Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Where’s the Church in the Gospel Plan of Salvation?

     We are witnessing and/or hearing about considerable numbers of folks abandoning churches of Christ.1 Could it be that we, in general, have failed to fully grasp, value, teach, defend, and emphasize the crucial role of the church in God’s redemptive scheme? It seems that a generation has arisen with very little commitment to the Lord’s church, as the biblical concept has been ignored, diluted, and misunderstood. The pervading viewpoint advanced in recent decades, fueled by postmodern ideologies, is that the church of Christ is merely a denominational sect among many other viable (preferable?) options.
     A contributing factor to this sad state of affairs could be the common perception that the entire gospel plan of salvation consists of only five simple steps: hear, believe, repent, confess, and get baptized. While each of these is affirmed in multiple (often unconnected) biblical texts, surely we can agree that continued faithfulness is just as important. But what does this entail, and where does the church fit in? Doesn’t the Lord add penitent baptized believers to the community of the saved/the church (Acts 2:37-47)? Aren’t we baptized into the one body, i.e. the one church (1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 1:18; cf. Matt. 16:18)? Isn’t Jesus the savior of the body/the church (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:23)?
The Book of Conversions
     While the fifth book of the New Testament is sometimes labeled “the Book of Conversions,” let us not forget that it is actually the sequel of a two-volume set. As Dr. Luke composed the historical narrative of Acts, he could reasonably assume that his readers were already familiar with “the former account” (Acts 1:1). Acts consists of selective highlights of the conversion stories it recounts rather than comprehensive details of each (cf. 2:40; 5:14, 20, 42; 6:7; 8:4-5; et al.). Although there is no explicit reference to confession of faith in chap. 2, or to baptism in chaps. 3-4, or to repentance in chap. 8, or to belief in most of chap. 9, surely we understand that it is the totality of information that provides the complete picture.2
     What about the church? The Greek word ekklēsia, translated “church” in our English Bibles, occurs no less than twenty-two times in the Acts narrative with reference to the congregated disciples of Jesus.3 As we trace the gospel story through Luke’s first volume (the Gospel) and on through the second (Acts), it is clear that the ekklēsia of Acts fulfills the numerous basileia (kingdom) prophecies of the Gospel.4
     Jesus came to earth in order to “preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43; 8:1; 9:11),5 and he commissioned his immediate disciples to do the same (Luke 9:2; 10:9, 11). He promised that within their lifetime they would actually see this spiritual kingdom realized (Luke 9:27). Following his death and resurrection, and for several weeks prior to his ascension, the Lord continually reminded the apostles “of things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
      On the Day of Pentecost, when the gospel message was communicated in its fullness, penitent baptized believers were forgiven of sins and added to the company of the saved (Acts 2:21-47). From this point onward the church that Jesus had promised to build (Matt. 16:16-19) and the kingdom he had repeatedly foretold was coming (Matt. 4:17; 6:10; 16:28; 24:14; 26:29) are no longer spoken of prospectively. The church is present (Acts 5:11; 8:1, 3; 20:28; 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; Gal. 1:13; Eph. 1:22; et al.) and the kingdom is present (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20; Col. 1:12, 13; 4:11; et al.). God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and has transferred [us] into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins …. And he is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:13-14, 18a).
The Church is Part of the Gospel Message
     In the Pentecost-Day sermon, as the kingship of Jesus is implied and his lordship affirmed (Acts 2:30, 36), “[with] many other words [Peter] solemnly declared and exhorted them saying, ‘Be saved from this crooked generation.’ Therefore those having received his word were baptized, and on that day about 3,000 souls were added” (vv. 40-41); “the Lord added daily those who were being saved to their number” (v. 47), or to the church,” according to the Byzantine Majority Text (JB, N/KJV, RAV, WEB).
