Nominal Christianity is a major problem for the American church, being a feel-good religion whose focus is on the comfort of the practitioner rather than the glory of God. Nominal churches dot the American landscape, and in providing a form of Christianity without the power of the Gospel, they are havens for false converts, and factories of false conversion. As such, nominal Christianity is deadweight, a hindrance to the Church universal. A number of authors have spoken out against nominal Christianity over the years, and addressing this problem is a good thing. Unfortunately, some have gone too far in their rebuke of nominal Christianity, advocating forms of "radical discipleship." With strong words, these teachers boldly condemn the nominal Christianity prevalent today, and present a form of self-denial that is unfamiliar to many in America. Yet, as I will argue here, such an emphasis often simply trades one form of self-centeredness for another. While nominal Christianity is self-centered, focused on one's individual comfort, "radical discipleship" is also self-centered, focused on the level of one's "radical" commitment to Christ, as opposed to being focused on Christ Himself.
The problem with nominal Christianity is self-centeredness - an emphasis on self and comfort, with only lip service paid to Christ. In nominal Christianity, Christ is a means to an end - He is a provider of fire insurance against Hell. He is a means of respectability within the (nominally Christian) community. He is a license to live however one wants without having to suffer eternal consequences for one's deeds. For everything that is said, self comes first, even if one's actions are externally couched in pious and Christ-serving language.
Now, suppose that you are a Christian who has come out of nominal Christianity. You are rightly incensed about the sinfulness of that religion, and are rightly motivated to speak out against it, and rebuke those who adhere to it. Suppose that you are a pastor, or a teacher, or one who has some influence over a body of believers. What would be your strategy for tackling the problem of nominal Christianity?
One approach might be to attack the accumulation of worldly possessions. After all, most nominal Christians seem more concerned with earthly possessions than with Christ. So you decide to extoll the practice of selling what you have to give to the poor, or leaving everything behind to go overseas. You emphasize self-denial, where self-denial (for you) involves parting with all unnecessary earthly goods. You lade your congregation with guilt over the unnecessary possessions that they own, and encourage them to become radical by focusing on ministry instead.
Another (complementary) approach might be to attack recreation, entertainment, and leisure time. After all, most nominal Christians seem more concerned with earthly pleasures than with Christ. So you decide to extoll the practice of giving up entertainment and recreational activities, and devoting one's leisure time to other ministerial pursuits. You emphasize self-denial, where self-denial (for you) involves parting with all unnecessary pleasurable activities. You lade your congregation with guilt over how they waste their time, and encourage them to become radical by focusing on ministry instead.
Perhaps another (complementary) approach might be to attack the lack of "radical" commitment to Christ. After all, most nominal Christians do not seem to have any deeper-than-surface-level commitment to Christ. So you decide to extol the practice of making radical and extreme commitments, and getting out of one's "comfort zone." You emphasize self-denial, where self-denial (for you) involves "stretching oneself" though making radical commitments. You lade your congregation with guilt over how uncommitted they are, and encourage them to become radical by instead strongly committing themselves to ministerial activities.
Now, these strategies might seem to work. If you are successful, they will be laden down with guilt for how poor of Christians they see themselves to be. And feeling guilty, they will be motivated to change - to do anything to get rid of the guilt that you have laid upon them. And how lucky for them, but that you have a solution for their problem - a penance whereby they may absolve their consciences of guilt. The solution is simply more: give more, sacrifice more, do more, commit to more. More, more, more. And the more they do, the more the realize that they cannot possibly do enough. And this will bring them into more guilt, from which they will be motivated to do even more of what you have set before them.
Before you know it, you have a congregation of hard-working, ministry-minded individuals who are making great sacrifices to (putatively) advance the kingdom of God. You've done a good thing right? You've cured them of their nominal Christianity, right? Or have you merely traded one form of self-centeredness for another? In reacting against nominal Christianity, have you brought your congregation to Christ, or have you simply converted them to another foul perversion of the truth? I would contend that such a congregation, while no longer nominally Christian, is no more "Christian" than before, for the simple fact that guilt-motivated, works-emphasizing legalistic Christianity is no more Christian than pleasure-motivated, comfort-emphasizing nominal Christianity.
