Being lukewarm is the other side of being legalistic. A legalistic Christian is someone who is more obsessed with rules and behavior than the judging Christian is. Likewise, a lukewarm Christian is simply one who is less obsessed than the judge with such things. Lukewarm Christians can, in this judgment, run many risks. Today, we’ll check out where this word comes from, how it’s used against competing flavors of Christians, and what it tells us about Christianity itself.
(From introduction: The chess weirdo.)
(This post first went live on Patreon on 7/20/2023. Its audio ‘cast also lives there and should be available by now!)
Where Christians get the idea of being lukewarm
Unlike legalism, which does not appear anywhere in the Bible really, Christians get the idea of being lukewarm right out of their holy book. It appears in Revelation 3:15-18, and the writer of the book even imagines Jesus himself saying it:
I know your deeds; you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other! So because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to vomit you out of My mouth!
You say, ‘I am rich; I have grown wealthy and need nothing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, white garments so that you may be clothed and your shameful nakedness not exposed, and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore be earnest and repent.
Right after this passage, we get the famous one about him standing outside their door and knocking:
I wonder, too, if this bit perhaps inspired Charles Spurgeon to create his famous extended metaphor about prison.
Either way, Jesus is quite cross with the wealthy, comfortable Laodiceans because they’re so casual about their practice of Christianity. He’d been planning to eat them, but he’s very particular about the temperature of his food. In this way, he’s like a housecat who refuses to eat refrigerator-cold canned food.
Jesus happily chows down on people who are cold, or dines upon those who arrive to his table piping hot. But lukewarm people-food is just gross. Since he possesses neither a fridge nor a microwave nor even fingers to test degrees of heat, he has no choice but to cram someone in his mouth and then spit them out and reject them if they’re the wrong temperature.
What this metaphor means
A couple of different interpretations now exist for this passage.
In the most common interpretation, Jesus wants his followers to commit 100% to his religion. He’d rather they drop out than half-ass things. Being half-assed makes Christianity look bad to prospective recruits. It’s not that he’d rather people be hostile (or “cold”) toward him and Christianity, but at least that level of passion can eventually be turned toward conversion and religious zeal. Someone who just doesn’t care either way is useless to him as a meal.
A competing second interpretation has been gaining favor with evangelicals for the last decade or so. Here, we’re talking about literal water temperatures. See, cities that weren’t all built right on a source of potable water had to bring it in through pipes or aqueducts. In the first century, one water source came fairly hot to its city from a nearby hot spring, so it was great to use for bathing and cleaning. Another water source came quite cold to its own city, so it was refreshing to drink. But Laodicea brought water in from a hot spring that was fairly far away, so it arrived lukewarm. Lukewarm water is far less pleasant to drink and not as useful for bathing or cleaning. It has to be cooled or heated to be fit for any purpose.
Whichever one we go with, its overall message is clear: Those Laodiceans must get serious about Christianity if they want to be eaten!
What lukewarm Christians look like
- They view Christianity as a get-out-of-Hell-free card and aren’t in it to worship Jesus.
- They love stories about zealous Christians. However, they aren’t interested in doing zealous things themselves.
- Though they may avoid breaking (most of) their flavor’s behavioral rules, they aren’t really “entering into [Jesus’] suffering.” In other words, they aren’t really disciples of Jesus.
- They don’t do near enough recruitment, especially not with their circle of friends and coworkers. (We get a Charles Spurgeon quote here: “You are either a missionary or an impostor!”)
- They’re far more preoccupied with their current lives and nowhere near enough focused on their eternal lives after death.
- Oh, they do “love their luxuries,” rarely giving money to charity.
- They don’t “live by faith.” They’re not “desperate for the Spirit of God,” or feeling desperate for his help.
- Most of all, they spend only their spare time on devotions. They don’t carve time out of their busy schedules to Jesus the Jesus-Jesus as often as they physically can. This is, in Greear’s exalted interpretation of Malachi 1:8, “evil.” (Fact check: Most translations use the word “wrong.” In addition, the verse in context refers specifically to substandard animal sacrifices, not to using only spare time to worship.)
Of interest, Greear published this post on May 18, 2018, just a few weeks before he won his first year of presidency over the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC, and he held the position from 2018 to 2021). Also of interest, he favors the second interpretation of the verses from Revelation. His interpretation of the water metaphor is a hoot, too: Cold coffee is yummy. Hot coffee is also yummy. But lukewarm coffee is gross.
Greear ends his post with threats of Hell for Christians who aren’t zealous enough according to King Him. He calls the state of being lukewarm “deadly serious,” asserting that Christians who think they’re perfectly safe from Hell really might not be—all because of their lukewarm temperature.
By the way, if you spotted some major problems with Greear’s definition, good. We’re getting there!
