It is tempting, when considering the state of American Christianity, to assume that all is well, on both a corporate and individual level. Certainly the American Church displays a number of strengths inside its walls, within the local community, and in the political arena, as do the vast majority of churchgoers. So perhaps it’s no surprise the overwhelming view among Christians is that American Christianity offers a robust and faithful portrayal of Jesus’ teachings.
The reality, however, is much less sanguine. In fact, the American Church is in a far more perilous position than we imagine; a state of spiritual slumber so severe it undermines our relationship with Jesus and jeopardizes our eternal destination. So deep is this spiritual sleep that Christian leaders and churchgoers alike are almost entirely unaware of our condition. We mistakenly believe the Church is on the verge of revival. In fact, it is barely alive.
However, the Lord is steadfast in His desire to awaken the Church from its comatose condition. He wants us to open our hearts to His words and reject any teaching that contradicts them. He calls us to cast aside the veil of deceit that blinds us and reject the apostasy that so easily ensnares us.
Fortunately, we needn’t look far to discover Christ’s words for the American Church. The Bible captures them in clear and unmistakable language. Though His words are difficult to digest, we must accept and apply them in our lives if we truly believe and trust Him.
We must resist the temptation to dismiss His words as nonsense or inapplicable to our individual lives. Such resistance reveals their relevance more than ever, and exposes our religious hypocrisy. In fact, those most in need of hearing these truths are likely the same folks who reject them quickest and most fervently. Similarly, those closest to the Lord and in least need of hearing His words are likely the same people who’ll experience the greatest conviction and respond the most urgently.
Jesus’ message of sacrifice, selflessness, and surrender is as unpopular with the Church today as it was with His audiences two thousand years ago. No doubt many find it as unsettling as they do unpalatable. Certainly it is not for the faint of heart, which is why Christ warns potential followers to ‘count the cost’ before expressing faith in Him. For if the American Church is to experience real revival, we must meditate on and accept the Lord’s message – and transform our lives accordingly.
Here, then, is the message of Jesus Christ to the American Church. (Note: all verses are from the New King James version).
1] “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4). Jesus is referring to Himself, of course. We have abandoned Him who we once claimed to love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. While we may have committed and surrendered our lives to Him at one time, our lives no longer reflect that faithfulness. We profess our love for Him but our lives reveal that other passions and priorities have supplanted our devotion to Him. The treasures and lures of this world gained a foothold in our lives and captured our hearts in the process. By any reasonable metric – how we spend our time, how we invest our income, how we allocate our resources, the plans we pursue – Jesus is not our first love. And for many of us, a love for Christ no longer remains at all. It is that diminished (or non-existent) love for Christ that, more than anything, explains our current spiritual state. Absent a repentant return to Him, the Church will never undergo revival and awaken from its spiritual slumber.
2] “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1b). Jesus spoke these words to the church at Sardis, which had a reputation for spiritual vitality. Underneath its religious veneer, however, was an unfruitful and unfaithful church. Much of the American Church struggles with the same dichotomy. We have cultivated a reputation of righteousness, love, and devotion to Jesus. We are very religious and greatly esteemed within church circles. But we have never crucified the flesh or surrendered ourselves fully to Christ. Our shallow commitment to Him rarely extends beyond our comfort, convenience, and personal agendas. We regularly refuse to follow Christ when it disrupts our lifestyle, forces us to deny ourselves, or makes demands we believe unreasonable. Such a casual, half-hearted faith is no faith at all. It is dead.
3] “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:15-17). When a church loses its first love (Jesus) and focuses more on its outward appearance than on the condition of the heart, it becomes lukewarm. Add immense wealth and a self-sufficient spirit, and you create a church that fails to further the gospel and advance the agenda of Christ. The American Church shares these attributes that Jesus used to describe the church at Laodicea. Our enormous prosperity and pride (masquerading as self-confidence) have concealed our current spiritual condition: lukewarm churchgoers who lack the fundamentals of faith. Unless we repent quickly we will suffer the same fate as the Laodicean Church.
4] “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). Jesus’ warning couldn’t be clearer. But it falls on deaf ears in America, where covetousness consumes the Church. No amount of protest, however adamant, erases that truth. Evidence of our greed and materialism can be found in our homes, garages, closets, and basements. Despite Jesus’ admonition, we pursue and possess an abundance of things that momentarily fulfill our ravenous craving for earthly treasure – revealing a spirit of rebellion, defiance, and selfishness. It also demonstrates a distorted view of biblical stewardship and ignores Jesus’ example of sacrificial love. In short, our unbridled materialism indicates a lack of love for Christ and utter disregard for His teaching.
