Nominal Christians are those who call themselves Christians but in fact have not yet been born of God.

One of the incorrect assumptions that some make when reading the New Testament is to assume that everyone associated with a church has been born of God, or everyone who calls himself a "brother" or "a Christian" is in fact a brother and a Christian, or everyone who says they believe does in fact believe believe with the content and quality of faith that saves. This assumption is incorrect. Consider 1John 2:19, for example:

"They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.
For if they had belonged to us, (ONCE SAVED)
they would have remained with us;(ALWAYS SAVED)
but their going showed that none of them belonged to us."
So if these people had been Christians, they would have remained so. But when John sees people "fall away" from the faith, to him it indicates that they were never Christians to start with. So Paul gives his warning in 2Cor 13:5
"Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.
Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you-- unless, of course, you fail the test?"
Yet he was speaking to those who call themselves Christians and believers in Christ. Indicating that not everyone who does so has Christ in them.

Examples of Nominal Christians in the Bible

Categories of Nominal Christians

It has been my observation that there are generally two categories of nominal Christians. In the New Testament you had Gentile Christians who wanted to integrate their pagan sinful activities into the Christian life, and you had Jewish Christians who demanded that Christians needed to follow the law of Moses and be circumcised to be saved in addition to belief in Christ. Or there was the Epicurean type of Christian who saw the flesh was naturally evil and uncontrollable and therefore allowed no restrictions to the fulfillment of fleshly desires (kind of like homosexuals and others today who claim that they are "just doing whatever they feel like doing") and you had the Ascetic type of Christian who reckoned that the physical body was inherently evil with it all physical desires and so overly resticted themselves and others.

Another way to reckon these two categories is by their views of how to be saved. The first group I'll call the "LIBERTARIANS" (moral apostates) and the other group I'll call the "LEGALISTS" (doctrinal apostates). These words may have different meanings to different people, but realize that I am just using these as two categories and are describing these categorizes in some detail. So don't take these out of context.

Neither of these groups contain individuals who have been born of God because THEIR FAITH IS DEFICIENT IN QUALITY OR CONTENT and so does not qualify them to be saved.

The Lawless Libertarians

Libertarians may have the idea that "Once Saved, Always Saved", but then the lawless among them may go on refusing to repent of sin and accepting sin as part of their lifestyle or profession. Their attitude may be "Since I'm saved, I can sin as much as I want and it won't affect my salvation status." And even the lawful libertarians, those into Free Grace Theology,  are deceived concerning the salvation status of such people. But John says that:
"No one who is born of God will continue to sin,
because God's seed remains in him;
he cannot go on sinning,
because he has been born of God."1John 3:9
Those who have been born of God have lost the ability to sin in the sense that John refers to it here because God's Holy Spirit dwells in them.
The greek word for "cannot" (dunamai), means "ability to".
"Sin" is in the present continuous tense which emphasizes the idea of continuity as in lifestyle or profession.

Which is why Paul can say:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1Cor 6:9-11
And Paul adds on to the list:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Gal 5:19-21
Yet all Christians do sin, as John writes
"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." 1John 1:8-10
Do we then lose our salvation every time we sin? Certainly not! Rather what Paul is referring to is sinning in a lifestyle or professional sense. If people were to examine your lifestyle how would they label you? Though at some point you might have been greedy for money, are you a greedy person? Though you might have even stolen something at some time, are you a thief? Though you may have slandered someone at some point, would they label you as a slanderer? Or you might have gotten drunk at some point, but are you an alchoholic?

No doubt the Corinthian Christians may have been struggling with some of these sins and the others mentioned in 1Cor 6:9-11, for Paul says "such were some of you." But if you were to examine their lives now, would you be able to label them as such? This is what 1John 3:9 is referring to in its proposition that those born of God have lost the ability to accept sins as part of their lifestyle. To those who have not experienced this and find one of these to be characteristic of their lives, then perhaps they should examine themselves to see whether they are in the faith, whether Christ lives in them.
Thus as Jesus says, "You shall know them by their fruit." Matt 7:20.
You can measure whether a person has been born of God based on his outward performance.

The Legalists

False Christians may also pose as teachers so as to subject the believers to the bondage of legalistic righteousness, as Paul ran into such in Galatians 2:4
"This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves."
Yet notice also that Luke calls these same people "believers".
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses."Acts 15:5
For Luke is writing in an historical sense, referring to what people were called. But Paul was writing as to what they actually were.

