Martin Luther: The True Modern Pharisee

The sola fide, or “faith alone” gospel, teaches that all that is required of Christians to enter into and remain in a salvific relationship with God is faith. This gospel as we know it originated not with Christ but in 16th-century Germany, nearly 1500 years after Christ’s death. Since its invention, this gospel has spread to infect every continent on earth and is now touted by the vast majority of professing Christians in the United States1. Though popular, this ideology is far from biblical and represents a grave and heretical rejection of what the Bible teaches. The inventor of the lethal sola fide gospel, German reformer Martin Luther, not only violated inspired Scripture by modifying God’s Word with his own, but also found it necessary to undermine God’s holy Law and even reject several New Testament books to support his beliefs. The result: a heretical and flimsy gospel with little to no true biblical support, created by a man who lived to regret his antinomianism the closer he drew to his last days on earth.

Bolstered by the power of Germany’s princes, Gutenberg’s printing press, and the skill of crafty speech, Luther was able to intoxicate the western world with the dangerous idea that faith alone was all that was truly necessary to be saved. As a former monk in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had come to believe that the Bible taught a works-based salvation – that people must earn their way to heaven through meritorious acts or obedience to God’s Law. Bound by this faulty understanding – and the conviction that nothing other than perfection would be acceptable before a Holy God, Luther created what he believed to be the solution: a view of Christ as not only our atoning sacrifice for sin but also our perfect Law-keeper, or “merit-maid” before God. Therefore, by putting faith in Christ, a person not only receives the blessing of forgiveness but also the works necessary to earn their way to heaven. This then became the only essential in Luther’s system of salvation. In a letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote,

“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your faith in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. This life is not a place where righteousness can exist. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery a thousand times each day.”

In his treatise, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther expresses similar sentiments,

“The Christian or baptized man cannot, even if he would lose his soul by any sins however great unless he refuses to believe; for no sins whatever can condemn him, but unbelief alone.”

As would be expected, this faith-alone view of salvation also affected Luther’s hermeneutic. The Bible was to be split into two parts or messages: one gospel, the other law. In his mind, Gospel represented any portion of Scripture that speaks to what God does for us through Christ. The other, Law, are those portions which speak to what we must, but cannot do, and consequently are condemned for2. According to Luther then, our obligation to obey the Law, was something outside, or opposed to, the idea of the Gospel. The Law served the Gospel (in bringing people to see their own sin), but the Gospel could never serve the Law3

For Luther, this included not only initial justification but after a person became a Christian as well. Faith alone would remain the only essential. The Law was viewed as neither binding nor applicable to Christians,

“[The Law of Moses] is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel…Moses has nothing to do with us [New Testament saints]. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses…Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service…Exodus 20:1…Makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us…We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the NT and the natural law…not one little period of Moses pertains to us.”

(Luther’s Works 35:164-166)

“This shall serve you as a true rule, that whenever the Scriptures order and command good works, you must so understand it that the Scriptures forbid good works. If you should not sin against the gospel, then be on your guard against good works; avoid them as one avoids a pest.”

(A Treatise on Good Works, 1520)

As such, what the Reformers referred to as the third use of the law, Luther viewed as a threat.

In the words of James Payton Jr.,

“Indeed, it would not be too much to state that Luther detected a threat to justification by faith alone behind every blade of grass and under every rock in the landscape…It is worth noting though, that it introduced a particular limitation in the way he allowed that believers should be directed as they sought to live before God.  Luther considered it a corruption of the Christian message to teach that the law directs believers in this regard. Luther allowed for two uses of the law but repudiated the third.  The first use of the law was its general one to structure society and declare what must be done if society is to continue to flourish; this was the law as it related human beings to each other. The second use of the law was to condemn sinners and bring them to an awareness of their sin before God; this was the law as it related human beings to God. Luther repudiated what came to be called the third use of the law, which some (alleged) showed believers how God wants them to live for Him. Luther bristled at this notion. He had learned by brutal experience that the law offered no comfort to human beings and only drove them to despair before God. To reintroduce the law as a guideline for Christian living must eventually lead, according to Luther, to a reversion to works-righteousness.”4

Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings

Therefore, to discuss obedience to God’s Law – or anything else for that matter, as also essential to salvation, was in Luther’s eyes neither the gospel nor a proper understanding of the Scriptures. This included even the Scripture itself. Those portions that disagreed with his personal interpretation, he sought to modify or remove. For example, Luther added the word “alone” to his German translation of Romans 3:28 (“we maintain that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law”), though the original text does not contain the word.5 Ironically, the only place in the Bible that the words “faith” and “alone” occur together is in the negative, directly refuting the idea Luther was attempting to promote by vandalizing the text.

24 “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:24

In response to criticism of this addition, Luther said,

“You tell me what a great fuss the Papists are making because the word ‘alone’ in not in the text of Paul…say right out to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so,’…I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text”.

As a result of this verse and many others within the book of James, Luther referred to the book as, “the epistle of straw”6, and attempted to remove it from the New Testament. Similar to the 2nd century heretic Marcion7, Luther sought to reject and destroy all New Testament books that could not be reconciled with his personal interpretation and gospel message8. In addition to James, this included the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. In regard to the epistle of James, Luther wrote,

“Let us banish this epistle from the university, for it is worthless. It has no syllable about Christ, not even naming him except once at the beginning. I think it was written by some Jew who had heard of the Christians but not joined them… The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove.”

In response to Luther’s heretical practices, Paul Rainbow writes

“[These facts] ought to unsettle any for whom sola fide has become a shibboleth. It is reason enough to re-examine the biblical grounds.”

While evidence exists that Luther may have begun to reconsider some of his views in his latter years, the damage was already done. The sola fide gospel had become the entrenched mindset of many within the western world and was beginning to bear its ugly fruit.  Which leads to what may prove to be his most ironic connection to the sola fide gospel, the terms evangelical and antinomian9. Though both terms were coined by Luther to distinguish respectively between orthodox Christians and those he considered heretics, the fruit of his soteriological system had inevitably made them one and the same. To be evangelical in America today, is to be antinomian. Once more from Paul Rainbow,

“With regard to [the sola fide gospel’s] effects in history, the doctrine is dangerous. Since the [time of Luther], it has proven powerless to check repeated outbreaks of antinomianism in churches… resulting in large fringes of congregants today imbued with the heresy that without mortifying sins they can nevertheless rest assured of reaching heaven. One prominent Lutheran theologian has dubbed antinomianism ‘the heresy of the [evangelical] American church.’”10

The fruit of Luther’s theology was, of course, a Christianity filled with debauchery. Luther later became so disillusioned by what his lax gospel had produced that he wrote, “since the downfall of…cessations of excommunications and spiritual penalties, the people have learned to despise the word of God. They no longer care for the churches; they have ceased to fear and honor God. After throwing off the yoke of the pope, everyone wishes to live as he pleases. They say, ‘we will spend the day like Lutherans.’ Drunkenness has come upon us like a deluge. If God had not closed my eyes, and if I had foreseen these scandals, I would never have begun to teach the gospel.” In a rare moment of humility, Luther seems to have realized and lamented the lawlessness that flourishes as a result of his gospel.

The faith-alone gospel is one created by a human mind, made possible only by modifying and denying Scripture, propped up on the wicked idea God’s holy Law is somehow lacking or even abusive. It promotes the idea that the fundamental issue in Creation is the Creator’s unfair expectations, rather than human sin and corruption. It is one that does not have biblical origins, as the true gospel undoubtedly should. Sola fide is certainly not the gospel that our Lord preached in His time here on earth. Unfortunately, despite its colossal pitfalls and heretical origins, it remains the cornerstone of the largest Christian denomination in the United States. Even this gospel’s inventor and primary champion, Martin Luther, saw its gaping cracks. Perhaps it is time for the modern world to face those fatal flaws and return to the biblical gospel as it was taught by our Lord Jesus Christ, not a cynical German monk.

Does Galatians 3 teach that Christ was punished for our sins?

