During the 5th Century Christianity was wracked by a theological crisis. A monk from Britain named Pelagius was teaching that original sin did not taint human nature and that humans have the free will to achieve human perfection without divine grace. Pelagius reasoned that God could not command believers to do the impossible, and therefore it must be possible to satisfy all divine commandments. He also taught that it was unjust to punish one person for the sins of another; therefore, infants are born blameless. Pelagius accepted no excuse for sinful behavior and taught that all Christians, regardless of their station in life, should live unimpeachable, sinless lives.
Pelagianism contradicted the Biblical teaching embraced by the Church that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and that it is only by grace we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Pelagius gained a great following that threatened to undermine the authority of the Bible and substitute in its place a fundamental assurance of the goodness of human nature and the efficacy of the human will and good works.
It took a great African Bishop named Augustine to point out the false teaching in Pelagianism: to think that God redeems according to some scale of human merit; to imagine that some human beings are actually capable of a sinless life; to suppose that the descendants of the first human beings to sin are themselves born innocent. In Augustine’s City of God and other writings, he points out that Pelagius asserted a model of thinking that excludes God from human salvation. Truth be told, Pelagianism would be consistent today with many of the secular utopian ideas of justice that assume, uncritically and paradoxically, that the abolition of “oppressors” by “victims” in a secular culture without a moral compass (see Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue) will somehow result in the emergence of a virtuous people.
Augustine affirmed what the Bible teaches about human nature: the dignity we ALL have as human beings created in the image of God, that that image has been broken and defaced by our own sinful nature, and that Jesus Christ through his death for our sins and resurrection has restored our capacity to live as the human beings God created us to be. Thanks to Augustine and his followers, this Biblical teaching prevailed at the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D.
But a little over a thousand years later, Christianity was wracked again by a similar crisis. Medieval Roman Catholic bishops, clergy, theologians, and monastics were preaching a salvation by “works righteousness,” indulgences and masses for the dead that denied the fundamental Biblical teaching about human nature. The Protestant Reformers—Martin Luther, John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer—responded by appropriating the great teachings of Augustine in their preaching, teaching, and writing that sparked the Protestant Reformation. Sola Scripura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide (Scripture alone, Grace alone, faith alone) were the watchwords of this Reformation, rediscovered from and affirmed by the writings of that great African bishop. Through this Reformation, many Christians were saved from falling into the substitution of works righteousness for salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ alone and his sacrifice for us on the cross.
Five hundred years later, Christianity in the West is facing yet another fork in the road. For years, the American Anglican Council has documented the “Gospel deficit”, the rise of false teaching among Anglican leaders at the highest levels of the Church throughout the world but especially in the West. But a new survey shows that this “Gospel deficit” is growing among Christians in North America (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/survey-a-majority-of-american-christians-dont-believe-the-gospel/). On August 9, 2020 the Gospel Coalition reported that a survey conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University finds that American adults today increasingly adopt a “salvation-can-be-earned” perspective. A plurality of adults (48 percent) believe that if a person is generally good, or does enough good things during their life, they will “earn” a place in heaven. Only one-third of adults (35 percent) disagree.
Most Americans who describe themselves as Christian (52 percent) also accept a “works-oriented” means to God’s acceptance—even those associated with churches whose official doctrine says eternal salvation comes only from embracing Jesus Christ as Savior. Almost half of all adults associated with Pentecostal (46 percent), mainline Protestant (44 percent), and Evangelical (41 percent) churches, as well as nearly two-thirds of Catholics (70 percent), hold that view.
These statistics represent a failure among Biblically faithful leaders, including Anglicans, to make disciples who truly understand and believe the essentials of the Gospel. As author Joe Carter notes: “This survey shows that too many Christians aren’t Christians at all. They are not relying on the finished work in Christ but trusting that their own works will be judged worthy by God. There are many reasons why this belief is prevalent among self-identified Christians, but a primary cause is that they likely haven’t heard the gospel.”
This may seem like an absurd claim since Christian leaders in America appear to be constantly talking about the gospel. Even in gospel-centered churches, though, we can’t take for granted that the good news has been fully heard. As my friend and pastor Eric Saunders says, the moment when you get tired of talking about a subject is usually when your audience is just starting to pay attention to your message.
This survey should be a reminder of how easy it is for people to slip back in to relying on themselves, and how we need to constantly proclaim the gospel—to ourselves and our neighbors—until we fully realize that we can only be rescued from our sin through what Jesus accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection.”
At the same time, we are hearing projections that up to 30% or more of self-identified Christians in North America, the UK, and elsewhere in the West will not be returning to church at all in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although our own survey which we published last week [https://americananglican.org/featured/covid19-the-church-in-response/] shows that figure much less (10% or less) among the committed Anglicans who are among our audience (and thus self-selecting to read an article about Biblical Christianity!), the projections underline the fact that many peoples’ faith was not compelling or strong enough to keep them engaged through social distancing, loss of employment, and other disruptions caused by the pandemic.
But this is not so in Africa where the center of global Christianity now finds itself. This shift of the geographical center of Christianity from Europe to Africa has been well-documented by Philip Jenkins and others. Recently, Virtueonline reported these stories from African Anglicans:
- While the Church of England has two archbishops, Nigeria has 14 archbishops with 14 Provinces, 163 Dioceses, 175 Bishops with over 10,000 parishes! In the last ten years, they have added 27 new dioceses and 15 mission dioceses;
- In Nigeria, they are doing this in the face of increasing persecution, church burnings, mayhem, and violence. Even as the persecution of Christians continues, a Nigerian civil society group estimates that 1,202 Christians (many of them Anglicans) have been killed in Nigeria in the first six months of 2020 by jihadists and radicalized herdsmen. But even as this continues, this evangelically driven province announces the formation of yet more new dioceses with bishops and archbishops. Despite the carnage, converts are being made, and churches form and grow;
- Recently in east Africa, Archbishop Laurent Mbanda of the Anglican Church of Rwanda consecrated a new bishop for the Missionary Diocese of Karongi. This too is a new diocese.
I know from speaking with bishops in Africa that they are suffering terribly from the COVID-19 quarantine. Unlike us, neither the church nor the people have the means to give and receive “online.” Closing churches means that all people are living in extreme circumstances with barely enough food to survive. And yet this is what the new Archbishop of Nigeria, the Most Rev. Henry Chukwudum concludes:
” I think COVID-19 came as a surprise; it came as a flood, and we never prepared for this. Be it as it may, I am seeing it as a learning process…. I have realized that as I engage in church mission, church planting, training of pastors and nurturing the believers, the church grows and there will be the need for us to expand. As of now, I cannot tell you the number of dioceses that will be created. This is a decision the House of Bishops, the Episcopal Synod and the General Synod will take. So, when the time comes, we will do the needful.”
I wonder if these African Bishops are walking in the footsteps of St. Augustine in places like Kigali, Abuja, Entebbe, Nairobi, Juba, and Alexandria. In the face of unrelenting persecution, starvation, violence, and economic suffering, their faith in God’s word remains unshakable. Is this their time to re-evangelize us, standing up to false teaching as Augustine did over 1,500 years ago? What can we learn from our African and Global South brothers and sisters in Christ about courageous, unshakeable, evangelizing faith—a faith that learns and adapts and extends God’s Kingdom despite persecution and pandemics?
Is it time for the third great African rescue of Christianity in the west?