It has been said that if you were born in India, you would most likely be a Hindu because your parents were. If you grew up in the Middle East, then you would be one of the three strains of Islam. If you grew up in Mexico, you would be a Catholic. And so it goes. In other words, the atheist contends that Christianity as a religion is no different than all the other world religions.
You know what? In a sense, they are right. Many Christians are cultural Christians. They have taken on themselves to follow the religious practices of their parents. They say exactly what all the other religious followers say: “I am a good person. I go to church/synagogue/mosque/temple. When I die, will go to Heaven.”
The cultural Christians think of themselves as “good people” because they are following the expectations of their religious culture. They are as nice as they know how. They attend a place of worship. They subscribe to the commandments and beliefs of their denomination. The cultural Christian believes that their way is right above all the other ways.
Yet they have the same thing in common with all the other religions: they justify themselves by their works. They believe they are worthy of Heaven because they are good enough to enter in according to their own merits. In this sense, cultural Christianity is no different than the other religions.
But the called-out Christian is different. The Greek definition of church is composed of two root words meaning “out from,” and “to call.” (See http://biblehub.com/greek/1577.htm.) God is calling people out of their religions to follow Himself. He does this through the gospel. The gospel goes out to everyone, of every religion. All people are sinners, estranged from God; all people, including those raised up in the places of Christian worship, need to repent from sin and live for the true God.
The gospel tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So how can those who have responded to the gospel say any more that they are good people? The gospel gives us the result of sin: “the wages of sin is death,” as well as the way out: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” The way out is not in a religion or good works, but in a person, in a relationship with the Son of God, who broke the power of sin on the cross. So instead of saying that they are good people who go to church, they say, “I am a sinner saved by grace.”
The gospel helps anyone in any religion to see their true self, not as good, but as estranged from God through sin. Then, out of every religion and people and language, God calls them to Himself, to turn from idols to serve the true and living God. Those responding are the called-out ones, the true church.
The called-out ones are different than the cultural Christians in several ways. The cultural Christian is satisfied to meet the simple requirements of their religion, doing what others are doing. But the called-out ones go further. Because they desire to follow God, they use their own free time to read and study the Bible, they pray on their own, they worship God on their own. They are not satisfied with a one-hour-a-week religion. They want to grow out of their sinful ways that they may draw closer to this God who saves them.
They would not say that they are good people who go to church because they have been convicted of the gospel as sinners. They don’t consider themselves good because they behave like everybody else around them, but they consider they are doing good works because they are obeying God.
The cultural Christian likes the world system. The cultural Christian is described in the Bible as the natural man, the person who lives according to their five senses – and the world is pleased to appeal to the senses. The cultural Christian loves the world, but the called-out ones live for the world to come. They are being weaned from this world to pay attention to what God wants, disciplining their bodily desires so that God’s will takes precedence. Where there is a conflict between God’s will and the world’s will, they choose, oftentimes with a struggle, the former.
Who persecuted Jesus? The cultural religious establishment. Far from desiring the kingdom of God, in which God is sovereign over their lives, they wanted everything to remain as is; they did not want God changing things around. They would hate it if their sinful lives were exposed, and hate the called-out ones who preached the gospel and exposed their sins. The called-out ones, who desire to be like Jesus, would not hate or take revenge, because Jesus said to love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, and rejoice because the prophets of old were prosecuted. The cultural Christian believes that love is of paramount importance in every religion, but the called-out ones have the power of the Holy Spirit to actually live it out.
The Bible divides the called-out ones into two groups, carnal and spiritual. I have been describing the called-out ones from the mature spiritual perspective. The carnal Christians are in between; they are those who are growing their faith (or not), who are making choices that take them down the road of faith over feelings (or not). By “or not,” I mean that some carnal Christians never grow further in their faith; the Bible teachings keep getting choked by their preoccupation in worldly cares, or pursuit of riches, or fear of persecution, or other reasons. Nobody becomes mature the first day they accept the gospel message. But they are expected to grow up into spiritual maturity at the careful training of the heavenly Father. The carnal can accept the training and go on in sanctification and maturity, or reject it.
There is no such expectation of spiritual maturity for the natural man; there is no spiritual life in him, though there can be enough of a yearning that makes him or her seek truth outside of their present religious experiences (“Isn’t there more to life than this?”), and the gospel draws them when it reveals the truth of their sin and they acknowledge that God is speaking to them and calling them out of their religion to something greater.
I myself have been in each of these three stages of life. I look around me at the lives of others I know and have come to the conclusion that the principles above are universal. At what stage are you?