For all those who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the law and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith”. But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them”. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:10-14

Before we begin to analyze Galatians 3:10-14, let’s first consider the logical outcome of the assertion that Christ suffered the punishment for our sins. In Ezekiel 18, God responds to His people’s belief that the sons of sinful men would be punished for their fathers’ sins. He says this in verse 4: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die”. He continues, beginning in verse 20: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous
shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
Through these words, God strongly condemns as illegal the idea that one person could ever be punished for the sins of another. Are we to believe that though such unrighteous punishment was illegal under His law, He (who magnifies His word even above His own name, according to Psa 138:2) punished His perfect son for an unfathomable degree of sins which He did not commit? If that were the case, it would mean that God had broken His own law and therefore had sinned. Since we know that this cannot be true, we can rightfully conclude that whatever Galatians 3:10-14 is teaching, it is not that Christ took the punishment for our sins. What then are these verses teaching?

Throughout scripture, the only persons hanged on trees were those who had forfeited their ability to atone for their sins by their refusal to obey God’s laws. This included not only those in pagan nations, but also those formerly in the covenant community. Anyone refusing to follow God’s precepts or prescriptions – i.e., the apostate, were considered the “cursed”, those eligible for hanging. Perhaps the best example of this is Judas, who hangs himself on a tree after betraying Christ and is called “The Son of Perdition” in Scripture (the Greek word ἀπωλείας, translated “perdition” literally means “curse”). Other examples include the multiple pagan kings who were killed by Joshua at God’s command (Jos 8:29, Jos 10:26). In contrast, hanging is never prescribed where atonement is possible. In cases where the sin is capital in nature and requires death, the prescription is limited to stoning. Take for example the Israelite Achan: though he stole from Jericho after God explicitly prohibited His people from doing such a thing, he nonetheless was eligible for forgiveness from God. Hence the reason he is told to “give glory to God” before receiving his punishment. Achan was a condemned man, but not a cursed one: God was still willing to forgive him once justice had been served (Jos 7:19-26). For those in covenant with God, atonement for sin is possible through faithful obedience to serve justice as the law requires (Pro 16:6). This is a privilege unique to the people of God, one that was inaccessible to those who placed themselves under the curse through their disobedience and rebellion.

This understanding of the function of hanging sheds light on what Paul is communicating in Galatians 3:10-14. The Jews to whom he wrote understood that according to the law, a curse would abide on anyone who declared themselves apostate by their refusal to obey God’s precepts (Deu 27:26, Jer 11:3-4). In essence, they would deserve to be hanged. Yet this is the very thing Paul is encouraging the Galatians to do. Paul calls for the cancellation of the Old Covenant clean laws of circumcision (Gen 17:10-14, Lev 12:3), sacrifice (e.g. Lev 1:1-4), ceremonial separation (e.g. Lev 11:39, Lev 12:1-5, Lev 13:43-56), and observance of seasons and holidays (Gal 4:10) in favor of their new covenant faith-based applications. How then are we to make sense of this? How can such new applications replace the old without invoking the curse upon all who are guilty? The answer, according to Paul, is found in how Christ died. In being hanged on a tree He fulfilled this technicality of the law. He became the “curse” promised to those who disregarded any portion of God’s prescribed Old Covenant applications. In doing so, Jesus ensured that the application of Old Covenant clean laws could be changed without legal violation. God ordained Christ’s death down to the specific mechanism of execution in order to fulfill His law (a law concerned with every “jot and tittle”, Mat 5:18). Theoretically, Christ could have been executed in any number of ways: He could have been stoned, stabbed, drowned, shot with arrows, etc. But if He had died in any other way, His death would not have addressed this small (but essential) portion of the law: the curse levied against those who failed to obey the Old Covenant clean laws in accordance with their original applications. We may not think much of the specific manner of Christ’s death, but Paul shows us that how He died is extremely important, as it allowed for new applications to legally be given to the Old Covenant laws.

