UPDATE: This is an old article. An updated and expanded commentary on this passage can be found in Paul’s book Letters from Jesus.
Here’s a favorite question of some preachers: “Are you a lukewarm believer?” You’d better have a good answer because if you’re not sure – “Am I lukewarm?” – Jesus may spew you out of his mouth. What does that mean? He’ll reject you, you apathetic Christian! You may think you’re saved, but if you’re not on fire for God, you’ll end up in the fire!
What diabolical nonsense.
First, you are a part of Christ’s body and Jesus doesn’t spew out body parts. Ever vomited up a kidney? A toe? It’s a ridiculous notion, yet this is exactly what the fearmongers say will happen!
Second, being lukewarm has nothing to do with how enthusiastic you are. When I was a young man, free from the responsibilities of fathering or paying the bills, I thought I was on fire for God. That basically meant I went to a lot of meetings and volunteered for a lot of activities. Nothing wrong with that, but you’re deluding yourself if you think busyness impresses the Lord.
Defining lukewarmness in terms of zeal is fraught with problems. What is hot to you is lukewarm to someone else. (You haven’t led as many people to Jesus as Billy Graham? Get out of my sight you lukewarm loser!) Zeal can be a mask for works-righteousness. (As if that impresses the Lord!) And while most would say it’s better to be a little bit on fire for God – “Hey, at least I’m trying” – Jesus would prefer you were stone cold:
I know what you have done; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either one or the other! (Rev 3:15, GNB)
What does it mean to be lukewarm?
Lukewarm is what you get when you mix hot and cold. To be lukewarm is to mix that which shouldn’t be mixed. For instance, mix the white-hot love of God with the stone-cold demands of the law and you’ll fall from grace (see Galatians). Mix up your husbands by running back to the law and you’re cheating on Jesus (see Roman 7).
Ironically, the mixture of unmixable things is a leading cause of complacency in the church. If Christians are lukewarm in the modern sense, it’s because they are lukewarm in the Biblical sense. They’ve been paralyzed and neutered by the irreconcilable demands of crippling mixture. The disease of lukewarmness results from the following unhealthy activities:
- Mixing the new covenant of grace with the old covenant of works
- Mixing the new law written on our hearts with the old law written on tablets
- Mixing the rest of the new with the ceaseless demands of the old
- Mixing the unbreakable promises of God with the brittle promises of man
- Mixing the bondage of Sinai with the liberty of Zion (Gal 4:31)
- Mixing the ministry that condemns (2 Cor 3:9) with the ministry of no condemnation (Rom 8:1)
In the pursuit of balance, mixed-up preachers give mixed-up messages that lead to mixed-up believers. It’s like getting poison from the doctor.
Why does Jesus prefer us cold to lukewarm?
Live with a mixture of the old and new and you’ll reap the benefits of neither. You won’t enjoy the grace that God has provided, nor will you heed the law that points to Jesus.
The number one cause of lukewarmness is cheap law, namely the delusion that God accepts anything less than perfection. Cheap law may be packaged as the pursuit of holiness or spiritual disciplines. It could be an emphasis on the sacrifices you bring or the promises you make, but its fruit always has the nauseating stench of self-righteousness. “Look what I’m doing for you Lord!”
The remedy for lukewarmness is the sort of stone-cold assessment that Jesus gives to the Laodiceans:
You make me want to vomit. You brag, “I’m rich, I’ve got it made, I need nothing from anyone,” oblivious that in fact you’re a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless. (Rev 3:16-17, MSG)
Why does Jesus say it’s better to be cold than lukewarm? Because the law that Jesus preached silences proud mouths revealing our need for grace.
How do I become hot?
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. (Rev 3:18)
Thank God for grace! Because of grace you get to swap your filthy self-righteous rags for the clean robes of Christ’s righteousness. You get to trade your hay, wood, and stubble for the golden treasure that is Jesus himself. With his salve on your eyes you will see that his sacrifice is a perfectly perfect work that cannot be improved upon.
Want to be hot? Then stop mixing grace with law. Stop living in the netherworld between two covenants. Stop running back to your old husband Mr. Law. Stop doubting the promises of God. Stop sleeping with the maid of self-effort. Stop striving for balance. Stop trying to replicate what Christ has done.
In short, repent and believe the good news that Jesus Christ has done it all!
Enjoy this article? Why not sign up to our free email list and we’ll notify you about new articles as soon they come out. No spam, we promise.
Help these messages of hope and grace go further by supporting us via our Patreon page.