Why Must We Join the Church? (2)

PMT 2013-036b Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer
Sharon OPC

Formal church membership is a covenantal obligation for the faithful Christian, as Pastor Boer explains.

Many people think, as we saw last week, that as long as they believe in Jesus Christ in their hearts, they’re automatically saved, even if they’re not members of any church.  But the Bible, our creeds, our Reformed church fathers, and our OPC fathers all teach otherwise.  They teach that all those who have true faith will, in obedience to Christ’s command, join themselves to His visible body, the church.  The Scriptures and all these others teach that if we’re outside the visible church, we’re outside of Christ’s covenant – we’re outside of Christ’s body.  And that means that we have no basis for hope of eternal life if we remain outside of that visible, covenantal union with Jesus Christ.

We can’t see the invisible church (That’s why we call it the “invisible” church!).  The visible church on earth is the only “church” we can know, and the visible body of Christ is the only “body of Christ” we can know and have any contact with.

In his Institutes, John Calvin said:

“Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called ‘church’ in respect to men.”  [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The Library of Christian Classics, volumes XX-XXI.  Edited by J. T. McNeill.  Translated by F. L. Battles (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1960), Book IV, Chapter I, Section 7, p. 1022.]

We looked at some Scriptures last week which teach this.  Today, we look at some more Scriptures that teach this:

In our text, in John 12:42-43, we have a situation where some Jewish leaders “believed in” Jesus, at least to some extent, but who were unwilling to make public profession of their faith and enter into covenant with Him.  In other words, they were unwilling to join themselves to Christ’s body, the visible church.  John 12:42-43 says, “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him.  But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”

These were members of a false church, the Jewish synagogue.  Apparently, they had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah – so, at least to some degree, they believed what they were taught about Who Jesus was.  They “believed in” Him, but they were unwilling to publicly confess that they believed in Him.  They were unwilling to enter into covenant with Him.  They were unwilling to leave their false church and identify themselves with Jesus.  They refused to be baptized into Christ.  They refused to publicly profess their faith and to join the followers of Christ.  They preferred to keep their old friends instead.

In a sense, they were willing to “casually date” Jesus Christ, but they refused to enter into the marriage covenant with Him.

The Scriptures’ condemnation of them is very brief, but very precise: It says, “they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”  In the Greek it actually says, “They loved the glory of men, “dóxa,” more than the glory of God.”

That means they violated the very first Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

They had the praise or the glory of men as their god instead of having Christ as their God.  Jesus taught us that nothing and nobody must come before Him.  He said, in Matthew 10:37-38, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

In Romans 10:9-10, Paul also stressed the importance of making a public confession or a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ (Notice, this is not a confession with the lips only, but a confession with the lips and with the heart.):

“…if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ [meaning that you publicly confess that Jesus is the Lord God, the Messiah] and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

Here again we see the importance, not only of believing in your heart, but also of making a public profession of faith and outwardly identifying yourself with Christ’s body, the church.

Now let’s go back and see what the Bible says about those leaders in our text?  It says that those leaders of the Jews “would not confess.”  They “would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God.”

They refused to publicly confess their faith in Jesus Christ because of what others might think.

Professor E.J. Young, a former OT scholar at Westminster Seminary, wrote a little book over 40 years ago called, “Do You Believe?”  It was published by the Committee on Christian Education of the OPC.  In this book, Dr. Young stressed the necessity of church membership.  Let me read to you the closing paragraphs of this little book:

If you believe in Jesus Christ and trust Him as your Saviour from sin, you must confess Him before men…..  You must make a public profession of your faith in Christ; that is you must confess Him openly, in the presence of others….  He Himself has commanded this…Those who think that they can live the Christian life without the Church of Christ are disobedient to Him at the start.

What church, you may ask, shall I join?  The land is full of churches, and these often conflict with one another.  Who can tell which one is right and which is wrong?  Well, the answer to this question is really not so difficult as some would have us think.  A little investigation will reveal to you what church you should join.  If you were going to buy a new car, you would not say, “There are so many cars on the market, and each one claims to be the best.  How shall I ever know which one to buy?  Perhaps I had better not buy any.”  No, if you were going to buy a car, you would spend a little time in investigation to discover which car you wanted.

The question of uniting with the Church, however, is infinitely more important than that of purchasing a new car.  For, to unite with the wrong church is sin.

There are churches which deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Have no fellowship with them.  There are churches which teach that man can save himself.  Have no fellowship with them.

There are churches which teach that the Bible is filled with mistakes.  Have no fellowship with them….

