The Death of Nominal Christianity

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“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it. It began with the forging of the Great Rings.” So goes the narration in the opening scenes of the movie, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I’m not sure exactly what began the change that I feel in the real world, but I know that it seems to be changing quickly. There are plenty who now live who remember the world as it was not so long ago. The pace of change is quite dizzying, in fact. If you take the time to trace the moral and cultural revolution, you’ll see that some monumental changes have been taking place in the West within the space of only a few years.

The church has not been exempt from these changes. By “church,” I’m referring to Christianity as perceived by the world. Everything that calls itself “Christian” is included. The “big C” church, while not uniform, remains steadfast and immovable, grounded on the word of God.

But, technicalities aside, the church along with culture, is seeing her share of monumental changes in philosophy and practice. Just think of the rise of women in the pastorate, and the redefinition of marriage, etc.

One of the concerning developments has been the number of prominent “Christians” who have publicly renounced their faith and turned to secularism. Doug mentioned this in his sermon recently, speaking about Judas, who also appeared to be genuine but, in the end, when push came to shove, showed his true colours and apostatised.

Now, thankfully, we are not God. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). There are a couple of possibilities for those who have turned away from the faith.

On the one hand, like Judas, they might be showing their true colours. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). Sadly, as I was reminded at a funeral last week, this leaves them in a worse state than they would have been if they had never heard the truth (2 Peter 2:20–22).

Another possibility is that they are genuine believers who have fallen into tragic sin for a time but will ultimately be restored to the visible church. Let’s pray earnestly that this will prove to be the case! (Think of the man who was committing sexual sin in the Corinthian church, but was later restored.)

But assuming for the moment that their apostasy is final, they are forever rejecting Christ, blaspheming the Spirit, and thus proving that they never truly were sheep. Is this not concerning? Why do there seem to be so many who are turning away these days?

The answer to my first question, is a resounding yes. This is very concerning! We should mourn for the damage that is caused to the reputation of the bride of Christ every time a prominent person turns away or falls into sin. But my concern is for the reputation of the church, and not so much for the numbers of those who seem to be turning away.

That may strike some as very strange. Why would I not be concerned about the upturn in numbers? Let me go even further and suggest that perhaps this increase in numbers turning away signals a good thing. Now that I have your attention, let me explain.

Let’s begin by recapping some of the basic truths we all know. First, as unbelievers, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Colossians 2:13). Second, salvation is a sovereign act of God whereby we are made alive (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:1–10). Third, our adoption/salvation is permanent and final (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27; Colossians 1:13; Romans 8:30).

Based on these fundamental truths, we can conclude that there has not been any increase in sheep turning into goats. There has not been an increase in those who belong to the kingdom of light returning to the kingdom of darkness. There has not been an increase in those who have been made alive returning to death.

What has happened has been an increase in those who were never truly saved but who are willing now to show their true colours and admit that they are not the real deal.

How is this a good thing?

I believe this is a good thing because the distinction between the church and the world is becoming clearer. There will always be those in the church visible who are not true believers, but I think that gap is getting smaller.

In bygone years, Christianity was in the very fabric of Western culture. To openly deny the faith was an unpopular position, which was met with far greater social stigma, and individuals stood to lose more if they left the “church” than if they continued to play the game. In other words, there were many who were goats trying to live as sheep. There were many dead people in the ranks of the church who sadly died at the end of their days having never been made alive.

Thanks to the current moral and sexual revolution, the stigma associated with secularism has been removed. It is no longer the norm in the West to believe the Bible or to subscribe to the doctrines of the church. Those who never truly believed live in an environment where is it harder to be a Christian than not. Thus, renouncing the faith, although certainly not an insignificant life change, has become a lot easier than it used to be.

Those who are leaving the church are now moving to the popular side of the fence. It is the side of the fence that used to be unpopular and suspicious. This spells the death of nominal Christianity. Of course, there will always be a liberal side of the church. But, increasingly, that side is becoming so dramatically different from biblical Christianity that it is all but unrecognisable.

The space for those who want to pretend to be Bible-believing Christians, but are not motivated by an extravagant, lavish devotion to Christ is becoming uncomfortably small. Three options remain. Either you must take an unpopular stand against abortion and sexual sin and a stand for complementarian gender roles as a believer, or you must invent a religion incompatible with the Bible, or you must turn away from religion altogether.

This is a good thing because there are fewer people who can live their lives deceiving themselves that they are in Christ when, in fact, that are not. This is a good thing because it helps us not to take professions of faith for granted. It is now easier for people to see where they stand before God. They can’t hide in the church anymore.

But it is also a good thing for the gospel because, as people take down their facades and live consistently with their newfound secular beliefs, the good deeds of true believers—the hands and legs of faith—become more conspicuous and (I hope) their attractive witness is improved. The church becomes seen to be a more compelling community because there are fewer fraudsters selling knockoffs, which may be indistinguishable from a distance.

So rather than becoming discouraged, we should be encouraged that we have a greater opportunity to reflect the light of Christ into a world so dark—that the tiniest of sparks is seen for miles around. But we must also realise, as we should have realised long ago, that not all those who say that they believe truly do. Faith without works is dead and always has been dead.

The trouble is that, in a field of dry bones, one more femur hardly stands out. But in a functioning hospital, a random leg lying in the passage should draw some attention! So, rather than worrying that our children will be tempted to fall away as they enter the world, we should endeavour through tears, teaching, example, exposure, and much prayer, to help them to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). We must not take the genuineness of their faith (or our own, for that matter) for granted.

Now, I am not in any way wanting to cause genuine believers to doubt their salvation, but we must constantly be asking ourselves whether we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Do we have the lavish devotion and extravagant love for our Saviour that Mary had, or are we just pretending like Judas?

If you realise that you are just pretending, don’t turn away! There is still hope! Ask God to change your heart. No one who comes to Christ will be cast out (John 6:37)! Ask him to save you based on his own perfect sacrifice on the cross so that you can experience true, lasting, permanent forgiveness today!