In my last preaching, we heard how church membership is implied in the teachings of Scripture. The Covenant of Grace includes membership of God’s people including their children. As a gathered assembly who worships the God who redeems necessitates a congregation identified by membership. And at the same time, we know that the ordering of the church implies governance by its leaders and leadership requires membership.
Therefore, it is clear that church membership is indeed a biblical idea and necessary for the welfare of the visible church. But how does an individual person becomes member of the church? What does it entail? Are children of believers included in the membership of the church? These are the questions we would like to answer and clarify this Lord’s Day morning.
Believers become members of the church in two ways. Chronologically speaking, we take a step into church membership by first conversion and then baptism. Most professing believers follow this common route but then consequently having children under their spiritual charge, upon conversion, will also submit their own children to covenant membership, allow them to receive the sign of baptism, bring them up in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is how generations of Christians become disciples of Christ and it is what we believe the Bible teaches. So in our sermon this morning we will examine Scriptures and exhort everyone to teach, defend, and practice church membership. Our sermon points are: 1) Membership by Conversion; 2) Membership As Covenant Children.
Before we begin, let us pray…
Living God, help us to hear your holy Word with open hearts so that we may truly understand; and, understanding, that we may believe; and, believing, that we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Membership By Conversion
New Testament believers are included to the Covenant of Grace by the inauguration of God’s kingdom preached by Jesus himself. At this point of redemptive history, Jesus declares that all those who repent and believe belong to kingdom of God.
We read this from Mark 1:15, Jesus said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” From the account of Matthew, he recorded Jesus saying, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17)” And then in Luke 24:47, Jesus explains: “….and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” And of course in John 3:16, Jesus declares, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This means Jesus clearly teaches the way upon which he grants entrance of his kingdom, and it is by faith and repentance; it is membership by conversion.
The apostles follow Jesus on this matter. After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Peter preached the gospel in Acts and at the end of sermon, his listeners asked what then should they do? To this Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).” Here we can see how the call to repentance is emphasized but at the same time, it connects for us how the Great commission given by Christ to baptize in the name of our Triune God (Matthew 28:19-20) follows conversion. It is then consistent that inclusion to the church comes by conversion then baptism. Luke concludes Acts 2 by stating, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (verse 41).” I will pick up again later the relationship between conversion and baptism but it is suffice for now to simply conclude as explicitly narrated that for New Testament believers baptism follows conversion, and this what reformed churches believe and follow.
Now before leave this topic of conversion, let us clarify what comprises it? Is it faith, repentance, or both? How come there are verses that says it is faith and others repentance?
Going back, Jesus commands in Mark 1:15 to repent and believe in the Gospel while in Matthew 4:17, it says only to repent. This appears to be the same with Luke 24:47 where it says repentance but it is for the forgiveness of sin. This means it implies believing in Christ’s atoning work. So while we can say that sometimes repentance only is mentioned, we can assume faith is always included as well. This means while John 3:16 only says those who believes receives eternal life, we can also assume it includes repentance.
Same it is true in the accounts Luke wrote in Acts. We can notice how repenting or believing becomes the call for every preaching of the gospel. We heard already Peter’s sermon calling for repentance in Acts 2 and the rest were:
- Acts 3:19 – Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out…
- Acts 8: 22 – Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.
- Acts 17: 30 – The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent
- Acts 26:20 – …to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.
At the same time, believe is also often mentioned. We can read them all in Acts from:
- Acts 15:7 – …that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
- Acts 16:31 – And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
- Acts 19:4 – And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
This means the outcome of the preaching of gospel is not just a call for repentance only or even just believing. Rather, it is a faith that comes with repentance. Faith and repentance are the two inseparably response to the gospel.
We can read this clear from Acts 20:21 when Paul explains his gospel ministry to the Ephesian elders that it is for “….testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” The two parallel phrases: 1) of repentance toward God, and 2) of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, demands an exegetical interpretation of treating both repentance and faith as one single response by two distinguishable aspects like two sides of a single coin. It is primary because both repentance and faith are directed to the same object: our Triune God.
