here’s this sermon I’ve heard a few dozen times. You’ve probably heard it too. It goes like this. Some Christians are really passionate and sold out for the Lord. They do great things. They live righteously. They don’t do anything that could be considered worldly. They only listen to Christian music. They have biblical family values. They’re on fire.
And others? Well, they’re “lukewarm Christians.” Sure, they say they believe, but they’re not that committed. They show up in church to warm the pews, but they still do worldly things. You should see the way they dress and those movies and music they listen to! If only they knew all the right things to do so they could be on fire like us. Jesus says, “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16). That, strong children, is why you have to be on fire for the Lord. Let us pray.
Obviously, I can’t object to an exhortation to be more committed to the Lord, and I dislike “easy-believe-ism” as much as the next disillusioned evangelical does. But if you know about Spiritual Abuse, you recognize a few other all-too-familiar themes lurking in the subtext.
There’s a strong temptation to elitism there—you want to be better than all those “lukewarm” folks, don’t you? Legalism’s waiting to pounce, too; it blends in perfectly as long as you define “On fire” as “Doing our things” and “Worldly” as “Not.” All that’s left is for us to spin “I will spit you out of my mouth” as “You might be eternally lost if you don’t do our thing” and we’re practically in cult territory.
But it’s biblical, right? It even has a Bible verse in it, and you can find dozens of people interpreting that verse in exactly that way, pretty much that same sermon, even. Tweak the applications a bit and it’s good for weeks.
Well, there’s one tiny problem: That’s not what that Bible verse means. Actually, it means pretty much the opposite.
Yes, Jesus says He doesn’t like it if you’re “lukewarm.” Yes, Jesus says “I will spit you out of my mouth,” and yes, it’s true (as you’ve probably heard) that that refers to puking. But what makes Jesus want to vomit? Is it really people who claim to follow Him and still (horrors!) watch PG-13 movies with wizards in them? Is it people who claim to follow Him but are just pew-warmers?
Or is it something different? Not just a different token “worldly” action, but a completely different way of thinking about your relationship to the Lord?
The answer, like the answers to most things, is found in context. The context here is the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, that is, the part that you don’t need an advanced degree in theology or screenwriting to interpret. John records letters from Jesus to seven churches in Asia Minor, at once pointing out their sins and shortcomings and encouraging them to stand firm in what faith they have. It’s dynamite stuff; I wish I had time to expound all of it.
The letter with the “lukewarm” verse is the seventh and last, addressed to the church in Laodicea. It begins like this:
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.
Already this is a bit confusing, given the standard interpretation. If the “hot” people are those who are “on fire” for the Lord, then the “cold” people must be… atheists? Flagrant sinners? Crooked politicians? Richard Dawkins and his merry band of infidels? Could be, but then why does Jesus say “I wish you were cold or hot” like they’re both equally good? Surely He doesn’t consider it the same to be on fire for Him and stone-cold against Him?
16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.
That bit we know. Jesus doesn’t like lukewarm beverages. He spits them out. Insipidity, something that’s the same temperature as the room, doesn’t do it for Him.
That’s obviously a metaphor for something (unless you’re a hyper-literalist and think that Jesus drinks people). Yet there’s no mention of the behaviors we’re often told are “worldly.” Is Jesus speaking in riddles, or will He explain what He means? What’s the difference between “hot” and “cold”? What makes a person “lukewarm”?
The next verse tells us. Specifically. It even starts with “Because” so we won’t miss that it’s connected. Here’s why Jesus gets nauseated by “lukewarm” believers:
17 ‘Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked…
Well, that’s not what they told us it meant.
The “lukewarm” people Jesus is criticizing think they have it all together, but they don’t. They think they are rich when they are actually poor; they think they can see when they are really blind; they think they need nothing when they are living on the streets. They have the worst of both worlds—all the smugness of wealth and all the neediness of poverty. They need help, but they think they’re well off.