     Later, when the Samaritans “believed Philip proclaiming the gospel concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized …” (Acts 8:12) and counted among the newly established churches in the region (Acts 9:31). The Galatians were warned by Barnabas and Paul of inevitable afflictions when entering “into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), which incorporated the churches of that area (Gal. 1:2). In planting the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1), Jesus was proclaimed as “king” (Acts 17:7). Paul consistently taught those in Ephesus about “the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8; 20:25), and as “fellow citizens” (Eph. 2:19) they comprised the church (Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23). In Rome he preached “the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus …” (Acts 28:23) and spent two whole years “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ …” (v. 31).
     There was only one gospel message disseminated “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Gal. 1:8-9). To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a citizen of God’s kingdom and member of Christ’s body, his church (Col. 1:13, 18, 24). Without the kingdom, there is no King (John 18:37). Where there is no bride, there can be no Bridegroom (Rev. 19:7; 21:9). The Head cannot be detached from the body (Eph. 4:15-16). If one is to be taught about Christ in order to be “baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27), surely he must be taught about the collective body/church of Christ to be “baptized into one body” (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 12:13).
The Gospel Plan of Salvation
     Simply stated, the gospel plan of salvation is our gracious God seeking to reconcile sinners to himself through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in a unified collectivity of forgiven disciples. Our response to this divine plan can be summarized as follows:
·      Hear (listen to, understand, heed) the gospel message (Mark 4:23-24; Acts 2:22, 37; 3:22) – and keep on hearing, receptively and responsively (Rom. 10:17; Eph. 4:21, 29; Phil. 4:9; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29).
·      Believe the gospel message (Acts 4:4; 18:8; 9:42) – and continue believing and increasing in faith (Rom. 3:22; 4:11, 24; 10:4; 2 Pet. 1:5-7).
·      Repent of sinful attitudes and behaviors (Acts 2:38; 3:19) – and don’t stop repenting (Acts 8:22; Rom. 6:1-18; 2 Cor. 7:9-10).
·      Confess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 10:32; 1 Tim. 6:12) – and keep on confessing (Rom. 10:9-10; 2 Cor. 9:13; Heb. 4:14; 10:23).
·      Be immersed in water for forgiveness of past sins by Christ’s blood (Acts 2:38; 8:36-39; 22:16), entering (“into”) Christ and his emblematic body, the church, the saved community (Acts 2:41-47; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:26-27; 1 Pet. 2:20-21), raised to live a new life (Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:11-13; 3:1-3).
·      Remain faithful (Acts 2:42; 14:22) as an active and devoted member of Christ’s body – universally (Eph. 3:6; 5:23; 1 Pet. 2:17) and locally (Rom. 12:3-13; 1 Cor. 12:12-27); a loyal citizen of his spiritual kingdom (Eph. 2:19; Col. 1:9-18).
     Are we committed to the whole counsel of God? May we embrace, obey, and consistently teach the gospel in its entirety, without abridgements, shortcuts, or compromise.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Within the past twenty-five years, there has been a 7.8 percent decrease in reported membership of churches of Christ in the USA (see Carl H. Royster, ed. Churches of Christ in the United States, Nashville, TN: 21st Century Christian, 2015).
     2 Edwin Jones, in a Facebook post (30 Jan. 2016), observes: “The ‘Five Steps’ have received much attention of late. I see no way that hear (rich in theology and far from being ‘redundant’), believe, repent, confess, and being baptized can be excluded as vital aspects of the progression of saving faith. Nevertheless, I offer the following slightly amended comment I made in a recent blog as a cautionary word to myself and my brothers and sisters…. Interesting, is it not, that no one verse contains all the five steps? It seems that God, though perfectly capable of doing just that, chose to contextualize the ‘steps’ so the richness of their God given presentation might be discovered. ‘Shorthand,’ even when supported by short citations, has a way of taking on a life of its own that obscures the ‘longhand’ of the original. Though summations certainly have their place, original contexts are gold!”
     3 Ekklēsia also appears in Acts 2:47 in the Byzantine Majority Text tradition; once in reference to the assembling of Israelites (7:38), and three more times in a secular sense (19:32-41). On the etymological significance of this term, see The Church of the NT.
     4 The basileia (kingdom) of God is referenced seven times in Acts, and a whopping thirty-nine times in the Gospel of Luke! For further discussion on the biblical doctrine of the kingdom, see The Kingdom of God Part 1, and supplemental Links.
     5 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.

Related articles: Wes McAdams’ Why I’m Not Fond of the Phrase <Link> and What They Need to Know <Link>, Jack Dodgen’s Rewriting the “Steps” of Salvation <Link>, Justin Brasfield’s Why I’m a Member of the Church of Christ <Link>.

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