The Church of True Believers
1 Corinthians 1:1-2
As most of you know, we recently had a young man (Noah McGhee) make his faith in Christ public. A few of you have asked when his baptism will be, and so to introduce what we will be speaking about in the next several weeks, I wanted to let you know that I have spoken with Noah and his parents to ask if they would be willing to postpone his baptism for a time so that we as a church might use this opportunity to consider what it means to be a church, what church membership is, what baptism is, and what we should infer from these truths. So, to take advantage of this opportunity, we will be thinking together this month about church membership, baptism, and church accountability as we rejoice in our young brother’s faith.
Now, here’s the biblical truth that I will be attempting to convince you of over the next several weeks: the root and foundation of every aspect of the life of the church is the new birth given to those who are saved by grace through faith. Church members are, by definition, born again. Baptism is an outward symbol of the inward fact that someone has been born again. We are accountable to each other because we have been born again. Every aspect of the church’s existence and functioning is based on the new birth. Without new birth, the church does not exist. So, let’s read our passage for this morning.
READ 1 Cor 1:1-2 & PRAY
Illustration: It was a time of great change; a time of great turmoil; a time in which the Biblical convictions of many gained them persecution and suffering. Arriving to the mid-1600’s, the world had come through over a hundred years of the reformation – the spiritual movement which attempted to expose the errors of Roman Catholicism and restore the church to its Biblical foundation upon Jesus Christ and salvation by grace through faith.
During this time there was a particular issue that is coming to a head and spreading more and more widely throughout the world, but especially throughout England. That central issue arose out of the fact that the government of England mandated that every citizen be a member of the government’s church. So, if you were a citizen of England, you were required to be a member of the Church of England. Throughout this turmoil there would be various times at which it would be illegal to miss church, and those who did not appear to receive communion from the priest so many times a month would be heavily fined or thrown in prison!
Two of the main groups attempting to make reforms during this time were the Puritans and the Protestants. The puritans thought it was possible to purify the church (hence the name); to take the church which already existed and renew it to Biblical faithfulness. The protestants protested, and believed the existing church was so broken and sinful that it was beyond reform, and so they separated themselves from it. One of the main things that both groups were absolutely convinced of is that a church cannot survive and thrive in a Biblically faithful way if it was composed of people who did not belong to Christ. So, eventually both groups ended up separating from the state church in order to re-create the church on the basis of a born-again membership. It was a difficult time of struggle and turmoil. Those who sought membership in one of these churches were open to all sorts of persecution, exile, and even death, and yet they were so deeply committed to and convinced by the Word of God that they were willing to endure great suffering for their obedience. Do you think there were any members of their churches who were flippant about membership? Who were not deeply committed to the cause of Christ, such that they did so in full knowledge that they might lose their lives just for seeking membership with a Biblical church? What a glorious time it must have been!
There were many reasons that convinced the reformers of the absolute necessity of having a church whose members were born again. We will see a few of them distilled in our scripture for this morning. Our text for this morning is the beginning of a letter Paul writes to the Corinthians. In the second verse he specifically says that he is writing to the church, and then goes on to qualify that statement and say what the church is.
From all of these we will see that a member of the church, by definition, is only one who has been born again through faith in Jesus Christ. Let me point out 6 things Paul says which make it impossible for people who have NOT been born again to be members of the church.
- “To the church of God in Corinth…”
The body or gathering to whom Paul is writing is the church of God. The church belongs to God. How is it that we come to belong to God? In the Old Testament God frames it by saying: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” How do we get to the place where that is true? This becomes true when we repent of our sins and commit our lives to Christ, being born again through His forgiveness. We become the church of God when we are born again into the Kingdom of God.
READ John 3:3-5; Eph 2:12-13, 18-19; 1 Cor 6:9a
Illustration: If we were walking outside on a rainy day and you had 2 coats in front of you, 1 yours and 1 mine, and I asked you to hand me my coat, you wouldn’t hand me both. You would hand me the one which belongs to me. In the same way, the church is made up of those who belong to Jesus and have been born again into His kingdom. Those who do not belong to Jesus and have not been born again are not the church.