The way to tell whether a Church is true or not is to test it by the Bible, for the Bible is God’s Word….  If it pays no attention to the Bible, or if it denies the Bible, then beware of it, and have nothing to do with it.  Do not judge a Church by its size or its building or its supposed “enthusiasm.”  Judge a Church by its fidelity to the Word of God.  Take your stand with those who today are standing for the Truth.  [Edward J. Young, Do You Believe? (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Committee On Christian Education – The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1954), pp. 35-37.]

So E. J. Young, one of the forefathers of our church, said you must join a church, and this church must be a true church.

You might be surprised to learn what that great teacher of the Reformation, John Calvin, considered a true church to be.

Kenneth Alan Kok, in his master’s thesis for Westminster Seminary, gives us some interesting insights into Calvin’s view of a true church.  He writes:

Calvin’s theology will not admit…any least common denominator Christianity and, therefore, no least common denominator preaching.

Preaching must be in the tradition of the true Church and any reduction from that tradition is not the Gospel.  Anything which is not the whole counsel of God as confessed by the true Church is anathema [meaning “cursed”].  Thus, the Reformed faith is not additional to the Gospel, but it is the Gospel, pure and simple.  On the basis of what Calvin has taught, any preaching other than preaching of the Reformed faith is not true preaching, and, thus, any Church in which the preaching is not the preaching of the Reformed faith cannot be a true church – and, hence, salvation is not to be found there…the call comes…to join the true Church, or face God’s wrath.

…[Surely] One cannot…say that, for Calvin, Reformed theology stood over against Lutheran, Baptist, Arminian, and Wesleyan theologies so that Calvin would condemn their preaching as false preaching.  Or can one?  It would appear that one certainly can.  It is, indeed, Calvin who called Lutheran theology, in the person of Joachim Westphal, heretical.  …It was Calvin who wrote, “Wherefore we reprobate all fanatics who will not allow little children to be baptized.” [John Calvin, “Confession of Faith in Name of the Reformed Churches of France,” in Tracts and Treatises, Vol. II (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1983.  [Vol. 2 is a reproduction of  the Calvin Translation Society edition of 1849]), p. 154.  Emphasis added.]

That startling quote is from Calvin’s, “Confession of Faith, in Name of the Reformed Churches of France.”  This was a general confession of the “doctrinal position” of all of the Reformed Churches of France of Calvin’s day.  In Article 26 of that Confession, entitled, “Of Baptism,” Calvin makes that bold statement.

For Calvin, then, baptizing the infants of believers was not optional.  That meant that church membership for the children of believers was no more “optional” than church membership for adult believers.  The baptism of infants in the NT was no more optional than the circumcision of infants in the OT.

The only difference is that NT believers have less excuse than OT believers, because they have more revelation.

For Calvin, Arminian churches, that is, churches that teach that man chooses God first instead of God choosing man first, are not just another “brand” of Christianity.  A church that consistently teaches Arminianism is a false church.  So if we take seriously Calvin’s definition of a true church, this has crucial implications for preaching as well as for choosing a church.

You see, some preachers refuse to preach certain parts of the Gospel because they don’t want to “offend” their listeners.  So, instead, they “offend” God and withhold the true Gospel from their people!

Mr. Kok continues: “Truly, as Calvin avers, no one has God for a Father unless he has the Church for a Mother.”  [Ibid.  Emphasis added.]

Arminianism and Pelagianism are doctrinal heresies that teach that man contributes partly toward his salvation.  Man chooses God.  Man decides to believe, of his own free will.

What Calvin is saying is that such pollution of the Gospel is no longer the Gospel of truth.

Not only did Calvin stress that we must find a true church, Calvin also stressed the necessity of membership in that visible church.  In his Institutes, Book IV, Chapter I, he says:

“For no hope of future inheritance remains to us unless we have been united with all other members under Christ, our Head [p. 1014].  …away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation…it is always disastrous to leave the church” [Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, Chapter I, Secs. 2-4, pp. 1014-1016.  Emphasis added.].

Now it’s interesting that Calvin doesn’t say one cannot have salvation – He says one cannot hope for salvation if he’s not a member of the visible church.  Some people who never join the church might possibly be saved – God is certainly able to save them – but what is the basis of their hope of salvation if they refuse to enter covenant with Jesus Christ?  On what basis are they hoping to be saved?  All of God’s promises are tied to those who are in covenant with Him.

In other words, then, don’t expect to get to heaven if you abandon the church.  Don’t get your “hopes” up about being saved, if you have no covenantal basis for your hopes.

Ronald S. Wallace wrote a book entitled, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacraments, in which he quotes Calvin.  Calvin did a lot of study and a lot of writing regarding the importance of church membership and the importance of the sacraments of the church (which belong only to church members).  Wallace writes, quoting Calvin:

“…Hence, unless we cultivate unity with the faithful, we see that we are cut off from Christ.”  [Calvin, Comments on Ezekiel 13:9.  Cf. comments on Isaiah 54:1.]  Calvin says: “It is also worthy of observation that none but the citizens of the Church enjoy this privilege; for, apart from the body of Christ and the fellowship of the godly, there can be no hope of reconciliation with God.  Hence, in the creed, we profess to believe the Catholic Church [that is, the universal church] and the forgiveness of sins; for God does not include among the objects of His love any but those whom He reckons among the members of His only begotten Son, and, in like manner, does not extend to any who do not belong to His body the free imputation of righteousness.  Hence it follows that strangers who separate themselves from the Church have nothing left for them but to rot amidst their curse.  Hence also, an open departure from the Church is an open renouncement of eternal salvation.”  [Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 33:24.  Emphases added.]

What Calvin is saying is this: “If you don’t belong to Christ’s body, you have no reason or foundation to believe that God loves you.  And God is not going to promise you that you will have Christ’s righteousness, because you’re not in Him, by covenant.”

Yet how many people in the world today realize that the church is the body of Christ, and that outside the body of Christ there is no salvation promised to us?  Wallace continues…

So closely does Calvin identify incorporation in Christ with incorporation in the Church that he regards the activity of the Church towards its individual members as being identical with the action of Christ towards the individual.  The response of the individual to the ministry of the Church is thus identical with his response toward Christ.

That means that your response to the true preaching of the Word from this pulpit, or any other pulpit, is your response to Christ, Himself!  That’s what Calvin taught.  And that’s what the

Scriptures teach.

Wallace continues a little later: “Christ has committed to the Church the ministry of His grace.  He has, moreover, attached many of His promises to the Church so that the individual can have no certainty of obtaining salvation and the benefits of His death and resurrection apart from the Church.”

Understood in this sense, Calvin is ready on all occasions to state clearly his belief that outside of the Church there is no salvation.

In other words, you can’t be sure you’re saved, apart from the church.  And yet how many evangelism programs today offer people assurance that they’re saved, before they even join the church and enter into God’s covenant!  And then Wallace quotes Calvin again:

“They who wish to become partakers of so great a benefit must be a part of Israel, that is, of the Church, out of which there can be neither salvation nor truth.”  [Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 49:7]  “Such as forsake the Church … wholly alienate themselves from Christ.”  [Calvin’s comments on Hebrews 10:26]

Wallace says: “In [Calvin’s] commentary on Hebrews 10:25 Calvin identifies departing from the Church with a ‘falling away from the living God.’”  [Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (Tyler TX:  Geneva Divinity School, 1982 [Edinburgh:  Oliver and Boyd Ltd., 1953]), pp. 234-236.]

Now let’s come back into our day and age.  We’ll leave Calvin behind for the time being.  Dr. Leonard Coppes, an OPC minister in Denver, and chairman of the OPC Committee on the Diaconate, has written a book entitled, Are Five Points Enough?  Ten Points of Calvinism.  Here’s what Dr. Coppes says:

“If one believes in Christ, one must and will submit to His Word.  The first step of this submission (externally) is to assume participation in His church.  This may mean that one must be baptized (if never before baptized)…and it definitely means making a public and credible confession of faith….  It means identifying one’s entire life with the cause of Christ and His church and it may mean stepping out of one’s culture, nation and family (Acts 2:40).”  [Leonard J. Coppes, Are Five Points Enough?  Ten Points Of Calvinism (Manassas, VA:  Reformation Educational Foundation, 1980), p.168.  Emphases added.]

You see, he’s talking about a situation similar to what these Jews faced in John 12.  They had to step out of their culture if they were going to identify with Christ.  They had to step out of the synagogue and perhaps even leave family and friends behind in many cases.  But they were unwilling to identify with Christ, and to enter covenant with Him.

Another former Westminster Seminary Professor, the late John Murray, believed that this idea of the “invisible” church has been greatly abused.  He said:

It is all-important to bear in mind that the church of God is an institution.  It may never be conceived of apart from the organization of the people of God in visible expression and in discharge of the ordinances instituted by Christ.  [John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray Volume I (Great Britain:  W & J Mackay Limited, 1976), p. 238.  Emphasis added.]

In other words, says Murray, we can’t think of the church apart from this visible institution of the church.

That means we shouldn’t think of a person being in the invisible church unless he’s a member of the visible church.  There’s only one church which we know on this earth.  We can’t see the invisible church.  Again, that’s why we call it the invisible church.  We can see the visible church and that’s the one we join.  That’s the one which has our names on its membership rolls.  That’s the one we know on earth as the organized body of Christ.  As Calvin said in his Sermons on Ephesians, “whoever will be taken for a Christian must also be a child of the church.”  [Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (London, 1979), p. 363.  Emphasis added.]

And so we see that the Scriptures teach this.  Our Reformed Confessions, such as the Westminster, the Belgic, the Second Helvetic, and the Geneva Catechism, all teach this.  Our forefathers in the faith teach this.  Our OPC leaders teach this.  And all of these witnesses agree: Membership in the visible church is not optional.  It is necessary for Christians to join the church.  Outside the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

So all of this means that if you’re in Christ, by covenant, through your membership in His body, the church, then you should cherish that position in which you stand.

Stay in the church.  Don’t ever leave.  Don’t ever leave that only safe haven from the wrath of God – that only sure and safe protection from God’s anger.  And if you move away to some other area, don’t let your church membership lapse.  Be sure to write back to your former church for a letter of transfer and have them transfer you to that other church.

In fact, before you even decide to move somewhere, find out first if there’s a church there, a true church, a church that you can join in good conscience.  And if there’s not a true church there, don’t move there!  You may not go anywhere, at least not permanently, where you can’t be a member of and attend a true church.  You must either find one or help to start a new one wherever you go.

And if you refuse to become a member of Christ’s body, the visible church, well, I’m not going to say for sure that you’re definitely going to go to Hell.  But I will say that you have no promise of God that He’s going to save you, if you refuse to enter the covenant.  If you refuse to enter into covenant with Jesus Christ, you have no sure hope of eternal life.  You have no basis for assurance that you’ll go to heaven when you die.  So I’d encourage you to begin making plans to enter that covenant with God, by joining Christ’s body, the visible church, very soon.

Let me remind you also that only members of Christ’s visible church are permitted to eat the Lord’s Supper.  Only those joined to Christ by covenant have communion with Him.  And in John 6:53, Jesus Himself says, (Now listen carefully!) “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Some of you may think these last two sermons on the necessity of church membership are too long and too repetitive, but I can’t stress this point too strongly or too often.  Your eternal life depends on your understanding this.

You need Christ.  And the way that the Bible says you receive Christ is not through walking down an aisle or kneeling at the altar; and it’s not through raising your hand at an evangelism rally; and it’s not through praying the “sinner’s prayer” to confess your sins and receive Christ.  The Scriptures teach that we receive Christ only through the outward, visible signs and seals of the outward, visible church which is Christ’s body on earth.  We receive Christ only by joining Christ’s visible church.  That is how those who’ve been given true faith in Christ are taught to respond to His grace in the Gospel!


3 thoughts on “Why Must We Join the Church? (2)

  1. Sandie December 7, 2013 at 10:33 am

    … I have been pondering this … so, if one is absent from a church for a length of time, does that infer they were never saved or that they lose their salvation? Does the church have any responsibility for checking on absent members or is their absences assumed to be a parting from the covenant?

  2. Kenneth Gentry December 8, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    No, I don’t believe so. In the first place, a truly born again person cannot lose his salvation. So that is certainly not what is happening in his forsaking church. Rather it might be that the person only PROFESSED salvation (like in Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Soils) but was not truly saved. Thus, if someone skips church simply because he is not interested in the things of God and has no intention in going back to church, that would concern me greatly. It would seem to betray a lack of true spiritual conversion. And they could not have an assurance of salvation while living in rebellion against God.

    But also we must recognize that there may be any number of reasons why a person misses church: military assignment, illness, and so forth.

    The church does have a responsibility to oversee the spiritual well-being of its members. As a Presbyterian, all members in my church take personal vows to God Almighty regarding their commitment to Christ and his church. And the elders have an obligation to see that their members live up to their public vows which they themselves administered in a worship service. I would not, however, say that once someone has missed church for a few weeks, the church officers ought to move right to excommunication. But I would urge the church officers to contact the person to find out what is wrong and to minister to the person in terms of the problem that is keeping them from church and the public, formal, corporate worship of God.

  3. Sandie December 8, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    …THANK YOU..

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