Why being lukewarm is so dangerous for Christians
No shortage of information is available online to make Christians feel scared of lukewarmness. One blogger who runs a site called I Need a Word offers a listicle of those dangers:
- Lukewarm Christians have the appearance of holiness. But behind the scenes they’re hypocrites.
- They’re entirely too comfortable and friendly with worldly people and things. (Worldly means not focused 24/7/365 on Jesus.) That could easily lead them into sinful rulebreaking and laxity of Jesusing.
- They don’t want to examine themselves to make sure they’re properly Jesusing. Thus, they might be Jesusing all wrong without knowing it.
- They’re too quick to equate appearances with reality, in both themselves and others. They could be incorrectly Jesusing without even realizing it!
- Lastly, they are going to Hell. Jesus won’t want to eat them after they die.
If you spotted the same problems here, good! We’re still making our way there.
Over at Bible Study Tools, Heather Adams offers slightly more concrete descriptions of the dangers of being lukewarm. Lukewarm Christians:
- Have limited impact on their religion
- Think they can “rule [their] own lives”
- Suffer from deception and spread it around to others
The main danger of lukewarmness, of course, is that it can lead to indifference—and from there to backsliding. Backsliding is evangelical Christianese for drifting out of hardcore Jesusing and back into a secular, sinful, worldly state. At the very least, it’s like hitting the pause button on a Christian’s faith. If the state continues for too long, though, it can lead to disaffiliation and/or deconversion.
The penalties for being lukewarm vary, however
Almost every source I consulted online threatened lukewarm Christians with Hell. As Relevant puts it, Jesus tells lukewarm Christians that they are “condemned.”
That makes sense, given Revelation’s imagery.
But Jeremy Myers, writing for Redeeming God, has a very different take on the matter. Redeeming God has the stated goal of “liberating [Christians] from bad ideas about God.” And Myers thinks that lukewarm Christians will totally go to Heaven. They just won’t co-rule it with Jesus [emphases in original]:
[I]f a person believes in Jesus for eternal life, they are given eternal life by God. Even if they become a lukewarm believer, they continue to have eternal life. Yes, Jesus says He will “vomit” them out of His mouth (Revelation 3:16), but this has nothing to do with losing eternal life. Jesus is just continuing the imagery of the hot and cold water.
Furthermore, for those who overcome, that is, for those who remain either cold or hot, Jesus does not say, “You get to go to heaven when you die,” but rather, “You get to sit with Me on my throne” (Revelation 3:21). So you see? Being hot or cold does not earn eternal life. Instead, it earns the reward of co-ruling and co-reigning with Jesus Christ in His Kingdom. [. . .]
[L]ukewarm believers are those who simply do not follow Jesus and don’t really seem to want to. Yes, they are still believers who have eternal life and will go to heaven when they die, but they are missing out on most of what the Christian life has to offer and due to being lukewarm believers, cannot experience the Kingdom of Heaven in all its joy.
As if Christians weren’t confused enough.
This guy makes me think about how my Evil Ex Biff completely flustrated some strikingly-young Mormon missionaries. (Flustration/flustrated/flustrate/flustrating is a portmanteau of frustrate and fluster. Southern evangelicals in particular like using it.) They were trying hard to convince him that if he didn’t convert to Mormonism, then he wouldn’t rule in Heaven beside Jesus.
So Biff, being Biff, asked if he’d still go to Heaven as a non-Mormon. Yes, they told him. He just wouldn’t get to rule over it all with Jesus. Only Mormons would get that honor. Biff heard that and nodded. He didn’t mind that at all. All he wanted was to get to Heaven (read: escape from Hell). If he ended up scrubbing toilets in Heaven, he told them, that’d be just fine with him as long as he got there. Oh, he confused those two boys so much. They had no idea how to cope with a Christian not wanting to rule Heaven.
What Christians should do if they realize they’re lukewarm
Heather Adams of Bible Study Tools [relink] offers some brief advice for avoiding this dreaded state: Jesusing super-hard, “doing good works in Jesus’ name,” and asking other Christians for accountability.
Similarly, Emma Danzey of Christianity.com offers the same sort of advice:
Some ways to avoid being lukewarm like this church include having a teachable spirit, getting involved beyond the basics at church, and inviting God into your [a word is missing here; it might be heart] every day.
One major way that we prevent a lukewarm attitude is by guarding and being aware of self-reliance creeping into our perspectives. We need to humble ourselves and remember our great need for our Savior Jesus and depend on Him.
And so does someone named Wisdom who writes for Spiritual Hack. And a guy named Samuel from Saintly Living. Though Catholics don’t tend to talk about lukewarmness all that often, even Aleteia gets in on the action. Taking a cue from Romans 12: 9-12, their writer Meg Hunter-Kilmer suggests making choices that simply reflect one’s faith:
Paul doesn’t say, “Be nicer,” he says, “Anticipate one another in showing honor.” Whom can I honor in a deliberate way this week? “Hate what is evil”—how have I compromised my values with the television I watch? “Endure in affliction”—what difficult relationships have I given up on where the Lord is calling me to double down on love? “Do not grow slack in zeal”—where can I speak the name of Jesus more boldly?
