THE BLIGHT OF LUKEWARM CHRISTIANS
An Indictment of Contemporary Christianity
By Gary Ray Branscome
“He who is forgiven little, loves little. // Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Luke , Revelation ).
If you assume from the title of this essay that I am going to be talking about nominal Christians, those who rarely attend church and show little interest in seeking out the company of other Christians, you are wrong. Such people may be “lukewarm,” but it is more likely that they have never been saved to begin with. No! The Christians I have in mind generally think of themselves as “good” or even “fervent” Christians. But, they are fervent for the Law, not the Gospel. The Christians that I have in mind may want to be in church every time the door is open. They may be very strict about the rules that they keep. They may be strict about how they dress and how they wear their hair. However, the thing that makes them “lukewarm” is the fact that they think that all of their rule-keeping is what pleases God, brings His favor, and makes them righteous in His sight.
I am not talking about those who openly teach works righteousness. If that was the case they would not be Christians. I am talking about those who claim that they are saved by grace, those who claim to believe that they are justified by faith, but who deny it in their life because they think that what they do is what brings God’s favor. These people claim to trust in Christ, but they want to be motivated by the Law. They claim to trust in Christ, but they want to believe that God will reward them because of what they do. Therefore, even though they pay lip service to the fact that we are saved and cleansed of all unrighteousness by what Christ did, not by what we do, they want to believe that their own “obedience” is what brings them God’s blessing. And, that contradictory way of thinking is clearly, “double-minded”.
I have tried to explain the importance of not only trusting in Christ for salvation but also for righteousness, only to have people act like I was encouraging them to sin. The people I am speaking of cannot conceive of anyone living a righteous life without being motivated by the Law. Once, when I told someone that when we stop trying to make ourselves righteous the Holy Spirit will enable us to do what is right (Galatians 5:17), the man to whom I was speaking said, “What should we do, just let go and let God?” And, my answer to all who ask that question is, “No! We should resist the flesh. God wants us to resist the flesh. What God does not want us to do is to deceive ourselves by imagining that our own effort at resisting the flesh is what makes us righteous or brings His favor” (John 1:47). We should resist the flesh while at the same time believing that it is the forgiveness we have in Christ (not our effort) that makes us righteous. Why, the very fact that we struggle with the flesh is proof that we are not righteous. If we were really righteous (like we will be after the resurrection) we would not have a struggle to begin with. It would be easy to do what is right (Jeremiah 17:9).
The lukewarm mindset that this essay is directed at begins with half-hearted repentance. Every person who comes to faith in Christ must acknowledge his or her sin, and look to Christ for forgiveness. I might add that they must also be sorry for their sin (Psalm 51:17). Those who are not sorry for their sin, those who have no desire to change, those who say “that is just the way I am,” do not want to be delivered from sin. Therefore, they are deceiving themselves if they think Christ is going to help them get away with it (Hebrews -31). However, those who come to Christ believing that sin makes them vile in God’s sight, believing that they have nothing to offer God, believing that all of their efforts at righteousness are as “filthy rags” in His sight are cleansed of all sin (Isaiah 64:6, 1John 1:9).
Those who have been cleansed of all sin by the blood of Christ, have no desire to return to a life of sin. Before, they were filthy, now they are clean. Before, they were condemned by God, now they are His children. Before, they had no hope, now they have the sure hope of eternal life in Christ. To such people freedom from the Law is not freedom to sin, but freedom to be righteous, freedom to live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” without being condemned by every mistake they make (Romans 7:6, 1Timothy 2:2).
However, lukewarm Christians are those in the middle, those who come to faith in Christ believing that they are 50%, 60% or even 90% righteous. Such people are not coming to Christ to be cleansed of all iniquity. On the contrary, they are just coming to Christ in the hope that He will make up the “little” they lack. Because such people come to Christ believing that the Law is what makes them fifty to ninety percent righteous, they do not see freedom from the Law as freedom to be righteous, but as freedom to sin, freedom to do the things they were afraid to do before. Now, I am not saying that they actually go ahead and do such things. If they did they would not be repentant. What I am saying is that as long as they think that the Law makes them righteous (at least in part) they will be unable to conceive of freedom from that Law as anything other than freedom to sin. And, that is why they are constantly harping about “obedience,” and trying to motivate people by the Law.