- The church is “…those sanctified in Christ Jesus…”
Ok, $20 word. What does that mean: sanctified? The root of the word is sanctity, which means holiness or righteousness. So, those who have been sanctified are those who have been made holy or made righteous. This speaks directly to our standing before God. How is it that a person can stand under the holy gaze of the Creator and be declared righteous? We CANNOT accomplish that on our own. Our best attempts at righteousness are still ruined by sin. The ONLY way God will ever rest His piercing, perfect gaze on a person and declare them righteous is if they have been GIVEN righteousness from someone else.
Illustration: I remember school picture day when I was a kid. I remember seeing people who had forgotten about it and wore something that their parents would’ve been displeased with, and so before they had their picture taken they would borrow someone’s jacket or tie or something. They weren’t acceptable, and so they borrowed a covering to improve their appearance. My dear friends, this is exactly what Jesus has done for us. Jesus is the only person who ever walked earth to live a PERFECTLY righteous life. He was completely, fully pure. His righteousness was perfect. And when we stand before God, the ONLY thing that will make us acceptable under God’s searching eye of judgment is if we put no hope in our own righteousness, and put ALL our hope in Jesus’ righteousness. Instead of standing before God looking like a colorblind kindergartner who ran through the mud and sticker bushes before picture day, we stand before God having been given the glorious, shining, opulent, richly flowing righteousness of Jesus.
THAT is how we are sanctified. THAT is how we are made holy. THAT is how we are declared to be a part of the church! The church is “those sanctified in Christ”! The church is those who have recognized that they are unable in themselves to be righteous, and so have appealed to Jesus for forgiveness. And when a person does that, God, in His unfathomable mercy, chooses to take the perfection of Jesus and give it to us eternally! The person who has not been born again into the perfection of Christ is not a member of the church.
- The church is “…called to be holy…”
This one seems similar to the last, but here’s the difference. In the phrase before Paul is referring to how we stand before God: we are declared perfectly righteous EVEN THOUGH we have not lived a perfectly righteous life. Here, Paul is saying that the church, in their earthly lives, should now REFLECT the holiness which they have been given. In essence he says, “The church has been declared righteous, now live like it.” But a life lived in holiness is impossible for the person who has not been born again, because it is only by the power of Jesus Christ that we are enabled to live in holiness.
Listen to Paul as he speaks about this very topic to the Ephesians: READ 4:17-24.
Those who are not born again as new creations cannot live as though they were new creations. Those who have not had their desires and affections made holy cannot live in as though they were holy.
Illustration: I and all of you were born as humans. Could you, then, decide suddenly that you wanted to be a bear, or a crocodile, or some girly animal? Well, you might be able to imitate a few of the characteristics of that animal, but you could not actually BE anything other than a human, because you were born a human. In the same way, it is impossible for those who have not been born again into Christ to act like Christ. A person cannot be holy unless they have been born again into holiness. The church, by definition, is only those who are born again into Jesus Christ.
- The church is “…together with those everywhere…”
Ah, what a beautiful truth! I stand covered in the garment of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, and 10,000 miles away, on a lonely island, and in massive cities, and on the sides of mountains, there are men and women clothed in the same garment. I have committed my life to Jesus Christ, and so am in the family of God. And I have family members spanning throughout every corner of the earth. I could meet a Christian from the deepest expanse of Siberia, and with overflowing joy and sincerity say: “Brother.” There is a connection that exists between every Christian who has ever lived that does not exist for those who have not been born again.
READ Romans 12:4-5
The church, by definition, is a body of members who all belong to one another because of their mutual salvation in Jesus Christ. Therefore, someone who has not been saved by grace through faith and been born again does not have that connection to the rest of God’s people. And if they do not have a connection to God’s people, then they are not members of the church.
- The church is those “…who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”
This is one of those basic characteristics which break the link between those who have been born again and those who have not been born again. Fundamentally and by definition, the church is composed of those who have called on the name of the Lord for salvation, and have submitted to Jesus Christ as their Lord. Romans 10:13 says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Here in his letter to Corinth, Paul uses this in his definition of the church: the church is those who have called on the name of Jesus for salvation. So, a person who has NOT called upon the name of Jesus for salvation is not part of the church.
Lastly, look how we have come full circle: the first thing Paul said about the church is that is belongs to God. The last thing he says here is that the church recognizes Jesus Christ as their Lord. By definition, the church is composed of those who belong to God, who have submitted their lives to Jesus Christ, to follow and obey Him as their Lord and master. If a person has not submitted to Jesus Christ, how can they be said to be part of his church?
Illustration: I’ve really enjoyed going to see the Cats play down here at the school these past couple weeks. I haven’t been to as many games as I would like, but I’ve been to a few. Now, if at the beginning of the game tomorrow night I hopped down out of the bleachers and onto the court in my blue jeans and cowboy boots and started shooting layups, do you think the coach would be ok with that? No, of course not! Well, why not? Because I’m not a member of his team!
In the same way, those who have not submitted to the authority of Jesus Christ, who cannot truthfully call Him “Lord”, are not members of His church.
READ Romans 8:7-8 – Those who have not been born again are not members of the church of Christ, because they cannot submit to Christ as Lord. They are, in fact, enemies of the Lord.
Now, in order to be clear, I want to answer some objections that may have cropped up in your mind as you have listened, or which may crop up as you continue to think through this during the week.
- Perhaps you have felt a tension in what I have said over and over; namely, that there are some people who by definition are not members of the church. I want to be very clear in saying: I have not meant this to be derogatory, nor has it been my attempt to insult. I am simply saying that the church is not defined by what we do or where we meet, but by who we are. If I were to look at two pieces of fruit and say, “This one is an apple. This one is an orange.” it would not be insulting. There are clear definitions that enable me to say this piece of fruit is not an apple. In the same way, when I point out what it means to be a member of the church, I am simply working to present the clear definition found in scripture.
- Secondly: This doesn’t mean people who fall outside the biblical definition of church cannot participate in some of the activities and meetings of those who are the church. In fact we WANT people to come around. However, just because someone participates in the activities of the body of Christ does not mean that he or she is a member of the body of Christ. We welcome them in, in hopes that they will see the glory of Jesus Christ in our lives. However, no matter how much a person participates, if he or she is not born again through faith in Jesus Christ, the Bible says that they are not a member of the church.
- Lastly, I know that this may sound somewhat foreign to some of you. It may sound as if I’m proposing something different than what you have done up until this point. However, it is not nearly so different as it may sound. I’m saying that church membership MUST be based on whether or not a person has been born again. Listen to your current bylaws: READ PAGE 2 – Membership qualifications and candidacy. This is why we require someone to profess faith before we recognize them as members, because only those who have been born again by grace through faith in Jesus Christ are truly the church.
Now, what does this mean practically? There are many, but here are 2 things which I think we must do in order to respond faithfully to God’s word regarding what it means to be a member of the church:
- Examine your heart and faith. Can you say that you are truly a member of God’s church? Have you been born again? Have you been sanctified IN Christ Jesus? Are you connected with brothers and sisters in every place around the world because you call upon the same Lord? Have you truly, wholeheartedly submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord? If you have, then you ARE a member of the church, because you have been born again into God’s people. If you have not, then you are NOT a member of the church, because you have NOT been born again into God’s people. What matters to God is not whether your name is on a roll, or whether you have participated. What matters, as you stand before God, is whether or not you have been born again into His kingdom by repenting of your sins and submitting to Jesus Christ as Lord.
- Secondly, if we are to be faithfully obedient to the Word of God and honor what He has said, we must do all we can to ensure that OUR church membership reflects HIS church membership. In other words, it is necessary for us to be diligent in limiting our membership to those who have truly been born again. It is necessary for us to strive towards ensuring that everyone who we recognize as a member of this church conforms to the standard set out in the Bible and reflected in our by-laws: to be a member, a person must be born again through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the coming week we will speak more about how we go about doing that. Next week we will study the topic of baptism, and I hope to again re-enforce the same truth: the new birth that comes from salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation and basis for every aspect and ordinance of the church.