5] “And the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). Jesus identifies two primary dangers of accumulating worldly treasure. First, like the cares of this world, riches prevent the Word of God from taking root in our hearts, distracting us from Jesus. Consequently, we become spiritually unfruitful and our faith flounders. Second, covetousness deceives us, leading us to adopt biblically unsound doctrine, such as the compatibility of the American Dream with the call of Christ. Those two worldviews are diametrically opposed to each other and cannot co-exist. Yet somehow the Church has reconciled them into a single hybrid quasi-religion that resonates with worldly-minded churchgoers but bares little resemblance to Jesus’ teachings. Until we dismantle this doctrinal abomination and cast it out of the Church, American Christianity will not experience a reawakening.
6] “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches” (Matthew 6:24). We cannot simultaneously love the world and Jesus. We cannot pursue both worldly treasure and Jesus’ agenda. We cannot chase ‘the good life’ and faithfully follow Christ. Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity. And yet the American Church believes and teaches that loving the world and all it offers (leisure, luxury, comfort, entertainment, pleasure) does not compromise our ability to fulfill the call of Christ and live as His disciples. Jesus warns us that view is heresy. Those who practice it prove their allegiance to the world and confirm their infidelity to Christ.
7] “So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33). Jesus provides the antidote to materialism, covetousness, selfishness, and self-sufficiency. Forsake all. Surrender our lives fully to Him. That represents a fundamental requirement of following Him. It is not optional. And yet how often does the American Church teach that unvarnished truth? Rarely. Instead the Church suggests that Jesus’ statement is not compulsory; that Christians need only be ‘willing’ to forsake all without having to actually forsake anything. That message is as astonishing as it is dishonest, and sends millions of churchgoers down a path that leads to darkness. This must stop. We must quit sanitizing and distorting Jesus’ difficult statements and instead start incorporating them into our sermons more often. Only then will the Church fulfill its duty to Christ and the lost.
8] “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). Jesus gave His life so we could enjoy eternity with Him. In return, He expects us to give our lives in service to Him. To do so, we must learn to deny ourselves, set aside our selfish interests, and count as loss anything that prevents us from fulfilling God’s will. Unfortunately, many in the church believe this passage reeks of legalism and somehow replaces God’s grace with ‘good deeds’ as the source of salvation. Consequently, they either explain away Jesus’ words or ignore them altogether. We must stop invoking legalism as an argument against Jesus’ teaching on discipleship, obedience, and sacrificial living. Yes, salvation comes by faith alone, through God’s grace. But authentic faith crucifies the flesh, yielding a surrendered life, a sacrificial spirit, and a submissive heart to the Lord who saves us. We must teach that truth and quit misrepresenting Jesus’ demands on our lives as believers.
9] “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23). This scenario ought to gravely concern all who reject or disregard those difficult teachings of Jesus with which they disagree. He states unequivocally that entering heaven requires an individual to have a personal relationship with Him and to do God’s will. It is not enough to call Jesus ‘Lord.’ It is not enough to be religious or commit good deeds with selfish motivations. Examine your life. Has faith transformed your life so dramatically you no longer blend in with society? Or have you conformed to the world, leaving little difference between you and your secular neighbors, friends, and colleagues (except, perhaps, for an hour on Sunday)?
10] “These people draw near to Me with their mouths, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9). The Old Testament is replete with anecdotes of people who verbalize their commitment and devotion to God but who fail to surrender their hearts to Him. Similarly, many in the Church today sound religious, use Christian language, and worship God every Sunday. But they retain ownership over their lives and refuse to submit to Jesus’ lordship in any meaningful way. Christ states such faith is fraudulent and useless. It is exercised in vain.
11] “Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). Jesus reiterates the importance of aligning our hearts with God’s will. Having a veneer of righteousness or earning the approval of church leaders is worthless. What matters is an ongoing, transformative relationship with Christ. That is the essence of Christianity, and the truest expression of faith.
12] “But why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). When we truly believe Jesus and trust Him as Lord we keep His commands and fulfill His will. This is not legalism or works-based salvation. It is basic, fundamental Christianity. Our obedience demonstrates our love for Him and reveals genuine faith.
