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The Myth of the Lukewarm Christian

by Eric M. Pazdziora

T

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…

Oh.

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.


42 comments:

  1. The problem with me having been self-righteous in the past is that now I'm proud that I'm not self-righteous anymore. 😛 Sigh.

    Very interesting view of that verse! Oh, to have the balance that God has! I DO want to rely totally on Jesus for my righteousness. I want to know Him more. Guess I need to let go of the pride and bitterness, don't I? 😛

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  2. "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."

    THIS is exactly what I needed to hear today…. Thank you.

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  3. Heather C. (from facebook)September 9, 2010 at 9:48 AM

    Wow, I have been wondering about this very thing for the last couple of months. It's amazing how God directs us and gently teaches us.

    I have a lot to think about and chew on this, but I am convienced that the Lord wasn't talking about "seperated Christians" vs "Worldly Christians" like I was taught.

    This opens up more for me to study up on.

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  4. Lovely as always.

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  5. I think Thursdays are going to become my favorite, Along with Friday, Monday, Tuesday….:)

    This is a much-needed messege. Also, I laughed out loud for a long time at this line: "That’s obviously a metaphor for something (unless you’re a hyper-literalist and think that Jesus drinks people)." 😀

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  6. I believe this post might be the very first time (in some 30 years of sermons, Sunday School lessons, and hundreds of thousands of pages of Christian books) that I have EVER heard an interpretation of the "lukewarm Christian" that did not propagate the nonsense Eric describes at the beginning of his essay.

    And the only one that makes sense –in any context you frame it with. It's about time someone stood up and announced that this emperor is wearing no clothes! Thanks, Eric.

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  7. Excellent, and I needed to read this today. I'm married to a man that is deeply involved in the Hebrew Roots Movement (one of its many different facets), and he has aged 20 years in the past year and half that he has followed the law. He can't figure out why he feels so old and tired all of the time. And he's not old. Legalism in its extreme forms hurts those involved in it, and the families they are SUPPOSED to love. It's been a difficult time. Thanks for posting this today!
    Kathy F.

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  8. Thank you so much for this post. I could feel healing happening in my heart as I finished reading it. I was just introduced to your site, and I really can't express to you how incredibly grateful I am to know there is a place out there for women who have experienced everything you express to find healing. There is a lot of hurt out there.

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  9. I have always wondered about that. I have heard and believed those sermons too. But it did not mesh with my thinking. I always wondered how you could be a holy roller/missionary saving the world (on fire) and raise a family with all th commitments of work/family etc. I mean everywhere people have to work and there is plenty to say about that in the Bible.

    And I want to cringe everytime a support letter arrives requesting support for the "on fire" ones.

    It just seemed to raise more questions and now after reading this I will mull it over but now am starting to drink it in.

    I think it fits.

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  10. This is such a beautiful article.

    It brought to my mind the day my dad asked me if I was a hot, cold or lukewarm Christian. I was 15 at the time. I answered "lukewarm" because I thought it was the safe answer. I knew that according to a patriarch and legalist's interpretation of that verse, that he wouldn't see me as a hot Christian and I couldn't say that I was cold because I did love Jesus and try to know Him and I also didn't want to say cold because that would set my dad off on a tangent. So, to be safe, I said lukewarm. Wrong answer, according to my dad. I got the lecture anyway about how awful it was to be lukewarm and God wanted to spit me out of His mouth.

    Looking back, and after reading this article that explained things in CONTEXT, the table of reality was actually turned. I can see that my parents were the lukewarm ones all along back then. Thank God they're no longer of the legalist mindset.

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  11. Eric, God has given you such a beautiful gift for writing truth, gracefully. Thank you for depending on the Spirit to inform your interpretations and expositions… He is healing hearts through your fingers.

    P.S. I love you.

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  12. the term "lukewarm" is a trigger word for me for 2 reasons. First, my DH, who is also involved in a Hebrew Roots Movement cult, are all about NOT being lukewarm & it seems to be law based. So for me it's refreshing to hear this term being defined by you, in the light of the true Gospel, not in the way his cult defines "lukewarm".

    I also heard this term, while in the evangelical movement, and they defined it as being on fire for God but there was more emphasis on doing for God rather than hearing from God. So hearing you say "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." is awesome! Thanks!!!!!

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  13. I have never quite heard it put this way and love how God revealed this through you. I struggle with the lukewarm thing every time I do something that might not be "on fire" for God. But, I always felt this love for Jesus and the "poor in spirit" neediness for Him. Makes sense now, thanks for your great gift.

