Sometimes college campus ministries will ask me to speak to their students. I've been known, on several occasions, to begin my remarks this way: "If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell."
You could say that it gets their attention.
Now, am I just going for shock value? I don't think so. Am I trying to scare them into church membership? Not really. Am I saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? Certainly not! Throw any book (or speaker) out the window that says as much.
So why would I begin with this kind of warning? It's because I want them to see something of the urgency of the need for a healthy local church in the Christian's life and to begin sharing the passion for the church that characterizes both Christ and his followers.
Many Christians in the West today (and elsewhere?) tend to view their Christianity as a personal relationship with God and not much else. They generally know that this "personal relationship" has some implications for how they should live. But I'm concerned that many Christians don't realize how this most important relationship with God necessitates a number of secondary personal relationships—the relationships that Christ establishes between us and his body, the Church. God doesn't mean for these to be relationships that we pick and choose at our whim among the many Christians "out there." He means to establish us in relationship with an actual flesh-and-blood, step-on-your-toes body of people.
Why do I worry that if you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member in good standing of the local church you attend, you might be going to hell? Think with me for a moment about what a Christian is.
What a Christian Is
A Christian is someone who, first and foremost, has been forgiven of his sin and been reconciled to God the Father through Jesus Christ. This happens when a person repents of his sins and puts his faith in the perfect life, substitutionary death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In other words, a Christian is someone who has reached the end of himself and his own moral resources. He has recognized that he, in defiance of God's plainly revealed law, has given his life over to worshiping and loving things other than God—things like career, family, the stuff money can buy, the opinions of other people, the honor of his family and community, the favor of the so-called gods of other religions, the spirits of this world, or even the good things a person can do. He has also recognized that these "idols" are doubly damning masters. Their appetites are never satisfied in this life. And they provoke God's just wrath over the next life, a death and a judgment the Christian has already tasted a bit of (mercifully) in this world's miseries.
A Christian, therefore, knows that if he were to die tonight and stand before God, and if God were to say, "Why should I let you into my presence?" the Christian would say, "You shouldn't let me in. I have sinned and owe you a debt that I cannot pay back." But he wouldn't stop there. He would continue, "Yet, because of your great promises and mercy, I depend on the blood of Jesus Christ shed as a substitute for me, paying my moral debt, satisfying your holy and righteous requirements, and removing your wrath against sin!"
Upon that plea to be declared righteous in Christ, the Christian is someone who has discovered the beginning of freedom from sin's enslavement. Where the idols and other gods could never be satisfied, their stomachs never full, God's satisfaction in the work of Christ means that the person purchased out of condemnation by Christ's work is now free! For the first time ever, the Christian is free to turn his back on sin, not just to replace it slavishly with yet another sin but with the Holy Spirit-given desire for Jesus Christ himself and for Christ's rule in his life. Where Adam tried to push God off the throne and make himself god, the Christian rejoices that Christ is upon the throne. He considers Jesus' life of perfect submission to the will and words of the Father and seeks to be like his Savior.
So a Christian is someone who, first of all, has been reconciled to God in Christ. Christ has assuaged the wrath of God, and the Christian is now declared righteous before God, called to a life of righteousness, and lives in the hope of one day appearing before his majesty in heaven.
Yet that's not all! Second, a Christian is someone who, by virtue of his reconciliation with God, has been reconciled to God's people. Do you remember the first story in the Bible after Adam and Eve's fall and banishment from the garden? It's the story of one human being murdering another—Cain killing Abel. If the act of trying to shove God off the throne is, by its very nature, an act of trying to place ourselves upon it, we're not about to let some other human being take it from us. Not a chance. Adam's act of breaking fellowship with God resulted in an immediate break in fellowship among all human beings. It's every man for himself.
It should be no surprise, then, that Jesus said that "all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments": love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt. 22:34-40). The two commandments go together. The first produces the second, and the second proves the first.
Through Christ, then, being reconciled to God means being reconciled to everyone else who is reconciled to God. After describing in the first half of Ephesians 2 the great salvation that God has given us in Christ Jesus, Paul turns, in the second half of Ephesians 2, to describing what this means for the relationship between Jews and Gentiles and, by extension, between all those who are in Christ. He writes:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.... His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility (Eph. 2:14-16).
Now, all those who belong to God are "fellow citizens" and "members of God's household" (v. 19). We are "joined together" with Christ into one "holy temple" (v. 21)—so many rich analogies to choose from! And not only that, but have you noticed the words that Jesus used with the Christian-persecuting Saul—soon to be called Paul—when he confronted Saul on the road to Damascus? "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). Jesus identifies so closely with his church that he refers to it as himself! Christian, do you identify yourself with those whom your Savior identifies himself? Does your heart share the passions of his heart?
©Crossway Books. Used with permission.
Mark Dever leads 9Marks Ministries, which exists to equip church leaders with a biblical vision for displaying God's glory through healthy churches.
Pastor Dever (Ph.D. Cambridge) serves as the Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and is the author of several books including Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel.
Editor's note: This article is an excerpt from What is a Healthy Church? (© Crossway Books)