This is what Westminster Shorter Catechism explains as Repentance Unto Life a phrase found on Acts 11:18:
Q#87. What is repentance unto life?
Answer: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.
Repentance unto life or as ESV puts it leads to life comes with conviction of sin, apprehension of Christ, and hatred towards sin. Faith is the instrument for apprehending Christ and this makes repentance and faith inseparable. As John Murray puts it: “Repentance is that which describes the response of turning from sin unto God. This is its specific character just as the specific character of faith is to receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation.” In the same way Sinclair Ferguson states: “Yes, repentance and faith are two essential elements in conversion. They constitute twin graces that can never be separated. As John Calvin well reminds us, this is true not only of the beginning but of the whole of our Christian lives. We are believing penitents and penitent believers all the way to glory.”
Adult converts come to our church and in batches we organize them by asking them to join our Inquirer’s class. The purpose of this class is two-fold. First, it aims to orient our guest and attenders about the reformed faith. Second, it prepares our students to become confessing members of the church. The goal for them is simple and it is to ascertain from them a credible profession of faith which they will make publicly in front of the congregation.
Credible means with knowledge and assent. Our officebearers can assess whether or not the students understand what it truly means to become living members of Christ’s church, and participating in the classes give both the leaders and members-to-be the time and space to reach this goal. In this way, we can examine each others calling and conversion. We believe this vital to the health and well-being of the church, and it is necessary for everyone to understand and promote such practice.
Now since membership by conversion is followed by baptism, we baptize these adult converts if they have not receive the sign of the sacrament of baptism. But in many cases in churches today, most of those who comes to us, and eventually become our members are often either repeated been baptized as an adult or baptized as an infant, and for those common cases, we do not anymore re-baptize them. Why? Simply put as Paul said in Ephesians 4, there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism. No need to redo what has been a sign for a once-in-a-life-time reality of regeneration and union in Christ. One baptism suffices.
However another case also typically occur when a professing member is also a believing parent of covenant children. While this only a case for some, it is still a valid occurrence. Are the children of believers part of God’s covenant of grace? As believing parents are we going to treat them as Christians or as pagans? Will the officebearers include them into membership and give them also the covenant sign of baptism?
Membership As Covenant Children
As a reformed church, we recognize the children of believers as covenant members of the church. We treat them as Christians until proven otherwise. They are set apart and included as members of the church, baptized as infants, and together with their parents, the church is responsible to teach them, examine them, and admonish them to the faith. This we believe what Scripture teaches, and our confessions hold to.
The covenant of grace administered both in the Old Testament and New Testament consequently includes the children of its members. From the Old Testament with Abraham clearly we can read in Genesis 17, how God made a covenant with him and the generations after him. Circumcision is then given as the sign of this covenant so Abraham in obedience to this provision, he circumcised Isaac, Ismael, himself and the men of his household. We can read this specifically in verses 22-27, “When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.”
We can notice from this how Abraham, after believing the promise God made in Genesis 15:6: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”, was also circumcised as an adult which gives us a pattern for adult converts in the New Testament. We can also notice how God commands to circumcise those who belongs in his household which obviously includes his children. Again, this is the pattern given how children of believers also become members of the church.
Of course several questions arises at this point. How come we baptize with water in the New Testament and not circumcise? How then girls and women are included and not only boys and men? Why then we change from circumcision to water baptism?
We have to understand that even with the continuity of the provision of the inclusion of the children in the covenant, the great redemptive event of Christ’s incarnation, his life, death, and resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, demands some discontinuity and more appropriately expansion of the recipients of the sign. Nothing changes in the essence of the promise and the giving of the sign to the children. However, the receivers of the sign were expanded to reflect the inclusion of believers regardless of age, gender, economic status and ethnicity. Luke alludes to Joel 2:28-32 and wrote this after the giving of the Holy Spirit with Peter saying, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” This means sons, daughters, young, old, free, slaves, Jews and Gentiles belongs to the kingdom of God and the sealing of Spirit guarantees them its possession. Paul wrote the same in Galatians 3:28-29, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[g] nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
At the same time, the change from circumcision of the flesh to washing of the water as baptism reflects the fulfilment of promise made by God in Christ’s atoning work. Paul connects the circumcision of Christ, meaning his death, become for us the ground of our salvation through faith and baptism shows it as a sign of renewal and regeneration. Colossians 2:11-12 read, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Our baptism is identified by the death and resurrection of Christ. He was circumcised on our behalf, and we receive the blessings of his work when the Spirit applies it in our lives with baptism as its sign.
