Who has authority in a Local Church?

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands.

Authority is a bad word in American culture, but this merely reflects every sinner’s natural desire to be free from all authoritative bonds. And yet, the practice of good authority seems to remain unwilling to yield to these sinful demands. Just think about parental authority over children.

At the moment, to my knowledge, only exceptionally aloof social academics are arguing for children to be removed from all parental authority. Anyone who has ever tried to enjoy dinner at a restaurant with my family is glad to see me and/or my wife exercising authority over our unruly toddler, who would love nothing more than to wreak havoc in the world.

When parents express godly and righteous authority over their children, they demonstrate the character and nature of God (albeit imperfectly).  This is exactly what is to be done in the context of a local church as well.

If pastors/elders and fellow church members are passive and aloof towards sin in the congregation, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders and fellow church members are loving disciplinarians, then the members will believe God is too.  If pastors/elders waver or become vague in their description of the actual content and implications of the gospel, then the members will think precision is unachievable and/or unimportant.

There are three ways I would like to emphasize the mutual responsibility of pastors/elders and church members in the exercise of authority in the context of a local church. After these, I would like to articulate a distinct responsibility for those who lead as pastors/elders among a local church.

Delegated Pastoral Authority

First, pastoral authority is a delegated authority, derived from God’s word and the pastor/elder’s fidelity to preaching and teaching Scripture (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The authority any pastor or group of pastors wields does not emanate from the origin of the person or the office. Rather, the authority springs from and is inextricably tethered to God’s word.

It is as though the pastors or elders can give no authoritative command that is not accompanied by a biblical citation. Of course, many pastoral decisions will have to be based on biblical principle and wise prudence, but these should come as recommendations and not commands.

Vital Congregational Authority

Second, the local congregation is responsible to hold pastors/elders accountable in their teaching (2 Tim. 4:3-4). While congregations may be tempted to acquire preachers and leaders who will lead according to the desires of the congregation, the membership of the church is best served by those leaders who lead to please God and not men. Therefore, the congregation has an authoritative responsibility to acquire and encourage godly, faithful, biblically-courageous leadership.

This responsibility towards maintaining suitable leadership stems from the congregational authority to bring members in and put members out of the local church family. Baptism is the communal and public initiation of any person who becomes a disciple of Christ (Matt. 28:19), and this is the ceremony by which a local congregation affirms and covenants to mutual discipleship with an individual believer.

As time goes by, the congregation bears the responsibility of holding one another accountable to Christ’s commands, and even taking disciplinary action against those who refuse to submit to Christ (Matt. 18:15-20). This is not, however, an authority given to any individual member or any group among the membership. Rather, this authority of bringing members in and putting members out of the local church family is to be exercised “when [they] are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Authoritative Leadership

Third, pastors/elders are to shepherd a local church family by providing oversight and leading by example (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Pastoring among a church family is no dictatorship, and neither is it a pure democracy, where leaders simply implement popular opinion.

Pastors/elders are to oversee, which connotes management, administration, and leadership. Pastors/elders are also to exemplify spiritual maturity, which indicates accessibility, familiarity, and personal care. By affectionate oversight and patient modeling, pastors/elders are to authoritatively lead among a local church.

Enjoying Good Authority

Fourth and finally, church members are called to obey their pastors/elders, and these leaders are warned that they will give an account to Christ for how their shepherd those under their care (Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:28). This idea, especially as it is conveyed in Hebrews 13:17, is quite potent for pastors/elders and church members alike. It clearly distinguishes the authoritative responsibility of pastors/elders, and it powerfully encourages church members to enjoy the benefits of godly leadership. Indeed, godly leadership should be enjoyed and appreciated among the church family.

Summarizing Local Church Authority

In summary, I might say that pastors/elders and their respective congregations are mutually responsible to wield delegated authority.

The congregation’s authority seems to primarily focus on the inclusion and exclusion of members (encompassing the inclusion and exclusion of pastors/elders). Interwoven in this congregational authority is the authority to judge not only the “who” of the church family but also the “what” of the confession that binds the church family together. In this way, the local church guards the purity of the content of what is taught and what is believed among the members, fulfilling the New Testament characteristic of being the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Furthermore, this general “in and out” authority of the congregation is tightly linked to the authority of the pastors/elders, who are responsible to teach and train the congregation according to all of Christ’s commands. The pastoral teaching and training are to be done patiently and in an all-of-life fashion (1 Tim. 4:6-16), but always pointing the hearer back to God’s word as the fountainhead of truth and basis of all good authority.

May God grant that many local churches would experience and embrace this biblical concept of good and right authority.

What is a “good” pastor?

If you have been part of a local church or among the leadership of a local church, then you have probably thought or said something about the quality of a pastor or pastors.

I love my pastor because he showed great care for me when my daughter was in the hospital last year.”

That pastor is not so great because he doesn’t seem to connect well with guests and first-time visitors each Sunday.”

That pastor is awesome because he doesn’t seem like a typical pastor.”

Whatever you might think about your pastor, or pastors generally, I’d like to invite you to consider the reality that pastors do indeed have a tremendous impact on the local church. In fact, one way to know if a church family is healthy and if they will grow healthier over time is to learn about the pastor or pastors who lead them.

Biblically qualified pastors or elders or “undershepherds” is one mark or feature of a healthy church, and Christians are wise to think more about this subject. Learn more about building healthy churches by visiting 9marks.org.

What are the biblical qualifications of an undershepherd (i.e. pastor or elder)? When you think of a well-qualified pastor, what comes to mind? Do the qualifications you are thinking about have any Scriptural support or are they based on your life experience or your preferences? How would you know if a man was qualified to serve as a pastor? How would you know if a man should be removed pastoring your local church?

Thankfully, the Bible gives a thorough list of pastoral qualifications and the Bible provides examples of good pastors.

  • A pastor or elder should have a clean reputation (1 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6-7).
  • If He is married, he should be a faithful husband and his wife should be godly and faithful as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6).
  • He should manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).
  • He should be self-controlled and financially temperate (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).
  • He should be hospitable and mature in his Christian walk (1 Tim. 3:2, 6; Titus 1:8).
  • He should be doctrinally sound and able to teach sound doctrine to others (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).

If you see men among your church family who meet these qualifications, then you should praise God for them. For such men are a gift from Christ to His people (Eph. 4:11-12), and they are a blessing to your soul (Heb. 13:17). If, however, you are sitting under the shepherding care of a man who fails to meet one or more of these qualifications, then you should have grave concerns.

We are warned in Scripture about false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1) and false gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). Furthermore, God blames congregations for listening to those who lead them astray (Gal. 1:6-9).

