Christmas and Easter and Other Cultural Christians
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Dean Inserra reminds us that salvation isn’t a rite of passage, but a response to your understanding to the gospel. Find out what to say to a child when he or she wants to ask Jesus into their heart.
Christmas and Easter and Other Cultural Christians
Bob: How can you tell whether somebody is a cultural Christian or someone who’s actually experienced a spiritual rebirth/transformation? Here’s Pastor Dean Inserra.
Dean: The first thing I’m looking for, out of the gate, is what they believe—and not just a generic belief in God. I want to know what they believe to be true about the person and work of Jesus Christ—like, “What has He actually truly done?” I ask them to write a theological paper; I want to make sure they’re clear on what we call first-tier issues—that Jesus died for our sins; He was risen again.
Those things have to be clear, and not just academically, but that it actually means something. That’s the next thing—that there’s been a repentance of sin; there’s been a response to that. I’m looking for belief, which we’ll call faith—but not generic faith—faith in the Jesus of the Bible. Then I want to look for repentance that’s led to them forsaking their former life and living the new creation that God has given them.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, December 29th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. How can we help someone, who may be a cultural Christian, understand that their Christianity is missing something? We’re going to talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition. We are going to talk about some really serious stuff today with our guest Dean Inserra; but before we get to Dean, this is crunch time.
Dave: Yes, I tell you what—when I/I don’t know, Bob—what do you think of when you hear “crunch time”?
Bob: You’re thinking fourth quarter; don’t you?
Dave: I’m an old quarterback: two-minute drill; you need to score. The scoreboard’s up there; you’ve got no timeouts. I mean, again, you feel that. It’s like, in that moment, everybody in that huddle/everybody on your sideline has to be all in.
Dave: When you say, “crunch time”—it’s yearend—it’s been one of those years. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a year like this, ever in my life; so “crunch time” means: “Are we going to step up? Are we going to be a team that wins?” It doesn’t happen without every one of us saying, “I’m in.” What I mean by that is—I mean financially—FamilyLife®depends on listener’s support, financially. We need your prayers; we need your help. We’re bringing you help and hope. We’re asking you to bring us help and hope by saying, “I’m going to be a partner. I’m going to step in that huddle. I’m going to give you everything I’ve got, and I’m going to jump in.”
Again, it’s easy to sit in the stands and watch. You win ballgames with people getting in the huddle and saying, “I’m in.” I tell you what—we’re in; we’re inviting you to join us as well. This is yearend; it’s a beautiful time to say, “I want to be a part of something that’s making a difference,” and you can do that.
Bob: The next three days make a huge difference. What we hear from you, over the next three days, is going to determine what 2021 looks like.
Ann: And we need you, because this is the last week of giving in December. We’re excited about the new year, but this is critical for FamilyLife; it’s critical for families, so we need you.
Bob: Again, we got some good news recently. We had a $2 million-matching gift that, here in the last few days, people have stepped up and said, “We really want to see FamilyLife cross the goal line and score”; so they have increased the amount of the matching gift; it’s now $2.7 million. That means, when you donate today, your donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, until we take full advantage of that matching-gift opportunity.
We want to say, “Thank you,” here at yearend, with a couple of special gifts. The first is a copy of my book, Love Like You Mean It, which came out this year. It’s [received] great response. I’ve been very encouraged by the response from listeners.
Ann: It’s a great book, Bob.
Dave: Yes, it is.
Bob: Well, thank you guys.
In addition, we want to send you a flash drive that has the top 100-plus FamilyLife Today radio programs from the last 28 years: programs with you guys, programs with Dennis and Barbara Rainey; programs about marriage, about parenting, about extended family relationships; great stories of God’s work in people’s lives. We’ll send you both the flash drive and the book, and your donation will be doubled, when you give today. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to give online, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a yearend donation. Let me just say, “Thanks,” in advance, for whatever you’re able to do. We hope to hear from you this week, and we hope FamilyLife Today continues to be an encouragement to you and a blessing to you in 2021.
Now, we’re going to talk today about people who are Christians in name only, really, is what we’re talking about. I remember a conversation I had many years ago with a friend of mine, who was a single mom. She was in her early 30s, and she really wanted to have another baby; but she was a single mom. She met a guy. She came into the office one day; and she said, “I’ve met this guy.” I said, “Tell me about him.” She starts talking about him.