Given this understanding of Paul’s message in Galatians 3:10-14, we can see that penal substitution is not a part of the picture he is painting. Rather, he is illustrating an additional significant aspect of the crucifixion, an aspect integral to the Christian faith. Without the fulfillment of this technicality, no applications to God’s law could be changed. To do so would invoke violence upon oneself, to place oneself irrevocably in the path of God’s covenant curse.

Romans 1:5 – What is “the obedience of faith”?

In the first few verses of Paul’s now-famous epistle to the Romans, we find the following statement,

5 [Jesus Christ our Lord], through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:5-6)

Here, the apostle identifies “bring[ing] about the obedience of faith” not only as his objective in writing to the Romans, but even as the reason for which he was set apart and granted apostleship by Christ (v5). To him, it was nothing less than his God-given mission.

But what, exactly, is this mission? What is this “obedience of faith” that Paul had been divinely tasked with bringing about? Some evangelicals suggest that this phrase refers to the fact that Christians must obey only one command in order to be saved: the command to put faith in Christ, and that obedience to the Law is, therefore, unnecessary. Others claim that Paul is instead speaking of obedience as the inevitable result of possessing genuine faith. These two interpretations both stem from the evangelical idea that salvation is secured by faith alone (and that works, therefore, contribute nothing to salvation except evidence that it has occurred), and both are equally inconsistent with the testimony of Scripture.

Later in the same chapter, Paul writes that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (v18). If he believed that faith was the sole condition of salvation, this would have been a perfect opportunity to warn the Roman Christians that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all unbelief of man and subsequently encourage them to be strong in their faith so as to avoid incurring this wrath and attain instead to salvation. But instead, Paul chooses to focus on warning against disobedience, going on to enumerate over a dozen sins, including idolatry, homosexuality, covetousness, malice, gossip, slander, and disobedience to authority (see Rom 1:29-2:11). If his view of what constitutes obedience were limited to putting faith in Christ, then it would be quite a waste of breath to delve into warnings against lawlessness and disobedience as he does. Why bother cautioning Christians to obey the Law (and warn them of the fire and brimstone that awaits the disobedient) if such obedience were unnecessary or inevitable? Such reminders would be, at best, unneeded and, at worst, abusive.[1]

Moreover, the same Paul who writes the above warnings soon after demonstrates how the broader Law can be summed up in the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:8-10). According to him, it is through our obedience to the Law that we love others. In other words, love is defined by and based upon God’s Law. Hardly could Paul have made such a statement if he had earlier declared obedience to the Law unnecessary (to do so would be flatly inconsistent), and hardly would he have bothered to do so if he had declared such obedience inevitable.

Surely, Paul cannot be guilty of either inconsistency or abuse while he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Neither of the aforementioned evangelical interpretations, then, can possibly be correct—Paul did not view obedience to the Law as entirely fulfilled in the command to have faith in Christ, nor did he believe obedience would be inevitably produced as a result of genuine faith. Instead, he viewed it as a choice that had to be freely made, one that came with blessings for the obedient and consequences for the disobedient. He writes to each of his respective audiences knowing that it was in their power to choose either submission to God or rebellion against him. Hence why, he warns his Christian audiences (those who had already put faith in Christ, who he considered genuinely saved individuals, see Rom 1:7-8, 12-13) that God will condemn both those who practice and those who approve of sin (Rom 1:32). His warnings were no trick or abuse—he wrote with full knowledge that even the Christians he wrote to would incur such punishment if they chose to live in disobedience.

Paul wrote to the Romans not to exhort them to put faith in Christ, though he recognized faith as crucial). He wrote to them because they had already put faith in Jesus as their Savior and thereby gained salvation, and now needed only to maintain that salvation by obeying Him as their Lord. Given that the apostle thus identifies obedience as a second condition of salvation (in addition to faith), we can biblically understand his mission to “bring about the obedience of faith” as an intention to ensure that those who already possessed faith would be careful to add to it the faithful obedience also necessary in order to inherit eternal life.

