How to Avoid Nominal Christianity

by Stephen Rhoda

There are at least two verses in the Gospels that ought to make all church-goers stop and ponder long and hard about their faith and the faith of their children.  The first verse is Matthew 7:21, in which Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”  The second verse is Mark 8:38, in which Jesus says, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Notice in the first of these two verses that some will say, “Lord, Lord.”  The double form of “Lord” indicates that such persons are sincere, perhaps even passionate, about their faith.  Yet the teaching of Jesus is that their faith is not real and that they are not saved.  And notice in the second verse that one must stand for Christ before the world without shame if Christ would smile upon them in the day of His coming again.  Therefore, Jesus’ reference is at least to those who are mere church-goers and to those who are unable or unwilling to name the name of Christ in their conversation with others.

Both of these verses give fair warning of the deficiency and grave danger of “nominal Christianity,” and our response to such warning should be to “examine [ourselves], to see whether [we] are in the faith,” as we are specifically called to do in 2 Corinthians 13:5.  And as we long and labor to see faith formed in the hearts of our children, we ought to beware lest they attain only to a nominal faith.

What is a “nominal Christian”?

So first of all, let’s define “nominal Christianity” more carefully.  Most literally, a “nominal Christian” is one who is Christian in name only.  They may call themselves a Christian and others may think of them as a Christian because of the customs they keep and the general morality of their lives, but they lack a relationship of loving and joyful dependance upon Christ for their salvation.

Therefore, “nominal Christians” may perhaps be defined more pointedly by what they don’t do.  They don’t acknowledge the just judgment of God for sin.  They don’t cling to Christ for salvation.  They don’t love Christ as shown by their lack of time spent in the Word seeking to know Him better and spending time with Him in prayer.  And maybe the most observable characteristic of a nominal Christian is that they don’t speak of Christ in their conversation with others.  They may speak of “God” and “the Lord.”  They may claim to be “Spirit-filled” according to some definition of that expression.  But they are unable or unwilling to name the name of Christ eagerly and joyfully before others, even before other Christians.

Now, if they are unable to name the name of Christ, perhaps they need to grow in their knowledge of Christ in order to possess true faith.  Faith requires knowledge because you can’t believe in something or someone that you don’t know.  So those who are unable to name the name of Christ need to know and understand that Christianity is about Christ and that saving faith is not just a matter of faith in “God” but faith in Christ.  But if they are unwilling to name the name of Christ, then it’s likely that they are ashamed of Christ.  Either way, they are “nominal Christians” and still without saving faith.

Is this diagnosis too harsh?  Only if it’s wrong.  If it’s a correct diagnosis according to God’s Word, then is this not the most loving ministry you could provide someone, to help them see that they are “so close and yet so far”?  Even more, we ought to ask whether Jesus was being harsh and unloving when He issued the clear warning, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes…”

Avoiding Nominalism

So here is the way to avoid “nominal Christianity.”

First, get into the Word of God and don’t quit reading and studying until you have a clear understanding of the Gospel and what true faith is.  If someone says, “But I don’t have time,” my answer is that this is too important not to make the time!  If you were diagnosed with some disease that threatened to kill you, would you tell your doctor, “I don’t have time for the treatment”?  Wouldn’t you cancel a vacation, take leave of your job if necessary, and devote yourself fully to getting better?  Would you skip treatments in order to watch television or go golfing?  But even more, understand that nominal Christianity will kill you in the worst possibly way.  Here your eternal salvation is at stake.  The outcome is heaven or hell.  You must believe in Christ to be saved, and you must know Christ and the Gospel in order to believe.  So study the Word of God and pray fervently for the knowledge, understanding, and conviction of true and saving faith.

Second, avoid spiritual jargon and mere “God-talk.”  Christianity is about Christ, and saving faith is faith in Christ.  So confess Christ and name His name in your conversations with others.  Instead of saying things like, “I love the Lord,” say, “I love Christ,” exactly because Christ is your Lord and without using His name no one will necessarily know who your “Lord” is.  Instead of just talking about “God,” talk about Christ, exactly because Christ is your God and without using His name no one will necessary know who your “God” is.  Remember that nominal Christianity is marked by spiritual generalities and not specific confessions of Christ.  So name the name of Christ!

Third, be prepared to suffer for Christ.  Jesus warned His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).  The question is not whether believers in Christ will suffer for their Master, but when.  And be prepared that the most intense and pointed ill-treatment may even come from other “Christians.”  In the same sermon, Jesus also told His disciples, “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think He is offering service to God.  And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:2).  As one moves from nominal Christianity into true faith, it will highlight the hypocrisy and error of others, and they will not take kindly to it.  Don’t expect to keep every friendship you have, but do expect that God will use you to save others as well, some perhaps who have already lived a long life in the church but apart from Christ and true faith.

Fourth, teach your children what they need to know to believe in Christ as well.  It’s not wrong to make use of the ministry of others to help train your children, but it is wrong to turn over the instruction of your children to others, even if it’s good instruction.  So instruct your children diligently in the Word of God (Deuteronomy 6:7).  Teach them the meaning of their baptism, which is to say, teach them the Gospel and the covenant faithfulness of God to His people from generation to generation, but teach them as well the absolute necessity of their own faith in Christ.  Warn your children of God’s judgment for sin, and call them to flee to the cross and believe in Christ.  Point out the difference between a nominal Christian and a believer of Jesus Christ.  And don’t be surprised by their resistance and how slow they are to believe, but see such things as indicators of the truth of God’s Word: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15)and “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).  So teach your children about Christ and pray for them every day, because only by God’s Word and Spirit will they come to faith in Jesus Christ and be saved.

Finally, continue in the Word of God.  Study to teach your children, and study to hold yourself accountable to the Word.  Read and study not

to be spiritual and to get “fulfilled” but to be a faithful disciple of Christ and to preserve your soul (1 Timothy 4:16).  And beyond your personal study of God’s Word, study with others as well in the church.  Approach a more studied brother or sister in Christ and ask if they will study with you to teach you.  Or approach another believer for the sake of mutual discipleship.  Remember that even as God works in us by Word and Spirit, the Spirit draws us into community with other believers, so that “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

Conclusion – Now What?

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’ll consider further this conclusion.  None of this will matter if pride controls us.  It’s pride that leads us to say, “Never mind.  I’ll do it my way.”  It’s pride that insists on picking and choosing what to receive and what to reject from God’s Word, which is exactly what nominal Christianity does.  It’s pride that says, “I’m in good company, and I don’t care to lose my place of favor with others and the opportunity to pursue my own goals.”  But once again, a gracious God has not left us without warning and truth.  Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”  And in John 14:6, Jesus makes it clear- “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”