Book Review: The Unsaved Christian by Dean Inserra

A Mission Field Nobody Wants to Engage

The presence of the unsaved thinking of themselves as Christians has been a reality forever. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself warns against putting stock in a false conversion saying, “not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says it, but the state of the modern church is often resistant to hearing and heeding the admonishment. As author Inserra relates, cultural Christianity has embedded itself deeply in the Church, its comforting lack of accountability enveloping people in a warm embrace of false belief.

Inserra structures is excellent book along the lines of a missionary guide for an unreached people group. The interaction that he shares at the beginning of the book with his seminary classmate sets a challenging tone. While Pastor Inserra looked at his brother’s assignment to Northern California as an incredible challenge (the land of proud unbelief), his brother turned the table to warn him against the assumptions that came with an assignment to the Bible Belt. This bracing moment is when he began to really examine the reality of faith amongst those who proclaimed a belief in Christ as a part of their everyday life. Examination proved that this belief was anecdotal in some cases, cultural in most of them and simply a part of being a citizen of the South for many. The chapters of the book that follow the analysis give the reader excellent study points for ways in which to approach each of these groups and more.

“Unsaved” is a quick read but not shallow. As someone involved in ministry, I can see a face to go along with each of the belief types that he describes. This personalization gives the reader the opportunity to think through the conversation that you want to have in the way that you want to approach that person. It didn’t begin the book with high hopes because I thought it was simply stating the obvious, but Inserra has performed a valuable service for Christ’s church, saying the hard things that need to be said in love.

 

The Gospel is Grace

The Gospel of IS Grace

“From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”     John 1:16 – 18

The Gospel is sometimes referred to as the gospel of grace. There is a tremendous amount of truth in that label, but it can also lead to a diminishing of the fullness of the gospel. Our elementary school grammar lessons taught us that a preposition connects a modifying word, an adjective or adverb, to a noun. The purpose of this construct is to give the reader or listener a more detailed definition of that down. This is why it is so important to be cautious in selecting those words that we attach to gospel. The Good News needs no modification. That God, in his great mercy, intervened in history to reconcile humankind to himself is the greatest news that one could ever receive. That this invitation to reconciliation is addressed to everyone takes your breath away.

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…”     John 3:36

The Gospel is power; power to save, power to regenerate, power to make holy that which is unholy. (Rom 1:16-17). The Gospel is not just words or an idea or a theological concept, the Gospel is divine power. It is the incarnation of God’s grace, it is alive and growing. The apostle Paul writes to the church at Colosse, “all over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” (Colossians 1:6)

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”     Matthew 6:45

The grace of God is made manifest in his benevolent care for his creation, despite the fact that it has rebelled against Him. The result of this common grace should be the universal recognition that God is present and active in the world. It should result in gratitude as God demonstrates his goodness to all but the rebellious mind is devoted to denying these truths by any means possible.

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”     Hebrews 4:16

Our greatest need has been addressed in the Gospel. Salvation comes by grace; salvation comes by the power of the gospel. The Gospel is God’s merciful grace embodied.  The Gospel IS grace.

 

 

 

Gospel By Faith

The good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is anchored in faith. This is incredible news for many reasons, not the least of which is that it removes the giving or receiving of this gift of grace from our hands. The apostle Paul speaks about the result of the good news, the power of the gospel and our utter dependence on God for its application; “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8 – 9) We must hear the good news in faith, respond to the gospel in faith and continue to believe in faith for the gift of salvation to have its effect on our life.

