a month from the pulpit, that Jesus is God. I think well taught people can take teaching for granted. Some might think “sure they might not get taught like us” but I think many of us who have been in Bible teaching churches for a long time can’t even conceive of the concept of a “church” that doesn’t teach at all.
It is certainly important to call error, error. But I think more important is praying for a revival of theological teaching in evangelical churches. It is deadly serious business, though this was said to (visible) Israel I think it applies to the (visible) church as God’s New Testament people, and makes clear how grave the threat is.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge – Hosea 4:6
 D.A. Carson The Gospel of John in PNTCS p. 343.
 Leon Morris The Gospel of John in NICNT p. 447
 F.F.Bruce The Gospel of John p. 193
 You get the idea, this is a nearly universally accepted position among conservative Evangelical New Testament scholars.