Why We Do What We Do: THE INVOCATION

At the beginning of every Divine Service, just after the call to worship, we stand together and call upon the Lord in a prayer called the “invocation.” What is the invocation and why do we do this?

To invoke someone or something means to appeal to that person or thing for help. In the ancient world, when kings made covenants with each other, a lesser king (the vassal) had the privilege of calling upon a greater king (the suzerain) for help if, for example, an invading army threatened his land. He could invoke his covenant privilege and receive help from the greater king with whom he was in covenant. Of course, such a covenant also meant that he must be loyal to the suzerain and not go behind his back to make secret treaties with other kings.

In a similar way, we call upon our Great King for help when we invoke his name at the beginning of the Divine Service. The prayer of invocation is not an empty ritual, but a covenant privilege. We are actually calling upon the living God who has made a covenant with us through the Lord Jesus Christ. He summons his covenant people in the call to worship. We then stand together in reverence and awe, recognizing the authority of our Suzerain. We call upon his name and confess that our help is not in ourselves or in the false gods of this present evil age, but “our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps 124.8). We ask him to receive our worship, nourish our souls, and bear fruit in our lives to his glory. We humble ourselves before his majesty and cry for help. He responds with open and uplifted hands, pronouncing a blessing upon us in the salutation: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1.3-4).

As we participate in the invocation every Lord’s Day, let us remember that God’s people have done this since the days of Adam and his son Seth: “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4.26). Let us exercise the covenant privilege that Christ has purchased for us. May our hearts be encouraged and filled with joy because of God’s promise: “They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”

~ Pastor Brown

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: MEMBERSHIP VOWS (part 4)

A fourth reason we take membership vows in church is to participate in the sacraments Christ has provided to his church. For example, one does not have the right to be baptized without joining the visible church. Christ instituted Christian baptism as a one-time, initiatory sacrament that not only signifies the washing away of sins with his atoning blood, but also identifies the baptized person as a member of God’s visible covenant community as circumcision did in the old covenant (Matt. 28.18-20; Acts 2.39). Thus, one is to be baptized into church membership, and in this way placed under the oversight of a local body of elders. Baptism cannot be separated from church membership (Eph. 4.4-5).

Likewise, one does not have the right to partake of the Lord’s Supper without church membership. Christ established the Supper as a holy meal for the members of his church. It not only signifies his body and blood offered on the cross, but also nourishes the faith of repentant sinners (1 Cor. 10.16; John 6.22-60). As the governors and overseers of the church (Rom. 12.8; 1 Cor. 12.28; 1 Tim. 3.1-7), the elders have the responsibility of supervising participation in the Lord’s Table, and ensuring, as much as possible, that people do not partake in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11.17-34).

Participation in the sacraments requires biblical church membership. While Christ has appointed the sacraments as visible signs and seals of the gospel for the nourishment of our souls, he did not design them to be individualistic practices. The sacraments are acts of divine service to his assembled people on the Lord’s Day. He condescends to his flock so that he can feed them with his means of grace.

If we profess to be Christians, we must practice the Christian faith according to the Word of God. The New Testament makes it clear that every Christian is to be baptized into the body of Christ and held accountable for his doctrine and life. It tells us that for our good God has provided us with pastors, elders, and deacons, as well as the communion of saints in the local church.

If you have been baptized but you are not a member of a true congregation of Christ’s church, you are living an irregular life that the New Testament does not recognize as Christian. The Lord calls you to repentance. He calls you to come home to the safety and benefit of his sheepfold. We urge you to join a true church, a body of believers that confesses the truth, submits to the authority of Christ as delegated to elders, and meets each week to worship God and receive Christ through Word and sacrament. We are not free to roam as a spiritual drifters on the internet or as perpetual visitors from church to church. Find a good church and join it, for in this life we can do no better than to take up our place in the body of Christ, receive the means of grace, and enjoy the communion of saints.

~ Pastor Brown

Why We Do What We Do: MEMBERSHIP VOWS (part 3)

Another reason why church membership is both necessary and helpful to the Christian is that without it biblical church discipline cannot exist. Church discipline is the practice of applying the Word of God to members of the congregation who are in rebellion (i.e. unrepentant of a particular sin) or involved in some public scandal that affects the health of the church as a whole. The purpose of church discipline is the restoration of wayward disciples, the preservation of the church’s doctrine, the peace and purity of the congregation, the protection of the church’s reputation in the eyes of the unbelieving world, and the honor of God’s holy name.

Christ gave his church the authority to exercise formal church discipline when he said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16.19). Reformed churches have understood these keys to be the preaching of the gospel and the exercise of church discipline. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it like this:

83. Q.  What are the keys of the kingdom?

A.  The preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline toward repentance. Both preaching and discipline open the kingdom of heaven to believers and close it to unbelievers.