It is good news that the gospel of Jesus Christ is anchored in faith. This means that on our part we take no action that we can claim as our own. This means that nothing on our part is worthy of note. We hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus by faith alone. This means that

  • we do no preparation to make ourselves worthy of the gospel
  • there are no works that we perform their worthy of the good news of Jesus
  • there is no ritual that we must perfect and perform for the gospel to have its effect
  • there will be no wondering on our part whether we have done enough, or done anything properly for the good news to be good news

In the midst of the magnificent “Hall of Fame of Faith”, the author of Hebrews cements this good news:

“(And) without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

What sets this chapter apart is that the heroes of faith listed all exercise that faith before the gospel of Jesus Christ was realized in full. Their faith was rooted in the promise of the care and the mercy and the benevolence of God, all of these fully realized in the gospel: that Jesus Christ, God incarnate came into the world of man, lived and gave his life as the atonement for sin for those highlighted in Hebrews, those in our day and those who will come after us until that glorious day when Jesus returns again.

The good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is anchored in faith. We believe the incredible news that God has dealt with our greatest problem – our separation from him by sin – in Jesus. We believe in the full sufficiency of the Lord’s sacrifice to atone from our sin, no matter its degree. We believe that on that earth-shaking Sunday morning the Lord rose and lives again, continuing to this day his ministry of intercession and care for those who have placed their faith in this good news. We believe and keep on believing.

The First Word of the Gospel

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14 – 15

Repentance is an accepted, but unpopular idea within the modern Church. To ears attuned to having our best life now, repentance sounds somewhat ‘retro’, associated with old-timey fire and brimstone preaching. It’s almost as if repentance is just Hell repellant. This is a sad observation when we talk about the good news, because repentance is the first word of the gospel.

There is so much to be gained for disciples of Jesus when we develop a full grasp of the true meaning of repentance. It is more than being emotionally sorry for sin or the act of simply turning away from those things that dishonor the Cross. Repentance is turning toward God, it is facing our Lord Jesus and keeping Him in sight as disciples.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Jeremiah 17:9

The emotion of sorrow expressed for sin is both good and bad. It is good that we are distressed in heart for those things that fail to bring glory to our Savior. Here the heart does us a favor by making us mindful of our thoughts and actions. Without action however, we can be led astray by that same heart convincing us that we have repented of sin. James speaks to this behavior in chapter 1, verses 22-24 when he describes the man who hears the word but fails to follow it. Sorrow can remind us of the beauty of God’s word but it must be followed by action. We must turn our hearts toward God, recognizing the error of our ways and hope and peace and joy in His.

“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but He will heal us; He has injured us but He will bind up our wounds.

After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.

Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.”  Hosea 6:1-3

Oh, the beauty of repentance! The act of turning back toward the Lord is so much greater than just averting our eyes from sin. There is no promise of restoration in the sweeping of our vision as our eyes may land on another of the temptations that surround us. No, we must turn our hearts fully in the direction of the Lord, and in doing so, we become the recipients the renewal that our souls groan for (Romans 8:26).

Do we meditate on the privilege of repentance? There is an underlying assumption that the sovereign God of perfect holiness owes us, His creations, a chance at forgiveness, the opportunity to be sorry. How dare we assume on any such thing! It is only by His grace and mercy that those in constant rebellion have a chance to repent. The Father portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24) owed no such mercy to the rebellious teen who demanded his father’s treasures and the right to drift headlong into depravity. But such was the love of his father who watched the horizon day after day for any sign of his returning boy, that when the prodigal turned back in humility he was restored as though he had never wandered. The chance to repent of our rebellion and turn back to our Father is not owed to us. But God, who so loves the world, made the sacrifice that does away with the penalty of our sin, and blesses those who repent and believe that He has done this for them with life.

 “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3-4

Repentance, the first step in the receipt of the good news, is to become like a child. It is to recognize that we are immature before God. It is to acknowledge and believe that we cannot have life in full apart from God. Repentance is the act of turning toward God in His grace and believing in our total dependence on Him for life and for salvation. Repent and believe the good news.

* The title of this post was borrowed loosely from Richard Roberts important book, Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel.

No Gospel at All

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned. Galatians 1:6 – 8

The gospel that is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” is sure and unchanging. The gospel of God’s grace is not subject to the vagaries of history or culture or religious tradition or human desire. It is the sure and steadfast gospel, consistent from beginning to end, that saves. The Apostle repeated the good news to the church in Corinth as pressures threatened to wrest the true gospel from their grasp, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…” This is the gospel that saves.

“Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Acts 2:38

A gospel that presents itself as little more than a golden ticket to heaven is only one half of a gospel. A gospel that requires no more than your assent to the idea of Jesus or even that you like His offer of salvation from an eternity in Hell is only a part of the good news. Jesus Christ comes into the world as both Savior (Acts 5:31) and Lord (Rom 5:11), the two not divisible. A gospel then that proposes grace and an eternity in God’s presence without humble repentance is not a gospel that saves.

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Luke 9:23-24

A gospel that does not lead the hearer to pick up their cross and follow the Lordship of Jesus Christ is not a gospel that saves. A gospel of “grace” that enables a one-time proclamation of belief (Rom 10:9) but does not require a subsequent adherence to the commands of Jesus to continuing and ongoing repentance, belief and service is a partial gospel. Works! Works! Not at all! Yes, one must “confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” but the requirement continues that this same person must believe this fact “in your heart” in order to be saved. To believe in your heart is to believe in the depths of your soul, to a transforming degree. A gospel that does not result in transformation of the earthly desires to follow ones own will and submit to the Lordship of Christ is but a part of the good news.

The true gospel sets men and women free. Once enemies of God, belief in the true gospel reconciles a person in this most important relationship. The true gospel is an invitation and the power to bring humanity back into right relationship with God, to be restored to a place in the kingdom of heaven (Col 1:21-22). We must not allow any partial or false gospel replace this good news and we who believe must continue in our faith, “not moved from the hope held out in the gospel (Col 1:23).

Psalm 107–Do Tell

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Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story – those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south. (Ps 107:2-3)

The culture that we have developed within the Church puts an emphasis on the shiny, clean you. Reborn, redeemed? Give effusive thanks for that, Christian!

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. (vv8-9)

The psalmist reminds us, however, of the value of recounting the journey prior to redemption. Others benefit directly and indirectly from the journey, from seeing the hills and valleys overcome. They gain a deeper perspective on redemption when they see sin beaten, sin removed, sin forgiven and washed clean. The psalmist tells of the wandering, the failure, the enslavement, the loss and greed—all forgotten by Yahweh in an instant when His people focused their devotion on Him.

Let the one who is wise heed these things and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord. (v43)

Grace and peace to you.

image Lewis & Clark College

Learning to Kneel-One

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;*

imageIf you have ever paddled the quiet waters of a remote lake, gently placing the blades into the water so as not to churn the stillness around you…

If you have ever chanced upon the grandeur of a mountain vista or a verdant valley or the deep crimson of a desert sunset and found yourself quietly absorbing the beauty…

If you have ever held a newborn, warm and taking his first few breaths, and had no words to utter…

… you are familiar with the feelings that overtake you as you truly enter the presence of the Living God.

Many a sanctuary this coming Sunday will be filled, not with awful, prayerful silence overwhelmed by the presence of God, but the noise of a hundred casual conversations that grow slowly louder as more of the brethren enter the room. Bibles will remain closed, guitars will be tuned, and children will play.

As if God will appear at the appointed hour, like the train from Bakersfield, and all we need to do is to be there to meet Him.

Reverence is the first lesson in learning to kneel. This requires a change of attitude and a soul attuned to the Omnipresent God rather than the culturally popular Compartmentalized God. My next post will begin here, unpacking the twin threads of omnipresence and reverence and noting how a heightened awareness of both can radically change our times of worship. This coming Sunday however, enter your sanctuary or meeting room and try sitting quietly, making yourself aware of His enveloping presence. Pray for the service. Pray for the visiting family sitting behind you. Pray a Psalm. See if others follow your lead as the moments tick by toward the first notes of a song. See if your preparation hasn’t brought minutely closer to the throne.

Grace and peace to you.

