Part 2: The Importance of the Local Church
by Pastor Paul M. Sadler
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).
On any given Sunday morning it is fairly common for someone to slip into a worship service who has yet to trust Christ. We sometimes assume those who have gathered to worship know the Lord, but this is not always the case. This is why it is essential to give a clear presentation of the gospel to those present, without exception. A classic example is the conversion of Charles Spurgeon, the great English preacher. In his own words Spurgeon recounts the snowy Sunday morning he attended a local assembly in December 1849:
I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now, had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Church. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people’s heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved.
The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed in, I suppose. At last a very thin-looking man, a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach….He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was—”Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimmer of hope for me in that text.
The preacher began thus: “This is a very simple text indeed. It says, `Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a great deal of pain. It aint liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just `Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look…. Anyone can look; even a child can look. “But then the text says, `Look unto Me!’ Ay!” he said in broad Essex, “many of ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some say look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, `Look unto Me.’ Some of ye say, `We must wait for the Spirit’s workin.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, `Look unto Me.'”
Then the good man followed up his text in this way: “Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the Cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to heaven. Look unto Me; I am sitting at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! Look unto Me!”
When he had managed to spin out about ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did, but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, it struck right home. He continued, “And you will always be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only the Primitive Methodist could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but look and live!”
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said—I did not take much notice of it—I was so possessed with that one thought. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me. Oh! I looked until I could have almost looked my eyes away.
There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh! that somebody had told me this before, “Trust Christ, and you will be saved.” 1
One of the goals of the local church is to establish believers in the Word of God. With this in mind, we believe there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on evangelism in our Grace Churches. As we have seen above, it is important to interject the gospel in our preaching and teaching of the Scriptures for those who may be present that are outside of Christ. But there should also be a concerted effort to challenge the members of the local assembly, “to do the work of an evangelist” (II Tim. 4:5). There is a misconception among the Lord’s people that it is the pastor’s responsibility to go door to door in the community to reach the lost for Christ—after all, “we hired him to do the work of the ministry.” The truth of the matter is God has called the pastor to edify and equip the members of the assembly for this purpose (Eph. 4:11,12).
Of course, the lion’s share of a pastor’s ministry will be devoted to glorifying God through the proclamation of the Word, rightly divided. But there must also be time set aside to remind the saints that they are the voice of reason that stands between the unsaved and the eternal consequences of their sins. Essentially, it is the pastor’s responsibility to put the proper tools into the hands of his people so they can evangelize those who are in danger of the judgment to come. If your assembly isn’t growing numerically it needs to ask itself if the members are actively sharing the gospel in their daily walk.
Paul said to Timothy, who tended to be somewhat timid at times: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord” (II Tim. 1:7,8). Beloved ones, we must never allow the fear of men to silence us, otherwise the glorious gospel of Christ will be hid from those who so desperately need it.
While we do not endorse all the teachings of the Baptists, we do have to commend them for their boldness. The reason there is a Baptist Church in nearly every major town in America is because they actively share the good news of Christ and Him crucified with everyone they come in contact with in their community. Both my wife and I are a product of their evangelistic efforts. As former Baptists, we were passionately challenged by our leaders that we must not sit idly by while our loved ones and friends perish. They reminded us again and again of the importance of having a burden for lost souls.
UNION OR UNITY
“And he [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches” (Acts 15:41).
As Paul departed from Antioch to undertake his second apostolic journey, he and Silas went through Syria and Cilicia confirming the local assemblies that were established prior to the apostle’s first missionary journey. A large part of Paul’s ministry was confirming the faith that was first delivered to the Gentiles by him. With Paul as our pattern, the objective of every local church should be to edify its members so they can more effectively serve the Lord in their daily experience. Here a capable teacher of the Word that teaches the whole counsel of God in view of Paul’s revelation is indispensable. The Word of God creates unity among the Lord’s people. During the Reformation when the Scriptures were heatedly debated, Philipp Melanchthon, a friend of Martin Luther, wrote: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
But what constitutes the “essential doctrines” which have come to be known as the Christian faith? Historically it is those teachings that have been generally accepted as being undeniable by the household of faith, such as the inspiration of the Scriptures, the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the depravity of man, the bodily resurrection, the state of the dead, the pre-millennial return of Christ, etc. Interestingly these teachings are usually denied in one form or another by the cults—therefore, these fundamentals of the faith distinguish us from the cults.
With the recovery of Paul’s gospel the founding fathers of the Grace Movement saw the importance of adding to our doctrinal statements the primary teachings of grace. Thus the essentials of the faith for our Grace assemblies include salvation by grace through faith alone, the one baptism, the commission of reconciliation, the blessed hope, etc. These additions stress the importance of rightly dividing the Word of truth. Whether we are speaking of the fundamentals of the faith or the unique doctrines of grace, all of the above is based upon the Scriptures, which is our final authority.
