Nominal Christianity Is Apostate Christianity

Sermon Passage: Hebrews 5:8–6:12 | Preached to SGF | 11-8-2020 

By Peder Kling 

Thinking Through Tricky Verses

At this point in the book of Hebrews, we have seen the author give us an argument that Jesus Christ is better than the Jewish religion which the Jews inherited from their fathers. Jesus is better than the Jewish religion he fulfilled because he offers a revelation that is better than OT revelation (1:1). He is better because he offers better mediation between God and man than even angels in the OT (the rest of chatper 1). 

 

Then in previous weeks we’ve seen that Jesus is better than Moses (chapter 3). And then chapter 4 brings us to a matter which the author of Hebrews spends significant time unpacking—chapter 4 through chapter 9. That matter is precisely an argument that Christ’s priesthood is better than the Aaronic priesthood. His sacrifice is better than OT sacrifices which were offered to God for atonement of sins, according to the Levitical sacrificial system. The 2 verses leading up to our sermon’s passage today say this (5:9–10)— 

 

9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

 

Now, that in and of itself sounds pretty glorious, doesn’t it? “being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation”—awesome! But if it’s glorious, why is it that if you ask most Christians what it means that Jesus was “made perfect”, they can’t answer you? They’ll say—“Jesus is perfect, he can’t be made perfect. Not sure what that means”. Or, why is it if you ask a Christian why it’s important that Jesus was designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, they raise an eyebrow at you? Hebrews thinks it’s a big deal!

 

 “On second thought, it sounds pretty nuanced and heady to me, Peder—can’t we just stick with the simple, basic gospel?” Jesus died for my sins, I believe upon him by faith and am saved. That’s enough for me. 

 

Two things, here, that might peak your interest into what Hebrews is saying if that’s where your heart is. First, Hebrews is going to take all of chapters 7 and 8, bleeding into chapters 9 and 10 to describe how awesome these nuances are, and how they can bless you if you understand them. If you want to find peace and joy in the gospel, Hebrews is saying this is where you need to go.

 

Second, the author of Hebrews concedes that this is a lot to take in. Look at the very next verse. Verse 10 says, “about this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain”. In other words, "you gotta think about this". But, notice the reason Hebrews gives for why this is hard to explain. It’s not hard to explain because its heady, academic, unintelligible stuff. “about this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, because you have become dull of hearing”. The difficulty is not with the doctrine, or with God’s word. The difficulty is with "you"! The NIV translates this verse to say, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.” That’s right on with what this verse is saying.

 

The author, here, is saying that teaching these things to you is difficult because you don’t care. And what this passage is going to tell you is that you are missing out on the gospel if you don’t care about these complicated matters which pertain to Christ's priesthood. This same word “dull”, as in “dull/sluggish of hearing”, comes up again in the last verse of our passage. If you look ahead to verses 11 and 12 (chapter 6), you will see what I think is the highest point, or the goal, that God has for us in this passage of his word. 

 

11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish [“dull of hearing”, 5:11], but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

 

Do you see what’s at stake, here? “we desire that each one of you might show earnestness”—not laziness, slothfulness, but earnestness. To what end? It’s not good works, I’ll tell you that. It’s not just “getting by”. It’s earnestness and zeal “to have the full assurance of hope”. Full assurance of hope is what we are after. When you dig into what it means for Christ to be “made perfect”, and to be made “a priest after the order of melchizedek”, you will attain assurance of hope because that’s what those truths contain for you. Not false assurance, not menial assurance, but full assurance of hope and salvation. And when you have that full assurance, what happens? You become bold. You become imitators of those who, because they were certain of God’s promises, lived faithful lives before God—and even died for the faith if God called them to it.

 

But many people (in the Jewish audience which Hebrews was addressed to) were menial, falsely-assured, nominal Christians. They were “dull of hearing”, they needed someone to teach them the basics of the faith over and over and over again because, frankly, they forgot. And they forgot because they didn’t care. They didn’t want assurance, because they didn’t care to be assured of their salvation. In reality, as we will see, these nominal Jewish Christians weren’t really Christians at all. Nominal Christianity is a very dangerous Christianity. It is the Sunday Christian who receives false assurance on Sunday so that he can go on living his life without God the rest of the week. This is Christianity in name only, not in faith or deed. 