*Psalm 95:6

image Joshua Conley

Faithfulness Despite Appearances–Fourth Sunday in Advent 2010

imageOur Advent meditations have to do with an event that none of us were present for. The life and death of our Lord passed before our era and, despite numerous predictions, His return has yet to come. Our entire system of faith is rooted in the apologia that supplements our intellect and the discernment provided by the indwelling Spirit who tells us that we can trust in the words recorded long ago. Every Christian since that day at Golgotha has had to trust the beliefs passed from one to another through the centuries. We trust in the work of Christ by faith alone.

Every Christian since that Friday afternoon has lived in a world of chaos. The dimensions of this chaotic environment have varied from era to era and person to person. Many have looked upon the severity of their trials or the universality of evil and pointed to these as proof that God does not exist. Many of us might be tempted to believe them when we see the horrors that man visits upon man or in the death and loss caused by natural events. Disease surrounds us, getting stronger in some cases. Limited resources threaten the existence of many. Pregnant women are run down and left for dead in the intersections of our cities. Evil abounds.

Joseph looked upon his pregnant fiancée tempted to act on appearances. His scriptures provided a way out for him and he loved Mary enough that he planned to divorce her quietly. By all appearances, her story was incredible–almost unbelievable–and yet, at the prompting of an angel, he remains faithful.  He trusts the word of God provided for him, despite outward appearances.

There is subtle encouragement in the angels words to Joseph, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” (Mt 1:20). God does not command him to stay with Mary. Instead, the angel tells him not to be afraid, that despite what things may seem to be all will turn out well. These words echo for us as well.

This Christmas may not be the best time in your life. You and your family may be facing difficulties. It may be the first holiday without a family member at home. Your faith may be being tested to the very limits of your endurance. Despite appearances, there is reason to celebrate. Christians, you know the end of the story. You know that God has proven faithful to his promises time after time through history and He will continue to be faithful until the end of this history. Trust Him, do not be afraid. Celebrate your Savior.

 

Grace and peace to you.

image by VickyV

Watching the Skies–First Sunday of Advent 2010

imageWhen these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Lk 21:28)

Without the calendar, and especially the Church calendar, we would be hard pressed to know the beginning of Advent. As the commercialization of Christmas has increased, the start of the season has become an artificial demarcation. The start of the ‘holiday season’ creeps further back on the pages of the calendar, with some outlets beginning to display the colors and icons of Christmas around the end of October. Thanksgiving becomes a speed-bump in the path of the gift-rush steamroller.

These false signs have an effect on us. Few are moved to shop anymore simply by the appearance of red and green replacing the oranges, auburns and browns of autumn. Fewer still see these signs as a welcome reminder of the joy of Christmas. Our senses are dulled by the barrage, hardened because of the attempted to deceit,  temporarily blinded by the fast-cut commercials and blinking LED reindeer noses.

Advent is the Church’s reminder of the Kingdom that came and makes it dwelling amongst us. Our reading for this year comes first from Saint Luke. The doctor records the Lord’s insistence that we be ever watchful for signs of the kingdom. He gave the analogy of the trees, say “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.” (vv 29b-30) Likewise, He explained, if we are watchful and knowledgeable about the signs of an impending change in the season of our relationship with Him, we will not be caught unaware.

The world threatens to dull our sensitivity to the signs of the Kingdom. Whether it be God speaking to us through another person, a book or the movement of the leaves in the trees, the noise and busyness of our lives can drown out that quiet voice. Other signs are hidden from us as our vision tires from the constant stream of images we take in, good and bad. Without seeing the signs, our ability to raise our hands in celebration is limited.

Let us quiet our celebration this year. Spend some time looking into the flickering Advent flame rather than the Christmas lights. Reread favorite Scriptures and listen for the voice of God. When we see and hear clearly, our chances of noticing the signs of the Kingdom around us increase tenfold. Seek out and praise the Lord for the intimacy of His presence in your life.

 

Grace and peace to you.

image Per Ola Wilberg