The role of the church in God’s plan of salvation.
Upon first glance, a reader of this issue in our Reformation series might exclaim, “Church alone! Doesn’t the Bible Advocate staff know that this phrase was not a tenet of the Reformers? Don’t they know it represented the position of the Counter-Reformation? The Reformers taught against it. The Roman church emphasized it. Why is church alone in the magazine?”
This article will offer answers.
As with all phrases popularized by the Protestant Reformation, each is an integral part of defining justification, God’s declaration making a sinner His child. We are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone. Scripture alone is the source for our understanding.
The Roman church, on the other hand, insisted that the church’s traditions, sacraments, and authority structure were also necessary ingredients. Justification outside of Rome’s church was impossible.
The Church of God (Seventh Day) has historically embraced the position of the Reformers. In Christian Youth Herald and Gospel Call (1955) Elder Kenneth Freeman (1911-1976) wrote, “He [a man in one of Spurgeon’s meetings] could not look to the church for this power, for the church cannot save (though it helps us keep saved); it is Christ who saves.”
These two understandings of the purpose and nature of church differ vastly. Is the church the means of salvation, or is it a community of believers? Jesus gave the church the message of salvation to share, but Christ is the only way to be saved. He did not give the church the power to save in itself. Instead, the church was committed with the good news that does save. Unfortunately, a sad legacy of Protestantism is that, in reaction to Catholic sola ecclesia, many undermined the importance of the church altogether. Emphasizing a personal salvation that embraces an individualism of “me and my Bible” is dangerous — and often spiritually fatal — because it discards the body that God provided: His church.
God’s people in the book of Acts valued the church, not as a means of salvation but as a community of the saved who encouraged each other to keep strong in faith. Those who “received his word” after Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost were added to the group of believers (2:41). Daily the Lord added to the church (v. 47). No hint is given of a “go it alone” mindset. These believers jumped right into fellowship, sharing possessions and hospitality. When Peter and John were released from prison, they “went to their own company,” and the assembly “with one accord” prayed, “grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word . . .” (4:23-31). This is the justified church in action.
My family learned of the Church of God (Seventh Day) by listening to Elder Kenneth Freeman on the Faith for Our Time radio broadcast. We had looked at many churches over the previous sixteen years. We knew we couldn’t be the only Bible-believing people in the world. Jesus said He would build His church (Matthew 16:18). We read about this church in the book of Acts. But where was it? Elder Freeman made it clear to us that the Church of God (Seventh Day) strives to help people become good Bible men and women and grow strong as followers of Christ.
We studied through the Searchlight Bible Correspondence Course, read all of the tracts, and subscribed to the Bible Advocate and AIM magazines. We were relieved to find no hint of the exclusivist teaching of other churches. Church of God repeatedly emphasized that the church isn’t the way; Jesus is. The church is the family of the saved who witness of Him and glorify Him together.
We were overjoyed to have finally found a church family! What a joy it was to be with others who believed that God’s truths are defined in the Bible alone and that all the credit for salvation goes to God through His Son Jesus Christ. This is what we had earnestly prayed for. We were home at last!
As a result of my childhood experience, I am especially excited when I meet others with a similar story. This turns to disappointment, though, when I discover that they follow a modern anti-organization, individualistic mindset. God answered their prayers, revealing precious Bible truth to them. He introduced them to His people, but they say, “No thanks.” They fall prey to the “I want it my way” schismatic philosophy of our culture. Such independent thinking has no place in God’s church.
God designed His church to benefit all His people as they serve, bear burdens, express kindness, offer forgiveness, teach and admonish, love, comfort, share and edify, and pray for and exhort one another. All these internal blessings, and more, are compressed in Hebrews 10:24, 25:
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
Another purpose of God when designing the church is to spread the gospel. In a Bible Advocate article (November 16, 1953), Elder Clayton Faubion wrote these words about the church: “We claim no power to save, only as we are able to lead souls to the Savior by the help of the Holy Spirit.” The New Testament church knew its purpose: Preach the gospel; reach the lost.
The apostle Paul addressed 2 Corinthians to the church of God at Corinth, with all the saints in Achaia. Note how he identifies their purpose: “And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). God has committed to us, the church, the word of reconciliation; we are ambassadors for Christ (vv. 19, 20). Here is the church on mission, faced outward.
Some readers may remember outreach tools developed within the Church of God to help us be effective ambassadors for Christ: EMGAM (Every Member Gain a Member) in the 1950s; The Evangelette Program for youth in the 1960s; biennial convention themes such as “The Night is Far Spent — the Day is at Hand” in 1968; the thick Church Growth notebook of the 1970s; Master Plan 2000, and ACTS seminars.
We have a history full of inspiring, workable, effective plans, prayerfully prepared by our men and women who caught the vision to unite our efforts in soul-winning. They stand tall among us; their passion motivates us. They follow in the footsteps of people like the house of Stephanus, who “addicted themselves” to the ministry of the saints (1 Corinthians 16:15, KJV). May we all be that kind of addict!
Priesthood of believers
A common Reformation theme was the priesthood of all believers, drawing from the apostle Peter:
You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . . you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
Here’s a biblical picture of sola ecclesia. Peter wrote these words to Christians scattered throughout five provinces of the Roman Empire (1:1). These believers weren’t alone but had elders and were to “greet one another” (5:1, 14). Peter taught about what it meant to be God’s flock, addressing servants, wives, husbands, youth, and the elderly.
The church is God’s own special people. Whosoever will may be included for His glory. All are gifted, as God gives His Spirit to all, not to just a select few (1 Corinthians 12). And all have direct access to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). In God’s church every Christian benefits from the blessings of godly fellowship. In addition, every Christian has the same calling: to tell others the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The gospel of God and justification by faith are not only personal but also social because our message is about God’s coming kingdom that the church already witnesses to and strives to be a foretaste of. The church is much more than an option tacked onto our born-again experience. It is more than a voluntary association. It is the very elect family of God.
How do the Reformation solas we’ve covered this year fit in with the church alone?
We are a built spiritual house because of Christ alone.
We are a royal priesthood who live by Scripture alone.
We are a chosen generation by God’s grace alone.
We are a holy nation of the redeemed by faith alone.
And anticipating the last issue of 2017, we are God’s own special people for His glory alone.
Because of these gifts from God, we are blessed to be Christ’s bride. And we carry, live, guard, and witness this blessing to the whole world together as the family of God, with leaders, gifts, fruits, and members fitly framed together in love and truth.
This is why church alone is in the Bible Advocate.
John Lemley and his wife, Lois, live in Vancouver, WA. They attend the CoG7 in Kalama, WA.