 

Distinguishing Nominal Christianity from Mature Christianity

So what this passage does is it warns nominal Christians not to feel falsely assured in the gospel, especially as the author of Hebrews is about to unpack the subject of Christ’s priesthood which is a goldmine of assurance for genuine believers. That’s the reason for the strong warning in our passage, which we will look at in a moment. But to get our bearings in this message, we are going to consider two questions which this passage addresses: 

  1. What does nominal Christianity look like (and what are its dangers)? 

  2. What does mature Christianity look like (and what are its blessings)?

 

1. What does nominal Christianity look like?

First, it looks foolish. And, it looks foolish because it is foolish. Verse 12—“[you have become dull of hearing]… For even though by this time you ought to be teachers, you [still] need someone to teach you *again* (ahem, *again*) the basic principles of the oracles of God”. You need (and, you still need) milk, not solid food. 

 

How ridiculous would it look if you walked into a restaurant full of adults who were never weaned off their mother’s breast? Everyone’s drinking milk, and they are drinking milk because they’ve never cared enough to try something else. They’re happy drinking milk from the bottle. Adults. And sadly, that’s the state of most American Christian churches due to this seeker-sensitive, seeker-driven model of ministry that our churches have adopted. I’m sad to say that if you ask most people who go to flashy evangelical churches today and ask them the gospel, they’ll be able to tell you—but they’ll be speaking like an infant. Ask them about the deeper nuances of the gospel, nuances that bring nuance comfort and joy and assurance to mature Christians—and many will say, “you know I’ve heard that word before but I don’t remember.” I'm thinking questions like this—

 

  • What sort of glory does justification bring to you?

  • Why is it awesome that Paul says you have been adopted? How were you adopted—what blessings come alongside your adoption?

  • What are the ten commandments?—and do you regard God’s commandments like the Psalmist in Psalm 19 did, when he said that they are reviving to your soul?

  • What is imputation?

  • Why is it a happy thing that Christ is your high priest? What blessings does he offer you as your high priest? 

 

Sadly if you ask many Christians these things, they say “you know I’ve heard those words before but I just think them to be unimportant. I just focus on the gospel”. What they don’t realize is that these things are all organically connected to the gospel, they define the gospel and all the blessings the gospel offers, and when the NT speaks of them it describes them as glorious, containing blessing and comfort for those who would be fed by them.

 

But nominal Christianity doesn’t care. Or at least, it's too lazy to pursue these things for the blessings which God promises in them. Nominal Christianity is foolish—the foolishness of the sluggard who, as proverbs says, “buries his hand into the dish of food, but is too lazy to even bring it back to his mouth”. The result is a person who thinks himself wise and secure, but is really anorexic. Nominal Christianity looks foolish—like adults drinking milk, and being content with that—or, like a sluggard too lazy to bring food to his mouth.

 

And of course, the danger of nominal Christianity here is that you think you’re fed and secure, but really you are an adult being fed by milk. You’re anorexic. You’re going to pass out after a mile long hike, when God is calling you to go through the pain of climbing mountains. The danger is a danger of falling away from the faith.

 

Second, nominal Christianity looks like ritualism. It's often legalistic, with all sorts of rituals to perform.. Perhaps you could say it’s the “Sunday Christian”.

 

I get this from the first few verses in chapter six. In verse 1, Hebrews encourages us to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity”. Now, this encouragement is there because this passage presents the picture of someone who has perhaps gone through confirmation class, or through catechism, and failed to leave catechism. They didn’t want to leave 3rd grade, if you will. Look at this (verse 11),

 

Let us… go onto maturity [verse 1], not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washing, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment”=.

 

So there you have it—we don’t want to lay these same basic principles down over and over again. This is milk—you are supposed to be eating steaks now! 