84. Q.  How does the preaching of the gospel open and close the kingdom of heaven? 

A.  According to the command of Christ: The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming and publicly declaring to each and every believer that, as often as he accepts the gospel promise in true faith, God, because of what Christ has done, truly forgives his sins. The kingdom of heaven is closed, however, by proclaiming and publicly declaring to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the anger of God and eternal condemnation rest on them. God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come, is based on this gospel testimony.

85. Q.  How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?  

A.  According to the command of Christ: If anyone, though called a Christian, professes unchristian teachings or lives an unchristian life, if after repeated brotherly counsel, he refuses to abandon his errors and wickedness, and, if after being reported to the church, that is, to its officers, he fails to respond also to their admonition – such a one the officers exclude from the Christian fellowship by withholding the sacraments from him, and God himself excludes him from the kingdom of Christ.  Such a person, when he promises and demonstrates genuine reform, is received again as a member of Christ and of his church. 

Reformed churches confess this because it is what the New Testament teaches. Jesus gave instruction on discipline and public excommunication in Matthew 18.15-20. Paul wrote a whole chapter to the church in Corinth describing how sexual immorality amongst Christians defiles the church, and that the offender, if unrepentant, is to be excommunicated and delivered to Satan (1 Cor. 5). See other examples in 1 Tim. 1.18-20; 2 Tim. 2.14-18; and Titus 1.10-14; 3.10-11.

Without church membership, however, the church cannot fully use the keys which Christ has given to her. The elders cannot excommunicate an unrepentant offender who was never in communion with the church in the first place. Church membership, therefore, provides every member of the congregation – including the minister and elders – with accountability. It allows the elders to fulfill their duty of ensuring that purity of doctrine and holiness of life are practiced (Titus 1.9; Heb. 1.17); it permits the deacons to care for the needy within the church (Acts 6.1-7; 1 Tim. 5.9); and it makes every member in the congregation responsible for his doctrine and life. Through this loving practice, Christ watches over our souls and helps us to persevere in the faith.

~ Pastor Brown

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: MEMBERSHIP VOWS (part 2)

“Why is it necessary that I become a member of this church? I just want to attend regularly.” Perhaps we have asked that question at some point. Coming from evangelical churches where membership was not a thing, we might be tempted to view church membership as an unnecessary formality.

 

 

 

 

the Bible, however, gives us at least three reasons why membership in a local congregation is essential for the Christian. This week, we’ll consider the first of these reasons, which is that biblical church membership provides us with spiritual nurture through pastoral care.

 

Christ is the Head of his church (Eph. 1.22-23; 4.15) and the King of his kingdom (Matt. 28.18; Heb. 2.8-9; 1 Cor. 15.25; cf. Ps. 110.1). He was not only crucified and raised from the dead, but also exalted to the right hand of the Father in heaven. In other words, Jesus not only saves but also rules. And the way he rules his citizens is through his Word and Spirit, and the officers he has appointed at the local congregation. Consider the exhortation the writer to the Hebrews gives at the end of his sermon-letter: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13.17). This is Christ’s design. As his subjects and possession, we must submit to what he has ordained.

This can only be done through church membership. Membership in a local congregation creates a formal relationship between the pastor and elders and the congregants. This formal relationship is a covenant that obligates the pastor and elders to watch over the souls of those who belong to Christ. It is part of our submission to our Lord. We never mature beyond the nurture of the church. No Christian can sustain himself as a self-feeder. We cannot be our own pastors and elders. Rather, God has commanded us to submit ourselves to the preaching, teaching, and oversight of those shepherds whom he has placed over us in his love.

It has been the historical practice of Reformed churches to require a public vow to that end. For example, the fourth and final vow of Public Profession of Faith, Form Number 1, in the Psalter-Hymnal (used by the United Reformed Churches in North America) asks: “Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”          

According to the command of God, pastors an elders are responsible to care for the souls over which they have been appointed (Heb. 13.17). For example, one of the ways that elders care for church members is through the historic practice of family visitation (Acts 20.28). Family visitation is a blessed opportunity for Christ’s servants to bring his Word close to the hearts of his children, and for the elders to help bear some of the spiritual burdens of the family. Likewise, the pastor makes himself available to every member who needs to meet with him for spiritual counsel. He also visits the sick in their homes and in hospitals. These are blessings and benefits to those sheep whom Christ has entrusted to the care of the pastor and elders.

Christians who avoid church membership, however, miss out on these benefits and inevitably put their spiritual wellbeing at risk. Rather than seeing membership as an unnecessary formality, we should see it as an essential part of God’s covenant of grace with us in which he feeds, nurtures, and cares for his sheep. 

~ Pastor Brown

 

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Membership Vows (part 1)

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Church Membership Vows (part 1)

Why do new members take public vows during the worship service? What is the meaning of this practice? To answer these questions, we need to explore the significance of church membership itself. Church mem­ber­ship is a for­mal, covenan­tal rela­tion­ship between a fam­ily or indi­vid­ual and a true, local man­i­fes­ta­tion of Christ’s vis­i­ble church. It begins with the under­stand­ing that Christ not only pos­sesses an invis­i­ble church, that is, all the elect peo­ple of God whose names are writ­ten in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21.27), but has also estab­lished a vis­i­ble church on earth (Matt 28.18–20).