13] “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ The son answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then the father came to the second and said likewise. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28-30). Jesus has no interest in your words if they are not backed up with action. Professing our unwavering love for Him is meaningless if unaccompanied by an equally resolute pursuit of His will, regardless of the cost to ourselves. Asserting our faith in Christ is of no value if that faith does not manifest itself in radical sacrifice and extreme generosity. Verbalizing belief in Jesus means nothing if we do not passionately pursue His presence in prayer, silent meditation, and by studying the Scriptures. Jesus wants our words linked with substantive action. Otherwise we’re just offering lip service. And Jesus abhors lip service.
14] “Take heed that no one deceives you. [For] many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matthew 24:4, 11). By and large the American Church preaches a sterilized gospel today. We have scrubbed away the rough edges, the difficult truths, and the demanding requirements of Christ and replaced them with a casual, comfortable message that emphasizes religious appearance over a contrite heart, and affirms our profession of faith regardless of any contradictory evidence no matter how overwhelming. The Church refuses to confront our zeal for leisure, comfort, and entertainment, which frequently reaches idolatrous levels, and our fervent pursuit of worldly pleasure and treasure, which often constitutes spiritual adultery. We have embraced a faith that yields all the benefits Jesus promised but few, if any, of the demanding obligations. We have been deceived by leaders, preachers, and teachers more focused on popularity, prosperity, and success than on the faithful preaching of the whole gospel. We would do well to diligently search the Scriptures and ensure our faith fully reflects the words and lifestyle of Jesus, not a distorted imitation of His gospel.
One of the most confounding characters in the Bible is the false prophet Balaam. His ministry of divination is instructive in understanding the promulgation of false teaching and offers insight into the motivation that drives false teachers. And his story serves as a warning to how easily false prophets can manipulate the truth to advance their own interests.
We first encounter Balaam as he responds to messengers of the Moabite king, Balak, who offers a considerable fee for Balaam to place a curse on Israel. Balaam instructs the envoys to stay overnight as he seeks direction from the Lord.
That night God commands Balaam not to return with the men or speak against Israel. “You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed.” (Numbers 22:12, NLT). The following morning Balaam tells the king’s officials, “Go on home! The Lord will not let me go with you.” (Numbers 22:13, NLT).
Though Balaam refuses to help the Moabite king, his response reveals his frustration with the outcome. It’s the kind of answer a kid gives his friends when they ask him to come out and play: “I can’t. My mom won’t let me.” The response makes clear he wants to play, but the big bully in charge won’t let him. So it is with Balaam. He grudgingly obeys, but not because he agrees with God’s decision.
When King Balak learns of this, he sends a more prestigious delegation to Balaam and increases his offer. Balaam responds, “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God.” (Numbers 22:18, NLT). On the surface it appears Balaam has no interest in worldly treasure but only in obeying God and communicating His truth.
But then he adds a caveat to his answer and in doing so reveals his secret motivation. He tells the delegation, “Stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.” (Numbers 22:20, NLT). Balaam knows God’s will on the matter. He expressly told Balaam not to curse Israel; that they were a blessed nation.
But Balaam is hopeful God will change His mind. That he can convince the Lord to allow him to fulfill King Balak’s request and collect a significant payment in the process. So God consents to Balaam returning with the men to their homeland (a decision which almost costs Balaam his life – see Numbers 22:21-34).
When Balaam finally meets King Balak, however, God commands him to bless Israel not curse it. Balaam reluctantly obeys and blesses Israel not once but four times. His obedience not only earns him the king’s rage but also results in his forfeiture of the large fee the king had promised.
This proves too much for Balaam to bear. So he develops a devious plan to destroy Israel and thereby collect his fee from King Balak. He instructs the Moabite women to have sexual relations with the Israelite men and seduce them into worshipping their pagan gods. [See Numbers 25:1-9, and 31:16].
And it works. Many Israelites gratify themselves sexually with the Moabites and begin worshipping their gods, arousing God’s anger in the process. Twenty-four thousand people die before God finally relents and His anger subsides. Balaam succeeds in placing a wedge between God and His people.
The New Testament mentions Balaam several times and in each instance attributes to him a legacy of greed and deceit. He comes to represent the face of false prophets and false teaching. His story offers us insight into how false teachers operate and how they deceive so many into embracing a false form of the Christian faith.
The first thing to notice about Balaam is how spiritual he sounds. He says all the right things in public. He tells King Balak, “I have no power to say whatever I want. I will speak only the message that God puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38, NLT).
After Balaam pronounces blessings on Israel and the king protests, Balaam reminds him, “Didn’t I tell you that I can do only what the Lord tells me?” [Numbers 23:26, NLT].