I said, “So, is he a Christian?” She said, “No, but I think he’s close.” I said, “Well, you shouldn’t even be having a conversation until this issue is settled.” I could tell—it was like, “But I really want to have a baby.” She came in one day; and she said, “It happened last night.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “We were up until like three in the morning, talking; and finally, he prayed to become a Christian.” I said, “Tell me about the conversation.”
We went on with this; I said, “This is great.” She said, “So we can get married now.” I said, “Well, hang on; time out. You probably need to just watch this for a while and see: ‘Does he like Jesus because he loves you?’ or ‘Does he love Jesus whether you’re in the picture or not?’” She ultimately married him; got pregnant; he left.
Bob: I’ve looked back on that story because a lot of people think the hurdle we’re looking at, when we’re talking about somebody becoming a Christian, is that prayer hurdle—that’s giving birth; right? You need to watch for the signs of real life once that prayer has been prayed to know: “Is there something really going on?”
We’re talking about this because we’re talking about what it looks like to be an Unsaved Christian—that’s the title of a book that our guest, Dean Inserra—who’s joining us today on FamilyLife Today—has written. Dean, welcome.
Dean: Thank you. It’s great to be with you guys.
Bob: You’ve done enough pre-marital counseling as a pastor.
Dean: Lots and lots.
Bob: You’ve seen this kind of scenario; right?
Bob: You’ve got somebody, who really loves Jesus, who is attracted to somebody, who kind of likes Jesus.
Dean: And will justify their attraction to that person. They’ll see themselves as “God’s put me here as an evangelist.” Or they might abandon their theology they have for everybody else—where everyone else needs Jesus in order to be saved—this person, all of a sudden, gets an exemption; because they’re a great guy.
Ann: I was an expert at this. I would bring these boyfriends to Jesus—like: “I can’t date you unless you’re a believer,” so they’d pray that prayer; and nothing changed.
Ann: When I met Dave, my husband—you—[Laughter]—man, he was going hard after Jesus and displaying—
Dave: Finally, a man you can trust. [Laughter]
Ann: —exhibiting so much fruit. His life—it was beyond what anyone else I had dated exhibited in terms of—he was living the gospel; fruit was evident.
Dave: It’s interesting—we’ve already talked this week about this—all three of you had an interesting conversion story: “I thought I was a Christian, then I realized I wasn’t, and I became one.” Mine’s the same. I wonder how many people have that story? Because mine involved a girl—I’m dating her, and I gave my life to Christ. She starts being warm to the gospel and warm to the Bible, but nothing changed. When I realized she’s seeing another guy, I go home, get on my knees, and that’s my moment.
Bob: You know—how many people have you heard share their testimony—and their testimony is: “When I was seven…” “When I went to camp, when I was 13, I prayed the prayer.” Then there’s a great lapse; and then they will often say, “Then I made Jesus Lord.”
Dean, I want to ask you about that.
Dave: Here we go. [Laughter]
Bob: In that gap, between the “stick in the fire” and “making Jesus Lord,” if they die, do they go to heaven?
Dean: I would say, “No”; because salvation is not a hocus-pocus rite of passage or some kind of “moment.” Salvation is a response to your understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ. The process of “I made Him Lord,”—or whatever people like to say—I would argue the better way for them to put that—that’s the language they certainly use—would be: “Now, I understand for the first time,” “Now, I actually understand.”
What we’ve done, in America especially, is we’ve created this kind of superstitious kind of hocus-pocus rite of passage that we call coming to faith in Jesus that requires no repentance/no really clear understanding besides a prayer. It’s led a lot of people astray. I’m not trying to say that children can’t come to faith in Christ. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me.” But let’s not forget what He said. “Let the little children come to Me,”—like actually to Him—not hocus-pocus, not “…heaven when you die,” not superstition—but actually to Christ.
We love to say, “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me.’” I want to respond to that by saying, “Exactly. Make sure that what they’re coming to is actually Christ and what He has done, not a church rite of passage.”