God first insti­tuted this vis­i­ble church imme­di­ately after the fall when he sep­a­rated the seed of the woman from the seed of the ser­pent and estab­lished them as a peo­ple united in his promise of sal­va­tion (Gen 3.15). He fur­ther estab­lished his com­mu­nity when he made his covenant with the patri­arch Abra­ham and his off­spring (Gen 12, 15, 17) and ful­filled his promises, first in the nation Israel and the promised land of Canaan, but more fully in the per­son and work of Jesus Christ. Through­out the unfold­ing drama of redemp­tive his­tory, from the days of Abra­ham to Christ, God kept his peo­ple as a vis­i­ble covenant com­mu­nity marked by the covenan­tal sign and seal of circumcision.

With the com­ple­tion of Christ’s earthly min­istry and the inau­gu­ra­tion of the new covenant, how­ever, God no longer con­fined his vis­i­ble church to one peo­ple (national Israel) and one place (Pales­tine). Hav­ing sat­is­fied the Law of Moses in his life, death, and res­ur­rec­tion, Christ com­mis­sioned his apos­tles to preach the Gospel, bap­tize, admin­is­ter the Lord’s
Sup­per, and make dis­ci­ples throughout the world. As the book of Acts reveals, the apos­tles ful­filled this com­mis­sion by plant­ing churches (Acts 2.42). Begin­ning in Jerusalem, Christ added daily to his church those who were being saved (Acts 2.41, 47; 4.4). The vis­i­ble, covenant com­mu­nity became a “cho­sen race, a royal priest­hood, a holy nation, a peo­ple for his own pos­ses­sion” (1 Pet 2.9a; cf. Ex 19.6) made up of peo­ple ran­somed “from every tribe and lan­guage and peo­ple and nation” (Rev 5.9b).

After the apos­tles died, though, the vis­i­ble church did not cease to exist. The New
Tes­ta­ment tells us that Christ intended his vis­i­ble church to con­tinue until the end of the age. He ordained the office of pas­tor to feed his flock with the preach­ing of the Gospel so they will be healthy and grow to matu­rity (Rom 10.14–17; Eph 4.11–16; 2 Tim 4.1–5; Titus 1.5–9). He has sup­plied his church with sacra­ments, which the Holy Spirit uses to nour­ish our faith (1 Cor 10.16; 11.17–34; cf. John 6.41–58). He gave the office of elder so that we will have guardians over our souls and gov­er­nors to keep­ order (Acts 14.23; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.1–7; 5.17; Heb 13.17; 1 Pet 5.1–4). He main­tains the purity and peace of his church through the exer­cise of dis­ci­pline (Mt 18.15–20; 1 Cor 5; 2 Thes 3.6, 14–15; Titus 1.10–14; 3.9–11). He has pro­vided the office of dea­con to ensure care for the poor and needy in the con­gre­ga­tion (Acts 6.1–7; Phil 1.1; 1 Tim 3.8–13; 5.3–15). He pours out gifts upon his church so that each believer uses his or her gifts for the ben­e­fit of oth­ers (Rom 12.3–8; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4.15–16). The New Tes­ta­ment reveals a church estab­lished by Christ that is an observ­able, iden­ti­fi­able soci­ety made up of real flesh and blood mem­bers and real orga­ni­za­tion and structure.

Church mem­ber­ship, there­fore, is about belong­ing to this vis­i­ble, iden­ti­fi­able com­mu­nity as it is man­i­fested in the local con­gre­ga­tion. The church is not a store fre­quented by loyal
cus­tomers. It is not a vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tion of indi­vid­u­als loosely united by con­sumer
pref­er­ences or cul­tural prac­tices. Rather, the church is the peo­ple who belong to Christ, and the place where Christ meets them through the means he has ordained.

When a fam­ily or an indi­vid­ual pur­sues for­mal church mem­ber­ship, they are say­ing, “We belong to Christ and his body.” They and their chil­dren pass through the waters of bap­tism, acknowl­edg­ing that they are part of some­thing much larger than their own pri­vate, spir­i­tual expe­ri­ence. They rec­og­nize that Christ has set them as liv­ing stones in his one tem­ple (Eph 4.19–22; 1 Pet 2.4–5) and gath­ered them as sheep in his one flock (John 10.1–29; Acts 20.28). They take pub­lic vows in the holy assem­bly of God’s peo­ple in which they pro­fess their faith in Christ and their will­ing­ness to sub­mit to his Lord­ship and the gov­ern­ment of his church. Like­wise, the con­gre­ga­tion receives them and acknowl­edges their oblig­a­tion to them as fel­low mem­bers of God’s family.

~ Pastor Brown