Almost all churches are intent on numerical growth. Most ministers in particular are eager to see the membership of their churches increase by leaps and bounds. That attitude is not necessarily wrong. Provided those who are added to the church are saved, additions most certainly are cause for warm gratitude. But not infrequently the desire for numerical growth is motivated by vain-glory. Then the danger is great that by means of high-powered drives and sensational attractions many will be brought into the church who are not of it. And that is an enormous evil. People are left with the impression that they do the church a favor when they unite with it. Consequently it forfeits the respect of the world, and even its self-respect is impaired. Worse than that, the church is corrupted by the influx of such as are Christians only in name. It is in process of being transformed from a manifestation of the body of Christ into a synagogue of Satan.
Insistence on Saving Faith
Insistence upon the Scriptural requisite for membership in the organized church is of utmost importance. And for adults that requisite is active faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So clearly and emphatically is this taught in Holy Writ that the Citation of chapter and verse is well nigh superfluous. The familiar story of the Phillippian jailer affords one of numerous instances. Paul and Silas told him that, in order to be saved, he would have to believe on Christ; and when he did that, he was at once baptized into the body of Christ (Acts 16:29–88).
Right here, however, a problem arises. Who is going to decide whether an applicant for church membership is a believer? On that question two extreme views are held. On the one hand, it has been said that, nothing doubting, the church must take the applicant’s word for it that he believes in Christ. On the other hand, it has been insisted that the church, represented by its officers, has both the ability and the duty to determine conclusively whether or not the applicant has saving faith. Now it is evident that both of these positions are so extreme as to be quite untenable. As for the former, many who claim to be believers know neither who Christ is nor what is faith in Christ. Almost any Modernist, while denying the deity of Christ and admittedly trusting for salvation in his own works and character, will yet assert that he believes in the Man of Nazareth. And, as for the latter position, the most saintly ministers and elders remain exceedingly fallible. The old saying is correct, that the church should not presume to pass judgment on men’s hearts, the simple reason being that it cannot. Only God omniscient can.
Then how must the church deal with applicants for membership? In this matter there is a golden mean. Without taking their word for it that they are believers and without laying claim to infallibility for themselves, the officers of the church are to examine applicants in order to ascertain so far as that is humanly possible whether or not they possess saving faith. That such procedure is Biblical permits of no doubt, for Scripture enjoins the church to guard its purity. Paul instructed Titus to reject from membership a heretic after the first and second admonition (Titus 8:10), and he commanded the church at Corinth to put away from its midst acertain wicked member (I Corinthians 5:13).
In its examination of applicants the church should have regard to three matters especially: whether the prerequisites of saving faith are present, whether the essence of saving faith appears to be present, and whether the fruit of saving faith is in evidence.
Prerequisites of Saving Faith
Without foolishly attempting to state precisely how much knowledge is necessary for salvation or how little will suffice, it may be asserted without hesitation that faith presupposes knowledge. Both the Philippian jailer and the Ethiopian eunuch had to be instructed before they could believe. The same truth is explicit in Paul’s rhetorical questions: “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).
Today anti-intellectualism is rampant in religious circles. Not infrequently an actual premium is placed on ignorance. The notion is widely held that faith begins where knowledge ends and that knowledge can hardly end too soon. We are told that, the less theological knowledge one has, the simpler and stronger one’s faith will be. Faith is said to be a gamble.
Those who hold that view are fond of an old illustration. The basement of a certain house had no windows. The only light that ever fell into that basement came through a trapdoor when it stood open, and even then but little light entered. One day the father of the family occupying the house was busy in the basement. Near the open trap-door his little daughter was playing. He could see her in the light, but she could not see him in the darkness. He called to her: “jump down, and daddy will catch you.” Without a moment’s hesitation she obeyed and, of course, was caught in her father’s strong embrace. As that little girl made a leap in the dark, so, it is said, sinners make a leap in the dark when they cast themselves upon Jesus Christ for salvation. But how obvious that this illustration is far better than it is intended to be! Did the little girl make a leap in the dark? Literally, yes. But in a most real sense she did nothing of the kind. She recognized her father’s voice. She was sure that her father was reliable. She was positive that her father loved her. She knew a great many things about her father. And it was precisely because of her knowledge of him that she jumped. So also the Christian believes on the Lord Jesus Christ because of what he knows about Him.
To be somewhat more specific, no one can believe in Christ, in the Scriptural sense of that term who does not know that He is God. One does not even have the right to entrust oneself to Christ for eternal life unless He is God. Thus to trust a mere man would amount to giving divine honor to a human being and would be tantamount to idolatry. It is no less clear that one cannot trust Jesus Christ for salvation from the guilt and the penalty of sin without some understanding of His atoning death. The substitutionary atonement is the very heart of the Scriptural doctrine of salvation. He who is ignorant of it simply cannot believe that the Son of God died on Calvary’s tree in his stead.
Another prerequisite of saving faith is conviction of sin. It is unlikely that one who feels perfectly well both physically and mentally will summon a physician. It is not only unlikely, but inconceivable, that one who is not burdened by his sins will come to the great Physician of souls for deliverance. Only he of a broken heart and a contrite spirit will smite his breast and sigh: “God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:15). Only he who has been terrified by the thunders of Sinai will run for peace to Calvary. Only he who knows himself to be a hell-deserving sinner will kneel at the foot of the cross, embrace the bleeding feet of the crucified One, and pray:
“Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress, Helpless, look to Thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Saviour, or I die.”
The Essence of Saving Faith
Strange to say, there is much vagueness and even misunderstanding among Christians — among Christian ministers too — as to just what saving faith is. Yet it is obviously necessary that both those who would unite with the church and the officers who must judge of their fitness or membership have a clear insight into this matter.
Saving faith is not merely assent to the teaching of Holy Scripture, but also a consequent trust in the Christ of Scripture for salvation. It is not merely subscription to the propositions concerning Christ which are contained in the Bible, but also a committing of oneself to the person of Christ for life eternal. To be sure, one cannot do the latter without first doing the former, but one might conceivably do the former and leave the latter undone. Said Paul to King Agrippa: “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest” (Acts 26:27). But Agrippa himself disclaimed being a Christian, and by his life he proved that he was a pagan. Some one might possibly believe that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, that He wrought miracles during His public ministry, that He died for sinners on Golgotha, that on the third day He was raised from the dead, and a hundred other Biblical propositions concerning Christ, and yet not cast himself upon the person of Christ for salvation.
It is necessary for a member of the Christian church to know what the Bible teaches concerning Christ and to assent to that teaching as true. Yet that is not enough. Abandoning every attempt to save himself, he must commit himself wholly to Christ for eternal life. For that is the very essence of saving faith.
Often the essence of faith is confused with the assurance of salvation. Faith itself is indeed certain, not a whit less certain than knowledge. Yet it cannot be denied that, due to sinful confusion, one may have faith without at every moment being fully assured that one has it and therefore is saved. Assurance has been described correctly as the reflex action of faith. Wherever faith is present that reflex action is also found, but it is not in every instance equally strong. Sin often weakens it. Not every Christian enjoys at all times the full measure of assurance which Job possessed when he exulted: “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25) and to which Paul gave expression when he gloried: “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). For good cause Peter admonished believers “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10). Calvin comments: “Purity of life is not improperly called the evidence and proof of election, by which the faithful may not only testify to others that they are the children of God, but also confirm themselves in this confidence,” It is clear that, although believers ought to be fully assured of their salvation, as a matter of fact not nearly all of them always are.