And finally, after the king flies into a rage against Balaam for blessing Israel a third time, he says, “Don’t you remember what I told your messengers? I said, ‘Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord.’ I told you that I could say only what the Lord says!” (Numbers 24:12-13, NLT).
By his words, Balaam appears to be an obedient prophet of the Lord. It is impossible to argue against anything he says. He claims to be God’s messenger and insists he only speaks those words the Lord places on his tongue. In fact, his prophesies contradict what the king demands. Surely only a man of God could stand against a king and his nation, and speak God’s words faithfully.
But beneath his veneer of religious piety, Balaam harbored a heart of greed and deceit. He may have claimed fidelity to God with his mouth, but his heart was devoted to the world and its treasures. He declared himself a faithful messenger of God simply to establish his credibility in the community and burnish his credentials as the Lord’s mouthpiece.
But it was all an act. He had no intention of denying himself the wealth and prestige the king offered. So no sooner had he pronounced a litany of blessings on Israel then he was conspiring to bring destruction on those same people. His actions revealed his words as mere lip service to God.
And so it is with the false prophets who fill our churches today. They claim to speak only those words God gives them. They make a show of standing-up against cultural leaders and speaking out against societal immorality. They eloquently declare their commitment to God and insist that His Spirit guides their Sunday sermons.
But like Balaam they are filled with deceit and motivated by greed. They refuse to preach biblical truth when it prevents them from collecting worldly treasures. They ignore Jesus’ words when those words reveal them as frauds. They dismiss and distort Scripture when it exposes their lifestyle as an expression of spiritual adultery.
Sadly, false prophets now lead a vast number of churches across the country. While they adhere to biblically sound doctrine on many topics, they are grossly negligent on others including Christianity & The American Dream, Idolatry, Spiritual Adultery, Sacrificial Faith, Casual Christianity (click on each link to read more on that topic).
As with Balaam, these false prophets (which are exploding in number) are leading the nation down a path of destruction. They have bargained with the devil and compromised the gospel, exchanging the souls of their congregants for a life of worldly treasure, pleasure, and prominence. And unless you immerse yourself in Scripture regularly, studying its truths and comparing it with what your pastor preaches, you risk falling for a perverted gospel.
The risks are so great that Scripture frequently warns of the dangers of false prophets and the proliferation of false teaching in the last days. In his second epistle Peter exclaims, “But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false prophets among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves. Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of the truth will be slandered. In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money.” (2 Peter 2:1-3, NLT).
Note that false teaching is rarely obvious. Peter emphasizes the fact that false prophets shrewdly communicate their destructive heresies, wrapping them in language designed to sound good. Unsuspecting churchgoers who innocently assume their pastor preaches truth easily digest these lies. For that reason we must remain diligent to search the Scriptures ourselves to validate everything we hear from the pulpit.
Peter goes on to explain that false prophets even deny God. Not so much verbally but in their hearts, as evidenced by their lifestyle. Peter warns that greed fuels their penchant for mistruths and willingness to distort the gospel. They want your money and will tell you whatever you want to hear to gain it. Too often those in the church are happy to oblige.
Paul tells Timothy, “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NLT).
These days people want more than anything to hear that God desires to bless them materially and financially. That God wants them happy, comfortable, and safe. He wants them to enjoy the good life as they live the American Dream, chasing whatever shiny objects catch their eye.
Paul speaks of this in his second epistle to Timothy. “You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will … love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that makes them godly.” (2 Timothy 3:1-2a, 4b-5a, NLT).
Paul emphasizes that many of these people who love themselves, money, and pleasure, also act religious. They are churchgoers who attend services regularly and maintain a veneer of Christian respectability. They include deacons, choir members, Bible-study leaders, Sunday-School teachers, and, of course, pastors. And they constitute large swaths of the congregation in many churches today.
But they are not Christians. They only have the outward appearance of a believer. Inside, they live for themselves and have never surrendered fully to Christ. They act holy and talk holy but refuse to deny themselves and live sacrificial lives for the Lord. They want their churches led by pastors who tickle their ears with half-truths; who mingle the gospel with the American Dream and suggest the two can cohabitate in one’s heart.
Paul says such people “have depraved minds and a counterfeit faith,” and that we should “stay away from people like that.” (2 Timothy 3:5b, 8b, NLT).