It is vitally important that every member of a local church understand these qualifications. If some church members measure the quality of pastoral leadership by some other standard, then an unqualified man may seem more valuable than he truly is, or a highly qualified man may seem less than desirable.

May God raise up more qualified pastors/elders and may He cause many churches to be healthier through the efforts of such men. May God also help church members to value and appreciate good pastors/elders by measuring them by biblical standards.

What is Church Membership?

It is biblical and valuable!

What is church membership?

The topic of church membership has garnered great interest among Evangelical circles in recent years. Surely, all would agree that a discussion of the meaning and value of church membership can be rewarding in the context of any local church. And yet, it does seem that some local churches are hesitant to think critically about their own practice of church membership. This article is, in large part, a plea for local churches to think about the concept of church membership and the right practice of church membership in their specific context.

Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all great efforts when addressing church membership and related topics. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own.  When church history diverges from or unnecessarily exceeds the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid these mistakes ourselves by learning from others. Of course, the question is not ultimately, “How did people do church membership in the past?” The question is, “How should we do church membership right now?”

Church membership has lost its value.

To say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of Evangelical churches today is not to say that church membership is not valuable.  My statement is about the perception of many Evangelical church members, not the actual value of church membership.

It seems clear to me that many Evangelical church members (especially in the Southern Baptist Convention) perceive church membership as having little or no value whatever in their daily lives. The statistic of members to regular attendees is sufficient to illustrate the perceived lack of value among Southern Baptists. There are about 15 million members among SBC churches, but only about 33% of these can be found gathering with fellow members on any given Sunday.

If one does not think enough of church membership to worship regularly with fellow members, then one does not value church membership.

The reason I have begun by articulating the problem (namely a devaluation of church membership) is that I believe this current situation is one of our own making (speaking of Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals). I, therefore, believe that the solution is achievable by those same ones who have created the problem. We must resolve to carefully and diligently practice biblical church membership.

We have largely made church membership a consumer-driven category, much like any other social or service-oriented organization. Church leaders look for new and innovative ways to cater to the taste-preferences of their target audience, and then create organizational structures by which they seek to achieve maximum saturation of their niche market.

Many church leaders hope to draw in an ever-larger crowd by targetting and winning an audience, much like corporate marketing specialists.

All of this feeds into the self-centered idea that the customer is king and the whole organization exists at the behest of the customer. At the end of the day, church members think of the church as an institution which exists to serve the felt-needs of its members. Church members think this way because the church leaders taught them to do so by their own words and actions.

The result of this kind of practice is an appalling lack of accountability, authority, and discipling. In fact, such things are considered abhorrent to the marketing and consumer-driven structure. Accountability, authority, and discipline would undermine the foundational values of any customer-centered organizational model.

Church membership is thoroughly biblical and highly valuable.

In contrast to this modern invention of church growth techniques, the Bible actually presents a simple and God-centered structure and purpose for church membership. It seems clear to me that the purpose of church membership is articulated throughout the New Testament in the form of commitments and responsibilities.

Here are some of the commitments I find in the New Testament.

  • The individual Christian must commit to other Christians (Col. 3:12-17).
  • The individual Christian must submit to the oversight of church leadership (Heb. 13:17).
  • Pastors/elders commit themselves to the task of lovingly shepherding (leading, teaching, loving) a particular local assembly of Christians (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  • Christians must join together for mutual support and accountability (Gal. 6:1-2).
  • Under the care and instruction of godly leaders (i.e. pastors/elders), a congregation must strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in its ability to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).

The biblical understanding of church membership makes clear the distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world. Those who enjoy new life in Christ are trained and corrected so that they may flourish in their new life. Those who resist the disciplines of Christian living are rebuked and held accountable for opposing the very practices that produce greater life in all who follow Christ.

In the practice of biblical church membership, Christians are distinguished from the world, and Christians grow alongside one another in grace and love.

The results of practicing biblical church membership are increasing spiritual health, progress in personal holiness, and growth in effective Christian witness to the world. The gospel of Christ, which asserts that blessed transformation is at the heart of God’s gracious plan for sinners, is made visible among congregations like these.

May God revitalize, reform, and renew Evangelical churches to reflect the purity and love which Christ said would mark His disciples in the world (Jn. 13:35).

The Local Church is God’s plan for Evangelism!

I admit that this subject has affected me much in recent years. In thinking through evangelism and the local church, I come to a subject that has not only provoked me to grow but also to move away from a previously held position.

My introduction to vocational ministry was evangelism through a parachurch ministry. All throughout my 20s, I believed that I was the tip of the evangelistic spear and that the local church was the cumbersome-but-necessary shaft which played the menial role of tossing me into the target. In my pointed conversations and through my honed preaching, I believed parachurch evangelism to be the best way to engage the world with the gospel of Christ. Today, I am ashamed of my posture and perspective during those days. Oh, how foolish and wrong I was to assume such a low view of the local church.

Today, I understand the local church to be the apple of God’s eye and the lifeblood of God’s evangelistic activity in the world. The local church is the people by whom the gospel is upheld (1 Tim. 3:15), the people among whom the gospel is made visible (Col. 3:11), and the people through whom Christ is present in the world (Matt. 18:20).

When the local church is healthy and vibrant, it is a testimony of God’s grace, a picture of Christ’s transformative work, and a mechanism by which sinners may encounter the real power of God’s Spirit.

The evangelistic role of the church is crucial in the world because any evangelistic efforts detached from the local church will only provide an incomplete gospel at best. Furthermore, it seems to me that many Christians have resorted to just such an incomplete gospel.

American Evangelicalism is abundant with hoards of privatized Christians who think, speak, and act much like the world. These Evangelicals are secure in their eternal destination because they prayed a prayer at some point in their lives, or simply because they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” based on some subjective feeling. But this is not biblical evangelism or historically grounded Christianity.

If Christians are calling sinners into something (namely God’s family, along with all accompanying blessings) and not merely out of something (such as God’s judgment), then only those Christians who point to a healthy local church have any way of making such an appeal. If lone-ranger Christians merely talk of God’s love without demonstrating any affectionate love for fellow Christians, then they have failed to meet the Bible’s simple test of genuine spiritual life (1 Jn. 3:14). Thus, lone-ranger Christians bear false testimony of God, of Christ, and of the Spirit-filled Church.

Christians must embrace the messy-yet-beautiful relationships that can only be experienced in the covenantal, loving, sin-fighting, encouraging, spirit-maturing, humbling, and sanctifying atmosphere of biblical local church membership. And Christians must invite sinners to join them in this nourishing garden by entering through the narrow gate of Christ’s person and work.

May God revitalize churches around the world to give testimony to the gracious and glorious character of God, the joyfully obedient sonship of Christ, and the supernaturally transformative work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Is Church Membership in the Bible?

This is a question that deserves as much time as you have to give it. But you are reading a blog, so it is likely you don’t want a lengthy dissertation. Allow me to point to a few passages of Scripture, and in this way provide you with an introductory answer to the question.

Matthew 18:15-20. In this passage, the church/assembly is defined by:

  • “brother” (a designation often referring to “brother in faith”) in close relationship with “brother” (v15)
  • accountability regarding sin and striving towards holiness (v16)
  • the requirement of ongoing repentance in the lives of sinners (v15)
  • communal care and concern for consistent living (v16-17)
  • a weighty responsibility to make serious judgments about who is in and who is out of the fellowship (v18)
  • Christ’s presence and authority (v20)

Colossians 3:1-17. This passage is found in the midst of a letter from the Apostle Paul to the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:2). While Paul does not explicitly call the Colossian Christians a “church,” the designation is implied by the way he closes the letter (4:15-16). In chapter 3, Paul defines their relationship as one in which:

  • all worldly designations are obliterated (v11)
  • all worldly living is to be renounced and resisted (v5-8)
  • the Christians are to be patient and bear with one another in love (v13-14)
  • the Christians are also responsible to actively teach and admonish (i.e. correct or rebuke) one another according to the Scripture (v16)

Hebrews 13:17. This passage is one of the most terrifying in all of Scripture to me as a pastor. Church membership is more defined in this passage by answering the questions that anyone should ask when they read it.

  1. Which leaders should I obey?
  2. Whose souls are those leaders keeping watch over?
  3. Which leaders will Christ call to account, and for whom will those leaders give an account?

Much more could be said about each of these passages, and many more passages should be able to weigh in on our understanding of church membership. My hope is that anyone who reads this will at least recognize that the Bible does, in fact, say quite a bit about church membership. Furthermore, I pray that God will help local churches become healthier as they seek to be more faithful to the words of Christ.

7 Reasons Not to “Move Your Letter”

I’d like to move my letter.”

This phrase and others like it are probably unfamiliar to you unless you are a Baptist who has spent some significant time on the membership roster of a church in the American south. This phrase is referencing the transfer of one’s church membership from one local church to another. However, it seems to me that such a phrase exposes a common but unbiblical understanding of church membership.

Let me outline 7 reasons I think you should stop trying to “move your letter” or anyone else’s.

  1. It’s not your letter. Your membership in a local church family was never privately owned. It has always been an agreement between you and the local church you call family (or at least used to call family). When you choose to join a local church, you are making a public agreement with a number of other Christians, and this excludes the possibility of you ever being able to make any decision about your membership without their participation (Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 12:25).
  2. You can’t move your letter; it doesn’t exist. The letter we are referring to here is a letter of commendation. It is not a mere certificate of membership. It is not an administrative document of your past attendance, however frequent or sporadic it may have been. It is not a simple statement that you were on the membership roster of a local church. Therefore, you can’t move your letter; for it does not exist yet. The letter you are requesting is something that the congregation you are leaving must create in response (1 Cor. 12:25; Col. 3:9, 16).
  3. You can’t move your letter; it may not ever exist. The common assumption is that the mere request of a “letter transfer” will necessarily be followed by the action of “moving the letter of membership.” But, this may not be so. As mentioned above, the letter you are requesting does not exist yet. Your request must be heard and answered by the congregation with whom you are currently enjoined. They are responsible to examine your life and beliefs in order to decide whether or not they are willing to commend you to the membership of another congregation. Simply put, your current church family is responsible to inform any other of who you truly are based on their experience with you (James 5:16; Col. 3:16).
  4. Your desire to move from membership in one local church to another should be expressed by a humble and personal request. The “movement of your letter” requires your current church family to communally endorse you as a Christian of good quality to another church family. This is no small matter, and your request is very personal to those of whom you are making such a thing. If your request is requiring such a personal investment from a whole congregation of fellow Christians, shouldn’t your appeal require more than an impersonal and distant statement from you (Phil. 2:3; Eph. 5:21)?
  5. Your movement from one church to another is too important to be done quietly. Do you remember the feeling of joy you had when your current church family accepted you into their membership? Wasn’t it a wonderful occasion to celebrate God’s work in your life and His work in the life of that local church? Why would you think that your entrance into another local church family would be less significant? Your current church family cares deeply about your spiritual growth and health, even if you don’t think they have expressed that care very well up to this point. You respected and cared about what your current church family thought when they took you in; you can respect and care what they think (at least a little) as you make your way out (1 Cor. 12:25; 1 Jn. 4:7-21).
  6. Your church family and pastors will give an account to Christ for every member they take in and every member they commend. Taking members in and putting members out is one of the major functions of every local church. This is, in fact, the primary way that a church family exercises loving discipline in the life of the congregation. Christ, who is ruler and king over all, is the head of every local church. Everything that any local church does in the name of Christ will be to His glory or to their own shame (Matt. 18:15-20; Heb. 13:17).
  7. Your church family is responsible to help you know where you truly stand before God. Only those people who are giving themselves over to belief in and submission to Christ are welcome in a particular church family, joining with that particular group of Christians to communally follow Christ. And, if a person has been in close relationship with a church family for any length of time, that church family is in a great position to either affirm or critique that person’s profession of faith. While everyone loves affirmation, a loving critique is better than flattery any day (Gal. 6:1; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24; James 5:16).

The local church is so much more important than we often think, and the individual Christian benefits most when he or she greatly appreciates the value of their local church.

For more information about church membership, joining a local church, and leaving a local church, see the following:

Article: “Pastors, Don’t let you people resign into thin air

Podcast: “On how to receive and dismiss members

Podcast: “How to leave your church well

 

Good Preaching? What about Good Listening?

There has never been a better time in human history for those who love good preaching. Good preaching is not common in our day, but it is more accessible today than ever before. You can listen to good preaching all day every day (if you are so inclined) through multiple internet-based resources (see my recommendations at the bottom).

While good preaching (as opposed to mediocre or bad preaching) is the goal of both good pastors and their respective congregations, the goal of good listening is often forgotten. Since preaching quality is inevitably measured by the listener, I want to argue that preaching cannot be beneficially good without good listeners to receive and respond to it.

I am not saying that the reason your pastor’s preaching is atrocious is because you are a bad listener (at least not necessarily). But I am saying that your pastor’s preaching will benefit you best when you are listening well.

There are at least four things you can do to be a better listener to good preaching.

First, read the Bible for yourself.

Try to familiarize yourself with the passage and context before listening to the message. This assumes that your pastor preaches expositionally (through the Bible, chunks or verses at a time). Even on topical Sundays, you should be able to ask your pastor for the passage from which he will be primarily drawing. For best results, read through the upcoming passage several times throughout the week, and read through the surrounding text at least once.

Second, make notes before the sermon.

You can jot down questions or noteworthy ideas in preparation for listening to the preached message. Bring those notes with you on Sunday, and as your pastor preaches through the text, follow him with your own notes. Listen for him to touch on the same themes or concepts you found, add to your notes and even adjust them, and enjoy your pastor’s thoughtful insights. Also, every pastor must choose what he will leave out and what he will emphasize in a message, so ask him any unanswered questions after the sermon or in an email later on. He will most likely have studied up on the matter, and he will most certainly be glad to know of your own interest in the biblical text.

Third, take notes during the sermon.

Good preachers will not be hard to follow, and they will make a linear path towards a destination in their sermon. Not every preacher will have clear bullet-point headings and subheadings, but good sermons will begin with a goal, take steps towards the goal, and end up where the preacher said we were going. Pay attention to the stated goal, make note of the steps along the way (each statement or point that progresses towards the goal), and consider the overall point of the sermon. Preaching isn’t preaching unless the listener is being called to believe something or do something (and it’s often both).

Fourth, take responsibility for the application.

Many preachers will admit that application is one of the toughest features of sermon preparation. A preacher might say, “I know what I would do with this, but I’m not sure what each person in my congregation might do with it…” Good preachers will be able to demonstrate appropriate and helpful applications for their listeners, but the listener will be able to apply the sermon (and the biblical text) much more specifically and lastingly to himself or herself. After the sermon (preferably soon after), ask yourself these questions:

(1) What is God revealing about Himself here?

(2) What is God showing me about me here?

(3) What is God telling me to believe here?

(4) What is God telling me to do here?

(5) How will I strive to remember what God wants me to believe?

(6) How am I going to do what God wants me to do?

Good preaching is both a gift and a discipline, and good preachers work very hard to be the best preachers they can be. Listeners must also put forth the effort to hear good preaching well, for good listening is necessary for good preaching to be of any benefit.

May God bless local churches with good preachers, and may the listeners who hear them strive towards good listening, enjoying the full benefit of God’s gift of such valiant men.

 


 

If you want some recommendations for good preaching resources, I suggest the following:

I shamelessly endorse my own preaching, and you can listen or subscribe to sermons by clicking the microphone on the bottom of the sermons tool at www.fbcdiana.org

My favorite living Bible teacher and preacher (though his health is fading rapidly these days) is R.C. Sproul. His sermons (and a ton of other resources) can be found at www.ligonier.org

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) is known as the “Prince of Preachers” for good reason. His preaching is unique and powerful. You can listen to someone else read his sermons at www.spurgeongems.org or you can read the transcripts for yourself at www.spurgeongems.org/sermons

One can hardly find a bolder preacher than John MacArthur. His preaching and pastoring ministry of nearly 50 years among a single congregation is a testimony of his love for Christ and his church. His messages (and many other resources) can be accessed at www.gty.org

Preparing to Preach

Pastors do many things, but the thing a pastor must prioritize above all others is preaching. Jesus commanded Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:17), and Peter must have had that powerful moment in mind when he perpetuated the command by telling other elders/pastors to, “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2).

Preaching is the essential role of an elder/pastor, for the distinguishing qualification for such a role is the “ability to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). This includes both instruction in biblical truth and refuting error (Titus 1:9). One can hardly imagine a weightier task on planet earth, especially considering that the local church is “pillar and buttress of truth) (1 Tim. 3:15). My own pastoral shoulders are sagging as I type these words.

And yet, the noble task of pastoring beckons me (and other men like me). Like a story that must be written, a word that must be spoken, a song that must be sung… I cannot not preach. Indeed, Christ gives the gift of pastor-preachers to the local church (Eph. 4:11), and it is a humbling and emboldening thing to be counted among this gift for a time.

Since preaching is such an emphatic feature of pastoring, pastors often spend much time and effort in preperation to preach. The constant thought for any good pastor is, “How can I best prepare to preach my best?” Not every preacher will come to the pulpit with the same skills, intellect, life-experiences, or tools. But every preacher should come to the pulpit with the same fear of God (Micah 6:8-9), bold trust in God’s word (Lk. 11:28; Jn. 6:68; Acts 6:7), and love for the people God has place under his shepherding care (Heb. 13:17).

While every preacher will experience his own unique path into pastoral ministry, and every preacher will benefit from a his own preparation routine, the responsibility is the same: Prepare to preach.

Don’t prepare merely to lead, to cast vision, to entertain, to host, to provoke, to make a presentation, or to only teach.

Prepare to preach. In doing this well, you will do all that you must do before God to honor the calling to which He has called you. Whatever God chooses to do with your preaching us up to Him (1 Cor. 3:5-7).

What greater measurement of success is there than that the God of all creation who entrusted you with His Gospel would say that you have preached that entrusted word well?

May God raise up quality preachers for and from His people, and may God grant those who now serve as preachers the grace to preach well.

We Need Sanctifying Churches!

If the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, then sanctification may be the doctrine which adorns her with beauty or leaves her standing naked and shameful.

The Church of Jesus Christ (all those who truly love and trust Christ) is His bride, adorned with His own righteousness and set apart for His intimate affection and care.  This truth is the comfort of all who understand themselves to be included in the household of God.  Yet, Christ does not merely call the prostituting adulterous bride to wear new labels (such as justified and sanctified), He also calls her to live accordingly (Eph 4:1; 1 Thess 2:12).

Living in light of her new status, the Church of Jesus Christ is declared to be holy, and Christ is making her holy by the washing of His word “so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor” (Eph 5:25-27).  This loving reconciliation and renewal is challenged by the fact that the visible Church (the multitude of professing Christians) is made up of believers who are still desirous of sin.

Herein lies the difficulty of understanding just how the visible Church may be clothed with righteousness as she stands justified before the watching world:

A visible Church, full of sinful-but-sanctified believers, arrayed in magnificence and clothed in righteousness for all the world to see, is exactly what God has intended the Church do be.

Before diving too deeply into the doctrine of sanctification, it may prove beneficial to establish the foundation for the believer’s justification.  Horatius Bonar, speaking of Christ’s righteousness with eloquence, wrote,

“In another’s righteousness we [Christians] stand; and by another’s righteousness are we justified.”  This truth, he went on to say, makes plain that “all accusations against us, founded upon our right unrighteousness, [may be] answered by pointing to the perfection of the righteousness which covers us from head to foot… as well as shields us from wrath.”[1]

Justification happens in an instant.  It is the doing of God Himself when the sinner is made alive in Christ Jesus and counted good, holy, and righteous in God’s sight (Eph 2:4-9; Titus 3:7; Rom 5:9).  Furthermore, sanctification is also an instantaneous declaration and positional reality for all who are in the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:11).

Sinclair Ferguson, writing on those doctrines that undergird the Christian life, says,

“it would be a distortion to present the New Testament teaching on sanctification only as a long, hard struggle for victory over sin as though few Christians ever lived the life of faith with any degree of success.”[2]

He goes on to point out that some New Testament passages can be understood only if sanctification is perceived to be a past experience (Acts 20:32; 1 Cor 6:11; 1 Pet 1:2).  In addition, the Christian union with Christ includes a significant change in relation to sin, particularly that the Christian is now ‘dead to’ or released from the power of sin (Col 2:20-3:14; Gal 2:20; Rom 6:1-14).

In the confessional statement known as the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, sanctification is one of many doctrinal subjects addressed.  The confession clearly conveys an understanding of sanctification as both a past and present work.

“They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally (Acts 20:32; Rom. 6:5,6), through the same virtue, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them (John 17:17; Eph. 3:16-19; 1 Thess. 5:21-23); the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed (Rom. 6:14), and the several lusts of it are more and more weakened and mortified (Gal. 5:24), and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces (Col. 1:11), to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:14).”[3]

There is a real sense in which the mortal, un-glorified Christian – as sinful as he may remain – is now sanctified and positionally holy before God.  The Christian is aroused to love for God by virtue of having been born again, and he does now love righteousness and hate sin (1 Tim 6:11).  Bonar says,

“The free, boundless love of God, pouring itself into us, expands and elevates our whole being; and we serve Him, not in order to win His favour, but because we have already won it in simply believing His record concerning His Son. If the root is holy, so are the branches. We have become connected with the holy root, and by the necessity of this connection are made holy too.”[4]

While it is true that the earthly Christian is holy, declared to be so and empowered to live as such by God Himself, the mortal Christian remains practically sinful and inclined towards sin.  He may find himself in despair when he considers how sinful he still is in spite of what he reads about his position before God as articulated in Scripture.

If I am still as sinful as I am,” he may think to himself, “how can it be true that I am holy and just in the sight of God?”

Bonar goes on to explain how vital it is that one understands the difference between working (doing good works and living righteously) and believing (trusting in the finished work of Christ for justification).  He says one must not confound or confuse the two because doing so would “destroy them both.”[5]

Therefore, justification and sanctification are fixed realities for all those in Christ Jesus by virtue of Christ’s justifying and sanctifying person and work.  However, there is also a sense in which the believer is being sanctified by God and also contributing to such a work through the diligent use of the means of grace, which God has made available to the converted soul (2 Tim 2:22).

The London Confession of 1689, in paragraph two and three of the section on Sanctification, describes the reality that sanctification has taken place, and yet there is remaining much imperfection in the believer while in this mortal life.  Furthermore, the believer most certainly finds himself in a constant struggle – the “flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal 5:17; 1 Pet 2:11).

In this war, the believer is assured that he will overcome (Rom. 6:14), but he may experience periods when the remaining corruption may seem to prevail (Rom. 7:23).[6]  Martin Luther noted, early in his magisterial work on the depravity of fallen humanity,

“The world and it’s god (2 Cor 4:4) cannot and will not hear the word of the true God: and the true God cannot and will not keep silence. While, therefore, these two Gods are at war with each other, what can there be else in the whole world, but tumult?”[7]

If this is what we universally find (namely tumult and war) when the true God clashes with “the god of this world,” then we should expect to find the same hostile conflict in the microcosm of the human heart when these two opponents meet.  However, the Christian may take great comfort to know that God has not left the task of sanctification in the mortal’s hands alone.  God has called the Christian to diligently pursue righteousness and good works (Matt 6:33), and God has promised that He is working within to bring about both the willing and the doing of those same things (Eph 2:10).

The London Confession is again helpful to explain:

“Their ability to do good works is not all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ (John 15:4,5); and that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them and to will and to do of his good pleasure (2 Cor. 3:5; Phil. 2:13); yet they are not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit, but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them (Phil. 2:12; Heb. 6:11,12; Isa. 64:7).”[8]

The doing of good works by every believer is commanded and enabled by God (Titus 2:7; Heb 10:24; Matt 5:16; 1 Pet 2:12; Eph 2:10).  Not only thus, but Scripture informs us that good works will provide some evidence of genuine faith and discipleship (James 2:14-26; Jn 8:31).  Good works, or righteous living, do not produce justification or sanctification, but it is clear that good works necessarily and always follow such things.

Kevin DeYoung describes the relationship, borrowing from biblical imagery, in botanic terms.

“It’s not that good works are in the root of the tree; they’re not the thing that makes the tree what it is. They’re not the ground or the basis of our standing with God. But if we truly are redeemed through the blood of Christ, if the Holy Spirit truly dwells in us, then we will be people who bear fruit in good works. Our lives will be marked by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23).  And if those fruits are not present in us, Jesus says, we have reason to question whether the tree was ever really healthy at all.”[9]

With more elegant style and language, Bonar explains the enabling power of God in the life of the believer by saying, “The life of the justified is a decided one.”  It is fixed and focused.  “The justifying cross has come between him and all evil things.”  The Christian has a new light in his eye.  “Even if at any time he feels as if he could return to that country from which he set out, the cross stands in front and arrests his backward step.”

The Gospel itself compels the Christian onward toward the celestial city with holiness as his aim.  “There is henceforth to be no mistake about him. His heart is no longer divided, and his eye no longer roams. He has taken up his cross, and he is following the Lamb.”[10]  With such a view of the Christian life and focus, one might imagine that there should be no sinful expressions from the thoughts, words, or deeds of any Christian.  But alas, we do find much in the way of sinful expressions in the life of every Christian we meet – including the one we meet daily in the mirror.

The explanation for such an experience in the Christian life is not exactly clear.  The Scriptures tell us that God extends varying levels of grace to individual believers (Eph 4:7; 1 Cor 12:11; Phil 2:13), but we would want to be careful not to blame God for the sinful expression of any sinner.  The Holy Spirit works in varying degrees within individual believers (Heb 2:4; 1 Cor 12:6), but again we would want to avoid accusing God the Spirit of any negligence on His part in the sanctifying work. Individual believers play an important role in how far and how fast they progress in sanctification throughout their mortal lives (Heb 10:24; 3:13; Titus 3:8), but here too we are wise to refrain from ascribing any credit to the believer for his or her progress because it is only by God’s enabling Spirit that they are sanctified.

All three of these are true, so then there must be some combination of these factors that explain the varying degrees of speed and efficiency that mark the sanctification process in different Christians.  It is clear that there will be progress in the work of sanctification in the life of every believer, and God has promised to complete the process which He has begun (Phil 1:6).

It appears that God has not only promised to work within Christians to bring about the mutually desired end of complete sanctification, but he has also instituted local communities through which Christians are to engage in diligent efforts towards sanctification together.

Here, we shall turn our attention from the personalized sanctification of the individual to the communal sanctifying properties of the local church.

The London Confession says,

“[T]he Lord Jesus Christ calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father (John 10:16; John 12:32), that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his word (Matt. 28:20). Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world (Matt. 18:15-20).”[11]

Therefore, these societies or communities of faith are designed for mutual improvement, building up, or sanctification (Eph 2:19-20).  Paragraph 12 of that same confession, in the section on The Church, goes on to explain that there are privileges, censures, and authoritative instruments that the Christian may enjoy in the life of a Gospel-centered community.

Rather than these communities being an end in themselves or even a rule unto themselves, they are local and communal expressions of mutual submission to the Christ who reigns over all.  Andrew Purvis expounds this view by saying,

“The ministry of the church is, by the Holy Spirit, a sharing in God’s ministry to and for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ.  The task at hand, then, is to focus on the profound interrelationship that must obtain between… those truths and realities about God that the church brings to expression through Christian doctrine… and pastoral care.”[12]

Pastoral care, the shepherding of God’s sheep and caring for Christ’s bride, is the task of “sharing in God’s ministry to and for” Christians.  The church is meant to be a local expression of “truths and realities about God,” which we find clearly revealed in the Scriptures and understand as Christian doctrine.

In less lofty terms, but just as potent, Mark Dever says that a local church is “a community of believers who have become part of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and, as a result, have covenanted together to help each other run the Christian race with integrity, godliness, and grace.”[13]  The London Confession also has this view of a local church and its membership.

“The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2); and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel (Acts 2:41,42, 5:13,14; 2 Cor. 9:13).”[14]

Church membership, then, is a collective affirmation that Christians in local proximity to one another are attempting to live out in practical ways the reality of their positional possession – holiness. 

They are saints by calling, and they are seeking to live in obedience to Christ by “giving themselves” to one another in mutual submission and love.

While any reasonable understanding of what a church is and what a church does (as described here) would assume that this must be done in community with other believers, it is helpful to allow a dissenting voice to speak in order to demonstrate greater clarity.  In her book, How to be a Christian Without Going to Church, Kelly Bean takes aim at average local church experiences over the last generation or so.  She rightly points out that many local churches are active but not very effective. Whether she measures effectiveness in biblical terms or not is questionable at best, but her assessment may still be true when measured in biblical terms.

Her solution is to opt out of church attendance or involvement altogether, something she calls non-going.  She sees some problems that arise with such a lone ranger mentality, and she suggests, “A collective narrative is important for all.”[15]  The collective narrative she is looking for is exactly what is provided by the Gospel message and the mutually stimulated sanctification that occurs in Gospel-centered communities, through the proclamation of biblical truth and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  Yet, this is not something she seems to believe may be found in any communal expression of local Christians.

Bean seems to be unaware that she is describing the creation of a church, albeit an ‘alternative’ one, when she admits, “In many ways, the art of non-going and facilitating alternative Christian communities that offer the support we might need, is still in the works.”[16]  Reinventing Christian communities to offer ‘non-goers’ support so that they may maintain their non-going status sounds about like offering a fish an aquarium so that he may refer to himself as “a fish out of water.”

It is simply inconceivable that a Christian would find sanctification to be something that he or she should pursue outside of a community of believers.  Dever says,

“While our individual walks are crucial, we are impoverished in our personal pursuit of God if we do not avail ourselves of the help that is available through mutually edifying relationships in our covenant Church family” (Heb 10:24-25).[17]

Christians are, therefore, beneficiaries of the communal and covenantal relationship that is only available in a local church.  The local church is, then, both exclusive and active in this participatory endeavor of mutual sanctification and humble submission to Christ.

The exclusivity of a local church comes in the form of membership admission.  It may go without saying (but it never should) that local church membership is for Christians only (Eph 2:19-20).  There is no sense in which an unregenerate man or woman should seek communion among regenerate men and women.

Since regenerate people are diligently pursuing practical righteousness in themselves and in one another, the unregenerate person can have no genuine unity with them.  The very thought of hating his own sin and loving a Lord greater than himself is repugnant to the unregenerate man (Rom 8:5-8).

With this in mind, many local churches have put into place a kind of membership interview for potential church members.  These interviews, in one form or another, involve relationship building and include probing questions in order to discover Gospel clarity and some evidence of the new birth (Jn 3:3; 1 Pet 1:23).  Jonathan Leeman notes what standards he might put into practice in a membership interview when he says,

“Look for the ones who are poor in spirit; who mourn their sin; who aren’t entitled, always insisting on their way, but are meek; who are sick to death of sin and all it’s nonsense and so hunger and thirst for righteousness like it is water.  When you find people like that, make sure they know who Jesus is. Make sure Jesus is the one who fills their impoverished spirit, who has forgiven their sins, who receives their life and worship, and whose righteousness they depend upon and pursuit. When you find such people, tell them to join!”[18]

The exclusive membership of a local church is vital to the active mutual sanctification of its members because only those who have been sanctified by Christ will have any desire to pursue sanctification any further.  The church is to be the nourishing and chastising community that all Christians need in order to grow in sanctification. Mark Dever writes,

“Each local church has a responsibility to judge the life and teaching of its leaders and members, particularly when either compromises the churches witness to the Gospel (Acts 17; 1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 3; 2 Pet 3).”[19]

While judgment and discipline seem to be allergens in contemporary local churches, to avoid such things is to prevent the implementation of the clear and explicit design for the very institution itself.

Liberty, personal and individual freedom, seems to be the untouchable possession of the day.  However, rebellious sinfulness has often been masquerading as Christian liberty.  The London Confession explains:

“They who upon pretense of Christian liberty do practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust, as they do thereby pervert the main design of the grace of the gospel to their own destruction (Rom. 6:1,2), so they wholly destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our lives (Gal. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:18, 21).”[20]

Christian liberty is the deliverance from Christian enemies (namely sin and death) so that we might serve the Lord without fear, and so that we might walk in holiness and righteousness before Christ our Sovereign.

Therefore, local church communities are charged with holding one another accountable to the truth of the Gospel and rebuking one another when these clear truths are neglected, denied, or rejected.  In his book on healthy church membership, Thabiti Anyabwile explains,

“Formative discipline refers to how Scripture shapes and molds the Christian as he or she imbibes its teaching and is trained to live for God.”  He goes on to explain another form of discipline, which he calls “corrective.”  He writes, “No one lives in entire life without the need of discipline, whether positive or corrective. So the healthy church member embraces discipline as one means of grace in the Christian life.”[21]

Rather than lamenting accountability, the genuine believer embraces it with gladness because he knows the sinful inclinations of his heart and desires to live in opposition to them.

Fallen humanity is so utterly sinful that unregenerate man is enslaved to sin (Jn 8:34).  This is no longer true of the believer, for the Christian has been set free from bondage to sin and walks in this new freedom (Rom 6:6-7).  Yet, the sinful desires that remain can be detrimental to a believer’s sanctification if left unchecked.

In dealing with what he calls “deadly serious symptoms” of a “lust” or strong sinful desire, John Owen calls for “extraordinary remedies” to combat them.  He explains that the sinner or those around him may notice these symptoms, such as habitual sin or the sinning heart pleading “to be thought in a good state.”  Owen says, “When a lust has remained a long time in the heart, corrupting, festering, and poisoning, it brings the soul into a woeful condition.”[22]

He further writes, “A person who seeks peace on any account and is content to live away from the love of God in this life, so long as it does not mean a final separation, shows that his love for sin exceeds his love for God.”

Owen laments this disposition in the heart of a believing sinner, and he asks, “What is to be expected from such a heart?”[23]  Because this may be an acceptable posture from the perspective of some Christians for a time, it is imperative that others in their community of faith wake them from their sinful slumber and stir their hearts towards right desires as well as godly truth.

Not only should rebellious sinfulness be admonished in the life of the church member for his own sake, it should also be censured for the sake of the entire body.  Martin Bucer writes,

“One mangy sheep soon infects the whole flock. That is why the Lord also commanded so earnestly that evil and wicked people should be removed and driven out from the people of God” (Duet 13, 17).[24]

Bucer notices that the ‘mangy sheep’ may not be a sheep at all; in fact, it may be that the rebellious sinner is a ‘goat’ (Matt 25:32-33), or the problem may be so bad that he rightly be called a ‘wolf’ (Matt 7:15; Acts 20:29).  No matter the condition of the mangy sheep, the flock is at risk, and this is reason enough to act.

The particular action may vary, depending upon the response of the sinning member as he is engaged by other members and/or by his pastor, according to the prescription found in Matthew 18; but should the mangy sheep remain content with his mange, Bucer explains the necessity of his exclusion from the flock.  Bucer writes,

“[I]t is also necessary in order to guard the healthy sheep and feed them in the right way for the carers of souls to exercise the greatest earnestness for the good of the congregation to exclude and keep away from it all those who refuse to listen to the church when they are warned in its name to repent, amend their ways and seek what is good, but instead wish to persist in there disorderly lives, and do not want to do good according to their calling and conduct themselves in obedience to the holy gospel and lead a Christian life, but fall into serious sins and lusts and refuse to repent, or become rebellious and start up gangs and sects.”[25]

Now Bucer goes on to say that the Christian community should prayerfully plead with the excluded sinner, that he would repent from his sin and turn once again to embrace Christ as Lord and Master.  If the sinner should find repentance and confess his error, then he may be restored; “otherwise,” Bucer says, “we are to have nothing to do with them, and they are to be shown with Christian severity how greatly we condemn and abhor their ungodliness.”[26]

While this abhorrence for ungodliness may be too much for some to stomach, no amount of temporal discomfort can compare with the eternal torment that one may suffer under the wrathful hand of God if one has presumed upon the grace of God (Rom 2:24; Heb 2:3-4).

No doubt, this kind of seriousness about sin and about sanctification would be a shock to the system of many local churches.  Pastors and members alike may have a strong distaste for such intentional pursuit of holiness and righteousness.

The pastor who insists on elevating the sanctity of the flock for which he has been named the under-shepherd may realize that his genuine care for sheep has earned him their bitterness and hatred.  The church member who challenges his or her leadership to this kind of care and oversight may discover that there is no genuine care for souls in the heart of his or her leaders.

Dever, noting the difficulty of living in Gospel-centered and sanctifying community this way, reminds his reader, “Don’t give up! Don’t give in to doubt or disillusionment or fear of man! Take a longer view. God’s purposes for all of human history revolve around the local church as the visible, corporate manifestation of His Son, Jesus Christ![27]  This is a lofty task indeed, and God is at work among us.

The message is clear.  All those whom God has justified He has also sanctified, and He continually sanctifies them by the power of His Spirit.  Additionally, God has instituted the Church as the Spirit-empowered community of faith in which sinning Christians may walk in progressively greater degrees of freedom from their sin.

Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the mortal Christian life.  The believer who tends towards self-righteousness may be humbled; the Christian who tends towards despair may be encouraged; the convert who struggles to break free from remaining inclinations towards sin may be restrained by accountability; the unregenerate pretender may be lovingly exposed and evangelized appropriately; the malevolent wolf may be discovered and expelled; and all of this may and should take place in the average daily life of the local church.

Bucer wrote, “Now, it is not possible for the word and doctrine of God to teach and command anything which is not possible, helpful, good and beneficial.”[28]  Did we ever believe otherwise?  May God grant us grace to love Him and grace to serve Him well!

 

 

Bibliography

Anyabwile, Thabiti M. What Is a Healthy Church Member? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Bean, Kelly. How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

Bonar, Horatius. The Everlasting Righteousness, Or, How Shall Man Be Just with God? 1st ed. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993.

Bucer, Martin, and David F. Wright. Concerning the True Care of Souls. Translated by Peter Beale. Edinburgh: Carlisle, PA, 2009.

Dever, Mark, and Paul Alexander. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005.

Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

DeYoung, Kevin, and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.

Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989.

Leeman, Jonathan. Church Membership How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.

Purves, Andrew. Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

“The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.” The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.1689.com/confession.html.

[1] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 179

[2] Ferguson, The Christian Life, 124

[3] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Sanctification, paragraph 1

[4] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 182-183

[5] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 175

[6] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Sanctification, paragraph 2 and 3

[7] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 25

[8] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Good works, paragraph 3

[9] DeYoung, The Mission of the Church, 227

[10] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 202

[11] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 5

[12] Purvis, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 4

[13] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 110

[14] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 6

[15] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[16] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[17] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 111

[18] Leeman, Church Membership, 88

[19] Dever, What is a Healthy Church, 106

[20] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Christian liberty and conscience, paragraph 3

[21] Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member, 76

[22] Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 54-55

[23] Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 57

[24] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 183

[25] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 184

[26] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 185

[27] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 72

[28] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 184

The Public Invitation

I recently read a very brief article, titled, “Proper Use of the Public Invitation.” In it, Pastor David Brumbelow affirmed the use of a “Public Invitation,” but I was disappointed to find no explanation of such a thing, nor any defense of it in the article.

