Many Christians are lukewarm, but not for the reasons they think. “I don’t go to church enough, I don’t pray enough, I don’t witness enough.” Let me stop you right there. How much is enough? How many people do you need to lead to Jesus to stop him from vomiting you out of his mouth? The answer is zero, because Jesus will never vomit you out.
You are not lukewarm because of your productivity. But you may be lukewarm if you are mixing the white-hot love of God with the stone-cold demands of the law. (If this is news to you, take the Lukewarm Test now.)
How do we become lukewarm?
The Laodiceans were famously lukewarm, but anyone can be lukewarm. All you need is a little law. In the Bible we find a great law that no one can keep. It’s a law to crush egos and silence boasting mouths. But the self-righteous take that great law and cut it down to manageable size. They belittle and cheapen God’s law, making themselves lukewarm.
An oft-heard cry is that the modern church is being undone by cheap grace. The term cheap grace was coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in in his 1963 book The Cost of Discipleship. Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, leaves sinners unchanged and gives rise to moral laxity. The remedy is to preach costly grace, meaning grace with conditions. In other words, the cure for apathy is to mix law with grace.
This is toxic teaching. There is no such thing as cheap grace. The real damage is done by preaching cheap law. In his 2013 book, One Way Love, Tullian Tchividjian wrote about the dangers of cheap law:
Contrary to what some Christians would have you believe, the biggest problem facing the church today is not ‘cheap grace’ but ‘cheap law’—the idea that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus…A high view of the law produces a high view of grace. A low view of the law produces a low view of grace.
The fundamental problem with cheap law is “it nullifies grace,” said John Dink in a 2012 essay. “Cheap law weakens God’s demand for perfection, and in doing so, breathes life into the old creature and his quest for a righteousness of his own making.”
If you want to make people lukewarm, the fastest way is to preach cheap law. Cheap law may be packaged as the pursuit of holiness or the spiritual disciplines. It could be an emphasis on the sacrifices you bring or the promises you make. Cheap law may take many forms, but it invariably bears the nauseating stench of self-righteousness.
Why were the Laodiceans lukewarm?
Anyone can be self-righteous and lukewarm, but the Laodiceans were lukewarm because they were Jewish. They had left the synagogue, but they hadn’t entered the kingdom. They had heard the good news of grace, but they hadn’t let go of the law.
The Laodicean church was Jewish in the same way the Jerusalem church was Jewish. But unlike the Jerusalem Jews, the Laodicean Jews were still bound to the law. Lacking a full revelation of what Christ had done, they were stuck between two covenants. This is why Jesus says they were neither cold (fully under law) nor hot (fully under grace). They were living under law and grace, which is like having a cold bath and hot one at the same time.
The Laodiceans were not the only ones. To this day, many remain confused about the covenants. Their confusion manifests in comments like, “We need to balance God’s grace with works,” and “God gives us grace to keep his commands.” In the pursuit of balance, mixed-up preachers give mixed-up messages and the result is mixed-up believers.
The remedy to this sort of lukewarmness is not to preach cheap law, but to preach pure and undiluted grace.
Adapted from Paul Ellis’s forthcoming book, Letters from Jesus: Finding Good News in Christ’s Letters to the Churches.