The ‘waterless clouds’ of nominal faith

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

“They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind.” (Jude 12)

When Professor George Eldon Ladd wrote “Nominalism is the curse of modern western Christianity” (The Gospel of the Kingdom), he might well have added “and has been.” And possibly, “will be.”

In the first few years of the Reformation, Martin Luther advanced many truly radical ideas about the church, the papacy and the sacraments (although he was more conservative about their implementation than I used to imagine).

But there were times when he despaired of his parishioners’ lukewarm faith. Then as now in our politicized world, there were attractive political and social reasons for lining up behind a man of God who was upsetting the apple cart, especially the corrupt and oppressive papacy. (Which, when the movement went out of control, gave rise to the disastrous Peasants’ Rebellion that took thousands of lives.) There can be many reasons for, and degrees of, personal commitment.

When you read the sermons of the 18th-century evangelist George Whitefield, he was rarely addressing an unchurched audience ignorant of the commands of God. It was Christian America or England. The root of the problem he took aim at was complacency, not a lack of teaching or understanding.

As I wrote in my last post, discipleship is driven by a love for God that surpasses all other loves. Nominalism, on the other hand, is usually a product of personal compromise and social pressure. Just enough religion to sprout a 15-watt halo, but not enough to invite disapproving stares in the grocery store or the break room.

In my opinion, the social benefits of nominalism are currently its most stubborn rationalization to deflect a call to serious discipleship. It used to take a while to acquire a bad reputation (i.e., unpopular, going against the grain) because of the time needed for word-of-mouth opinions to be transmitted and consolidated.

Now it can take one or two unfortunate tweets to bring half the online world down on top of you. Someone you never heard of can become the Internet’s goat in a matter of hours. People used to brandish torches as they marched through the streets. Now they use keyboards.

John wrote that “many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put of of the synagogue, for they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (Jn 12:42-43). (Note how another love bumps love for God out of the top ranking.)

In Elijah’s day, the root of the problem was “wavering between two opinions” (1 Ki 18:21). The people couldn’t decide who to follow, Baal or God. The result was the same as with the wavering leaders who believed in Jesus: “The people said nothing.

It’s important to recognize, however, that nominal does not, strictly speaking, mean heterodox or heretical in belief. You can believe all the right things and yet hesitate to confess your faith before men. I did it for years.

You can formulate (or tap out on your laptop) a strong Christian response to someone’s opinion and yet swallow your words (or hit the Back button) because you imagined the repercussions could be too great.

(Although, there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” [Eccl 3:7], so you are not obligated to respond to every attack on the faith; but obedience requires that you speak when it is “a time to speak.”)

But, on the other hand, social media also offer believers a “wide gate” and “broad way” that sidestep the “narrow” way of discipleship. It’s got an updated name—virtue signaling–but it’s essentially the same motivation Jesus described as doing “’acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them” (Mt 6:1).

When your tweet is your “act of righteousness,” it can be no different than the indulgences Luther opposed in the 16th century. For the cost of WiFi service, everyone will accept and approve your “righteousness” and you’ve balanced your spiritual books, at least in the eyes of men.

There’s something irresistibly attractive about the relatively pain-free “wide gate” of a nominal faith. I’ve met many believers who spent years under uncompromisingly harsh ministries who want to put that type of religion behind them once and for all. They want to “taste and see that the Lord is good” again (Ps 34:8). And who can blame them?

Unfortunately, when you correct teaching by temporarily emphasizing missing parts, you can become fixated on those missing parts to the point of losing the balanced “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

The prevalence of prosperity teaching—which can range from slightly off-center to outright, self-serving folly—is in part due to a reaction against heavy-handed and legalistic approaches to discipleship. I’m sure you’ve seen the books about “your best life” and “realizing your dreams” that sound so much better than “take up your cross.”

I’m sympathetic to their rejection of distortions of the gospel and the kingdom, but avoiding one extreme by being blown to the other is not progress. It’s the mark of stubborn immaturity.

The outcome we want, and the Lord desires, is this: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14).

It’s certainly possible. And the choice is not between an endlessly tedious, burdensome religion and the caricatures of the goodness of God that sound so wonderful by comparison. But make no mistake, it’s not easy.

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