Everybody needs Christ, especially those who think they already have Him.
I got my first taste of high school and college ministry under an impressive mentor. He was passionate to reach youth, even if it meant exasperation, sweat, and tears. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around his zeal, because the people he was trying so hard to reach were children of church leaders, and committed members of the congregation.
These were kids that attended church on a regular/semi-regular basis. They were good, respected the Bible, believed in God, and “believed” in Jesus. I wondered if the gospel might be better served by taking our passion downtown, and positioning ourselves across the street from a seedy bar or an adult bookstore. Then we could just preach to people who were going in and out of those places. Why spend all our time trying to reach those who had already been reached?
But that question meant I assumed the kids in our church had actually been reached. Eventually I got the clue bus by spending a lot of time with them, listening to them, and watching their attitudes. I stopped paying so much attention to how they acted at church. It became clear to me that many Christian youths have managed to occupy a zone of twilight, a holding area that is neither light, nor dark, a place where there is not too much of God or of the devil.
There really is no such place as a neutral zone. Outside the divine light of God, everything is satanic real estate. The Bible only speaks of the kingdom of God and the domain of darkness.
But to these kids, and their daily experience, this place of twilight was real. There was just enough darkness to have fun, and just enough light for them not to feel bad about it. I discovered that many of them were authentic believers, and simply needed some shepherding, and discipleship. But there was a sprinkling of them that made me wonder if they were really saved at all. These had apparently learned the ropes of being in church, and satisfying parental expectations. As such, they were products of religious culture, with no firsthand knowledge of Jesus living in them, no reality of having been born again.
But they assumed they did. It would have deeply offended them for us to suggest otherwise.
We often found this ministry awkward to carry out. The parents of these youths were top shelf believers, and we weren’t keen to offend them by suggesting their kids were fake Christians. Nor did we want to come across as judgmental. When a person insists that they have believed in Jesus and are saved, period, I’m not going to argue with them, and insist it isn’t so. At the end of the day, salvation is an internal reality defined by God in the Bible, and the individual must judge whether or not he or she owns it. It cannot be decided by external parties.
Yet we loved those kids, and felt it was unloving to play along with a charade. In fact, it’s awkward for any Christian to notice long-term unsaved people right under their noses. We’d like to think that due to our considerable influence, everyone within a one hundred yard radius of our lives has already been saved, or soon will be. Yet, the unsaved are all around us—next door, at our family reunions, and, yes, even in our churches. The Apostle Paul spoke of false brothers (c.f. Gal. 2:4), who had infiltrated groups of early believers. They apparently thought of themselves as genuine Christians, because they liked Jesus, and were circumcised. It is especially painful when the “false” moniker describes our children, our siblings, our cousins, and our best childhood friends.
We love these people and want them to believe in a gospel that actually delivers something to them.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians, saying,
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13)
When someone hears and believes the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, they receive something on the spot—the Holy Spirit. The verse doesn’t say we get anything by subscribing to vague religious soundbytes. When Christian culture shears off large parts of the message, it becomes a truncated gospel submerged in twilight.
This is not to say there is any other gospel that reflects the truth of God, and gives the Holy Spirit. But there are mutilated memos—communiques humanly altered for the sake of simplicity, and friendliness. You could call it the gospel with a crew cut. Its unnaturally abbreviated message emphasizes five main points:
Belief in God. If you want to be saved, you must obviously believe in God, but which God? The Twilight Gospel often leaves theology nebulous. God’s identity is then up to the individual, who already has a default image in mind, a composite of the things culture considers good. God will therefore be inclusive, tolerant, and nice. He also recycles, and eats organic. He is a junk drawer, the sum total of whatever is trending in the social-political world. But even belief in a thoroughly biblical God is not enough. James 2:19, says demons believe in God. Their belief does not help them in the least. Yet, this is the kind of faith that flourishes in the twilight zone of cultural Christianity.
Efforts at Being Good. Goodness is a necessary virtue of the Christian life, but it becomes a terrible distraction when humans pursue it rather than Christ. Religious twilight promotes good works and self-improvement as the very purpose of Christianity. It is no surprise then, that its adherents adopt many private rules for themselves, or end up as advocates and activists for various causes. The goodness that develops in their conduct becomes a point of pride and confidence for them. Unconsciously, they think their good will cancel out their bad, so they needn’t hassle with the gospel. This only serves to demonstrate how little they grasp the seriousness of sin, and consequently, how little they value the cross. If righteousness comes through one’s own goodness, compassion, and charitable deeds, then Christ died for nothing (c.f. Gal. 2:21).