Bob: A parent, who has a four-year-old son or daughter, who comes to them this week, and says, “I want to ask Jesus into my heart.” Do you pray a prayer with the kid and go to bed that night, going, “Our son became a Christian today”?
Dean: I would say, “No.” I would say, if your child comes to you and says—a four-year-old child—and says, “I want to ask Jesus into my heart,” say, “That’s great! Let’s talk about Jesus!” Go away from the “heart” part—and the “Ask Jesus into my heart” part. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that; but it’s not in the Bible, either. It’s something we made up in Christian culture in recent history, like last 100 years kind of history—very, very new in all of church history. Again, not bad—not even wrong—just not really a biblical concept.
I would say, “That’s awesome! That’s great!” and have conversations about God and read them stories from the Bible about God. Read them Sally Lloyd-Jones’s Jesus Storybook Bible to them to help them understand—those types of things. Go away from, “I want to ask Jesus into my heart,” and instead go into how God loves them, and what that means, and how that love—help them understand that it’s not a random love like of their puppy—like, “Here’s how much God loves them. Look what God’s done for them…”
I’d say, “Hold the phone”—now, not on conversations—“Hold the phone on ‘This is a family milestone, because Billy accepted Jesus.’”
Dave: Do you think there is an age that they can process and understand the gospel?
Dean: Not a cut-off age; I think it’s kid by kid. I think they have to be able to really understand. At the same time they can understand math, and they can understand difficult concepts at school, they can definitely understand the gospel.
For my son, Tommy, rather than a moment—we have to get away from that idea that it’s a moment, and a second, and a time kind of approach. My oldest son, Tommy—he’s 12—for us, he didn’t have a 7-, 8-, or 9-year-old prayer moment. He had like a six-year-running-as-we-go conversation of being in church, being exposed to the Bible, being exposed to other Christians, hearing the gospel over and over again.
Bob: Theologically, you look at that and go, “There was a point in time. There was a new birth moment in that six-year period. You just can’t put your finger on what that moment was”; right?
Dean: Yes; I definitely believe in new birth, beyond a shadow of a doubt. But the exact second and moment, I’m not sure when that was. I don’t think that new birth is a process, either; I do believe it happens, and it’s instantaneous.
But we have made that phenomenon/that theological, even mystery—not the mystery of a new birth—but how that all comes about—we have made it into like a three-minute conversation at the dinner table with mom and dad. I’m not saying it can’t be that; but I’m not saying it has to be that, either. We just were patient; we’re going to trust God’s sovereignty in that, too. We also were—we didn’t sit on our hands; we were constantly having conversations.
Ann: That’s what I was going to say. I think some parents could be listening, thinking, “Am I not supposed to ask them if they want to know Jesus?” They’re kind of freaking out right now. I think that conversation and continually sharing the gospel—of what that means—and fielding questions, and asking them questions, and letting them ask us questions is really important. Then, to continue that into teenage years.
What we can do, as parents, is think, “They prayed that prayer when they were three or four. They’re good.” Then the conversation stops. But with teenagers, I think to continually be asking—that’s why, for Dave, he didn’t want our kids to be baptized when—this is just a personal decision—because he’s like: “I want to see their faith displayed. I want it to be them wanting it, not wanting them to please us.”
Bob: Yes; we had an extended conversation on this subject, years ago, with a guy named Jim Elliff. There’s a podcast on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com if listeners would like to listen to a long exploration of this whole issue of childhood conversion and childhood evangelism. I remember him saying: “If your son or daughter comes to you and has any kind of a spiritual inclination, whatever that is, celebrate it. Delight in it! Pour fuel on that fire.”
Just don’t assume that that momentary spiritual inclination means any more than when they come the next day and say, “When I grow up, I want to be a dinosaur”; you know? That’s where they are in processing things. So, delight and rejoice, but just don’t draw a conclusion that a four-year-old’s spiritual interest is any more than just a momentary thing.
Dean: I agree 100 percent. So often, in evangelical life, there’s that rush; there’s that—it’s like a rite of passage. I’m just like, “Pump the brakes!” [Laughter] But not/don’t put the brakes on conversation—go full-throttle on that. With the baptism—that is the public profession—the hand-raise is not the public profession.
