Starting points are important for any intentional spiritual conversation. An understanding of where to begin is essential for a purposeful dialogue about where one stands with God.
Cultural Christians (like many Americans) believe they are good people. Those who perceive they are good people might need Jesus to take the wheel on a bad day, but not necessarily to forgive the sins they don’t think they have actually committed.
In this religion of Cultural Christianity, good people make occasional mistakes, but sinning is for the really bad people, who are probably in prison. The atheist doesn’t think he needs God because he doesn’t believe God exists. The Cultural Christian would be offended to be thought of as someone who needs the gospel shared with him, yet only believes he needs God when he needs people to pray before a surgery or job interview. Many Cultural Christians believe Jesus died on the cross, but in a generic sense rather than as a substitute for the sins of the individual.
Starting a gospel conversation with a Cultural Christian friend can be very frustrating. Discovering a starting point will not make a conversation more comfortable, but it will allow clarity to develop concerning differences between a cultural religion and the actual Christian faith. At the outset, the Cultural Christian usually believes the only difference between you and him is that you are just a little more “into” Christianity and perhaps extreme. So where is one to begin in conversation?
HELP THEM GET LOST
As my friend Matt explained, a Cultural Christian has to see himself as lost before he can actually see his need to be saved. This is the most foundational missional truth of reaching Cultural Christians. It’s also the most challenging.
This process of “getting someone lost” has a starting point, and that starting point is God Himself. I find the words of Carl F. H. Henry and A. W. Tozer particularly helpful in this area. Henry is attributed as arguing that the most important question one can ask is not “is there a God?” (this is especially helpful to remember, because for the Cultural Christian that is not a question up for debate), but rather, “if there is a God, has he spoken?”
Likewise, Tozer claimed that the most important thing about a person is what comes to their mind when they think about God. Perhaps Tozer knew that our very thoughts about God would form our thinking about our need for God, and Henry pointed us to exactly where those thoughts should be rooted, and answers found. The good news for all is that God has not left us to wonder who He is or what He has said. Rather, He has revealed Himself to humanity through His written Word.
LEAN ON GOD’S WORD
While Cultural Christians may not truly believe every part of the Bible, they likely won’t scoff if you use it as the foundation for a spiritual conversation. I have rarely met a Cultural Christian who did not have some level of respect for the Bible. In fact, when confronted with the truth of the Bible, I’ve known some Cultural Christians to quickly acknowledge the disconnect between what Scripture says and what they’ve believed. One friend in particular came to Christ because he couldn’t help but dwell on this disconnect.
Many people get defensive when personal character is questioned, but in terms of navigating common ground for an evangelistic discussion, most Cultural Christians will not reject God’s Word outright. While the Bible might get you mocked by an atheist, Cultural Christians claim a respect and even belief in the Bible. They will certainly have one somewhere in their home (and perhaps a Bible app on their phone).
In the Bible, at the very beginning, God presents Himself as holy. After the first human sin in history, Adam and Eve hid (Gen. 3:8). They were not playing a fun game of hide-and-seek with their Creator. They were aware of something even greater than their sin. They were aware of who their sin was against. A belief in God’s holiness should lead to a realization that God should be feared. Outside of the Bible, this is nearly impossible in Cultural Christianity because a generic god is not defined.
LET THE WORD EXPOSE THEIR SIN
Sinning against a “big man upstairs” leaves one with no reason to hide when they sin. This god functions as a Mother Nature figure, a distant force. J. I. Packer wrote, “Unless we see our shortcomings in the light of the law and holiness of God, we do not see them as sin at all.”2 This god is far from the one whom the seraphim declared “holy, holy, holy” to the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 6:3). A high view of the holiness of God gives us self-awareness about our standing before God. Isaiah responded to the revelation given to him about God by declaring himself to be “a man of unclean lips” (6:5).
In the book of Romans, we get the most complete description of the saving work of Jesus Christ in the entire Bible. Romans spells out the implications of Christ’s work for the life of the believer and unpacks paramount doctrines of the Christian faith such as justification and sanctification. Before Paul gets to informing the reader of the riches of our call to salvation, justification, sanctification, and Christian living, he has a clear starting point for understanding why these doctrines even matter. The reason salvation is needed is because God is holy, and He will not let sin go unpunished.
Paul sets the stage, explaining God’s holiness and our failure to acknowledge Him. “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever” (Rom. 1:25). Rather than worshiping our Creator, we chose to worship what was created. Because of this willful rebellion against God, all offenders “deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32).
Paul continues with his starting point by informing the reader that
because of your hardened and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; but wrath and anger to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth while obeying unrighteousness. (Rom. 2:5–8)
Paul then identifies the spiritual location of humanity apart from Jesus Christ by quoting the psalmist:
There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom. 3:10–12)
The reality is that people are not sinners because they sin. They sin because they are sinners. We all inherit a sinful nature from our first parent, Adam, and then prove we are his offspring by sinning ourselves.
‘ME, A SINNER?’
As a middle school student just starting my teenage years, I would have never considered myself a sinner. Did I occasionally do something wrong that would cause my parents to send me to my room all night? Yes, but what’s the big deal? I served my punishment by missing out on the movie or whatever my friends were doing. I would have my privileges back in the morning.
“Sinning” was something reserved for really bad people like the ones I learned about in my mainline Protestant Sunday school. Goliath, Nebuchadnezzar, and Jonah (before the fish swallowed him)— those were the bad guys. I wasn’t a sinner, because I went to church, prayed before dinner, and did more good deeds than bad. I was also an Inserra, and we are good people, after all.
If the most important thing about me was what came to my mind when I thought about God, I wasn’t worshiping the God of the Bible. I was giving occasional nods to a superhero character who beat the bad guys in the Old Testament but was also kind of like Santa, who would answer my bedtime prayers if I stayed off the naughty list. Falling on the right side of the list usually meant not being that bad, like the bully at school or the kid that always got put in time-out during recess time on the playground.
HOLINESS AND SIN DON’T MIX
For the Cultural Christian, morality is usually determined by how you’re perceived by others. It can also be influenced by whether you’re somewhat identified with a church or by how well you provide for your family.
A belief in the holiness of God should expose this thinking as ridiculous as believing ordering a Diet Coke cancels out the cheeseburgers and fries at a fast-food restaurant. All the good deeds performed tomorrow won’t cancel out the sin that was done today. Nor do the good deeds done several years ago. Only a high view of God’s holiness can make that understanding possible.
When God is understood as holy, sin cannot go unpunished. There are no mulligans, participation trophies, or awards for a good effort.
Excerpted from The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel by Dean Inserra (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.
Dean Inserra is a graduate of Liberty University and holds a M.A. in Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is pursuing a D. Min. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the founding pastor of City Church. He is passionate about reaching the city of Tallahassee with the Gospel, to see a worldwide impact made for Jesus. Dean is married to Krissie and they have two sons, Tommy and Ty, and one daughter, Sally Ashlyn. He likes baseball, wrestling, and the Miami Hurricanes. He believes Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback and that everyone who disagrees holds the right to be wrong. Learn more on Dean’s website or follow him on Twitter.