Even though Pastor Brumbelow did not present any real argument for his statement, I think I might (at least partially) agree with him. I too believe that there is a proper and good use of a public invitation, but at the end of my Sunday morning services I do not include the kind of invitation Pastor Brumbelow is talking about.

The ‘Traditional’ Public Invitation

In my experience, many Southern Baptists today have a deep connection to a sort of liturgical formula which concludes a Sunday morning service with something called an “invitation.” Oh, I know… most Southern Baptists would not know what “liturgical” means, but we are still a highly liturgical bunch. A church’s liturgy is simply the customary structure of a normal Sunday morning service, or it can also refer to the layout of the annual calendar. And, if Southern Baptists are anything, we are customary.

Most every Southern Baptist church once ended the regular Sunday morning service with an invitation to join the church membership, present one’s self as a candidate for baptism, or become a Christian. After the preacher preached, the congregation would then stand to sing one last song (usually “Just as I am”), and either before the song or during cleverly-placed intervals between verses, the preacher would call sinners to walk down to the front of the room. It was there and then that the pastor would meet with, pray with, and otherwise counsel the responder.

“Altar call” was once the term for this event, and such language makes me shudder as a Protestant. Baptists do not sacrifice anything upon an altar, and there is no such furniture anywhere in our building. Some still use the phrase, but regardless of what you call it, this invitation to walk the aisle and join the preacher at the front of the room is essential in many Southern Baptist churches.

The Not-so-Traditional Roots of the ‘Traditional’ Public Invitation

If you ask the average Southern Baptist where this liturgical method originates, you are likely to get a look of confusion or disdain. “We’ve always done it like this…” is not just a Southern Baptist mentality, but we do seem to have perfected the practical application of it. The ‘traditional’ invitation is how we do evangelism as Southern Baptists.

However, there are roots at the base of this invitation tree, and we can see the growth over time. During the early colonial settlement of North America, there were two “Great Awakenings.” The first (1730s-1740s) was marked by passionate preaching among ministers and heightened piety and holiness among the people. Primarily a revival among the Dutch Reformed, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and some Anglicans, the First Great Awakening included both numerous conversions and extensive life-transformation.

The Second Great Awakening (1790s-1830s) was similar but different from its predecessor. Methodism had been born out of the First Great Awakening (led primarily by the efforts of John Wesley), and this denomination officially employed “camp meetings” and “revival meetings” as its methods of evangelism. A Presbyterian minister, named James McGready (1760–1817), is credited with hosting the first known camp meeting, but Methodists and Baptists adopted the technique and benefited most from it.

At these camp meetings and revivals, Christian ministers (both local pastors and traveling evangelists) would operate according to pragmatic methods, which resulted in the desired response. There was a seat located near the pulpit, called the “anxious bench,” for those who were most worried about their own spiritual well-being. It was also the best place to sit someone who needed to do some time for the sinning they had done the night before. The order of the service was built around the progression from joyful congregational singing, to an emotional message from a preacher, and then to a solemn and direct call for some in attendance to respond by “coming forward.”

The camp meeting and revival services became the standard for anyone who was serious about evangelism, and local Methodist and Baptist churches adapted their Sunday morning worship services accordingly. The liturgy of most Southern Baptist churches is directly tied to the order, progression, and purpose of those para-church evangelistic meetings. Of course, it is also important to note that famous evangelists like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham perfected and popularized this method.

The Biblical Teaching on Conversion

More than the mere practical failures of revivalism, the Bible’s teaching on conversion differs dramatically from the explicit goal of revivalistic pragmatism. While the camp meeting and revival service methods did a fantastic job of attracting a crowd and eliciting a response from many, the passage of time has provided conclusive evidence that the emotion of the moment was not always indicative of real spiritual life.

The Bible teaches that a sinner is spiritually dead, unholy, and rebellious towards the only God who can save him (Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 3:10-18). When that same sinner is converted (or “saved”), he is made spiritually alive, cleansed of all unrighteousness, and now full of love for the God who has saved him (John 3:3; Eph. 2:4-10; 1 Jn. 3:1-10).

This is no mere emotional response! Certainly, one’s emotions are involved in their experience of conversion; and the Christian’s emotional experience will likely increase as he comes to understand more deeply how God has loved and saved him. But, conversion is an unparalleled transformation that cannot be coerced, or produced, or even rescinded by methods or strategies.

The multitudinous testimonies from those being “saved” on several occasions, the abysmal expectation of absentee church membership, and the inability of many Southern Baptists to understand their own personal responsibility for evangelism have shown us that the kind of emotional revivalism that marks our past is not what we should hope for in our future.

The Proper Use of the Public Invitation

Returning once more to the statement from my fellow pastor, David Brumbelow, let me affirm that I too think there is a proper use of the public invitation. I believe that every biblical example we have of a public invitation to “come to Jesus” (as Pastor Brumbelow put it in his article) is in the context of cross-cultural and/or cross-religion evangelism.

Peter speaking to the Jews from the diaspora (Acts 2:36-41), Peter speaking to his countrymen again from Solomon’s Portico (Acts 3:36-4:4), and Steven rebuking his Jewish brethren right before they stone him to death (Acts 7:51-53) are all examples of a proper public invitation. These are public invitations to people who do not now believe, love, or trust Jesus as Savior. In fact, the crowd’s general hostility towards Jesus and the claims of the preacher are evident in each case (especially so in Steven’s).

Later in Acts, we read about Paul going into the synagogues to invite his countrymen to “come to Jesus” as well (Acts 9:20-25). This is an invitation, like those from Peter and Steven before, to those who are currently hostile towards Christ and His message. These are still members of the same ethnic group, but they are utterly opposed to the Gospel when the public invitation to submit and trust in Christ is given to them.

Later still, Peter crossed the cultural barrier by preaching to Gentiles, at God’s command, inviting them to “come to Jesus” (Acts 10:42-43). Paul preached to Greek Gentiles in the midst of their own philosophical forum (Acts 17:22-31). On both of these occasions, there was a clear evangelistic motive and effort to preach the Gospel to unbelievers.

Time after time, we read about evangelistic efforts and public invitations to trust Jesus as Savior. However, not one of these public invitations is mentioned in the context of a gathering of believers. The worship service of a local church is specifically and definitionally a gathering of Christians; therefore, an invitation to turn from a false religion or sheer unbelief is not appropriate.

Utterly contrary to revivalism, biblical local churches should organize themselves and arrange their services for feeding and equipping those who already believe. Only then will the church be and do what she is biblically ordained to be and do.

After the church remembers who she is, then she may scatter among the world and publically invite others to join her.

I believe there is a proper use of the public invitation. I believe the public invitation should be used much more often today than it is. However, I believe the use of a public invitation on Sunday mornings does more harm than good; and I believe that such a thing is extra-biblical at best, and contra-biblical at worst.