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  14. I wish you had a facebook and twitter share button on this, it's so needed for so many wounded warriors.

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  15. jseven, there are share buttons: if you look at the bottom of the post, just above the labels, you will see them. I'm glad this post meant so much to you!

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  16. Thank you. That was exactly what I needed to hear right now. I don't know quite how I ended up at this site, but I think somehow I was meant to read that.

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  17. Lukewarm is to those who like to throw it around a code word for 'not thinking exactly like me' and I have been called that many times and it is always irritating. I like this text, I have never seen it explained this way before and now, of course, that is how you should understand lukewarm. Even though I have always hated being called that by more conservative Christians I have always accepted their understanding of the word, I will not anymore.

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  18. I'm amazed and delighted to see all the comments still pouring in! Thanks, everybody.

    Kathy F. & Frogla – I wasn't aware of the connection to the Hebrew Roots movement, but considering that the name sounds like what Paul was writing about in Galatians, I can't say I'm entirely surprised. I'll do some more reading on it. Also, you might be interested in this article I wrote about legalism.

    Carrie – I love you too!

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  19. I appreciate reading another view on this verse. I also enjoy the humor you put into your writing. It makes me smile as I read.

    There is yet another interpretation I heard from a youth minister once. He pointed out that a hot drink (like coffee) and a cold drink (like soda or iced tea) are both refreshing. Lukewarm water is not refreshing.

    Laodicea was known for having lukewarm water in their springs and wells. So the concept of something being refreshing was very familiar to them.

    He said the verse was about people being refreshing in the L-rd…bring life to the people around them. It did not matter if your method was hot or cold…it just mattered that you were one or the other.

    Either way…these two interpretations…yours and the youth minister's…both make more sense than what some are apparently teaching.

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  20. Oh yeah! That always escaped my notice, the part that cold was preferable to lukewarm. If the hot Christians are good, the cold ones must be really bad! But I can now see that cold does not mean the opposite of hot.

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  21. Hebrew Roots movement? What about the book of Galatians? What about the fact that the law was for the Jews between Moses and until Jesus's death only? Even Abraham wasn't under the law.

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  22. Eric

    I learned something from this blog today. Never thought of it this way. I ALWAYS thought I was lukewarm because I wasn't doing enough. At least that's what the APOSTATE CHURCH taught us. You must get busy for the LORD. You'll burn in hell if you don't get busy for the LORD. Cliche's like "An idle mind is the devil's workshop" etc.

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  23. Where does the word legalism appear in the New Testament?

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  24. Anon…that's a good one. Reminds me of a shirt that said: "legalism rules."

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  25. Crystal–So glad I could help!

    Anon– If you want the specific word "legalism" then you're out of luck; but the concept it describes (rules-based religion) is refuted very extensively throughout the NT. Start with the entire epistle to the Galatians (see my article on that here) and compare Colossians 2-3, Romans 5-8, Ephesians 2, Matthew 23, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican…. "Legalism" is just easier to say than "the belief that keeping rules makes you right with God."

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  26. FYI, it is a Gothard teaching that you cannot use the word "legalism" because it isn't in the NT. Go figure. And, no, I can't provide proof because I heard it at a IBLP seminar a long time ago.

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  27. Out of curiosity, do they believe in the Trinity or the Rapture? I would hope so, but [points to obvious conclusion…]

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  28. Great post! I love it. I've struggled with this misapplied verse for awhile, as well. Thanks for giving words to my frustration. Well said.

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  29. Thanks Eric. This gives clarity. And I so appreciate you writing this.

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  31. Eric, this is so encouraging. I visited some of the biblical sites while in Turkey a few years ago. I stood and could see Laodicea and how there are two natural springs that flow through that region – one hot and one cold. There is a town where the hot and cold meet and the water is absolutely horrid! It's completely undrinkable.
    I grew up hearing sermons on the lukewarm Christian and was confused as to how that fit into the geographical phenomenon that the original readers would have most definitely understood to be implied in the text. I just couldn't make sense of it, but I knew my previously taught interpretations wasn't right.
    This explanation seems to me to be biblical and Christ exalting. Truth shared in the right spirit is so sweet. I appreciate it, I definitely needed to read this.
    Sharing the link to it, I hope you don't mind.

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  32. I read this to my hubby. He loved it and asked for the link!

    I always appreciate what Eric has to say. And the quirky humor is right up our family's alley.

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  33. The myth of mass manipulation or mass destruction (as opposed to instruction)as being valid or good.