Lukewarm preachers are constantly nagging people to keep the Law, with little mention of the Gospel (as if everyone already knows the Gospel and has no need to hear it again). They talk to the people in the pews as if they suspect them all of sinning like a bunch of unsaved reprobates. They talk to the people that way because they are struggling with sin in their own lives, and think that everyone needs to be motivated by the Law. They think that they are fervent Christians, but they are in realty lukewarm. They strive to keep the law, yet fail, and sometimes fall into open sin, because there is a contradiction in their thinking.
In order to motivate people they may stress certain rules, such as those regarding alcohol, dress, or hair. They may claim that Christ only frees us from some laws (such as those that Moses gave) without freeing us from others (such as any mentioned in Genesis, or in the New Testament). Or they may claim that having God’s favor depends upon “obeying” any direction they believe is coming from the Holy Spirit. I have encountered people who were constantly living in fear of God’s wrath because of such hellish doctrine: people who imagined that God was speaking to them through all sorts of feelings and impressions, and that they would be punished if they did not “obey”.
Nevertheless, even though people living with that sort of legalism can be constantly afraid of incurring God’s displeasure, they rarely tremble at God’s written word (Isaiah 66:2). On the contrary, they are more likely to act as if God should tremble at their word, and they get angry whenever God does not do their will. If the Bible says, “Let your women keep silent in the churches,” they just ignore it if it does not fit with their own ideas (1Corinthians ). If Christ says that He will raise up all believers “on the last day,” they just ignore it if it does not fit with their own ideas (John ). They will explain away any passages that do not agree with their own ideas, oblivious to the fact that God wants them to teach what those passages say, not what they think (2Corinthians 1:13). Or, that by explaining God’s Word away they are rebelling against God (Psalm 107:11, 1Samuel ).
Because they are lukewarm toward the Gospel, they often reduce the Gospel to a work [i.e. asking Jesus into your heart] instead of making it clear that we are not saved by our act of praying a prayer but through faith in what Christ did on the cross (John 3:16). I realize that praying the “sinner’s prayer” can sometimes be an act of faith, but people need to understand that they are saved by what Christ did, not by what they do. Likewise, in their zeal for works they sometimes explain away important truths of the Gospel; such as the fact that by His death Christ atoned for “the sins of the whole world” (1John 2:2), and that He not only saves us by His grace, He also keeps us by His grace (1Peter 1:5). In fact, they are often willing to undermine the entire Gospel by explaining away what the Bible says about creation, the Flood, and the age of the earth.
Because the people I have in mind want to be motivated by the Law, they try to motivate their children by the Law, often with disastrous results. Children need to know that their standing with God is not determined by what they do, but by what Christ did for them on the cross. Once they understand that, they need to be taught the importance of having a tender conscience before God, of admitting their sin and looking to Christ for forgiveness instead of making excuses for their sins. They also need to be taught that we do what is right because it is right, and because we love God, not to earn God’s favor. Furthermore, they need to be taught how important it is to walk in a clean conscience before God. And, if they believe that their sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ they will be open to that instruction. We should show our appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice by conducting ourselves in a way that is above reproach, in a way that will never bring shame to His name. Sadly, legalistic (lukewarm) parents usually just preach, and yell, and demand “obedience” with the threat of God’s wrath, until, by the time the children are grown they are sick of it and want no part of it.
The truth is that, if we could “obey” we would not need Christ. The truth is that, no matter how hard we try all of our “obedience” is as “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Isaiah 64:6). It is our faith in Christ, not works, that is counted as obedience (Galatians 3:6, Romans 10:4).
While some lukewarm Christians take a lax “sin in moderation” attitude, those who are zealous for the Law can be, and often are, lukewarm toward the Gospel. Of course they do not think that they are lukewarm. They may be very active in trying to get people to pray the “sinner’s prayer” (Luke ). However, praying that prayer is about as far as they go. They act as if getting someone to pray that prayer is the entire Gospel. Therefore, instead of instructing those with whom they are dealing in the great truths of the Gospel, they put all the emphasis on works such as tithing and church attendance. And, if they do not rob them of all assurance of salvation by making God’s favor depend on works, they lead them to believe that once they have prayed that prayer they cannot lose salvation even if they live in sin. And, that is clearly a false Gospel (Hebrews -32). The truth is, that just as God saves us by His grace, He keeps us by His grace, and once the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Christ He keeps us in faith by keeping us repentant, not by letting us sin (Galatians 5:18).