The Unsaved Christian
By Dean Inserra
In cultural Christianity, I believe the root cause of resting in one’s righteousness is ignorance more than arrogance. Many cultural Christians can say they have met the cultural expectations regarding lifestyle, work, leisure and family; they’ve always been led to believe they are good people who have faith and try to do the right thing. This may make a great neighbor, but it doesn’t save. And therefore, people in this category are in need of true gospel belief.
Unsaved Christians are certainly not atheists and would probably mock such unbelief. They proudly believe in God, and could probably share some well-known Bible stories with you, such as Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, and Moses parting the Red Sea. When you sit down for a discussion with a cultural Christian, you must remember that this friend probably thinks they share the same faith as you, but that you’re just into it a little more. They may have no concept of the difference in actual beliefs. In their minds, they believe in the same God that you have given your life to follow. This allows you to be an ally in a conversation, but keep in mind it can get awkward quickly, especially if they feel blindsided by a theological debate. But, to love a neighbor means to tell them the truth, and that usually requires awkward conversations. Don’t start by telling—instead, ask questions about the person’s beliefs and allow them to flesh out their viewpoints before determining a point to drive home. If even the demons believe in God (James 2:19), we know that general belief in God’s existence is not enough to save, so take the time and care to help guide your friends to that understanding.
Cultural Christians believe religion teaches great lessons, can contribute to common good, and helps people become “better.” I would add that “love” is usually the primary goal. In fact, part of why they may shy away from your “extreme” version of Christianity is that it can be “exclusive” and “close-minded.” Gospel-believing Christians agree that God wants people to be good and fair, but the reason is because he is good, just and merciful, and has demonstrated this to us through the gospel of Jesus Christ. God created qualities such as love and kindness, but only One has ever perfectly modeled those and that is Jesus Christ.
Some questions for a cultural Christian would be: “What happens when you aren’t exhibiting these good qualities or being a good person? Does God care? Are there any consequences?” You’ll find that many cultural Christians operate as if good deeds cancel out wrongdoings and make God happy. Even Bible-believing Christians can sometimes fall into this Christianized version of Karma. But God is not tricked or appeased when we throw him a bone. And look, I can order water instead of a large Coke with my double cheeseburger, but it doesn’t cancel out those calories.
Perhaps we should consider that cultural Christians may have never really been taught about a holy God. It may be eye-opening to explain God’s standards of perfection and the sinless life of Jesus. Yes, we depend on his substitutionary death, but we also depend on his life. All people must understand that Jesus not only died a death we deserved, but lived a life we could never live. Any good thing we do, as new creations, we do by the power of the Holy Spirit. Cultural Christians need to understand why the sinless life of Jesus not only matters, but is paramount—their very salvation depends on it. Only One is truly good, and it certainly isn’t any of us.
The secular Western world is largely driven by personal fulfillment. “Do whatever makes you happy. Always speak your truth.” This mentality is adopted by many cultural Christians, for whom faith is not about the gospel, but about the betterment of oneself, or sentimentality, or a mechanism to cope with the problems of the world (for which a generic theism certainly helps). Faith becomes a means to this end of feeling good about oneself, and God is just the genie in the bottle helping us achieve our personal ambitions. This doesn’t sound exciting in a conversation, but I must be clear that God doesn’t promise us in Scripture that we’ll achieve our dreams. He promises he will always be with us (Matt . 28:20), never abandon us (Deut. 31:6), will carry us through to the completion of our salvation (Phil. 1:6), and use every moment of our lives to make us more like Jesus (Rom. 8:28–29). He will accomplish his purposes for our lives, but most of the time those are not the ones we have dreamt up.
This is not meant to discourage; it’s meant to redirect our ideas of what fulfillment is. Jesus is our peace. He is our life. He offers absolute comfort and joy. We experience tastes of this here on earth and eagerly await our eternal communion with God in heaven. As God conforms us to the likeness of Christ, he frees us from the shackles of our idolatry and self-absorption and changes our desires. It is often said that “obedience [to God] is the pathway to joy,” and Christians know that to be true. C.S. Lewis famously wrote:
“It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Often the process of becoming more like Jesus is anything but “chasing dreams” or “following our hearts.” It can be painful, maturing us through trials (James 1:2–4) and difficulties as we suffer for Christ and with him (Phil. 3:10). Through all of this sanctification, we are never separated from his love (Rom. 8:35). God is not a means to an end; he is the means and the end. What a joy to be able to share such truth with a cultural Christian. It will be revolutionary. Understanding that he is so much more than a cheerleader or a magic genie will pull the rug out from under them.
Remind yourself: the Bible teaches that Jesus is the only way to heaven (John 14:6), that God is the only god (1 Tim. 2:5), that his mission is to make us holy for his glory (2 Tim. 1:9). If we could be good enough, Christ died for nothing (Gal. 2:21).
Excerpted from The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel by Dean Inserra (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.