 

What’s actually really interesting about this passage is that you get a window into early Christian discipleship, perhaps early Christian baptism classes which Christians would go through before being baptized and joining the church. What subjects did those classes contain? You see them here listed in what seems to be couplets, or pairs: repentance and faith—that’s the very foundation of the Christian faith. “Repent and believe” is the proper response of the gospel that will bring salvation to a soul. Then, “washings [baptisms] and the laying on of hands”—there is reason to believe that the apostles or elders in the early church would lay hands on the person being baptized as a sort of priestly sign of God’s blessings. But this is essentially baptism—the way God visibly marks his people as his own people, and also (in baptism) he communicates the gospel to them in a visible way as the washing of water depicts the Spirit’s work to wash sins away from the believer with the blood of Jesus. And then lastly, you see there that “the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment” are listed as an elementary doctrine of Christ, as the resurrection of the dead is a fundamental doctrine that gives us hope. Paul reminds us that “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” But we have hope in the next life because the dead are raised, and we will be raised to a world where Christ’s judgment will bring forth a kingdom of perfect peace to his and our kingdom.

 

So, there’s a window into early church discipleship and baptism classes. But just as the problem persists today, these nominal, milk-drinking Christians likely learned these things and felt secure because they learned them—not because they received them by faith. Perhaps they took comfort in knowing they had completed that baptism class, and were baptized—rather than actually taking comfort in the gospel. “I said the sinners prayer. I went through my class. I was baptized. Box checked, I’m good to go.” It’s a false assurance. Its assurance in ritualism, in works, not in God’s grace that satisfies and fills you with a desire for more.

 

And of course, the danger in this ritualism is that false assurance—when you feel secured when you are actually in great danger. That’s really the worst spot to be. As Jesus said—

 

Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

 

Third, nominal Christianity looks like apostasy. This observation will come from verses 4–6. And before we go there, I want to say that these are perhaps three of the hardest verses in Hebrews to understand (and perhaps even in our Bibles). Look at these verses again real quick—

 

4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

 

Now, we first need to understand what this passage is not saying. First, this passage is not saying that it is impossible for someone who has fallen away to repent from their backsliding or apostasy, and be saved. We know that from 1 John 1:9— 

 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 

And, this really is good news isn’t it? I know many, many Christians who grew up in the faith, learned the truth, and then they cursed God and left the church for a season. But then they came back. It may be tempting to read this passage in Hebrews and say, “nope, you apostasized, there’s no hope for you now!”. Nobody does that. I don’t know of any church tradition that does that. Do you not remember the prodigal son—a son who enjoyed the benefits of his father’s house for a season, then ran away into worldliness only to come back again with genuine tears of repentance? 

 

21 ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

 

That’s God’s mercy. 

 

So what is "impossible" (v 4), then, in this passage? What’s at work, here, if it is not what might seem to be so plain? Well, I spent a long time trying to understand this. But one commentator really helped me see something—and, I think he’s spot on because what he says makes sense with the actual context of this passage which we are talking about.

 

The question we have to ask first is with whom does the impossibility rest? I know God can restore an apostate to repentance, so the impossibility does not rest with God. Rather, the impossibility rests with the preacher or teacher who is exhorting these Hebrew Christians. Can God change a hard-hearted sinner’s heart, and restore them to genuine repentance? Yes. Can a man? No. 

 

Remember the context, here. The author of Hebrews has been saying, “I’ve been teaching you these basic, elementary matters of the faith for far too long, and some of you still don’t care about them! You’re still drinking milk, don’t you desire meat?! Aren’t you embarrassed?!”. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, as the saying goes. So what you see, here, is a humbled teacher struggling with Sunday Christians who come to church for a false assurance, and then they go back home to live their lives without any regard for God whatsoever. Anyone who has ever been a minister of the gospel knows first-hand that the hardest person to minister to is a nominal Christian who thinks he’s safe but he’s really in serious danger, as he’s built his life upon a false assurance in his Sunday routine or his self-declared pious rituals. Teaching these people, trying to give them meat, is impossible! And what the author of Hebrews is doing here is he is saying to the whole church that it is time to leave these nominal Christians behind because it is impossible to restore them to repentance over and over and over again every Sunday, going back to these same elementary principles which have proven to have no effect on their souls whatsoever. It’s time to stop pandering the lowest common denominator, the nominal Christian, and start feeding meat to the Christians who desire to go onto maturity. So he says to the church, “we ought to leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity… and this we will do if God permits." And the reason why we are going to leave these nominal Christians behind is because (1) you’re looking pretty anorexic and you need food, and (2) it is impossible for me to change the minds of these nominal Christians who, although they may have shown fruit at one time, they have now grown complacent and unresponsive.”

