A question frequently asked by new comers and those who invite unsaved loved ones to “come to church,” i.e., to visit our local assembly, this question deserves a good answer. First two points of clarification are in order.
First; Nothing in this article is intended to judge other people or assemblies, or even to change minds on the subject. The truth makes free (John 8:32) and the Lord can use it, but we must seek the truth with an open mind realizing that sometimes, tradition has been followed for so long, it has attained the status of Bible truth in our thinking and consequently in our practice. The writer can speak from experience about this.
Second; The issue in question is not our love for the gospel, although at times that charge has been made. Scripture calls the Good News “the power of God unto salvation.” (Romans 1:16), and we need that Good News and the power of God more than ever in our day. The matter in question pertains to how the gospel message is (or is not) proclaimed in the gathered assembly.
The list of reasons why altar calls and appeals to lost persons to “get saved” are not encouraged in the Bible hour at our particular local chruch fellowship could become lengthy. This may be a surprise to some who have been raised in groups where more time was spent preaching to the lost than equipping the saints. And, if we were to “do what comes naturally,” what would seem more natural than asking sinners to come to Christ in the church?
However, we are not to be guided by human reason but by the Scriptures. To that end, consider the following five truths from the Word.
1. The nature of the church – It is surprising how many students of the Word have never noticed how the apostles address their hearers in all the epistles. It is a good exercise to read the opening words of each letter. One finds mention of those “beloved of God,” of “saints” and “saints by calling,” of the “fainthful in Christ Jesus,” of “faithful brethren,” of “my brethren,” of “the elect,” and of “them that have obtained like precious faith with us.” But one will search in vain for any salutation to unsaved persons! This holds true for the content. Not once do we read “If there should be one lost person reading this epistle . . .”
The most cursory reading of I Corinthians for example would provide quite a list of moral and doctrinal failures existing in the church at Corinth. How shocked would good men of today be if it were reported that in a certain local assembly, some denied the resurrection, some devoured the elements at the Lord’s Supper before others arrived, carnality, incest and other evils were c ommon. Was Paul the apostle unaware of these things? Did he believe that inspite of the sad conditions, all in the church were saved? How foolish to think so. Indeed, we would know nothing of any of the above were it not for Paul’s writings!
How then can we explain his form of address to the church? Only in one way. He viewed the church as the holy and beloved bride of Christ and addressed her as such. Let the reader lay hold of this: the apostles never addressed the church as a mixed multitude. In this they followed the example of their Lord. Knowing the doubts and denials of His own, His prayer for them in John 17 is lovely and full of meaning for those who can receive it.
Perhaps an analogy will help. A young man comes to faith in the Lord Jesus through the witness of a friend. The friend pours much time and prayer into the young believer, and spiritual growth is evident. One day the young convert confides in his mentor that the Christian life is just too difficult; too many temptations; it just seems impossible.
Very well, replies the older Christian. “You may curse with mild words; spend no more than a couple hours at the bar drinking; lose no more than $50 gambling, see here I’ve made you a list of more attainable conduct for someone living in the world.” God forbid, we exclaim, and well we should. Why? Because there are not two levels of acceptable conduct for believers, but one, and that one is perfection; Christ Himself.
“But that is unattainable in this life.” Ah, and here is the point. Perfection may not be attained in this life (“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” . . . I Jn. 1:8), but God sees us and addresses us by our position in Christ, not our performance, and this calls us ever upward in the imitation of Christ. Thus we are saints, even though we may not always act very saintly.
It is no different with the church. The church will rise no higher than the level set before it. Begin to address the church as a mixed multitude of saved and lost persons; set the bar low, and the sad result will follow. Yes, a few may be saved, and this has always been a powerful argument with those for whom the greatest good is “use what works.” Rather, let us learn to address the believers as the Lord Jesus did and as did the apostles.
2) The functions of the church – From the beginning, the earliest church had power with God and with men. Acts 2:42 tells us that “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and in fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Now let the reader ask himself which one of these four activities was attractive to or useful for unsaved people? The answer is: None of them. Numbers of passages come to mind to show that each of these items is for believers; it is the family life or the body life of the church. Unbelievers may be present, and thank God when they are, but they are looking in on the functioning of the family of God. They are not the objects of the gathering!
So if we want to know how the apostles addressed the lost, we will need to study the Acts. A number of public messages or sermons are preserved, and repay careful study. It will be seen that they are spoken – not in the gathered church – but in the world. There the gospel is preached in power centering on the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, often including an appeal to repent and be saved.
3) The design of the gospel – From the very first sin in the human race, the pattern is laid down for all to read. After disobeying God and partaking of the forbidden fruit, man did not seek God, but hid himself. It was God Who came out to where the man and his wife were hiding. It was God Who took the initiative and called “Adam . . . where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9) We do not find any such words as this from Adam to his wife: “Well, we disobeyed the Lord, and now we’re in a mess, but let’s go looking for God to see if we can be saved.”
Long years later we read that “When the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His Son.” (Gal. 4:4) For what purpose? Luke 19:10 is clear: “For the son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Why did He need to come and seek? Romans 3:11 tells us that “there is none that seeketh after God.” Have things changed?
And so we have no example of any church in the New Testament offering a gospel meeting as part of its assembly meeting schedule. The command was given clearly “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15), and the early church did just that. No attempt was made to get the world into the church. In fact, according to Acts 5:13, no man dared join them!
4) The practice of making disciples – People are naturally lazy, and would rather have spiritual things cared for by a professional than by doing the work themselves. But the command to go into the world and make disciples was not given to clergymen but to ordinary people. And they can be trained to be witnesses for the Lord, but it requires what has been called “tough love.”
Just once the young believers get the idea that they are incapable of leading people to Christ themselves; better to provide a skilled evangelist in the church meeting and leave it to him, and they will quickly develop a profound mistrust of their own ability to lead anyone to Christ.
Years ago, in speaking on this subject, a dear older lady came up after the message and said the following to me. “Based on what you said this morning, I have rarely if ever brought a Scriptural witness for the Lord. But it was all we were taught. Our witness consisted of inviting lost friends and relatives to the meeting. But even though I am 80 years old, with God’s help I will change that from here on.” It was a thrilling testimony to hear.
Yes, it is the responsibility of gifted men to “equip the saints,” and even the evangelist is included in the list (Eph. 4:11-12). How rare are evangelists that devote substantial time to training ordinary people in the skill of witnessing!
5) Confidence in the Word of God – The last point is the strongest. We need a renewed confidence in the power of the Word of God to meet all needs present in all church gatherings. Speculation as to who is present and what their spiritual condition may be is not the basis of food for the flock!.
The old saying is true; “If you want more sheep, feed the ones you already have.” Many assemblies that were once healthy have dwindled away and closed because they failed to feed the flock. Plenty of “ministry” was given, but the chief point of messages was usually the preaching of the gospel and the focus was the lost person that might be present.
One young man after preaching mightily in an assembly meeting lamented later how listless and disinterested the people seemed to be. I told him “They have a problem.” “Oh; What’s that?” he asked. “They’re already saved, and they need to grow; they’re sheep, and they’re hungry. They have been on a steady diet of the way of salvation for a long time.”
If the needed subject is the gospel, follow the example of Paul in Romans. Romans was not written to lost people to show them how to be saved; it was written to Christians to explain to them how God saved them. A simple exposition of Romans that opens out the message of how God saved those who believed, can be a mighty tool of conviction by the Spirit of God in the heart of the hearer – whether a believer or not.