Last year, another investigator and I headed down to Portland, Oregon, to interview a guy in an annuity fraud case. It was a pretty good case. The guy was an insurance agent. I had a man who’d come to the Office of the Insurance Commissioner claiming the agent had swindled his parents into buying an expensive indexed annuity and lied to them about why it was such an awesome product. The guy said this insurance agent had done this to his parents twice, in the space of two years.
These were working folks, blue collar. They didn’t know much about annuities, indexed investment strategies or guaranteed minimum income riders. Not many people do, and I don’t blame them. Reading annuity contracts is about as exciting as memorizing the World Book Encyclopedia …
To make things worse, the wife had become sick not long after they bought the second annuity. They needed money, but the new annuity charged you a hefty fee if you bailed on it within 10 years. The old man tried to make it for a while, but eventually bit the bullet and surrendered the annuity. He ate about $10,000 in penalty charges. The wife went into the nursing home and died about nine months later.
The insurance agent made $12,000 on the two sales. He denied everything. “They wanted the annuity, and it was suitable for them!” he whined.
So, all in all, it was a good case. I asked the other investigator to go with me because I wanted to have an excuse to chat with him about the Gospel. When you’re trapped in a car with someone else on a work trip, you end up talking about just about everything.
It went just like I thought. I left it alone on the way down to Portland. We did the interview, the suspect lied through his teeth, and I had more than enough to write the report and prove the guy was a snake. Mission accomplished.
We rolled out of Portland, had a quick and nutritious lunch at Jack-in-the-Box, and hit I-5, headed for Tumwater. We’d cleared the Portland metro area, made it across the Colombia River into Vancouver and back to the promised land of the State of Washington, and I started the discussion with my partner, who I’ll call James.
“James, how long have you been a Catholic?” I asked.
“Long time,” he grunted. “Since I was a boy in Guatemala.”
“You go to church pretty much every week, right?”
“Yep,” he answered. “I’m also a member of the Knights of Columbus, and we do a pancake breakfast every month.”
“So,” I asked. “I’ve always wanted to know – what does it mean to ‘be a Christian,’ from your point of view?”
I know the textbook answer, of course. I have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and have read it extensively. I often use this rhetorical tactic to do a compare and contrast with religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
I continued. “I mean, I know what I believe the Bible teaches. But, I know the Catholic Church feels different. Obviously, because the Protestant Reformation happened! So, from all your years going to Catholic church, tell me – what does it mean to ‘be a Christian?’”
James pursed his lips, squinted his eyes, and stared out the windshield. “Well …” his voice trailed off for a minute. “I guess what I’d say is that to ‘be a Christian,’ you have to do what the church says and follow the Ten Commandments.”
“That’s what you have to do to become a Christian?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s it,” James nodded.
Now, this isn’t orthodox Catholic theology. I have no idea if James hasn’t been listening much, or if his priests over the years have been about as sharp as melted butter. And, to be honest, I don’t really care. My goal right now isn’t to explain why the Roman Catholic church is wrong (even though it is). I just want to explain the Gospel.
So, here was my opening. This is about as easy a softball a Christian can hope for.
“Well,” I said. “If that’s all you have to do … If all you have to do is do what the church says, and try your best to follow the law …”
James nodded again, emphatically, “Uh-huh. That’s right.”
“Then why did Jesus come? What’s His purpose?”
James sat there, staring out the windshield. He was quiet for a long time. Finally, he said, “I don’t know, really … I’ve never thought about that before … I don’t know why Jesus came, actually …”
At this point, I rolled out Galatians 2:21 like the atomic bomb it is, and asked him, “The Apostle Paul said that, if righteousness could have come by following the law, then Christ died for no reason at all! So, the Bible says that we can’t follow enough laws to earn salvation! Jesus came to save us from ourselves …”
From there, I was able to launch into a long discussion about the Gospel. I explained Jesus’ active obedience, passive obedience, His miraculous resurrection, and His High Priestly role at the Father’s side in heaven for all who repent and believe in Him.
Dead as a doornail
This conversation isn’t an anomaly. It makes me so sad to chat with people who are trapped in a dead denomination or false religion with a pseudo-Christian gloss. They’re so lost, so confused, so ignorant that it breaks my heart. My friend James isn’t alone. There are millions of them. They’re nominal Roman Catholics, rote United Methodists, dead United Church of Christ disciples and lifeless PC-USA members. They’re religious zombies; formally joined to a spiritually dead denomination and blindly trusting in their wayward leaders for salvation.
My wife and I had a co-worker over for dinner last night. I’ll call her Cecilia. I’ve been having short conversations with her for a few months now. She’s a very bright lady. We’re both managers. She was raised in a United Church of Christ church in the Midwest. Cecilia told me the old, old story of dead formalism and the fairytale Jesus from her childhood.
She’s confused. She wants some concrete answers to her questions. When she was a girl, the pastor discouraged her from asking questions. Not surprisingly, when she was 15 and her parents said church was now optional, she never went back. A while back, I gave her two books, The Story of Reality by Greg Koukl and (of course) Lewis’ Mere Christianity. But, I wanted a chance to talk with her some more.
So, Cecilia came over for dinner last night.
It didn’t take long for talk to turn to the Gospel. I explained it all to her. I saw her taking it all in at an intellectual level, but I could tell something still wasn’t clicking. I asked her what “being a Christian” meant to her.
“Well …” she thought for a bit. “To me, ‘being a Christian’ means trying to be a good person, and God gave us the Bible as guardrails to let us know where the boundaries are.”
I waited until Cecilia finished, and (paraphrasing Master Skywalker from The Last Jedi), I said, “Every single thing you just said was wrong!”
She blinked a few times, taken aback. I rolled out ole’ reliable, my friend Galatians 2:21, and said, “Paul’s point is that there’s nothing anyone can do to be ‘good enough.’ That’s why Jesus came! He was perfect for us, because we can’t be perfect. He suffered and died for our crimes, in our place, as our substitute – so we don’t have to suffer for them, unless we want to. Then, He rose from the dead after three days to defeat Satan and the curses of sin and death for you, in your place, as your representative!”
Cecilia didn’t say anything. I pressed on:
So, nobody can be good. In the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul quoted from Psalm 14 and said that we’re all inherently worthless in God’s eyes. ‘Being a Christian’ actually means that we’re born as criminals, we deserve judgment forever in hell for the evil things we think about and do, and that despite all this, God decided to send His only Son to save some of us from our sins, and fix everything that’s gone so terribly wrong in the world.
‘Being a Christian’ means you know you’ve been saved by God’s mercy, grace, love and kindness, and you want to serve Him with your life and tell others the same Good News, so God might draw them into His family to join you!”
My co-worker was quiet for a minute. Then she said, quietly, “That makes so much sense to me. Why did my mother always tell me we had to go to church so we could be good people?”
I could go on. I have more stories. But, this is the fruit of false religion. These are the people we work with, live near and pass by every day at Wal-Mart. They’re lost in darkness, and they’re trusting in dead ritual and formalism for their “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
Some of these folks are wise to the game and know it’s all a lie. But, they don’t know where to look. They visit churches, surf the ‘net, and all they see is trash. They see shallow madness. They see sermon series about sex. They see pretty rituals with no life in them. They see some pastors trying so desperately to be hip and woke, so they turn away in disgust.
Jesus and the big picture
We have the message that brings salvation. We have the truth. Can we coherently explain the Christian story and worldview to these confused people? The Good News isn’t a story that’s disconnected from the rest of the Bible. There’s a storyline running from Genesis – Revelation; a storyline that includes:
- A creation that God made good and perfect in the beginning
- A fall that ruined all mankind and all creation
- God’s planned redemption through His only Son Jesus, who He sent to fix everything
- The final restoration of all things, in a new earth as part of a new creation, where sin, death and Satan are gone and will never come back, and all God’s people will worship Him in spirit and truth.
This storyline needs to be framed and presented in the context of all the Old Testament expectations and promises of:
- a descendent from Adam and Eve who God promised would conquer Satan (Gen 3:15),
- a prophet like Moses, but better, who’ll bring God’s message to His people (Deut 18:15ff),
- a High Priest of a different sort, who is unstained with sin (Zech 3; Heb 7-10), and
- a King descended from David who’ll rule over all God’s creation (2 Sam 7; Dan 7, etc.)
… and more! James thinks he’s a Christian. So does Cecilia. They aren’t, and I told them so. I also gave the Gospel a context and placed it in the Bible’s storyline so it made sense. They got it.
I pray we’re alert for opportunities to explain the Gospel to our friends, co-workers and neighbors. I wouldn’t have these opportunities if I weren’t a bi-vocational pastor. To the “ordinary” Christian out there; you have so many more opportunities to talk with people than your elders do. Tell the Gospel to your co-workers, friends and neighbors.
Go beyond the Romans Road. Give it a context. Frame it in the Bible’s storyline. God will give you the open doors if you look for them.