Monday, October 6, 2014

The miraculous basis for church membership

Acts 2:38-41 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” 40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” 41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls."

Whenever we talk about the subject of church membership, some may roll their eyes or try to change the subject. Why? To some, such a subject sounds unimportant or boring. The Biblical concept of who composes the church is what is called by Baptists: "regenerate church membership". Author John S. Hammett in his book: "Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches", page 81, notes about regenerate church membership: "(C)entral to the the Baptist vision of the church is the insistence that the church be composed of believers only."

Whenever we begin to consider this fundamental requirement for church membership - it is none other than a miraculous requirement.  Salvation is a work of God in the heart. 

Today's post is about unfolding this Biblical concept of regenerate church membership. Consider the following main thoughts...

The Miraculous basis for church membership is regeneration
The Biblical teaching of "The New Birth" or regeneration defines the beginning of the Christian life. Regeneration in saving faith is how a person is initiated into relationship and fellowship with Jesus Christ. The new birth is initiated by God the Holy Spirit, Who upon bringing faith and repentance, affects a sinner to freely and willingly believe upon Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:25; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23) The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 defines the new birth or regeneration as: "Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."

What is a miracle in the sense of which we are speaking out here? A miracle is a direct working of God whereby He alters his creation and its inner workings to validate His person and message. The miraculous nature of our salvation, Divinely wrought in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and received in saving faith, is a genuine miracle.  Furthermore, salvation Divinely wrought by the Holy Spirit includes the miraculous book of God - the Bible. (Romans 10:17) The wonder of salvation wherein God the Holy Spirit works directly to draw and convict sinners, affecting their hearts and resulting in a validation of the Gospel to their human will is, by definition, a miracle. The very life of the resurrected Christ that freed Him from death and resulted in His victory over death, hell and the grave is included in the definition of regeneration. (1 Peter 1:3-5) 

The freed will of the sinner in choosing Christ is a work that only God could do. (Ephesians 2:1-5) This is what the New Testament teaches concerning the starting point of salvation - the New birth.

The main expression of this miracle that initiates one into the life of the church is believer's baptism
Whenever a person is born-again by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the scriptures teach that the new convert needs to publically profess their faith. Matthew 28:18-20 is where Jesus commanded His disciples to go into all the world, make disciples, baptize and teach. A disciple is made at the moment the sinner receives by faith the truth of the Gospel presented to them. Once salvation has taken place, the next and first major step of Christian obedience is believer's baptism. 

As mentioned before, the new birth or regeneration in saving faith results in a person being initated into life with Jesus Christ. By how is it that one is initated into the life of the local church? In Baptist churches at least, the belief is that Biblically, once a person has followed through in believer's baptism, that person is initiated into the life of the local church. We use the term "believer's baptism" to underscore the fact that one necessarily must had been born-again in saving faith prior to entering into the baptismal tank. 

Believer's baptism is Jesus' command and sign to His church that the candidate entering into the waters has already been born-again. The miraculous event of regeneration occurs at saving faith, with the baptismal waters simply picturing that prior reality. Such a sign as baptism, signifying the prior miracle of regeneration, is what Baptist churches use to indicate who are members in each local church. It is understood of course that not everyone who is baptized or a church member is necessarily a true convert. 

So we have seen that the miraculous basis of church membership is the miracle of regeneration and the main public expression of that prior reality is believer's baptism. Now lets consider the final thought regarding regenerate church membership....

Membership in the biblical sense is defined as those who have been born again and scripturally baptized in believer's baptism
Notice the order: The miracle of regeneration in saving faith and repentance of salvation. The New convert then follows their Lord by making their public profession of faith in believer's baptism. Once baptized, the new convert is considered a member of the fold in that local church. In Baptist churches, the scriptural principle of "regenerative church membership" is upheld when this order is taken seriously. The miraculous basis for church membership is the new birth that occurs at saving faith, and the public expression of that work is done in believer's baptism.

What regenerate church membership looks like in action
As we begin to draw this post to a close, we want to know what church membership looks like that is built upon this miraculous basis of regeneration as spelled out above. Whenever we study closely passages such as Acts 2:38-41, we see the order: regeneration in saving faith (Acts 2:38-41a) + believer's baptism (Acts 2:41b) = regenerate church membership (Acts 2:41c). As you consider the remainder of Acts 2:42ff, the members of the church Jerusalem did the following activities as regenerate, baptized persons:

a. Hearing the preaching and teaching of the scriptures. Attending to the corporate hearing of the preaching and teaching of God's Word. Acts 2:42a "They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching....".

b. Fellowship. Church membership includes the idea of actually being in attendance with God's people. Acts 2:42b "and to fellowship".

c. Lord's Table. The partaking of the Lord's table is a privilege reserved for regenerate church members who have been scripturally baptized. Acts 2:42c "to the breaking of bread..."

d. Prayer. Church members ought to be characterized as a praying people. Acts 2:42d "....and to prayer."

e. Corporate worship through singing of praises. The local church composed of regenerate church members, scripturally baptized, ought to be characterized as a body of people in awe of Jesus, His Word and His work. Acts 2:43-45 "Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders andsigns were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need."

f. Joy. Finally, the church conceived of in this manner was characterized as a joyful fellowship that grew as God saw fit to add more converts. Acts 2:46-47 "Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was addingto their number day by day those who were being saved."

This is what I mean when I say that a Biblical understanding of church membership is miraculously based. The basis is the miracle of regeneration. All truly converted persons make up the church. With the basis, the main public expression of the converts salvation experience comes through believer's baptism. To be initiated into the life of God in Jesus Christ, you must be born again. In order to be initiated into the life of the local church, you must had been born again and scripturally baptized. Regeneration in saving faith is the miraculous basis, and believer's baptism following such a reality points back to that miracle. These two truths are what constitute the Biblical model of regnerate church membership as conceived in the New Testament. Church membership is indeed based upon the miracle of salvation in Jesus Christ by grace alone through faith alone. 

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