A man who is motivated by guilt is not Christ-centered. He is still self-centered, because all of his actions spring from a desire to alleviate himself of the guilty feelings that he is experiencing. Just as a man who fundamentally pursues the satisfaction of earthly pleasures is self-centered, so also is the man who fundamentally pursues the alleviation of guilt. It is a tragedy that many people go from nominal Christianity to legalistic Christianity, thinking they have found something of spiritual value, when in reality they are no closer to the heart of Christ than before. The same Jesus who said "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Lk. 9:23) also said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). If, in seeking to deny yourself and take up your cross, you finds yourself weary and heavy-laden, you have missed what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ.
The problem with "radical discipleship" is that it primarily emphasizes the act of being radical - radical commitment, radical use of time, radical use of possessions. But the focus of Christianity is not the act of being radical - the focus of Christianity is Christ. The word "radical" literally means "of or going to the root or origin." If Christ is the root, or center, of Christianity, then radical Christianity is a focus on Christ. If "radical discipleship" is a focus on the act of being radical, then "radical discipleship" is really "radical radicalism," and as such has nothing to do with Christianity. Christianity simply provides a context in which to be "radical."
Christianity is Christ-worship, ascribing worth to Christ. But "radical discipleship" is self-worship, ascribing worth to oneself, conditioned upon how radical one has been in the use of one's time, one's possessions, and how radically one has committed oneself to ministerial activities. But in looking to oneself, one will never find oneself worthy - there will always be more things that could have been done, things that could have been done better, and ways in which one could have been even more radical. If one focuses on how radical one is, one will never find oneself radical enough. And that will simply create more guilt. And since the solution to guilt is being radical, that will only perpetuate the process of trying to be radical for Christ. This is no different than any other system of legalism, where righteousness and acceptability before God come on the basis of performance and works.
But Christ is different. He does not say "come after you have done," but rather "come, and then do." Christ, through His active and passive obedience, has made us completely acceptable to the Father. Not only are our sins forgiven, but Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, as if we had lived the righteous life of Christ Himself. As such, we are accepted by God not on the basis of our performance, but on the basis of Christ's performance. Thus, we can rest in Christ, for Christ is our absolution - we do not absolve ourselves of guilt through the penance of good works. Rather, Christ's sacrifice makes us clean (Heb. 10:10) and cleanses our conscience - something that performing the works of the law could never do (Rom. 3:20, Heb. 10:2). By trusting in Him, whose sacrifice once for all cleanses us from all sin, we have all that we need to be forgiven, and our have our consciences cleared.
The work of Christ enables us to have rest, for no longer are we under the condemnation of the law (Rom. 8:1). Rather, we have been justified through faith, and God's verdict of righteousness can never be overturned (Rom. 8:32-39). So what does this mean for us, in practice? What it means is that when our hearts are set free and given rest from guilt and condemnation, we are free to worship and serve Christ out of love and gratitude. It is only when our hearts are at peace in Christ that we can do good works - that is, good deeds with the proper motivation. And the proper motivation is not to gain God's acceptance, but out of love and gratitude to please Him who has already accepted us. This means that the Christian is free from guilt over not measuring up to someone else's standard for what a Christian should be doing with his life. For "The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one" (1 Cor. 2:15), and "None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s" (Rom. 14:7-8). It is before Christ that each of us stands or falls (Rom. 14:4), not the pious proponent of "radical discipleship" who peddles his wares of guilt and legalism.