Though important, the non-essentials of the faith are those teachings not always agreed upon by the brethren. In other words, they are open for further discussion. For example: We are forgiven in Christ, but will our sins be brought into view at the Judgment Seat of Christ? Did the Body of Christ begin in Acts 9 or Acts 13? Is the Body of Christ the Bride of Christ? Was Paul out of the will of God when he went to Jerusalem in Acts 21? Who wrote Hebrews? While convictions run deep on these biblical subjects they should never disrupt our fellowship with one another. The key word here is liberty! Until we come into the unity of the faith at the Rapture we sometimes have to agree to disagree, but we must always do so in love.
So then, the essential doctrines of the faith delineated in a doctrinal statement serve to bring unity to the local assembly. It is also a safeguard against the inroads of unsound teachings. So that all things might be done decently and in order, we encourage local churches to adopt a membership role in conjunction with a comprehensive church constitution. Customarily two things are required, a clear testimony for Christ and full agreement with the doctrinal statement. Membership is a deterrent against hostile takeovers by unscrupulous brethren who have no desire to preserve the testimony of grace in the community.
Perhaps a word should be said here about the difference between “union” and “unity.” If I take two pieces of metal and bolt them together, that’s union. However, if I melt the same two pieces of metal down and pour it into a mold to produce a tool, that’s unity. Unity speaks of oneness. When unbelievers are permitted to join the membership of a local church, as dignified and capable as they might be, that’s union. Paul says, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?” (II Cor. 6:14). If a believer rejects aspects of a church’s statement of faith and joins in membership this, too, is union. Both of these circumstances are sure to cause a division in the assembly if they are tolerated.
When a local assembly acknowledges the essentials of the faith it produces unity. After years of laboring in the gospel together, Paul said of Timothy, “I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state” (Phil. 2:20). That’s oneness! Sadly this was not true of all believers in his day. Due to the carnality of the Corinthians the apostle had to admonish them to be one.
“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Cor. 1:10).
Please note here that Paul is not addressing those who were standing for the truth, but those who had departed from the faith. They were the ones who were to realign themselves with sound doctrine that the oneness of the assembly might be restored. When problems arise in the church today many are of the opinion that those who have defended the truth over the years should cave-in for the sake of peace. Mark these words and mark them well, compromise never creates unity; rather, it produces a union which neutralizes the Word of God.
Another function of the local church is to edify or build up the saints in the faith that has been handed down to us. Since sound doctrine governs our Christian walk the two cannot be separated, although many have given it the old college try to their own peril. The goal is to ground the Lord’s people in the Word of God, rightly divided, that they might become more spiritually minded. This will single-handedly eliminate many of the problems that plague local assemblies.
The moment the sinner trusts Christ an eternal relationship is established which eventually touches every other relationship of their life. Today this relationship is rooted in grace, not the law. The law is powerless to help us live the Christian life. Dr. Kenneth Wuest expressed it this way:
Do this and live the law commands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
A better word the gospel brings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
If there is one thing that will poison the vitality of a local assembly it’s legalism. At Galatia the Judaizers taught the Galatians, who had been saved by grace, they could become more spiritual by keeping the Law of Moses. Paul commends them that they had begun well, but if they placed themselves back under the Law they essentially had fallen from grace (Gal. 3:1-4; 5:1-4).
The particular Baptist assembly I was once associated with had a special knack for putting its members on a guilt trip for failure to observe their rules and traditions, which is another form of legalism. There was an unspoken list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that had to be closely followed or you could be shunned without the official pronouncement, such as would be the case in the Amish community. The so-called pillars of the assembly set what they felt was the acceptable standard of appearance, attendance, giving, conduct, etc.
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:11,12).
Beloved, God sets the standard and the standard today is GRACE. Grace brings liberty! It is patient, understanding, forgiving, and allows for differences. If someone attends a service a bit unkempt with different color socks or two different types of shoes, I don’t really care, I’m just grateful they’re under the sound of the Word. God has not called us to be the fashion police! He looks upon the heart, not on the outward appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about grace; it will make whatever adjustments are needed in the believer’s life to the glory of God.
The edification ministry of the local church should extend beyond the pulpit ministry to include home Bible studies, evangelism training, classes to introduce newcomers to Paul’s gospel, youth group meetings, etc. Of course, the pastor cannot be expected to cover all of these ministries; therefore, it is important for leaders to be groomed within the assembly to assist him with these responsibilities.