“The controlling point in the position taken here is that Pentecost is to be understood first of all as part of the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption (historia salutis) rather than as a part of its ongoing, continual application (ordo salutis). Obviously the two are intimately related and inseparable, but they must not be confused. To do so necessarily jeopardizes the absolute sufficiency and finality of Christ’s work. As I have already tried to show, the baptism with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a unique event of epochal significance in the history of redemption. Therefore it is no more capable of being repeated or serving as a model for individual Christian experience than are the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, with which it is so integrally conjoined as part of a single complex of events (see again Acts 2:32f.).” Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost: The New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, pg. 22.
“The gift of the Spirit in which all in the church share, embracing all the differences in individual outworkings of this gift, is described by Paul as the ‘down payment,’ ‘pledge’ (II Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14) and ‘firstfruits’ (Rom. 8:23) of the full inheritance to be received at Christ’s return. These terms function pointedly to express at the same time both the partial, anticipatory nature of the church’s present possession of the Spirit, and the eschatological character of this gift and of those activities of the Spirit presently experienced by all within the church.” Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, pg. 21.
“Pentecost is nothing less than the establishment of the church as the new covenant people of God, as the body of Christ. The Spirit given at Pentecost constitutes the body of Christ as a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:22), as the temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells (1 Cor. 3:16). Accordingly, all who have been incorporated into that Spirit-baptized body and have a place in it share in the gift of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13).” Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, pg. 21
[Revised: July 16, 2015 8:45am]
With greater and greater frequency, I hear people say something like, “I don’t need to go to church to believe in God.” How do we as Christians who believe in the importance of church respond to this? The goal shouldn’t be to sermonize, but to minister. This will involve listening, asking questions, and hopefully giving them something they will have to think about. As Greg Koukl describes it, we need to “put a pebble in their shoe.” In that spirit, let me offer some possible responses to, “I don’t need church to believe in God”:
1. “Alright, what happened?” (Matthew 11:20-21) I think the first place to start is with the possibility that somehow this persons feels that the church has failed them, and so they have walked away. Of course, they may be right or wrong in that assessment. It may be that the church didn’t so much fail them as that they had wrong expectations for it. Or it could be that the church did exactly what it should do and they didn’t like it. But it is also (highly) possible that the church truly failed to deliver Christ to this person, and they have been left licking their wounds. So as a first response, graciously see if they might honor you by telling you their story of woe. Starting here is what it means to extend the compassion of Christ to lost sheep.
2. “Alright, what happened?” I listed this one again, because I really want to stress this is the place to begin.
3. “Alright, what happened?” Seriously, start here. And what they tell you should highly shape the nature of your response (No platitudes!)… Okay, I’ve made my point, I’ll move on.
4. “How do you think God’s word speaks to this situation?” Obviously this is a vague question. That is kind of the point. You want them to figure this issue out, rather than you jamming the answer down their throat. To be sure, there are right answers to the question. Some passages you may want to carefully bring to their attention are Acts 2:42 and Hebrews 10:24-26.
Though I wouldn’t encourage dropping these on people out of the blue, nos. 5-10 are thoughts for them to consider.
5. “Jesus instituted the church” (Matthew 16:18, 28:18-20). It is his idea that we get together formally for worship, teaching, sacraments, and fellowship.
6. “Jesus, himself, needed the church” (Mark 1:16-20, 14:32, 16:7). I’ll use Mark’s Gospel to make my point. It’s true that the word “church” (ecclesia) is never used in Mark’s Gospel, but the notion of it is there clearly. A church is a community called out from the world to have fellowship with Christ. That idea is present throughout the Gospel of Mark, and it’s what the disciples were doing throughout the ministry of Jesus.
Also, it shouldn’t miss our notice that the same Gospel that emphasizes the importance of community also points out that Jesus, himself, needed that community again and again. He needed to be part of a community of believers from the earliest moments of his ministry (1:16-20), to the night before his crucifixion (14:32), and even after the resurrection (16:7). Though it may sound a little flippant, there is something to be said for observing that if Jesus needed to be in fellowship with believers regularly, how much more might we?
7. “It’s possible that you are not ‘doing’ Christianity the right way the rest of the week (Hebrews 10:25).” Once again, know your audience. Don’t drop this comment on someone who left church because they got bruised and beaten up. But since there is a kind of ‘cheap grace’ religion in some quarters of Christianity that is high on (saccharin definitions of) love and low on seeing the challenging nature of discipleship, there is a place for broaching the topic that if you don’t need 1) clear teaching from trained teachers of Scripture 2) encouragement from brothers and sisters about how to follow Christ in the world, or 3) to hear the minister announce to you that your sins are forgiven because of Christ, then could it be that you have an inadequate view of what it means to be a Christian?
8. “Have you considered that there may be someone at church who needs your friendship and presence so they can believe in God?” (Hebrews 10:24). This is getting at the idea that we don’t just go to church to be takers, but also to give to others. Church is a communion of the saints, where other believers need what God has given us. Even if somehow, in some universe, it’s possible that we could be fine without going to church, it may be that others would not be fine. They need our help to continue in the Faith. Church is a place that should be highly committed to the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself. So, it’s the place where we learn to take each other’s faith as seriously as we take our own.
9. “Don’t you miss receiving the Lord’s Supper and witnessing baptisms?” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:17-26; Romans 6:1-2). Someone will accuse me of sacerdotalism for this one. But the reality is, in this day and age, the sacraments are among the few church things that can’t be reproduced through any other means. I can listen to sermons online. I can watch worship services on TV. I can listen to beautiful choral music on Pandora. I can read my Bible by myself. But what I cannot do is have a minister give me the elements of the Lord’s Supper. I cannot receive those means that spiritually convey the body and blood of Christ, as a sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins, unless I am at church. When I’m sitting on the couch or going on a nature walk, I can’t watch babies and converts get baptized, remembering the promises of God symbolized by the washing of water. By myself, I cannot make a public commitment to help a baptizand along in this most Holy Faith, and in turn hear him/her make a public commitment to help me in the same way. Church, with all of its problems, still holds beauty and depth that cannot be replicated anywhere else on earth, precisely because it alone can give the Gospel through those ‘visible words’ called sacraments.
10. “In the end, we’ll all be at church, so we might as well start getting used to the idea now, right?” (Revelation 7:9-12) This is a slightly cute response to the issue, but the point is that Christ died to have a church, and a church Christ will have. We see a beautiful picture of this in the Book of the Revelation: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 7:9-12). (It’s possible someone could read #10 in a universalist light, but that is not the point I’m trying to make. It’s phrased in this way to charitably include a struggling believer among the faithful).
Hopefully, you haven’t read these as magic bullet solutions to a complex pastoral situation. These are not hammers with which to crack someone over the head for sleeping in on Sunday. These are not magical incantations, where if you just merely say them to people, they will respond, “Oh, yes, of course! What was I thinking!” They are, I think, biblical truths that need to be graciously presented to and carefully considered by those who avoid church, but still claim Jesus, the Head of the church, as their Savior. The answers may sting a bit, but repentance tends to do that (at least it does for me)! The goal in conversations about church attendance needs to be “truth spoken in love” (Eph. 4:15).
The bigger task we have today is persuading people that though they may have strong feelings and instincts one way or another, none of us is sovereign over our feelings and instincts. They are too overwhelming and confusing at times, and we are easily deceived by them (Jer. 17:9). If anything, we have to wrestle with them, in the strength of the Spirit, just to make sure they don’t end up sovereign over us. Our calling is to be faithful stewards of our experiences and feelings, and the only healthy way to do that is to submit our feelings to the word of our wise and good Redeemer.
Here’s a nice, devotional-esque quote from John Calvin on the word of God as a means of grace. This is from his 1540 “Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
4. The Virtue and Office of the Word of God in Regard to Our Souls
To maintain us in this spiritual life, the thing requisite is not to feed our bodies with fading and corruptible food, but to nourish our souls on the best and most precious diet. Now all Scripture tells us, that the spiritual food by which our souls are maintained is that same word by which the Lord has regenerated us; but it frequently adds the reason, viz., that in it Jesus Christ, our only life, is given and administered to us. For we must not imagine that there is life anywhere than in God. But just as God has placed all fullness of life in Jesus, in order to communicate it to us by his means, so he ordained his word as the instrument by which Jesus Christ, with all his graces, is dispensed to us. Still it always remains true, that our souls have no other pasture than Jesus Christ. Our heavenly Father, therefore, in his care to nourish us, gives us no other, but rather recommends us to take our fill there, as refreshment amply sufficient, with which we cannot dispense, and beyond which no other can be found. (Treatises on the Sacraments: Tracts by John Calvin, ed. Henry Beveridge, 165-166)