Paul also reminds us that those who do not preach the whole gospel and who fail to teach those messages of Jesus with which they disagree are “destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Timothy 6:5b, NKJV). Unfortunately, this describes many pastors and churchgoers today. They have never died to self that Christ might live in them. Instead, they pursue an appearance of godliness in order to advance personal agendas of greed, stature, and influence. “From such withdraw yourself,” Paul advises. (1 Tim. 6:5b).
Jude adds that false teachers “bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! For they follow in the footsteps of … Balaam (who) deceived people for money.” Jude 1:10b-11, NLT).
False teaching thrives in America today. Sadly, it often goes unnoticed because those in the pews want to hear it as much as those in the pulpit want to preach it. And it isn’t limited to messages that declare the wrong thing. One of the most insidious forms of false teaching today involves the unwillingness to preach against the rampant materialism, pride, and selfishness that often consumes churchgoers as much as it does the unchurched, and their relentless pursuit of comfort, luxury, popularity, and leisure.
The spiritual adultery and idolatry this represents has infested a devastating number of churches in America and threatens to remove the last vestiges of genuine Christianity in this country. Until faithful prophets arise and speak out against this spiritual abomination, the Church will continue its slide into irrelevance in society.
I realize this message is difficult to swallow. Like Jude, I would prefer to share a message of joy regarding our salvation (see Jude 1:3-4). But as long as false teaching flourishes and false prophets inhabit the Church, it is critical to expose their deceit and warn others of their presence.
May the Lord awaken us and strengthen what little remains.
Syncretism is a technical term used to describe the mixing of two distinct religions into a single hybrid faith. Historically, within the Christian community, syncretism has been applied primarily to new believers in the developing world who retain a portion of their traditional religion and layer elements of Christianity onto it. Examples of this include the continued practice of voodoo and witchcraft while proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Of equal concern to the church in this area has been the retention of social practices that, though not rooted in traditional religion, nevertheless violate clear biblical principles. Examples include ostracizing widows from the community and the practice of polygamy.
Curiously, the American church rarely examines itself internally for evidence of syncretism. When it does, the focus has been primarily on the most egregious and easily dismissed transgressions. Examples include universalism, the introduction of new age beliefs (such as the power of positive thinking), and theological flexibility on issues of personal holiness.
Meanwhile the most widespread syncretic practice within the American church flourishes, and is largely ignored and unaddressed by Christian leaders. It is a blind spot that threatens more than the health of the local church body and its ability to transform society. It risks leading millions, if not tens of millions, of churchgoers down a perilous path of spiritual destruction.
The blind spot is the grafting of Christianity onto the foundation of the American Dream (defined by Merriam-Webster as “a life marked by material wealth and comfort”). The result is a faux faith whose adherents are nearly indistinguishable from unbelievers on matters of prime importance to the American Dream: allocation of financial resources, investment of time, self-determination, and an emphasis on comfort, safety, and leisure.
What makes this expression of syncretism so dangerous is that it sounds so good. And we, the church, have been at it for so long that we have become adept at framing our pursuit of the American Dream in spiritual terms. In an effort to vindicate our lifestyles, we distort and misuse Scripture in grotesque ways – often embracing as truth the exact opposite meaning of whatever message Jesus taught on the subject.
But Scripture is unambiguous on the matter. The call of Christ and the American Dream are contrary to one another. Each advocates principles categorically opposed by the other. To pursue one necessarily requires rejection of the other. They cannot co-exist. Any attempt to splice the two together into a harmonious hybrid that balances Jesus’ teachings with the world’s lifestyle always fails. Jesus refuses to compromise or sanitize His truth so we can satisfy our infatuation with the world.
For the American church this dichotomy is too difficult to digest. Preaching such a position not only risks losing current confessors of the Christian faith, it complicates the conversion of new practitioners. Worst of all, preaching such a message would require living the message first. And that is perhaps the greatest barrier.
Few Americans steeped in the benefits and pleasures of the American Dream are able to renounce that worldview – certainly not without great difficulty. The world’s clutches go too deeply into our flesh. Its lures are too appealing and hypnotic. Its indulgences are too satisfying.
At the same time the church is committed to propagating the Christian faith. It wants to proclaim Jesus the Lord of all. It wants to gain adherents and grow the size of Christ’s bride. And it wants to remain faithful until His return.
So how do you reconcile the contradictory teachings of these rival worldviews: the American Dream on the one hand and the call of Christ on the other? If you are the American church you graft them together. This, of course, requires ignoring or distorting significant sections of Scripture. But it is a small price to pay for the opportunity to chase the American Dream while professing fidelity to Jesus.