For membership in the Christian church the essence of saving faith is indeed requisite, but not the full assurance of salvation. The New Testament throughout teaches that only believers are to be received into the church, but nowhere is it said that the church must close its doors upon such as are not completely certain of having been saved. For him who has not abandoned himself to Christ for salvation there is no room in the church, but for him who has so abandoned himself yet is not always certain that he is on the road to heaven and will arrive there when he breathes his last, there is an abundance of room. The church must welcome with open arms him who sings plaintively:
“Just as I am, though tossed about By many a conflict, many a doubt, Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come.”
Let not the church be more severe than is its divine Head, who has promised that He will not break a bruised reed nor quench smoking flax (Matt. 12:20).
The Fruit of Saving Faith
Scripture teaches most emphatically that sinners are saved not by works, but by grace through faith. But nowhere does it teach that salvation is by faith that does not work. Contrariwise, it states forcefully that such faith is as dead as a soulless body (Jas. 2:26). Paul and James were in perfect agreement that men are saved only by living, active faith, manifesting itself in a life of holiness. And the Lord Jesus put great stress on that truth when He declared: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord. Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:20, 21), and when He taught that, on His coming in glory, He will judge men according to their works (Matt. 25:31–46). In brief, good works are the test of saving faith. Each professing Christian must apply that test to himself, and the church must apply it to its members.
Throughout the history of the Christian church there has been great need of that emphasis, and this day is no exception. By divorcing the Christian life from the Christian faith liberal churches are undermining both. They say that it matters little what one believes or disbelieves, so long as one leads the right kind of life, epitomized in the golden rule. But they slight Jesus’ words: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). And in some conservative churches the notion is abroad that one can receive Christ as Saviour without acknowledging Him as Lord; that one can be forgiven of his sins with out forsaking them; that one can have the blessing of justification without the grace of sanctification. It is difficult to conceive of a more pernicious heresy. The church must refuse to recognize as members those who carelessly transgress Christ’s commandments, no matter how lustily they may sing of Him as their Saviour, for they prove themselves to be hypocrites. It must proclaim uncompromisingly that without holiness no man shall see the Lord (Heb.12:14).
Does it follow that the church is only for perfectionists? No and yes.
Those who claim to have reached the goal of moral perfection hold either an exceedingly low view of sin or an exceedingly high opinion of themselves, and much more than likely they hold both. Scripture teaches that all believers offend in many things (Jas. 3:2). On the other hand, if he who strives for perfection with might and main, albeit in complete dependence on the grace of the Holy Spirit, and continues to loathe himself so long as he has not attained to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus may be called a perfectionist, then perfectionism is requisite for membership in the church of Christ.
He who is truly a believer not only must have, but actually does have, the beginning of perfect obedience to the law of God. And the church must demand of its members that they show their faith by such obedience.
In doing that, the church must be exceedingly careful neither to add to the divine law nor to subtract from it. The facts must be reckoned with that, on the one hand, things which every member of a given church does may be condemned by God’s law, and that on the other hand, practices which are taboo among members of a certain church may be innocent by that standard.
Again, it must be remembered that the Christian life, while it has its negative aspects, is essentially, positive. It is not merely a life of separation from sin, but also, and emphatically, a life of devotion to God. One might conceivably abstain from almost every form of worldliness and at the same time neglect practically every activity of godliness. And, never to be forgotten, just not to do the good is one of the most heinous of sins. On the final day of reckoning the goats will be sentenced to perdition because they did not give food to Jesus’ disciples when they were hungry, did not give them drink when they were thirsty, did not clothe them when they were naked, did not visit them when they were sick or in prison (Matt. 25:41–46)
Most important of all, obedience to the letter of the law becomes disobedience when it is divorced from obedience to the spirit of the law. And the spirit of the law is summed up in the one word love. “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom.13:10). Strictness without love is not Christianity, but legalism.
In short, he who trusts in Christ for salvation is bound to lead a life of gratitude for that salvation. As he beholds his dying Saviour, he cannot help exclaiming:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all”
For faith engenders gratitude. And gratitude evinces faith.
Dr. R. B. Kuiper
Reprinted from the Torch and Trumpet Vol. 2 No. 2, June–July 1952.