Respect for the Bible. The Twilight gospel also emphasizes respect for the Bible, which on the surface, is a marvelous thing. As a nominal Catholic, I recall being respectful of the Scriptures, even though I had no idea what the scriptures said. However, many folks can refer to the Bible as the word of God, but just as quickly dismiss whatever parts of it they decide sound exclusive, cold, close-minded, outdated, or, that seem to them scientifically or morally impossible. Those who exercise such editorial rights over “the Good Book,” seem to happily live with the contradiction of confessing it to be the holy word, while simultaneously believing it unholy. Sooner or later, true colors become obvious. Never forget that King Herod gladly heard the preaching of John the Baptist. John apparently brought an intensity and fire to his handling of Old Testament passages, and Herod respected it—until the day John dared to preach about sexual morality. It so deeply offended Herod, the king sought from that day forward to destroy John (which he succeeded in doing).
“Belief” in Jesus. Cultural Christianity teaches “belief” in Jesus, which comes close to biblical truth. However, more often than not, “belief” amounts to mere agreement—agreeing that Christ died on the cross for our sins, agreeing He rose from the dead, agreeing He is Lord—all stopping short of personally receiving any of it. But even demons admitted and confessed that Jesus was the Son of God, and did so with enough frequency that Jesus forbade them to say it. And when Paul preached the gospel of salvation later, in the book of Acts, a demon possessed girl said of him and his message, ““These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Mere affirmations, and agreements, therefore, do not mean salvation has occurred, nor that the Holy Spirit has been given.
Church Involvement. Those in twilight also blur salvation together with church participation. They assume that if someone sits in Christian meetings week after week, listening to sermons, it must mean something. But Felix in the book of Acts, summoned Paul and had personal audiences with him over the space of two years. He regularly sat in front of the greatest preacher in church history, and did not get saved as a result. Remember as well that Judas Iscariot volunteered for service, and went on mission trips with the other disciples. Neither church attendance, nor service necessarily means salvation is present.
Having notated these five twilight emphases, I want to be clear that we are not trying to undo them. Don’t dismantle the progress others have made. In fact, affirm their belief in God, good works, respect for the Bible, agreement with the facts of Christ’s life, and church involvement. Commend and encourage it. Don’t undo these things, but complete them. When a Christian couple, Priscilla and Aquila, heard Apollos teaching the things of Christ in an incomplete way, “they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). No doubt they joyfully affirmed his service, but sought to complete it, as well.
John Wesley was a recipient of this kind of help, and has become an outstanding name in church history. Small town America is almost always guaranteed to have two things: gas stations, and Methodist churches. The church side of the equation is largely due to John’s preaching work. Although he would be upset with the direction large parts of methodism have gone today, at his time it was the blazing hot work of God.
And yet John himself had once occupied a weird spiritual twilight, as he tried hard to serve God, and be saved. He even formed a group called, The Holy Club, whose members were also sincere, but confused, and not clearly saved. Eventually, John, and his brother, Charles, signed up for a mission trip to Georgia. In 1735, Georgia was not much more than a colonial wilderness. The trip to reach American shores from England was long and dangerous. After arriving, they spent several fruitless years preaching the gospel to the American Indians. Finally, depressed and disappointed, they boarded a ship back to England.
John wrote in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?” Another group of Christians, Moravian brethren, were on board the ship. They encountered John and Charles, and after a short conversation, began testifying to the two young men that they could only be saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ. This deeply impacted the boys. Not long after, Charles Wesley came to Christ. He wrote, “The Spirit of God chased away the darkness of my unbelief.” Charles then began writing the first few of his seven thousand Christian hymns.
Meanwhile, John was on his way to a Christian meeting, still morose, and unconverted. When he arrived, someone was reading aloud Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans. John later wrote of the effect the reading had upon him: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
Having experienced this, he sought out Charles, stepped through the door, and announced, “I have believed!” They began singing one of Charles’s hymns, And Can It Be. John must have been especially touched by verse 5:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!
The Wesleys had left their befuddled religious twilight, and entered crystalline reality. Their subsequent ministry would sweep the globe, and the echoes of it still resound centuries later.
Remember, twilight holds no small number of souls. If we are only alert to the needs of dark, angry sinners, we might be lulled to sleep by the tame, impotent religious pronouncements of those who are Jesus friendly, and think they are okay. Our ministry must confront not only rank blasphemies, but sentimental, incomplete faith.
In the space of a short conversation, the Apostle Paul detected a fatal shortage in religiously positive people. “Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?” he asked them. For all their positivity, he discerned something missing—not some fine detail of personal opinion, nor earthly controversy, nor a doctrinal hobbyhorse of some kind, but a completing matter of great importance.