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  34. Very cool post. But my understanding is this: in Biblical times, both hot water and cold water were valuable. Hot water was for bathing and cleaning, while cold water was for drinking and soothing fevers. But lukewarm water? Didn't clean, warm, and was nasty for drinking. So, it was worthless; this was why Jesus said hot or cold was best.

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  35. Eric, I really appreciated this post. I first found excerpts from it on RA's website and then went on to read the whole thing. Thank you so much for sharing this much-needed message.

    OneSurvivor, I also heard that interpretation of this verse. Definitely another interesting way to look at it… and when you think about it in the context of Eric's interpretation, either can be refreshing… seeing someone who's on fire and dependent for God, or seeing someone who's hit rock bottom and recognizing their need for God and reaching out to Him to save them… the "lukewarm" Christians, on the other hand, seek to point out flaws and tear people down, which discourages people and doesn't do anyone any good. *shrug* just a thought… lol

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  36. I have not ever looked at the verse from this direction and i think it looks great from this standpoint and is most likely the way it is meant. thank you for shedding light here.

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  37. hey ya! Just read this today lol i love the first comment as im the same, i was self righteous and now i have been self righteous again by opposing the legalistic versions and i am full aware of this! I am looking forward to the day when i know longer Judge anyone and can be one of those lovely gentle old ladies who nod and say only nice things and show lots of love! i have a good 20-30 years to get there and hey God can do anything so i trust that he can do this for me! God is GOOd! I have been reading old sermons by CHARLES KINGSLEY preached in the 1860s Google search him under the good news of god! Its beautiful teaching! thanks so much for your explaination on this Eric! tracy nz

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  38. I pray you guys really read your whole Bible before you truly fall into this….he makes a good point but his point leads alot of people to false conversion. I was lukewarm, thinking all I had to do was believe in Jesus in my heart and be good etc etc. I didnt need to be mother Theresa or nothing…but when I truly repented…..truly got saved I was on fire for Jesus because I realized what I was and why He had to die for me. whe. U are on fire for Him (truly saved) He will lead u to do works for His kingdom not cause u think ur self righteous but because the Holy Spirit leads u to what your purpose is for Him. And u do it….it's not legalistic when u are simply following the guidance of the spirit qnd obeying out of your love for Him. This article makes the lukewarm people think they r saved and the real Christians lukewarm.! Its totally wrong perspective but has a few good points in it only. Gos said if we have love for the world the love of God is not in us. You guys need to read the whole Bible so that u dont get deceived by stuff like this. It sounds good to the ear and righteuos but has errors and false in it. everything is pulled out of context but almost in such a smart way that it looks right when its not. Dont be deceived……Bible warns of days when people will start to have itchy ears and create a gospel that is EASY and satisfies them. You will know them by their fruits…! The way is narrow…..satan is all around ready to devour like a lion people….wake up and stop living in this candyland gospel…! Jesus did not die such a horrific death so we can live in candyland and claim we r saved cause we love him in our heart only. Wake up people….I used to be like this and think just like u guys….easy and as long as I dont have to changr my lifestyle its all good…hallelujah..! Praise God. Wrong…! Dont be fooled. Satan will tell u all u have to do is believe, nothing else. Ignore the fact that the apostles all gave up everything to follow Jesus, lost their lives…! Ignore the fact that Jesus commanded us to walk the Narrow path….to go out and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy spirit. just as long as u make it easy on satan from doing his job which is to steal, kill and destroy he wants u to keep on living this candyland gospel. U have no affect on him n his goal…..thats lukewarm, cause he knows Christ is not really in you….cause u are not even a threat to his goal………wake up people

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  39. Jesus said YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN people…wake up. Stop sleeping in hell..! When Jesus says MUST, He means Must…! If u dont know what born again means…..read your whole Bible..! Find out what born again means and repent…! If u are Not born again, u will Not see the kingdom of God per Jesus own words..! Just sayin…" I believe in Jesus, I know he is real. I may be living normal life like everyone else, not really on fire for His kingdom but im not lukewarm cause I love Him…" Is not being born Again, ur still lost just lost in a deceived way…!

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  40. Anonymous–Sorry, I just now saw your comments. I really don't know what you mean. Are you saying that, because I believe in Christ, Christ is not really in me? How could that be?

    I've read the whole Bible, and that's why I believe that faith alone in Jesus saves me. "Changing your lifestyle" (whatever you mean by that?) doesn't save you or make you a better Christian. The Pharisees had the best "lifestyles" of anyone, but Jesus condemned them.

    Jesus (not Satan!) said "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29).

    Peace.

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