 

There comes a time with a nominal Christian where you have to tell them that they are the seed which Jesus talked about in the parable of the seeds, which —“fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up …  And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.”

 

And when that time comes, you don’t simply go back to teaching them the basics of Christianity again. They know them. It’s impossible to restore them to repentance through the same routine doctrinal class they have been receiving to no avail. What you do is call them to repentance and faith, and if they persist in their disobedience, you pray for them and leave them to God. “Shake the dust off your feet and go to the next town”, as Jesus told his disciples. 

 

So again—the impossibility to restore such a man to repentance lies within the minister, within man. Not God. And of course, one reason is because God can change hearts, not man. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

 

But there’s another reason why it is impossible for a godly minister to restore a persistently nominal Christian to a vibrant faith and repentance. Look again at verse 6. 

 

[it is impossible…] to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt [or, “shame”].

 

Will any good minister serve God in such a way that will hold Christ up to contempt and open shame? You see, what this “crucify once again” and “holding Christ into contempt” language is describing is this awful situation that nominal Christians find themselves in. A person who claims Christ on Sundays, but lives for the devil the rest of the week, cheapens grace. To use Paul’s words, they “sin so that grace may abound”. They take advantage of Christ’s blood rather than praise him for it. To use the words of this verse, they sin in order to "crucify once again Christ", rather than live by faith and repentance because Christ was crucified. That is what I think this is talking about. And any minister who continues to teach these nominal Christians the faith as though they were true Christians is only pandering to this mockery of Christ, and they will find it impossible to restore such a man to repentance through the ordinary Sunday school styled of teaching. A good minister will not minister this way, so as to assist in this mockery of Christ's blood.

 

So, what I see here is that a nominal Christian looks like an apostate Christian whose minister cannot restore to repentance. The nominal Christian looks like a man who is not drawn to faith an repentance through the weekly teaching which God’s people ordinarily receive, and they are in great danger of God’s wrath. 

 

And as we have been saying, nominal Christianity is not merely shameful or foolish; it is not merely anorexic; it is not merely ritualistic—it is so dangerous that we might presume it to be apostasy. And, the end of apostasy is very clear in verse 8, “it’s end is to be burned”. Can I be certain that a nominal Christian is under judgment? Not always—but I don’t see the value in parsing hairs. When I see a nominal Christian who knows the truth but doesn’t care for it, or at best uses it for his own worldly agenda, the Bible seems to say that person needs to be warned rather than treated as a full sibling in Christ.

 

So, church, even though these nominal Christians may be in our midst, or even though they may have gone out from us, let us leave them behind and press onto maturity—and this we will do if God permits. We don’t want a church full of anorexic Christians.

 

Now, there’s probably a few objections out there. Let's name two which you might be thinking about.

 

1. "What about being an outward-focused church that seeks to evangelize the lost? How can a doctrinally-minded church that gives meat feed people who need milk?"

The answer I think is quite obvious. Doctrine breeds Christian maturity, and Christian maturity is all about loving who God loves, and serving as God serves. A mature church should be the most qualified church to reach the lost—it’s full of people who genuinely are assured of their salvation, they’re humbled and at peace, and they like God are passionate for the lost. My prayer is that my preaching would give you the meat you need in order to go out and do the hard work of ministry. Milk-fed Christians can’t handle evangelism and outreach and discipleship. They’re going to pass out. But well-fed Christians will be prepared and motivated.

2. "But baby Christians will not enjoy a mature worship service."

That’s simply not true. People say that all the time, but I’ve never found it to be true. Many genuinely converted baby Christians go to flashy seeker-sensitive churches and see right through them. The word converted them, and they know the word will sustain them even if they don’t understand everything they hear. They’ll ask questions. It’s what they do!

 

Now, I said I would take some time to explain what mature Christianity looks like, and the blessings it conveys. I’ll go through our passage hitting the high points on this matter.

