|re you saved?”
That was the single question on the survey sheet handed out in a (general) Sabbath school class I attended some years ago. And the 91 responses to it went as follows: Yes: 34; No: 2; I sure hope so: 31; and I really don’t know: 10. Nine of the questionnaires came in blank, and five contained multiple (and, therefore, inclusive) choices. The survey administrator was not pleased, following up the results with pointed admonitions.
At Andrews University decades ago, Australian religious controversialist Geoffrey Paxton showed up to do a survey of seminary students on what it means to be saved. Unlike the majority, I refrained from participating—not only because I’m congenitally allergic to surveys, but because (and primarily) the entire exercise seemed so contrived, so artificial. The outcome of that and other surveys by Paxton was The Shaking of Adventism (1977), in which Paxton cited us for our deficient understanding of salvation and righteousness.
I was reminded of Paxton’s methods when (for the information of readers) we ran a piece on the Adventist Review Web site by Thom S. Rainer, entitled “Where Are All the Christians?” (Outreach magazine, “Surprising Insights,” May/June 2005; see www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=1583). According to Rainer, a nervous 75-year-old man named Paul came to his office one day, his lips quivering. “I am not a Christian,” the man eventually blurted out. He’d been “baptized some 60 years earlier” and was “faithful in service and attendance.” Nevertheless, he’d “never fully grasped the gospel until a few weeks earlier” (under—you guessed it—Rainer’s preaching). All those 60 years Paul had been assuming that “good works through church service would get him to heaven.” Now, at last, he’d come to know better. Rainer “had the privilege of clarifying the gospel to Paul. This time, he truly became a follower of Christ. Two weeks later, the church celebrated as a 75-year-old man was baptized as a new believer in Christ.”
What to make of a story such as that?
Rainer’s survey of people throughout the United States found loads of nonbelievers in the church: people who thought they were Christians but later discovered they were not; people who thought that “doing ministry in the church [was] sufficient to get them into heaven.” To get a handle on just how many of these “non-Christian church members” might be out there, Rainer conducted a survey of “315 church members” that asked “two ‘diagnostic’ questions.” “First, we asked, ‘If you were to die today, do you know for certain that you’d go to heaven?’ The second question: ‘If God were to ask you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?’” On the basis of the responses, Rainer and his team came to the conclusion that “31% of church members are not Christians; 14% may not be Christians; and 55% of church members are Christians.” Which means, he said, that “nearly one half of all U.S. church members may not be Christians” (ibid.).
Three quick observations: (1) When a person claims they’ve been in the church 60 years before they “ever heard about repentance,” as Paul did, why do we so easily take their testimony at face value? Might there be some hidden conceit on our part—that we (unlike all the preachers who preceded us) can now take credit for finally showing them the light? (2) What gives Rainer the authority, on the basis of his survey’s two “diagnostic” questions, to determine who is a Christian and who is not? And (3) Who on earth is Paxton to pronounce on whether or not Adventists understand salvation? What kind of arrogant triteness is this? In the name of the gospel, to boot!
And about that survey in Sabbath school? I took it—and got the “right” answer. But did that mean I was a better Christian than the person who got it “wrong”? Is this how salvation functions—coming up with the “right” answer? The ancient Egyptians had something called the Book of the Dead, a guidebook, containing spells and formulas and incantations, designed to instruct the dead to give the correct answer at the gate of the underworld. Is that the mentality here? Is this not a form of legalism, centered around spiritual formulas and theological definitions?
People cannot be embarrassed into assurance. Away with our artificial surveys and contrived questions! The essence of the Christian life is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.