Incidentally, it’s exceedingly interesting to me that Hunter-Kilmer doesn’t include verse 13 in her suggestions. Here’s what it says: “Share with the saints who are in need. Practice hospitality.” Gee, I wonder why she stopped at verse 12? For that matter, verses 14-21 teach Christians how to behave toward those who hate and persecute them. It’s just so weird that she just pushes the easiest parts of Romans 12.
Meanwhile, over at Desiring God, Greg Morse asserts that his refusal to read the Bible combined with his habit of comparing himself to other Christians led to a lukewarm state. So doing the opposite led him back to red-hot zeal.
All of this advice boils down to a couple of concrete suggestions involving Bible reading, prayer, and maybe good deeds, but advice-givers put these suggestions alongside exhortations to psych oneself up to Jesus harder than ever before.
The Doctrinal Yardstick strikes again: One Christian’s lukewarm life is another’s legalism
As I’ve said before, there is no objective standard by which Christians can be judged. Oh, they think the Bible is their objective standard. But it most certainly is not. Every Christian reads it and interprets it in their own quirky li’l way. So every Christian who judges another as lukewarm can and will be judged as lukewarm by some other Christian.
When I was Pentecostal, I knew a lot of Christians I thought seemed very lukewarm. But there were plenty of Christians who completely out-Jesused me and likely thought I was lukewarm! When I refused to move to that one cult leader’s farm years ago, he accused me—along with all the other Pentecostals who likewise refused to relocate there—of lukewarmness. He said we were all so satisfied with our substandard, un-Yahweh-cloud-covered way of Jesusing. We refused to consider the superior Jesusing to be had at his communal farm. And because we had refused Jesus’ call to join Ezekiel at this farm, we would face judgment for it after our deaths.
But in reality, his cult was hugely abusive and cruel toward its members. Ezekiel was a thoroughly evil man who beat his followers and screamed at them for hours on end, cut them off from their families and friends, controlled their lives to the second, forced them to labor in various ways for his enrichment, and browbeat them into making personal decisions that hurt them. If that was what being on fire for Jesus meant, I wanted no part of it.
The more I tried to be on fire for Jesus, the worse the groups I fell into and the more I suffered from hypocrites’ control-grabs. It was just so strange. It was almost like authoritarian leaders knew exactly how to exact maximum obedience from people just like I was. And it was almost like no gods at all existed to stop them from hurting people.
The weirdest part of being lukewarm
It just seems so strange to me that so many Christians suffer from lukewarmness. Often, they clearly don’t even realize they’re like that! No, they need listicles and accountabillibuddies to point it out. Even then, these both rely on the lukewarm readers recognizing that the accusations are accurate. Jesus himself never seems to show up to tell these folks that they’re in danger of being spat out at his next attack of the munchies.
If Jesus were real, and if Christians’ claims about him were true, then I really wouldn’t expect an epidemic of lukewarmness. Instead, it would be painfully obvious that Jesus was exactly what they claimed he was.
How could someone possibly be lukewarm in that situation? In their claims, the god of the entire universe adopted humans as his very own children. He will let them rule the cosmos beside him. They’ll bring his power and love to the entire world. And he’ll save them from the worst imaginable fate after their deaths.
Rejecting his demands means suffering that unimaginably horrific fate. But accepting his rule means gaining his tangible help in this world—and a crown and a golden mansion in the next. It also means becoming a host for his spirit. That spirit speaks to his followers, informs their thinking, and influences their decisions and behavior.
But we don’t see that happening in Christianity.
We most especially don’t see anything like that in their descriptions of lukewarmness. Lukewarmness should be absolutely impossible in a universe where Christian claims are true.
Lukewarmness makes Christianity’s false claims so very clear
Instead, these accusations and advice tell us Jesus does not exist. All that Christians get is whatever they can psych themselves up to feel. That’s what this advice is all about: Helping Christians immerse themselves so much in Jesusing that it sparks feelings of psyched-up zeal. When Christians stop Jesusing like that, those feelings inevitably subside—because there’s no real god at the center of their religion to keep it going.
There’s only themselves and their own suggestibility making them feel like they’re on fire for Jesus. Without them doing 100% of the emotional labor, it does not get done.
Writing listicles and advice about lukewarmness certainly helps heat up those fires. One thing I noticed in almost every source I consulted was how the tone of the writers would just soar toward the end of the post. It was clear that they were doing the religious equivalent of jerking off, and the end of their post was their, uh, climax.
If nothing else, though, I reckon that the creators of all these listicles and advice columns are at least helping themselves avoid lukewarmness. After all, they want Jesus to be able to chow down on them one day. And he doesn’t like lukewarm food.
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