A deep and comprehensive discussion of this issue would fill enough pages to complete a multi-volume manuscript, which far exceeds the limitations of this blog. Instead, I’ll highlight several themes integral to the Gospel that the American church ignores or distorts because they undermine the message of the American Dream.
These are not tangential matters referenced obscurely in Scripture. They are fundamental truths that Jesus emphasized over and over in His teaching, and that the apostles reinforced throughout the epistles. They provide believers the proper understanding of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ and commit oneself to Him as a disciple. In short, they apprise would-be Christians of the expectations Jesus has for them so they can make an informed decision of whether to follow Him or not.
1] Near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount He shared this truth with His audience. “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NLT).
Notice Jesus’ emphasis on the size of the gate that leads to eternal life. It is incredibly narrow. That narrowness speaks not just of the fact that Christ alone is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “no one can come to the Father except through [Christ]” (see John 14:6), but also of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ. Authentic faith leads down a long and difficult road, as Jesus asserts unambiguously in the above verse.
This difficulty arises not from our own efforts to seek out pain, suffering, and misery in some vain attempt to warrant God’s mercy. Such misplaced struggles fail to grasp that God’s mercy and grace are never earned. Nor is salvation.
Nor is this difficulty reflected in the garden-variety trials experienced by all people, regardless of faith. Jesus is not referring to health issues, a job loss, or relationship problems.
Instead, the difficulty arises simply by following Christ’s example, keeping His commandments, and pursuing a real relationship with Him – all of which is basic foundational Christianity. However, in living out our faith in these ways we incite remarkable resistance from several sources.
First, our flesh fights us. The desperately depraved heart that resides in each of us before we come to Christ refuses to die easily. It does anything and everything necessary to prevent us from unseating it as the sole authority in our lives. This includes deceiving us into believing that God wants us to enjoy the American Dream as part of His blessing and to savor the comfort and pleasure of the good life. Our flesh persuades many of us to profess Christ as Lord in name only, allowing it to retain actual control of our lives. We must battle the flesh every day to keep it crucified and prevent it from securing a foothold in our lives.
Second, our culture mocks us. American society despises biblical Christianity (though it is willing to tolerate most apostate forms of the religion). They find offensive our belief in the power of prayer, our insistence that Jesus alone offers salvation, our embrace of biblical morality, and our unwillingness to compromise truth. Steadfast Christians offer a daily reminder to secular society that God does exist and He holds accountable all those who refuse to repent. This drives many of them to antagonize those who faithfully follow Christ.
Third, the world tempts us. We are bombarded daily with messages informing us of our need for the latest technology, apparel, treasure, or invention. Advertisers hound us with false promises that ring true because they’re packaged in slick Madison Avenue marketing campaigns. If only we buy their product we will become cooler, healthier, better looking, more popular, more successful, and more satisfied – and will attain a state of nirvana.
Fourth, the forces of darkness oppose us. Satan and his demonic legions go to great lengths to prevent people from placing their faith in Christ. One of his most effective strategies, especially in America, is to convince us that the American Dream is not just consistent with following Christ, it represents one of the great benefits of following Him. In doing so, Satan undermines many of Jesus’ teachings and refocuses our attention on enjoying the good life and pursuing leisure, luxury, pleasure, and popularity instead of intimacy with Christ.
We must be mindful that the call of Christ leads down a difficult path while the American Dream promises ease and comfort. Too many in the church have chosen ease and comfort instead of obedience and convinced themselves it reflects God’s blessing. In doing so they have entered the broad gate that leads to destruction.
2] We must count the cost. It is surprising how few churchgoers understand that following Christ comes at considerable cost. Surprising because that truth appears in so many of Jesus’ teachings and parables, and is reinforced by the apostle Paul in unmistakable language.
In one such parable Jesus explained that a builder counts the cost before beginning construction to ensure he has sufficient resources to complete the project. Similarly, kings count the cost of going to war before waging an offensive campaign to ensure they have a reasonable likelihood of victory.
Christ then informs potential followers that they, too, must count the cost of becoming His disciple. Why? Because the cost is high. Jesus explained to the crowd that day in these terms. “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:33, NLT).
That reflects absolute commitment. Jesus doesn’t ask for a portion of His follower’s lives. He asks for all of it. And contrary to popular teaching, He isn’t asking for His disciples to simply be willing to forsake all (in some conceptual, ethereal manner that never materializes into substantive action). He requires total abdication of control over their lives. You’re all-in or you are not a disciple.
