“Salvation is one thing; membership in the church is quite a different matter.” So say many religious leaders, theologians, and teachers. The very fact that Jesus said He intended to build His church, and that the New Testament teaches that, through the apostolic ministry, He fulfilled His promise and that His church does exist, one wonders why so many would relegate membership in that sacred body to a matter of personal option.
Before any of us make up our minds about whether one must be a member of the church Jesus built in order to be saved, let us consider some scriptures directly relating to the question. On the birthday of the church the scripture tells us that people under conviction of sin asked, “What shall we do?” Guided directly by the Holy Spirit, Peter responded, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, unto the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:37,38). Verses 40 and 41 tell us that the apostles urged the people to “save your selves from this crooked generation. Then they that received his word were baptized, and there were added unto them in that day about three thousands souls.”
To what were these obedient, penitent believers added? Verse 47 has the answer. Luke reports that the newly formed fellowship of believers were “praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.” This was a fellowship of the saved, and beyond question, it was the church Jesus had in mind when He said, “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). The word Jesus used, “church,” means “those who are called out, summoned together.” From the ravages of sin, into the light and liberty of salvation, those on the day of Pentecost who were baptized unto the remission of sins made up the “called out.” Friend, consider carefully: there was not a single save person in Jerusalem by the end of that grand day of Pentecost, who was not a member of Christ’s church.
The connection of salvation and the church is no more clearly outlined than in Paul’s letter to Ephesus. Paul wrote of domestic matters involving husbands and wives, and applied the relation of Christ to His church to the problems he addressed. Please read with me. “Wives be in subjection unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is also the head of the church, being himself, the savior of the body” (Eph. 5:22-23). If Christ is the savior of the body, then was is that body He saves? Again, we have a Bible answer. Paul wrote that the Father “put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). The body over which Christ is head is His church. And He is savior of the church. Which church does He save? The only church Christ is even remotely interested in, or concerned with, is the one He built. Those who irreverently affirm that salvation is one thing and membership in the church is another matter must have some man made and humanly devised religion in mind, for no one can intelligently read the New Testament and make such an ungodly statement. Salvation is in His church and only in His church.
There is a New Testament expression used of the relationship of the saved to the Savior. It is “in Christ.” This is almost exclusively a trademark of the apostle Paul. Some say he “coined” the phrase. It describes a relationship and a location. For instance, Paul wrote, “Wherefore remember, that once you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called uncircumcision by that which is called circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands, that you were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:11-12). This is a divine statement of the relationship those out of Christ sustain to God. They are, in simple terms, lost. Now read the next verse. “But now in Christ Jesus, you that were once far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ.” The first passage describes the lost as “separate from Christ,” “without God,” and then the saved as “in Christ.” The difference in being lost and saved is whether or not one is “in Christ” or “separate from Christ.” Those who are “in Christ,” are members of His body, His church. Paul also wrote, “Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sake, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). Salvation is in Christ; being in Christ is being in His church; therefore salvation is in the church Jesus built.
Consider one of the beautiful figures Jesus used to describe His relationship to His church. “I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that bears not fruit, He takes away and every branch that bears fruit he cleanses it that it may bear more fruit.” Also Jesus added, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He that abides in Me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-2,5). The Lord is the vine, but who are the branches? Some have misunderstood this to have references to what they call “branches of Christ’s church.” The church Jesus build has no branches. The branches, Jesus clearly shows, are those who are directly “in Him.” Being “in Him,” is not being in a branch, but in the vine. A second consideration shows that the branches could not be the modern demoninational scenario. Protestant denominationalism came into being in the 14th and 15th centuries. Are we to understand that the vine (Christ’s church) had no branches for nearly 1600 years? Hardly. The picture is that of one unit, one vine, branches directly connected to that vine. This shows us that the relationship the save must have is that of direct connection to Christ in His church.
Membership in the church and salvation are equals. The process by which one is saved from past sins is the same process by which one becomes a member of the church. God’s way of salvation is His way of adding people to the church Jesus built. Remember the verse cited earlier? “And the Lord added unto them day by day those were saved” (Acts 2:47). The phrase “were saved” could also be rendered, “were being saved.” The American Standard Version has a footnote to that effect, and so do most other translations based on the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. That means that those in the process of being saved were also being added to the church.
Mr. R.C.H. Lenski, a very respected Bible scholar wrote: “The Lord kept adding together...The Lord alone can add new members. Those who lay stress on numbers bring in many in ways which they devise. We want numbers, but such as the Lord adds and records in His book, and none, if we can help it, whose names would be only on our books. He adds only by filling the heart with the gospel.” (The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, page 121). Those who, as Mr. Lenski mentions, are concerned over swelling additions by their own devices think first of church membership as optional, then salvation as quite something different. But such is erroneous thinking. How could one be saved at one time, and then later be added to the church by the Lord? How could one who is saved not be a member of the church Jesus built and to which the Lord adds the saved? It is a plain and simple contradiction in terms.
The process of salvation and membership in the church, being the same, mean that one cannot be saved from sin and entertain any hope of eternal happiness without being in Christ’s church as a active, fruit-bearing member. The generous appeal, “Join the church of your choice,” is against everything taught in the New Testament about church membership. Adam Clarke, a very highly respected scholar wrote, “Though many approved of the life and manners of these primitive Christians, yet they did not become members of this holy Church; God permitting none to be added to it, but those who were saved from their sins and prejudices. The Church of Christ was made up of saints; sinners were not permitted to incorporate themselves with it.” (Clarkes Commentary, Volume V, page 701.)
We need only to look at the simple process of salvation. Peter announced it in terms so clear they defy misunderstanding. He told those who really wanted to be saved to repent. Repent is a simple word -- it means to change your life, starting with your mind. It describes a turnabout in one’s life. He added, “and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is a simple command. It is immersion in water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. It is a command that we accept or reject. In Jesus’ personal ministry, those who rejected it rejected the counsel of God against themselves (Luke 7:30). Baptism was “unto (for) the remission of sins.” That simply means that the penitents were to be baptized in order to obtain that forgiveness. Without such a purpose in mind, baptism is of no value at all.
So, salvation and church membership are twins -- if you have not obeyed the same gospel Peter preached on Pentecost, how could you possibly think of yourself as having been added to the church Jesus built? I sincerely hope you will think about this very seriously. If you have a question about this, or any other Bible topic, please let us know. We may be able to help you.
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