[1] Abusive because in such a case, Paul would be guilty of using his apostolic authority to propagate false doctrine and, therefore, of abusing his God-given power to the detriment of the Christian souls he was tasked with shepherding. The same is true of similar warnings found in other New Testament texts—they are pointless if obedience is unnecessary or inevitable for their audience (see, for example, Galatians 5:19-21).

Might Does Not Make Right: Identifying Jesus’s Righteous Remnant in the Modern Christian Landscape

In the landscape of modern Christianity, evangelicalism consistently towers among the largest denominations worldwide, currently accounting for an estimated 386 million of the more than 2.2 billion professing Christians on the globe.[1] It is particularly popular in the United States, where evangelicals represent at least a quarter of the population, making evangelicalism the largest denomination in the country.[2] Many mistakenly interpret evangelicalism’s magnitude as evidence of its legitimacy; they figure that if such a large proportion of the population would subscribe to a certain belief system, then that system must be bona fide. To such people, it seems unlikely (or even impossible) that so many independent minds could be simultaneously deluded by a false doctrine (“Why would so many people believe this if it’s wrong?). Some will even go so far as to suggest that the relatively smaller size of other denominations or groups constitutes evidence that they must be in error (“No one else believes what they believe, they must be wrong”). As we will see in this article, the mere fact that many endorse a certain fact or adhere to a certain belief system in no way constitutes proof that it is true. Might does not make right. In fact, the Scriptural evidence makes clear that legitimate Christians will most likely not be found in the majority but, instead, in the minority.

Argumentum Ad Populum

This lemming mentality that ails so many is a form of logical fallacy known as argumentum ad populum (or “appeal to the people), in which a claim is supported as true on the grounds that many think it is true. This pattern of thinking, while not exclusive to evangelicals, is particularly common within their circles.[3] Regardless of its causes, this bias is patently illogical and leads many into heresy. Though superficially, it may seem plausible to find strength in numbers, in reality, a large group can err just as easily, if not more easily, than an individual.[4] A given position is not necessarily true simply because it is held by many, nor necessarily false simply because it is held by few.[5] Thus, popularity is not adequate evidence to substantiate claims or prove the truth. As your mother might ask, “Would you jump off a bridge just because all your friends were doing it?”. Only a malleable fool accepts something as truth simply because it’s the popular thing to do.

Conversely, one mark of an intelligent mind is its resistance to the bandwagon effect—its ability to consider information objectively and arrive at an accurate conclusion based on the evidence. In Acts 17, Luke praises this “noble” scientific quality in the Berean Jews, who scrutinized Paul’s preaching and continually measured his words against Scripture “to see if these things were true” (Act 17:10—11). Such intellectual honesty is vital for Christians. Those who fail to be Berean become instead like the unmoored individuals in Ephesians 4:14 who are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” It is paramount, then, that we determine truth not based on popularity, emotion, or appearances but only according to objective fact.

The consequences of bandwagon thinking are self-evident. If biblical truth is, in fact, determined by majority rule, then whatever is in vogue at the moment can be accepted as what God truly desires. This is an obviously absurd strategy for determining truth. Truth belongs to God, and it is determined by Him and Him alone (not by popular vote). He has created the objective reality we live in, and that objective reality is not subject to our whims and delusions. So, instead of jumping on the bandwagon, let’s throw out the ad populum fallacy and instead consider the objective biblical evidence.

The Righteous Remnant Pattern of Redemptive History

The Bible’s pattern of salvation, from the Old Testament to the New, directly contradicts the idea that truth is found in the majority. Instead, we see exactly the opposite: since Genesis, saints embracing and enacting sound doctrine have always belonged to a very small minority. For example, Noah’s family, the sole righteous group spared in the Genesis deluge, represented eight people out of an estimated 750 million, or 0.0000012% of the global population at the time.[6] Similarly, Abraham’s family of twenty-five stood alone among an estimated 5 million, making them 0.0005% of the population.[7] Even the entire nation of Israel only amounted to about 2.5% (at most) of the global population in its day.[8] This pattern is not unique to the Old Testament—the early church, established by Christ Himself, constituted less than 0.002% of those on earth at its inception and remained a minority for hundreds of years to come.[9]Throughout Scripture, then, God’s true people, those considered righteous in His eyes, are always a small remnant and never the majority.