Dave: As a pastor, as a man who preaches, do you do an altar call?
Dean: Every now and then. Again, it’s a recent phenomenon in church history. A call to someone to respond to the gospel is not a recent phenomenon, but the altar call is definitely a recent phenomenon. It’s very American-based. We have to remember those things: “How come Christians, for this many hundreds and hundreds of years, never did that?”
There is a call to faith and repentance, and then to respond—those type of things. But altar call for us? Again, I think it was Moody who said, “I like my way of doing evangelism better than your way of not doing evangelism,” so I’m not going to be critical of altar calls. I just don’t think that they are necessary and the end all of end all.
The one thing I will be critical of, a little bit, is—it’s easy to manipulate people and set the mood. People came to faith in Christ before the keyboards played in the background, and before the pastor said, “Every head bowed and every eye closed.” Through hundreds of years of church history, people came to know Jesus before those things. Those things aren’t bad; I’m not saying those things are wrong. I’m just saying that we can’t believe that that has to be the evangelism strategy.
I came to Christ on an altar call, so I do believe God uses those. Many people listening to this came that way. Also, many people falsely were assured because of an altar call. We have to make sure, again, we’re clear. We’re not trying to manipulate; we’re clear.
Bob: To that point, I’ve talked to moms and dads, whose sons or daughters have become wayward/sometimes, in extreme waywardness. The mom or dad says, “My one hope is, when they were seven, they prayed; and I think he seriously meant it when he was seven.” I will say to that parent, “That should not give you confidence. That can give you hope that your child was converted, but their current life works against that hope.”
It’s better to have a confidence than it is to have a hope that your child is converted. If you want a confidence, you need to keep sharing the gospel. I’ve said to folks, “The gospel is not something you just share with unsaved people. We need to be sharing the gospel with one another all the time, because I need the gospel; I need to re-remember the gospel every day.”
Dean: Sometimes, one of the biggest barriers to reaching an unsaved Christian, or a cultural Christian, or a nominal Christian—or whatever title you want to use—is those parents—who again love Jesus; who love their child—but 50-year-old mom and dad insist their child is a Christian when he will even tell you that he’s not. That’s an evangelism barrier. They’re not having those gospel conversations because, “I was there when he knelt down at the pastor and asked Jesus into his heart.”
Do you see what we’ve done with this culture? We’ve created false assurance everywhere. We’ve made it wrong to question whether or not someone’s saved. Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves to see if you’re in the faith,” to the Corinthian church. I think it’s very appropriate to not manipulate someone to doubt all the time; we’re not supposed to doubt, either. We’re supposed to examine to make sure that we’re in the faith. What that looks like is that my assurance is not in a decision, it’s actually in Christ.
Bob: If somebody is saying to you, “I want to thank the man upstairs,” “…thank the good Lord,”—using that kind of conversational language, again, don’t presume that it’s Jesus they’re talking about; right?
Dean: Exactly, because cultural Christianity loves a very generic and vague God and Jesus. Their definition: “No cross; no judgement. I love…”—it’s not even a true love of the Bible; it’s just a vague love, just kind of love for the sake of love, not a love that is grounded in what God has done for us in His grace and mercy. But we want them to know this, understand this, and believe this—it’s for them; right?
Ann: What does it look like to you when you see somebody and think, “This person is a believer in Christ.” What are you looking for?
Dean: The first thing I’m looking for, out of the gate, is what they believe—and not just a generic belief in God. James said, “You believe in God? Okay; so do the demons.” I’m talking about this vague, generic belief in “the big guy upstairs.” I want to know what they believe to be true about the person and work of Jesus Christ—like, “What has He actually truly done?” I ask them to write a theological paper; you know, I want to make sure they’re clear on what we call first-tier issues—that Jesus died for our sins; He was risen again.
Those things have to be clear, and not just academically, but that it actually means something. That’s the next thing—that there’s been a repentance of sin; there’s been a response to that. I’m looking for belief, which we’ll call faith—but not generic faith—like faith in the Jesus of the Bible. Then I want to look for repentance that has led to them forsaking their former life and living the new creation that God has given them.
