Among Americans who consider themselves Christian, 52% believe they are saved by their good works rather than by faith in Christ as Savior.
These were among the findings of the American Worldview Inventory 2020, an annual research project conducted by Dr. George Barna and sponsored by Arizona Christian University.
Even among churches that explicitly teach the Gospel of salvation by Christ, the numbers are not much better. Of those who describe themselves as “evangelical,” 41% believe that salvation comes by works, as do 46% of Pentecostals.
Those percentages are close to the theologically liberal mainline Protestants, 44% of whom believe, in the words of the study, that “if a person is generally good, or does enough good things during their life, they will ‘earn’ a place in Heaven.” Agreeing with this formulation are 70% of Roman Catholics, who officially believe in the importance of good works in “meriting” salvation.
Altogether, 48% of Americans believe in salvation by works, while 35% believe that salvation is by Christ. (The rest includes those who do not believe in salvation at all.)
And yet, though so many Americans and a majority of “Christians” believe they are saved by their good works, not many are concerned with doing good works or the consequences of sin.
For example, 58% of Americans believe “there is no absolute moral truth”; and 77% believe “right and wrong is determined by factors other than the Bible.” As for that book, 59% of Americans say that “the Bible is not the authoritative and true word of God.”
The study also found that only 56% of Americans “consciously and consistently attempt to avoid sinning because they know it offends God.”
Americans do believe in the importance of faith. It just doesn’t matter what that faith is. Nearly two out of three adults, 63%, agree that “having some type of religious faith is more important than which faith a person aligns with.”
Self-described “Christians” are even more relativistic than Americans as a whole: 68% agree that the content or object of the faith doesn’t matter. In terms of Christian denominations, 56% of Evangelicals, 62% of Pentecostals, 67% of mainline Protestants, and 77% of Roman Catholics agree that the content or object of faith doesn’t matter.
The research did not break down the data for parishioners of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Pastors might want to conduct an inventory of their own.
However, the study shows that it isn’t just the “unchurched” who need to be evangelized. Lots of people who attend churches — likely even Lutheran churches — are still oblivious to the Gospel.