As the prophet Isaiah says of Israel, “For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return” (Isa 10:22a). This prophecy originally foresaw that only a splinter of the already relatively small nation of Israel would be saved. The same prophecy is later applied in a new inspired context by the apostle Paul, who uses it asexplanation for the small numbers of Jews converting to Christianity in his day.

27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” (Rom 9:27-28)

To Paul, it is no surprise that only a minority of Jews would accept and follow Christ. He views the unpopularity of Christianity in his day as another application of Isaiah’s prophecy, a continuation of the “remnant” pattern seen throughout redemptive history.[10]

The idea that majority rule can serve as a determiner, or even a reliable indicator, of truth, runs counter to the divinely ordained pattern of redemptive history. Not only is it inconsistent with the past, but it is also contradictory to the future we are promised in Scripture. Consider Christ’s words regarding the kingdom of heaven to come.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Mat 7:21—23)

23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luk 13:23—24)

Jesus views the biblical, saving truth as something that only a small number will grasp. Only a remnant of Christians (i.e., those who call Him “Lord, Lord”) will successfully attain eternal salvation and enter into heaven. Moreover, the criterion for their salvation will not be their alignment with popular opinion, but rather their faithful obedience to God’s Law (see again Mat 7:21—23; cf. Heb 4:4—13; Rom 2:13; 13:8—14; Mat 5:17—19; 19:16—17; Luk 10:25—28; 1Co 7:19). Our Lord does not view truth as something that can be determined based on majority rule. Just the opposite—He is certain that the righteous, those legitimate Christians who adhere to and enact the true saving gospel, will be found among the unpopular remnant.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus does not highly value popularity; He Himself was incredibly unpopular during His lifetime, so unpopular that He was ultimately murdered by an angry mob. He requires that His followers earnestly seek and readily align themselves with objective truth, regardless of its popularity (Joh 18:37-38). His Word tells us that as long as they are on earth, legitimate followers will always be “small and despised”—unpopular, disliked, and persecuted by those who represent the religious majority, just as Jesus was (Joh 15:18-25; 2Ti 3:12-14). We are warned that as human history approaches its end, the faithful’s numbers will dwindle even further as the world becomes increasingly debased until those who have endured are surrounded on all sides by wickedness and persecution (2Ti 3:1-7, 2Pe 3:1-10, Rev 20:7-10). Given these teachings, we should consider popularity a warning sign, not a mark of legitimacy. Not only should we expect to find the world’s legitimate Christians in the minority, but we should also expect to see their numbers decrease as the lawlessness of our world increases.

Simply belonging to a minority group, however, is not in itself proof of legitimacy. Being unpopular does not necessarily a true Christian make. How, then, should we distinguish the legitimate from the legitimate, the true Christians from the false? To answer this question, we must look not to the mere fact that a certain group is a minority but instead to what makes them a minority. The defining characteristic of the righteous remnant, the thing that distinguishes its members from the surrounding world, is one thing: obedience.[11] The true followers of God have always been those willing to submit to and obey His Law—this is true throughout Scripture without exception. God’s people are known by their fruit: their faithful obedience and loyalty to their King (1Jo 3:7-10, Rev 17:14, 19:7-8, Mat 7:17-20). Their staunch insistence on this obedience and their unwillingness to defy their Lord is the very thing that makes them unpopular.

It is indisputable, then, that of the over two billion people currently professing to be Christians, only a vanishingly small sliver can be the genuine article. That sliver is home only to those who believe in the necessity of obedience unto salvation and faithfully practice such obedience. These true Christians are a rare breed, just as their spiritual ancestors before them, and they will become increasingly rare as we approach the end of human history. We can identify them not by their popularity, nor even by their words, but by their faithful obedience to their God’s Law, the attribute which has distinguished the legitimate and saved from the illegitimate and condemned since Genesis.