Bob: You know, I preached recently through the book of 1 John. John is dealing with this issue of people, who are saying, “We’re the real followers of Jesus.” They’re false teachers in this case. He says, “You want to know the true from the false,”—he said—“look at what they believe about Jesus, look at how they live, and look at how they love.”
“Is your relationship with others—and how that’s going?—is that different than it used to be? Are the choices you’re making about your life—are those different than they used to be? Is what you believe about Jesus different than it used to be?” If it’s not, you ought to pull back and go, “Am I really here?” If it is, that’s pretty good evidence.
I remember a guy coming up to me one Sunday after church. I’d just finished a message. He came up to me and said, “I think I need what you were talking about.” I said, “Tell me more.” He said: “You were talking about needing to have a relationship with Jesus, and about having faith, and believing in God, and living your life that way. I think I need that.”
I said to him: “Okay, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go home; and this week, I want you to read the Gospel of John. Then next week, I want to have a conversation with you about what you read in the Gospel of John.” There’s some people, who would’ve said: “Why didn’t you just pray the prayer with him right there? I mean, it’s ripe fruit; just pick it.” I was going, “I just want to know: ‘Is the Spirit really at work here? or ‘What’s really going on?’”
He came back the next Sunday. As soon as I said, “Amen,” at the end of the service, he’s right back up. He said, “I read the Gospel of John; in fact, I read the whole Gospel every day. I read it seven times.” At that point I go, “There’s something going on”; because most people don’t go home and say, “I’ve got to read this again.”
I can’t diagnose fully—you’ve been here, as a pastor—you don’t know: “Is this really a work of the Spirit?” or “Is this something else going on in somebody’s life?” But when somebody has a hunger for God’s Word, and they’re reading it, day in and day out, I’m going: “Something’s happening here. Lord, we’re going to trust that this is the case.” That’s where we did have a time of prayer, and where he trusted Christ, and then was baptized after that.
Dave: Did you ever think, if he’d gone home that first Sunday, and got hit by a truck, that—
Bob: I had somebody ask me that same question—
Dave: That’s why I’m asking you, Bob; I want to hear you.
Bob: “Why didn’t you pray with him?” and “What if something had happened?” I said, “Two things: first of all, if this is a real spiritual experience, it’s not the prayer that’s going to bring him to faith; he’s already there.”
Bob: And the second thing I thought: “If God can’t keep him alive for a week [Laughter] until we get back and have this conversation, we’ve got a bigger problem than the sovereignty of God.” It’s like: “Oh man, if you just had prayed with him!”—I could’ve gotten him saved!—“but instead, that truck came along; and I couldn’t stop it; so...” I think we have to trust the sovereignty of God here.
Dean: Good answer. [Laughter]
Bob: I want to encourage our listeners to get a copy of your book, Dean, because I think this is an important book as we interact with family members and with friends. The book is called The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to order a copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy. Again, the title of the book, The Unsaved Christian, by Dean Inserra. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order; or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, just a couple of days to go before it’s 2021. I know a lot of us have been waiting for this calendar page to turn and to start a new year that, hopefully, will be less crazy than 2020 was. Here at FamilyLife, we’re anxious for the new year to begin as well; but we’re also anxious about the next couple of days, because what happens in the next couple of days will determine a lot of what happens in 2021 for us.
We have a matching gift—we mentioned this earlier—a matching gift that’s been made available: $2.7 million that has been provided for us. As long as we hear from FamilyLife Today listeners, every donation that is sent in from a listener, like you, will be matched, dollar for dollar, until that fund runs dry. Right now, we still have a ways to go to get to that number, so we’d like to ask you to consider today a yearend contribution to support the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today and to help us finish this year where we need to be.
When you make that donation, in addition to your donation being matched, dollar for dollar, we’re also going to send you a copy of my book, Love Like You Mean It—all about what real love looks like in marriage. We look at 1 Corinthians 13 and see the aspects of biblical God-centered love, and we’ll send you a flash drive that includes more than a hundred FamilyLife Today programs from the last 28 years. The flash drive and the book are yours when you make a yearend donation today. You can do that easily, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue talking about different kinds of cultural Christianity. We’re going to talk about Bible Belt Christianity. Dean Inserra has some concerns about the way that gets lived out in some parts of our country. We’ll talk more about that tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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