Over the last couple of years I began assigning our communicant class participants the task of writing out the membership vows of the church in their own words. As I have worked through the project with several different classes, I realized with more clarity that these words outline the simple yet profound basics of genuine Christian faith and life. Since these affirmations bind each communicant member of the OPC together, I would like to offer you this “summarizing commentary.” I will expand on what the question asks and then attempt to distill the essence into a sentence or two. May God use it to revive your love for him and commitment to him and his beloved church!
1) Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?
Christians must believe that God himself inspired every word of the Bible (2 Tim 3:16-17). The Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments, therefore, intrinsically bears the quality of absolute truth (Jn 17:17). Therefore, what the Lord affirms in his Word, I must affirm; what he forbids and condemns, I must avoid and reject. Further, this sacred Book teaches our race of lost and wretched sinners about the most wonderful truth “un-imaginable” (1 Cor 2:9). Although we deserve no mercy from the Lord, he has revealed a Way to life in his Word. Those who discover that Way find that it (he!) is not one among many legitimate options, but rather the exclusive path to life with God (Ps 1:6, 16:11; Jn 14:6). Christians must therefore believe that the entire Bible is God’s Word and that it sufficiently and accurately teaches the only way for sinners to receive pardon for their sins and everlasting life (Ps 119:81).
2) Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?
With few exceptions, when I have taught the words of this question I have noted the difference between believing something sincerely and understanding something exhaustively. These fifty-two words describe truths that all words of all languages in all history could never fully explain. We affirm that a Christian must believe that the God of the Bible in one (Deut 6:4; Mk 12:29). He is the God of life, who was and who is and who is to come (Rev 4:8), the I AM (Ex 3:14, cf Jn 8:58!). Unlike false idols, this God is entirely true (Jer 10:10). Yet as we read the pages of Scripture, we encounter a mystery: while this one God forbids sharing his rightful glory with any other (Is 48:11), three identifiable persons equally share in divine glory! Just as the Father receives worship and titles due to God alone (Eph 1:3), so does the Son (Mt 28:17; Jn 20:29), and so does the Spirit (Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor 3:17). The three persons of the blessed Trinity live eternally in perfect and holy communion, a communion into which he invites sinners! God does this through the Son, Jesus Christ, who in the fullness of time became man to live and to die for his people. Note the important order of this language. Many who have claimed the title Christian have professed that Jesus is the son of God while denying that he is God the Son. Believers must confess BOTH in order truly to honor Father and the Son (Jn 5:23). With open-mouthed wonder we humbly confess and believe in this one God of life and truth, eternally existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, possessing all power and glory. Further, our only hope in life and in death rests in Jesus Christ, God the Son, who assumed our humanity in order to bear our sins in his body. Truly this man is the Son of God (Mk 15:39).
3) Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?
In our man-centered and irreverent age, we need to remember our natural miserable condition. Despite our preference for drab fig-leaf outfits (Gen 3:7) and dreary rag attire (Is 64:6), our consciences bear witness to us that our dead works condemn (Heb 9:14). Before the holy, holy, holy God we need less, “Whoa, look at me!” and more, “Woe is me!” (Is 6:3; Rev 4:8). Throughout the Scriptures, sinful man generally assumed one posture when encountering this God: face down on the ground! Why? Because Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and John, to name just a few, knew that God’s consuming and penetrating holiness exposes our wicked works (Jn 3:20), which we are called to abhor. Do you find your sin revolting, disgusting, odious, damnable before God? If so, what other position can you assume? To the sinner grieved over his wretchedness, however, God reveals himself as merciful and pardoning (Mic 7:18-19). Through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God the Father takes off our putrid rags, removes the withered fig-leaves, and provides robes of righteousness tailored for eternity (Gen 3:21; Zech 3:4; 2 Cor 5:21; Rev 3:18). A Christian, therefore, believes he is a wretched, hell-deserving sinner whose sin is blacker than the blackest stain before God’s resplendent purity. Hating his sin and forsaking his own efforts and contributions, a Christian looks to another for salvation, namely Jesus Christ, who is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God through him (Heb 7:25).
4) Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?