What does that look like practically? It will vary by individual but will always look extreme and radical to the outside world (and to the apostate church). Speaking in broad terms, Paul offers us a glimpse of what Jesus’ statement means. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11; NKJV).
There is far too much in this passage for us to unpack here. For our purposes it is important to note that Paul recognizes that as a follower of Christ he is called to count as loss all things he previously valued, and to do so in his daily pursuit of Christ, which then serves as evidence of his faith.
Early in His ministry Jesus provides two metaphors for heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46, NKJV).
Jesus is not suggesting we buy our way to heaven. Eternal life is extended by grace and not earned. What He is emphasizing is that salvation, though free, costs everything. That means when we accept Christ as Lord we yield every area of our life to Him. We retain no rights to our lives, our time, our resources, our dreams, our income, our safety, or our career. Nothing. In other words, we ‘forsake all.’
That is one way we demonstrate that we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And it is evidence of not only our love for the Lord but the authenticity of our faith.
The American Dream, in contrast, promotes the preeminence of consumerism, luxury, leisure, entertainment, comfort, and excess. Obviously, none of that comports with what Jesus taught. Not even remotely.
3] Sacrificial Stewardship. When we yield the entirety of our lives to Christ and forsake all, what does that look like in practical terms? Does God really want us to literally sell everything, give to the poor, and then take up our cross and follow Him in poverty, as He counseled the rich, young ruler? (See Matthew 19:16-22).
Pastors are in almost universal agreement that Jesus gave the rich, young ruler that guidance because wealth was what prevented him from fully committing himself to Christ. They then conclude that since no one in their congregation puts wealth or material possessions ahead of Christ, the message to the rich young ruler has no relevance for the American church.
Which is shocking. Because if the American church is not the modern manifestation of the rich, young ruler, then the issue of spiritual adultery (loving the world more than the Lord) simply does not exist on the planet today. Like the ruler we are comfortable in the Lord’s presence talking to Him. Like the ruler, we are confident in our current spiritual condition. And like the ruler, we are so blinded by our profound love for the world that we cannot fathom its existence.
This passion for wealth and worldly possessions is evidenced in the verse most frequently cited as a favorite by churchgoers, especially within evangelical circles. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV). We then emphasize God’s plans to prosper us when we quote it. No misused verse better reveals churchgoers who have layered apostate faith onto their pursuit of the American Dream.
Not only do we demonstrate our lack of understanding of the context when we employ it to justify our prosperity (which happens in hundreds of churches and at thousands of Bible studies every week), but our near universal decision to use the NIV version exclusively reveals our bias for justifying our love for the world. (For a brief but helpful discussion of the verse, read here).
Jesus provided a very simple but profound test for whether we love wealth and worldly possessions more than Him after advising us to store up treasure in heaven and not on earth. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21; NKJV).
Most of us give somewhere between 2% and 10% of our income to the church and/or Christian ministries. Then we spend the remaining 90%+ lavishing ourselves with whatever material pleasures our heart desires. Does that sound like the action of a committed Christian or someone pursuing the American Dream?
Jesus makes it clear that we are stewards of the financial resources He gives us; we are not to treat those resources as our own to spend as we please. To the faithful steward Jesus will say, “you were faithful over a few things, I will make you a ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:21, NKJV).
Over and over again Jesus and the apostles warn of the dangers of wealth and love for the world. One compelling parable, in particular, serves as a constant reminder to (and indictment of) the American church.
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ ‘So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’” (Luke 12:16-21, NKJV).
Were it retitled for the current age, this passage would be labeled the parable of the American Dream. The rich man represents the bulk of Americans, including most churchgoers, who choose to spend increases in income primarily on themselves. They cannot satisfy their lust for the things of the world, always expanding their collection of material possessions. Also consistent with the American Dream is the emphasis on self in attaining the success that yielded the increased wealth.
Finally, the rich man in this parable decides to use his free time on himself, satisfying his carnal cravings. The American Dream, too, advocates a lifestyle of comfort, luxury, leisure, and pleasure. We spend an inordinate amount of our time chasing our desires for worldly activities such as sports, entertainment, shopping, vacations, and thrills. As Americans we believe we have earned it, and as Christians we believe God wants us happy. So we chase these worldly outlets as aggressively as our non-Christian peers.
