We have been having a great (virtual) Sunday evening class for the last several weeks! Thank you to those who have participated – and thank you for your patience as we all try and navigate meeting and learning in an online setting. I recognize that it is not ideal. For my part, I can sometimes switch to autopilot and the lessons end up something akin to drinking from a firehose. But please, ask questions and give feedback. I know it is often difficult in this setting, but the more interaction we have, the better the class will be.
For those who have been participating, you will know that we just completed our study of the first two of five vows of membership (the statements that we ask individuals to affirm when they join a PCA church). So, I thought that this would be a good time to summarize what we have learned thus far.
Church Membership Vow #1 (The Bad News)
The good news of the gospel in incomprehensible apart from an understanding of our plight. So the vows of membership begin with the bad news of our utter sinfulness and lostness in our natural state. There are many passages that describe the fallen, sinful condition of man. One such passage is found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:1-3):
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
Verse 1 explains that believers were once “dead in their trespasses and sins.” Some think of man’s problem as being simply broken or wounded, in need of some help. Like Miracle Max in the movie The Princess Bride, it is thought that man’s problem is that he is only “mostly dead.” But God’s Word is unequivocable: we were dead in our trespasses and sins.
Verse 2 explains that when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, we followed the world and the devil. At first blush, we may read that and think, “Well, it wasn’t my fault. I’m not culpable. I was just falling in line with the world and the devil.” But when we get to verse 3 we find that we can’t blame anyone other then ourselves for our own lostness and sin.
Verse 3 explains that we followed the world and the devil by living out the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind. What this passage is teaching us is that in our natural, fallen, sinful state mankind is left to his own devices. And, our own devices are always and continually sinful (Genesis 6:5): the lusts of our flesh, the desires of our flesh and mind.
And then, coming full circle and back to where started, verse 3 ends by describing the result of being dead in our trespasses and sins: we “were by nature children of wrath.” Or, as the first vow of church membership puts it: “justly deserving of His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy.” All those who have descended from Adam have inherited both his sinful nature (living according to the lusts of our flesh), as well as his punishment (by nature, we are children of wrath).
Thankfully, our membership vows begin with the bad news, but quickly proceed to the good news.
Church Membership Vow #2 (The Good News)
Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Flowing from His great love for us – even while we were hopelessly lost and dead in our transgressions – God, by His grace did several things for us. He made us alive together with Christ. He raised us up with Christ. He seated us with Christ in heaven.
In our study of this second vow of membership, we talked about the Person and work of Jesus Christ – who He is as our prophet, priest, and king as well as His atoning death on the cross for our sin (penal substitution). One of the things that we sought to emphasize was that His work – the atonement for our sins – was efficacious. What Jesus Christ did on the cross in atoning for our sins was efficacious; it worked.
You see this idea in these verses. Notice that it doesn’t say that God “made a way” for us to be saved. He didn’t “make it possible” for us to be forgiven, to be made alive with Christ and raised with Him. No, He actually did all those things. Christ’s work was effectual; it worked. Out redemption and salvation is all of Christ’s work. This is brought home and summarized in verses 8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
You see, when the Bible says that God is the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end – of our salvation (Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), it means just that. Because we are, in our natural state, dead in our trespasses and sins, we are unable to raise ourselves or contribute anything to our salvation. It is all the work of our loving and gracious Savior. Jesus is truly the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2)!
[By the way, this coming Sunday evening, we will examine the third vow of church membership which is about sanctification, endeavoring to live as becomes a follower of Christ. That’s what the very next verse in Ephesians 2 is about: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).]
Since we’ve been looking at some verses from Ephesians 2, let’s conclude with the rich and beautiful image of God that is portrayed for us in chapter 4 of that same letter (Ephesians 4:8):
8 Therefore it says, “WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.”
Following after this verse, Paul describes the gifts that God has given to His church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teacher), but consider the passage that he is quoting from the Old Testament. This verse from Ephesians 4 contains a quotation and a reference to Psalm 68:18. Psalm 68 describes the Lord as a warring King and a loving Father: He defeats all of His and His peoples’ enemies and He protects and cares for all of His people.
Maybe take some time this week and read Psalm 68 in its entirety. It will give you a grand and glorious picture of your God and King, your Savior and Father. But don’t miss the emphasis that the Apostle Paul is making as He references this Psalm. The “host of captives” that the Lord led captive as He ascended on high are those whom He saves – we, His church! Commenting on Ephesians 4:8, John Calvin writes, “He has not only gained a complete victory over the devil, and sin, and death, and all the power of hell, — but out of rebels he forms every day ‘a willing people,’ (Psalm 110:3) when he subdues by his word the obstinacy of our flesh.”
In light of these passages, we may summarize the teaching of the first two vows of membership like this. Though we were dead in our trespasses and sin and justly deserving of God’s displeasure and wrath, He sent His Son – the Lord Jesus Christ – into the world to redeem us, to raise us from the dead; and, according to His powerful grace and love, He takes us as His captives. We are His plunder!