It is generally recognized that the church today as an institution is on the decline. Strange as this may seem, this decline goes hand in hand with what is being heralded as a spiritual awakening in our land. There is a spiritual movement in our land that goes under the name “Neo-Evangelicalism” or “New-Evangelicalism.” This movement is associated with such names as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Bill Bright, Mark Hatfield, and many others. Through their organizations and crusades we are told that thousands upon thousands have been brought to Jesus Christ.
This movement is not above criticism. Thus, for example, the gospel of these neo-evangelicals is often only a “thumb-nail” gospel. The gospel they proclaim is at best only shallow and superficial. More often it is riddled with all kinds of false doctrines so that their gospel is what Paul in Galatians 1 calls a gospel which is no gospel. But perhaps the most serious weakness, which is the root of all that is wrong with the neo-evangelicalism of our day, is its attitude concerning the institution of the church. It is simply a fact that many of the big-name evangelists of our day work apart from the institution of the church. They are supported by and operate under the auspices of private organizations and evangelistic associations. In harmony with this, neither do they generally emphasize the importance of church membership to those whom they claim as converts. Church membership simply is not all that important. The important thing is that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But such a relationship can exist apart from the organization of the church. And so church membership is simply not all that important. In fact sometimes church membership is viewed as being detrimental to one’s personal relationship to Jesus Christ.
It is my purpose in this article to show the importance of the institution of the church in salvation. In a future article I wish to demonstrate not only that church membership is important, but also that it is important that we be members of a particular kind of church.
Very early in the history of the Christian church, the church as an institution was considered to be the mother of God’s people. Thus, for example, the early church fathers emphasized that you can not have God as your Father unless you have the church as your mother. John Calvin, the great Reformer of Geneva, takes up this same idea in his writings. He does this for example in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Writing on the institution of the church, Calvin cites the church fathers as we have above. In his commentary on Ephesians, explaining Ephesians 4:13, Calvin writes, “The church is the common mother of all the godly, which bears, nourishes and brings up children to God.”
And this is Scriptural. In Galatians 4:26 the Apostle Paul speaks of the Jerusalem which is above. This is a figurative term to denote the church of the new dispensation from the viewpoint of her heavenly origin. Of this “Jerusalem” Paul says, “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”
That the church is the mother of God’s people means that God brings His people to salvation and preserves them in that salvation only through the, ministries of the church. Apart from the church institute there is no salvation possible. Three things must be understood in this connection. First, salvation is by faith alone. This is the teaching of Scripture throughout. This, for example, is the teaching of the Scripture in Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Faith is essential to salvation because faith is our spiritual connection to Jesus Christ in Whom are all the blessings of salvation. Hence, it is by faith alone that we are justified; by faith we receive the adoption of sons; by faith we are forgiven; by faith we are renewed and spiritually strengthened so as to live a new and holy life.
The second thing we must understand is that this faith is a gift of God. The fallen, natural man does not possess the ability to believe on Jesus Christ unto salvation. That is something lost in the fall. If man will believe in Jesus Christ, that faith must be given to him of God and must be sustained in him by God. Certainly this is the teaching of Scripture in Philippians 1:29, “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” To believe on Jesus Christ is something given to us. It is a gift of God.
In the third place, however, we must understand that God works and maintains faith in the hearts and lives of His people in and through the ministries of the church institute. Apart from the institution of the church God does not work faith. The ministries of the church are indispensable for faith and salvation. In that sense the church is the mother of us all. God used the church to bring forth His people to salvation so that He may receive them as true sons and daughters in His house.
We ought to add at this point that no church can claim exclusive right to the title “Mother of God’s people.” No one church can make the claim that you must belong to her organization or you can not be saved. There have been churches in the past who have made that claim. The Roman Catholic church still makes that claim for herself. Yet this is a false claim. The other side of the picture however must also be presented. To claim the title “Mother of God’s people” a church must be faithful to the ministries God has given to her. Just because an organization goes by the name “church” and goes through the rituals of a church organization does not qualify it to be called the mother of God’s people.
The ministries God has committed to the church and which are indispensable for the faith and salvation of God’s people are three. In the first place there is the preaching of the gospel. The preaching of late has fallen on hard times. It is being despised and done away with. We are told that there are much more effective ways today to present the gospel. And so the preaching is more and more being replaced by dialogue, music, drama, films, etc. That however is not the viewpoint of the Bible. According to the Scriptures it is especially through the preaching that God works faith in the hearts of His people. According to the Scriptures preaching is indispensable to faith and salvation. Thus, for example, Paul in I Corinthians 1 speaks repeatedly of the foolishness of preaching. The idea there is not that the preaching is foolishness. Rather, that is what the citizens of Corinth considered the preaching of the gospel to be—foolishness. But in I Cor. 1:21 we read, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” Likewise inRomans 1:16 the Apostle Paul by divine inspiration tells the church of Rome, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ (in light of the preceding verse this means the preaching of the gospel): for it is the power of God unto salvation.” Finally, in this same epistle, Romans 10:13, 14, we read, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him of Whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” Notice that we have here a chain. The subject is salvation. To possess that salvation it is necessary to call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. To call on the name of the Lord, however, it is necessary to believe in Him. To believe on Christ it is necessary to hear Him (thus we read literally in the original). And to hear Christ so that we may believe on Him unto salvation it is necessary that there be a preacher and preaching. This is the plain teaching of this passage. And who is it that preaches? It is the calling of the church as an institution to preach. And the church preaches through the office of the minister.
The second ministry God has given to the church is the administration of the sacraments. Christ has instituted two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These sacraments are essentially pictures. In the preaching, the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is proclaimed. In the sacraments this same salvation is pictured. Thus, for example, in baptism the washing away of sins in the blood of Christ is pictured in the sprinkling of water. In the Lord’s Supper the suffering and death of Christ on the cross where He allowed His body to be broken and His blood to be shed is depicted in the breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine. And when these sacraments are properly administered by the church, God uses them to strengthen and confirm the faith of His people. Thus, the sacraments along with and in subordination to the preaching serve to maintain the faith of God’s people unto salvation.
Finally there is the exercise of Christian discipline. By Christian discipline we mean the proper supervision of the life of the members of the church by the ruling body of the church. According to Scripture, God has ordained rulers in the church, which the Scriptures sometimes call and which we call elders. They are those who are entrusted by God with the supervision of the church. It is their calling to maintain the Word of God in the church, to see to it that the members of the church both in confession and walk conform to the Word. Those who do not conform to the Word of God but go astray are to be admonished and rebuked by the elders. Should those who stray persist in their sin, then eventually they are to be cast out by the elders. This is Christian discipline. And this discipline is necessary in the church. It is necessary not only to cleanse the church of those who do not really belong. It is necessary also for the true believer in Jesus Christ. He needs the watchful eye of the elder and the admonition of the elder from God’s Word when he goes astray. In this way God brings him to repentance and keeps him faithful even to the end. The flock is easily scattered when there is no supervision; God’s people are soon led astray when there is no Christian discipline.
And so the child of God needs the church. Through the preaching, sacraments, and discipline of the church, God brings him to faith and salvation in Jesus Christ and maintains him in that faith and salvation. Without the church he perishes. Let us therefore not despise the church as an institution. She is our mother, even as God is our Father. The church as an institution must be very precious to us. Let us cling to her and pray for her.
(to be continued)