This makes the rest of Jesus’ metaphor perfectly clear. “Lukewarm,” obviously, means a mixture of hot and cold, producing something bland and tepid. The Laodicean church combined feelings of passion for the Lord (hot) with the condition of being apart from the Lord (cold). The result is horrible: people in spiritual need who can’t recognize it because they think they’re doing great.
“Lukewarm” means “self-righteous.”
A “lukewarm Christian” is not somebody who claims to follow Jesus but also does worldly things. It’s somebody who says “I don’t do worldly things, so I’m living in God’s will.”
A “lukewarm Christian” is not somebody who claims to follow Jesus but only shows up on Sundays. It’s somebody who says, “God must be pleased with my devoted church attendance.”
A “lukewarm Christian” is not somebody who doesn’t have a quiver full of children. It’s somebody who says, “I have biblical family values, so I’m more sold out to the Lord than those feminists are.”
Lukewarm Christians are satisfied in themselves. Lukewarm Christians are proud of their spiritual commitment and pleased with all that they do for the Lord. Lukewarm Christians believe that they are living the right way, with all the right values, and all the right methods, and all the right works.
Except they aren’t. The fact that lukewarmness—self-righteousness—nauseates the Lord matches what He said (terrifyingly) about people who won’t make it into heaven:
“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’” (Matthew 7:22–23)
These people did great works for the Lord—even miracles—and thought well of themselves, but they missed their need for the Lord Himself. Jesus said, “Only one thing is needful,” and it isn’t to do great works for Him. Jesus wants us to trust Him, rest in Him, believe in Him, see our need for Him, get to know Him, let Him get to know us. That’s all one thing: it’s called Faith.
That may explain why Jesus says “I wish you were cold or hot.” If you’re “hot,” then of course you’re exactly where the Lord wants you to be—surrendering to the All-Consuming Fire. You’re seeing your need of Him and depending on Him to burn away your impurities and kindle your love.
If you’re “cold,” you’re apart from Him—and you feel it. Sometimes we have to hit the bottom before we learn to look up. As Martin Luther said, if you’re going to sin, you may as well sin boldly. None of this socially respectable stuff. Try it all, if that’s what it will take for you to see it doesn’t satisfy. When the Prodigal wound up in a pigsty, he realized how good his father really was. The sooner you get to the end of your rope, the sooner you’ll see your need to be rescued.
Being “cold” is just as good as being “hot,” from a salvific standpoint, because in both cases you’re seeing your need, insufficiency, and helplessness, and coming to depend on Jesus for His grace, forgiveness, and righteousness. The one fatal condition is to be needy while depending on your own righteousness. That’s disgusting. That will get you spit out of Jesus’ mouth. That’s lukewarm.
The point is not that we should be lazy, worldly, or half-hearted in our commitment to Jesus. The point is that there are much worse sins than laziness or worldliness. As C. S. Lewis said, “A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”
What’s the cure for lukewarmness? Jesus (again) tells us exactly in context. Here’s the rest of His letter:
18 ‘I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. 20 ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. 21 ‘He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. 22 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
The answer is to look to Jesus. It’s to see your need and see that only Jesus can fill it. It’s to ask Him to give you whatever it takes to fill it, and to give up anything it takes to get it. It’s to let Jesus enrich you, cover you, heal you.
There’s hope. Jesus counts even the “lukewarm” people among “those whom I love”; otherwise He wouldn’t take the trouble to correct them. It’s never too late to repent and open the door to friendship with Christ. If you let Jesus sit down with you at your table, He’ll let you sit down with Him on His throne.
If you simply do that—if you open the door to Jesus, trust in Him, get to know Him, and let Him help you overcome your self-righteousness—then you’re not lukewarm anymore. You’re one who overcomes. You’re on fire.
Don’t let any of the lukewarm Christians tell you otherwise.
Eric M. Pazdziora is a recovering legalist, but doesn't like to boast about it. These days, he mostly writes words and music. He lives in Chicago with his beautiful wife Carrie and his spoiled cat Eloise. If you want to hear some of Eric's music or read some more articles, visit his website at ericpazdziora.com.