Of course, these activities are not innately evil or sinful. But just as we direct a disproportionate amount of our income towards ourselves, leaving God the crumbs, so too we invest far more of our time on our own pleasure and interests than in cultivating our relationship with Christ and advancing His agenda. We do not practice what we profess. The chasm between our claim Jesus is Lord and our excess pursuit of the world reveals our faith as disingenuous. We are all talk and no walk in this area.
Jesus’ warning to the man for whom the earlier parable was given is germane for us as well. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). It is a timely reminder for all Americans, especially those in the Church. Probably far more than we care to admit.
Conclusion: Our spiritual idolatry (worship of worldly things instead of God) and spiritual adultery (grafting our pursuit of the American Dream with our professed commitment to Christ) has serious repercussions. For the American Church, it risks missing Jesus’ return if it does not awaken to this blind spot and begin teaching biblical truth to the lost sheep of America. For the individual churchgoer the risk involves embracing a faux faith taught by an apostate church. Jesus describes the dire consequences of that decision in this way.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV).
Dozens of Bible translations exist today with no single version commanding a majority of sales in bookstores. Among pastors, preferences vary widely among a half dozen dominant translations. Readers and pastors alike gravitate to different versions based on perceived accuracy, readability, style, and reputation. Not surprisingly, no consensus exists as to which Bible translation is best.
So when the Christian community overwhelmingly selects one translation to quote a particular Bible verse, we ought to ask why. Perhaps the most reasonable conclusion is that the preferred translation tells us what we want to hear – it underpins the narrative we choose to believe. The fact that so many churchgoers can quote the verse from memory reinforces this inference. But such a prodigious consensus should concern us when the espoused opinion aligns neatly with what our secular culture teaches. We ought to examine more closely any such verse to determine its true intent rather than hasten recklessly to a popular perspective that indulges our desires and biases.
Jeremiah 29:11 is such a verse. One of the most recognized and oft-quoted Old Testament verses, 29:11 plays a prominent role in how many Christians define and live their faith. Unfortunately, its influence flows from a misunderstanding of its meaning. A little context around the verse is instructive. The people of Israel are living in exile in Babylon and are disheartened. The Lord has just informed them that they will remain there for seventy years. As encouragement He reminds them of two things in verse 11, their exile is part of His plan and those plans reflect their best interest. It is a difficult message to digest because it goes against the prevailing view that God will rescue His people quickly and keep them from suffering.
Let’s look at several translations of the verse. The NASB states: “’For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” The NKJV versions explains it like this: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Finally, the NLT translates the verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [I’ve highlighted the key word difference in each].
All three translations make clear that God’s plans offer hope and are for the welfare/good/peace of the Israelites. But first they must endure seventy years of captivity (see verse 10). All is clear, right? Well, not so fast. Instead of understanding the verse as it’s intended, many believers embrace an entirely different message using the NIV translation. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Emphasis added). We focus on the word ‘prosper’ and insist it means that God wants His followers to enjoy wealth and prosperity. That perspective, however, fails to understand the context. It ignores the fact that their exile will continue, which is not at all what they want. So God shares a truth we would do well to remember: His plan often runs counter to our desires but is in our long-term interest. Therefore, we should never lose hope.
Frequently, we dismiss that truth. Why allow context and intent to distract us from the message we want to glean from Scripture? We want a God who blesses us with prosperity, coddles us with comfort, and frees us from discomfort. So we scour the Bible for verses that reinforce that mindset and validate our yearnings. If the truth gets lost in the process, so be it. That’s a small price to pay for enjoying a message that tickles our ears.
Sadly, the predominant view of Jeremiah 29:11 is predicated on deceit, just like the false teaching of the prophet Hananiah earlier in chapter 28. He dies two months after pontificating lies in the name of the Lord. He had told the people of Israel that, according to the word of the Lord, God would rescue them from captivity within two years. His deception cost him his life. It is a valuable lesson. We need to exercise caution in deciding who and what to believe. Pastors must diligently teach the truth, irrespective of whether people agree.
One reason the prevailing view of 29:11 finds such an enthusiastic audience in this country is because it fits with the American dream. We want to enjoy ‘the good life’ as much as our unbelieving neighbors. We want the American dream and God’s will to be one and the same. But they are not and nothing in Scripture supports such a position.
I encourage readers to examine Jeremiah 29:11 on their own. Read through the entirety of chapters 28 and 29 to understand the context and learn what God is saying to His people. Study several translations to glean the message. Most of all, resist the temptation to interpret the verse through the lens of your fleshly desires. Instead, ask the Lord to reveal His truth to you through His Holy Spirit. As you do, His word will come alive in a way you may never have experienced.