But are the children of believers in the New Testament included in the receiving of the sign and consequently into the membership of the church? Reformed churches affirms and explain them based on what Scripture teaches. We know Jesus receives the children as his disciples. In Mark 10:13-16, we can read this account:
“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
We understand it as affirmation of our position on the matter. We read it as continuity given by inspired Scripture to welcome children to membership. Verse 10 gives us a context that the hearers of this passage were the disciples and their children in verse 14 were welcomed by Christ, and receives his blessing (verse 16). As a reformed church, we accept this as a positive endorsement from Jesus himself to continue the inclusion of the children of believers as membership of his church.
Another affirmation of this position comes from the sermon of Peter after Pentecost. After asking his hearers to repent, receive forgiveness from their sins and the outpouring of the Spirit, he explicitly extends these blessing to their children. Luke accounts in Acts 2:39, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” This is the same pattern set by God in the Old Testament with the covenant he made with Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17. Therefore, as believing parents who become members of Christ’s church, we bring our children to the Lord.
Children of believer also receive the sign of baptism together with their parents who converted to Christ by faith and repentance. We read these examples from Luke’s account in Acts. Of course, not everyone who converted to Christ in the New Testament are married and with children like Paul and the Eunuch but for those who do have children in their household receives the sign of the covenant just like Abraham in Genesis 17. We read household baptisms with (1) Cornelius (Acts 10); (2) Lydia (Acts 16); (3) Philippian jailer (Acts 16); (4) Crispus (Acts 18); As an example, let us read the account of Lydia:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:14-15)
Further questions may arise at this point? Does it mean our children are automatically saved and will persevere in the faith? The obvious answer is no. Of course, this is also does not mean that none of them are saved and will eventually persevere. Why? Because conversion, the same with everyone else, necessitates regeneration, and regeneration implies election and election guarantees salvation. Yes, God is sovereign and freely saves but He who ordains the end, also appoints end. Both an adult convert and a child growing up in the church will need the ordinary means of grace all their lives as the new birth comes from hearing God’s Word applied by God’s Spirit. This means church membership is necessary of any Christian to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).
The ministry of the church to disciple its members bears the responsibility of maturing every believer through means of teaching them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Going back to Mark 10:15, we must understand that those who enters the kingdom of God are given a child-like faith and not a childish faith. It is humble and yet maturing faith. The duty to teach, and bring everyone up in the Lord is a shared responsibility of both the officebearers and the professing members of the church. Pastors and elders train themselves to teach well and the members of the church submits to the teaching ministry of the church. Believing parents are responsible to their children in bringing them into the submission to the same teaching ministry.
Covenant children, who are members of the church, are also nurtured in the faith. A call has been made to any volunteers who wants to be part of becoming teachers or assistant to teachers for our Sunday School ministry to our Youth members, and our children. As we learn more about membership in our succeeding lessons, we will hear about our duty as members but at this point, I would like to exhort anyone who is called to this particular tasks. Let me remind everyone that even we preach good theology in the church but at any given point, when the rubber meets the road, our response to serve one another becomes the barometer we are measured with in the ministry of the church. In the end, it not just our ability to know, understand, comprehend matters. Rather how we love one another. The apostle John reminds as God’s children maturing in the faith in 1 John 3:
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us (verses 18-24).
Let us exhort and encourage one another with these words. May the Lord continue to bring us all into maturity.
ZCRC(Imus), God converts God’s people, marks them with his name by baptism bringing them and their children into membership of the church. Let us continue to hear God’s Word with humility and pray for our maturity in the faith. May the Lord continue to bless us with his grace and wisdom. Amen.