Ever heard of the Carnal Christian idea? Very simply (if not simplistically) supporters of this view claim that someone can genuinely trust in Jesus as Savior, yet not quite get to the point of “making him Lord.” Thus, while having his sins forgiven through Jesus’ death, the poor soul can limp through life engaged in all manner of ungodliness and maintain a hope of salvation. That, dear friends, is a serpentine lie. Our church believes that Christians, as blood bought sons and daughters of God, will and must always declare total allegiance to their gracious Master Jesus Christ. Out of love for his Father, the Captain of our Salvation walked the bloody path of sacrifice and obedience. Shall his saints do any less? For his sake, and in his strength, his followers live their lives devoted to him, whatever the cost. He calls his disciples to deny themselves, to take up their cross, and to follow him on the road of suffering (Lk 9:23). That is not to say Christians never sin, or never lapse into carnality. Many distractions beckon pilgrims to leave that path—allurements of the world, the deceits of the adversarial accuser of the brethren, and the all-too-present-and frequently-powerful lusts of the flesh. Nevertheless, in Christ a Christian bears the title “More than Conqueror” and strives to forget the things that are behind, to strain for that which lies ahead, and to press on toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). What do we require, then, through this question? Those who profess the name of Christ as Mighty Savior will, by his grace, reflect the life of Christ through his mighty power.
5) Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?
Believe it or not I have discovered that of the five questions this final one receives the most resistance. Why? Our world is full of organizations, voluntary and involuntary. We quickly recognize and maintain the difference between sandlot ball and Major League Baseball, between a mob and the Army, even between a mooch and a real Sam’s Club Member! What makes the difference? Authority, legitimacy, and accountability. In the second half of each example, you find a well-defined structure, clearly recognized obligations and responsibilities, and usually benefits available to members only. In natural organizations, this rarely offends anyone. Have you ever heard anyone complain about the intolerance of the Atlanta Braves for not allowing everyone to enter the dugout without permission? Having spoken with probably thousands of Soldiers, I have never heard anyone give the slightest thought about going to war alone or detached from a unit! Try demanding access to the members’ only options at Sam’s Club without paying and let me know how that works out! Need I go on? (Note: I am not implying Christianity requires membership dues! Jesus has covered the “membership fee”). When considering the church, the one and only institution King Jesus has ordained for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, why then do we seem to find the idea that membership suddenly becomes optional? Of the many reasons, let me name a few: bad discipleship/teaching, painful past church experiences, ignorance, modern day American individualism, the prevalent non-committal attitude, unbelief, and sinful rebellion.
The Bible teaches that God saves sinners who were not a people into his worshipping people (1 Pet 2:9-10), a people he calls his flock (Jn 10:16; Acts 20:28). He calls the sheep to encourage and support one another in their various locations (Rom 12:13, Gal 6:2). These flocks receive shepherds and teachers as gifts (Eph 4:11!) to feed them, teach them, protect them, and, when necessary, correct and discipline them (Jer 3:15; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:1-3). Will there be problems? Have there been abuses, neglect, or failure? Sadly and grievously, yes (Acts 15:38-39, Phil 4:2; Is 56:10-12; Ezek 34:1-10; Mk 6:34). Nevertheless, saints have been saved to worship with the assembly of saints, a privilege we must not forsake (Heb 10:25). In his wisdom God calls his children to commit their lives to this kingdom first (Mt 6:33) and to build up the body by doing their part (Eph 4:15-16). For these reasons we promise to do something completely un-American and anti-human—commit and submit to authority. Why? Because King Jesus has ordained the Church to triumph and appointed men to watch over and give account for your soul (1 Thes 5:12-13; Heb 13:17 again)! Christians, therefore, out of love for Christ and recognition of their weakness, commit to a life of Holy Spirit-blessed association with his people, marked by worship, service, and humble submission to authority to the glory of God (Eph 5:21).
Has anything you read been helpful? Dear saint, try the exercise for yourself. Reflect upon the heavenly realities of the gospel, take up the cup of you salvation, call upon the name of the Lord, and then, having prayerfully reviewed them, pay your vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people (Ps 116:13-14)!