Nominal means “in name only.” Some politicians, rightly or wrongly, are called RINOs: Republicans in name only. That is, they are not true Republicans. If there is a true and normative Christianity, then not everyone who says she is a Christian may be a Christian. Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” knows the living God.
We name ourselves many things, rightly or wrongly—a friend, a father figure, a good citizen, and a Christian. Before discussing what a true Christian is, let us consider some nominal versions.
A nominal Christian does not self-identify as anything other than a Christian. She is not an agnostic or Buddhist or Muslim or anything else.
She may consider herself a Christian because she believes in God. Perhaps she thinks Jesus was a master teacher, and she wants to love people. She prays, she was raised as a Christian, and she has spiritual experiences. She even becomes involved in religious events occasionally, such as church attendance or Christian concerts.
A genuine Christian will believe in God, esteem Jesus as a master teacher, want to love people; she will pray, have spiritual experiences, be involved in religious events, and more. However, she will not rest on how she was raised to define his identity. She might have been raised in an aberrant form of Christianity or no longer believe the true Christianity in which she was raised. She will certainly not deem herself a pretty good person, whose works are pleasing enough to God to merit heaven, since no one can be saved by the works of the law.
Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, called his followers to repent of their selfish sinful ways and turn to him as Lord. This was no small thing, no mere addition to life, no mere religious preference. Jesus’s first disciples rightly called him Lord and Master. Jesus cannot be domesticated. He issued radical statements. Anyone who wants to be his disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him. His disciples worshipped him. A nominal Christian merely compliments or salutes Jesus.
Rather than worrying about how to get on in life (with a dab of religion here and there), Jesus told us to seek first his Kingdom of love and service to our neighbor. We are to love our enemies and be eager to help the least, the last, and the lost—just as Jesus was.
Jesus summons us to deny ourselves and die to sin because he died for us on the cross. On that cross, he said, “Father forgive them.” Jesus’ true followers cast themselves on God’s mercy by having faith in what he has done for them through his death and his resurrection from the dead. They do not trust in their own goodness to earn salvation or lean on their own strength to do good works.
If we name the name of Christ as the Jesus and Bible intend, we will be born again and become a new creation, eager to do what is good and to worship God with his church in spirit and in truth.