 

[1] Todd M. Johnson, “Evangelicals Worldwide,” Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, March 25, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2024. https://www.gordonconwell.edu/blog/evangelicals-worldwide/.; “The Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, December 18, 2012, 9.  https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/#:~:text=The%20demographic%20study%20–%20based%20on,the%20world%20as%20of%202010.

[2] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, 3-5. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/. Some estimates place it higher, at over 40% of the country’s total population; see Frank Newport, “5 Things to Know About Evangelicals in America,” Gallup, May 31, 2018. Accessed March 26, 2024, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/235208/things-know-evangelicals-america.aspx.

[3] This is highly ironic when we consider that the same evangelicals who are quick to arm the ad populum defense against their opponents were themselves born a minority. The Reformation began with a single man and remained very small for some years. It wasn’t until long after the sixteenth-century that Protestant teachings gained significant traction and ballooned into the massive global religion that it is now. Thus, the ad populum argument that evangelicals are prone to using, if applied to their own religion, renders it false. If it is true that might makes right, and the popular school of thought at the time of the Reformation was Catholicism, then Protestantism was heretical from the very start. But since Protestantism has now become the majority view (or at least, a widely popular view), then it has become valid because of its popularity. So, if ad populum logic is to be believed, then what was once heretical and false suddenly becomes legitimate simply because it has gained a sufficient following. In other words, objective reality changes as a result of subjective views. This is clearly nonsensical.

[4] Groups are notoriously bad at making sound, objective decisions. They are prone to psychological stumbling blocks like groupthink, group polarization, and illogical conformity. Consider, for example, the famous Asch conformity experiments, wherein a significant proportion of participants conformed to an incorrect majority opinion, even when they knew it was objectively wrong. S.E. Asch, “Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority,” Psychological Monographs: General and Applied 70, no. 9 (1956): 1-70, https://doi.org/10.1037/h0093718.

[5] It is estimated that as many as 3 million Americans believe that the earth is flat. Are we to believe that as well, simply because millions of others do? Lawrence Hamilton, “Conspiracy vs. Science: A Survey of U.S. Public Beliefs,” University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy, April 25, 2022. Accessed March 26, 2024, https://carsey.unh.edu/publication/conspiracy-vs-science-a-survey-of-us-public-beliefs.

[6] This figure is based upon relatively conservative estimates of the world’s antediluvian population. Some estimates put the number as high as four million, in which case Noah’s family would have been an even smaller minority.

[7] This, too, is a conservative estimate. Other estimates of the global population at the time reach as high as 100 million.

[8] Calculation based off the estimated peak population of the nation of Israel prior to the destruction of the second temple as well as a conservative estimate of the global population at the time. Amiram Barkat, “Study Traces Worldwide Jewish Population From Exodus to Modern Age,” Haaretz Daily Newspaper, April 29, 2005, https://www.haaretz.com/2005-04-29/ty-article/study-traces-worldwide-jewish-population-from-exodus-to-modern-age/0000017f-e7d1-d97e-a37f-f7f53ba50000?v=1711492144007; “Historical Estimates of World Population,” United States Census Bureau, last modified December 5, 2022. Accessed March 26, 2024, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/international-programs/historical-est-worldpop.html.

[9] This estimate was calculated using the five hundred brothers Christ appeared to after His resurrection (1Co 15). Again, this is a conservative estimate, given that the technical beginning of the early church was earlier and with a much smaller group (we can mark the beginning of the early church as the moment when Christ empowered His apostles with the authority to bind and loose, given that this was the beginning of the church’s earthly reign (Joh 20:22 w Mat 16:18-19, 18:15-18). The global population estimate used for this calculation can be found in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Germany: Princeton University Press, 2020), 7.

[10] In fact, Paul himself was a devout Jew who chose to convert to Christianity at a time when it was exceedingly unpopular, especially for Jews. He clearly did not put much stock in the idea that truth is found among the masses.

[11] While it is important to have faith, we know that faith cannot be the distinguishing factor given texts like Mat 7 and Luk 13 above (the unsaved groups in these texts were people that had faith—they believed in Jesus and trusted in His ability to save them).