by Justin Huffman
It has been said, correctly I think, that “baptism is the starting gun of the Christian race.”
This statement implies two things. First, we have not yet fully obeyed Christ until we have publicly professed him in baptism and publicly claimed him as our Lord and Savior. The New Testament knows nothing of a believer in Christ who has not been baptized at the soonest opportunity.
Doubtless, the only reason that the thief on the cross was not baptized was because he was nailed to the wood, next to Jesus. Dear believer, search through the book of Acts and see the obligation that clearly exists for every one who believes in Jesus Christ to be baptized in his name.
Second, baptism is not the end of our struggle, but the beginning of it.
Too often, we become lost soon after leaving the starting line.
Where are we supposed to go, once we come up out of the baptismal pool? What is the Christian life supposed to look like?
Although there are many spiritual disciplines that we could mention that help the Christian to grow in his or her walk with God—Bible saturation, prayer, fasting, stewardship—one of the foundational principles of the New Testament (and one that is often overlooked, even in books about spiritual disciplines) is the importance of the local church in the life of a believer.
A popular “seeker-sensitive” group in the Cincinnati area recently began advertising themselves with billboards along the highway that read: “If you hate church, you’ll love us.” While not everyone is quite so openly condescending toward the role of the church in the plan of God, church does often slip between the cracks of our many man-made religious inventions.
But although being actively engaged in the accountability, service, and worship of a local church often takes a back seat to other priorities and emphases among Christians today, the New Testament makes it clear that God reveals himself and presides in a special way in the church of Jesus Christ, like nowhere else on earth: “unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages” (Ephesians 3:21).
The clear exhortation is given to the Hebrews not to think of themselves as individual, unaccountable Christians, but rather to commit themselves to the oversight and encouragement of a body of believers, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another” (10:25). Paul even instructs young Timothy, a minister himself, not just to avoid temptations to sin, but to pursue the sanctifying fellowship of other like-minded believers: “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).
No other activity in the name of Christ can take the place of regular involvement in, and commitment to, a church.
No student organization, seminary, online discussion forum, or small group Bible study can substitute for that organism which God designed and implemented himself — the local church. While many good evangelistic and philanthropic efforts are undertaken by various Christian organizations, they cannot—and should not aim to—be a substitute for church. The local church has a unique purpose and position in the plan of God.
While we dare not presume to know all of God’s purposes in designing and establishing the New Testament church, he has revealed to us several very relevant and practical ways that the church of Jesus Christ is a benefit to believers. Here are just a few:
Public worship. No matter what we may think, we cannot worship God on a mountain top, on the golf course, or at the lakefront like we can in the house of God. Why? Because part of worshiping God is proclaiming and exalting his name before others.
David says, “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee” (Psalm 22:22). In the New Testament, in the context of the local church, this psalm is again quoted for the benefit of the Hebrews, “I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (2:12).
Learning. No matter how mature we may think ourselves to be spiritually, no matter how many Bible lessons we may have under our belt, there is always a need for continued growth and learning in the life of any Christian. This is why it is important to be actively committed to a church that is consistently and faithfully preaching the Word of God, and not just seeking to entertain or “tickle the ears” of its congregants.
Every preacher should be able to say, like Paul at the conclusion of his labors in Ephesus, “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly…” (Acts 20:20).
Accountability. This is perhaps one of the most important functions of the church of Jesus Christ. Yet it is, sadly, one of the most neglected principles in the churches of America today.
Because of the deceptiveness of our own hearts, because of the subtle ways of sin, because of the constant warfare that is waged by the world against the sanctified heart, we need the accountability and oversight of faithful saints and overseers. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another…”.
And, as much as it smarts against every ingrained sensibility of modern, it is vital that Christians not only enjoy the fellowship, admonition, and encouragement of other saints, but also submit to the oversight and instruction and authority of a God-called minister. God explains this crucial concept in no uncertain terms: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). Obviously, this does not give pastors the right to “lord it over” congregations (1 Peter 5:3), but it does point to the vital role of under-shepherds in the sanctification of each believer.
Encouragement. As hard as it is for us to comprehend or imagine, even Paul the apostle needed encouragement as he labored and sacrificed himself in the service of God. He often spoke of the refreshment, the strengthening that he received from fellow laborers. And so it is no surprise that we find the writer to the Hebrews admonishing them to “provoke” (stimulate, incite) one another unto love and good works.
We need the stimulating words and motivating examples of fellow Christians along our spiritual journey.
Every “Christian” is blessed by the fellowship of every “Faithful” as he makes a pilgrim’s progress toward the Celestial City.
Counsel. Just as early Christians were guilty of going to secular judges to settle their legal disputes, many modern Christians have made the mistake of pursuing secular solutions to their emotional and mental struggles. We have somehow been convinced that secular psychology, or self-help groups, have the solutions for our spiritual problems. However, it is in the church that Jesus Christ has planted the authority and support network that will help us face our spiritual battles.
Paul wrote to the Romans, “I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” (15:14). As Jay Adams has famously contended, every godly and well-versed Christian is “competent to counsel.”
All of this edification, building-up, and sanctifying in the church of Jesus Christ is ultimately, however, not just for our own benefit.
The Christian life is never mature until it is reaching out to help and serve others for the glory of Christ.
We are given the worship, learning, accountability, encouragement, and counsel of the church in order that we might help others to worship, learn, be accountable and encouraged and counseled in the church.
The almost unanimous question of church-seekers today is “what do they have for me and my family in the way of activities or entertainment.” But—if I might paraphrase a past president—we should not only be asking “what can my church do for me?” but also “what can I do for my church?” In other words, the purpose of edification in the church is usefulness in the church. As Peter so well put it, “as every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).
What about you? Have you been a good steward of God’s grace to you, by turning to others and ministering to them from your gifts? As Christian author Joshua Harris observes, many of us need to “stop dating the church” and to make a firm and lasting commitment to learn from, be admonished by, and contribute toward the sanctifying influence of the church of Jesus Christ.
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