 

2. What does mature Christianity look like?

First, as we have seen, a mature Christian looks like a well-fed Christian. Chapter 5, verse 14 of our passage: “solid food is for the mature”. Don’t you love solid food—a good steak or BBQ sandwich? I’ve always pitied those folks who have their protein shakes and think that’s enough for their meals. They’re nuts! Give me solid food. But look at what solid food does for you—“solid food is … for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil”. 

 

So, mature Christians are wise Christians. They distinguish good from evil, and they’ve found their wisdom in their food—in God’s word. They’ve practiced God’s word, they’ve read it and mulled over it, and that has given them an ability to discern truth from falsehood; good from evil, beauty from ugliness. And they find comfort in truth, and they are disgusted by evil. That’s mature Christians.

 

Second, mature Christians are Christians seeking full assurance of salvation, for in their assurance they find peace and contentment in Christ. Look at verses 11–12 (chapter 6) with me again,

 

11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

 

Our greatest desire is that you show earnestness to have full assurance of hope until the end (verse 11). Why? Because assurance is what you experience when you experience your salvation by faith—you experience peace and joy in the Christ alone; you experience contentment even through pain, you experience fellowship with God—and those things assure you that you truly are God’s, that you are saved, and that is something worth pursuing so that you might, in the words of verse 12, “through faith and patience inherit the promises”. 

 

We have taken time as a church in the past to consider this matter of assurance, but let me go there one more time, since it is such an important matter. Our confession, the Westminster Confession, has an entire chapter on it. We will read that later in our service after this message. Right now I want to remind you of a helpful category that we talked about awhile ago in Sunday School. What we need to remember about assurance is that, strictly speaking, assurance does not save you. There are many people who struggle with assurance, as they doubt whether they are really saved and that God loves them, but they will be saved in the end. What saves you is Jesus’s blood and righteousness, and the gift of faith that God works into your soul which receives the salvation and blessings which Jesus’s blood and righteousness offer. Now, what we tend to do is confuse faith with assurance. We don’t want to do that. This is so important. How many times have you heard yourself, or a little child say, “how can I know for certain that I am saved?”. Well, that question, and the concern behind that question, certainly is some evidence.

 

You see faith, at the very least, desires assurance. Faith moves a person to pursue assurance. And what’s awesome is that God, in his word, has given us ways to strengthen our assurance by faith. Faith pursues assurance through prayer, the Word, the sacraments, and fellowship with believers. Faith is what you might call a spiritual organ that God gives to sinners, and this organ functions to pursue and receive salvation. Assurance is a feeling that you receive, alongside salvation, through faith. You feel assured, you don’t feel faith. Assurance is that feeling of peace, comfort, joy, and love which accompany God’s love for you in Christ. J. I. Packer says 

 

The puritans speak of assurance sometimes as a fruit of faith, sometimes as a quality of faith, they talk both of assurance growing out of faith and of faith growing into assurance.

 

So faith and assurance are distinguishable, but they are organically related to one another. As faith increases, so does assurance. As faith is so minimal that you question it is there, so also your assurance likely at a low. But where faith is, there is salvation whether we feel assurance or not. This is where Packer continues to say that 

 

full assurance is a rare blessing, even among adults; it is a great and precious privilege… [it] is a mercy too good for most men’s hearts….[it] is the beauty and top of a Christian’s glory in this life. It is usually attended with the strongest joy, with the sweetest comforts, and with the greatest peace. It is a… crown that few wear… [Full] Assurance is meat for strong men; few babes, if any, are able to bear it, and digest it.

 

And yet, as our passage tells us, in verses 11–12, God desires that each one of you show earnestness, not laziness, to have this full assurance of hope. A mature Christian looks like a happy Christian who pursues this assurance, and enjoys it with peace and a smile of contentment in Christ on his face.

 

Conclusion

So, a nominal Christian is anorexic, foolish, ritualisitic, and apostate. He is the seed that fell on rocky soil, who grew a sprout quickly, but famished in the sun because he was fed by milk rather than food. A mature Christian, however, is well fed, and wise, and experiences that blessing of assurance which brings peace and joy and motivation to press on to inherit God’s promises in eternity.

 

Choose which sort of Christian you want to be.