November 23, 2008 Q & A

Conversion, Confession, and Church Membership


Recently I was in Mexico. The people I met are really believers though perhaps with some differences from the "standard" denomination, since there are no preachers, but some elders who take the pulpit. One of them asked me what I often hear even in my church, "Are you saved?" My answer was (and is) this: before I was born I was saved, and as an adult I confessed my faith in Jesus Christ alone.

There are people who know the exact time and date of being saved. I do not have that knowledge, probably because I grew up in the faith and made confession of faith as an expression of my serious intention to live a godly life, "growing in faith, producing fruits, etc." To me in a way, many believers seem to have a kind of awakening like Paul on the road to Damascus. It sounds more exciting. Many others, however, don't know that day.

On another topic: Establishing a church/group in A.D. 100-500 was far easier. Different views which came in the church already during Paul's time, were dealt with via synods, standards, etc., so that, so that we confess next to the Bible in certain forms or church confessions what we believe, and on basis of that we become members of a certain denomination. Is the confession and change of life of a believer not a kind of proof to accept such a person? Did the early church have different rules to accept a member? In short, are we as confessional churches not too "picky"?

We know so many denominations and wonder why there are so many. I think there is the danger of being diverted from our focus on Jesus as our Savior, since we are so busy with our differences. I grew up in such a family with the boy friends and girl friends who married into our family from different denominations. In my teen years I had a big problem with those fights. Sundays were not a happy time with all that bickering. Are we as churches very much set in our ways or in God's ways?


Thank you for writing to "Questions and Answers."

I agree that there can be two different experiences of coming to faith in Christ. We can call these covenant nurture (which happens as the faith is passed down) and radical conversion (which happens as the faith is sent out). In the former, the faith is implanted in a child and slowly grows by the constant use of the means of grace. It is a gradual process. It is like Timothy, who from childhood was taught the sacred writings by his believing mother Eunice and grandmother Lois. In the latter, the faith comes like an explosion. There is a moment in which the truth about Christ decisively changes our perspective. It is like Paul, whose heart was transformed from hating Christ and from persecuting the church by a blinding light on the Damascus road. It would be wrong to impose one type of experience (e.g., adult conversion) on everyone (including children who grow up in the church). Our sovereign God has clearly ordained to call different people in different ways.

As for your other question (is a confession and a changed life enough proof to receive someone into the church?), that is what we practice in the OPC. When the elders of the church interview someone for membership, they seek to ensure that the person "possesses the knowledge requisite for active faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, relies for salvation on the work of Christ, is trusting Christ for salvation, and is determined by the grace of God to lead a Christian life" (Book of Discipline, II.B.2.d).

We don't think we are adopting different rules than the early church for becoming a member of Christ's body. Rather, our Book of Church Order, which is based on the specific provisions of church government set out in Holy Scripture, helps us be clear and specific about how our denomination practices the one apostolic faith. By having a book of church order, we are trying to live out the biblical commandment to do all things decently, in good order, and for the edification of others.

Like any denomination, our structure and distinctives can become a source of strife and pride that turns our focus away from our Savior. But Christ has set forth a pattern of government in his Word, and we believe that as we humbly follow it for his glory. He is in our midst as the head of the church who rules us by his Word and Spirit.

I hope this helps answer some of your questions.



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