The reason why this issue is so important is because there are those in the Christian community today who are leading others down the path of legalistic, performance based, righteousness and away from the gospel of grace based on passages in the New Testament which deal with nominal Christians, but apply them to those who have been born of God. They do so with the proposition that having been saved, you can lose your salvation. And so to them salvation is obtained by faith, but then it is maintained by our performance. To such people, their faith is not in the promise of God, but rather their faith is in their own faith.

Such people can never logically say that they have at any time been saved from the wrath of God, for that is a future event in which God will separated the righteous from the wicked and cast the wicked into hell. If you say "I am saved from going to hell. I am going to heaven.", but if you lose your salvation, such a saying is false. Under such a philosophy you can only say "I might be saved, I might go to heaven", but you would have to wait till the judgment and see how things turned out. But you could not say, "I am saved". For the same reason, such a person cannot say that his sins have been forgiven, for how does he know whether his sins have been forgiven until the judgment day?

Such lack of confidence in the promise of God is characteristic of nominal Christians. Such may start off confident in God's grace to saved them, confident that they are going to heaven, but don't hold on to such firmly because their faith is deficient. Hebrews speaks of such people:

"We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." Heb 3:14
They have fallen away from the concept of God's grace and replaced it with a performance based righteousness as Paul says:
"You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." Gal 5:4
"In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession-- to the praise of his glory." Eph 1:11-14

The Purgatory Solution

There are those who hold an easy-believism concept who believe in eternal security but propose that Christians who live a lifestyle of sin are redeemed, but must suffer in a purgatorial fashion after death to make up for their sins. I thought that such a concept was limited to Catholicism, but I have found a number of groups and individuals in the Protestant and even in the Evangelical community in particular who hold to a purgatory concept.

There are two basic problems with this concept:

1. The obvious one is that it impinges on the atoning work of Christ and the basic concept of the forgiveness of sins which is central to the gospel message.

2. In interpreting the Bible to justify this concept, they also overlook the Biblical concept that "everyone born of God overcomes the world" 1Jn 5:4, that "no one who is born of God will continue to sin" (in a lifestyle sense). 1Jn 3:9. Thus they overlook the concept that there is no such thing as one who has been born of God who lives a lifestyle of sin. They trivialize not only the faith that saves, but also the effect that salvation has on the person's performance. Their justification for doing so is usually, "This is contrary to my experience". Thus they interpret the Bible in the light of their experience rather than interpreting their experience in the light of the Bible. For if you meet someone who claims to be a "Christian", but lives a lifestyle of sin - in the sense that John meant it and Paul meant it in such passages as 1Cor 6:9,10 - you can say that such a person is merely a nominal Christian, never having actually been born of God.

Purgatorial Sanctification

Then there are those who recognize the obvious conflict with the gospel of grace who propose that purgatory is not a place of justification - that people are not suffering judicially - but rather a place of sanctification in that though their sins are forgiven, their sinfulness is being removed, which can be a painful process.

Nice theory! The problem is that there is no Biblical basis for it. The verses that are used to justify a purgatory concept are almost exclusively referring to a judicial process, such as the parable of the unforgiving servant which ends, "In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed." Mat 18:34

And furthermore, it presumes that the redeemed continue to have a sinful nature after death, which can only be removed permanently through torture (for the saints will be permanently sinless ultimately)

Application of the Doctrine of Nominalism

If there is no application to Bible study, neither is there any relevance. Non-application oriented Bible study tends towards unnecessary divisiveness. But what is the application of "Nominalism". First it's a warning for Christians to not be presumptuous about their salvation status, but rather to measure their salvation status by their performance. It's a warning also not to be presumptuous about the salvation status of other Christians, but to make sure that they have the quality of faith that is acceptable to God for salvation. Thus it is a prevention to lawless licentious libertarianism.

The legalists and those who hold to a purgatory concept may also claim that their philosophy accomplishes the same. But their solution is to devalue to grace of God and the atoning work of Christ and thus may not be any better than the libertarians. For they replace the atoning work of Christ as the object of saving faith and put their own performance in its place. The doctrine of Nominalism does not devalue the atoning work of Christ, but reckons it as the object of saving faith. The grace of God is preserved. Thus one can put full confidence in the grace of God and in the forgiveness of sins which is the effect of the atonement.

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources