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Articles posts of '2015' 'March'

Singing in Jerusalem

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

—Mark 11:11

Do you ever wonder why the greatest teacher of all time was so little recognized during His ministry? Why is it that the noblest Master to ever walk upon the earth was not widely accepted by those whom He encountered? Perhaps our surprise would be lessened if we would put ourselves in the place of Jesus’ contemporaries.

Suppose news came to your town or city that in some distant place—say New Orleans—a child had been born. It was so busy in the city because of Madi Gras that the hotels were all booked and a baby was born in a stable. The mother had wrapped the baby in strips of cloth torn from her dress and placed her child in a manger. That would be a nice tidbit of news to talk about at the coffee shop for a day but nothing to lose any sleep over.

Then suppose thirty years later it was reported that this child—now a man—was a traveling evangelist who was performing marvelous works and was coming to your town. Along with him were twelve of his companions—a couple of fishermen, a tax collector, and some poor, uneducated men.

Even though you may have read that he was a great teacher of unquestioned holiness and astonishing ability, the hum of business in town would hardly be hushed at his arrival. Only a few would come and listen to him speak. After all, it is the women’s curling championship this week, or the school’s big fundraiser is taking place, and Gospel Trio is in town.

The Welcome

All through His ministry there is evidence that Jesus would have been more welcome if He had been quicker in His speech and arrived in a different manner. The people were awaiting the restoration of the theocracy, a king to rule over Israel and overthrow the Roman government.

If Jesus had come with a band of soldiers that He had gathered together over the three years of His ministry; if He had come announcing Himself as the One who would get rid of the Roman oppressors, then they would have cheered Him on with shouts of adoration and delight.

Our Lord and Savior, however, did not come that way. He would not be content with a worldly homage. He never is. In fact, he turned away from the priests and the Pharisees. He refused to be in the right circles at the right time, rubbing elbows with all the right people who thought themselves to be influential over the crowds. Jesus went to the crowds—ordinary people. He met with the humble peasants in Galilee and the loving children in Jerusalem.

In order to avoid false homage, Christ came—and still comes today—quietly. He does not come with peals of thunder or as a national leader with a great army. His motto throughout His ministry seemed to be: “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.”

Popular applause was suppressed. Natural enthusiasm was cooled. If the people would try to take Him by force and make Him king as they did after one of His sermons, He departed and hid Himself from them. If the disciples saw a glimpse of His glory as they did on the Mount of Transfiguration, He would warn them to tell no one. His miracles were generally performed with as few witnesses as possible, and those who were blessed by Jesus would be told not to publish it abroad. Throughout His ministry Jesus avoided publicity.

On the first day of the last week of His life, however, Jesus wanted singing in Jerusalem. The crowds had come from all over the world to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They were coming to celebrate how Israel had once been freed from bondage in Egypt. They were longing for one who would be able to free them once again—this time from their bondage to Rome.

If only one would come, as Isaiah had prophesied, who could preach good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, and set the prisoner free. If only this Jesus from Nazareth would give them some sign that His name may be proclaimed. If only He would be willing to receive the crown that seemed to be His destiny.

On that first Pam Sunday, Jesus was willing. He even arranged for His entry into the city of Jerusalem. He sent out to a village for a young colt. When it was brought to Him, Jesus sat on it and allowed a simple processional to be formed. The processional increased in number and enthusiasm as they neared the city.

The People

Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt. Not a horse that would symbolize the coming of a great warrior, but a colt—a symbol of one coming in peace.

Have you ever noticed that almost every nation has incredible stories about their famous men of old? Most often history records the heroic events of men of war. The Norsemen had Eric the Red; the English had King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In the states some of us grew up, we learned about the military genius of General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant. Who can forget the words of General MacArthur, “I shall return”?

By contrast, the Jews have as their early heroes men of peace. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were lovers of God and lovers of peace. Abraham fought in only one battle, and that was to save his nephew Lot. The Jewish Messiah was to be a man of peace. Isaiah had called Him the Prince of Peace. He would come with the marks of a man of peace—not on a prancing steed with trumpets blaring or soldiers following behind him. He came meekly riding on a donkey.

Somehow that symbol was lost on the crowd. Excitement was running high in the city, as it always did during such feasts as the Passover. The natural excitement was heightened by the procession, a strange, impromptu parade that was making its way toward the city gates.

The crowds gathered, curious at first, but soon they were shouting and singing and turning the place upside down for Him. People were grabbing anything they could get their hands on—tearing branches from trees and laying the clothes off their backs before Him—to form a type of red-carpet entrance into the city.

The hosannas grew louder and louder. The green palm branches were waving frantically. They were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

Something was happening! Something tremendous was happening! Laughing, singing, and shouting, the crowd swept through the city gates and finally stopped on the plaza in front of the temple.

Jesus got off the colt. Everyone watched with anticipation. Some had seen the miracles and told others. Others had heard His teaching and knew that Jesus spoke with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees. Certainly now He would make His move. After all, wasn’t He the Messiah, the chosen one of God? Wasn’t He the One who, with legions of angels, would establish the kingdom of God in Israel forever?

Can you feel the anticipation? Do you get a sense of the excitement within the crowd on that Palm Sunday when Jesus entered into the temple? Those troubled, enslaved people, groveling under the hated heel of pagan emperors and their puppet governors, had kept their faith alive throughout the generations for this very moment. This had been their hope! This had been their inspiration of worship! Jesus of Nazareth was the One who would end the oppression and bring Jerusalem to new heights of world power. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

Hosanna! What a day this was! What joy there would be in Jerusalem!

The Paradox

And then, the crowd grew quiet. The only sound was a low murmuring as they watched Him enter the temple. They seem to have kept one eye on the temple and the other up to the heavens, because you never know something great is going to take place.

Time passed. Then some more time passed. There grew within the crowd an uneasy restlessness. And then it happened!

What happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing happened. Slowly, one by one, two by two, a group here and there began to leave as the crowd began to melt away. All that was left was an eerie silence followed by an empty feeling in the hearts of most of the people.

No story ever built up to a greater anticlimax. Even the Gospel writer, Mark, couldn’t get rid of the flat taste this episode left in his mouth. After all the shouting, Mark ends the account of the triumphal entry with these words: “Jesus entered the Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

That’s it. That is the whole story. That was the end of all the singing and shouting in Jerusalem. From the moment Jesus entered into Jerusalem and did nothing, His future was sealed. Just five days later the palm branches would be palms of hands slapping Him. The hosannas would become hideous mockery as soldiers would strike the blindfolded Jesus and ask, “Who struck you, King of the Jews?” The crowds that applauded Jesus on Olivet call out for His death a few days later. Instead of calling out for Jesus, they cry out for Barabbas.

Jesus of Nazareth could not deliver what they expected, so they cried out for His death in exchange for the life of Barabbas. At least Barabbas had fought against the Romans soldiers. Barabbas had never said, “Love your enemies” or “Turn the other check.” Crucify Jesus. After all, who needs Him?

The truth of the matter is, you need Him.

Jesus did not come to be king over some earthly city in the Middle East. He did not come to establish a new world power. He came to be King of your life. He came to display His power, not over a Roman government that would eventually destroy itself, but over Satan, sin, death, and hell.

We are not much different from those people who shouted “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday so many years ago and then “Crucify Him” a few days later. We, too, often sing praises to God on Sunday but reject His Son as Lord and King of our lives through our actions during the week.

The people in Jerusalem saw the Messiah go into the temple. They thought He had failed to deliver what He had promised. Unlike the people in Jerusalem, we are assured that Christ did deliver exactly what He said He would. We no longer need to look for a King who will free us from Satan’s bondage and remove the sin within us. Through the sacrifice Jesus, the Messiah, made on Calvary’s cross we are no longer slaves to sin. He has paid the price in full.

We celebrate Palm Sunday not because a king entered Jerusalem on a colt one Sunday years ago and did nothing. We celebrate because the King of kings died on the cross one Friday and did everything. He shed His blood for our salvation. We worship the King who came to Jerusalem to establish a kingdom not on earth but in our hearts.

Rev. Wybren Oord  
is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.

A Catechism on the Holy Spirit (I)

“Reformed theology has . . . ended up creating a monster of theology that dampens the place of our passion and partnership with God.”1 Jack Hayford, president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, recently spoke these words about what he sees as the inevitable results of the beliefs of Reformed churches. His thought is not uncommon in evangelical circles today, as this Reformed pastor can testify after hearing literally hundreds of visitors to my congregation say Reformed churches are cold, lifeless, dry, and dead. Perhaps it is because of our lack of preaching, writing, and teaching on the person and work of the Holy Spirit that we have been called the “frozen chosen.” Our seeming timidity toward the Holy Spirit is what Hayford has picked up on, saying our theology causes our passion and partnership with God to be dampened.

While we as Reformed believers and preachers may have given this impression in our age that is so dominated by Pentecostalism, the question is whether the fault lies at the doorstep of Reformed theology itself. A prima facie reading of one source of official Reformed teaching, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), may reasonably seem to give the impression that the Reformed Christian faith lacks any emphasis on the Holy Spirit. After all, the Catechism speaks for itself as only one question and answer is devoted to the Spirit of God in it (Q&A 53):

What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost?

First, that he is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Secondly, that he is also given unto me, makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all his benefits, comforts me, and shall abide with me forever.2

This seeming lack of emphasis has even led one within the Reformed circle, Eugene Heideman, to conclude that “in the Catechism one finds, only the barest outline of Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit . . . the Catechism’s discussion of the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and the church is deficient for our day, in that the biblical concept of evangelism and mission as being essential to the ministry of the Spirit and the life of the church is absent.”3

As one who has come out of Pentecostalism to be an inheritor of the theology of John Calvin, I hold that it is vital that we recapture our rightful claim as sons and daughters of “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” if we seek to minister the precious Reformed faith to those who come to us influenced by Pentecostalism.4 As Sinclair Ferguson says about the Reformed emphasis on the Holy Spirit, “Indeed Edmund Campion, the famous Jesuit missionary to England, said on one occasion that the great dividing line between Rome and Geneva lay along the axis of the doctrine of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.”5 We need to recapture our doctrine and emphasis upon the Holy Spirit, then, in order to counter the claim that our theology dampens a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. One way to make a beginning of doing this is by examining the theology of the Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism, as an ecclesiastical document of Reformed churches across the world.6

Only a Bare Outline?

Heideman’s thesis stated above is incorrect for at least two reasons. First, the Heidelberg Catechism is an ecclesiastical document that was intended to be a curriculum for children, a basis for catechetical preaching, and a form of unity for a region beset by theological and political strife.7 A document such as this cannot be expected to say all there is on any given subject, nor can we expect a sixteenth-century document to answer or anticipate all of our modern theological questions. Second, and more importantly for the purposes of this essay, Heideman’s thesis is incorrect because the person and work of the Holy Spirit are integrated into the overall structure and essential content of the Heidelberg Catechism. Although we would have serious issues with his overall theology, this feature of the Heidelberg Catechism has been recognized even by Karl Barth, who said, “One may say that it is distinctively a theology of the third article, a theology of the Holy Spirit.”8

As we look closer at what the Heidelberg Catechism says about the Holy Spirit, we will see that it is a pastoral exposition of the Spirit’s work.9 From its beginning to its end, the Holy Spirit is described in His person as well as work, in relation to Christ, the believer, and the church.10

The Spirit and the Overall Structure of the Catechism

In this essay, I want to recognize the comprehensiveness of the Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism in light of it macrostructure. Far from being a bare outline or a cold theology that dampens our passion for Jesus Christ, we see that the Spirit fills the entire Catechism, and hence, our entire faith.

The Theme (Q&A 1)

Question and answer 1 give the overall theme of the Catechism as being the Christian comfort derived from the triune God: the work of Jesus Christ, the providential care of God the Father, and the work of the Holy Spirit in assuring believers of eternal life and producing within them heartfelt gratitude.

What is thy only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him. (emphasis added)11

The Christ-centeredness of this answer is evident. What is so interesting is that because we belong to Christ, among other things, His Holy Spirit assures us and makes us ready to live for Him. The conclusion, then, is that the Holy Spirit is of the very essence of the Heidelberg Catechism’s theme of our Christian comfort in Christ. Apart from the Holy Spirit we would have no comfort.

The Outline (Q&A 2)

Question and answer 2 are grouped with question and answer 1 as Lord’s Day 1 of the Catechism, and so it flows out of what was just said. Because our comfort in Christ is the theme, the next question asks, “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort mayest live and die happily?” The answer, like answer 1, is a classic in Reformed catechetical literature: “Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.”12

Question and answer 2 give the overall structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, as we will examine below. As Heidelberg Catechism scholar Lyle Bierma has demonstrated, this threefold division of our knowledge of our guilt, God’s grace, and our gratitude was a part of “the common stock of Protestant theology.”13 How does this relate to the purpose of this article on the Holy Spirit? As a part of the common stock of Protestant doctrine, this common division had at least one contemporary expression in Theodore Beza’s Altera brevis fidei confession (1559), according to Walter Holweg. In his Confession, Beza described this threefold knowledge that the Heidelberg Catechism uses as its outline as the threefold work of God the Holy Spirit.14 The entire Christian life, then, is one in which the Holy Spirit works in us to convict us of sin, apply to us the grace of Jesus Christ, and create heartfelt gratitude within us. As we will see below, within these three sections of the Catechism the Holy Spirit is essential throughout.

Guilt (Q&A 3–11)

As we move into the body of the Catechism, question and answer 8 bring home the all-too-real predicament the Holy Spirit reveals to us, that we are “wholly unapt to any good, and prone to all evil.” The way out of this situation of guilt and misery (Q&A 3–11) is to be “born again by the Spirit of God.” Here the Catechism draws upon Jesus’ familiar double entendre about the work of the sovereign Spirit to cause us to be born again/born from above (John 3). Apart from the Holy Spirit, not only would we not be convicted of sins but also we would have no ability to escape them.

Grace (Q&A 12–85)

Furthermore, those to whom the Spirit of Christ gives this new birth are also given true faith. Not surprisingly, the Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes that it is the Holy Spirit who creates this faith in us, according to question and answer 21:

What is true faith?

It is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a hearty trust which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. (emphasis added)

The Catechism goes on to say that this faith believes “all that is promised us in the Gospel” (Q&A 22)—a gospel “which the articles [i.e., the Apostles’ Creed] of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in sum” (Q&A 23). Thus, faith is created by the work of the Holy Spirit, and faith has as its object the work of all three persons of our triune God—the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us (Q&A 24). What is telling about the intent of the primary author of the Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus, is that at this point in his Commentary, heeven shows the reason for the seemingly random division of the third section of the Apostles’ Creed in the Heidelberg Catechism. In the Catechism’s division into fifty-two Lord’s Days, the holy catholic church, communion of saints, and forgiveness of sins go together. In commenting on all the clauses in the third section of the Creed, he says “a holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” are all the benefits of Jesus Christ bestowed upon believers by the work of the Holy Spirit.15

Appended to the section about grace in the Heidelberg Catechism, which focuses on an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, is an explanation of the means of grace (Q&A 65–82), preaching, and the sacraments. In another article we will have opportunity to demonstrate the pneumatological focus of preaching and sacraments, but for now it suffices to say that they are described as the work of the Holy Spirit in creating and confirming faith in the people of God: “Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith? The Holy Ghost works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments” (Q&A 65; emphasis added). The Holy Spirit, then, reveals our guilt and applies Jesus Christ through the means of preaching and sacraments.

Gratitude (Q&A 86–129)

The final section of the Catechism, dealing with our gratitude for the overwhelming grace of Jesus Christ, is organized around the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Just as He convicts of sin and creates and confirms faith, so also He renews us after the image of Christ in a life of gratitude:

Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, renews us also by his Holy Spirit after his own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his blessing, and that he may be glorified through us; then, also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof, and by our godly walk may win our neighbors also to Christ. (Q&A 86; emphasis added)

Within this section are exposited the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. The Holy Spirit is central to this section on gratitude, as well. He is mentioned in the key summary question on the Ten Commandments in question and answer 115:

Why, then, doth God so strictly enjoin upon us the ten commandments, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that all our life long we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that we may continually strive and beg from God the grace of the Holy Ghost, so as to become more and more changed into the image of God, till we attain finally to full perfection after this life. (emphasis added)

The strict preaching of the Ten Commandments has as one of its ends stirring us up to a constant begging for the grace of the Spirit to transform us in Christ’s image.

As well, the Spirit’s centrality in the third section of the Catechism is seen in its opening question and answer on prayer:

Why is prayer necessary for Christians?

Because it is the chief part of the thankfulness which God requires of us, and because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to such as earnestly and without ceasing beg them from him and render thanks unto him for them. (Q&A 116; emphasis added)

Conclusion

In understanding this macrostructure of the Heidelberg Catechism, we have seen that the Heidelberg Catechism is far from being an insufficient, bare outline of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and is even further from being a damp theology, because the Holy Spirit is the source of Christian comfort as well as our constant experience of our guilt, God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and our response of gratitude for it. The Heidelberg Catechism, by its overall structure and content—a content that focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to Jesus Christ, in relation to the Christian, and in relation to the church—helps us recapture the personal and powerful work of the blessed Spirit in these “spiritual” days.

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 1. Tim Stafford, “The Pentecostal Gold Standard,” Christianity Today 49:7 (July 2005): 26.

2. All references to the Heidelberg Catechism are from The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff (1931; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 3:307–55.

3. Eugene P. Heideman, “God the Holy Spirit,” in Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: A Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Donald J. Bruggink (New York: The Half Moon Press, 1963), 112.

4. B. B. Warfield, “John Calvin: The Man and His Work,” in Calvin and Calvinism, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. John E. Meeter, 10 vols. (1932; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5:21.

5. John Owen: The Man and His Theology, ed. Robert W. Oliver (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 103–4.

6. For further study see Daniel R. Hyde, “The Holy Spirit in the Heidelberg Catechism.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 17 (2006): 211–37.

7. Lyle D. Bierma, “The Purpose and Authorship of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Lyle D. Bierma, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 50–52.

8. Learning Jesus Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. Shirley C. Guthrie Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 25; cf. Phil Butin, “Two Early Reformed Catechisms, the Threefold Office, and the Shape of Karl Barth’s Theology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44:2 (1991): 209–13.

9. Cf. Fred H. Klooster, A Mighty Comfort (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1990), 59.

10. Cf. Klooster, A Mighty Comfort, 59; Appendix 4a, 4b, 5; Fred H. Klooster, Our Only Comfort, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2001), 2:660, 674.

11. Schaff, Creeds, 3:307–8.

12. Schaff, Creeds, 3:308.

13. Lyle D. Bierma, “The Sources and Theological Orientation of the Heidelberg Catechism,” in An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, ed. Lyle D. Bierma, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 86; cf. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 272–73.

14. Cited in Bierma, “Sources and Theological Orientation of the Heidelberg Catechism,” 83. Bierma goes on to demonstrate that Holweg’s thesis of this threefold work of the Spirit as found in Beza being the source of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 2 is incorrect because both the Augsburg Confession (1530) and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession(1531) contained this very same language (85); cf. Lyle D. Bierma, “What Hath Wittenberg to Do with Heidelberg? Philip Melanchthon and the Heidelberg Catechism,” in Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence Beyond Wittenberg, ed. Karin Maag, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 108–11.

15. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (1852; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1985), 220.
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Rev. Daniel Hyde 
is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, CA.

Why Church Membership Matters

“It’s not a salvation issue,” the saying goes, “so why do Reformed churches make such a big deal about becoming a church member? Isn’t it just a piece of paper? Can’t I get all the same benefits of the church without joining it? Are you saying a person can’t be a Christian unless he or she becomes a church member? What about the people who worship regularly, participate consistently, and serve willingly, but aren’t technically members? Is it really that big of a deal?”

In this article I hope to answer these and other questions by showing how church membership is both biblical and practical. I have a growing concern that we are increasingly biblically illiterate about church membership. So while there remains a general commitment to church membership among our Reformed congregations, many of us aren’t sure why.

When we lose our biblical focus and depend on custom, we aren’t far from abandoning biblical practices altogether. If we fail to teach why church membership matters, then our exhortations and warnings and statistics ultimately ring hollow.

My goal is for you to walk away from this article persuaded that church membership is not only grounded in the Word but also God’s ideal for your spiritual and communal life. Like prayer and Bible reading, joining a church is what Christians do. So let’s get started.

Where in the Scriptures can we turn to find a direct command to become a church member? Or is this one of those issues where the best we can do is piece together a number of implicit verses until we build a responsible conclusion?

Admittedly, you will find no verse that says, “Thou shalt become a member of a church.” But neither will you find a verse that says, “Trinity.” However, one cannot be a faithful interpreter of the Bible without seeing that God has revealed Himself in three persons.

When it comes to proving church membership from God’s Word, we don’t have to do hermeneutical gymnastics. We’re not talking about an argument from silence. What the Scriptures teach is clear and cogent. Church membership isn’t just a possible deduction from one’s particular school of interpretation. It’s a practice that permeates the Bible.

We cannot read the book of Acts without being impressed by the number of times Luke makes mention of particulars. For example, in Acts 2:41 we read, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” A few verses later he describes those early Christians as “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Later, in Acts 16:5 we read, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”

When the Scriptures say “increased in numbers,” we should take that to mean actual, particular numbers. And to what were they added? To a pool of converts who were left to wander on their own? No. These new believers were added to the church. When they came to Christ they came to Christ’s body.

We also find biblical proof for church membership when we consider the role of church leaders. Whenever the elders are exhorted to shepherd the flock, the Scriptures assumes that they watch over particular souls. In Acts 20:28, where the apostle Paul leaves his final words to the Ephesian elders, he writes, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Likewise, in Hebrews 13:17 we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” How can an elder faithful shepherd people who have not fully submitted themselves to the governance and ministry of the church? Again, the Scriptures point us to actual church membership.

A third rationale we find explicitly taught in the New Testament about church membership is the many exhortations about mutual love and service. Could a regular visitor use his gifts to bless others in the congregation? Certainly, to a point. But formal membership binds the church together in mutual love and loyalty. As we read in Romans 12:4–6, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Paul is talking about members who have willingly bound themselves to a local body of believers.

Church membership permeates the pages of the New Testament. Far from being a good and necessary inference, it jumps off the pages, particularly as we read the book of Acts and the various letters written to actual congregations.

But becoming a member of a church also has practical ramifications. To begin, there is the important notion of accountability.

To be sure, just because you are a member of a church does not guarantee that you will take advantage of its accountability potential. Ours is an age in which membership is often a status more than a reality. For example, you can be a member of your local fitness club without ever going there to exercise, as long as you pay the monthly fee. The people who run the place don’t really care if you show up or not, just as long as youre holding up your end of the bargain.

Í hope that’s not the case in your local church. When you become a member, your church family will care if you choose not to show up. Church membership in a Reformed church is not just a piece of paper. It’s a commitment. It’s a promise, not only on the church’s part to you, but on your part to the church.

When a person becomes a member of a body of believers, he isn’t just in it for himself. The church isn’t like a drive-through restaurant, where you order what you want off a menu, then drive away at your own choosing. It’s a place where you covenant to receive and give.

You might need to rethink your whole concept of membership. The church is a place to practice stewardship. Making profession of faith isn’t the finish line. It’s a wonderful step in the race of the Christian life.

You and I need the church. It’s in the church where Christ gives His means of grace. It’s in the church where others help us grow. It’s in the church where Christ calls His people to fellowship together. But the church also needs you.

Don’t get a big head. You’re not that wonderful, and neither am I. We’re sinners in need of major redeeming grace. We’re so bad that it took God to come from heaven and die on a cross. Yet as a professing Christian, you are called to meet the needs of others. Which people? Yes, your parents. Yes, even your siblings. But what we consistently find in the New Testament about practical Christian living is given in the context of the church.

Whether it’s the fruit of the Spirit, or the many exhortations about using our spiritual gifts, or general reminders to love one another, we can’t ignore the emphasis placed on the church. And not just the church in general, but a local church in particular.

About a year ago, I asked my (then three-year-old) son if he could tell me the name of our church. “The holy catholic church!” he replied. Yes! He was so right!

Yet when we join the church, we join a church. While we’re called to pray for the church around the world, God gives us people right in front of us—living and breathing people—to love and serve. And here’s the thing. The people at your church aren’t always the easiest to love. Neither are you. But that’s what we’re called to do. That’s how we grow. The church has the perfect soil for sanctification. A group of needy sinner-saints. When you become a member, you are connected to them in the same way that your foot is connected to your body. You need it just like it needs you.

I’ll close with this challenge. Join the church. Profess your faith. Become a full member of your local congregation. Fully participate in the life and fellowship. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Submit to your elders. Serve the body. Pray for the members. Attend regularly. Find ways to use your gifts. Love Jesus by loving your church. For all its warts and weaknesses, the church is the place where Christians gather. Stop dating it. Isn’t it time to commit?

If you’re already a member, seek to become healthier. Do not equate membership with a piece of paper. You haven’t graduated from the need to learn. Get involved. Stretch yourself. Move away from your comfort zone. Ask yourself not what your church can do (better) for you, but what you can do (better) for your church.

And finally, a word to my younger friends. While full church membership may still be down the road, act as if you’re a full member now. Here’s what I mean. Come gladly to worship the King. Find ways to serve the body. Encourage the downcast. Welcome outsiders. Come to catechism prepared and humble. Pray for your leaders. Love Jesus. Serve the church. While certain benefits will have to wait (communion), no one said you have to wait to act like a Christian until you make a public profession.

Church membership is both biblically grounded and practically useful. May Christ cause us to love His body half as much as He does.

Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at:
mikeschout@gmail.com


Current Issue: November/December 2018
Volume 68 Issue 6

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This lecture was given at the annual meeting of Reformed Fellowship held November 7, 2008, at Trinity United Reformed Church, 7350 Kalamazoo Ave SE, Caledonia MI.

 

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