We had the joy of voting in a members’ meeting yesterday on the admittance of 5 people to membership. Next Sunday, we will baptise three of them and welcome all five into membership formally. It was a helpful reminder of what Mark Dever has referred to as the ‘assurance of salvation co-operative’ at play in the church.
Anybody can put their hand up and claim to be a believer. Indeed, plenty of people do. But the Bible is full of warnings not deceive ourselves about our salvation. The Bible tells us ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ (Jer 17:9) and it is notoriously difficult to judge between what is right and what our hearts are telling us because we want it to be true. How do we ensure that the salvation we claim to possess in Christ is genuine?
On one level, we might point to this sort of comment from RC Sproul:
But how can I know my affection is genuine? How can I know that my affection is for the Biblical Jesus, rather than some Jesus I have concocted in my own imagination? Whilst I want to endorse what Sproul says in his video as a starting point, I’m not sure this takes us the whole way. It adds something to our assurance but doesn’t resolve the question altogether.
We might go further and take Jesus at his word, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). If we have an affection for Christ and we want to keep his commands, that acts as a good evidence that we belong to him. We may look at the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and see if those things are evident in our own lives. But we are still left with the problem of our deceitful heart. We are able to kid ourselves into feeling more faithful than we really are (or, likewise, less fruitful than we reckon ourselves too).
But here is something that is much harder to buck. You may consider yourself faithful to Christ’s commands, you may consider yourself to have real affection for the Biblical Jesus and may see the fruit of the Spirit developing in your life. But there is always a nagging doubt as to whether you are talking yourself into those things or not. But trying to fool 50 other people into the same delusion as you is a much harder ask.
The reason we involve our church in the process of welcoming and affirming new members is that it acts as greater assurance for the person in question. You might kid yourself into thinking you’re a believer, you might even manage to convince a few mates who desperately want it to be true, but it is trickier to kid 50 people into individually affirming your profession of faith.
When we announce to the church that people have applied to be welcomed into membership, or baptised and welcomed into membership (they’re the same thing in our gaff), we are giving the church membership the opportunity to assess their profession and whatever fruit it may or may not be bearing in their life. We ask the members to have conversations with the applicants so that they can vote informatively on whether this person – so far as they can tell – appears to be a genuine believer.
As we voted on the three applicants for baptism and further two also coming into membership, we were essentially asking the members to judge the profession. This acts as a great assurance for those coming into membership. They are no longer merely professing personal belief, nor are they being affirmed by three elders, but they have the confirmation of c. 30 other people all positively affirming that this person is a genuine believer.
As they come into church membership, this affirmation does not stop. Their continuance with us at the Lord’s Table (which is restricted to members’ in good standing of ours, or another, local church) is a regular affirmation that this person continues as a believer. Around 30 people welcomed them into membership through the waters of baptism as an affirmation of the genuineness of their profession, and 30 people continue to affirm their good standing as a believer by welcoming them to the Lord’s Table each week. Those who stray from the Lord, and show by their lives that they are not believers, are placed under church discipline and – if they continue unrepentantly – put out of the church and removed from partaking of the table.
This one-time affirmation in baptism, ongoing affirmation at the Lord’s Table and promise of church discipline if one makes clear they are not a genuine believer gives a strong affirmation of genuine belief upon all those who are affirmed by these things in the church.