The Christ-centered disciple is focused on Christ in a simple and trusting manner (i.e. childlike - Mk. 10:15), seeking to know Him more fully, and follow where He leads. The self-centered "radical" disciple, on the other hand, has a morbid obsession with how "radical" he is (usually fueled by a guilt complex), and seeks to find ways to be "radical enough" to both satisfy the demands of his radical-discipleship community, and his own self-imposed standard of what Jesus expects of him as a "radical disciple." If a Christ-centered disciple is called to go overseas, he packs his bags and goes, for this is what his Lord requires. There is no pomp and circumstance, no self-congratulatory thoughts on how radical he is being for doing this. Rather, he simply sees himself as doing what His Lord has called Him to do. And more often than not, if this is what Christ has called him to do, it is what he has a heart-felt desire to do anyway. In all of this, he follows the command of Christ, who said "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Lk. 17:10). On the other hand, the "radical disciple" goes overseas out of guilt, and a desire to measure up to the standards and expectations of "radical discipleship." He may endure hardship and persecution. He may speak strong words about the kingdom of God, and the necessity of repentance and self-denial. Yet, he is not unlike the Pharisee, to whom Christ said "You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are" (Matt 23:15).
Similarly, when the Christ-centered disciple is called to stay stateside and live a normal life, he does so, and serves God faithfully where he is. He does not seek to do less than what Christ requires, but at the same time, he is not concerned with doing more (such as going overseas). Like the disciple who faithfully goes overseas, the disciple who stays home is simply "doing his duty." On the other hand, the "radical disciple" who stays home feels guilty about it, for the simple reason that living a normal life is not nearly as radical as going overseas, or selling all of one's possessions, or doing something of the like. He spends his days feeling guilty about not doing enough with his life, always seeking ways to atone for his lack of radical commitment. Such a disciple makes a great church member, being there every time the door is open, participating in all of the events, and doing whatever is requested of him by the church leadership. But whether such a disciple makes a good follower of Christ is another question altogether.
The Antidote to Nominal Christianity
So, if not guilt-driven legalism, what is the solution to nominal Christianity? What is the pastor or teacher to do change the hearts of the congregation? The answer is simple: preach the Word. Proclaim the Good News. Proclaim and exalt the grace of God. Exalt Christ, and proclaim His excellencies. Feed the flock with the knowledge of God, for in this is the substance of eternal life (Jn. 17:3).
"But," the "radical" proponent might object, "how is this supposed to cure people of nominal Christianity?" Where is the pressure to get out of the easy chair and "put one's hand to the plow"? The simple answer is that such is not the emphasis of the message, for the simple reason that the motivation for good works should come ultimately from Christ, and not from men. This comes down to the difference between human wisdom and divine wisdom. Human wisdom says "put the people under a burden of guilt, for guilt is an effective motivator." Divine wisdom, on the other hand, says "Bring people to Christ, and let Christ change them, and provide them with proper motivation." Divine wisdom glorifies God because it keeps the pastor from getting the glory for the change in the hearts of the congregation. The proponent of "radical discipleship" can rightfully say "Look at what I have accomplished!" The true pastor of the flock, however, cannot take credit for whatever positive change God brings about, for he is merely the instrument though which God works to press His Word home to the hearts of His people, and effect change in them.
The cure to nominal Christianity, then, is Christianity. That is, the preaching and exposition of the whole counsel of God. In hearing and taking the Word of God to heart, one comes to know God. And in coming to know God, one develops a love for God. And in developing a love for God, one begins to do that which God would have one to do. If one loves God, obeying His commands is not a burden (1 Jn. 5:3), and if one knows God, one will listen for His voice and follow where He leads.
That is the solution, as simple as it is. Christ is the heart of Christianity. To have true Christianity, Christ must be exalted and placed at the center. The whole counsel of God must be proclaimed. If, on the other hand, "radical discipleship" is exalted and placed at the center, one will have Radicalism, not Christianity. When people focus primarily on how "radical" their walk with Christ is, they cease to follow Him, turning instead a standard of works-righteousness that they have set up for themselves.
May we see the things that are preached and taught for what they are, and never tire of contending for the "faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).
Soli Deo Gloria!