[The following is a transcript from Mount Zion’s Wednesday Night Bible Study from the evening of November 27th]
One of the challenges of living in our particular part of the world is that nearly everyone, everywhere, thinks they’re already Christian, regardless of whether they’ve thrown themselves on the mercy of Jesus and begun a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. We call this “Cultural Christianity” – identifying as Christian because, culturally, it’s the norm. Below are five potentially unsettling things that all “Cultural Christians” need to hear and understand:
Being saved has nothing to do with what you believe in your head:
We see this in James 2:19, in which he confronts anyone who assumes that “believing the right things about God” will save them, saying, ““You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” If the usual statistics mean anything, the average American believes that they’re “going to heaven” because the y theoretically believe in Jesus instead of Allah, or Krishna, etc. But, according to James, believing the right things about Jesus doesn’t get you any closer to God than it gets the demons, who also believe the right things about Jesus.
Being saved has nothing to do with whether you do Christian-y stuff:
We see this in Matthew 7:21-23, when Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
A day is going to come in which we all face judgment together. And, shockingly, Jesus himself tells us that on the day of judgment, countless people who believed the right things about Jesus will go away dejected, because Jesus says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” In other words, plenty of people will say, “Jesus, didn’t I repeat the sinner’s prayer after children’s church one time?” And Jesus will say something along the lines of, “That was 1984, and then you left, lived your life without me, and then died. Don’t kid yourself, dude.” A lot of people will say, “Didn’t I vote for every candidate who pretended he cared about ‘bringing America back to God?'” And Jesus will say something along the lines of, “Yep. But that’s got nothing to do with whether or not you’ve got a relationship with me.”
Most folks seem to think that if they do enough Christian-y stuff, then on the day of judgment God will have to accept them because they “Played for the right team.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Absolutely nothing will save you except throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus. That’s the whole thing.
Being saved has nothing to do with whether you pay “lip service” to Jesus:
We see this in Isaiah 29:13, where the Lord says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” It’s common to hear people say that America is a “Christian Nation,” but it’d be more accurate to say that America is a nation that pays “lip service” to Jesus. More than a few people seem to think that if they pray before meals and share Facebook posts that say “Like if you love Jesus, ignore if you love Satan!” then they’ll get on God’s good side. But God isn’t sports. Faith is not a jersey that you wear. There’s no “Team Christian” and “Team Atheist” or “Team Satan.” Putting up 17 crosses on your wall means absolutely nothing about whether you’ve got a relationship with the God of the universe – all it means is that you’ve got a really busy wall. God isn’t interested in our “lip-service.” He’s interested in rescuing us from our sins through faith in Jesus Christ.
The things you actually do tell us whether you’re a real believer or not:
We see this in Titus 1:16, when Paul warns his disciple, Titus, about people he refers to as “false believers.” He says, “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” Both in Paul’s day and in ours, there were people who claimed to be Christians, but who lived like God doesn’t exist. Maybe one of the most frightening concepts in the Bible is the notion that you demonstrate what you actually believe based on what you do. In other words, if you claim to be a Christian, but you absolutely refuse to let Jesus guide your life, if you refuse to allow the Bible to show you what’s right and what’s wrong, and then obey it, then you are not a Christian. If you claim to be a believer, but refuse to give up your favorite sins, then you are not a believer, period. That’s a hard word, but it’s the truth.
Everyone struggles with sin, and God is infinitely merciful. If you’ve thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus, then there is no sin, no matter how serious, that God will not forgive. But if you have genuinely thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus, then you will attempt to obey him in every aspect of your life. That is to say, if you refuse to obey Jesus in some aspect of your life, then you’re not really throwing yourself on his mercy. And if you’re not really throwing yourself on his mercy, then you are not saved, period.
Saying a special prayer when you’re six and then living as your own Lord for the rest of your life will send you to hell:
We see this in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, in which Paul calls out a group of Christians in the churches in Corinth, because they’ve repeatedly refused to leave behind their old ways. They’re like many of the people who identify as Christians in America today: They heard the gospel when they were younger, they prayed and asked Jesus to save them, and then they lived the rest of their lives as if Jesus did not exist. To these folks, Paul says, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, 10 no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.”
In other words, Jesus is not your “Savior” if he’s not also your “Lord.” Like we said before, everybody struggles with sin. Trying and failing to overcome certain sinful habits does not mean that you aren’t a Christian. This is different. What Paul is describing isn’t about failing to overcome your sinful habits and addictions. He’s describing that phenomenon where people have sinful sex lives that they refuse to give up but assume they’re cool with God because they believe the right things about Jesus. He’s taking about that thing where people will act abusively in relationships with their significant others, or employees, or parents, or children but assume they’re on good terms with God because they believe the right things about Jesus. To folks carrying this misconception, Paul says ” No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.”
Conclusion: “Cultural Christianity” Isn’t Christianity
Most of us have friends, or family members – children, parents, siblings, etc. – who fit the bill described above perfectly. As painful as it is to acknowledge, we need to admit it to ourselves: They are lost. They are not Christians. They are not pals with God. And if they do not throw themselves on the mercy of Jesus to be saved, they will die one day, and they will go to hell.
That means that we need to have conversations with them. There’s no sense in browbeating people – that never works anyway – but they do need to be told, clearly, kindly, and gravely, that God wants to rescue them, but that it will require throwing themselves on the mercy of Jesus. They need to be told that being saved has nothing to do with what they believe in their head. That being saved has nothing to do with whether they do Christian-y stuff. That being saved has nothing to do with whether they pay “lip service” to Jesus. They might need to have the rug pulled out from underneath them, by explaining that the things they actually do tell us whether they’re a real believer or not. They might need to hear it straight: that saying a special prayer when they were six and then living as their own Lord for the rest of their life will send them to hell.
Only you know your “Culturally Christian” friends/family members well enough to determine how to have these conversations with them. I can point out the importance of witnessing to them, but I cannot tell you what to say or how to say it. What I can offer, however, is a word of encouragement: We are all in this together, because we care about the people in our lives. And, soon enough, if they are receptive to the Holy Spirit’s conviction as you share with them, they’ll be in this together with us, too.